White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Have a Nice Day (2018)

Questions of cross-cultural influence are always difficult to pin down with any definitive authority. At first glance, the animated Chinese gangster story Have a Nice Day looks like an awful lot like the post-Tarantino American crime pictures of the 1990s, where criminals spend way more time hanging out & chewing the fat than they do committing crimes. However, as Tarantino himself was heavily influenced by Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s (the A Better Tomorrow franchise’s influence on Reservoir Dogs is especially apparent), it’s difficult to determine whether Have a Nice Day is a reflection of his work, a continuation of a larger Chinese crime cinema tradition, or a combination of both. There’s a second 90s-era American auteur who potentially had just us much of an influence on Have a Nice Day’s tone, though, a much more unlikely source of inspiration: Richard Linklater. The film’s flat animation style and long stretches of meandering, sometimes philosophical dialogue recalls a distinctly Linklater headspace that’s not exactly common to crime thrillers about villainous gangsters. It’s an unlikely source of inspiration that solidifies the film’s 1990s indie cinema atmosphere, even though its visual design resembles a graphic novel from the 2010s.

An in-over-his-head professional driver steals a bag stuffed with one million yuan from his crime-boss. Over the course of a single night, several disparate parties, from top level gangsters to money-hungry restraunteurs, jockey for possession of the bag, leaving a trail of broken bodies in their fight over its ownership. Have a Nice Day is less distinct for its narrative, which is a typical post-Tarantino crime story, than it is for its atmosphere. It feels as if its conflict is contained in a universe where it’s perpetually 3am and everyone’s as delirious as they are desperate for easy money. The landscape is established as a quiet, desolate picture of urban squalor, backed by hip-hop instrumentals & (more often than not) total silence. Meat cleavers, switchblades, cellphones, plastic surgery disasters, rundown internet cafes, a sparsely populated pavement slick with light rain: this is a small, inconsequential world defined by financial desperation & early morning depravity. The money in that bag means a lot to many people, maybe even least of all to the gangsters it was stolen from. The stolen money seems to be the only road out of this forever-rut of 3am crime sprees, a chance for freedom worth drying for, if not for escaping boredom alone.

The actual animation of Have a Nice Day isn’t as much of a draw as its static visual design. The crisp lines & flat fields of color feel representational of modern graphic art sensibilities, but the computer-smoothed movements of its action isn’t exactly impressive. Often, entire scenes will play out with a single character unloading long paragraphs of dialogue, portraying no movement outside the Flash animation flapping of tense mouths. The only break from this late-night drudgery is a tangential musical spoof of Chinese propaganda films, a brief daydream in an environment that requires that kind of mental escapism for survival. Otherwise, this is Tarantino (or Woo, depending on how you want to track that influence) without the explosive violence. This is Linklater without the broad relatability. The blankness of the animation style matches the financial & ambitious rot of desperate characters in an empty world where the only excitement offered is a stolen sack of cash. The film is calm, hollow, and slow-moving in its escalation of violence & danger, a distinctly 90s hangout vibe in an animated context where that type of atmosphere is a rarity.

-Brandon Ledet

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

One of the most infamous scenes of onscreen cinematic violence is not actually as gratuitous in its visual depiction of brutality as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s staging of the shower stabbing in Psycho crams 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts into 45 seconds of footage (which is where the documentary on the scene, 78/52, gets its name), bewildering its audience with a fractured visual narrative that makes us feel like we’re seeing more explicit violence than we are. Our minds fill in the gaps. Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell sustains this technique for the entire runtime of a feature-length crime narrative. You Were Never Really Here is being frequently compared to the violent third act catharsis of Taxi Driver, which is understandable considering its on-paper premise about a mentally strained brute singlehandedly taking down a child prostitution ring while simultaneously uncovering a larger political conspiracy. Ramsay’s approach to violence is much less explicit & blunt than what’s delivered in Taxi Driver, though, obscuring its emotional release by instead focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. It’s remarkably similar to the Psycho shower scene in that way, a connection acknowledged several times in the dialogue (thanks to serendipitous adlibbing from Dead Silence‘s Judith Roberts, who plays the would-be stand-in for Norman Bates’s mother in Ramsay’s film). If you’re looking for a prolonged echo of the bloody catharsis that concludes Taxi Driver you’re not likely to find it here, no matter how similar the two films might sound in concept.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a mercenary muscle who specializes in rescuing underage girls from child prostitution rings. When this grueling job overlaps with a larger web of political intrigue involving a governor, a senator, and one particular underage victim, he suddenly finds himself alone in the world, attempting to take down an Evil force much larger than one man could possibly handle. He attacks this problem with brute strength by way of his peculiar weapon of choice, a ball peen hammer, but any minor successes he can achieve only open his life to more violent and emotional chaos. This one-dude-vs-a-human-trafficking-network narrative is now common enough to be its own genre, if not only through Liam Neeson’s recent catalog alone. Where films like Taken or Brawl in Cell Block 99 often feel like macho power fantasies, though, You Were Never Really Here shows little to no interest in offering any such release. Our broken macho man anti-hero cannot successfully beat his problems to pulp. Instead of making him come across like a heroic badass, his horrific line of work leaves him weeping, codependent with his elderly mother, and in desperate need of a kind stranger to hold his hand or kiss his cheek. Physical, masculine strength is a debilitating force for Evil in this picture. Our protagonist is haunted by past childhood, wartime, and occupational atrocities that we only glimpse in flashes, but leave him effectively crippled. In crime thriller terms, this is less the stylized romance of Drive than it is the dispiriting grime of Good Time. It resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester. We linger on her characters’ emotional pain without being offered any clear catharsis.

