Sunday, 27 February 2011

Melting snow

The weather in Aomori is slowly turning warmer and the snow that has covered everything for the last couple of months is beginning to melt. We tend to have a couple of really warm days that'll get rid of a lot of the snow, then a couple more days where it snows and some of the snow is replaced again. But on the whole, it's disappearing. There are still massive piles that people have contributed to every day for the last few weeks when shoveling their drive ways or shopfronts, so it'll be a while before they go. But a lot of the smaller piles and patches are melting, and often when you're walking round you can hear the constant sound of water dripping off peoples' houses giving the illusion that it's raining.

Work has been pretty busy this last month. For the first four Tuesdays in February I ran a series of lectures called 英国文化理解講座 (Lectures on Understanding British Culture). To give an idea of what I talked about, here were the four titles: 外国人が見た日本人 英国編 (Japan Through the Eyes of a British Person), イギリス人の生活の仕方 (Daily Life in Britain), イギリスの食文化 (Britain's Food Culture) and 偉大なイギリス人 (Great Britons). The lectures were open to the general public and most people came after seeing an advert we put in a local newsletter. There were around 20 people in total, mostly older Japanese women. I even got asked out to karaoke by one and gifted two boxes of sugar by another. I also took questions after each presentation, and was asked such gems as "Who is stronger, the British or the French?" and "Do you have pet shops in the UK?". Preparing each presentation took a lot of time as each session was two hours, but it was a good experience and has given me four presentations I can use again in the future - I sometimes get asked to do presentations at other clubs, universities etc.

Last weekend was the city hall bowling tournament, and that was a lot of fun. We took up the whole bowling alley with about 120 people bowling at the same time. Then this past Friday there was a party for a couple of the American JETs who live in Aomori City. Well, it started off as for those two, but then grew to include another 3 gaijin whose birthday it is this month. After the sad demise of our regular winter watering hole, ONE SHOT HOUSE, this party was held at a new venue called Goofy, complete with its sign in the Disney font; I'm sure Disney's lawyers will be in touch soon. This new place was OK, there was a good mix of Japanese and gaijin and we had all-you-can-eat and drink, but that sounds a lot more fun that it ever is in Japan. The food consisted of about four buffet plates of food that disappeared very quickly, and then the drink consisted of a slow bar that would often forget your drink order, leading to nobody getting their moneys-worth at 4000 yen (about 28 quid). After that we went to another local bar where know the guy who runs it well. We sang karaoke there for a couple of hours. Interestingly, a guy I met on Friday added me on Facebook, and I noticed today that it said on my profile page I'd become his friend from meeting him at the party. Facebook must have looked at the guest-list for that event and made the assumption. Facebook grows ever more powerful.

Photo courtesy of wannabe-Brit (notice the shirt), Crave

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

Two documentaries

Been watching a few films lately, a couple were documentaries - The Making of a Cult Classic: The Unauthorized Story of 'The Goonies' and Best Worst Movie.

I heard about the The Making of... a while back and I followed it's progress up until it's release last year. As a big Goonies fan I was interested to learn about the process behind the film from the people who made it. Surprisingly, when you consider the film's massive and zealous fan base, there hasn't really been much like this documentary available. To my knowledge, there have been a few scraps of video on YouTube, and some documentaries shown on US TV, but nothing like this before.

If you check the The Making of... 's entry on IMDb it has a current rating of 9/10, which is extremely high for IMDb. The Making of... isn't really worth that high a rating. I think the absence of this kind of doc has meant people have gobbled this up straight away, and rated it a bit more highly than it should be. I was looking forward to seeing it, but when you get down to it it's basically just a lot of interview footage from a few of the actors and the director, and the whole thing lasts under an hour. In some ways it feels like a glorified YouTube video. In an age when decent media is now available online legally for free, I don't think the price of this DVD ($15.99) is justified.

You do have to take into account that this is obviously an extremely low budget production. The people who made this are just a group of fans, so there isn't that much meat to the film. If you want to hear a bit of insight and a few stories from behind the scenes it's great, but I'd have liked a bit more analysis and background information, rather than just anecdotes from the actors and director. There are times when the actors are talking about a scene in the film, and it would have been great if the viewer could actually see that scene, but budgetary constraints obviously meant that actual footage from the film couldn't be included.

Ultimately this is something for mega-fans. Even the casual Goonies fan might struggle to enjoy this. Richard Donner and Corey Feldman are good value for money, but everything else feels a bit inconsequential.

So it was great to see Best Worst Movie, another documentary about a movie, and this doc is mostly deserving of its incredibly high praise. There's a tendency to oversell documentaries, to make the events of the documentary seem more groundbreaking and coincidental than they actually are. Best Worst Movie has suffered from that a bit, but that's how documentaries are marketed these days. And part of the fun is getting caught up in that and believing that this story is something special and touching. And for the most part, Best Worst Movie is.

It's all about the film Troll 2, commonly acknowledged as the worst movie of all time. I first heard about Troll 2 on a podcast a couple of years ago when the hosts were indeed discussing how terrible it is. Interestingly, Best Worst Movie has been made by Michael Stephenson, who starred in Troll 2 as a child, and the documentary mostly follows George Hardy, who also starred in Troll 2.

Hardy is now a dentist, and his role in the film was his only ever acting role, but as the film has gained a cult status recently in the US Hardy attends quite a few Troll 2-themed events and is hailed as a hero for his role in this train wreck of a movie. Some of the other actors are similar in that they haven't had the most successful film careers since, but for these people the recent interest in the movie has given them an opportunity for their 15 minutes of fame through screenings across the US.

