Sunday, August 21, 2016

A brief mention of Gord Downie and Al Wiertz

This has been a topic of some discussion on Facebook, so I thought I would weigh in, perhaps with a useful observation. I'm not sure why Gord Downie made the decision to go public with his cancer before the tour, but it reminds me more than anything else of a concert I attended in the mid-1990s by Vancouver jazz drummer Al Wiertz, who was also dying of cancer. He put on two or maybe more shows - the one I saw was at the Glass Slipper, a jazz club long since gone - to raise money for his daughter's post-secondary education. He drummed his heart out; I only just discovered now that there's actually footage of Wiertz on Youtube, starting at the 4:24 mark, here. That night - though he was emaciated and on pain meds - he played with even more intensity, as I remember it. I totally admired his decision to make his situation public, to give his fans and friends a chance to support him, and to salvage something good out of something awful.

I missed the Hip broadcast last night, actually, but I will probably catch up on it at some point. It's a bit emotionally heavy, for me, right now. But my respect to Gord Downie. The Hip have some fantastic songs; I'm glad I got to see them live a few years ago.

That was all I was gonna say...

Saturday, August 20, 2016

My new profile photo

The other day, my girl and I took a walk down by the dikes in Maple Ridge, down at the bottom of Laity street, where I used to catch frogs as a kid. There weren't as many frogs - we only heard one bullfrog, and saw nothing - and we didn't see any snakes - I once caught a red spotted garter snake there (see below, though that's not the exact snake in question, which was well over three feet long) - but the pond and river were recognizable, though a lot of benches and parklike functions - gates, dog-owner stuff - had been added and there were a lot more people.

Anyhow, I snapped a few photos, and one of them is my new profile pic. This is it:

Al's Top 10 video want list: help fill my holes!

For those curious, besides my passing desire to see more classic Charles Bronson movies, these are the films I'm most keen to own on DVD at present, some quite rare, though all have come out on DVD at some point.

1. The Amateur: I remember this getting raves in the 1980's and then being disappointed when I caught up with it on VHS as a kid because it looked like another crappy Toronto tax shelter movie. Now I love Toronto tax shelter movies! I want to see it again. Plus John Savage, Christopher Plummer, John Marley, Ed Lauter and MARTHE KELLER!

2. Endangered Species. What the fuck is this movie, exactly? I have never seen it, but I'm soooo curious. Alan "Robert Altman Jr." Rudolph directs a cattle mutilation SF film? Robert Urich is no draw, and JoBeth Williams, much as I liked her horny bitchy bitch in The Big Chill, is not much of an incentive either - but Hoyt Axton, Peter Coyote, and Dan Hedaya are all in it, all people who I like to watch onscreen.

3. Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. I believe I have seen every Peter Cushing Frankenstein movie, except Evil of Frankenstein (which I think I have on a Hammer box set, and which I've heard is the weakest), and this one. The monster looks very appealing - David "Darth Vader" Prowse, isn't it? - and the title is great, and tho' I've heard mixed things about it, I would love to see it someday.

4. Fighting Mad. I'm no big Jonathan Demme fan, you know? He makes a good music documentary, I'll grant you, but his thrillers are all over-rated, including his hammy, Gothicky Silence of the Lambs, which is nowhere near as good a Lecter film as Michael Mann's Manhunter, and his silly, unnecessary wanna-be Hitchcocks, like The Truth About CharLIE and that totally unnecessary Manchurian Candidate reboot, or whatever it was. They're crap! I think I even sold Last Embrace, the last time I had it on DVD, because I was so disappointed with what a mess he makes of it; I love Roy Scheider, and the film has great moments - like when he almost gets pushed in front of a train - but it's one of those films that drives me crazy, because it's just forgettable enough that you feel compelled to revisit it every few years (if you're like me) only to be disappointed all over again when you actually watch it. HOWEVER, Fighting Mad looks to have connections to the gritty Hollywood films of the late 1960's and early 1970's, stars Peter Fonda, and has small roles for Scott Glenn and LYNN LOWRY, who so many of us met last year at Shane Burzynski's horror flick fest (thank you again, Shane!). Demme probably will make a few choices that annoy me - he almost always does - but it can't possibly be all bad, either. Need to see it once, at least.

Now I'm mad at myself all over again for having sold Last Embrace. I knew this would happen. It's like I have to buy it and keep it so I don't feel like I have to find it again. And, I mean (sigh) maybe it's not as bad as I remember it as being? (This is my version of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, I guess).

5. Housekeeping. I haven't seen this film in decades, but I loved it back in the VHS heyday, and it IS out there on DVD. Christine Lahti - who I've loved since Whose Life Is It Anyway? - stars, Bill "Local Hero" Forsyth directs, and it was filmed in BC (and Alberta). Female outsider/ eccentric is left in charge of children, leading to great difficulties... I don't remember it well but I loved it, and I think my girl would love it, too.