It never feels right to discuss a Lynn Ramsay film in terms of plot, since so much of her storytelling is paired own to elemental indulgences in imagery & sound. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood enhances the film’s emotional discomfort with slightly off-rhythm guitars, violins, and percussions. Any visual information missing from the obscured bloody hammer attacks is supplanted with the menacing specificity of other off-kilter images: burning photographs, mouths sucking on thin plastic, bloody tissues piling on an office desk, sugar peeling off a crushed jellybean, etc. If the film draws an aesthetic comparison to another title in Ramsay’s (depressingly limited) filmography it’s Morvern Callar, her most strikingly grimy descent into emotional chaos to date. Not only does You Were Never Really Here share that film’s impossibly dark humor and (despite its absence of heavy Scottish accents) necessity for subtitles, it’s also at its core an editing room achievement in cinematic sight & sound. This may be Ramsay’s closest adherence to a genre structure to date, outweighing even the Bad Seed & Omen vibes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s deeply seated in the increasingly fractured mental space she’s been carving out as far back as Ratcatcher. The film’s security camera sequence is also her most impressively staged set piece outside the hellish house party that opens Morvern Callar, a very high bar to clear for any filmmaker. Whether you want to compare individual details from the film to Taken, Psycho, Taxi Driver, or any number of past stylized crime thrillers (Nocturama also comes to mind, based on the fractured imagery of its own security cam sequence), there’s no denying that this is pure Lynne Ramsay. The director obscures, subverts, deconstructs, and viciously tears apart a traditionally macho genre until its only viable comparison point is the furthest reaches of her own sublimely upsetting oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

Swamp Women (1956)

I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.

An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?

Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.

With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Time (2017)

I had no idea who up & coming filmmakers The Safdie Brothers were before seeing their most recent collaboration, Good Time, at the cinema, but by the tail end of the opening credits I was already mesmerized by the talent of Benny Safdie in particular. It wasn’t the fact that Benny co-directed (along with brother Josh Safdie, who penned the screenplay) while also making the risky decision to play a mentally disabled thief in one of the central roles that won me over as a fan. It was actually Benny’s sound editing credit that most caught my attention. From the opening frames of the film it’s immediately apparent that the sound design, which heavily features a synth-soaked score from weirdo pop act Oneohtrix Point Never, is the film’s driving force, the main source of its tension & eerie beauty. In Good Time, even the beautiful things are deeply ugly and the way The Safdie Brothers drown their audience in a nonstop deluge of oppressive sounds is just as painful as it is divinely transcendent. Even if every other element at play were dull or uninspired, the film’s synthy soundscape would be enough on its own to push the film into the Best of the Year conversations, which is not too shabby for a couple directors who’ve seemingly come out of nowhere (i.e. documentary filmmaking).

Robert Pattinson stars as an irredeemable scumbag who lands his mentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) in jail after a botched bank heist. Good Time mostly follows this despicable anti-hero down a complex labyrinth where he schemes to retrieve his brother from police custody. In his desperation he fails to plan ahead for future mishaps, barely evading police custody at every turn himself as he inches closer to retrieving his brother. Any shred of sympathy for Pattinson’s bank-robbing underdog is near-impossible to hold onto as he consistently steps all over old women, children, people of color, and the mentally ill in his single-minded quest to break his brother out. Occasionally this monstrously selfish mission is interrupted by tangents like a long monologue about the worst acid trip in history or an especially unhinged performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a wealthy heiress with a violent chemical imbalance, but Pattinson’s scumbag lead will only pay attention to those distractions for as long as it takes him to figure out a way to exploit them. Like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, Good Time is composed entirely of a series of obstacles. There’s an intense moral conundrum at the core of the plot where you want to see the lead succeed in saving his brother from a prison system he’s not mentally equipped to navigate, but also want him to fail for the sake of the marginalized people he hurts along the way. There’s hardly time to wrestle with that conflict in the moment, however, since each obstacle pummels the screen in rapid succession with full, unforgiving force.

Good Time is essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime. Filtering an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth) sounds like it’d be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose. Occasionally, Good Time will introduce a stray element of dangerous fun, like an amusement park funhouse or a Sprite bottle full of LSD, but mostly the directors allow their documentary work to inform the tone of the picture. Good Time is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions or the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. There’s deeply uncomfortable sexual & racial context to most of the main character’s crimes, but there’s also an economic desperation in his acts of theft, kidnapping, and breaking & entering that inform his decisions to commit them. In one telling scene, he pauses to watch an episode of the 90s reality show Cops, which similarly repackaged systemic economic hardship as an entertainment commodity, only to be disgusted by the pain on display on the screen. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort in that same way, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that the film does so well.