One of these failed actors is Don Packard who plays the drugstore owner. While hearing how the movie has been part of all the different actors lives is interesting, Don's stories pre and post-Troll 2 are the most interesting. His frankness and openness genuinely draws you in. He readily admits he's mentally ill, and goes on to tell how he was high on pot whilst filming for Troll 2. Most of the actors didn't have a clue what was going on with the film while they were filming it, mostly down to the incompetence of the Italian director who could barely speak English, but Packard being high the whole time just adds a whole other level of absurdity to the situation.

Then the Italian director enters the documentary. This guy is totally deluded, as he thinks the film's newfound popularity is down to it being a great film. The actors all know this isn't the case, but the director doesn't, and he just can't accept that all these people who come to the showings come to laugh at how bad the film is. The director and actors even have a bit of an argument in front of the fans resulting from the director's frustration that no-one can appreciate the film for its artistic merit.

Best Worst Movie is great as it shows the effect Troll 2 had on the lives of everyone involved, and the whole situation is just absurd, especially after the director gets involved. Definitely check this one out if you're a fan of docs.

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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Vinyl dump

So I received my latest stack of vinyl yesterday evening. What tends to happen is I'll order various vinyl over a period of time on eBay, then the postman will try to deliver them one by one over the course of a week. He'll do this during the daytime while I'm at work, which means I'm not in to collect them. So I'll amass a letterbox full of undelivered item slips which I'll reply to, meaning I get a big dump of vinyl all in one go. By this time I've forgotten what vinyl I actually ordered, so it's always a surprise opening up the packages to see what albums my past self has sent along for future Joe.

Bonus Fat is an short album from back when Descendents were called The Descendents - 1985. It throws together various tracks from the years of 1979 and 1981, and the difference in the band's sound between these two years is very apparent. The noisy hardcore of Side A shows signs of the band that would go on to write pop punk classics like Milo Goes To College, while Side B is the band's first release from back when they were more of a new wave/surf band. The only thing on Side B that sounds anything like the rest of the band's output is Bill Stevenson's drumming. But this is a fun release, as it shows how much the band changed their sound between '79 and '81.

Next is something I've been looking for for a while now, the soundtrack to National Lampoon's Vacation.

The Star Wars-rip off album art on the front is a sight to behold, and then there's some great design on the back cover as well.

Much like the Goonies soundtrack which I got hold of, this vinyl looks like it was a promotional copy. It reads "Lent for Promotional Use Only. Any Sale or Unauthorized Transfer is Prohibited and Void. Subject to Return Upon Demand by Owner. Acceptance of This Record Constitues Agreement to the Above." The capitalisation of most of the words there is kind of odd.

Then lastly, we have the soundtrack to Rocky IV. I've been looking for this one for a while, ever since my brother played me "Training Montage" by Vince DiCola. Synth rock at its finest. DiCola also wrote the music for The Transformers: The Movie which was actually the best thing about that film, so he's a legend in my book.

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Friday, 4 February 2011

Aoni Onsen

As I mentioned in my previous post, last weekend all the JET CIRs from Aomori prefecture went to stay at a rather famous hot spring resort called Aoni Onsen. It's a remote little lodge located in a dip between the peaks of the Kuroishi hills. It's so remote the place can't get TV or mobile phone reception, and it doesn't even have electricity. As we drove out to the onsen on the special shuttle bus - normal cars/buses aren't allowed to drive out there - I watched the signal bars on my mobile disappear and realised I wasn't going to be in with much of a chance of following the Asian Cup final, which I'd wanted to watch. Japan ended up winning 1-0 by the way though. Well done lads.

We arrived mid afternoon, while it was still light. First things first, we went for a dip in a couple of the four pools. Whilst bathing in the second one the sky turned dark and the only illumination left was the gas lamps scattered about the place. As the daylight dimmed and the temperature dropped, the pool room became dark and filled with steam. This made it hard to have a conversation, and we spent a good 30 minutes shouting at each other across the pool, until we left for dinner. Dinner was traditional Japanese food, lots of fish and boiled vegetables and rice. The Japanese have a word for food like this, 山菜料理 - mountain plant food. Yeah, we weren't gonna be getting much else out here.

We then headed back to the rooms for a quiz and drinking/eating/chatting. There were two Japanese-style rooms - one for the girls, one for the boys - complete with tatami mats and green tea kits. Our team won the quiz, then we spent the rest of the night trading various Japanese alcohols and snacks. You can find the craziest snacks in Japan, and everyone seemed to have their own recommendation which would get passed round the circle. As people got sleepy the group got smaller and smaller, and eventually everyone made their futon from the ridiculous pile of blankets, sheets and cushions. There was actually a guide on how to put the futon together, but we just threw some blankets together and slept on them. We switched off the kerosene heaters, which had by now given everyone headaches and sore throats due to the windows being frozen shut meaning the rooms couldn't be aired. But heat is a necessity when your living at the top of a mountain in the middle of winter.

We woke up earlier than I'd wake up on a weekday to catch breakfast, which was basically the same meal as we'd eaten 12 hours earlier. After gathering our things and posing for a picture we got back on the shuttle bus and made our way back to civilisation.

I can see why Aoni Onsen is popular. It feels primitive and natural, but it's not an easy, relaxing weekend. It's quite the opposite actually, but when you take into account how much the Japanese love the idea of 頑張る (struggling on despite difficulties) I think Aoni will be doing good business for years to come.

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