THE FiLMS OF MARK L. LESTER
Over the past 40 years, Mark L. Lester has produced and directed some of the most freewheelin' car chases, explosive action set pieces and flat-out sensational genre films to emerge from Hollywood. In 1992, he formed American World Pictures, of which he remains president and CEO to this day.
On the occasion of his 65th birthday this Saturday, the Pink Smoke will be dedicating the week to a series of articles - each by a different writer - covering different films from Lester's four decades of blood, bullets - lots of bullets - and outrageous bombast. Moving on to his later DTV era, we have...
LADY JAYNE: KILLER
mark l. lester, 2003.
~ by christopher funderburg ~
So I sat down to write this and all I could think was "What the hell? Seriously, honestly, truly, what is Cribbs thinking here?" About a month ago, I really didn't think too much about it when John Benjamin Cribbs gave me a call and told me we were going to do a Mark L. Lester themed week on the website and that I should write something about one of the non-auteur's films. Some of my most satisfying writing experiences are sourced from these random calls from John, like the time he asked me to write something about Moby Dick for his Ray Bradbury series or the second chance I just gave to Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer. John has good ideas, so I go with them. But this time I watched Lady Jayne: Killer. I sat down to write about it.
And I just don't know what John is thinking.
Because it's not a good movie and Mark L. Lester is not an interesting director.
I'm 99% certain the only time Lester has ever been previously mentioned on this site is when Cribbs asked me about the worst movie I had ever seen because an actress I had a crush on was in it. The only time the work of Mark L. Lester has been mentioned on The Pink Smoke is in the context of not just "here's a bad movie I saw," but "what's the absolute worst movie you ever saw (in a certain context)?" And then Cribbs tells me that this is for a series going up in honor of the dude's birthday. Shit, man, what are you doing to me here? What do you want me to say about a poorly-shot and edited La Femme Nikita rip-off (the t.v. show, not the movie) crossed with Planes Trains and Automobiles? What do you want me to say about a film where the heroes are making an epic trip to their Grandma's house in San Antonio? Am I going to spit in the man's face on his birthday? Christ.
The fact of the matter is that I have a bit of an informal policy: I try to avoid writing about movies I don't respect. There's no satisfaction to be had in crapping all over a movie everyone agrees is awful and, conversely, trying to tear down a beloved film a) doesn't convince any fan of that film to reconsider b) gets you branded a misanthrope, willful iconoclast or stupid fucking moron. When I wrote about Lester's Night of the Running Man, sure I was writing about a bad movie, but more importantly to me, I was writing about something from which I really take pleasure: the pulchritudinousness of Janet Gunn. Night of the Running Man stinks – it's just an amazingly wretched and stupid film - but watching Janet Gunn as a nurse tending to the boiled feet of Andrew McCarthy brings me genuine joy. All that plus Wayne Newton.
But, truthfully, it's just not fun to write about bad movies. To paraphrase the great Terrence Rafferty, all bad movies are depressingly similar and at this point what could I possibly have to say about one as stumblingly unambitious as Lady Jayne? There's a level on which slamming bad movies is self-congratulatory – ha, ha, stupid movie, I'm so much smarter than you! - but I despise myself too much to be able to take any enjoyment out of that. Plus, it's really hard to make a good movie. I made a movie. Lady Jayne is definitely better than the movie I made. Who am I to judge? It's better than Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life and it's exactly as good as Godard's Film Socialisme, so who the fuck is anybody to judge?
Of course, bad is bad and the fact that a fool says the sun will rise tomorrow does not make it untrue – the stumbling block for me is that I have a ton of respect for the difficultly of the process; how difficult it is to put together financing, convince even b-list actors to be in it, assuage the demands of bottom-line oriented producers, bring together a crew and equipment and maneuver a production on a limited budget. If all that results in a bad movie, that sucks. I'm not celebrating shittiness. But I'm also not going to have a ball taking shots at a mess already crumpled in a heap.
Lady Jayne: Killer is a forgotten obscurity, a film that won't survive another decade and a half - it won't be transferred to next generation formats and at some point people will forget it even exists. I couldn't find a single review of it anywhere in the whole wide world web. What's the point of trying to punch it in the head?
But then I realized this: I am the audience for this film. I watch these movies. I seek them out. Not just Lady Jayne: Killer and Night of the Running Man, but every sorry piece of garbage released directly to video and then directly to dvd and now directly onto your Netflix (dtv/d/n) that happens to feature an unheralded b-actor whose work I enjoy in even the most dire of cinematic circumstances (hey, it's James Remar!) or an intriguingly loopy premise (La Femme Nikita crossed with Planes Trains and Automobiles!) I love these movies, the cheapies and the rip-offs and the cash-in's. If it's a choice between watching a muckle-mouthed French model-turned-model-who-talks-in-front-of-a-movie-camera (I defy you to watch this film and refer to her in good conscience as an "actress") pretending to be a badass contract killer and watching some big budget 300 rip-off that has been focused grouped past the point of annihilation and assembled by a boring music video director hoping to become the next Christopher
Nolan, it's no choice at all.
To stick with films that are in release right now, there's very little chance that something like Immortals or even The Descendants is going to be anything other than exactly what it appears to be. Hollywood has decisively gotten out of the business of trying to surprise you and even "indie" cinema is dominated by rote crowd-pleasers like Alexander Payne's films or The Artist or My Week with Marilyn that please their crowds by giving them exactly what they expect, which is something that they've seen before with one minor, hook-y variation. Lady Jayne: Killer, on the other hand, stands a real chance of being totally off the rails. Even if it's bad (which it is), it's almost nothing like what you would expect it to be and any description provided by Netflix or IMDB will be intentionally misleading, purposefully vague, overly-focused on the most saleable elements or, most likely, some combination of the three. Put on Lady Jayne: Killer and you don't know what you’re going to get. There's no way to know what you're going to get.
Let's start with the title. What the hell does that mean? There's an actual historical figure Lady Jane Grey, the 9 Day's Queen. She was a cog involved some kind of aristocratic machinations to prevent one person from becoming regent and ensuring another person would take the throne. Like most monarchy-related bullshit, I don't really know or care anything about it and there's an air of off-putting romanticism that has been built up around it. Quick-thinking entertainment industry executives made it into a movie with Helena Bonham-Carter that's really maudlin what with the sham marriage turned real and a handsome prince dying young. Court intrigue, treason, etc. It ends with the very, very sad execution of a beautiful innocent. If you're like me (and I know you are), you obviously just absolutely despise that crap.
Lady Jayne: Killer follows the story of a contract killer named Jayne Ferre who is hired to kill a guy who ripped off a mob boss for a million dollars. She then steals the money to (apparently, and look, none of this movie makes sense) share it with an FBI agent played by James Remar. Nobody ever calls Jayne Ferre "Lady Jayne" or even says something like "I really like that crazy lady, Jane. Ferre. The hitwoman." Also, she spells her name with a "y" unlike the famous beheaded queen. I dare you to connect Lady Jayne to the real Lady Jane and justify that title. She stuffs her fancy silk panties in the mouths of her victims. A cop investigating pulls them out and sniffs them and reminisces fondly about that crazy, pantie-stuffing hitwoman, Jayne Ferre. It's true, Jayne Ferre gets killed at the end of Lady Jayne and Lady Jane gets killed at the end of Lady Jane (as she did in real life), but no one could ever romanticize a doomed relationship with James Remar. Also, he doesn't die of consumption. Or whatever took down the sickly prince who improbably found love with a beautiful innocent as part of a treasonous plot to install a new regent.
It's mysterious what the filmmakers hoped to gain by naming their film Lady Jayne – but it's one of those weird choices that makes viewing such direct-to-nothing films enjoyably off-kilter. Does it make you feel better that the movie was released with the somewhat more defensible and infinitely more bland title Betrayal when it was released on dvd? That's obviously worse, for a number of reasons.
