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

Sausage Party (2016)

EPSON MFP image

onehalfstar

campstamp

When I was an innocent little preteen nü-metal doofus in the late 90s my stepdad used to take me to the theater to see films rated above my age range by the MPAA, but made perfectly for my (im)maturity level. I’m thinking of titles like the South Park musical Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the post-apocalyptic Pam Anderson vehicle Barb Wire, and the deservedly forgotten Keanu Reeves sci-fi cheapie Johnny Mnemonic. It always felt like a special treat, an excursion to pluck the most low-hanging forbidden fruit imaginable. Were it still 1999 & I still a snot-nosed KoRn fan, I probably would’ve enjoyed our most recent journey together to Chalmette Movies to see the Seth Rogen-helmed shock comedy Sausage Party. Instead of leaving the theater transgressively delighted, however, I felt drained, spiritless, exhausted. I don’t know if that sensation speaks more to the movie’s maturity level or my own, but I will say that its moronic dedication to its own despicable worldview & self-congratulatory navel-gazing not only felt like a product of an entirely different century; it also distracted from the film’s main draw: CG animated raunch.

An obvious labor of love, Sausage Party is a Pixar-spoofing filth fest about anthropomorphic food products that somehow skates by without an NC-17 rating despite its fetishistic use of “foul” language & onscreen depictions of sexual congress. A tale as old as time, the film mostly follows one hotdog (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he embarks on a quest to get all up inside his complimentary bun (Kristen Wiig, whose thankless performance I pity the most in this production). It’s the same bros-trying-to-get-laid plot structure Rogen & his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been endlessly repeating all the way back to 2007’s Superbad, except this time with cartoon food. Buried somewhere in this gleefully stupid passion project, which features an entire grocery store full of talking foodstuff characters & the godlike shoppers who free them from the shelves, is about 20 minutes of pure schlock cinema brilliance. Whenever the film acts like a horror comedy, depicting little sentient potatoes & baby carrots being ruthlessly destroyed by gigantic human monsters they mistook for divine saviors, it can be quite funny. There’s a Cleanup in Aisle Whatever gag that spoofs the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan that rings as particularly inspired, especially in the detail of a can of spaghetti trying to re-contain its “intestines.” I’ll also vouch for the climactic hedonism that concludes the film with a nihilistic, anything-goes cocktail of sex & violence that smartly picks apart the basic stupidity of the anthropomorphic [fill in the blank]s of the various CG animated features the film is spoofing. The problem is that these flashes of brilliance are lost under an insurmountable garbage heap of cruelty-for-its-own-sake nastiness & pseudo-philosophical self-importance. Sausage Party knows how to tell an occasional good joke, but its soul is overall corrupted & inherently unlovable, so the punchline is always a short-lived pleasure.

Where Sausage Party derails its own sense of fun in delightful stupidity is in its supposedly necessary quest to construct a narrative more complex than just a nihilistic fascination with sex & violence. Its missteps in that regard are threefold:

