In her short career, Amy Winehouse stunned the music world as a genius-level jazz vocalist and natural-born songwriter. She was an artist of massive wattage—a feisty North Londoner with a smart mouth and a fragile heart.

In the devastating documentary Amy, director Asif Kapadia tells the story of Winehouse’s tilt-a-whirl life and sudden, tragic death. The approach is simple and direct. Voiceover interviews with friends and family are fused with archival images, performance footage and handheld video. Every combination of sound and picture is composed to bring us viscerally into Winehouse’s world.

Kapadia and his producers managed to secure amazing access for their film. Childhood friends and Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymansky, provided hours of candid home-movie style video footage. The first half of the documentary is flat-out fascinating if you’re interested in Winehouse’s artistry and incredible music.

We see her performing in small clubs as a young singer on the London jazz scene and working with her producer, Salaam Remi, on new songs. Even as a teenager, her sophistication with melody and phrasing seems almost supernatural. Later, we watch her skills as a songwriter and lyricist emerge. The melodies may be sad, she says, “but I always put a punch line in the song.”

That’s exactly right, although they were invariably gut punches. Winehouse’s Grammy-winning breakthrough album, Back to Black, is a masterpiece—an aching study of the love song as a bloody wound.

I could have watched the first half of Amy for another 12 hours, but inevitably, the film turns toward a profile of the Winehouse of the tabloid era. The second half follows the singer through rehab stints, public humiliations and a lethally toxic marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduced her to heroin and crack cocaine.

As the death spiral accelerates, Kapadia stitches together home movies with tabloid news reports and increasingly infrequent concert appearances. Many scenes are hard on the stomach. In one freeze frame, we see in Winehouse’s eyes the raw, demonic hunger of her addictions. The filmmakers hold the image for an excruciating interval. It’s one of the most disturbing compositions I’ve ever seen.

The documentary presents everything at an artistic remove, with implicit critiques of media and society. But it still trades in ghoulish tabloid imagery, and it still feels awful. We already watched Winehouse die in public. Watching it again, in close-up, is painful.

Amy is an intimate and profoundly sad chronicle of an artist chopped down in her prime by fame, disease and personal demons. It’s a tremendously powerful film, but one that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend seeing—not if you ever loved Winehouse through her music. I had the strangest sensation after watching Amy: I admired it very much and wished I’d never seen it at all.

from Indy Week 

When the original Jurassic Park hit theaters in 1993, it was blockbuster movie-making done right. The special effects were like nothing we’d ever seen, and director Steven Spielberg—the planet’s leading expert in this sort of thing—provided humor and heart along with all the shock and awe.

Twenty-two years and several sequels later, the operation has fossilized into JURASSIC WORLD, in which only the tradition of dazzling digital effects remains. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard play the odd-couple leads—he’s loose, she’s uptight—and a couple of bland kids are put in peril as dinosaurs once again run amok.

The dinosaur action scenes are fun, especially on the big screen (with the big sound), and director Colin Trevorrow stages a few effective sequences featuring a kind of human hamster ball vehicle. But the rest of the movie is an assembly-line franchise endeavor, with phony emotional swells, dumbed-down dialogue and relentless product placement. The makers of Jurassic World don’t think much of their audience, and it shows.

Happily, we have the perfect summer movie antidote with INSIDE OUT, the 15th animated feature film from Pixar, maybe the single most reliable entity in the entertainment industry.

Audacious and overflowing with ideas, Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley and the five color-coded Emotions that live in her head—golden Joy (Amy Poehler), blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), purple Fear (Bill Hader), red Anger (Lewis Black) and green Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

Director Pete Docter creates a visual extravaganza inside Riley’s mind, where emotional traumas are seismic events and memories are stored in bright orbs. Joy and Sadness team up to navigate Riley’s crises by journeying—via the Train of Thought—to notional nooks such as Imagination Land, the scary Subconscious and the under-construction realm of Abstract Thought. (Riley’s just 11, after all.)

The story delivers a parade of delightful concepts—how facts and opinions get mixed up; how brain freeze works—with humor, goofiness and the kind of emotional intelligence we’ve come to expect from Pixar. The filmmakers clearly like and respect their audience. And it shows.

