REVIEW: Little Black Book (Nick Hurran, 2004)

Back when Little Black Book's ad campaign was ramping up, I honestly thought the mainstream romantic comedy - about a girl digging up dirt through her boyfriend's Palm Pilot - looked like the worst film of the year. I was closed-minded about star Brittany Murphy and, being fresh off a viewing of Thirteen and still youthfully enamored with Office Space, hated the idea of Holly Hunter and Ron Livingston supporting what looked to be the fluffiest piece of fluff since the previous year's excruciatingly fluffy Alex & Emma. To my happy surprise, I was very wrong.

This charming and refreshingly formula-defying gem creates its own little world and charms with clever, super-rapid-fire dialogue from multi-dimensional players. Beyond that, it actually has the cojones to maintain a flawed protagonist while allowing characters less reputable from a surface level to impart the wisdom. Altogether it provides a bold - if not completely foolproof - critique of popular romantic cinema while successfully practicing what it preaches. I hesitate to draw such a parallel, but one could possibly call the flick a lighter, narrower version of what Charlie Kaufman was so brilliantly saying with Adaptation.

Murphy shines in the lead, showcasing various talents. Roger Ebert was spot-on when he compared her open vivaciousness to Lucille Ball's and, in his review of the very film in question, her allure to Marilyn Monroe's "ability to draw our eyes to her segment of the screen, even when the action is ostensibly elsewhere."

This is that special type of movie you enjoy not only for its content but for the fun the cast and crew seem to have had producing it - the fun you can't help but long to be a part of. It is not your typical, manufactured money-grab as all signs initially lead to. It may not be entirely memorable, but it prospers in its moment. It is the Subway to, say, Catch & Release's McDonald's. Here's hoping, just as I hope for Nancy Pimental after her hilariously endearing work on The Sweetest Thing, writer Melissa Carter eventually pulls out the keyboard for another buoyant, cinematic outing.


LIST: Best of the Masters of Horror

Showtime's original anthology program, Masters of Horror, aired between 2005 and 2007 and featured a total of 26 hour-long films directed by different notables of the genre including Halloween helmer John Carpenter (Cigarette Burns, Pro-Life), It's Alive's baby-daddy Larry Cohen (Pick Me Up) and Ichi the Killer's Takashi Miike (Imprint, which was notoriously pulled by the network due to an intensely brutal sequence).

While not necessarily an exposé of technical superiority, the series provided venue for shock and schlock maestros to provoke us with ideas that may have otherwise never seen the light of a flickering screen. It was, above anything else, a playground for some of the most twisted minds in movies today to do their worst (double meaning unfortunately intended in regard to some of the episodes, which shall - for now, anyway - remain unnamed).

Collected here are what I consider to be the most interesting and accomplished of the series in order from leastest to mostest (that's right). Honorable mentions go out to Stuart Gordon's atmospheric Dreams in the Witch House, John Landis' cheeky The Deer Woman, Don Coscarelli's sleek Incident On & Off a Mountain Road (which felt more like Tobe Hooper than either of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre director's installments)... and William Malone's almost Svankmajer-esque Fair-Haired Child. To be fair(-haired), though, that last one is really just so I can name-drop Malone, for it simply wouldn't be me if I let such an opportunity slip by.

5. Chocolate (Mick Garris)

An entry from the show's creator himself, Jack of all cinematic terror trades Mick Garris, Chocolate just barely ekes out the honorable mentions based on concept alone. A good mind for this genre finds horror in regular life, relying less on base scare tactics and more on exploitation and perversion of the everyday. Here, Garris auteurs a fresh study of such a subject.

Men, can you imagine what it's like to have she-parts? Specifically, can you fathom losing your virginity... as a woman? It might be easier for females to interpret the flip side of that coital coin - wrap one hand around a finger of the other, slide up and down and you've got a fairly good idea, no 'penetration' needed - but having the deep secret between your thighs impaled by a foreign object, stretching and tearing? This is the exploration of Chocolate, attacked with an arrestingly unique sense of what can make a horror film horrific. Our protagonist Jamie's (Henry Thomas) senses are gradually melded with those of an mystery woman with a wild sex life. He sees through her eyes, hears through her ears and, most importantly, feels through her skin.

