Film Review: Murder by Numbers (dir by Barbet Schroeder)


First released in 2002, Murder by Numbers is one of those films that seems to be pop up on Cinemax every couple of months.  It’s not really that good, though it has its fans because if features Sandra Bullock being all self-destructive and one of the film’s villains is played by a young Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling is Richard Haywood, child of privilege.  He’s handsome.  He’s funny.  He’s popular.  He’s spoiled.  He’s often high.  And he’s totally psychotic.  Richard wants to commit the perfect crime and, fortunately, so does his classmate, Justin (Michael Pitt).  Justin is a fiercely intelligent introvert who spends most of his time reading and writing and playing with his computer.  He’s got a crush on Richard’s ex, Lisa (Agnes Buckner).  From the minute that Lisa showed up and started talking to Justin, I was concerned.  I was like, “Is this another movie that’s going to feature someone named Lisa being murdered?  CHERISH ALL OF THE LISAS IN YOUR LIFE, PEOPLE!”

Anyway, Richard and Justin do end up killing a woman, though not Lisa.  They go through a lot of effort to frame the school’s pervy janitor, Ray (Chris Penn), for the crime.  And they nearly succeed, though Detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is way too smart to fall for their tricks.  Unfortunately, no one believes anything that Cassie says because she has a shady past and a drinking problem.  Even her sympathetic new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), thinks that it was probably Ray.

Literally everyone on the police force tells Sam that Cassie is unstable and not to be trusted, which leads to an interesting question.  If everyone’s convinced that everything Cassie says is wrong, why does she still have a job?  Why do they still assign her to cases?  It’s like, “We’ve got a murder that we have to solve!  Let’s give it to that detective who we think never gets anything right!”

Sandra Bullock does her best to bring the self-destructive Cassie to life but she kind of runs into the huge problem that she’s Sandra Bullock and she has such a firmly entrenched screen presence that it’s difficult to take her seriously as someone who spend her free time sitting on a houseboat, getting drunk, and obsessing on the past.  You really want her to give a good performance because it’s impossible not to root for Sandra Bulllock but she’s just too miscast.  You keep expecting Matthew McConaughey to show up, playing a bongo drum and trying to cheer her up.

Far more convincing is Ryan Gosling, who plays Richard as the type of guy that we all knew in high school.  You know he’s a jerk.  You know you should stay away from him.  But he’s just so much fun and he has so much money!  Unfortunately, Gosling is so charismatic that Richard quickly becomes the only compelling character in the film.  I mean, if you have the choice between watching Michael Pitt, Ben Chaplin, or Ryan Gosling, who are you going to go with?  You’re supposed to hate Richard and hope that justice catches up with him but instead, you find yourself hoping that he’ll sneak out of the country and spend the rest of his hiding out in South America or something.

So, as a result, the film really doesn’t work.  (It also doesn’t help matters that it’s directed in a rather detached fashion by the king of ennui, Barbet Schroeder.)  But it’s interesting to watch, just for a chance to see a future star in the making.  Gosling steps into a rather underwritten role and basically takes over the entire damn movie.

It’s also worth seeing for the scene in which Sandra Bullock gets attacked by a baboon.  It’s a weird moment and Schroeder screws things up by mixing in a flashback to Cassie’s past but still, it’s a baboon attacking Sandra Bullock.  That’s not something you see every day.

Back to School Part II #26: Terminal Bliss (dir by Jordan Alan)


mpw-59133

There’s been a long-standing rumor floating around the internet that, before she became a star, Sandra Bullock appeared in the 1992’s Terminal Bliss, a film about decadent, upper class teenagers.  Well, having watched the film on YouTube, I can tell you that, unless she’s an extra, Sandra Bullock is not in the film.

That said, she does have a connection to Terminal Bliss.  In 1987, when a 17 year-old aspiring director named Jordan Alan was attempting to raise the money for his film debut, he shot a few scenes and put together a promotional trailer for his unmade film.  Sandra Bullock does appear in that trailer.  Watch it below:

On the strength of the trailer, Alan was able to raise 3 million to make his movie.  (Charmingly, Alan has written that he raised the money while “playing hooky.”)  Alan shot the film in 1989 and there was even some news coverage about this teenager making his directorial debut.

As for the film itself, it appears that it wasn’t released until 1992, presumably to capitalize on the performance of Luke Perry, who, at that time, was starring on Beverly Hills 90210.  According to Wikipedia, the film was not particularly embraced by critics, nor did it do much at the box office.  It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray.