6. The Night Walker. William Castle, Robert Bloch, and Barbara Stanwyck, I don't really need to say anything else, do I? And that poster... hey, wait a sec, it looks kinda familiar...

7. Remember The Night. Speaking of Barbara Stanwyck, she and Fred McMurray (whom I almost typo'd as Freddie Mercury!) team up again in a film about a female shoplifter and a district attorney stuck in a car together during Christmas. Or something like that! A great, character-driven, moving story of seasonal redemption, written by Preston Sturges.

8. Time of the Wolf. I don't always like Michael Haneke, and I kind of hated this depressing French apocalypse/ social breakdown film, my most vivid memory of which is seeing Isabelle Huppert barf. Somehow I really want to see it again, though. If memory serves, it's kind of like The Walking Dead, but without the zombies.

9. Session 9: okay, so I already have this on DVD, but I really want to upgrade to Blu-Ray! Hazmat team has a serious breakdown while cleaning out an abandoned - and HAUNTED??? - insane asylum. It was my first experience of Peter Mullan, as far as I'm aware, and I really want to revisit it now that he's become a favourite actor of mine, but I'm holding out for the Blu, which - wait, it should be out now! Plus I actually really like David Caruso, and Larry Fessenden is in it! (I need Fessenden's Beneath, too, come to think of it).

10. The Stuff. I don't want to spend $40 or more on an Arrow Blu, which I think is R2, anyhow, but I'd love to find this on a cheapie DVD. It's another one of those films that I am disappointed by whenever I revisit it, but the combination of talent (Larry Cohen + Michael Moriarty + Paul Sorvino) is really compelling and I need to have this in my permanent collection. Plus, I mean, how many killer ice cream movies are there? 

Why did I think Yaphet Kotto was in The Stuff? 

There's more I could put on the list, but these are the biggies for now. Plus, like I say, I gotta get some more Charles Bronson. And did I read somewhere that the original Willard was coming out on Scream Factory? I need that, too. Any film where Ernest Borgnine dies a particularly gruesome and unusual death is a must-see (he melts in The Devil's Rain; in Willard, he's attacked by a horde of rats!)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Bronsonquest 2016: into the wilds of Surrey

In my late 20's, I lived for a month or two in Surrey, not far from the Gateway Skytrain Station.

It's a bit of a story as to why I did that. On the advice of a rather remarkable guy whom I'm afraid I must describe as a "spiritual teacher" (but who was far less airy-fairy than those words suggest, a tough-as-nuts, conservative Lakota, formerly a jailguard, who kicked my indulgent, lazy, scared and unproductive ass all over the place, psychically-speaking, and got me back to school, seeking work, and trying to mend my relationship with my parents), I was taking Life Skills Coach's Training at Stellar College, a fairly remarkable institution that was kind of on its last legs. They'd rented an unused office building, or at least a floor of it, and ran a group there. It was a bizarre, difficult-to-characterize experience, involving a sort of confrontational, intense group therapy. We were "learning by doing," practicing counselling on each other, basically, while the group leader called us on our shit, along the way borrowing bits and pieces from est, Scientology, and First Nations practice (including smudges and a sweatlodge). The other people in the group were incredibly varied - a few ex-cons and people with past substance abuse problems, but also housewife-types and confused young people and whatever the hell you classify me as and... it's all a bit hard to explain or understand from the outside, and I'm as much an outsider to it all now as is anyone reading this, really. A lot of psychodrama, crying, screaming, confessional revelations, and maybe not very much of a safety net, but on the other hand, there were a few people who actually seemed to emerge from the program wholer, saner, better-put-together than they were at the beginning, including me. Like I say, a hard experience to describe.

In any event, I didn't want to commute from Maple Ridge to Surrey every day, so I asked if I could bring a sleeping bag and crash in the building after hours. They were more than willing - it was a shitty neighbourhood even then, with junkies shooting up in the bushes and occasional was-that-a-gunshot kinda sounds from the street, so I became the unofficial security guard at nights, smoking cigarettes - I did that then - in a room we weren't using and trying as rule to not go out much after dark. Soon enough, others followed suit, and after a couple of weeks there were three or four of us sleeping nights at the Stellar Hilton, as it became known, including a guy who, years later, went on to lose his mind and stab his daughter's boyfriend to death, because he thought - in the grips of paranoid delusion - that he was spying on him for the government. As I remember him, he was a hell of a chess player and an interesting conversation companion - a plain-spoken, uneducated but very perceptive Newfie who ended up one of my more unlikely friends, for a time. As far as I know he's presently in an instution for the violently mentally ill, or whatever the politically correct term for that is these days; I sometimes think of sending him a chess set or a few of the sort of violent westerns and crime novels he favoured -  he probably would get a kick out of Parker, if he can still read, and if his doctors would let him have access to something so antisocial - but really, it's probably for the best that I stay out of touch...