Aesthetically, Chocolate is the weakest of this list, but it enjoys compelling ideas, psychologically expounding upon them through its final moments. If anything, it is memorable, giving it a leg up on some of its peers.

4. Jenifer (Dario Argento)

When Detective Spivey (Steven Weber, who also wrote the teleplay) rescues a helpless girl from murder at the hands of a cleaver-wielding madman, he goes an extra mile or two, taking the would-be victim under his wing. What he doesn't yet realize is his new adoptee's hunger for flesh... or her unusually irresistible sexual qualities that threaten to turn his life inside-out.

What follows is likely Dario Argento's best effort since he stopped putting the verve in his films that made the likes of Deep Red and Suspiria so great (although I must confess to liking Do You Like Hitchcock, and even to finding enjoyable aspects in The Card Player). It might be mentioned that Argento also did the Meatloaf-starring Pelts for Masters of Horror, but that one is more a Herschell Gordon-Lewis-like exercise in substance-free gore.

Where Pelts flounders 'neath craze-inducing coonskin, Jenifer puts a chill in our hearts with cold, dark eyes. Argento sufficiently manufactures conflicted sympathy for the title character underlaid by a streak of sick humor. It may be predictable within a few beats of the finale, but doesn't suffer from being so.

3. Right to Die (Rob Schmidt)

Sex, sex and more sex! Sometimes getting intimate with evil is the most spine-tingling route, as was proven with Jenifer, but this surprise from the director of Wrong Turn takes it a step further - to the altar - while perfectly rhyming horror with humor and, yeah, shedding layers of clothing... and skin.

Following a fiery car wreck, Cliff's (Martin Donovan) newly-crisped wife Abbey (Julia Benson) goes comatose with little hope of recovery. Cliff is not only haunted by moral debate coursing through the media (timed to coincide with the real-life climax of Terry Schiavo's case), but also by Abbey's spirit... when she occasionally, temporarily flatlines. Is he to choose life for his partner, with whom there seems no happy future, or will he sign the DNR, condemning himself to ghostly torture until death does he part? Of course, that's not to mention his money-grubbing lawyer or his sex-pot assistant and how they factor in to the 'touchy' proceedings.

The lively Right to Die is a solid and highly amusing combination of sexuality, desperation and carnal corrosion. You will laugh as you cringe, and perhaps even discover a new conversation piece for... well, not the dining room, not the bedroom... but maybe the emergency room.

2. We All Scream for Ice Cream (Tom Holland)

According to a brief Google search, Stephen King lists John Farris among his influences, and it's no surprise, having seen Fright Night director Tom Holland bring Farris' 1990 short story to colorful life. We All Scream for Ice Cream will feel familiar to any King fan as it reunites an estranged group of motley acquaintances sharing a dark childhood memory. Our group here is responsible for the death of local popsicle peddler Buster the Clown (a stammering and uncharacteristically timid William Forsythe). Now Buster's back, trolling town in his sinister ice cream truck, searching for vengeance through his killers' offspring.

The slasher schema isn't typical to Masters of Horror, but Buster's cleverly creative, voodoo-like modus operandi makes one wish that wasn't the case. Ice Cream also subtly toys with convention, yielding belly laughs to accompany the squirms. The only complaint I might muster would be with regard to the final showdown's abandonment of practical effects. Leaning on weightless computer graphics, though not detrimental in this case, is an unfortunate way to finish after establishing such a crunchy, gooey and practical standard.

For some of the most out-and-out fun to be had with horror, pack your quarters and make room to store a fresh batch of quotes - It's ch-ch-ch-cherry time!

1. The Black Cat (Stuart Gordon)

Capping us off is an entry transcending Masters of Horror. It's hard to go wrong with a such a classic, particularly when that classic is from a one Edgar Allan Poe. In this take on the material, based on Jeffrey Combs' one-man show, it is theorized what drove the legendary author (Combs, reprising) to pen his tale. The events do mirror those of that tale, but with Poe himself in the drunk, distracted driver's seat.

