If Only Guy DeBord Were Here To Enjoy It

I'm now out to hit the streets for the annual Situationist wet dream that is Nuit Blanche.

My planned targets include:

- Lightbox, which is hosting a) the marathon movie sing-a-long, b) the Grindbox! stream of awesome cinematic filth, and c) a bunch of free DIY video games in old school standing arcade cabinets.

- Lower Bay Station, which features some sort of 'interactive' light-and-sound installation that is supposed to be reminiscent of Avatar's flora

- Bruce Springsteen songs re-done as Italian opera, just off Yonge & Dundas Square

- a bunch of other stuff I have no clue about yet, but will stumble upon in my travels


Minor Milestone

Just noticed that since I started keeping track of what songs I sing at karaoke, I have now hit 400 different titles sung.

Sinatra's That's Life was officially #400, if you're scoring at home. At the rate I'm adding new material, I may just be able to time it so that I tackle #500 sometime around my birthday in February...

September Travesties

Despite the film fest and all, still managed to squeeze in 29 songs last month. Breed and Waterfalls are both definite keepers.

24 Hours From Tulsa - Gene Pitney
Africa - Toto (duet w/Lisa Awesome)
Breed - Nirvana
Dancing In the Dark - Bruce Springsteen
Devil Went Down To Georgia - Charlie Daniels Band
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright - Bob Dylan
Eve of Destruction - Barry McGuire
Everlong - Foo Fighters (w/live band)
Fire - Jimi Hendrix
Games Without Frontiers - Peter Gabriel
Greatest American Hero - Joey Scarbury
Heartbreaker - Pat Benatar (w/live band)
Hounds of Love - Futureheads
In Bloom - Nirvana (w/live band)
In The End - Linkin Park (duet w/Johnny Priceless)
Life During Wartime - Talking Heads
Red Right Hand - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Sister Christian - Night Ranger
Slow Hands - Interpol
Stand By Me - John Lennon
Starlight - Muse
That's Life - Frank Sinatra
Time Is On My Side - Rolling Stones
Under Pressure - Queen & David Bowie (duet w/Melany)
Walk Away - James Gang
Waterfalls - TLC
White Room - Cream
Wild Horses - Rolling Stones
You'll Never Find - Lou Rawls

Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010, directed by Mark Romanek)

This may have been the most exceptionally brilliant failure of a movie I have ever seen.

There's no way to write this review without including massive spoilers, so let's just get them out of the way. Never Let Me Go envisions a world in which cloning was developed in the '50s, for the purpose of harvesting replacement organs. The film follows one clone, Kathy, and her two childhood friends Tommy and Ruth as they grow up in the '70s English countryside and then try to make their way in the world, while knowing all the while that their time is painfully short. It's a haunting, beautiful, melancholy film, filled with spectacular cinematography and some damn good performances from Andrew Garfield and Tommy and Carey Mulligan as Kathy...

...and it's all total bollocks.

True science fiction depends on one thing above all: plausibility. Whatever crazy ideas are getting thrown around in the plot, the world around that plot has to feel plausible for it to work. If you can capture that feeling, you can get away with almost anything. Look at the two best recent examples of cinema spec fic, Children of Men and District 9. Children of Men is built on a fairly implausible plot idea (mysterious mass incurable sterility), but the world it constructs around that idea is so devastatingly believable that you can't help but fall in line and go where it takes you. Ditto District 9. Say what you want about the likelihood of a damaged alien spacecraft parking itself above Johannesburg, but if it did is an internment ghetto for the aliens so far-fetched?

Never Let Me Go is in many ways the complete opposite of those films. The film is about the characters, not the world around them, but in not even concerning itself with the plausibility of that world the movie sabotages itself fatally.

Think about it for a second: clones are allowed to grow into adulthood, in order to be cut up for parts. That's just monstrous and evil, but the world they live in doesn't seem to have wrestled with the ethics of that plan in any meaningful way. For Goddess' sake, in our world aborting unborn fetuses, fetuses which lack names or faces or personalities, draws angry protests and even acts of terrorism. And yet there's no evidence in Never Let Me Go that there have been any real complaints at all over the clones, or what happens to them, beyond some academic disagreements. Fully formed adults get gutted so that 'real' people can live a little longer, and no one cares? No one protests their treatment? PETA will bathe someone in red paint for wearing fur, but no one will do the same to someone with a clone's liver? I call bullshit.