Together, Jurassic World and Inside Out present a fascinating contrast. Both are big-budget summer tentpole movies, aiming to please. But as actual filmgoing experiences, they couldn’t be more different. Jurassic feels like a product assembled by skilled merchants. Inside Out feels like a creation shared by inspired artists. My suggestion: Skip the former and see the latter twice.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Claws and Effects.”


from Indy Week

Director Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated sci-fi epic Interstellar is a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp by several light years. The film evokes grand questions of cosmic significance in its first half, then abandons them to goofball blockbuster conventions in the second, trusting that viewers won’t notice or care—so long as the eye-popping spectacles keep coming.

The hell of it is, it’s a strategy that pretty much works. The movie’s jaw-dropping visuals and sound design go a long way toward obscuring the story problems. You might ponder the plot holes later, in the parking lot. But when Nolan’s flipping you sideways through the gravitational lens of a fifth-dimensional wormhole, your mind is really on other things.

Here’s the gist: On a near-future Earth, ecological degradation has turned the planet into a spinning dustbowl. Droughts and crop blights have returned humanity to subsistence farming. The situation is so grim that governments can’t even afford wars anymore, so you know it’s serious, and NASA has been reduced to a couple of dozen scientists in a secure, undisclosed location.

Pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) may be mankind’s last hope. Through a series of events too spoiler-y to get into, Cooper is sent into space with scientist Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a couple of redshirts. Their destination—a wormhole just past Saturn that has apparently been placed there, by a superior race of beings, so that we might find a new home world.

The wormhole is the first of maybe a half-dozen spectacular set pieces in which Nolan provides sights and sounds you’ve never seen before on the big screen. On their celestial scouting mission, Coop and his crew hike over frozen clouds and narrowly escape planet-spanning tsunamis. Also on board, a genuinely new kind of spaceship robot that defies all expectations as to what future androids are supposed to look like.

Running parallel to all of this is the story of Coop’s family. Thanks to the vagaries of the time-space continuum, Coop doesn’t age, but the 11-year-old daughter he left behind does. She eventually grows into Jessica Chastain, and there’s some barely coherent business toward the end about the power of love to span epochs of space and time.

I didn’t mind any of that stuff, but I didn’t buy into it either. The performers do an admirable job of selling the story’s emotional threads—especially Chastain—but the dialogue just keeps getting clunkier as events in space get weirder. At one point, poor McConaughey is asked to deliver a couple of minute’s worth of clumsy exposition as he’s floating weightlessly through an infinite mirror tesseract (don’t ask).

For fans of the genre, Interstellar is worth seeing in theaters for an undeniably fun thrill-ride. The sound design is bonkers, too, with deep bass roars that will rattle your rib cage. It’s too bad that the story can’t hold the center, but let us be optimistic. In the last of several awkward third-act developments, Nolan follows his blockbuster instincts and sets us up for a potential sequel. Might I suggest: Interstellar 2: Interstellarer. That thing will write itself!

from The News & Observer

Thirty years ago this summer, author William Gibson released his debut novel, “Neuromancer,” and pretty much single-handedly changed the trajectory of science fiction. Gibson’s story – of virtual realities and insane artificial intelligences – pioneered the genre of cyberpunk and folded in dozens of details that would prove remarkably prescient.

Gibson’s work over the years has gradually crept from far-future speculation toward contemporary observation. His most recent books – concluding with 2010’s “Zero History” – are set about five minutes into the future and examine a world changing so rapidly that science fiction is becoming indistinguishable from everyday reality.

Gibson’s much-anticipated new novel, “The Peripheral,” splits the difference. By way of an alternating-chapter structure – and an exceedingly cool time-travel premise – “The Peripheral” toggles between near-future and far-future settings. Using high-tech “peripheral” technology, characters are able to project their consciousness into machines and effectively move through time.

“The Peripheral” is a murder mystery wrapped in cyberpunk noir, with some spooky conjecture on our weirder modern technologies – including drones, 3-D printing and virtual reality gaming. Calling from his home in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Gibson recently spoke to The N&O about time travel, apocalypse and hope for the future.

Q: Time-travel stories are notoriously difficult to pull off, because of the causal paradoxes, but you find an interesting solution in the book: The characters project their consciousness into machines that exist in alternate timelines. Can you talk about how you arrived at that?

A: Well, in part it’s an appropriation, because my favorite story from the cyberpunk era is a story called “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. The rules of time travel in that story are as they are in “The Peripheral.” The idea is, as soon as you make contact with your own past, it’s no longer your own past. It splits off and is headed in its own direction.