With ease does Stuart Gordon propel us into a tormented mind. We feel each ounce of frustration and, subsequently, each such ounce lifted when our protagonist lashes out. Combs is to credit as well. Where I thought I already loved him from roles as Herbert West in Gordon's respectable Re-Animator and Doctor Vannacutt in William Malone's excellent House on Haunted Hill remake, he is absolutely hypnotizing as a downtrodden Poe with a pitch-black wit.

The Black Cat may also be the nicest installment of the Masters series to look at, particularly when it comes to blood. The hemorrhaging kroovy is on the gorgeously fetishistic level of Blood for Dracula.  Furthermore, to dive into hyperbole, a certain climactic makeup effect is one of the best I've seen and harrows more effectively than most others.

I might recommend The Black Cat even to those only slightly interested in horror. Sure, it's trapped by certain financial limitation as are all members of this list, but it thrives with what it manages and easily tops the heap - a must for fans of Poe, or fans of the fantastic in general.


LIST: Most Anticipated Films of the Years, '05-'10

As opposed to a 'best films of the years' list, which, along with looking almost entirely different, would be cliché (or, at least, more cliché than I'm willing to be at the moment), I figured I'd provide six glimpses into what inspires me to actually fork over ever-increasing ticket prices, ranked from least to most anticipated.

2005, the earliest year included, was really when I started paying more attention to upcoming films where previously I survived on older DVDs and simply winged it come theater-going time. Well, I was attentive... but preoccupied. Only when something big on my radar like Collateral or Gangs of New York or... at a time... Queen of the Damned... went wide would I go out of my way.

Along this brief path we may see taste tendencies defy certain popularity grains to a fault and we'll learn that even when I seem to lose faith in Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds does not feature), I just can't seem to give up on Oliver Stone.

6. 2010 - Wall Street 2 (Oliver Stone)

We begin in the current year. Honestly, there ain't much catching my fancy this 365, which brings Stone's latest bubbling to the top. I actually think it looks fairly good, but I can't say I'm entirely confident in it. I can only hope, if anything, it's a return to form for the director after the lukewarm W and the utterly atrocious World Trade Center.

One thing's more or less guaranteed - Michael Douglas, in the only role I've yet to like him for, is back with a vengeance as the notorious Gordon Gekko. The edible Susan Sarandon also apparently has a bit part while Charlie Sheen is rumored to briefly appear.

That younger Sheen was in top form (as was his daddy) as the '87 original's lead, leaving big Blüchers to fill as Gekko's protegé. Is it finally time for me to take Shia "The Beef" LaBeouf seriously? I hope so, since he doesn't seem to be going away. I also hope this I-was-finally-drawn-back-to-the-project-for-a-poignant-reason business isn't Stone blowing more smoke up my keister like he did with... well, more on that later.

Runners-up (in order): Shutter Island, Brooklyn's Finest, Knight & Day, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, Resident Evil: Afterlife

5. 2008 - Choke (Clark Gregg)

I am a massive Chuck Palahniuk fan, and at the time this film was to see release, "Choke" just happened to by my favorite novel of his (it has since been trumped by "Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey"). A love of the literature was more than enough to push this to the forefront of my moviegoing to-do list, even in the face of what looked to be a dreadfully sub-par production.

In many ways the film succeeds in capturing the book's depraved, grody aesthetic, but in many more ways fails to expound upon its overall thrusts by breezing through important meditations on addiction and society's perverse underbelly. Instead, we focus on inconsequential plot points and shock value that is rendered mostly un-shocking by the fact that its significance has been stripped.

In the end, not a terrible film... just not one to be considered a worthy adaptation of its source material by a long shot.

Runners-up (in order): Mongol, The Wrestler, My Name is Bruce, Miracle at St. Anna, W

4. 2009 - Friday the 13th (Marcus Nispel)

This remake's release could not have come at a more ideal time for me. Yeah, I would have greatly preferred a proper continuation of the series (whatever installment gets cranked out next could have been called "Part 13" and that's not to mention my own ideas for a Jason trilogy: "The Revenge of Tommy Jarvis" starring Corey Feldman, "Jason Voorhees & the Argonauts" and "Jason Takes Camelot") but I was pumped to get another chance at seeing my favorite slasher spill teen guts across the silver screen.

Anyway, in late '08 I finally got around to taking in the Jason films I had yet to see (Part 3 through Jason Goes to Hell) and boy, did I ever have a new favorite franchise on my hands. Being in the thick of Voorhees fanboyhood brought my anticipation for this to crazy heights, even with knowledge of how Nispel's Pathfinder had turned out (stock footage of an avalanche, really?).

The film delivered to an auditorium packed with precisely the intended audience, including the guy seated next to me, ooohing and aaahing with the best of 'em. The only better time I had at a multiplex that year was with My Bloody Valentine 3D. Admittedly the experience soured a bit on DVD... but it's still an amusing and affectionate throwback to the original series. If only they hadn't reshot the Pamela scenes for the opening and added in that ridiculous finding-the-mask bit, we could have had a genuine "Part 12" on our hands. Even as I make these minor complaints, though, I know the main reason behind the reboot had to be the potent box-office combination of brand recognition and fresh audience potential (it paid off, surpassing record horror openings before dropping over 80% of its audience in its second week).

Runners-up (in order): The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Public Enemies, Away We Go, Black Dynamite, Where the Wild Things Are

3. 2005 - Jarhead (Sam Mendes)

Ah, '05... what a great year for movies. The Libertine, The Weather Man, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Junebug, Elizabethtown, Thumbsucker... I have to cut myself off or I'll forget to write about Jarhead.

I have one thing to blame for my feverish anticipation of this one, and that thing is not Mendes' success with Road to Perdition in '02 or even Jake Gyllenhaal's Santa-hat-sheathed manhood... that thing is the song "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West. Kanye friggin' West. H'oh, boy. That song fit Jarhead's trailer so perfectly that the match of music and motion picture made for the most excited I've ever been by a promotional campaign.

The theatrical experience was hindered by a man to my left shouting "Semper-fi!" every five minutes and another in front of me constantly warning the characters of IEDs, but the real disappointment was the absolute lack of anything cinematically eventful. Interestingly, in spite of that boredom, I ultimately view the film as a success. Just like the central band of soldiers, I was drawn to an event with the promise of action, and just like those soldiers I was let down by the lack of delivery. It was an 'experience', and one I give the credit of being probably the closest to the real Desert Storm I'll ever get (not that I would have wanted to be there, or anything...).

Runners-up (in order): ElizabethtownThe Devil's RejectsThe New WorldLord of WarTransporter 2

2. 2006 - World Trade Center (Oliver Stone)

'06 was the year I spent in the Mammoth Hot Springs community of Yellowstone National Park, 80 miles away from the nearest reputable multiplex in Bozeman, Montana. If I wanted to see something, I had to make darn sure it was worth not only the ticket price but the gas money and the alternative use of a day perchance better purposed hiking through one of the most beautiful places in the world. Thankfully, it was another great year for film - likely the best of the decade (Little Children, Miami Vice, The Departed, Babel, etcetera).

World Trade Center, unfortunately, turned out as not only the worst film I took in over that time but by far the worst film I've seen from Stone (and I've gone through most of his catalogue) or many other filmmakers, for that matter. Before seeing it, though, man... did I ever champion it. I even ranted on my Rotten Tomatoes journal, "Have Some Cake", about people needing to give the flick a fighting chance - with all the press conferences Stone had held, implying potential conspiracy theories, I was sure we were being primed for another JFK (although I actually have yet to see JFK itself).

I dragged my boss up to Bozeman and ended up feeling worse than the time I slept through The Punisher after convincing some friends that seeing Kill Bill Volume 2 a second time in one day didn't sound appealing for some unjust reason, and that Thomas Jane's awesomeness would make up for a lack of back-to-back Darryl Hannah eyeball-squishings (Jane is indeed awesome... just... Punisher's not a good example). In my defense, I had been avoiding World Trade Center's promotional material... maybe if I saw a trailer I would have been shown the light at the top of the rubble without having to suffer through two hours of right-wing, Christian melodrama.

