A look at Cultographies: Ms. 45 by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2017)

I “met” Alexandra through her writing a couple of year back when I read one of her previous books, Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study. To me, just that title alone is a home run but when I was about half way through I knew I was reading words from my “new” favorite film writer. While the book has that scholarly air about it, Alexandra shows she is a down to earth film fan first and writes so that dumb shulbs like me can understand. I found out about a couple of films she wrote about in a positive fashion and picked them up.

I later learned from her at the time, that she was working on two future books, both single film specific. One was about Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and the next, the one I was most interested in, Abel Ferrara’s 1981 Classic Ms. 45. Little that I knew it was going to be a bit for it to be released. The countdown began at that moment…

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^ Contents page…

Last week, the book arrived in my mailbox and I fast tracked it to the top of the pile. I was first surprised at the small size of the book and then realized it was perfect. Sized like a classic paperback you would find on the racks of seedy magazine shops (like Seven Star News in the city of Linden, New Jersey where I grew up), the subject material fits it like a glove. In a historical fashion, Alexandra breaks down the making/creation of the film, from it’s beginnings to the finished product hitting the screens.

She is a researcher who likes details and doesn’t skimp on them. While Alexandra doesn’t have a direct interview with any of the particulars, there are many referenced quotes from all who were involved with the proceedings. There is a big focus on Zoe Lund, from the acting in Ms. 45, her writings & collaborations with Abel on other productions, such as Bad Lieutenant (1992). Small details do not get unnoticed, it seems for one big scene in the film, Ferrara hired for day work, people hanging out in the Revolutionary Communist Party Bookstore on 18th Street/NYC, as his studios were upstairs. Weird, I was at that place a few times in the 80’s, who knew such greatness was up above! There is also words written about the recent “uncut” DVD release by Drafthouse Films. While I knew there were many versions of Ms. 45, I wasn’t aware that it was never released in full until 2013. Crazy.

Overall, as with much of her previous work, Alexandra writes for the “common folk” when it comes to film critique. I would say about 15% of the book would be considered psycho babble but the rest is hardcore film criticism and looking into the film’s production, the screenings and reactions afterward. Ms. 45, when you look at it at face value, is not an easy film to fully understand and everybody comes away from it differently. Even though I have seen the film a few times over the years, this book illuminated somethings I missed (again, I’m a dumb shulb, don’t sue me…). If you are like me and enjoy reading about movies, Cultographies: Ms. 45 is a sure pick-up.

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Find the book and Alexandra on the Web here:

https://www.amazon.com/Ms-45-Cultographies-Alexandra-Heller-Nicholas/dp/0231179855

http://www.thebluelenses.com/

https://twitter.com/suspirialex

COEURS NOIRS Day 30: Gut (2012)

Gut (2012) film/Bluray thoughts… This choice for my COEURS NOIRS closer might be confusing to some, as it it always promoted as a horror film. The truth is Gut, directed by Elias is a psychological horror/neo-noir. One of my favorite indie films in years, Gut recently had it’s Bluray debut and I wanted to give it a once over again.

Tom is married with a young daughter but is “looking” for some else to make his life more fulfilling. The grass somehow is greener on the other side of the fence. His childhood friend, Dan, who he works with and is quite clingy, is upset they don’t spend time together anymore. Tom says he pretty much has moved on from “hanging out”, but Dan will not let it go. He tells Tom about a “film” he got off the internet and he has to view it, he has never seen anything like it. Since they used to like horror films together, Tom pretty much gives in. The “film” is a semi clothed woman strapped to a table who proceeds to have a scalpel cut methodically into her stomach area and is seemly killed. Tom can’t believe what he has just seen and tells Dan he is nuts. But sadly, Dan is a tad unstable and will not let his relationship with his old friend go.

Gut is dark and moody. While it’s a lower budgeted affair, all players and the director pull out all the stops to make this film extremely good. Jason Vail plays Tom as basically having a partial mid life crisis in his late 20s, becoming obsessed and trapped into the world of what is on the discs. Nicholas Wilder’s Dan reminds me of someone in my past, so I was able to relate to this character. I do also have to note the experimental music of Chvad SB, especially the end title theme, it sets the tone for this film completely. It’s bleak. Do order the Bluray of it if you can, the DVD is still available and of course GUT is on most VOD services.

