Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blogorium Review: Ms. 45

 Abel Ferrara's third film, Ms. 45, is an unusual entry into the "revenge" film subgenre. The trailer sells it as a vintage slice of grindhouse cinema, but in truth, Ferrara is less interested in titillation and cheap shocks than exploring a character slowly losing her grip on reality. In some ways, it is a "revenge" film, but not in the way that an I Spit on Your Grave is; I found odd but persistent parallels to Taxi Driver throughout Ms. 45, although the films approach their respective protagonists very differently.

 What causes Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) to radically shift from a meek seamstress to a an alluring siren of death is, even for grindhouse films, a pretty rough way to start a movie: on the way home from work, Thana is dragged into an alley and raped by a man in a mask (played by the director, billed as "Jimmy Laine"), and when she pulls herself together from that violation, she comes home to find another criminal who broke in and is furious that he can't find any money. He decides to also rape the already shell-shocked Thana, but she manages to subdue and, ultimately, kill him. Thana, unsure of what to do, cuts his body into pieces and stuffs him in the fridge and freezer, determining it would be best to leave his parts around New York City, so as not to raise suspicion. She also finds his .45 next to the couch, which brings us to the next phase of Ms. 45.

 The content of the film certainly fits inside of the wheelhouse of "grindhouse" and "revenge" cinema, but there are some critical distinctions that are likely to surprise fans looking for some cheap, grimy thrills.  Both rape scenes are grim, unpleasant affairs, with limited nudity that focus more on violation. The horror plays out on Thana's face, and what little nudity that follows is almost always coupled with a traumatic memory of the one-two punch that sets the narrative in motion. Unlike most "grindhouse" cinema, we're not meant to enjoy the taboo, but to experience it for what it is - in that respect, Ms. 45's opening is similar to Irreversible. The other factor that separates Ms. 45 from most "revenge" films is the fact that the first rapist never returns - while the violation of I Spit in Your Grave is atrocious, the audience gets some satisfaction from the brutal retaliation on the men who committed it later in the film. What happens instead in Ms. 45 at first seems to be a cultural statement about macho stereotypes and Lotharios in the late 70s and early 80s, but then turns into something quite different.

 What I found most interesting is that the first time Thana kills someone with the .45, it's the result of panic, but not totally unjustified. Like nearly every man in the film, the greaser who chases after her is introduced trying to pick up literally any woman who walks past him, but the reason he's chasing Thana has nothing to do with sex. He mistakenly thinks that she forgot her bag (in fact, just a body part) and is trying to return it to her, and when she runs down an alleyway and panics, she shoots him point blank in the head. It's an accidental reaction and happens for reasons neither fully understand, but it sets Thana on a different path for the rest of the film. She begins dressing more provocatively, wandering the streets at night, and finding men who stalk her, and then kills them ruthlessly.

 This is not to say that most of the men in Ms. 45 don't deserve what's coming to them, at least initially. The best example is a sleazy fashion photographer introduced making out with his girlfriend in a restaurant where Thana and her coworkers are eating lunch. As soon as the girl leaves, he begins to hit on their table, and manages to talk Thana into coming up to his studio, only it doesn't quite work out the way that he planned (the scene is reminiscent of Blow Up, or perhaps Brian DePalma's early film Murder à la Mod ). Other random street thugs get theirs, including an impressive scene where Thana kills five guys surrounding her in rapid succession (Ferrara never does explain how she learned to shoot with such accuracy and only once addresses the lingering question of ammunition).

 As the film goes on, however, Thana's grip on being "wronged" by men slips away. She picks up a guy at a bar who relays a long story about his wife cheating on him with another woman, which ends with him accidentally killing himself. In another scene, Thana decides to kill a young man who doesn't even know she exists, but has committed the cardinal sin of making out with his girlfriend in front of a Baskin Robbins. She fails in killing him only because he manages to open the door to his apartment building (without ever knowing his life was in danger), but her frustration at not shooting him is the first sign of misplaced aggression. Her boss, Albert (Albert Sinkys), a fashion designer, initially seems to be overbearing but sympathetic to her trauma, but shifts to just another sex starved creep by the end of the film. At the end (SPOILER), Thana goes on a shooting rampage at a Halloween party, indiscriminately gunning down any man she sees, whether or not they made any passing glances at her. In the end, she's taken down by a co-worker, Laurie (Darlene Stuto), who she can't bring herself to shoot. Laurie, by the way, is holding a knife like this, which can't be mistaken for anything but a phallic metaphor:

(in case you're wondering, that's how she holds it the entire time)

There's something important worth mentioning that makes Ms. 45 more unorthodox from its "revenge" ilk: Ferrara and Tamerlis made the unorthodox choice to play Thana as mute, so that we see everything play out on her face, but without ever hearing her say anything. Tamerlis does wonders conveying the transformation of Thana, first as timid and withdrawn, to overwhelmed and traumatized, and finally to a woman unwilling to deal with the amorous advances of men in New York. It also gives the added benefit that her undivided attention to many of her victims is read as interest, and not a single one of them ever seems to be aware that she can't talk. That they don't care is only more damning and essentially seals their fate.

 It seems unlikely that Ferrara and screenwriter Nichols St. John chose the name Thana ("what is that, Greek?" "It is to you.") for their protagonist and didn't intend it to be a reference to Thanatos, the Greek personification of Death. Ms. 45 is littered with references to Thanatos, Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (which describes the dueling creative forces of Eros [love] and Thanatos [death], a central theme in the film), and a few, less subtle, religious allegories. The first rape leaves Thana curled up in a fetal position in the alleyway, with an apple at her feet, and the second ends when she smashes a glass apple into the head of her (pun intended) intruder. The "loss of innocence" metaphor, coupled with her final burst of violence dressed as a nun during a Halloween party, is unlikely to just be a coincidence.

 I mentioned Taxi Driver earlier, and while Travis Bickle seems to wait the entire movie to finally burst into violence, there is a component of his nihilistic outlook on life that is mirrored in Thana for much of Ms. 45. As she transitions from drawing out the worst examples of masculinity (and ending them) to randomly attacking anything that resembles sexual activity - whether it involves her or not - there's something about Bickle's misanthropy that is familiar. Near the end, there's a scene that's very hard to argue isn't Ms. 45's equivalent of "you talking to me?" despite the fact that Thana cannot, in fact, talk to the mirror. The explosion of violence at the end (again, directed at men in both films, but for somewhat different reasons*) is similarly chaotic, and their mental states are comparable heading in the the climax of their respective narratives.

 There's certainly more under the surface than just gratuitous violence and nudity in Ms. 45, something that might surprise audiences who only know it from the poster or seeing the trailer on the 42nd Street Forever compilation. I was pleasantly surprised, and when I realized that Zoë Tamerlis was the same Zoë Lund who wrote Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, it made a certain kind of sense. Abel Ferrara has always found as way to imbue the trashy with art house sensibilities, so if you don't mind not getting nudity every fifteen minutes in your "revenge" film, or a film that challenges the idea of satisfaction through violence, Ms. 45 will be a refreshing experience to the subgenre. It's not always pleasant, and given the subject matter, it really shouldn't be. If you aren't coming in looking for grimy kicks, you might find something really interesting to come away with.

 * Since the central premise of Ms. 45 is about men treating women as nothing more than objects, one could argue that Travis Bickle killing pimps and johns is actually doing exactly the same thing than Thana is doing, if for a different reason, although by that point in Thana's story she's just killing any man she sees.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Blogorium Review: Cheap Thrills

 While I doubt this is the case, I'd like to imagine that E.L. Katz's Cheap Thrills is a rebuttal to A Serbian Film, a "case in point" that you can make a movie exploring the limits of human depravity without alienating the audience or handing out a vomit bag to anybody foolhardy enough to show up. This is not to say that Cheap Thrills is for the weak of heart or the easily offended, but it's a damn sight more enjoyable to watch than its "extreme" contemporaries. Like its bretheren, the film is also interested in pushing a desperate man to see how far he'll go to provide for his family, but with some comedy mixed in. What is it they say about a spoonful of sugar?

 Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is (or, was) a writer living in Los Angeles, and he's struggling to pay the bills while his wife Audrey (Amanda Fuller) takes care of their fifteen month old son. On the mother of all bad days, he finds an eviction notice on their apartment door, loses his job as an oil changer (?), and has no idea how he's going to come up with the $4,500 he needs by the end of the week. While at a bar, he runs into Vince (Ethan Emby), a friend from high school he hasn't seen in five years, and as they catch up, a couple approaches who want to party. Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) are looking to have a "night you'll never forget," and the way they're throwing around money catches Vince and Craig's attention. Colin begins offering prop bets ("$300 to get slapped by that woman at the bar") while Violet disinterestedly plays with her phone, but when Vince and Craig end up back at their place, the challenges take a more insidious tone...

 Cheap Thrills starts off innocently enough (or as innocently as Colin paying off the bartender to snort cocaine in public can) and doesn't take long to dive in to deep, dark territory. However, it's never without a sense of humor, albeit a twisted one. I've struggled with what genre Cheap Thrills would fall into, and the one that makes the most sense is "black comedy," although it gets a little more serious at times than that. It rides the line between a Very Bad Things and a Would You Rather in a way that is reminiscent of a less heightened Heathers - there's a pervasive darkness to the film that sometimes gives you pause to wonder if you should be laughing. The screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga pushes Craig into some really heavy territory. He really just wants to go home, but there's a history with Vince that includes some lingering resentments between the two that keeps him going, wanting to prove that he's willing to do anything for his family.

 The film is something of a reunion for Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, who were the main characters of Ti West's The Innkeepers, although they couldn't be more different in Cheap Thrills. Healy is a timid everyman, the audience surrogate whose presence we miss when he leaves the story (however briefly), and with whom we have to ask "could I do that if it meant taking home $250,000?". Paxton, on the other hand, is the femme fatale from hell, a bored housewife with more money than she knows what to do with and a husband willing to facilitate the ultimate birthday present, one that becomes clearer as the night goes on. It shouldn't be a spoiler to tell you that her disaffected behavior in the beginning is a facade, but what Violet is really after doesn't become clear until much later in the game.

 Koechner has a field day turning his affability on its ear: his normally boisterous, loudmouth persona takes a quick turn into more menacing directions once Colin has Vince and Craig in the confines of his home, and there's a scene late in the movie when he drops the "nice guy" act completely and becomes really frightening. Ethan Embry is the real surprise as Vince, particularly if you only remember him from Can't Hardly Wait or That Thing You Do. Vince has it bad in ways that Craig never could, making his money as a collection thug who often has to beat payments out of "clients," and his increasing frustration at Craig's willingness to hurt himself for money is the real driving force behind the narrative. The "bets" are really secondary, and range from anywhere in the "how long can you hold your breath" range to "take a shit in my neighbor's house" before things stop being polite and start getting real.

 I'm intentionally not telling you how crazy things get because not knowing what's going to happen or how far down the rabbit hole Vince and Craig are willing to follow Colin and Violet is part of the fun of watching Cheap Thrills. Like West's The House of the Devil, there is a sense early on that something bad is always about to happen, but the ways that Craig reacts to his desperation and the money for the taking provide their own sort of "cheap thrills" for the audience. Rather than simply shoving our faces in the ugly side of humanity for 87 minutes, Katz makes sure there's also comedy peppered throughout, mostly coming from the reactions of Vince or Craig to what the other is doing (there's a sequence of events late in the film involving a meat cleaver and an iron that shouldn't be as funny as it is, but a well disguised reveal makes the laughter more hearty). Healy has a great reaction shot when he takes the bet to punch a strip club bouncer (Jason X and Drive Angry writer Todd Farmer in a nice cameo) before he punches him, and the last shot is a doozy.

 Black comedies are notoriously tricky to get right, but Katz threads the needle very well with Cheap Thrills, and does it without ever making what happens seem outside of the realm of possibility. Other than one challenge I can't imagine Colin would really have time to make up on the fly, everything in the film matches the verisimilitude with which it's presented, which is all the more impressive. Cheap Thrills is a great movie to watch with friends who don't mind a little twisted in their cinema, and you won't have to clean vomit up off of the floor (maybe). I don't think you can say the same about A Serbian Film, so I think I know which one I'd pick.