Runners-up (in order): Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible III, A Scanner Darkly, The Departed, A Prairie Home Companion

1. 2007 - There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Unlike '05 and '06, this was a pretty bland year for movies. Perhaps I felt that way, though, because when it came to the cinematic realm I could do little but think of There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson is easily one of the very best directors working today and seeing him collaborate with Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) was orgasmic. I have never looked forward to a film as much as this one... when it was in limited release and people who weren't me had seen it, I was tantalized with jealousy.

I finally got to live the greatness with a good buddy and we both felt we had gone through one of the most epic theatrical experiences of our lives. Where Anderson had previously drawn from his idols Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard, here he was in Stanley Kubrick territory to the point where by the final scene, one might think ol' Kube had risen from the grave and taken the reigns.

For some reason, perhaps intimidation of such awesomenosity, I have yet to return to There Will Be Blood. Soon. Maybe.

Runners-up (in order): Resident Evil: Extinction, Grindhouse, Halloween, Eastern Promises, Lions for Lambs


REVIEW: Knight & Day (James Mangold, 2010)

Is James Mangold lost at cinematic sea? From here, this moment, I can but wonder what faltered from script to screen. Now, I've yet to exit a Mangold film without major qualms, but this one had copious potential. Could 20th Century Fox have shoved their meddling fingers too deep, or is the Cop Land director as in over his head as his latest protagonist? We follow June (Cameron Diaz), a vintage car enthusiast, as she is unwittingly drawn in to a caper flung far above her everyday endeavors. June's guide on this adventure is Roy (Tom Cruise), an impossibly cool super-spy apparently skating a line between nobility and greed. The duo ducks and dodges its way through an international gauntlet of agents and assassins, growing together from personalities that couldn't be more like night - or, in this case, knight - and day.

The concept, I imagine, is to toss viewers in the middle of an extraordinary, ambiguously purposed action-fest with little sense of bearings. June is our window to this world, her peripherals gorged on semi-automatic spray and flipping SUVs. In this sense we have less an ordinary action film and instead, more interestingly, a grounded film with occasionally sleek, outrageous action in its orbit. Enter Roy, and enter our first problem. Don't get me wrong, I find it near impossible to dislike Cruise even in his lesser outings and here he's a perfect send-up of his past roles. If Mission: Impossible III is homage to the likes of Maverick in Top Gun and Jerry Maguire in, well, Jerry Maguire, Knight & Day is parody of them. A respectable turn it is, particularly considering where many actors are terrified to be type-cast, this top talent doesn't hesitate to dive, grinning, into a tongue-in-cheek compilation of his former screen-selves. Herein, however, Cruise is overused. Our filmmakers can't seem to commit more than two consecutive scenes to the film's essential thrust. Roy comically hijacking a motorcycle off-screen and plummeting onto the hood of June's vehicle before confidently highway-surfing atop another as if it were child's play? Hilarious! Casually hinting his plans and whereabouts to June twixt her bouts of drug-induced unconsciousness? Perfect! Roy thieving center stage to provide explanation as to what, exactly, is going on? Shaky. The proceedings are best when their outlandish ingredients are relegated to aforementioned peripherals, creating ample room for targeted humor, at their worst when the same aspects are exploited. The folks behind the scenes may have done better to take a cue from that third Mission: Impossible installment and instead of worrying with reason on such exaggerated terrain, keeping the 'whats' and 'whys' of our high-octane hijinks cleverly under wraps.

Inconsistencies aside, we're dealing with material for what could have been an absolutely epic Cary Grant comedy about 6 decades ago. In many ways, Knight & Day seems to reach for Grant territory and actually does see some modicum of success in that reach. Perhaps the most admirable aspect is how well, even in that classic, screwball-like sense, Cruise and Diaz bounce off one another. The stars may not be complimented by blemished editing and tepid cinematography (as you try to keep your eyes from glazing during the convertible-set barrage of expository dialogue, watch for some of the most blatant and clumsy eye-lighting you're likely to come across), but they nevertheless prove a potent pairing with quick-paced, rhythmic reactions and ever-present physical chemistry rekindled from electricity generated on Vanilla Sky.