Anyhow, when class was out, I sometimes explored the area, checking out the Value Village and the pawn shops and such. I watched strippers at the Flamingo (known to some as the Flaming O). With other "trainees," I ate the odd dinner at Chang Mai Thai restaurant, which one of our group members confusedly mispronounced as "chang my thigh." Sometimes dinner was at the KFC down the street from the building, which I see is still standing ot this day. Oddly enough, I never ran into David M., at the record store near Surrey Central where he worked, which I don't think I ever stumbled onto. However, I did have coffee a few times at the Java Joint, which became a place of some renown (I believe even DOA played there). There used to be a used CD store next to it, too. They're both gone now, alas.

It wasn't the best of times, but sometimes I go back to the "old neighbourhood," so to speak. Usually on hit and run searches of the used stores. It started back when I was making a bit of extra money buying books for used bookstores, and remembered that I had a few finds back when I lived there. Also, there was a VHS rental place that I used to sometimes negotiate for movies at, back when I collected tapes. That shop is gone now, but there are still stores where you can buy DVDs and Blu's,  usually priced between $1 and $5, depending on the title. The demand has dropped out sufficiently that some pawnshops that used to carry them now don't even bother, and a couple of stores have flat out closed down since my last visit, but maybe twice a year I go poke around, and every time I find at least a few fun titles, while avoiding some seriously sketchy street people or people loudly discussing their impending jail sentences or such.

Anyhow, thanks to Robin Bougie, I re-watched Charles Bronson in 10 to Midnight the other week, and have been craving some more Bronson; and if Surrey surely has to be the sort of town where you're likely to find the odd used Charles Bronson movie, right? So today was Bronsonquest 2016, wherein I poked about six or seven pawnshops - the Value Village has closed down - trying to find, hell, I don't know, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects or Mr. Majestyk or The Evil That Men Do or even a few of the Death Wish movies on DVD. They were common as dirt back in the VHS days but you actually don't see them around like you might Clint Eastwood or Jason Statham movies; Bronson hasn't aged well, I guess (though I liked 10 to Midnight the other week a lot more than I ever did as a kid). Three hours of wandering around Whalley and I found exactly one Bronson title: a public domain DVD of Cold Sweat, which no doubt looks atrocious, but which I've never seen (and it has James Mason and Liv Ullman in it!). This is the sort of movie I would sometimes find my father watching late at night in Maple Ridge, on television. It was overpriced at $2.99, but what's a Bronsonquest without a single Bronson title located?

But if Bronsonquest was a bit of a bust, I did find a few other choice titles that I don't have, the best of which were the Stephen King rats-versus-humans adaptation, Graveyard Shift, which I haven't seen since its theatrical run; and The Beastmaster, a Don Coscarelli I've never gotten around to. (Oh,a and I found a Donnie Yen film, Kung Fu Killer, for a couple bucks, what the hell). There were a few colourful encounters with sketchy locals (overhearing a woman telling her friend how she "just about busted her kneecap" on some guy's ass, "but that will fuckin' show him what's what"). The Mennonite Thrift Store had some pretty amusing VHS tapes stacked on the shelves, too, but I'm not equipped for that technology at present. Probably the most amusing finds where when I popped into eCentral, a used media store near Surrey Central, where I saw they had copies of Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, Wim Wenders' The American Friend and Lightning Over Water, Brian De Palma's Greetings, and a few other colourful films that I already have, all of which I remember contemplating the last time I was in that shop, about six months ago. How they're still open, I cannot say - maybe when I return next spring they won't be?

Anyhow, depressed areas and boondocks-type places are always interesting for culture hunts. When good stuff comes into these stores, people don't know what it is or want it, so there are always obscure finds to be had. (Maple Ridge used to be the same way but it doesn't take many people like me to hoover up all the good stuff).

Some pictures from my excursion:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Gigs! China Syndrome, Pill Squad, Furies, plus Astrakhan and Waingro interview outtakes and Burger Fest set times

So many gigs, so little time!

Since Mom passed, I have a lot more free time. Life feels emptier, and barely a day goes by when I don't think of her: fleeting impulses that I should call her, check to see how she's doing, or buy this-and-that for her, then remind myself, a nanosecond later, that no, Al, she's not around anymore, you don't need to do that. I miss her a lot, but I don't have to spend eight hours a week on the bus to and from Maple Ridge, and (when I'm not working and don't have plans with Erika), I do have some time to go to shows again, when I can muster up the stamina and will.

Like this weekend. If all goes to plan, I have three gigs I'm really excited about (but one of them involves about twenty bands).

China Syndrome by lildrammerboy

First, there's China Syndrome at the Princeton tonight, perfectly timed so I can see Thieves' Highway at the Cinematheque before I head down. Tim Chan tells me the band "will be playing two sets, which is something we don't do very often. With three albums, we have a lot to draw from plus a bunch of new originals... and choice covers as always!" I'm particularly hoping they'll do "Let's Stay at Home and Let It All Hang Out" off Nothing's Not Worth Knowing, their second album; they brought that one back the last time they played the Fairview, on Canada Day, and it reminded me how delightful the song is - a sort of middle class, middle aged pop anthem about loosening your belt and shamelessly plopping down with your loved one in front of the TV. Nevermind the irony of a rock band writing a song about NOT going out to a show - and Chan prefaced it at the Fairview by saying "this is what we hope you don't do": as with many of Chan's songs, it's got a refreshing, relatable directness to it. You don't need a magic decoder ring to make sense of the lyrics. It's not that I mind cryptic lyrics, but I always kind of gravitated to songs that are about something, that take some sort of universal human experience that no one has written a song about before and make it accessible, give it its moment in the sun, make it something you can celebrate or at least sing along to. This is why - to digress - my favourite Guided by Voices song is "I Am a Scientist" (because I actually completely understand what Pollard is singing about on that one!!!), and why one of my favourite punk songs ever is the Crucifucks "Oh Where, Oh Where," about looking for a lost piece of paper ("I can't find my piece of paper/ I should have been more careful with my piece of paper"). Some people say it's about trying to find a misplaced tab of acid, and it may well be, but I much prefer reading it as a song about looking for some missing scrap with vital information on it, which is something, if you've added up all the time I've spent doing it, has probably taken up at least one year of my life now. I'm sure I'm not alone in that experience, yet no one had ever written a song about it before the Crucifucks! Gotta love it.

To come back to "Let's Stay at Home and Let It All Hang Out," the other thing to love about it is that it's written from the perspective of a mature adult. Like so many of China Syndrome's songs, it's a song that isn't aimed at teenagers, but for people in, well, let's say it, "my age group." Because how many times, as you get into your 40's and 50's, do you decide NOT to go out and do something cool, but to just relax at home with your Significant Other, make some popcorn, and watch a video in your comfortable clothes, whatever those may be...? If that's not a universal experience of getting older, I don't know what is; but who has really honestly set it to music before now?

The final argument on behalf of China Syndrome is that, unlike a lot of people on what David M. has described as the "zombie punk" scene in Vancouver, where people aged 45-65 are getting together to celebrate still being alive and cool with their equally grizzled peers, bandleader Tim Chan is not - at least not in my earshot - mining old favourites from the 64 Funnycars days, is not playing songs he wrote when he was a teenager, but writing new, fresh original songs from said adult perspective. It says something kinda cool that of his three China Syndrome albums, the best one, the most confident, the most sophisticated, is, in fact, is his most recent, The Usual Angst. That's NOT usually how it works, you know? Thirty years into their musical careers, people tend to start wearing thin on the inspiration, start repeating themselves, start working from formulas that they've set for themselves, playing it safe - the "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" factor. And even when people from the 80's have gotten back together - let's pick on Mission of Burma, here, for a minute, a band whom I love and cherish having gotten to see live (twice!). It's GREAT that they're back, and may they play Vancouver again, but how often has their later material REALLY gotten you as excited as their first two albums? I've owned, at least briefly, every single new Mission of Burma album they've put out, and tried to give them their due, but none of them are half as exciting to me as Vs. and Signals, Calls, and Marches, and nor will they ever be, I expect, no matter how many times I try listening to them.

Anyhow, China Syndrome tonight. Tomorrow, Chan plays again with Pill Squad at Lanalou's, sandwiched between Orchard Pinkish and Vancouver's mighty garage-punk kings The Furies. I've said enough about the Furies, I guess - there's lots else on this blog - but they're one of those bands I can't get enough of. I caught Pill Squad and the Furies (and the Prettys, also excellent) at a show at the Buddha not too long ago, and had a great night. Lanalou's will be even better (since old farts will get to sit down and not have to negotiate the fucking SBC skateboard ramp!).

 Pill Squad, a non-half-bad pic for a change, by Allan MacInnis. Why is Tracy singing like Lemmy? Below: the Furies, the same night, by the same person; "let's hear it for the vague blur!"

But wait! How will I see Orchard Pinkish and Pill Squad and the Furies and still attend Burger Fest tomorrow? Well... I haven't quite figured that one out yet, to be honest. There's definitely a conflict of interest that will probably mean my missing Orchard Pinkish and Pill Squad, at the very least. I guess it depends on how much truly HEAVY music I can take... For those not attuned to Burger Fest, my West Ender article gives a bit of an introduction to the concept; it's really a showcase of local sludge, doom, stoner, and thrash metal bands, more than it's about burgers. The article makes it kind of obvious which two local bands I'm keenest to see, Waingro and Astrakhan. But that's mostly because I haven't heard most of the acts lined up: I've only caught Seer and Heron, who combine a fairly punishing approach to metal with elements of noise and drone, at Vostok awhile back. I did review the Expain CD for the Straight, and Lord Dying also sounds kind of great... could it possibly be that I will MISS THE FURIES for this show?

Heron at Studio Vostok by Allan MacInnis

Above: Burger Fest band roster by Asia Fairbanks, including members of Astrakhan, BRASS, HEDKS, Heron, Sand Witch, Craters, and Doctor Claw, in front of (contributing burger joint) The Heatley; below, Brian Sepanzyk of Waingro takes a "burger selfie": 

Anyhow, I have yet to see Waingro live, but I love guitarist/ vocalist Brian Sepanzyk's bluesy, melodic approach to guitar solos, especially on the new album, Mt. Hood. Besides Pantera's late Dimebag Darryl and Stevie Ray Vaughan, when I spoke to him, Sepanzyk nodded to early Queens of the Stone Age as an influence, and I considered describing Waingro as sounding like "Bison in a good mood," at least until I read the album's lyric sheet, which, considering how joyous and tuneful Sepanzyk's solos can get, is filled with surprisingly dark imagery: blood, graves, failing gods, and nods to the occult abound, though it seems like Sepanzyk is more into the occult as entertainment than practice, which is totally fine with me. I've never understood when people complain that this and that metal band is not "sincere" in their Satanism, since sincere Satanism, and/ or the many confused gestures towards it among young people, kind of scares and/ or saddens me, and I'd much rather listen to a band whose interest in the occult stops, for instance, at "let's all drop acid and watch The Exorcist." (Not that Sepanzyk said anything about doing that).

Still, there's definitely a religious intensity to some of Sepanzyk's lyrics, which you can credit in part to his Catholic background. “I grew up in a really heavily religious family,” he told me when we spoke. “It was really shoved down our throats growing up, and I think it inevitably comes out." He remembers being a young man in the midst of his devout family and reflecting to himself that he just wasn't "buying" the trip they were on. Plus, he adds, "There’s something frightening to religion, which I think is interesting. It’s like - ‘you exist, and it’s fucking scary, because it’s religious horror."

Astrakhan also has their share of religious and occult imagery in their lyrics. Guitarist/ vocalist Rob Zawistowski explains that he "grew up going to Catholic school, so all that religious symbolism is pretty deep rooted, and I've always been interested in spirtual/ occultist stuff - not because I take it seriously, but because I enjoy the imagery and the symbolism and the process. And I've also done a lot of psychedelics, and through that became interested in shamanism and stuff like that. There's a lot of that sort of vibe on the record," Reward in Purpose, which indeed would make a pretty interesting sonic-scape for psychedelic exploration.

As for the trippy album cover, it turns out that both the cover and the fourth track, "The Traveler," are based on a "vivid night terror" that Zawistowski has had. "It involved an extra planetary creature visiting me in the night, and I was so freaked out by it that I ended up lighting sage in my room. So the the outro vocals to that song say 'concentrate/ light your sage/ consecrate/ leave this place.'" The cover art is both a painting and a photograph that Zawistowski conceived of to recreate the nightmare, "by putting a tripod behind the bed and lighting the room in a weird way. I did a long exposure, and you can see my arm going across it" (in black and white, on the right side of the artwork). "Then we blew it up, 20X20, and then the artist that works with us, Nick Patterson - he did our first album cover as well - painted over the photograph, for the creature."

Some of the band's concerns can be seen in their video for "Turgid Waters" which is chock-a-block with mysterious, occult, and horrifying imagery. It's very much a full-band project, with members taking all the lead roles, besides a cameo from Burger Fest co-promoter Mitch Ray, of Art Signified. Zawistowski, who filmed and edited it, is "the shaved-head, bearded ritual man" who gets murdered at the end; bassist Dustan Toth is "doing all the murdering and stick eating," while Adam Young, the other guitarist, is the one "laying in the corner freaking out when Dustan opens a door." (It may have been Adam himself who said that).

I missed who drummer Jerome Brewer is in the video - the conversation was part of a somewhat raucous group phonecall, on cellphone speakerphone settings on both ends, so about 30% of it is incomprehensible distortion, though I did catch that Rob will be soon doing a video for HDKS ("Headcase"), also playing Burger Fest, and featuring Taya Fraser, also of Art Signified, and formerly of Sexy Decoy. I very nearly called the band Headcase in the article on Studio Vostok I did (the venue run by Ray and Fraser), so it's good to know that it's properly spelled H-D-K-S.

Anyhow, there's a lot of music going on this weekend. I've exhausted myself writing this. See you at a show?

