Lonely Hearts Killers vs. Blasphemous Hollywood Phonies

When opera-composer-turned-one-time-filmmaker Leonard Kastle dramatized the serial murder crime spree of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, he deliberately avoided Hollywood glitz & glamor. The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, a low-fi genre picture meant to capture the full grime & absurdity of his subjects’ tabloid-ready crimes without glorification. He explained “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Before Kastle’s movie and since, there have been roughly a dozen crime thrillers about so-called “Lonely Hearts Killers,” murderers & thieves who lured their victims through romantic personal ads in the newspapers. Fernandez & Beck in particular have only received the movie treatment in two subsequent productions, however: a 90s Mexican crime drama titled Deep Crimson and 2006’s Hollywood-produced Lonely Hearts. It’s in that latter title that we got a glimpse of exactly the kind of movie Kastle didn’t want to make, a phony game of 1940s dress-up packed with “beautiful shots of beautiful people.” The Honeymoon Killers deliberately set out to be the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Lonely Heats carelessly stumbled into being the anti-Honeymoon Killers, bringing the whole phony Hollywood enterprise full circle.

The first glaring Hollywoodization of true-life grime in Lonely Heats is the casting of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck. A large part of public fascination over the killers’ tabloid-documented trial was how much objectively better-looking Fernandez was than his lover/partner in crime. Martha Beck was a plain, ordinary woman who had intensely latched onto a very handsome (and eventually violent) man. Her caked-on makeup, over-plucked eyebrows, and low-fashion attire afford her the appearance of a John Waters character as she’s played by Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers. In Lonely Hearts, she’s played by Selma Hayek, one of the most exquisitely beautiful movie stars around. Jared Leto co-stars as Fernandez, equally miscast in the way his forever-young baby face struggles to convey the rugged, old-fashioned masculinity the role requires. When they attempt to age up Leto with a bald cap (in scenes where Raymond isn’t wearing his signature toupee) it plays as an unintentional joke. Leto looks as if he’s guest-hosting SNL, which I doubt was the intended effect in this drama about women & children-murdering grifters. In the casting alone, Lonely Heats undoes everything Kastle envisioned for The Honeymoon Killers, but it does so by having no particular vision at all. It’s likely no one had Kastle’s film in mind during the making of Lonely Heats; they were just naturally blasphemous to his ideals by deferring to Hollywood’s default mode of filming beautiful people playing dress-up.

After the casting of its leads, the second most baffling (and unintentionally blasphemous) decision Lonely Heats makes is in its choice of POV. Whereas Kastle’s film morally challenges the audience by making Fernandez & Beck the protagonists, Lonely Heats frames the story around the (presumably fictional) cops who are tracking them down. James Gandolfini provides convenient exposition for the film as a police force old-timer who burdens the proceedings with verbose noir narration so overly-familiar it borders on parody. John Travolta contrasts him as a loose-cannon partner with a troubled past & an apparent death wish, distracting from Fernandez & Beck’s exploits by wasting screentime on his own past romantic tragedy & his current troubled relationship (with a too-good-for-this-shit Laura Dern). Through this police procedural device, the movie allows itself to play very fast & very loose with the truth of the case that inspired its narrative, but then drop in flatly-stated facts about Martha Beck’s childhood sexual assault that Kastle didn’t dare touch in his own version of the story. The details of the individual crimes are familiarly paralleled in each film: bodies stuffed in clothing trunks, women struck in the skull with hammers, Fernandez & Beck posing as brother & sister to lessen suspicion in their grifts. Lonely Heats just distorts those details through a phony Hollywood POV and often tempers their impact by depicting cops uncovering victims after-the-fact. Where The Honeymoon Killers will show a victim atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub for a campy comedic effect, Lonely Hearts will counter that deliberately un-sexy image with a perfectly posed naked female body found in a bathtub filled with her own blood, looking more like a fashion shoot than a suicide. Where Honeymoon Killers will show Fernandez & Beck teaming up to drown a child in a basement sink, Lonely Heats will only show cops discovering evidence of that crime in horror, long after the event. The details are largely the same (they both depict the same true-life crime spree after all), but the methodologies are philosophically opposed – if not only because Lonely Hearts seems to have no specific philosophy at all.

Of course, there’s an entertainment value built into phony Hollywood glamor. For all of Lonely Heart’s efforts to beautiful Fernandez & Beck’s crimes and shift the moral ambiguity of audience empathy by framing their story through the cops hunting them down, the film still does not skimp on sex or bloodshed, something it treats with the same casual decorative ease as its 1940s big band music & dress-up costuming. Lonely Hearts even occasionally achieves some of The Honeymoon Killers’s off-putting absurdist camp in its more lurid details, such as in a scene where a blood-spattered, bald cap wearing Leto masturbates for Hayek’s amusement. As always, Hayek herself is a joy to watch and is clearly having fun with the material. The “beautiful shots of beautiful people” ethos Kastle detested is difficult to despise too vehemently when it involves Hayek chewing scenery in 1940s femme fatale couture. The pleasures of Lonely Hearts are mild & unexceptional, though, requiring a willingness on the audience’s behalf to settle for an outrageous tabloid saga being reduced to a generic crime picture & an old-fashioned game of Hollywood dress-up. If you want the full scope of Fernandez & Beck’s violence & absurdity, watch The Honeymoon Killers. If you want beautiful shots of beautiful people playing cops & robbers in a low-rent version of old-fashioned Hollywood glamor, Lonely Hearts is your destined-for-cable-broadcasts alternative.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet