Tuesday, April 26, 2011
That's how I'll be flying to New York tomorrow. I think that's what those things are called, but anyway, yes, off to New York I go until Sunday, so things'll be quiet around here until at least Monday, if not Tuesday (or Wednesday). Feel free to poke around the archives in my absence and laugh at my many errors and occasionally jaw-dropping overuse of parentheses.
Also, the first post upon my return will, I hope, feature a new look for The Kind of Face You Hate. I'm actually perfectly happy with the current look, but I'm told by my old pal and confidant Greg Ferrara that my recent and deeply infuriating formatting problems might stem from the fact that I'm using an old template or something. Being the kind of fellow he is, he offered his kind assistance to me, a computer illiterate (basically, anyhow), and since he already designed my banner, I said sure. AND THEN I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT! But I plan to, and Greg, if you're out there, sorry I haven't contacted you, but we'll do this thing soon. Thanks again!
And thank you all very much (in my head, I said that like Dean Learner) for your patronage or whatever reading blogs is called. I shall see you all anon.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
The oft-cited tonal shift that occurs roughly halfway through Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, which has a thoroughly sparkling Criterion release set for May 10, is rather strikingly illustrated by the following series of images. While not exactly temporally equidistant from each other, you can nevertheless see how the film begins as a light, off-kilter romantic comedy...
...featuring Jeff Daniels in goofy mode as Charlie Driggs, a white collar type with a secret penchant for petit larceny, and the ever-airy-voiced Melanie Griffith as Lulu (or Audrey, depending on where you are in the film), an aggressively quirked and sexual young woman who pins Charlie on that larceny business and seduces him not only into bed but onto the road, where the two drink and commit various effervescent misdemeanors. It's hard at first to sympathize with Charlie, who we're told is married and has kids, who we have no reason to believe are terrible people. Yet boy he sure fell into bed with Lulu without a moments hesitation or guilt.
At any rate, those misdemeanors are committed with various levels of recklessness, and can't help but draw the attention of folks like the fellow below, played by John Sayles...
...which gives the film a certain amount of suspense, even if you happen to be rooting for the cops, as I kinda sorta was. Demme's film, however, is one of two distinct halves, and once Ray Liotta as Lulu's husband Ray, who's the kind of guy who is serious about the crimes he commits, and makes Charlie and Lulu look like pikers, arrives on the scene, the violent force of his character brings new information to light while simulatenously ratcheting up the suspense, darkening Demme and DP Tak Fujimoto's previously bright 1980s palette, and leading where, one does not know...
Not quite the frivolous, loosening-up-the-square road comedy we started with, Something Wild is loose and exact in its details, which was typical of Demme in this period, and it's as diverse as his filmography. He preceded Something Wild with both Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and his famous Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense in 1984, and followed it first with another, but quite different concert film, Swimming to Cambodia with Spalding Gray, various TV projects, and then back to colorful comedies with 1988's Married to the Mob.
Apart from proving to me that it can pay to stick with movies that annoy you (twice before, I was so put off by what I judged to be the film's solipsism that I turned it off before Liotta even showed up), Something Wild, and all 1980s Demme films really, stands as a bit of a time capsule for a particular kind of American film. The sunniness of the whole thing, in contrast to some of what's taking place on the ground, is part of it, but so is seeing the name "Tak Fujimoto" in the credits (a name I first noticed on Demme's The Silence of the Lambs), and the appearance of people like Charles Napier and, even more to the point, Kenneth Utt. The late Kenneth Utt was Demme's producing partner, and he had cameos in several of the movies he not only directed -- in Something Wild he plays the "Dad" of "Mom & Dad's", a restaurant Charlie and Lulu eat in -- but produced as well, most notably George Armitage's Miami Blues, in which Utt plays a stone-face (well, of course) but apparently grieving Hare Krishna, attended to, in a half-assed sort of a way, by Det. Hoke Mosely, played by Fred Ward, whose partner, Bill Henderson, is played by Charles Napier.
I started noticing Utt everywhere in the 80s, or anyway that's how it felt. He almost never said a word, but you don't forget a face like that. Him, and Napier, and Demme, and Fujimoto, they all seemed to be, and were, joined at the hip, and it was like a little get together every time they all showed up in the credits for the same film. A get together then, a time capsule now.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
What was so surprising to me on rewatching the film last night is the realization that the first story, which features Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cope named He Qiwu (or "233", after his badge number) lamenting the end of his relationship with a girl named May and his crossing of paths with a shady woman with drug connections played by Brigitte Lin, is a light thriller, and the other story, featuring Tony Leung as a cop angling in on, and then retreating from a romance with a stewardess (Valerie Chow) while never noticing the cute goofy girl (Faye Wong) who works at the food stand he frequents, is a romantic comedy. The fact that Chungking Express is a beloved (and rightly so) arthouse film that has been Criterionized while similar such American-made films tend to feature Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher and all that kind of thing, is I guess we'll say an interesting one.
None of this is to say that Chungking Express is typical of either the light thriller or the romantic comedy, but of course that's sort of my point. Wong's film is a curiously mesmerizing piece of work, curious because the source of that mesmerism is hard to track. It's instantaneous, at any rate, as the pulsing, noirish music at the beginning, paired with Kaneshiro's opening narration, somehow submerges you into Chungking Express's particular environment, one that is not only alien to most Westerners, but would be curious to most Hong Kong natives, representing as it does, according to Tony Rayns on his Criterion disc commentary, "old Hong Kong". All of which seems to be setting up a quite different film than we get. While Brigitte Lin's mysteriously bewigged and be-sunglassed woman is indeed involved in crime, and is being chased even, and even shoots people, most of the first story is given over to Kaneshiro, a cop who doesn't see much crime, and his hope that by buying 30 cans of pineapple, one a day, each with an expiration date of May (after his ex, named May) 1st, which would mark the one month anniversary of their split on April 1st, she would somehow come back to him before he reached 30 cans, or their love will have expired with the pineapple.
This, you will agree, is simply unbearable quirk, as is Tony Leung's habit, in the second story, of talking to his possessions -- bars of soap, stuffed animals, washcloths. As is Faye Wong's habit of playing "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas & the Papas over and over and over and over and over and over again. And over and over again. This is the kind of quirk that earns indie romantic comedies a quick swift in the teeth. Right? Except, no, not in the case of Chungking Express. That's what I find so strange about the film. How does Wong make this stuff work? In the case of the first story, there's an element of real danger, which I guess helps, and in the second story both Tony Leung and Faye Wong are effortlessly charismatic (Tony Leung in particular has an immense presence, without needing to do anything at all). And as far as insufferable hippie bullshit goes, "California Dreamin'" is actually pretty good. So there's all that in the film's favor. But I think the real key, or as best I can guess at it anyway, to Wong's ability to bring this stuff across, stuff that in other hands would turn the film into a shrieking nightmare, is that he simply makes no big deal about it. The pineapple thing, for instance, is very important, but is treated in an almost off-hand manner. Not only that, but after a while its essential absurdity is duly noted. Similarly Leung talking to soap and all that...it's just a funny thing he does. Its not forced on us because Wong is desperate to make us love the guy. And also that: there's no desperation in Chungking Express, not in the filmmaking. It's all cool and easy and enthralling. And it looks a treat, too, having been filmed by Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau as it was, who never quite let go of the noirish blues or the neon reds and yellows of Hong Kong nightclubs.
It's just amusing to me that Chungking Express is this arthouse darling of a movie, a designation that implies something Wong's film isn't (but other Wong films are). What Chungking Express is, is a good movie. When people say "That was a good movie", they're referring to Chungking Express.
TIFF Lightbox will be screening Chungking Express tomorrow and running through the 27th. On the 23rd, the Lightbox will be hosting a conversation with Christopher Doyle (not accompanied by a screening of the film, as I'd mistakenly reported earlier). If you're willing and able -- and you should at least be that first one -- I suggest checking it out.
Monday, April 18, 2011
One of the true poets working in documentary film -- in fact, along with his friend Werner Herzog, perhaps the only documentary filmmaker who has poetry as one of his primary goals -- Errol Morris had created a short series of striking but roughly naturalistic films before cresting a wave with 1988's The Thin Blue Line, a film which is not only haunting in its aesthetics, and bold in its use of recreations, but also did the one thing that more exhaustingly polemical documentarians (which by my count includes pretty much all the rest of the ones who are currently working) desperately want but never actually achieve, which is that it affected a tangible change in his subject (that is, Randall Adams, the man wrongly imprisoned for murdering a police officer, received a new trial and was released based on what Morris's film revealed).
Morris has followed that up with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and a short-lived but fascinating documentary TV series called First Person. All are imminently worthy, but Mr. Death, with its wry, but somehow mournful evisceration of one man's delusion, is my favorite. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, however, really plumbs the depths of Morris's intellect -- the way he edits the varying stories of four men with unusual interests and professions so that the words of one occasionally overlap and comment on imagery associated with another, is at times exhilarating. So exhilarating that when I first saw it, one image, of a horse's poised fetlock -- which matches the story of an animal trainer featured in the film -- is accompanied by another of Morris's subjects speaking on the nature of animals and humans and intelligence in a way that made me say something along the lines of "Holy crap."
Morris keeps going, thank God, keeping the documentary form alive and breathing while the collected mass of films with a sermon to preach listed as job number one fight an occasionally winning battle to keep it sterile and smug. Morris's basically niche profile was at least briefly raised after he won an Oscar for 2003's fascinating The Fog of War about Robert McNamara, but Morris is too odd and restlessly intellectual -- even when I think he's full of hooey -- for that profile to stay raised for long. This stuff comes and goes, though, and is ultimately ephemeral. Still, though, I wish his time in the spotlight had lasted long enough to bring about a DVD rerelease of A Brief History of Time, his amazing 1991 film about Stephen Hawking. Ah well. Surely that must be on the horizon. Right? Right??
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Friday, April 1, 2011
I read Smith’s novel some brief time after Sam Raimi’s film version first came out. The book has a very, very black heart, confronting, as it does, with unnerving directness the ease with which a “normal guy” – in this case, Hank – can switch from that law-abiding normalcy to a level of violence that literally reaches the level of butchery, all the while justifying to himself that he needs to do it, because he has a new baby, and the money will give his family a new life, and anyway if he doesn’t kill this person, he will go to prison. And the one thing that trumps all is that he cannot go to prison. One does what one must to avoid that sort of fate.
An excellent, near-great novel, I thought, and think, though I had a sense even then that Smith might have been better off reigning things in a little bit. A Simple Plan, the novel, is in some ways quite bonkers, in a way that sometimes stretches credulity. At the same time, I can’t help but admire Smith’s nerve in sticking so ruthlessly to the terrible path of murder and karmic retribution he’d mapped out. I was most curious about how the film version would play out, though I have to admit my anticipation for the film (which I eventually saw on video) was tempered, in a particular sort of way, with thoughts like “Sam Raimi???” A not dissimilar reaction greeted the notion of the not-dissimilar-to-Sam Raimi Peter Jackson, he of Dead Alive fame, directing the far grander Lord of the Rings, but I knew little of Jackson at that time, while I knew plenty enough of Raimi. At the time, I would say my favorite film that Raimi had anything at all to do with was Miller's Crossing, in which he has a cameo as "Laughing Gunman". After that, and more significantly, would be The Hudsucker Proxy, which he co-wrote. Then Evil Dead II, which I honestly enjoyed, and after that...what? Not Darkman, I can assure you. I'm in the curious position with Raimi (and Jackson, too, come to think of it) of not really beginning to enjoy his films until he decided to break out of his role of the crazy drive-in ironic genre guy (which is a role that his true fans -- which you'll notice I don't put in quotes, because they really are his true fans -- hold very dear) and go mainstream. A Simple Plan was the movie that found him really tucking into that new filmmaking life, and it ranks as one of my personal favorites.
A Simple Plan is a crime film, obviously, and, set as it is in a Minnesota farming community, a snowy one. This is crucial in one sense, because as he embarked on making the film, Raimi consulted with his old friends Joel and Ethan Coen, who had recently knocked the world on its face with Fargo, also a crime film, also set in Minnesota (and thereabouts), and also very snowy. What the Coens offered by way of advice, I don't know, but Raimi and DP Alar Kivilo succeed entirely at depicting a frost-beaten Minnesota, whose warm homes seem all the warmer, and whose drafty cabins, such as the one inhabited by Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), seem like they barely count as "indoors". The cast is rounded out by Bill Paxton -- a most curious actor, I've always thought -- as Hank, Brent Briscoe as Lou, and Bridget Fonda as Sarah, Hank's wife. My math tells me that this comes out to two out of four, or two and half out of four. In different ways, Briscoe and Paxton have the same problem, in that it often feels to me as if they're reading their lines as opposed to saying them, but while Briscoe -- saddled with the most basic, cog-in-the-plot character out of all of them, to be fair -- never really breaks that habit, Paxton sometimes does. I'm thinking primarily of the film's wrenching climax, which I won't spoil, but at one point a realization dawns on Paxton's Hank, and the horror that twists his face comes only partially from what has just been suggested to him. The rest comes from the fact that he knows he's going to do it. This is the heart of Scott Smith's wretched, pitiful, sympathetic and hateful protagonist.
But as in the novel, the beating heart of A Simple Plan is Jacob. It is my belief that Billy Bob Thornton has never been better, either before or since this film. A bit of a cliche', in that Jacob is both the dumbest and the kindest of all the characters, the writing and Thornton's performance make him thrive -- pathetically thrive, if that's even a thing. The key to getting Jacob off the ground is the dialogue, and Scott Smith, who wrote the screenplay (and cut out a fair amount of what made the novel so crazy, for better or worse), gives him some wonderfully funny, stumbling bits, such as when he looks at Hank's iced-over porch and says "You gotta scrape that shit off'a your, you know, your watcha-callit deal, there" or when he notices crows in the branches overhead and says "They just sit around waitin' for somethin' to die so they can eat it. Weird. What a weird job." At his best, Thornton has always sat really easy inside these simple rural characters, but never more easily than here. The lifelong sadness of Jacob, the basic desire for money that lets him follow Lou, and then Hank, into this nightmare, followed by the ultimate moral catastrophe that wrecks him completely, is always played just right by Thornton.
Meanwhile, if Jacob is the beating heart, Bridget Fonda's Sarah is the black mind. Not even aware she's as terrible as she is, Sarah is a pragmatic monster, sensing just the thing to do to avoid getting caught by the police, either for the stolen money, or, far more troublingly, for the murders that follow along. I remember reading the book, and getting to a certain point and telling my mom, who had already read it, that Sarah was going to cut Hank off at the knees when the opportunity presented itself. Well, I was wrong, but Sarah is almost the most shocking character in either the book or the film. Before she knows anything about what's going on, it's very easy for her to spout off basic moral points because serious temptation like this has never come her way. Once it does, she blossoms, and while Hank's the one getting blood on his hands, she finds it not at all difficult to skate over that and on to other matters, such as how to keep the murders from tracing back to her. And Fonda nails it all. It's crucial with both Sarah and Hank to play them straight, and to play the guilt, and the disbelief, and the terror. Murders aren't only committed by people like Jeffrey Dahmer. They're also committed by people who would never suspect themselves capable of such a thing. This is the central power of A Simple Plan.
So Raimi has moved on, dabbling in movies pitched at about the same level of studio interest and budget, until being surprisingly picked, Peter Jackson-like, to helm the Spider-Man franchise. And leaving aside all the problems that eventually came along with that, I'm a big fan of those movies, and the choice of Raimi. I like the guy. He's bent just enough, and he wears a suit every day when he's making a movie. But I have a feeling that I will always regard A Simple Plan as his best film, because it's the one time he's ever really plumbed the depths. I hope he does again some day.
This post has been part of the Raimifest blogathon, hosted by Bryce Wilson of Things That Don't Suck.