Saturday, July 31, 2021

Vancouver Arthouse return! With specific focus on He Ran All the Way and Mandibles

It wouldn't be a real Vancouver summer for movie-lovers without the Cinematheque's Film Noir series, and lo, it has returned, with a usual mixture of tried and true favourites, including a couple of films that tend to appear on my list of favourite noirs: Gun Crazy, Criss Cross, and In a Lonely Place (yes, basis for that Smithereens song, and one of the saddest noirs ever), a couple of historically important films that I've seen but don't have much to say about (like Kiss Me Deadly, which will forever to me be a footnote in my fandom for Repo Man) and a nice sampling of "deep cuts" that I've never seen, like City That Never Sleeps and The Glass Key, based on a terrific Dashiell Hammett novel (one of the few vintage crime novels I've read twice, and one of the sources for the plot in Miller's Crossing, which mix-and-matches a few Hammett texts in a way that I'm sure they would consider homage, but has always seemed - tho' I like the film a lot - to be borderline plagiarism).

The one that I have never seen that really stands out for me is He Ran All the Way, for a few reasons that have nothing to do with the story itself (which does sound compelling): because, first off, I'm kind of fascinated by young Shelley Winters (who I grew up watching play cranky "broads" in movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Tenant, Bloody Mama, or Kubrick's Lolita - which seems the turning point between her sex-bomb years and her later mode. Unaware of her early career, I used to find her kind of gross, to be honest, since these characters were often kind of vulgar and none-too-bright. then realized at some point that in fact, that grossness was something she was performing, and suddenly found myself feeling deep respect for her. She went from this, back when she was hanging around with Marilyn Monroe:

To this, in what has become my favourite of her "broad" roles, The Poseidon Adventure:

...And kept working well past her "best-by" date in a system that didn't have much use for real actresses, except as eye candy. Truth is, I still find something kind of nails-on-a-chalkboardish about her later roles (she's just so frumpy and unpleasant, in films like Polanski's The Tenant, for example) but I realize now that she's TRYING to get under your skin there...

Even more of a reason I'm keen on He Ran All the Way: I haven't seen many John Garfield movies, and never this one, though that morphs into another issue that, in fact, cineastes out there can help me with; I am convinced that I have heard reference to He Ran All the Way in some other film, or some other film-related place, like an interview with a director I respect... but I have no idea where. Did a character in a Martin Scorsese film talk about it? That seems like it could be the case; maybe the Harvey Keitel character in Who's That Knocking At My Door, since he's a film buff? That would be pleasing, because the late Bertrand Tavernier, when I interviewed him about the blu-ray release of Death Watch, likened Keitel to Garfield:

I find him very moving, very interesting--totally immature. I love that quality in Harvey. And from the beginning, the moment when he entered the restaurant, when I met him, I said, “this is Roddy!” Especially when he was smiling. And I had seen many of his films, post-Taxi Driver, and in many films he was always tense, never smiling. Sometimes very effectively, like in Fingers, which was a very underrated film. But he was never loosening up, something he could do; he also could express the immaturity of the character, the guilt. I told him, “you remind me of John Garfield.” He had a kind of Garfieldian quality.

...All of which is enough to make me interested to see Garfield's final performance, as is the blacklisting of various people involved in this film (co-written by Dalton Trumbo, who was the subject of a pretty good movie himself a few years ago) but like I say, I've had a "pin" in my memory about this particular film for a long time, long enough to have forgotten where it came from. I should go see it, for sure, but it probably won't help me recall WHY I think I should go see it. Help me scratch my niggling itch!

There's also a return to open for the Vancity Theatre - now and in the future to be called the VIFF Centre, also now boasting a new "studio theatre" on the side. They have a few films that I am very excited to see. I will be seeing Gunda alone, sadly. I described it to Erika, who doesn't resonate with black and white so much, and who is not actually a cinema lover, per se - she likes movies, but, like, that amazing opening sequence of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse did nothing for her but give her a point of reference to tell me what not to play her in the future ("Is it like the movie about the guy walking the horse up the hill?" ...we didn't even finish it, only got as far as the potato-eating scene, which is to my mind the greatest potato scene in film history, but... you know, I can't entirely blame her; either your scopophilia kicks in and you are compelled beyond reason by such images, or it doesn't and you aren't).