 

 

 

COEURS NOIRS Day 25: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) film thoughts… Ok, I get it. I “understand” why this film is beloved. For me though, after ignoring it for eons, it just didn’t do it for me. It’s a very dialogue heavy film that bordered on a high pretentious level. I know it was a stage play and it’s stage play roots are there. Zero of these characters are likeable, even Lemmon’s gets grating after a short bit.

Half way though, it just got repetitive. Glengarry Glen Ross just didn’t do it for me but I’m sure many of you have more glowing film thoughts than I.

Truth be told though…coffee is for closers. 😉

 

COEURS NOIRS Day 24: Night Train (1999)

Night Train (1999) film thoughts… I have owned this DVD from Synapse Films for quite a bit and thought it actually might fit COEURS NOIRS well. After viewing, I’m wondering to myself why I barely hear anyone talking about it. Joe Butcher was once a top of the hill criminal, along with his brother. He gets sent away to prison for a stint, upon release finds out that his brother is missing, last seen in Tijuana. Determined to find him, he jumps a “night train” to that destination and his decent into hell has begun.

Wow…I don’t even know where to begin because I feel if you like film noir/neo-noir and experimental films, you will find Night Train to be highly interesting. First time director Les Bernstein rightly put his name above the film title as the insane concept he is given you is all his. Shot in B & W on old German film stock, Night Train throws everything and the kitchen sink at you. So many films try to do this type of film in a modern age but fail. Here, the old fashioned film effects and styles work. Be warned: if you are squeamish, you will not like some of the extremely graphic images with in the film. There is nothing conventional about Night Train, even the main character is against Noir type, he is oafish, crude and quite an idiot. Even though visually stunning, it is not a style over substance film, the story is solid. Low budget and taking years to complete, Les Bernstein shows if you have patience and determination, you can make a quality film.

Dark and brooding, it has moments of humor and even John Waters-like excesses. Night Train works and it’s another one of those films that will stick with me for a long time.

COEURS NOIRS Day 23: The Ninth Gate (1999) Review by Kim McDonald!

I don’t usually watch film noir, but I was intrigued to see THE NINTH GATE included on a genre list. I love this film so I gave it another watch, and yes, it definitely qualifies. Then again, if film noir is about pessimism and fatalism, one could argue most of Polanski’s work qualifies. And what could be more fatalistic than trying to conjure the Devil?

The film is based on the book “El Club Dumas,” written by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It follows Dean Corso, played by Johnny Depp, a rare book dealer who is commissioned by collector Boris Balkan, (Frank Langella,) to authenticate his copy of an obscure occult book, “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”. He managed to get it from another collector, Telfer, before his suicide. Now Balkan wants Corso to compare his copy with the only other two copies that exist. This book is supposed to conjure the Devil, but as Corso jests, He didn’t show up.

Corso immediately realizes this is no normal job and this is no normal book. As he travels to Portugal and France to hunt down the other two copies, he finds himself being pursued by Telfer’s “dishy”, but viscous, widow (Lena Olin,) who has a secret interest in retrieving her husband’s book. He also has The Girl, (Emmanuelle Seigner.) She is his tag along/protector, who seems to have a secret interest in helping him succeed. As he is able to compare all three copies, he stumbles upon a hidden code unknown to any of their owners and finds himself drawn into a mystery that leaves dead bodies everywhere he goes.

Telfer’s widow calls Corso a “book detective,” and the film does remind me of the old Bogart movies. In one scene, we see Corso’s apartment with a desk against a window and the neon light from a street sign is shining through the blinds. The color scheme is subdued with earthy browns, blacks and greens. It’s like a mystery set in a labyrinthine library; one with Satanists waiting for you behind the stacks.

Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizu. The dialogue is
clipped and full of caustic wit, punctuated by a lot of smoking and drinking. It is especially fun watching Depp and Langella bouncing off of each other. The sets are wonderful; tucked away, unassuming places in the middle of beautiful locations. They add to the feeling of a very old menace that has been lurking in the dust, biding its time.

Corso is a typical hard boiled detective type who doesn’t buy into the Satanist agenda. Books are a commodity to be bought and sold; as he tells Balkan, “I believe in my percentage.” As the film progresses, he realizes he can’t walk away, even though The Girl encourages him to many times. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Devil if She falls in love with you.

 

Do follow Kim on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dixiefairy

COEURS NOIRS Day 22: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) Review by Jon Weidler

[117 minutes. R. Director: Sidney Lumet]

Hollywood loves “family” as an income generator, but hates it as a theme and institution.
And for good reason. It’s much more palatable to potential ticket buyers if the family is treated as an abstract concept with no basis in reality. The highs and lows of having parents and siblings is mandatory, but the fact remains: family is a thing of permanence, and few films deal with the nuts and bolts of love, guilt, responsibility, and madness that informs most (which is why we have the acceptably quirky dysfunction of the Griswolds and Fockers).

What could be “worse” than a piece of art that forces us to confront the fact that the family unit is often rooted in apprehension and fear?

This is why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is so refreshing: it may be steeped in its own kind of pulp exaggeration, but the interlocking plot and performances present a reality that’s just convincing enough to be plausible. It’s a film where Albert Finney is a credible and convincing father to brothers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke; while they may not look related, their interactions, conflicts, and resentments convince the viewer otherwise.

Devil is a blue-collar crime flick grounded in the doldrums of working-class malaise. Not surprisingly, financial desperation is the name of the criminal game. Andy (Hoffman), who works in the payroll department of a real estate firm, wants to escape to Brazil with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Andy’s brother Hank (Hawke) works in the same office, but is in financial dire straits (he owes back child support), and carrying on a secret affair with Gina. Their father, Charles (Finney), owns the family jewelry store with wife Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Andy brings Hank in on a plot to solve their money problems – by robbing the store.

While cut and dry in synopsis, the robbery comprises only a small part of the film; director Sidney Lumet (who knows his way around great ensemble casts) is far more interested in the trickle-down effect of its moral fallout.

Kelly Masterson’s script is structured via multiple perspectives – Andy, Hank, and Charles – and where they intersect and overlap. It’s a gimmick that recalls Pulp Fiction and Memento, but isn’t simply style for style’s sake: Lumet uses it to tease out information and withhold plot or character beats until the absolute necessity of their reveal. While disorienting at first, this approach unravels a deceptively simple heist plot with unexpected depth.

The tricky brilliance of the writing and performances is that each character is working within the same tangled, incestuous web: Andy’s dubious bookkeeping as the IRS audits the firm; Hank’s relationship with Gina; Gina’s relationship with Andy and Hank; and Charles’s responsibility for his children when the details of the robbery come to light. Nobody is in an enviable position, and that conveys the soul-swallowing darkness that earns the film’s valid categorization as Noir.

Lumet’s aesthetic touches are wonderfully subtle: an antiseptic look in the cold exteriors of modern high-rises, with indoor colors desaturated just enough to amplify the slickness of transparent glass surfaces (while also accentuating shadowy corners); conversely, the image is periodically overexposed to heighten the drama (the quick-cut reaction shots of Hank as the robbery occurs). Early on, the rental car used to carry out the crime is glaring white on a highway clogged with darker-colored vehicles, unconsciously drawing attention to itself. And details like wardrobe and hairstyle (Hank’s disheveled, loose look; Andy’s fitted suits and slicked-back hair) accentuate the characters’ sense of control (or lack thereof).

The family dynamics of Devil are spot on. Charles is presented as a cold patriarch, Hank is emasculated by everyone around him (repeatedly called “the baby” by his dad, and “faggot” by his brother and peers; hell, his own daughter even calls him a loser when he doesn’t come through on the funds for a pricey field trip), and Andy is left to shoulder the burden once the robbery goes South. The film is most interested in its male characters, with Nanette dispatched in the opening minutes, and sister Katherine (Arija Bareikis) left in the margins. Tomei imbues Gina with her own emotional and financial conflicts, but remains outside the most severe consequences of Andy and Hank’s actions.
Perhaps Lumet and Masterson are suggesting that, when left to their own devices, men will royally fuck things up.

See also: Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, and just about any crime thriller to come out of the 1990s.

8 out of 10 stars