Astrakhan live, by Milton Stille

Set times for Burger Fest 6 (provided to Mitch Ray, but subject to last minute revision):

2:00-2:20 - Sand Witch (Outdoors)
2:25-2:45 - Seer (Indoors) 
2:50-3:10 - Doctor Claw 
3:15-3:35 - Hallux 
3:40-4:00 - HEDKS 
4:00-4:45 - Dunk Tank Competition
4:45-5:05 - Heron (Outdoors) 
5:10-5:30 - BOG 
5:35-5:55 Expain 
6:00-6:20 Craters 
6:25-6:45 Amnesian 
6:50-7:10 - Bushwhacker 
7:15-7:45 - Dead Ranch 
7:50-8:10 - BRASS 
8:15-8:55 - Griever 
9:00-9:20 - Astrakhan 
9:25-10:25 - Wild Throne 
10:30-10:50 - Waingro (Indoors) 
11:10-12:10 - Lord Dying (Indoors)

Monday, August 08, 2016

Weird dreams, work stress, not much else

Dreamed I had taken Mom - still alive, obviously - at a strange, Asian-run grocery store. Somehow we got separated and I found myself in a back room where I discovered that someone, an illegal immigrant being used as a slave I think, had been caught trying to escape or blow the lid on a human trafficking operation. A tough little Asian guy shot the would-be escapee in the head - or did he stab him with a knife? - not realizing I was watching and that I had taken a photo. I managed to sneak away, but took no action: what if I reported what I saw, and there were negative repercussions for myself or Mom? Did I want Asian gangs coming after me?

I'm not sure if I stayed in the grocery store, to finish shopping, or went away and came back, but what I'd seen continued to prey on my mind. Then I saw that they had a milk crate full of records, and, as is my way in dreams, I lost myself looking through them. "Look, Mom, they have some North Korean heavy metal! I wonder what that sounds like?"

I continued to look through the records, forgetting about what I'd seen, almost.

There was another dream not long ago where my father was still alive and it was my mother who had died, and we were discussing what to do with her easy chair, which, in fact, was father's easy chair in life. (Both their easy chairs in fact ended up in possession of neighbours). Dad was sitting on the giant couch (also now in the possession of neighbours) that Mom and he brought out from - Ontario? Quebec? - when they relocated to BC in the 1950's. It was nice spending time with him, though I knew he was sad that Mom was gone.

Lots of dreams, lately, in fact. What was that REM song title, "I Don't Sleep, I Dream?" (Remember when REM was cool? I do). Sometimes it feels like I'm dreaming so hard it's interfering with my rest. Might be due to work stresses: I'm getting irregular hours, no guarantees of classes, as the school flounders due to trouble with our parent corporation. Classes proceed as usual, but there are fewer and fewer students; here we are at the peak season, and a bunch of us, employed full time last year, have lost all our guaranteed classes and have to scrounge for sub work.

One amusing aspect of all this is that I've had to subsidize my income by selling off chunks of my record collection - the stuff I've been owning for the sake of owning it, that I seldom actually want to listen to - and this Facebook friend of mine, Eric Damianos - I think he worked for the Straight at some point - keeps buying it and posting his "scores" on Facebook. I guess it's some comfort that I know my records are going to a good home, but I might as well just start selling to him directly!

Anyhow, that's about it for now. I should have an article coming out in the West Ender about shows this coming weekend. I might have something in the Straight, too, though there's no guarantee there.

I probably need to get my resume in order...

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Phantom Boy, Cosmos and Birth at the Vancity Theatre

I gather attendance at Andrzej Zulawski's Cosmos at the Vancity Theatre was pretty poor last night. Odd how that seems to be an ongoing story - even what by me were surefire winners that got me actually OUT OF THE HOUSE in recent months (like a bunch of those DePalma's) only drew a few dozen other people out at best. Zulawski is a bit of a more daring bet, of course, especially during the summer, but surely there are people in Vancouver who care about cinema like this? The one film of his that most film geeks I know have seen, Possession, has a huge, culty reputation, and is a very strange, dark, singular experience, uncompromising and uncomfortable. It's a sort of surrealist horror film, and Zulawski occupies in his own way a unique place in cinema, akin to Lynch or Jodorowsky (not that his practice bears any relevance to theirs). To be honest, I've only seen Possession once, never really wanted to go back to it, though I do have a DVD of it. Plus it's not exactly the sort of cinema my girlfriend gets excited about; I mean, she still hasn't forgiven me for Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which she found totally devastating. So what can I say? How can I impart blame on anyone who didn't go check it out, when, while Cosmos was playing to a house of ten or so attendees, I was off with Erika seeing the new Star Trek movie in New West...?

...Which, by the way, is a disappointing film, quite a bit lesser than Into Darkness, bearing more resemblance to Justin Lin's usual action-packed Fast and Furious fare than the previous films in the, uh, "reboot franchise." Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow remains my favourite of his films; it's too bad he hasn't made anything else quite like it (that I've heard of, anyhow; I haven't seen Finishing the Game, but compared to his other ventures, Better Luck Tomorrow is personal, subversive, smart, and indy, which is usually a pretty pleasing combination....).