And what about the clones themselves? How can the rate of suicide and self-destructive behaviors among them not be through the roof, with nothing to live for except prolonging someone else's life? And yet they just seem to blithely go about their business, even knowing the truth. Again, I call bullshit.

And why are they even allowed to roam free? Is no one concerned that they might catch a disease or get hit by a car? If they are not "real" people, if they are merely valuable medical property, why give them a life at all? Why risk it?

By blinding itself to the ethics of the world it's creating, Never Let Me Go accidentally works even harder to undermine itself. We never meet any of the organ recipients. The other side of the equation -- what's being bought with the lives of these young people -- is never presented at all. So as a viewer, there are no hard choices to make about what's "right". Three kids you come to know are going to have their internal organs ripped out and given to random nameless other people, and the movie provides you with no outlet to express or live through your anger and disgust at that state of affairs. Those emotions simply don't get acknowledged in the movie at all.

None of it makes any sense, because no one thought about any of that before making the damn movie. I appreciate that it isn't supposed to be about those things, that it's focused exclusively on the three friends, but even if you don't directly address those issues in the movie you still have to know what the issues are to make the world work. You can't bury your head in the sand and pretend that they don't exist. Charlotte Rampling's headmistress character, towards the end of the film, inadvertently spills the beans to the audience. "We were looking for answers to questions no one wanted to ask", she says to Kathy and Tommy, but the brains behind Never Let Me Go didn't even seem to realize that there were questions to ask at all.

Really, I can't even in good conscience call the movie science fiction. It's science fantasy, only in this case the 'fantasy' part is wistful doomed romance instead of grand space opera. I suppose you could say I was just expecting a different movie than the one I got, but I don't see how you could possibly avoid expecting that different movie. The characters, the set-up... they all demand something that the movie refuses to provide.

In many ways this is the same basic complaint I have about Matt Reeves' Let Me In. Both Reeves and Romanek try to pretend that tough moral questions simply don't exist in their dojos, and in doing so both rob their movies of a power that their source materials possessed in abundance.

If Never Let Me Go weren't such a good, even great, film in almost every other respect (Keira Knightley's Ruth is a weak link acting-wise) I'd just chalk that cowardice (and yes, I can't think of any other way to describe it but cowardice) up to incompetence, and say it was a bad movie.

But it's not a bad movie. It's very nearly a great movie, just one that misses being great by as wide a gulf as is possible.

And the tragedy of that missed opportunity, moreso that the melancholy tone that hangs over the sad, short lives of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, is what clung to me when I left the theater.

No Chance In Hell?

Ever since Linda McMahon won the Pub nom for the Connecticut Senate seat, I've been warning people in comments sections all over the innertubez not to underestimate her/gleefully speculating on what having a WWE-schooled personality in Congress would be like. And I continually got berated for those warnings, because McMahon was a "joke candidate" who had no chance in hell of winning.

Well, guess what? She's now polling within 3-6 points of Blumenthal. The joke candidate has to be taken seriously.

Much as I don't want the full-out crazy Tea Bag candidates like Miller or O'Donnell in Washington, having McMahon in there would be freaking epic, precisely because she's not really the Tea Party type. Honestly, if anyone could be the right-wing equivalent of Franken -- i.e. surprisingly competent -- it would be Linda McMahon. Plus, coming out of pro wrestling, no amount of silly Tea Party bullshit or cliquish DC nonsense is going to phase her in the slightest.

Seriously. If there are going to be a bunch new Pubs in the Senate, McMahon would be miles better, and infinitely more entertaining, than the alternatives.

Review: 13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010, directed by Takashi Miike)

It has always been vaguely disappointing to be a Takashi Miike fan. No matter how many films he cranked out and how many different genres he tackled (or maybe because he cranked so many out and changed gears so often) the very best of his work seemed to just miss being truly great, and leave behind a feeling of an opportunity missed. Even Audition, the Miike movie considered to be the closest to perfection, has an ending that just seems deflating after the madness that precedes it. But Sukiyaki Western Django, Ichi the Killer, Happiness of the Katikuris, Dead Or Alive, One Missed Call, Great Yokai War... crazy fun as they are, each has some misstep or flaw that while certainly not fatal keep them from being a true masterpiece. Kind of like Megan Fox's thumbs.

Which brings us to 13 Assassins, Miike's kick at the historical samurai epic can and a remake of a 1963 film. It's a natural fit for Miike's style, prone as he is to violent excess, but still... as the lights went down I couldn't quite shake that tiny voice in the back of my head, wondering where and how this one would go slightly awry.

And when they came back up, you couldn't have wiped the smile from my face with Ichi's razor-heeled sneakers. Miike, that glorious son-of-a-bitch, had finally made a masterpiece.

In the 1800s, towards the end of the Tokugawa era, the power of the samurai class is waning. The age of constant battles between daimyos is long over, and for the most part the samurai are warriors in name only. Naritsugu, the Shogun's younger brother, isn't satisfied with that peaceful state of affairs though. Twisted by the absolute privilege afforded him by his family name and station, he rapes and murders on a whim, and considers using his growing influence at court to plunge Japan back into chaos and war, so that the samurai can (in his mind) reclaim their former glory.

Horrified by the lord's sadism and plans for country-wide bloodshed, a senior magistrate turns to the legendary Shinzaemon Shimada for help. Realizing that the only way to stop the young madman is to kill him, Shimada quietly assembles a team of 11 other samurai - all, in one way or another, unproven on the field of battle - to ambush the lord and his army of followers as he travels to the capitol to assume his place at his brother's right hand.

To me, what sets 13 Assassins apart from every other film Miike has ever made (at least, the ones I've seen... watching every single Miike film would be a full-time job) is the pacing. For its first hour-plus, 13 Assassins is deliberate but not dull, mixing Shimada's planning and recruitment with scenes of Nagitsugu's utter depravity (plus a ritual seppuku or two from those who can't deal with the conflict between their honor and their morals) to create a textbook example of a slow build. Miike's quiet, almost stage-y interiors and lighting serve him very well here, giving things an ominous, conspiratorial tone. And this being Miike, those scenes of depravity are truly sick, and give Shimada's suicide mission an urgent, desperate tension. Naritsugu's use of a family of commoners (even the wee ones) for archery practice is vile, but it's the reveal of the lone survivor of a group that tried to thwart Naritsugu's will that marks the true high/low water mark of 13 Assassins' opening section. Emaciated, naked, all four limbs reduced to stumps and tongue torn out, the pitiful freak answers the question of what happened to her clan by writing the words 'TOTAL MASSACRE' with a brush clenched between her teeth while everyone else in the room (and, frankly, out in the audience too) trembles in shock and impotent rage. And when Shimada holds that same scrawled 'TOTAL MASSACRE' message aloft at the beginning of his battle against Naritsugu's forces, you'd have to be a sociopath not to want to jump up and shout "That's right, you sick fuck! Time to fucking DIE!" at the screen.

Oh right, the battle. The 45 minute long, non-stop, insanely intense, heroes fighting against impossible odds, katana and bow and flaming bull (yes, you read that right, there are flaming bulls)-filled orgy of blood and death and mayhem that caps the film. Sweet Mother of God. When I say "45 minutes" and "non-stop" I'm not exaggerating. About the only recent film I can think of to compare 13 Assassins' epic battle to is the little-seen Thai bit of genius Bang Rajan, which is basically nothing but battle scenes with bits of character development thrown in the middle, but while Bang Rajan is a low-budget effort that gets by on tons of heart and creativity, 13 Assassins is as polished a film as Miike has ever made, with the same tons of heart and creativity (again, there are FLAMING BULLS). The battle is just an outstanding, exhausting, exhilarating thing of gory beauty, which is made all the more sublime by the slow build that precedes it, and the investment you have in the characters and the outcome.

I have been waiting... man, when was Fudoh: The New Generation at TIFF, '96? '97?... almost 15 years for this movie, for Miike to finally put it all together and deliver the masterpiece he kept hinting that he was capable of. And now it's finally here, and it's made me just a little bit giddy. To say it's the best thing Miike's ever done almost misses the point. It would be the best thing all but the greatest of directors have ever done. It's just an insanely wonderful, kick-ass piece of cinema.

And as samurai films go, 13 Assassins deserves a spot in the canon, right alongside the best work that Kurosawa and Mifune ever created. It's that damn good.