To me, though, Gunda sounds amazing: a gorgeously-photographed black and white Norwegian documentary about the life of a pig.

I haven't seen Quentin Dupieux's Mandibles, but I have seen his telekinetic killer tire movie, Rubber, and that film, if you've missed it, is both insane and very fun to watch. On the strength of that film alone - which I am sure Erika would also enjoy, note - I'd be game to see another Dupieux. Then I read the description from the VIFF website:

The gig couldn’t be more straightforward: Manu is to hotwire a car, pick up a briefcase, deliver it straight away, absolutely no peeking, no diversions, discretion guaranteed. Inviting his best bud Jean-Gab to come along for the ride is not in the remit. But then, who could have foreseen what would turn up in the trunk of the yellow wrecker he chooses at random…? A housefly the size of a dog. Naturally, the two friends are bemused. There must be real money here, if they can only figure it out. Jean-Gab has an idea: tape up its wings, earn its trust, and train it to pull a bank robbery…

Um, what? A giant fly robbing a bank? Um... okay. Not quite sure how Dupieux comes up with his ideas. It feels like they could have begun as one sentence or phrase (which also applies to "telekinetic killer tire"). You get the sense with some of the more outlandish films out there, like Kevin Smith's idiotic but unforgettable Tusk, the film's premise emerges from a contest between very stoned friends to see who can come up with the most batshit ideas for movies; what's remarkable is not that drug-fond filmmakers might have such conversations, but that they actually follow through on the ideas that arise in them when they're sober. In any event - whatever Dupieux's inspirations or intent - Mandibles sounds like a must-see to me. (The title surely is a riff on Jaws, eh?). 

There's lots else to see at the Vancity, coming up - also Annette, a rock opera made with the deep involvement of the Sparks brothers. Sparks - coming soon to Vancouver, and subject of a well-regarded recent documentary - is a cult band I respect but haven't done justice; I do love their song and video for "I Predict." Have not yet heard their soundtrack to Annette (listening to this one song as I type). Bears looking into!

 I'm also very keen to catch La Piscine, an erotic French thriller starring Romy Schneider, whom I loved so much it the aforementioned Death Watch. Udo Kier fans will want, meanwhile, to check out Swan Song. I've missed both these cinemas (and the cinema itself) a great deal, and am excited by the prospect of seeing all of these films in a cinema. The opportunity may not last long, here, so... 

Friday, July 30, 2021

A return to punk rock gigs with Betty Bathory and company

So I've already put this joke on Facebook, but after LanaLou's last night, I have the perfect name for a punk band: Superspreader. It's edgy, vaguely obscene, and probably prophetic, because if I'm ever gonna catch COVID, last night is the night that's gonna do it. 

Allow me to explain. 

Having worn my mask on the bus, the Skytrain, and shopping for records (cheap Guadalcanal Diary stuff at Audiopile - I realized recently that I didn't have Jamboree, and I've never owned Flip Flop, and took care of both for around $5 each), I found myself somewhat daunted, as I walked up Powell, by the dozen or so smokers standing around outside LanaLou's, not one of whom was wearing a mask or practicing anything like social distancing. Is this a preview of what's inside? I wondered. Am I ready for this? The thought occurred to me turn around and go home, but I'd told Bob Hanham I would see him there, and packed some gift vids for him and for Betty Bathory, whose birthday bash it was (I gave Bob two great neo-noirs from the London Drugs sale bins, Small Town Crime and Galveston, a copy of that too-ugly-for-me Lars von Trier serial killer film, and brought Maudie, Revenge, and A Vigilante for Betty - all of which you can probably still find on the cheap at a London Drugs near you, selling for 3/$5 as part of a Mongrel/ Saban video dump). Weighing my options, I straightened up and arrived at resolve: fuckit, let's go inside... I think I mighta flirted with putting on a mask at the door, but quickly realized it would have been complete folly, because no one I could see had one on, and there were plenty of people inside. So there it is: How much do I believe that these vaccines will really work? 