Anyhow, my apologies to the Vancity Theatre for not doing more to plug Cosmos. But if tomorrow is as hot as I think it's going to be, perhaps I might attempt an air-conditioned triple bill of (the animated French film) Phantom Boy, Cosmos, and Birth - by Jonathan Glazer, of Under The Skin fame, and apparently an unheralded masterpiece, which will be followed by a bit of a "Frames of Mind"-style discussion. This sounds like a pretty pleasant Sunday at the movies, actually - plus they have beer, which you can now take into the auditorium.

Here's hoping it's a scorcher, I have more of a chance of getting Erika out to something like this if it is. If I'm not there, we're probably off somewhere, swimming. Sorry.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pit Stop, Open Windows, plus Colossal (2016)

Two very different, and in their own ways delightful, Blu's consumed this week: Arrow Video's Pit Stop - a somewhat lesser-known Jack Hill film from 1967 - and Nacho Vigalondo's 2014 film Open Windows, which I've seen mostly get negative reviews - provoking me to take the opposite stance, though my enjoyment of it may have something to do with having found a Blu of it at Dollarama for $3, something that almost always improves a film for me.

First, Pit Stop. I don't know my Jack Hill like some folks do. His uncredited contributions to 1960's Roger Corman films aside, I've only seen Spider Baby, Coffy, and Foxy Brown, and loved all three, though Coffy is, as I recall, far stronger a film, a politically-pointed Pam Grier blaxploitation/ sexploitation vehicle. I must here confess that I became aware of Ms. Grier via Quentin Tarantino, so - impressed by her charisma and authority, and taking her seriously as an actress, as she deserves to be taken - I wasn't actually expecting her, when I first watched either of those earlier films, to undress. Both Coffy and Foxy Brown get a bit lecherous in their groping gaze, however; she's got a fullsome top half and it dominates the screen at times. It was a bit disappointing to see that she ever had to "go" there - kinda like it might feel to someone who knows Uma Thurman from her recent work to go back to Dangerous Liaisons, where she also has a nude scene, as gratuitous and exploitative as Grier's - but I must admit that I'm not entirely ungrateful for having seen her undressed, and both films make an ass-kicking heroine of her, potent and surprising, even with her breasts prominently displayed.

Anyhow, setting aside Pam Grier's breasts for the time being, Pit Stop - entirely nudeless, though there is some light titillation in it - is one of a sampling of Blu-Ray/DVD combos coming out from Arrow in Canada, region 1 friendly and relatively affordable, and is the first Arrow I've actually seen (there's also the American Horror Project, Mark of the Devil, Society, and The Mutilator on the shelf at the Robson HMV, and one or two others; there's even a spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef, Day of Anger, that I've thus far missed and am most looking forward to).

Turns out the rep of Arrow is well-deserved, if my one experience of them is anything to go by, because there's lots to love about Pit Stop, simple as it is. The story is admittedly somewhat formulaic: a young, ambitious racer (Brian Donlevy) enters the world of figure-eight stock car racing, just this side of a smash-up derby, with cars colliding into each other routinely at the intersection of the eight. He challenges an extroverted champ (a young Sid Haig), incurs his animosity, and then (of course) ultimately befriends him. Some of the things that ring strongest about the film remind you of other films: Donlevy's dismissive attitude towards love, as standing in his way towards success, seems ported over from Robert Rossen's 1961 film The Hustler, but what a great film to steal from. So too is Nick Ray's The Lusty Men - a film about competitive rodeo riding that has female characters quite a bit more world-weary and mature than the gotta-be-boys male leads who care only about their chosen sport. The women in Pit Stop include a young Ellen Burstyn, from before she took that name, and Spider Baby's Beverly Washburn - who also appeared in the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years" and has a long career elsewise, still ongoing. Their characters both understand and feel deeply the cost of their men's obsessions. They're somewhat marginalized in the story - just like women tend to be in real life - but somehow manage to provide the film a moral compass to which the men of the movie pay no heed; it's an interesting trick, to have us follow the men down the wrong road, while our hearts stay with the women they've walked away from...

Based on this, no matter how much female nudity you find in Hill's filmography - I expect there's plenty in The Big Bird Cage, too - it's hard not to wonder if maybe there really is an argument for identifying Hill as some sort of feminist (I haven't seen Switchblade Sisters, also his film, so I can't speak to that, though it seems like it might be germaine). Regardless, Pit Stop is a treat to watch, mostly because of the gripping, gritty locations - including scrapyards and a real-life figure eight track, with races filmed with a documentary sensibility. It's shot in black and white - which Sid Haig explains in a featurette was due to budgetary limitations; black and white was all they could manage and stay under budget, given what they could afford to do with lighting of the track, where they mostly were doing night shoots. But this is just perfect; black and white looks great for a film like this, highlights the compositions nicely. About my only budget-related quibble is that these were the days of rear-projecting driving scenes, so the close ups of the drivers are obviously not being done - a dune buggy sequence notwithstanding - with the drivers actually in moving cars. If that mild bit of hokeyness doesn't unsettle you - if you're comfortable with the look and feel of a low budget movie from the time - there's a lot of charm on hand here, and a lot more craft than one might normally expect from a car racing movie.