The only reason I knew about Terminal Bliss is because I like to collect those old Screen World Annuals and I came across Terminal Bliss in the back of the 1992 edition.  The name immediately caught my attention, largely because I once used the phrase “terminal bliss” in a poem and was rather unfairly criticized by a creative writing professor who felt I was “trying too hard.”

John Willis's Screenworld Annual (It may say 1993 on the cover but it actually covered the film released in 1992)

John Willis’s Screenworld Annual (It may say 1993 on the cover but it actually covered the film released in 1992)

However, Terminal Bliss is not an easy film to track down.  As I mentioned earlier, I finally found the movie on YouTube but it was the French-language version.  Though I do speak French (though, admittedly, with a Texas accent), I would hardly call myself fluent and, as I watched Terminal Bliss, I came to realize just how rusty my French has gotten.  (I’m definitely going to have to brush up on it, if I end up fleeing to Canada after the presidential election.)  Fortunately, I was able to follow the film enough to review it.

Terminal Bliss tells the story of two teenage friends.  They’re both rich.  They’re both neglected by their parents.  At the start of the film, they both seek escape through drugs.  Alex (Timothy Owen) is the one who often hides his sensitivity behind a wall of cynicism.  John (Luke Perry) is the charming and sociopathic one, the one who lives his entire life seeking to satisfy his own urges.  When he finds out that Alex has a crush on Stevie (Estee Chandler), John responds by introducing Stevie to cocaine and getting her pregnant.  When Stevie has an abortion, an angry Alex checks into drug rehab.  When Alex comes out of rehab, he’s still as angry and as cynical as he ever was.  He continues to hang out with his friends, the most recognizable of which is a drug dealer played by Alexis Arquette.  Alex also continues to be friends with John, despite the fact that John seems to be getting more and more out-of-control in his behavior.  Alex refuses to intervene, saying that John is responsible for his own decisions.  After John rapes Stevie’s sister, he invites Stevie and Alex to join him out at his family’s lake house.  When, over the course of the weekend, John drowns, Alex can only coldly watch.  Why help?  As Alex sees it, John would probably be happier dead anyway…

So, yeah, Terminal Bliss is not exactly a cheerful movie.  In fact, it’s such a dark and borderline nihilistic film that it reminded me of the type of stories that I used to write when I was 17 years old.  Terminal Bliss has “teen trying to be edgy” written all over it but you know what?  That actually works to the film’s advantage.  This is a film about teenagers that was actually made by a teenager and, while it may not be a perfect movie, it is a pretty good example of what the world looks like when you’re 19 and trying to be a cynic.  Say what you will about the film’s storyline, there’s an honesty to its outlook.  Only when you’re 19 would you have the guts to make a commercial movie that was this relentlessly bleak.  That bleakness sets Terminal Bliss apart from a lot of other films that I’ve reviewed for this series.

Because I was watching a dubbed version, I’m not going to try to judge the performances.  But I will say that I really liked the look of Terminal Bliss.  Jordan Alan — who, according to his Wikipedia page, is still working as an independent filmmaker — creates and maintains an almost oppressive atmosphere of ennui.  This is a film that often seems to take place in the shadows and even the liveliest of scenes (a party, a wedding reception) seem to be overcast.  When, at the start of the film, we see Timothy Owen and Luke Perry’s shadowy forms, playing lacrosse on a sunny morning, we’re put right into the proper existential mood.  When the camera focuses on Owen’s often passive face, we feel as if we are looking straight into the heart of ennui.

So, Terminal Bliss does not feature Sandra Bullock but it’s still an interesting artifact of the time in which it was made.

Film Review: Minions (dir by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda)


Minions_posterThe Minions, everyone’s favorite group of little yellow weirdos from the first two Despicable Me films, now have a movie of their very own!  Earlier tonight, Jeff and I braved a theater that was full of hyperactive little children and we watched Minions.

I have to admit that I was really looking forward to seeing Minions.  After all, I loved both of the Despicable Me movies and, much like Through the Shattered Lens co-founder Arleigh Sandoc, I thought the minions were pretty adorable.  Along with the fact that they were just so weird that you couldn’t help but love them, the minions were distinguished by the wonderfully cheerful approach that they took towards their work.  Even when one of them was accidentally launched into space during the original Despicable Me, he continued to smile.  He was just happy to be a part of the project.  Seriously, who wouldn’t want a bunch of minions to do her bidding?