Might as well find out. I mean, by the current plan, I'm going back to work face-to-face with the public five days a week in September, without masks or barriers or social distancing, and only a smidgen of extra cleaning. In terms of restrictions, the province seems, in general, to have fallen flat on its back, spread its legs, and told COVID to give us its best shot - so I might as well, too. It seems pretty obvious that we're going to be going back into lockdown mode at some point, that the vaccines will only ever be partially effective, and that the variants of concern out there are not exactly going away, but it also seems pretty clear that WE ARE NEVER GOING TO ARRIVE AT ZERO COVID, not with the two-step "Open and Close" dance we keep doing. If we were ever going to beat this, we would have by now. Trying to keep myself safe when the majority of the general public and the province are trying to "return to normal" is going to get tired soon, and I don't want to become some reclusive shut-in afraid to go out because there are diseases out there... So what the hell, let's take these vaccines out for a test drive, see what they can do. I'm just flat-out bored of trying to be cautious. I'm bored of being in the minority of people who is wearing a mask on public transit - bored of protecting the people who are NOT wearing masks and thus not trying to protect me; where's the sanity in that? Going back to full on punk gigs might not be safe, but like Tesco Vee says, the best punk shows always have an element of danger in them, anyhow; so once through the door, I stuffed my mask in my pocket, and there it remained until I hadda take transit home. 

And y'know - ask me again if it was worth it when I've lost my sense of smell and taste, had a drop in IQ, got the COVID toes, and been on a ventilator - but from where I sit now, I gotta say, it was a great night. Saw a TON of people I have not seen in well over a year. Sat with Gord McCaw and Bob Hanham, whose photographs of the night are obviously gonna put my shitty cellphone snaps to shame (but I still kept trying). Ate poutine, guzzled three Guinness, and bought Clay Holmes a beer and chatted briefly about plans for the WISE Hall and about his new band, Digression, who have a pretty fuckin' clever album title, but no physical album. (Fun music - I would see this live!).

There were many other people I saw last night, most of whom I have not seen for a year - Hey, Dave! Hey, Talesha! Hey, Nick! Hey, Pete! Hey, Norah! It almost felt like community, again, and the social element would alone have made it a successful night. But it didn't hurt that there were three kickass sets of music - which I don't actually have that much to say about, really (I mean, I'm not tryin' to be insightful here). Steady Teddy was great, with a welcome pinch of rockabilly in their mix and a standup bass. Daddy Issues was great, and Betty is a hell of a performer - I sadly could not get any "chicks with dicks" shots (friends with dildos joined the band  onstage), and I missed her later lapdance (Talesha tells me) from a pro stripper and whatever songs she joined the Gnar Gnars for. Orchard Pinkish, in Betty's band, was one of the only people actually in a mask last night, but it was a Plague Doctor one, and their set included some totally fun covers of "Be My Baby" and "Love Gun" (though I *think* the two songs I recorded were originals...?). The Gnar Gnars, whom I'd never seen previously, had a bit of a Dayglos vibe to their music and their rude-as-fuck lyrics, including a song about fucking vacuum cleaners (not a real thing, please tell  me?). A great punk band, it seems - and if they'd been a visible presence at their merch table (if they even had one?) I would have bought (speaking of clever titles) The Gnarnicles of Chronia for sure (and maybe a t-shirt, because holy shit it was hot in there - it was a fuckin' terrarium - and I could have used a change of clothes at the end of the night). 

Alas, my wife had to work early today, so as I often do, I ducked out before the end of the evening. It was kind of a welcome and necessary relief from a year of near-giglessness, and the only two questions that remain for me is a) whether I am going to go see Crummy on Saturday (or would that count as "pushing my luck?"), and whether Betty is gonna come visit me in the hospital next month, when the COVID has me on a ventilator...

...Actually, given how many people hugged her last night, she'll probably be there too! Happy birthday, Betty! 

Tellin' ya, folks - Superspreader. Yours to take, free!  

(Photos by Allan MacInnis, in reverse order, except for the last two, from the end of the night). 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Male midlife crisis thrillers for men and women alike: Nobody, Small Town Crime, and Boss Level

I haven't anything serious to write about at the moment. I mean, not that I can do justice to. I'm beaten. My internet time has been spent going back and forth from videos by Dr. Robert Malone to stories about residential school graves to news of millions of sea creatures cooked alive in their shells during our heatwave to the constantly changing public messaging around the pandemic (NACI says that mix-and-matching is safe, and that's what I ended up doing, shortly before the WHO came out against it...). I'm full of low-key anxiety that our mass reopening might  be precipitous, expecting COVID numbers to open up, and then again wondering if people's fears aren't as overheated as those dead mussels on the beach. Add to that the uncertainties and vicissitudes of daily life and, well folks, I'm beat, and simply cannot muster the strength enough to write something serious at the moment. 

So I'm going to just write about some movies I have enjoyed. Somewhat lowbrow ones. Entertainments, with aging white men as their chosen demographic. Sorry. I am, after all, an aging white man, what can I say?

Actually, it's funny how enduring movies are aimed at that demographic, even still - mostly movies about men who need to "remasculate" themselves (I am sure someone else has used that term before, but I was still impressed when Erika used it tonight, watching one such movie, as it was the first either of us had encountered it - so it had the effect of a clever coinage, regardless of whether it has been done before). You know the type - movies about (apparent) family men who suddenly must summon and re-master past violence to confront and set right a great evil (or better yet, protect an innocent from a threat). There's a long and deep trench of American popular cinema - from Unforgiven and A History of Violence to more trivial formula fare like John Wick - that has been dug by these films, which ultimately seem to reduce to being "male midlife crisis movies" - fantasies to assuage the bruised ego of men who have had to tone down their game to enter family life, who are aware of the vulnerabilities of getting old and need their egos and sense of themselves as "men of action" reassured. Bruce Willis is the poster-boy and patron saint of these films, and Die Hard is perhaps their pinnacle achievement - but has dropped weirdly below visibility lately, making films on a smaller and smaller budget that are about as alluring as the later career of Steven Seagal. He was even effectively replaced by Liam Neeson for awhile, but no matter: as long as your star is a white man aged 35-65, you can make one of these movies; the stars come and go, but the formula abides. They also invariably involve guns and bad guys and shootouts (oh my!). There is often a family that must be protected, that is ill-prepared to face the true nature of the main male character (the transformation of the milquetoast mathematician in Straw Dogs to efficient killer, for example, defending his home). The home is often destroyed along the way, or at least riddled with bullets, but the family is usually saved - essential to our continuing to identify with our hero as a hero... unless it turns out that the family is working with the bad guys to make sure the hero remains less than he can be (Total Recall springs to mind). 

Given how obvious their appeals are to the psychology of male filmgoers - often family men, or at least married men, whose lives are no doubt also less wild than they were in their 20's - it's curious to me that so many women I have known enjoy these sorts of films, too. They seem to have an appeal across gender boundaries. Whatever Carol J. Clover might say about the feminist aspects of the "final girl" in slasher films - whom male audiences seem also to be able to identify with, also crossing the lines of gender - Erika will choose John McClane over even a great final-girl slasher film any day (I actually tried Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on her, Dr. Clover, I swear, but she's just not that type of girl; I still plan to attempt the Hooper Toolbox Murders with her someday, which is so self-aware it makes me sure Hooper read your book, but I don't have great faith she'll dig it). Maybe there's something about the midlife crisis that appeals to women, too, even if almost all of these films have, somewhere as their subtext, the validation of the law of the father and the principle that father knows best...? Do they enjoy seeing the male ego laid so bare, or do they just identify with the man and get into it?

Mom, come to think of it, would often be yelling "kill him" at the screen during the final showdown of such movies. I think her identification with the hero was pretty complete, at such times... 