So I happily appropriated that, then added the rule that physical time travel is utterly impossible. Thirty years ago that would have left you with no room to have a story. But in a world in which a pilot can sit in a warehouse outside of Las Vegas and kill people in Afghanistan in a flying robot – which is our world – then you can have a total story. The mechanics of that called the whole peripheral thing into existence.

Q: The two timelines are separated by an apocalypse called The Jackpot, which turns out to be more of a gradual deterioration than an event. What was your thinking behind that?

A: I realized how the mythology of science fiction Armageddon tends to be uni-causal. It was the one thing – the triffids, the Russians, whatever. It’s this one bad thing that happens one day. I realized how much that’s changed. The apocalyptic events that loom for us now are kind of hard to get a handle on, because they’re not like that. They’re political and ecological and have been going on for hundreds of years.

Q: The characters in the story are regularly off-loading themselves into machines, essentially. It made me think about how we delegate parts of our thinking and memory these days to our phones and devices.

A: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And I think that’s something that’s in my work back to the beginning. The first short story I ever wrote is a about a kind of memory peripheral. It was called “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” It probably doesn’t even have the word digital in it, but it’s really about digital prosthetic memory. It’s such a profoundly different mode of memory that we all live with now.

Q: Our heroine in the story, Flynne, seems similar to young people today in that she accepts radical technological change easily; she rolls with things. She’s not passive, though – she’s heroic and lovable. She just doesn’t fret much.

A: Well, that’s heartening to hear. She must be based in some osmotic way in my sense, today, of people her age. Some of them anyway. I’m not consciously trying to do that when I’m writing. But I’m getting it from somewhere. A good character for me, when I’m writing, is a character who will surprise me and occasionally dumbfound me. In that I’ll be sitting there going, “Why did she do that?” I mostly have to let them, if the book is going to work itself out.

Q: Your books all deal in some degree with near-future or far-future fictional scenarios. Are you hopeful for our actual future?

A: The uncomfortable thing about this book, I realized as I finished it, is that it seems to say: It’ll all be fine – so long as you’ve got a really powerful fairy godmother in an alternate timeline … Otherwise, you’re going to have to figure out something else.

from Indy Week

A movie about the essential tyranny of adulthood, Laggies stars Keira Knightly as Megan, a flighty and overeducated 20-something still hanging around her hometown of suburban Seattle. “Flighty” is the operative term: Seeing the world of marriage and career approaching, Meg runs like hell the other way.

With friends like hers, the strategy seems sound. Meg’s bestie Allison (Ellie Kemper) is a high-strung bridezilla, intent upon arranging her wedding and subsequent life just so. The rest of Meg’s college pals are getting equally creepy, including her longtime boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), recently returned from one of those weekend life-coaching seminars that promise enlightenment and career success for one low price.

Sensibly panicked, Meg flees Allison’s wedding and meets 16-year-old student Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz) hanging with her high-school pals outside of a grocery store. In time-honored tradition, Annika asks Meg if she’ll buy them some beer. Meg agrees, making the first of a movie-length string of dubious decisions.

Laggies follows the increasingly implausible friendship that develops between Meg and Annika. It’s a comic set-up with dramatic elements, or maybe the other way around. In Meg, Annika sees a cool adult who can be a kind of surrogate for her absent mom. In Annika, Meg sees the youthful life she’s reluctant to leave behind.

Director Lynn Shelton made her name with loose, largely improvised alt-comedies such as the lovely 2011 film Your Sister’s Sister, which splashes about with easy authenticity in the messy waters of love, family and friendship. This time, she’s working with an eye for mainstream romantic comedy conventions as well as a script by someone else, YA writer Andrea Seigel.

Laggies has good performances and some very funny scenes, most of which center on Sam Rockwell as Craig, Annika’s dad and Meg’s inevitable love interest. When Meg worries that the teenage girls will notice the two adults sneaking off together, Craig reassures her: “They’re like gerbils. They have no sense of time.”

But the film’s focus gradually scatters as the script’s rom-com contrivances pile up. There are several scenes of people walking in on other people kissing, and you’ll see all of them coming a few beats before they arrive. Then there’s that unfortunate prom sequence.