By the way, Jayne Ferre is not played by Erika Eleniak, who is the Baywatch beauty, cake-jumping Seagal sidekick and highly touted star of this little doo-dah. She is not a muckle-mouthed French model-turned-model-who-talks-in-front-of-a-movie-camera. That would be Julie du Page, a nondescript blonde with a raging case of French-mouth (her lips and toothy smile frequently appear to be wider than her face) – she's a perfectly acceptable beauty utterly miscast in the roles of "ass-kicking badass ass-puncher" and "person who can speak." Her slurry French accent causes even the simplest lines to splosh out with traffic-stoppingly unintelligible marble-mouthed cadences that would cause even Andre the Giant to wince.
Like the title, this central bit of casting defies logic: du Page is not famous in any way, shape or form - even by the lax standards of dtv/d/n that find people like Don Swayze getting significant billing; she's also totally ridiculous in the role. She's scrawny, pampered-looking and carries herself with a wounded smugness that could only be described as "very French:" it's like Lester and his producers played a game of "who is the worst possible choice for a face-punching, shotgun toting, head-stomping, cold-blooded assassin?" At one point, in a rage, she punches in the windshield of redneck's pick-up truck. Not the driver’s side window, but the windshield. It's an adorably terrible moment because, what the fuck, I don't think Haoli Ngata could shatter a windshield with a single punch, let alone a teensy French model who does so with about the worst form you will ever see in a fake movie punch. The worst part of her casting? It's a direct-to-video thriller in which her character has two sex scenes and a shower scene and du Page completely manages to eschew exposing her naked body. I'm not upset at the lack of nudity because who cares? We're in the internet age and if the largest library of pornography ever assembled can't satisfy your lustful cravings for naked ladies, then a 30 second shot of a mediocre French model pretending to hump a dude probably won't help your situation.
But come on, part of the unwritten contract of dtv/d/n is that the lead actress will be naked, especially if she isn't famous, especially if the script is specifically tailored for showers, sex scene and panty-stuffings. Her murders involve a set-up of seduction and what man would allow himself to be tied to the bed by a woman still wearing her brassiere and wide-bottom panties? For du Page to conceal her body during these scenes is a violation of that unwritten code. I'm sure this sounds misogynistic to some folks (some right-headed folks, to be sure), but it's really beside the point: what I can't understand is why the filmmakers would consent to hiring a non-famous, miscast, slurry-mouthed, terrible actress if she isn't even willing to get naked. I'm looking at this from their point of view because they clearly aren't altruists: they know that her non-nudity is only going to antagonize the audience; they know that a naked, terrible actress in a b-movie provides comfort and calm to the audience of such things and are simultaneously just as perfectly aware that setting up situations in which it's noticeably awkward for her to avoid showing off her naked body is going to incinerate whatever goodwill that audience might be inclined to have for their film.
They know they are incinerating the goodwill of their audience and they ignore that for reasons that will forever remain mysterious.
I haven't even mentioned the plot involving the top-billed "star" of the film, Erika Eleniak – you've clearly gotten a taste of the La Femme Nikita elements of the flick; Eleniak's story provides the mismatched duo on the road elements a'la Planes Trains and Automobiles. Eleniak is probably best known for flouncing about to and fro all the livelong day on Baywatch, but it's likely that almost as many folks know her as the lady who jumped out of the cake topless in Under Siege. She then went on to assist Casey Ryback in taking down Tommy Lee Jones. Her method of assistance was to be extremely annoying, but I think at one point she got to punch a guy or fire a gun.
Lady Jayne: The Sexy Non-Naked Hitwoman is built around du Page and Eleniak, two parallel stories that meet at about 30 minutes in, leading to the hilarious consequence of a lesser Baywatch castoff coming off as the most accomplished and competent actress onscreen. Eleniak has always been the kind of big-boobed blonde who actually isn't an amazing beauty so much as a voluptuous vessel of erotic pandering, the kind of bottle-bleached bimbo that benefited mightily from waxing, heavy make-up, extravagant hair-do's, judicious air-brushing and distractingly gigantic fake breasts. In Lady Jayne, she plays a middle-aged MILF in mom jeans – she doesn't exactly look good, but she's perfectly cast as an average suburban middle-class single mother, the kind of lady who doesn't leave scorched earth behind her on account of her gorgeousness but definitely turns up in all the horny neighborhood boys' porno-iest fantasies. Her character struggles to make ends meet, not lose the house to the bank and take care of her equally bottle-blonde teenage doofus son. The kid in that role looks like a wimpier, uglier Devon Sawa with ultra-gelled hair and his gawkiness lends an unbelievably silly air to both his subplot where he decides to become a drug dealer to help his mom make house payments and Jayne Ferre's aggressive seduction of him.