Knight & Day really isn't that bad. In fact, it's rather fun at times. While it's got makings of an original and worthy reason to plunk down theaters' skyrocketing ticket price, though, it uses convention as a crutch when in doubt, ultimately winding up more suited for rental fare. If anything, it teaches that when you need help evading heavily armed black marketeers with expensive sports cars, to whip out your iPhone because there's probably an app for that.


REVIEW: The Air I Breathe (Jieho Lee, 2007)

Happiness is trapped. Pleasure is desired but subverted. Sorrow is sequestered and exploited. Love, though aimless, redeems all. Some of the most basic yet endlessly intricate facets of emotion play subject as Jieho Lee directs a troupe of talent led by Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kevin Bacon in this four-part, noir ballad.

Cleverly contrived, meagerly budgeted vignette films, particularly of the ensemble variety, have become somewhat of a fad over the recent decade, presumably on the heels of Paul Thomas Anderson's artistic success with his unsurpassable Magnolia. Although certain outings such as the multiplex-enchanting Love, Actually and the forgettably Academy-awarded Crash have reached large audiences, for the most part films of this breed go widely unnoticed. The Air I Breathe and its hapless characters may fall in line with the latter group but maintain a leg or two up on their peers.

Yes, The Air I Breathe is contrived and could seem aimless for much of its runtime, but Lee is apparently well aware of these facts and avoids becoming preachy or pointless. Where other films' stories tend to interconnect merely for the sake of superficially shocking viewers, Air fastidiously ensures each crossed path begets deeper insight into the human condition. The primary characters are named for feelings they seem aimed for - Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love - and represent those feelings' respective relevance in modern society. Their dealings with one another could make fodder for a college psych course.

Each actor, here placed within aspiration-subduing binds, calls forth a dark side in effort to reach for brighter pastures. Whitaker, seemingly ever-ready to reveal new depths of nuance, sells himself brilliantly as the unconfident hopeful. Fraser steps in to one of his better roles of late as a mysterious strong-arm with an unusual ability. Gellar further broadens her range beyond cheeky vampire slaying and Bacon Bacons it up, which is no cause for complaint. As these central four carry out their stories, supporting cast member Andy Garcia takes on a part he was born to play while Emile Hirsch proves yet again he is part of Hollywood youth's superior stable.

Ultimately, however, this promising and intriguing fare doesn't quite break the seal preventing it from becoming great. It does manage poignancy and, at a base level, moderate entertainment even if it fails to excel in either directive. A satisfactory motion picture poem, the film takes cues from contemporaries such as Iñárritu, Tarantino and the aforementioned Anderson, at times improving upon them although never entirely greeting its potential. In any case it exists as a worthy conversation piece and, if nothing else, a shining point in a handful of actors' filmographies.


REVIEW: Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)

While the filmmaking team has in many ways gone bigger and better, they've simultaneously managed to keep reins on the extravagance through a clever tone of self-awareness and comparative modesty. That's right, even amidst Speedo-clad man-candy, a braless Irish nanny complete with Gaelic soundtrack and overall outrageous goings-on, there is a very self-aware tone throughout, directly demanding sorted - and sordid - fun over all else.

An early treat of a scene features Carrie and her husband, played by Chris Noth, taking in Frank Capra's classic "It Happened One Night" - a perfect parallel for the proceedings. "Sex and the City 2" feels like "Charlie's Angels" without handguns at times and "Mama Mia!" without ABBA at others, but it is at its core a modern screwball comedy. Between uproariously zippy dialogue, slamming doors, curious heads peering around corners and the driving challenges of social roles, all the vintage qualities are accounted for and unabashedly enjoyable. Furthermore, Noth's presence here may be closest we've seen to Clark Gable since that King of Hollywood boarded his last train.