In Shelton’s previous films, nothing is tidy, and comedy and drama twist around each other organically. You don’t think about the script because there isn’t one. Here, the screenplay keeps intruding, insisting on too-familiar formulas. It’s a bummer, because the story raises some intriguing, uncomfortable questions about whether adulthood is really worth all the effort.

“Laggie” is apparently a teen slang term for slowpoke, by the way. I had to look that up.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Friend zone”

from Indy Week

Listen Up Philip is a film that plays like a book, which is usually not a good thing. Books and movies have different durations and rhythms, and it’s tricky to beat-match them properly. But in the hands of talented young writer-director Alex Ross Perry, this smart, wicked indie succeeds as a daring storytelling hybrid.

Jason Schwartzman, always so quirky and likeable in Wes Anderson’s movies, goes full-tilt asshole here, playing the miserable and self-obsessed novelist Philip Friedman. Philip lives in New York City with his girlfriend of three years, Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss. The third central character is Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an aging novelist whose glory days are behind him, and who sees in young Philip a source of new energy and adulation.

There’s a fourth main character, but he’s never onscreen. The Narrator (Eric Bogosian) is a constant presence, stitching together scenes with lengthy voiceovers that are written to evoke the language of a novel. His monologues aren’t descriptive, they’re declarative, telling us what’s happening in the internal worlds of the characters.

That’s usually slow death in movies, but it works here because the Narrator isn’t the only one talking in elegant, calibrated paragraphs. Philip and Ike do, too. When Ike invites his young admirer to spend the summer at his rural writing retreat, Philip replies: “I know most people expect surprising and generous offers to be politely refused, but I’m going to have to call your bluff and emphatically accept.”

Who talks like that? Novelists do, at least in this film, and the dialogue is a master class on how words can be deployed to obscure, distract, manipulate and wound. Philip and Ike both wield language like a weapon, coldly lacerating the people that care about them and preventing anyone—especially women—from getting too close. When Philip departs the city for Ike’s country home, Ashley is devastated at being left behind. Philip’s casual cruelty is astonishing. “I’m doing what’s best for me,” he tells her. That’s pretty much Philip’s entire philosophy right there.

Out in the country, Philip has a few interludes with other women, including Melanie (Krysten Ritter), Ike’s adult daughter. Melanie knows all about self-absorbed writer types, and she instantly pegs Philip as the junior version of her dad. “I’m glad he’s found a younger surrogate to handle all the four-alarm moping,” she says. Philip also worms his way into a relationship with Yvette (Joséphine de la Baume), a French literature teacher at the local college.

Philip and Ike are both truly miserable people, and though I admired the acting of Schwartzman and Pryce, I didn’t much like spending time with either of them. Their scenes are engaging but not very pleasant. Happily, the middle section of the film belongs to Moss, who tends to be the most interesting part of anything she’s in. There’s a moment, after a confrontation with Philip, when the camera stays on Moss for a good 30 seconds as an entire story of pain moves silently across her face. It’s that impossible thing that only great screen actors can do.

Listen Up Philip is a satisfying and visually interesting film. Shot in grainy 16mm, it has a 1970s look that’s reflected in the art design. And it finishes on an interesting note. Philip and Ike keep wallowing in despair and self-sabotage. But the women—Ashley, Melanie and Yvette—have gone on with their lives, which will certainly be much happier with these exhausting men out of the picture.

This article appeared in print with the headline “War of the proses.”

from the Raleigh News & Observer

“Radiolab,” the hugely popular podcast and public radio show about “science, wonder and discovery,” is one of the most curious storytelling specimens on the media landscape. Co-hosted by musician/producer Jad Abumrad and veteran science reporter Robert Krulwich, “Radiolab” digs into knotty scientific and philosophical issues with a dense and highly stylized approach that’s often radically different from the traditional public radio show format.

Each “Radiolab” episode is centered on a theme and uses a layered audio production style drawn from Abumrad’s background in experimental music composition. It truly sounds like nothing else on the radio dial or podcast charts. “Radiolab” won a Peabody award for broadcast excellence in 2010, and the next year Abumrad was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. (“Radiolab” airs on Sundays at 2 p.m. on WUNC radio.)

Abumrad, appearing Sunday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, estimates that the show now reaches about five million people through airwaves and podcast. Speaking from his home in New York City, Abumrad talked with the N&O about creativity, chemistry and chrysanthemums.


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