So, the plots end up meeting when the kid gets instantly ripped off the first time he tries to make a delivery for a drug dealer and the dealer does a drive-by on his suburban house – from there, Eleniak decides it's off to Grandma's in San Antone while the heat cools and the drug dealer and the bank hopefully forget their respective beefs with the Eleniak family. They don't have enough money for a train ticket but Ferre overhears their problem as she's trying to escape a trio of hitmen at the bus station and she offers to pay for their gas if they'll drive her to Texas. Problem solved! Wacky hijinx ensue, including, but not limited to, Jayne casually insulting Eleniak's typical suburban existence, awkward speculations about the nerdy son's virginity, a showdown with a redneck in a pick-up truck and a flat tire. Also: Don Swayze.
Like Night of the Running Man, the set-up is beyond contrived and there are literally a hundred courses of action that make a hundred times more sense than Ferre's plan to hitch a ride in a beat up Carolla with a suburban mom and her horny teenage son. Her plan to seduce the son by talking dirty to him when the mom isn't paying attention (Michigan J. Frog style – "mom, this lady just asked me if I've ever touched a woman's breast, I swear it happened!") makes even less sense because she doesn't need to control him or manipulate him to her advantage. She needs him to leave her alone. For instance, if she didn't suggestively leave her motel room door open a crack, he never would've sneaked into her room to watch her take a shower. He certainly wouldn't have lingered in her room, hoping for her to see him if she hadn't been flirting with him (or... sexually menacing him Michigan J. Frog-style?) the entire car ride – and if he doesn't do those things (sneak, peek & linger), he wouldn't have found the briefcase with the million dollars under her bed and decided to run off with it as part of (another) nonsensical plan to keep his mom out of danger by disappearing with the money but not telling her and leaving her asleep in the motel with a contract killer who is now very pissed off.
The best part of all this is that he immediately goes back home. And what does he do? The film has just raised the stakes to the point of going all in: this is late in film and there is no further escalation of narrative action to be had. So to what scene are we next treated with this little scamp? He puts the money in the washing machine (to hide it?) and heats himself up some leftover fried chicken. He kicks off his sneakers, grabs a glass of purple stuff and flips on the t.v. to just chill a bit while he eats his chicken. At this point he freaks out. Why? Because there's a news report about a shootout at the motel and a psychotic hitwoman on the rampage.
I'd like to take the film seriously but I'm curious: just what was his plan? Was he going to pay back the drug dealer? Or the bank? If he had a million dollars, why didn't he stop off at K-Fry-C and get a piping-hot fresh bucket of fried chicken? I would genuinely like to know what the hell Lester was thinking with this scene. The film is packed top to bottom with scenes like this that don't necessarily make any sense and are narratively convenient to a point that baffles even the most credulous of us. But because they don't make sense and stretch credibility, you literally can't possibly guess exactly what will happen – Lady Jayne: Killer belongs to that strain of b-movies that is unstable (almost thrillingly unpredictable) not by design but by the mere wrong-headedness and silliness of its narrative flow and characters.
This might sound dangerously close to praising incompetence, but what I am trying to do is explain to you one of the reasons why I watch these films. Of course, there are some genuine dtv/d/n masterpieces; sly, funny, well-made films that happen to be vehicles for softcore sex and cheap thrills – Rodman Flender's In the Heat of Passion jumps immediately to mind. Then there are the dtv/d/n movies that are purposefully deranged by design, the work of filmmakers who know that no one gives a shit about their films and will be fast-forwarding between scenes that do not feature Shannon Tweed's nipples so they can just do whatever the hell insane things they feel like doing – Fred Olen Ray specialized in those films (when he actually bothered to even try), his Possessed by Night and Jim Wynorski's Hard to Die are deeply weird movies full of outright insanity in between their shower scenes.
