Sunday, September 27, 2015


How long before we get a modern retelling of The Honeymoon Killers based off Tinder? Though I’d put money that Law & Order: SVU has already done it, the dating app and similarly focused websites are the digital equivalent of the “Lonely Hearts” services that gave hustler Ray Fernandez and his lover Martha Beck a handy list of potential victims for Ray’s gigolo con, a scheme that eventually gave way to murder.

It’s this true crime tale that inspired The Honeymoon Killers, a 1969 indie written and directed by Leonard Kastle. It was his first and only feature.

In the movie, Tony Lo Bianco plays Ray, a Spanish playboy who woos desperate women by mail, luring them into trysts and sometimes marriage in an effort to trick them into giving him money. When he targets Martha (Shirley Stoler), an overweight nurse with a bad attitude, he misses the mark--she doesn’t have any money--but still gets more than he bargained for. Martha falls hard for Ray, so much so that she threatens suicide if he won’t come back to her and doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he tells her the truth about his lifestyle. He likely hoped that it would scare her off, but it only ties her to him more. Martha becomes Ray’s partner, posing as his overbearing sister and tagging along for his seductions. This turns out to be as bad an idea as it sounds. Martha is jealous of Ray showing affection to other women, and she’d rather sink the con than let him sleep with the targets. Her insecurity causes an escalation in their criminal behavior, with a few of the hook-ups ultimately ending in murder.

The Honeymoon Killers adheres to a rough aesthetic. Scenes are short and choppy, the acting has a stiff naturalism, and Kastle’s documentary-like film style is more functional than facile. Whether this is by design or a necessity of budget is probably something that can be argued. For a musical composer, Kastle lacks rhythm when it comes to film directing. Still, one can draw an interesting line between The Honeymoon Killers and, decades later, the Jason Bourne movies. They share a director of photography in Oliver Wood. This was only his second film, but there is a level of groundwork being done here for that on-the-street, in-the-moment visual style that helped make those Matt Damon vehicles so compelling. The immediacy can be unsettling. As the audience, we are, in essence, a silent participant, sitting in the room with the deadly lovers as they prepare to pull off their terrible deeds. As bystanders, there are times when we could almost reach out or speak up and stop Martha’s anger from bubbling over.

Because it’s a slow bubbling. The momentum wouldn’t be hard to reverse. Unlike the film noirs the movie is often compared to, there is no sense of the inevitable in The Honeymoon Killers. Fate can be changed. One victim escapes when she smartly realizes that there is something wrong about the brother/sister relationship of her would-be suitor and his alleged sibling. (It’s one of Wood’s artier shots, with the spurned lonely heart walking away in the foreground, her back to the kissing pair on the beach down below, almost like a third wheel in the classic Burt Lancaster/Deborah Karr mashing in From Here to Eternity.) When the first intentional murder finally does happen, it’s to the movie’s most annoying character, a nattering cheapskate played by Mary Jane Higby. Her persistent chatter almost makes us beg to see her killed, and Kastle strangely withholds the cathartic pleasure by making the murder clumsy and uncomfortable. He’s denying us any vicarious release--not unlike the way Martha keeps preventing Ray from realizing his sexual conquests.

Despite straddling the line between old Hollywood and the innovation of 1970s American filmmaking, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t overdo it when it comes to taking advantage of the broadened standards. Most of its salaciousness is left to the imagination, more whispered than shouted, in keeping with the gossipy scandal-sheet sensation that the real Ray and Martha caused. Even their lovemaking is mostly implied, despite reports of the pair’s voracious appetites. Again, it’s the uglier details that Kastle spends his freedoms on. Like the pregnancy of Martha’s last victim and Martha’s cold solution for the problem.

Shirley Stoler is by far the strongest performer in the film, and of the two main characters, Martha is also the most interesting. Ray’s pathology is rather predictable and all on the surface; Martha is the true conniver. She’ll do anything to keep Ray. Desperation makes her inventive. Like everyone else in this movie, however, Martha is consistently denied satisfaction. It’s what compels her to kill, and ultimately what pushes her over the edge and inspires her to bring everything crashing down. It’s perfect, then, that the last shot of The Honeymoon Killers, a graceful pull out,  features Martha alone, with Ray as a distant correspondent, the two right back where they began.

Though Criterion released The Honeymoon Killers in 2003, the new edition boasts a considerable picture upgrade, as well as some small additions to the DVD package. Namely, some added interviews with Tony Lo Bianco, actress Marilyn Chris (she played Martha and Ray’s first victim), and editor Stan Warnow. Old extras are carried over to this edition, minus the text biographies and press book reproduction.

The above screengrabs are taken from the 2003 standard-definition release.

The movie was provided by Criterion for review.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


NOTE: This review was originally written for the theatrical release of the film.

In just about all of Wes Anderson's films, childhood has somehow chafed against the harsh disappointments of the adult world. Even when only dealing with youngsters in flashback or even memory, the bruised grown-ups are haunted by the failures of their elders to live up to their expectations. There is always a yearning to return to a simpler time, no matter how ill-fated the journey. One can't help but remember the sadness of Margot Tenenbaum going to the ice cream parlor with her neglectful father. It's too late to make up for missed opportunities.

It's fitting, then, that with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson would embrace a childhood fantasy for real, creating two characters who try to live the lives they imagine their parents, teachers, and other elders are squandering. It's a magical endeavor, one that is full of both the wonder of youth and its inherent heartbreak. Moonrise Kingdom is a movie packed with impossibilities, but also riddled with the pragmatism that only comes from an artist whose innocence has been dashed on the rocks of adulthood.

Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman star as Suzy and Sam, two tweens living in a remote seaside town in New England in 1965. Suzy is the daughter of married lawyers (Billy Murray and Frances McDormand), and she's cursed with three younger brothers and emotional outbursts that sometimes turn to violence. Sam is a newly orphaned Khaki Scout who never seems to fit in with the other kids. He and Suzy met due to happenstance and immediately struck up a correspondence. In their letters, they planned to run away together and live by the ocean. This is, ostensibly, where Moonrise Kingdom's story begins.

The front portion of the film involves this escape and the efforts to find them. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) enlists local lawman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) to try to find the boy. Sharp also has a connection with Suzy's mother, adding an urgency, as well as a palpable tension, to the hunt. While life in civilization falls apart, Suzy and Sam set up an idealized existence far away from it. She has come armed with a portable record player and her favorite books; he has finally found a use for his knowledge of camping and nature. They trade secrets, frolic in the sand, and even share a first kiss. It's like The Blue Lagoon, but without all the skeevy leering.

The perfection ends when the kids are found. The lovebirds and those in charge of looking after them have to face the reality of the situation. Social Services (represented by Tilda Swinton) is coming for Sam, and both children's exposed unhappiness really exposes the unhappiness of everyone around them. Yet, this being a Wes Anderson movie, Sam and Suzy and the other kids caught up in this aren't so quick to give up. More daring adventures are to be had!

There is a delicacy to Wes Anderson's films that causes detractors to dismiss him as a one-note phenomenon and misguided supporters to insist he slavishly maintain whatever ideals and aesthetics they are convinced define him. The former may see Moonrise Kingdom as a creative retreat put into motion by the drubbing members of the latter gave the auteur following 2007's The Darjeeling Limited [review 1, 2]. Neither side is right, nor are they wrong, but they both fail to see that the true beauty of Wes Anderson's films is that they are all of one piece. Unlike probably any other filmmaker working today, Anderson labors in an extremely personal space, and he is incapable of expressing himself outside of it. He has the things he likes, and he has a way he likes to show them. This is why the director can do a stop-motion animated film like The Fantastic Mr. Fox [review] and have it still look like he created it. This is not a bad thing. We could use more artists like him who stand steadfast and don't let their vision get ground up by the great machine. If this means more movies about little girls in cute dresses carrying suitcases, the boys who obsess over them, and the parents that just don't understand, all set in some otherworldly zone where every prop is glued together by nostalgia and pretention, then so be it! I'm on board!

Every frame of Moonrise Kingdom is carefully planned. Robert D. Yeoman's camera is placed just so, and the actors--who are uniformly excellent--are positioned in front of it in an exact way. The things they carry with them and the clothes they wear are tailored to fit Anderson's storybook world, and logic and reality bend to conform to his boundless imagination. There is an almost Saturday morning cartoon conception of physics at work in Moonrise Kingdom. Whatever calamity little Sam has maybe seen Daffy Duck survive, he can survive, too. At the same time, Sam and Suzy are at an age where complicated things are being deconstructed. The movie opens and closes with a recording made to teach children the many facets of classical music. Likewise, Sam meets Suzy by peering backstage at a musical production of Noah's Ark, at once exposing the illusion of theater and the embellishment of myth. If Suzy can dress as a raven and sing as one on stage, then why not also put on a grown-up's uniform and pass beyond the veil of youth?

Anderson's ensemble is wonderfully balanced between established professionals and unseasoned child actors. The big names--in addition to those already mentioned, we also get brief appearances from Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban--adjust perfectly to Anderson's unique approach, dropping their usual technique for something far more simple. This choice fits the thematic thrust of Moonrise Kingdom, because for all the nuance the big folks lack, the little guys more than make up for it. Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman have an unaffected chemistry. There is a baldness to their performance that more polished actors would have to labor to unlearn. This dichotomy is like the two dominant, yet opposing, elements of the film's soundtrack: it's the flourish of classical music vs. the raw heartbreak of a Hank Williams ballad. It's not really either/or: it's about being able to cope with both.

In all honesty, it's hard to exactly get at the magic of Moonrise Kingdom. You might as well try to grab the moon itself when it appears above the horizon. You know it's a real thing out there, you know it's a solid mass, but to reach for it is to emphasize just how far away it really is. You splash your hand in the water and destroy the image. So it is with Moonrise Kingdom. You just kind of have to accept the indefinable and the irrational and let it be. The same way you did when you heard a fantastic story as a kid, holding your breath and trusting the storyteller to get you where he or she is going.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I picked up a girl. If she hadn't gotten in my way, I wouldn't have stopped. She must be connected with somethin' big.

It’s a fairly common private detective line. It makes me think of Nick Cave’s intro to “From Her to Eternity,” a pulpy title if ever there was one. “I wanna tell you about a girl.” This may not have been Mike Hammer’s opening declaration in Kiss Me Deadly but his words describe the opening scene nonetheless. A woman (Cloris Leachman, in her first film role) freshly escaped from a mental hospital runs out into the middle of the road and forces the next passing car to stop. She runs it into the ditch, in fact. But since it’s Mike Hammer, here played by Ralph Meeker (Paths of Glory [review]), he forgives her the indiscretion and gives her a ride. Not out of a sense of duty, he’d have passed her by if he could, but like he said, she got in the way, he had to stop, and now he’s involved.

This isn’t noble, it’s cynical, and it’s what makes Hammer so fascinating. His whole motivation for pursuing the case is partially out of an obligation to see it through, but I think it’s mainly out of annoyance at other people. He appears more concerned with proving the cops are idiots and poking the bad guys in the ribs than he is with right and wrong. As long as he comes out on top, what does it really matter?

It’s as bleak of an attitude as you’re likely to find in film noir, and it’s a major reason why many scholars consider Kiss Me Deadly to be the last legit example of the movement. There is nowhere to go from here. Robert Aldrich’s 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillaine is as dark and rough as it gets, and its ending reveals how insignificant we all really are. Not insignificant in the same sense as a guy taking two bullets in the back or losing a suitcase of money, but serious insignificance in the face of all things. The characters here are a victim of the same kind of hubris that has led many a heavy to bleed out on cold pavement, but on a global scale.

The plot is inconsequential. Hammer runs across the girl, the girl dies, he decides to find out who and why. Each step he takes reveals another obstacle, usually in the form of a person who doesn’t want him to know the truth, and he charges through to the next. It’s a genre exercise. One step forward, two back--each revelation gets Hammer no closer to unraveling the truth.

Which, as I’ve suggested, is the point. For once, there is no unraveling the truth. There is only the personal unraveling in the face of one truth: we are all going to die.

Hammer seems ideally suited to be the one to find this out. He is unfazed by everything he trips over. Meeker plays him as a postured muscle man who can’t be deterred. Once he has something between his teeth, he’s going to chew it down. Nowhere is this more evident than his relationship with Velda (Maxine Cooper), his secretary and girlfriend. As the case begins, Hammer’s not too bothered with the mystery yet, and he’s more than eager to make love to her; when he’s deeper into the conspiracy and what happened to the dead woman is all he can think about, Velda practically crawls up on him, and the private dick barely registers her presence. Velda is bothered, but she’s not surprised, she knows the deadly cat’s cradle Hammer is tangled in. “First, you find a little thread,” she says, “the little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope, and from the rope you hang by the neck.”

Aldrich sees Hammer as a modern antihero, a man who works with his hands caught up in a plot of men who work with their minds. The essential difference, it would seem, is that these other guys don’t consider the consequences. Are you ready for spoilers? The thing that everyone is after and that will ultimately undo everything--they call it “The Great Whatsit”--is a briefcase containing a nuclear device. That’s right. The stuff that dreams are made of is no longer a counterfeit bird statue, but a legit A-bomb. Anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction has seen Tarantino’s riff on the Kiss Me Deadly briefcase: when you open it, it glows. Only here, it won’t just burn your hands off, it could destroy the whole world. Which it very well might be doing at the conclusion of the picture. Hammer and the dead woman’s roommate, Carver (Gaby Rodgers), watch from the water as a beachside house explodes after Carver opened the Maguffin. Only, as the screen fades to black, the explosion isn’t over, and we don’t know if Hammer and the gal get out alive. The title card that says “The End,” in this case, is more of a big maybe.

As a piece of cinema, Kiss Me Deadly is as roughly sculpted as the hero it portrays. Ernest Laszlo’s photography is imprecise and off kilter. The camera barrels through the scenes in much the same fashion that Hammer does. Zooms are clumsy, framing is out of whack, angles are imprecise. It’s as if there is no space to make it pretty. Time is running out! The world is out of order! Even the credits are running the wrong way!

Or it might be as simple as the fact that what Kiss Me Deadly is portraying isn’t meant to be pretty. It’s not just Hammer’s cynical attitude that jars the viewer, even to this day, but the nastiness of the violence--the first burst of which is a rather gruesome torture scene. One that happens almost entirely off screen, mind you, we just see the girl’s bare feet and hear her awful screams, but the effect is just as grisly as any bloody slasher movie. Opening with that sets the stakes high: this is the kind of vicious business Hammer is going to have to find retribution for.

That there is none may be the most cynical part of the whole affair. Sure, all the bad man are dead, but pretty soon, everyone else will be, too. I’m sure there’s cold comfort in knowing they went first.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


And so it is I return to this long-neglected blog as my personal project #1 following a major life change that saw me step away from the bulk of my writing six months ago and move from Portland, OR, to North Hollywood, CA, to join Vertigo Comics as a Senior Editor. And so it is that my return is as much about me as it is about the films. But so it also is that Steven Soderbergh’s transitional double feature makes for an apropos subject with which to reignite my journey here. Not that the TV has be turned off or that I haven’t been watching my Criterions, but you’ll have to wait for second viewings before you get to know the full extent of what I thought of Ride the Pink Horse (great) or The BlackStallion (good) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (not so good)--though I could get personal about a couple of those two.

But no, this is a reunion with Steven Soderbergh, a model of creative daring, a chameleon of cinema, who here we find looking for his way while doing two films that, visually, seem the least him. Be it the idyllic nostalgia of 1993’s King of the Hill or the cool-like-a-glacier artifice of his 1995 soft-boiled The Underneath, his adaptation of a Depression-era memoir or a remake of the superb Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross, these are films that found Soderbergh searching. A state of malaise and confusion not unlike what I was feeling myself leading up to my own life change. Who am I and what am I doing here making these things? Hell, just contrast the mood of the titles: from top to bottom, the highest to lowest, monarch to corpse.

Not that either movie here is wholly terrible, no matter the director’s own assessment of The Underneath. Even there I should note how much I hated it on first viewing back during its original release. It suffered from a contrived indie ennui that was oh-so-popular at the time, the same distancing self-regard that has kept me from being a fan of Hartley or Egoyan. The Underneath ages better than expected though. On my third viewing, I am fine with it, though only just.

On the other hand, this is my first time with King of the Hill, a wholly enjoyable but strangely anonymous take on A.E. Hotchner’s account of one childhood furnished in aspirational poverty. A very young Jesse Bradford (Bring it On, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet [review]) stars as Aaron, an imaginative child whose proclivity for lying is home grown. He and his parents and his little brother live in a hotel on the wrong side of the line for the school Aaron attends, but his parents encourage his bending of the truth to keep getting a better education because one day the fib will bend all the way around to being real--or so his father believes. You can’t blame him for wanting to go the whole way with the cover-up.

Naturally, this will take much longer than expected, and things will get worse before they get better--particularly after the younger brother (Cameron Boyd) is shipped off to relatives, mom (Lisa Eichorn) is shipped off to a sanitarium, and dad (Jeroen Krabbé) ships himself off to parts unknown to sell watches, leaving Aaron to fend for himself and watch his carefully constructed ruse of a life fall apart. 

There are some stellar sequences in King of the Hill. Anytime Bradford and Boyd share the screen, there’s a beautiful rapport between the two that would have you believe they really did grow up together. Bradford manages to find similar connections with other actors, including some key scenes with Adrien Brody, who plays an older hotel resident who teaches Aaron a few tricks. This ability to be present with his co-stars is Bradford’s greatest strength, even when at times he is the weakest link. His confidence and good looks never fail him, so even as he’s supposed to be sickly and starving, he generally just appears to be having a bad day.

It’s one of many things that break the reality of the picture. Soderbergh transports too many caricatures from old movies into what is otherwise a modern interpretation of the timeframe. The angry cop (John McConnell) and bullying bellboy (Joseph Chrest) are cartoons rather than people. One expects them each to take a brick to the back of the head, Krazy Kat-style. Compare this with the sensitive portrayal by Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a young girl isolated by her epilepsy, and you see how much better King of the Hill would have been had Soderbergh chased the humanity instead of the visual homily. (Or perhaps embraced the antiquity completely, much as he did in The Good German [review 1, 2]).

Which, if stepping too far into caricature is the main problem of King of the Hill, it seems to also be the only aspect of the film Soderbergh carries over into the next. The Underneath is all surface chill, the pretense and plot twists of classic noir, but with none of the fire or the passion. In a way, were we to make this a legit double-bill where The Underneath is the first film’s sequel, we could see this as silver-tongued Aaron having returned to his hometown after his lies got him run out on a rail, now all grown up, looking to make amends, and failing to find new paths.

Peter Gallagher stars as Michael Chambers, a compulsive gambler whom we will learn skipped out on his debts, leaving his girlfriend Rachel (Alison Elliott) to clean up after him. He’s come back to see his widowed mother marry a new fella (Paul Dooley), only to find Rachel has now hooked up with local gangster Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). Michael’s stepdad gets him a job driving an armored car, but Michael is ready to toss that new opportunity and everyone’s happy lives aside by luring Tommy into a robbery that, he hopes, will lead to a double-cross and a journey into the sunset with Alison.

Despite having solid source material to build from, Soderbergh hits a wiffle ball here. He mines the plot for its basic story, but then mars the whole thing with a baffling multi-timeframe structure that does little to enhance what is occurring. Rather, it seems like smoke-and-mirrors to mask how little is going on underneath (if you’ll pardon the expression). Likewise the overbearing lighting schemes. The blues and the greens and the reds are meant to signify the different plot threads and shifting emotions, but as symbolism, Soderbergh comes up empty. Taken at face value, The Underneath is a kaleidoscopic disco of nausea.

So, too, do the backstories the writer/director invents for the characters ring hollow. Michael has a brother, David (Adam Trese), who is a cop. David has stuck around and been there for his mother (Anjanette Comer), and he resents how Michael manages to consistently screw up and yet be forgiven. It’s not hard to side with David, because Michael sure does seem like an empty shirt. It’s impossible to see how his lack of charisma entices the women in his life to make so many wrong choices. (Elisabeth Shue also appears as a bank teller who should know better.)

Once again, Soderbergh pits his too-pretty lead against a salacious villain. Though Fichtner can be quite good playing the heavy (First Snow [review 1, 2], The Lone Ranger), here he is like a fetal bad guy waiting to come to full term. (When he grows up, he’ll be Gary Oldman in The Professional.) Tommy’s outbursts may rattle the audience out of the stupor the film otherwise encourages, but in a way that is more boorish than intriguing.

Even so, for the plethora of negatives, The Underneath ends up being an all right movie. It slithers rather than plods, and its final act finds some energy and  manages to be interesting right down to the final twist.

Soderbergh wouldn’t disagree with any of the above. In fact, his interviews on this set back up most of it. He says during the filming of The Underneath he escaped from the disaster at hand by fantasizing about making Schizopolis [review], the film that would change everything for him. In effect, these--his third and fourth films--were building blocks as much as they were stumbling blocks to become the filmmaker he was meant to be. These would give way to Schizopolis, and that would lead to Out of Sight, and not long after that Traffic [review], and a string of unbroken successes (yes, unbroken) right up to his shift from movies to TV and TheKnick.

And so hopefully it will be for me. The prior couple of years of floundering--mostly on projects you will never see, mind you, not on anything that got published--have set me up for an unexpected turn into tomorrow. Let’s hope my track record from here on out will be just as good as Soderbergh’s.