And Sid Haig! My God, what a treasure Sid Haig is. I've seen him as a bearded heavy in a few 70's blaxploitation films, I've seen his films with Rob Zombie and his recent, amply uglified, Slim-Pickens-like bit part in Bone Tomahawk, but  I've never quite seen him like this before: it's a real treat seeing him grinning and leaping around as Hawk Sidney, an expressive, irrepressible show-off and braggart with a nasty temper. He has no facial hair, looks a bit like a young Edward James Olmos; it's nice to see him in a role that calls for grinning and shouting and boasting, and not just glowering and griping. I bought the Blu in part based on Sid Haig's prominent role alone; though he is not the main character, he gets plenty of screen time, and fans of Haig's will not be disappointed.

Remarkably different - but perfectly timed, for Vancouverites, coming after the Vancity Theatre's superb Brian De Palma retrospective - is Open Windows. It's a gamey film - not in the sense that it tastes like wild meat, but in the sense that it plays with as many formal gimmicks as it can bring to bear, making De Palma's split screens seem positively tame. There are often four or five different laptop windows open on the film's screen at one time, with the entire narrative unfolding through Skype-style chat windows, surveillance cameras, dashboard cameras, and so forth; I don't believe there are any shots in the film that are not mediated through the eye of a camera within the narrative, making it an odd film for Elijah Wood to pop up in, no pun intended, after having made the Maniac remake (which is also very aware of the eye it is seen through). There's also a lot of the "who-is-the-author" game playing that will please fans of Hitchcock and give film studies students and professors plenty to write papers on, even if mainstream audiences are mostly put off by how self-conscious and demanding the movie is.

The setup is like this, though there's stuff that cannot be told: an internet geek - Elijah Wood - who runs a fan site dedicated to a particular actress - is told he will win a dinner with her. He has checked into the hotel where she's staying, believing that it is part of his prize; suddenly, as he sits down to his laptop, a pop up window appears with a call from an anonymous man, obviously lying about his identity, who quickly manipulates his way into controlling the geek's evening. The anonymous man - who quickly proves dangerous and untrustworthy - is on some level a cipher for the filmmaker, manipulating the audience; this cements our identification with Wood, who is the manipulator's victim as much as we are the filmmaker's. Whether any of this amounts to anything - or if it is a tale that really needs to be told, after Rear Window and Peeping Tom and a host of other game-playing self-reflexive films before it - is anyone's guess, but people who enjoy trying to sort out how a film is working and what it means will probably be more engaged than people just hoping for a well-told story (ie., I liked it better than Erika did). Also thrown into the mix are a master hacker, who may or may not be a) Elijah Wood b) the manipulator; or c) the manipulator's first victim. There's also a France-based (but not metric-system using: oops) hacker group trying to get in touch with their hero, who get enlisted by an increasingly desperate Wood to help, and a few peripheral characters - men in the woman's life, police, etc. It's all entertainingly done, and the Vancity Theatre's Tom Charity - who was recently talking on Facebook about De Palma's use of split screen, and how odd it is that so few other filmmakers have really taken advantage of the technique - should probably see it. I'm not actually sure about anyone else, but it's better made, more interesting, and more formally accomplished than it is being given credit for being, so if you find it at Dollarama too...

One thing they do that I've seen before is the gimmick of having a website that will kill people the more people log in. I think I've seen that a few times now; the first time, I think, was Gregory Hoblit's 2008 thriller Untraceable, though doubtlessly it pops up in a Saw film and maybe even in that Indonesian-Japanese co-production Killers that I liked so much a few months ago. Vigalondo obviously knows it's been done before, because he only briefly employs the idea. Vigalondo is best known for the Spanish film Timecrimes, unseen by me, and the short film "Parallel Monsters," which was probably the best segment of V/H/S: Viral, the disappointing third installment in the V/H/S franchise. Like fellow Spaniards Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows and some pretty good Liam Neeson thrillers - see last month for more - and Jaume Balagueró i Bernat (REC franchise and the creepy, great Spanish thriller Sleep Tight), Vigalondo has made a promising crossover into American genre cinema. He has a new film coming up, Colossal, filmed in Vancouver; it was, I gather from IMDB, hit by a lawsuit during pre-production, claiming it had similarities to Godzilla; God knows why, based on the posters below, but I'm all for it, because I'd love to see Vancouver eaten by a giant monster.