But right here with Mark L. Lester's Lady Jayne: Killer, we're talking about another kind of film, the kind that holds your attention by being such a senseless mess. Cribbs likes to mention the original screenwriter of Piranha and how he would have trouble figuring out reasons for people to go into the water, so he would have a bear chase them out of the woods. But then he couldn't figure out why a bear would be around, so he would have a forest fire scaring the bear. But what caused the forest fire? Probably a fire at the power plant on the edge of the woods. Joe Dante canned his ass.
Lady Jayne has the opposite problem: it doesn't bother to justify why its characters do anything (or at least offers the flimsiest of explanations) so you end up with a plot that can't be predicted or pinned down, a genuinely weird and unstable viewing experience where it's impossible to know what will happen next. Will the mafia boss played by Louis Mandaylor pretend to be a police officer and show up at the house of the dork-son after he calls police to tell them that he saw the female killer on t.v. and realized that he stole a million dollars from her and then left his mother (presumably to die) sleeping in the hotel with said assassin? Of course he will. Mandaylor. I'm talking about Mandaylor. Because he's paying off the panty-sniffing cop on the case (played by Adam Baldwin, who is not a Baldwin brother) and wants to see this kid himself, so he's got an in with the police who gladly hook him up. It's a narrative convolution designed to tie up loose ends and get one of the many villains into a scenario where the film can get to a pre-climax with as many of the supporting subplot players together in the suburban house at once as is possible. But the film's ideas of how to complete this narrative action are staggering and the character's explanation of his own behavior more than faintly nuts.
Louis Mandaylor (brother of Jigsaw protégé and Zalman King staple Costas) is perfectly cast as a sleazebag villain, but then his interaction with Ferre makes no sense: he gives orders to Ferre to kill a dude who stole his money. Their whole scene is "we're such good pals, maybe we were lovers once, at any rate, you go kill this guy who skimmed money from one of my vast criminal enterprises you sexy bitch because I hate it so fucking much when people steal money from me. But you know that, Lady Jayne, we've been working together forever and you have killed many folks who have stolen from me." So then what does she do? She steals the money from the dead guy. For no discernible reason. You think it's going to pay off in her interaction with James Remar (she keeps calling him on a cell phone and ending their calls with "I give you kisses") but if her plan with Remar amounted to anything beyond "we’re going to steal this money and it's going to be awesome once we're in Texas together to share it" then I missed it.
Two more weird notes that I can't explain: Mandaylor mentions that the dude was skimming money but that he wasn't even taking a lot, just a couple thousand here and there. But he just hates it so much when people steal from him. That somehow morphs into a million dollars in his briefcase in a hotel room. Again, any explanation that the film could've offered for this oversight would've been forced and arbitrary, but I don't recall it offering any at all.
Second, Ferre seems to know that Remar is an FBI agent. The nature of their relationship isn't entirely clear, late in the film he explains to Eleniak that she killed his partner "in Chicago" and is now lining her up for a sting. You would think killing an FBI agent would be enough of a reason for an arrest and that her method of constantly stuffing (presumably moist, DNA-riddled) silk panties in the mouth of her victim would be enough to tie her to the crime, but what do I know, I'm not in the FBI and I've never set up a sting. She seems like a heartless psychopath, but then all of her interactions with Remar are lovey/dovey. Is he sleeping with her as part of the sting? At the end of the film, he gets the drop on her and says "Remember that FBI agent you killed in Chicago? That was my partner!" She gets a looks on her face like "No, sorry, I genuinely don't know what you are talking about. Also, I am not surprised that my erstwhile lover is now going to shoot me."
I should mention the scene where she browbeats a car mechanic played by Don Swayze (who is showing off his massive, totally ripped guns and looking exactly like an evil Patrick Swayze with his little black goatee) into fixing their car and giving them a motel room for free. But, seriously, how long can I go on with this?