  1. The film characterizes its individual food products based on racial & sexual stereotypes. The bagel is a Woody Allen-flavored Jewish caricature. The Twinkie is a twink. The bottle of tequila is a Hispanic scoundrel (among many other “illegal products,” including an oversexed lesbian taco voiced by a surprisingly game Selma Hayek). The hotdog buns are airhead female sex objects patiently awaiting their corresponding wieners. 40oz bottles of malt liquor & sentient boxes of grits are coded as black. The wise bottle of “Fire Water”-brand alcohol is a Native American mystic who smokes weed out of a kazoo. The lavash looks forward to an afterlife stocked with 70 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. The film is a relentless dedication to an “If everyone’s offended, nothing’s offensive” line of humor that’s no funnier the first time than it is the 1,000th and once you realize that its pursuit to racially categorize each of its many foodstuff personifications will eat up its entire runtime in the place of a worthwhile story or all-out debauchery, there’s nothing left to feel but exhaustion & despair.
  2.  Unsatisfied with its surprisingly brilliant depiction of human beings as cruel, uncaring gods who promise these talking food products passage to “The Great Beyond” (where, unknown to them, they will be mutilated & consumed), the film instead mostly follows the much less interesting threat of an anthropomorphic douche. I’ll tip my hat to the spot-on casting of comedian Nick Kroll as said douche, but much like the film’s above-referenced “have your cake & eat it too” satire of racial coding in foodstuffs marketing, his entire role should’ve been reduced to a short-form gag & not a full-length plot device. Let’s think for just a half-second what a villainous douche in a shock comedy would spend most of its time pursuing in order to create conflict. Did you picture roid rage-themed sexual assault? Apparently, Rogen & Goldberg didn’t think of it for much longer than a half second either, since they also pictured rape and thought that was funny enough to run with for the length of an entire film.
  3.  Perhaps the most damning fault of all this is that this shameless raunch fest actually thinks it has something to say. From its aggressively pedantic Richard Dawkins branch of atheism to its musings on the frivolity of the Israelian-Palestinian conflict to its juvenile depictions of a Hitler figure getting his comeuppance (a moment that apparently called for more rape humor, since there’s just never enough), Sausage Party captures exactly what’s so exhausting about being trapped in a confined space with the world’s worst subreddit’s didactic neckbeard internet philosophers or, more simply, watching an especially preachy episode of Family Guy. I swear a hotdog even mouths a “Giggity!” to seal the deal on the film’s overriding aesthetic just before the blood orgy climax. Somewhere along the way Rogen & Goldberg became mistaken that audiences wanted a self-important lecture on the meaning of life in the midst of comedic gags about hotdog ingredients cussing & fucking, particularly one with the stinger that man-boy stoners are the world’s true enlightened philosophers with all of The Answers. I can respect the film’s go-for-broke dedication to its own inane depravity, but I can’t at all get on board with its self-congratulatory stabs at know-it-all philosophy.

All three of these fatal flaws point to a major structural problem at the heart of Sausage Party‘s toxic unlikability. This should have been a short film. I’m thinking fifteen, twenty minutes tops. Any entertainment value Rogen & Goldberg pull out of anthropomorphic foodstuffs’ nihilistic sex & violence in the face of their human god consumers’ cruelty could’ve been efficiently fired off in that window, with the added bonus of allowing less room for the film’s “comedic” obsessions with race, rape, and the dirty word. Sausage Party should’ve kept to a short film format, just like how the equally exhausting Minions & Deadpool movies should’ve been instantly relegated to their current status as lazy Facebook memes instead of being developed into feature films in the first place. I’m glad I saw Sausage Party in the theater with my stepdad, not only for its occasional short film-worthy moments of depraved schlock brilliance, but also because it took me back to a special, nostalgic time in my cinematic past. The year was 1999, I was twelve, and I would’ve loved every minute of this shit stain of a movie. Unfortunately, there are just some places you can never go back to (and some you’d never want to if you knew what was waiting there).

-Brandon Ledet

Tale of Tales (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

“Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.”

It’s almost a cliché concept to explain at this point, but traditional fairy tales are not the saccharine Disney romances they’re often believed to be. Fairy tales are often horrifically brutal stories of otherworldly magic meant to warn real world people, often children, about the dangers of human follies like lust, greed, selfishness, or curiosity. It isn’t often that an authentic-feeling, appropriately brutal fairy tale makes to the big screen. It’s even rarer that it’d be live-action and an original property, rather than an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Tale of Tales is a once-in-a-lifetime gem in the way it not only fills this requirement, but also excels as an intricately detailed piece of high art & cinematic finery.

I didn’t expect to see a more exquisite, idiosyncratic work than Hail, Caesar! all year, but Tale of Tales might’ve blown it out of the water. It’s like The Fall, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all rolled into one hideous fairy tale directed by Cronenberg in his prime. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.

The film opens with Selma Hayek & John C. Reilly sitting as the king & queen of a fantasy realm kingdom. Hayek is perfectly regal on the throne while Reilly feels plucked from an especially expensive episode of Wishbone, recalling his blissfully clueless husband role in We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s a strain on their relationship and, thus, the kingdom as it’s revealed that the couple cannot conceive a child as a future heir. Advised by an old, wizardly fella who lives in a cave, the royal couple addresses this problem by slaying a sea beast & eating its heart after it’s cooked by a virgin. The trick works & the queen carries her pregnancy to term over the course of a single night. And that’s when things get weird.

I reveal this plot detail only to illustrate just how varied & far-reaching the territory Tale of Tales covers can be. The tale of the sea monster’s heart is just one facet of just one story that continues to spiral out from there over the course of the film. All told, there are three tales covering three adjacent kingdoms that give this film its shape. Inexplicably, the Hayek & Reilly royalty aren’t even the most interesting characters of the bunch. Tale of Tales is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. The three tales told here all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Each character featured here suffers a hideous fate because of their own obsessive selfishness. And if there’s any who don’t, they likely suffer at the hands of others’, especially the ones who supposedly love them.

I urge you not to watch the trailer to this film if you can avoid it. It both spoils way too much of the plot(s) that you’re better off discovering on your own and completely misreads the tone of the film as a whole. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). Don’t be fooled when the film threatens to devolve into modernist showboating with its explicit gore or its exploitative lesbian make-outs in the early proceedings. It’s very much in the tradition of fairy tales in their purest form, immense beauty, cruelty, warts, and all. I highly recommend lending it your full attention & willing imagination, especially if you have the chance to watch it on the big screen. You’ll both love & loathe the places it takes you.

-Brandon Ledet

Everly (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

Last year’s Keanu-Reeves-avenges-his-puppy’s-death action flick John Wick earned a lot of attention for being a return to form for the shoot ‘em up genre. Its above-average fight choreography, underground crime ring aesthetic, and relentless violence made it a crowd favorite, the thinking man’s mindless action flick. It turns out I’m not much of a thinking man. I liked John Wick well enough, but found it hard to match a lot of its audience’s enthusiasm. It was a decent throwback action flick, for sure, but felt more like a throwback to the late 90s than any other era, far from my favorite era of popular art.

Everly, on the other hand, has none of John Wick’s technical sophistication or cultural cachet. It shares its basic beautiful-person-kills-a-heap-of-faceless-strangers premise, but none of its finesse. I still enjoyed Everly more. I can’t help my trashy self. In Everly, a scantily clad prostitute played by Selma Hayek attempts to reunite with her family and escape a life of indentured servitude through an onslaught of gun violence. Cornered in a condo, Hayek’s Everly has to shoot her way through an army of Japanese gangsters, bumbling bodyguards, and fellow prostitutes to achieve freedom. If this sounds stupid & gratuitous, it’s because it most definitely is. Everly isn’t a film where any themes or ideas are explored in new or interesting ways and the violence is a mere exclamation point. It’s a film where violence is the entire point. It’s a film where a gun-wielding Selma Hayek in a negligee defiantly tells cartoonisly violent gangsters, “Lick my balls.” It’s a stupid film, but it’s also an awesome one.

I don’t mean to pull up any comparisons between Everly & John Wick to say one is objectively better than the other. It’s actually highly likely that fans of one would enjoy the other. I’m more drawing the comparison to point out something about my own tastes. Both Everly & John Wick put familiar, beautiful faces in a trashy cult movie scenario, asking their respective stars to shoot their way out of it; but while John Wick aims for greatness, Everly knows exactly what kind of trash it is at heart and searches for greatness in the gutter. That kind of deliberate simplemindedness isn’t going to go too far with certain audiences, but it does go a long way with me. Again, I can’t help my trashy self.

Side note: It surprised me that the film was set during Christmas. If you’re looking for some campy, violent counter-programming this holiday season, I highly recommend giving this one a spin.

-Brandon Ledet