Now, it was established during the first Despicable Me movie that the minions were specifically created by the super villain Gru.  However, Minions reimagines their origins.  Now, we discover that the minions have existed since the beginning of time and, apparently immune from aging, they have always sought to serve a villainous master.  During the film’s opening, we watch as they serve a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Dracula, and Napoleon.  Unfortunately, the minions’ combination of enthusiasm and stupidity proves fatal to most of their employers.

Eventually, the minions find themselves exiled to Antarctica.  After several centuries, the minions find themselves suffering from depression and ennui.  Finally, three brave minions (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin) volunteer to go out into the world and find a new master to serve.  Kevin is the responsible leader.  Bob is the cute, enthusiastic one who always carries a teddy bear with him.  (Bob also has heterochromia, just like me!)  And finally, Stuart is the one who likes to play his guitar.

Kevin, Bob, and Stuart get in a rowboat and eventually, they reach New York City.  However, it turns out that the year is 1968 and there is a serious shortage of evil super villains to serve!  Not only is Gru just a child but Bill Clinton hasn’t even launched his political career yet!  Eventually, though, our three minions learn about Villain-Con, being held in Orlando, Florida.  Hitching a ride with a family of aspiring bank robbers (Micheal Keaton is the voice of the father), the minions reach Orlando and eventually, they end up working for Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm).

Scarlet explains that, ever since she was a little girl, she has wanted to be the Queen of England.  But she doesn’t have the crown!  She orders Kevin, Stuart, and Bob to get that crown and reads them a bedtime story about three minions who failed to get a crown and were subsequently killed by an angry wolf.  AGCK!

This leads to our three minions going to London and, since it’s 1968, that also leads to a lot of good (if predictable) songs on the soundtrack.  As a result of several odd incidents, Bob is briefly the King of England.  And things only get stranger from there…

The children in the audience loved it but, at the same time, I could never bring myself to like Minions as much as I wanted to.  Minions just doesn’t have as much heart as Despicable Me.  There’s no moment in Minions that’s anywhere close to being as joyful as the “It’s so fluffy” scene from Despicable Me.  The minions are fun supporting characters but they don’t quite work as well as protagonists for a 91 minutes film.  Sandra Bullock tries really hard as Scarlet Overkill but she just doesn’t have the right voice for the character.  Part of Sandra Bullock’s appeal, after all, is that she not only looks but sounds like she’s totally down-to-earth and that’s one thing that Scarlet definitely is not.  Jon Hamm, however, is hilarious as the vacuous Herb.

Minions is a cute movie that doesn’t really make much of an impression.  Kids will love it, though.  And, even though I would never actually eat there, I’m still going to go by McDonald’s and order a Happy Meal so I can get the little minion that’s inside.

(Especially if it’s one of those cursing minions…)

Cursing Minions

Trailer: Minions (Official)


 

wpid-minions

BANANA!

The Minions are back and all is right with the world. What better way to decompress from a month full of horror and everything horror than to get back to our helpful, little yellow henchmen.

Minions stars Stuart, Kevin and little Bob. They go on a journey in search of the ultimate master villain to pledge their race’s allegiance to. We’ll find out in July 10, 2015 if their search is one of success.

Embracing the Melodrama #53: Crash (dir by Paul Haggis)


crash-2004-poster

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, some of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.   We started way back in 1916 and now, after 52 reviews, we’ve finally reached the year 2004.  And that can only mean that it is time to review the worst film to ever win an Oscar for best picture of the year.  I am, of course, talking about Crash.

Crash is an ensemble piece that follows a multi-racial cast of characters as they deal with issues of race, crime, and — well, that’s about it.  In Crash, everyone’s life revolves around race and crime.  Well, I take that back,  There is at least one character whose life revolves around being a good maid to the white woman who employs her.  But otherwise, it’s all about race and crime.  The film is set in Los Angeles which, from what I’ve read, is actually a pretty big city but you really wouldn’t know that from watching Crash.  All of the characters in Crash are constantly and randomly running into each other.  I think director/screenwriter Paul Haggis is trying to make a statement about the power that coincidence plays in the world but, often times, it just feels like lazy plotting.