If nothing else, Good Time is an excellent case for each of its individual players as creative powerhouses to be reckoned with. Jennifer Jason Leigh has already established herself as an actor to beware in titles like The Hateful Eight & eXistenZ, so Robert Pattinson’s role here works much better as a breakout calling card performance (much more so than his own Cronenberg vehicle, Cosmopolis), as despicable as it is. The Safdie Brothers also stand a chance to make names for themselves as actors, writers, and directors in what has to be their widest release to date, especially in the brazen way they dare to punish their newfound audience. If Good Time works as a showcase for any one in element in particular, however, its effect is most heavily weighted in its attention to sound. Benny Safdie’s masterful integration of the tireless Oneohtrix Point Never synths in the diegetic sounds of Good Time‘s grimy crime world environments is truly one of the great marvels of the year, something that deserves to be experienced as big and as loud as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

Baby Driver (2017)

In the few days since watching Edgar Wright’s latest at the theater, starting almost immediately after the screening, I’ve been suffering a very annoying case of swimmer’s ear. I can’t hear very well from the affected appendage, which is ringing slightly & swollen to the point of discomfort. I also can’t help but think that this sudden affliction is somehow cosmic retribution for not especially caring about Baby Driver, a film everyone seems to love without reservation, but only stirred apathy in me. In the film, a young twenty-something getaway driver with a heart of gold (named Baby, naturally) suffers from a near lifelong affliction of severe tinnitus. To ease the constant ringing in his ears, he choreographs his day around an endless stack of carefully-curated iPod classics, each loaded with just the right song selection to drown out the noise in his head & get him through his reluctant life in crime. Given how (mostly) great the soundtrack Baby selects for himself is (including tracks from artists as varied as T. Rex, Young MC, and The Damned) and the immediately apparent exuberance Wright shows behind the wheel, it’s downright sinful that I couldn’t manage to have fun watching this summertime exercise in action & style. Do not worry, though. My ear seems to have been struck down for the offense.

I don’t want to waste too much server space shitting on Baby Driver, since it’s bringing a lot of people a lot of joy. It’s easy to recognize what they see in it: stylized car chases, a killer soundtrack, playful action movie dialogue, etc. It’s just frustrating to me that a film with such an exciting premise (a babyfaced criminal timing his bank robbery getaways to pop music) ultimately feels so conventional & uninspired. It starts off sublimely committed to its central conceit too. Baby (played by real-life babyface Ansel Elgort) draws attention to himself by drumming on the steering wheel & lipsycing for his life to a blues rock diddy outside an in-progress robbery. His irreverence is immediately infectious. After establishing Baby’s skills behind the wheel in a show-off’s getaway, the movie establishes its main hook up front in the opening credits. While Baby strolls to a local coffee shop to cap off the heist, the music in his earbuds syncs up to the imagery onscreen, to the point where graffiti & street signs echo lyrics from the soundtrack. In this opening adrenaline rush, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking you’re watching a high octane, pop music-driven modernization of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a visually complex musical where every meticulously crafted detail in play is just an extension of the song developing in your ear. That’s why it’s such a letdown when the movie then reveals itself to be a much more conventional, instantly-familiar heist picture.

That’s not to say that a conventional heist picture can’t be a worthwhile mode of entertainment. Even while disappointing in ambition, Baby Driver features some exceptional performances from its actors. Lily James is absurdly sweet in her role as a diner waitress, feeling like a cartoolishly pure distillation of wholesome Americana. Jamie Foxx also steals attention whenever he’s allowed the opportunity in his role as the loose cannon criminal who can’t be trusted not to blow every heist apart into a bloodsoaked catastrophe, an unpredictable element of danger that helps the film’s “one last job” plot feel at least somewhat distinctive instead of mind-numbingly cliché. I’m a lot less hot on what Jon Hamm & Kevin Spacey are doing as Foxx’s criminal cohorts, which might get to the core of why I was underwhelmed by the movie as a whole. It’s not necessarily a fault with the performances, but more to do with Wright’s screenplay. Spacey & Hamm are tasked with delivering deliberately over-stylized, insincerely quippy dialogue that makes Baby Driver feel overall like a return to that deluge of mediocre mid-to-late 90s sardonic crime movies that followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction & Reservoir Dogs. Even back then those overly-jokey, scripted-to-death crime pictures were already exhaustingly redundant & flat. In a 2017 context the effect is even worse, feeling about as try-hard & unfunny as Deadpool.

It’s possible my mood was soured before Baby Driver even began, given Edgar Wright’s snooty pre-screening PSA about how going to the theater is an essential cinematic experience, as opposed to to the slackjawed dimwit slobs who watch Netflix on the couch (i.e. everyone alive). Mostly, though, I just felt let down that Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive. I probably shouldn’t be saying these things aloud, though, just in case it’s risking hearing loss in my currently uninfected ear. I hope you, Wright, and the pop music gods in charge of my hearing will eventually forgive me for the transgression, lest I need to start shopping on eBay for some secondhand mp3 players.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet