Film Review Of The Coldest Kiss
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/16/15
One of the drawbacks to being a one man operation of the arts, myself, is that I simply lack the time and energy to not only do all that I would want to do artistically- in terms of my own writing, and also running my own website, is that I don’t get nearly enough time to help younger, smaller, independent artists and writers get material that has some quality a greater purview. The main reasons for this are my own need to work a 40+ hour a week day job to pay bills and skim by, as well as the fact that my own website’s popularity inevitably leads me to getting an insane overwhelm of requests- to review films or books or troll through bad poetry submissions by the bushel. I have averaged 1500-2000 emails per week for the better part of the last decade, and many bad artists I have had to block the spam of (yes, I mean people like you- David Francis!). And I have no staff to help me, so, inevitably, I sometimes fear that someone or something of quality has slipped by me and into my cyber round file. But, every so often I get something of interest sent to me that has quality. The last time was in 2013, with Jonathan Soler’s film, Phantom. Other ones have been books, like Elliot Rais’s Stealing The Borders or Eddie Stimpson, Jr.’s My Remembers.
Recently, I was contacted by an independent filmmaker named Michael Jason Allen, of He Said She Said Productions, regarding his second film, The Coldest Kiss, released last summer, and appearing in an upcoming Oklahoma film festival called Trail Dance Film Festival. In 2008 he had released a romantic comedy called References. I’ve only seen the trailer for that, and here is the trailer for the film under review.
Normally, I do not preamble as much when I review a film, nor any work of art, but there are many impressive aspects of this low budget, independent, or B film (depending on your choice of term) that outweigh its negatives, especially when taking into consideration the budgetary restraints of such films, as evidenced by this link to a casting call for the film. First, the positives, and I will help out here with this link to the cinematography for the film, shot in widescreen, that appears to be in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Shot in digital, which almost has a videotape look to it, at times, the framing of scenes and individual shots, by director Allen and cinematographer Steve Edward, is most impressive. The shots of the lead characters pushing a car into a barn, with the sun setting makes great use of the frame, placement, and magic hour lighting that recalls scenes from Terrence Malick films. Even more impressive are the night time shots in the barn, where the ‘present’ of the story takes place (most of the tale is told in flashbacks). With minimal lighting, Edward and Allen get a clarity of focus, a use of shadow and gauzey lighting, unattainable before Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and one that most world class studios could not have even achieved 25 years ago, with million dollar budgets. Technology has advanced THAT far, yet so few A films even focus on the little things, in favor of gratuitous sex scenes and violent explosions. In these scenes alone, Allen and Edward show they have the chops to follow in the footsteps of Gordon Willis, Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro, Jack Cardiff, Takao Saito, and Tonino Delli Colli. But, it’s more than just the standout showoffy scenes involving little light or broad landscapes. Interior scenes of the home of the main characters also are flooded with light that illumines and adds a poetic mix to scenes that are sometimes just minor or bridge scenes, or not greatly acted in. A superb visual sequence entails a scene at a theater, where a jazz band and crooner are singing and dancing, and brief moments recall the stage scenes in The Red Shoes. It’s one of the premier passages in the film- the song, Turn And Go, written by Allen, is well performed by actress Melissa Farley, although the credits seem to indicate she is lip synching for a singer named Kirsten Snyder. Edward and Allen also wisely shoot some landscape scenes from a lower angle than usual, to mostly block out modern looking structures and artifacts, but this has the added benefit of giving an almost Yasujiro Ozu like tatami mat shot feel to a scene, and that invokes a child like gaze of wonder on the world, of the sort that most films, much less B films, don’t even think of utilizing, much less doing so well.
As impressive as the cinematography is, equally impressive is the period look of the film- from the architecture, to the cars, to the wardrobe. Again, given what is clearly a limited budget, wherein the actors will get ‘some pay,’ according to the casting call, this period look to the film is simply astounding! My guess is that Allen’s cast has at least one or two acquaintances in the business of film or costuming, but where they got a period airplane that is used in a couple of scenes, is just as impressive in the getting as in what’s filmed. Of course, the very fact that the film is shot mostly in the Arizona desert, although set in southern California, yet the automobiles are pristine and in just off the lot condition, means that Allen’s friends and collaborators must also be involved in the classic auto trade. All of these things make this low budget film have a glitzier and richer feel, far beyond its means. And shows what ingenuity can provide to a work of art.
The third standout feature of the film is its soundtrack- mostly jazz and pop standards from the Great Depression and World war Two era (the film’s action takes place over a decade or so from the mid 30s to late 40s). Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedie #3, so well used in Woody Allen’s great Another Woman, as well as the great My Dinner With Andre, by Louis Malle, is used midway through this film, not nearly as effectively, but its very usage is apt to the moment, nonetheless. I will return to this point later.
Now, on to some of the things that do not work as well. To do so, let me first summarize the screenplay and plot: Thomas Wilder and Mattie (young would be lovers) are driving through the desert, on the run from her older, abusive husband, Floyd- a wealthy widower whose own son, Erwin, was killed on Iwo Jima. Floyd was abusive to Erwin’s mother, and may have killed her for his wealth, but got away with it. He seems to have connections to some Underworld sorts, or, at least, two thugs for hire named Lenny and Ren (who sucks on lollipops incessantly). The trio is in pursuit of Tom and Mattie, whose car has run out of gas (first screenplay clunker moment- a real auto problem would have worked better), so they push it into a neighbor’s barn, and instead of seeking help, they stay there the whole time, which allows Mattie to narrate the prior events that led up to their predicament.
We learn of the friendship between Mattie, Tom, and Erwin, as well as the black assistant of Floyd’s, Lula, who befriends Mattie, then quits and moves away, in one of the film’s silliest scenes (and emblemic ‘B film moment’): a black woman simply would NEVER pull a gun on her white male employer, lest be dead or jailed inside of 24 hours. Things finally come to a head between Thomas and Floyd (Tom’s uncle via marriage), and this precipitates a) a very unconvincing fight scene, and b) the flight of the young lovers (with Mattie tossing her wedding ring away, to be found by Floyd), which leads back to the film’s denouement.
Now, I am usually NOT averse to giving what are called spoilers, as most of my film reviews are of older films; most Hollywood, Bollywood, and big studio schlock films worldwide deserve to be spoiled; works of art need to be fully discussed in their entirety for criticism to actually make sense and have a point; and I am of the belief that if a work of art can be ‘spoiled’ by knowing a usually silly plot point, it just ain’t art! But, I’ll make an exception in this case because I want to see this film get a larger audience, and know that a few dummies WILL not see it if I give away the plot ending, save to say that the final dramatic scene is likely the longest of its kind that I’ve ever seen. It plays out in seemingly real time. That’s not its only problem, though- the realism of the effects and the motivations of one of the characters becomes a bit too obvious and predictably bad, and the turn of events hinges on a very unlikely accident.
Nonetheless, the ending does point out the biggest obvious flaws in the film, and that is the acting. Director Allen is a nice looking lead, as Thomas, and affable enough presence, but there are moments of hesitation, wherein one can see lines being recalled, and eyes searching for what to say. This is often a factor in low budget and B films, and I’ve seen it in dinner theater and cabarets, as well. The gap between his on camera presence and skills and behind camera skill and vision is wide. My advice is for him to focus more behind the lens, although, clearly, his acting in the lead was likely a money saving measure. Laura Mestas, as Mattie, is also affable and nice to look at, but her acting skills also leave much want. Like Allen, there are times when she is lost, and there is no real, genuine chemistry, sexual nor otherwise, between the would be lovers- a fact emphasized by their final titular kiss- a mere peck on the cheek. A scan of the film credits shows that apparently there were many Mestas family members involved in the production, and this likely meant they were behind the period costumes or cars, and that the casting of Miss Mestas was influenced by this. The biggest problem with the leading trio, however, comes with Mario Guzman’s Floyd, and it manifests itself in the character’s first utterances to his henchmen. One simply does not believe this character is in tune with the film’s diegesis. We always see Guzman ‘acting,’ and never emoting. Floyd is never merely ‘being.’ While Allen and Mestas fall into this trap maybe 30% of the time, there’s not a single convincing scene by Guzman, whose eyes and halting voice and motions betray his performance as wholly external, with nothing internal.
One of the two good performances in the film comes from Trayson Thurlow, as Floyd’s son, Erwin, who never overemotes, and strikes a naturalistic balance in his character. Only in a literal handful of scenes, we see the actor’s glee in a scene with a trained tarantula, and also when watching the beating of women his father engages in. It’s nothing that is going to win an award, but it stands out as the least self-conscious performance in the film. Almost as good as Thurlow’s acting is that by Rhett Ashley Crosby (a pseudonym, or just a Margaret Mitchell fan’s son?) as the aviator Howie (as in Hughes), who is a good man and husband to his wife, Cecilia (Renee Bryant- an actress with Classical Hollywood looks). Crosby, in maybe 20% of the screen time as Guzman, radiates far more depth and emotion. He needles Floyd at the airfield, he comments dryly on his friend to his wife, and, like Thurlow, lacks the WTF Do I Say Here? momentary pauses that the rest of the main actors suffer from. Had I cast the film, I would have made Crosby Floyd, and put Guzman in the role of Howie. Bryant’s Cecilia is interesting to look at, but hasn’t much material to work with, pro nor con. Nadine Jackson is likewise good as Lula the black servant, but the problem with that role is the borderline stereotyping of blacks of that era, as well the aforementioned ridiculous gun pulling scene. The only other actors worth noting are Floyd’s goons, the lollipop sucking Lenny (Bill Connor) and Ren (Andrew DeCarlo), who provide a few good quips and comic relief.
Overall, The Coldest Kiss is a solid to good film, but, parallaxed through the prism of its likely micro-budget, it stands tall as a testament to perseverance in production. Yes, the viewer is never fully immersed in the fiction- one is always aware we are watching a film, but it has enough moments to make the 90 minute effort worth it for most. Chief amongst the film’s needs would have been a better budget, actors, and script. One always sees a scene and thinks, ‘Damn, if only they did this, or had that.’ On a scale of 1-100 (the type of rating I hate), I’d give this film a passable 70, overall. The technical aspects are in the mid 80s, with moments that veer into the mid 90s, but some scenes, and some acting, just fail, and no amount of adjustment for limited budgets nor what ifs? can deny that.
A perfect example comes in the aforementioned scene that utilizes Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedie #3 (and it is #3, not #1, technically, for the same tune when played on piano is #1, and when played by a full orchestra is #3- don’t ask me why). As mentioned, it’s used brilliantly in Another Woman, in two scenes of wistful reflection by the main character, Marion Post, played by Gena Rowlands. We have suffered with her, and seen her angsts ruin her life, so the wists and hopes the lonely piano bars invoke cement us to the character in an emotional bond. The same tune starts and ends My Dinner With Andre, and, as with Marion Post, we sympathize with Wally Shawn and his long subway ride home, and his realization that his dinner with Andre benefited him, hence the music complements and radiates what the character is experiencing. This does not happen in The Coldest Kiss. The song plays over the scene of the death of Erwin being realized by Thomas and Mattie, after Erwin talks of his own mother’s death. We are already midway through the film, at this point, and have some sympathy with them and Erwin, and we can sense the sadness and yearning of the characters. When Satie plays over this scene, we are thus getting an emotional redundancy- it is simply not needed. Director Allen is trying to guide, ham-handedly, the viewer into feeling something he is unsure of having been imparted by the screenplay and acting (which he must realize are at a weak point, here), and reminds me of a scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, where I wrote:
Then there is Wayne, never an actor of grace nor subtlety. Latterday critics cite this as his greatest performance, but since Wayne was not a great actor, by any measure, it’s a fundamentally hollow claim. This performance, compared to other great actors, is not much. Were this sort of role done by a Henry Fonda it would rank as one of his lesser performances. And one merely needs to look at Fonda’s role as the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West to get a real comparison of two very similar characters. In fact, in the two most memorable and revealing close-ups of the two characters in each film, it’s essential to note how the two directors handled it because of their stars. When Fonda’s character first appears all we get is a steady shot of Fonda’s steely blue eyes, replete with murderous hate. They just penetrate, as Fonda has an ability to act through his eyes alone, and needs no razzle-dazzle to display that fact. When Wayne’s character looks back at a couple of white girls who were kidnapped by Comanches, Ford does not trust Wayne’s ability to be expressive enough to convey his character’s rage and racism. Instead, we get the camera zooming in on Wayne’s eyes- as if to say, ‘Hey, look here. This is an important moment!’ Then, as if that were not enough of a giveaway, he has Wayne’s eyes shadowed under the brim of his hat to say, ‘As we gaze into this character’s soul, note the darkness, dear viewer!’
In the same way that Ford did not trust Wayne’s acting ability to convey Wayne’s character Ethan’s evil nature without help, so too does Allen fail to allow his scene and actors to convey their emotion without the fallback of an easy and unnecessary musical cue. Fortunately, it’s the only bad use of scoring in the film.
But, it’s the sort of flaw that a director with talent, and a drive to improve, can learn from, just as some of the lesser scenes could have been scripted more strongly and realistically. Despite such lapses, the overlay of modern themes on what is basically a film noir plot deepens a tale that, if actually shot in the 1940s, would have likely been a more bang-bang and action oriented lesser John Garfield vehicle. The narrative still flails a bit rawly, in places, and is inorganic, and too welded to archetypes of the era and genre, but, overall it adds just enough ‘realism’ in minor scenes at the clothesline, or a meeting between Lula and Mattie, and a few others, that it’s an overall plus.
So, in closing, I would recommend viewers and critics seeking out The Coldest Kiss, as an example of a film that shows what can be done for next to nothing and with grit and perseverance, in a business known for its profligacy and procrastination. Is it a great film? No. A really good film? No. But it is good in parts, solid overall, and mostly enjoyable. It is like looking at the early works of someone who later became much better and seeing the seeds which later sprouted and flourished to fruition. Whether Michael Jason Allen reaches the potential portended in The Coldest Kiss I cannot predict, but I hope he does, and I hope some other critics and film festivals screen his film, and others like it, so that possibly some investors back whatever his next project is, for even if he never becomes the next Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, nor even John Sayles, the first Michael Jason Allen, if fully realized, can be someone whose work is worth watching.
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