Anyway, here are the characters who are meant to bring Los Angeles to vivid cinematic life:

Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock play rich white people Rick and Jean Cabot.  Rick Cabot has just been elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County.  (Because when I think of a successful urban politician, I automatically think of Brendan Fraser…)  Jean is his materialistic wife.  At the start of the film, they’re carjacked by two young black men, which leads to Jean suspecting that every non-white she sees is secretly a gang member.  Later, Jean falls down a flight of stairs but she’s helped by her maid, who happens to be — surprise, surprise — not white!  Apparently, this teaches Jean an important lesson about tolerance.  The message, I guess, is that white people can be redeemed by interacting with their minority servants.

And then there’s Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) who are upper class and black.  Cameron directs sitcoms for a living and, at work, he has to deal with Fred (Tony Danza) constantly double guessing him and demanding that he reshoot scenes.  One night, as they leave an awards ceremony, Cameron and Christine are pulled over by two white cops — the racist Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his idealistic partner Hansen (Ryan Phillippe).  Ryan proceeds to molest Christine while giving her a pat down.  The next day, Christine is involved in a car accident on the freeway and is pulled from the burning car by none other than Officer Ryan.  The point here, I suppose, is that the same pervert who finger rapes you one night is just as likely to be the same guy who comes across your overturned car on the freeway.  For that scene alone, Crash deserves the title of worst best picture winner ever.

crash-2004 4

But that’s not all!

There’s also Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle), who has been assigned to investigate a police corruption case that would not be out of place in an episode of … well, just insert your own generic cop show title here.  Graham also visits his mentally unstable mother who demands that Graham find his younger brother.  Now, of course, as soon as we hear this, we know that Graham’s brother is going to have to turn out to be one of the other characters in the film.  Since there are only three other black males in this film (and since Cameron appears to be the same age as Graham), it’s not difficult to figure out who it’s going to be.

It’s either going to be Anthony (Ludacris) or Peter (Larenz Tate), who also happen to be the same two men who carjacked the Cabots’ car at the start of the film.  Larenz Tate probably gives the best performance in this whole sorry mess of a film, even if his role is ultimately a thankless one.

There’s also a locksmith named Daniel (Michael Pena), who finds himself being stalked by an angry Middle Eastern man.  Daniel’s story contains a hint of magic realism, presumably because Paul Haggis was reading something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez while writing the script.

Crash

You can fault Crash for many things but you also can’t deny that it’s far more ambitious than the typical bad film.  In the space of 112 minutes, Paul Haggis attempts to say everything that needs to be said about race and class in America.  Unfortunately, while watching the film, it quickly becomes obvious that Haggis really doesn’t know much about race and class in America.  Hence, the film becomes a collection of scenes that think they mean something while actually meaning nothing.  Crash is less about race in America and more about how other movies have traditionally portrayed race in America.  Unfortunately, director Haggis does not have the self-awareness to truly bring the subtext of screenwriter Haggis’s script to life.

The main theme of Crash seems to be that everyone has a good side and a bad side and that you can the hero of one story while being the villain of another.  That’s not a bad theme, it’s just an incredibly mundane one.  The film illustrates this theme by continually having a character say something racially offensive just to then have him do something heroic in the very next scene.  As a result, the characters don’t come across as being so much complex as just incredibly inconsistent.  Crash is never as deep as it thinks it is.

Reportedly, Crash was inspired by Paul Haggis’s own experience of getting carjacked.  Haggis has said that being a victim of crime led to some intense soul searching on his part.  Hopefully, Haggis got something better than just Crash out of the whole experience.

still-of-terrence-howard-in-crash-(2004)-large-picture

LeonTh3Duke’s Favorite Films of 2013


I have to say, this might be the earliest I have ever posted one of these lists. For once I saw everything I wanted to see before the Oscars; and although I haven’t written as many reviews this year, I have loved A TON of what was released. For me, 2013 was one of the better years for film in a while. Which of course makes creating a list such as this so damn hard. But here goes…

…oh, and I should note, this list is ordered according to which films were my favorite/least favorite, not necessarily the best/worst; yes there is a difference if you ask me.