Anyhow, you wouldn't necessarily think that women could enjoy these sorta films, but Erika will sit down to such a film any day. They actually are kind of a middle ground we can both enjoy - and while it is sometimes odd to me the films I cannot share with her, the fact that I can lay the occasional Bronson on her is most appreciated. So we've been watching a bunch of these lately, Erika and I, and have caught some really good ones. Anyhow. that's what I sat down to write about... 

Nobody is pretty entertaining, in a silly, somewhat embarrassingly lowbrow, but still kind of witty, way: it knows what it is and approaches things with a smirk. It's great to see Bob Odenkirk as the star of the show, for a role that no doubt was written for him. It is on the more tongue-and-cheek end of the male-midlife-crisis thriller spectrum: A History of Violence by way of John Wick, with a few star turns from people who we might have expected to be retired by now (Michael Ironside, Christopher Lloyd). Erika and I also enjoyed Breaking Bad (another recent high point in the male-midlife-crisis-thriller genre), though we have yet to enter Better Call Saul. I hope the world doesn't end before we get the chance to. 

I also quite liked Small Town Crime, with John Hawkes, an actor I've enjoyed since the days of Benny's World of Blood, and with a small role for Robert Forster. It is also a bit on the lowbrow end of the spectrum - an escapist fantasy, ultimately - but more of a noir, with richer, more compromised, more "human" characters than the other films in this post, and quite a bit more grit (haven't quite figured out how its esthetic works with that of the director's next film, the "Mel Gibson as vengeful Santa thriller," Fatman, which probably also belongs in this genre - Mel's another poster-boy for it, really - but that one is quite a bit stranger than either this film or the average one; I mean, Santa?) Anyone who has missed Small Town Crime, incidentally, should go looking in the cheap bins at London Drugs; at least here in BC, Mongrel, or someone related, has dumped hundreds of underperforming movies to be sold at 3/$5, and Small Town Crime is by far the best of the half-dozen we've looked at so far. (Maudie, which is NOT a male midlife crisis movie, is also in these bins; The Trust and Galveston are also worth a watch, and A Vigilante, Marrowbone, and Revenge all look promising, though not relevant to this entry). 

And speaking of Mel Gibson, he's also in the new Joe Carnahan, Boss Level, which is also very fun, taking in elements of time-loop thrillers like Source Code or Edge of Tomorrow - all of which of course owe something to Groundhog Day - and structuring them like an RPG. It's all quite clever, definitively solidifies the "time loop thriller" as a subgenre of SF, and has a nice lead role for Frank Grillo, though Carnahan-wise, I liked the Grillo film Wheelman far more, which is by far the best new car chase thriller I've seen in years (beats the shit out of Drive and Baby Driver, anyhow; I'm not going to compare it to Ford Vs. Ferrari, though, since that's a different animal). Gibson plays the heavy - a small role, really, which I don't think Mel is particularly suited for (he's a lead actor, and seems to handle anything less with the same sets of mannerisms). Again, it is smartassed and tongue-in-cheek about what it is doing; it's about as serious, ultimately, as Carnahan's A-Team movie (which Erika and I also enjoyed together), but both Boss Level and Wheelman are definitely also male-midlife-crisis movies. Neither of them are as good as The Grey, also by Carnahan, which explicitly amps up the "facing mortality" aspects of the midlife crisis movie - that ultimate emasculation that awaits us all - but... if what you need is a white man of a certain age in trouble, facing mediocrity or irrelevance, needing to prove himself with violence... well, any of these are pretty great, actually...

I am, understand, all for movies that are not about men needing to remasculate themselves, torn between their nostalgia for wild youth on the one hand and their loss of male potency, on the other... I am as puzzled that I myself can still enjoy a good Die Hard movie as that Erika can. Shouldn't cinema be more than this? Don't I miss my own youth, watching arthouse films and reading film criticism? Are these films really in some subtle way about re-asserting white male dominance that come to the fore when exactly that is being threatened? 

Shit, I don't know, we just needed some light entertainment, and Boss Level, Small Town Crime, and Nobody all were a lot of fun. Don't judge us.