Back when I saw Hallowen: H20 (not about water, although I would've loved to hear Piranha's original screenwriter’s explanation for how Michael Myers ended up in a river) I talked to my friend and his dad about it afterwards. I was pretty indifferent to the film, but this guy's dad hated it. I was curious why. He explained: So Michael Myers steals a car to go from Haddonfield, Illinois to California to track down Laurie Strode and Josh Hartnett, right? (Right.) What about the tolls!?! From that point forward what about the tolls?!? has been my personal shorthand for over-thinking the narrative logic of a movie. If Kevin Williamson tells me that offscreen Michael Myers figured out a way to buy gas and avoid the tolls and not get pulled over for speeding, I believe him. It's just not something worth thinking about.
With this little (very long) write-up of Lady Jayne I've come very close to doing nothing but complaining about how the payment of tolls was never addressed. But I want to be clear: I’m not really complaining. I'm trying to elucidate just what it is about this sort of movie that can be so compelling. I've never been a fan of "camp" cinema where you're supposed to sit there like some snot-nosed punk and laugh at idiots making terrible movies and I like to think that's not what I'm doing here. But I guess I can't let myself off the hook that easily: I enjoy Lady Jayne: Killer to the extent that it is amazingly wrong-headed, silly and baffling.
But I'm not laughing: I'm engrossed by how it defies my expectations at every turn, how characters and situation veer off into strange places, how the dialog flails and flumps and deceives. Early on, when the nerd-son decides to take on a new job to help his mom, there's a scene where he goes to his buddy who has promised to hook him up with some work. The tone of the scene intimates that he will be taking on nefarious, criminal activity, but the characters speak in such vague generalities and their performances/personas/nerdly-appearances so totally fail to meet expectations for streetwise thug teenagers that I became convinced the scene was a clever set-up for a payoff where nerd-son wouldn't be getting into crime but taking on a pizza delivery job. In essence, the film kept me guessing in a way that a more competent work of art wouldn't have. That it failed to land even an obvious joke might not be a strike against it. I’m not sure I'm allowed to look down at a film that outsmarted me through sheer dumbness.
One final note - a grace note for the film if you will. Another reason I watch this sort of abortive softcore hitwoman nonsense is that these films feature great actors stuck in terrible places in their careers and there's simply no other way to see their work. James Remar is a great actor who gives a great performance in this terrible film and it's worth it to me to watch an inexplicably titled, totally miscast, narrative ridiculous, nudity-free softcore film just so I can catch a good actor doing something interesting. Remar probably doesn’t have a signature role, but he normally plays sleazebags, his lightly pock-marked face, crooked creepy smile, gravelly voice and excellent hair perfectly suited for roles like "oily pornographer" and "corrupt vice squad cop."
In Lady Jayne, he gets to play against type as a soft-spoken, gentle man. He's haunted and distracted throughout but never overplays it; it's a nuanced, evenly modulated performance that genuinely keeps you guessing of his ultimate intentions. He seems like a good guy, but he's also believably in cahoots with the seductive murderess. Its unpredictability and evasiveness is intentional and his work is a real thing of modest beauty. He carries his pain in his eyes: a quiet, thoughtful man with something rumbling beneath his placid surface; his flat, professional tone betrayed by the natural harshness of his voice.
In the final scene, he meets Eleniak back on of the lawn of her house – she's recently sold it because she couldn't keep up with the payments. He earnestly apologizes for having deceived her as part of a larger plan. She's supposed to be skeptical I guess, but she's a terrible actress, so who the hell knows what's what? Remar asks her out to dinner and what should play like a "too pat to the point of creepiness if you actually think about it" moment reads like a man still searching for a way to prove his value to himself. His face and his words and his manner make you think of his dead partner back in Chicago and his act of revenge that has brought him no satisfaction and the quiet desperation he feels in needing to move on, to prove that he can be trusted, to prove that he's a good person. Am I being over the top? Go watch the goddamned movie and tell me I'm not right. Watch the film and tell me I'm not right about everything.
~ NOVEMBER 23, 2011 ~