Least Favorite Films of 2013:

5 – “Star Trek Into Darkness” (dir. J.J. Abrams)

5 Star Trek Into Darkness

4 – “Don Jon” (dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

4 Don Jon

3 – “This Is The End” (dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen)

3 This Is The End

2 – “Mama” (dir. Andre Muschietti)

2 Mama

1 – “A Good Day To Die Hard” [Just so happens to be my least favorite AND the worst.] (dir. Satan… Hitler?…no wait, John Moore)

1 A Good Day To Die Hard

Favorite Films of 2013:

25 – “Prince Avalanche” (dir. David Gordon Green)

25 Prince Avalanche

24 – “Drug War” (dir. Johnnie To)

24 Drug War

23 – “The Wolverine” (dir. James Mangold)

23The Wolverine

22 – “Upstream Color” (dir. Shane Carruth)

22 Upstream Color

21 – “The Wolf Wall Street” (dir. Martin Scorsese)

21 The Wolf of Wall Street

20 – “Enough Said” (dir. Nicole Holofcener)

20 Enough Said

19 – “Frozen” (dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)

19 Frozen

18 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright)

18 The Worlds End

17 – “Dallas Buyers Club” (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)

17 Dallas Buyers Club

16 – “Blue Is The Warmest Color” (dir. Adbellatif Kechiche)

16 Blue Is The Warmest Color

15 – “An Adventure In Space and Time” (dir. Terry McDonough)

15 An Adventure in Space and Time

14 – “Stories We Tell” (dir. Sarah Polley)

14 Stories We Tell

13 – “Much Ado About Nothing” (dir. Joss Whedon)

13 Much Ado About Nothing

12 – “Blue Jasmine” (dir. Woody Allen)

12 Blue Jasmine

11 – “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

11 Mud

10 – “Frances Ha” (dir. Noah Baumbach)

10 Frances Ha

9 – “12 Years A Slave” (dir. Steve McQueen)

9 Twelve Years A Slave

8 – “Short Term 12” (dir. Destin Cretton)

8 Short Term 12

7 – “Inside Llewyn Davis” (dir. Ethan & Joel Coen)

7 Inside Llewyn Davis

6 – “Museum Hours” (dir. Jem Cohen)

6 Museum Hours

5 – “Stoker” (dir. Chan-wook Park)

5 Stoker

4 – “The Act of Killing” [The BEST of 2013 and possibly beyond.] (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

4 The Act of Killing

3 – “Before Midnight” (dir. Richard Linklater)

2 Before Midnight

2 – “Her” (dir. Spike Jonze)

1 Her

 

1 – “Gravity” (dir. Alfonso Cauron)

3 Gravity

 

These last three were honestly neck and neck and neck, and it wasn’t until I was ready to post this list that I bumped “Gravity” up to the top spot, replacing “Her”. As I mentioned above, this was such a great year for film and my favorite could change anytime in the future depending on when you asked me; but at this very moment I have to give it to “Gravity”.

 

(Some of My…) Favorite Performances of 2013 [No Specific Order]:

– Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”)

– Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”)

– Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club” & “Mud”)

– Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson & Amy Adams (“Her”)

(Some of My…) Favorite Filmmakers and Writers of 2013 [No Specific Order]:

– Filmmaker: Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”)

– Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Deply & Ethan Hawke (“Before Midnight”)

Favorite Score of 2013 (Ran a Half Marathon To This Sucker):

– Steven Price (“Gravity”)

Here Are The 2013 SAG Nominations!


This morning the SAG Award nominees were announced and, perhaps not surprisingly, the story is less who was nominated and more who was snubbed.  For instance, Oscar front-runner Robert Redford’s performance in All Is Lost was ignored while Forest Whitaker’s rather one-note turn in The Butler was nominated.  Tom Hanks was not nominated for Saving Mr. Banks but the late and missed James Gandolfini picked up a nomination for Enough Said. Myself, I’m more surprised that Octavia Spenser was not nominated for her performance in Fruitvale Station.

As has been pointed out over at Goldderby, the SAG Awards are no longer the fool-proof Oscar prediction tool that they used to be.  Getting a SAG nomination no longer guarantees you an Oscar nomination and, by that same standard, getting snubbed is no longer an automatic cause for concern.

That said, the SAG winners do typically end up receiving an Oscar nomination in January.

The film nominees can be found below:

BEST FILM ENSEMBLE
“12 Years a Slave”
“American Hustle”
“August: Osage County”
“The Butler”
“Dallas Buyers Club”

BEST FILM ACTOR
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Forest Whitaker, “The Butler”

BEST FILM ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

BEST FILM SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

BEST FILM SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”

BEST FILM STUNT ENSEMBLE*
“All is Lost”
“Fast & Furious 6”
“Lone Survivor”
“Rush”
“The Wolverine”

The full list of nominees can be found here.

—-

* Isn’t it about time that stunt performers get an Oscar category all their own?