Screening Room: ‘Amy’

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One face of ‘Amy’ (A24)

Amy-posterIt’s too early to start really talking Oscars, but if we were, then Asif Kapadia’s moving and unromantic Amy would be a strong contender.

Amy opens in theaters tomorrow; seek it out. You can read my review at Film Racket:

Before becoming a punch line for tabloid-huffing, talkshow-loving misery vampires, Amy Winehouse wasn’t just a star talent, she was a constellation unto herself. Bursting into the moribund pop music scene of the early 2000s with verve and danger, she came on like some savvier Billie Holiday in a field of Auto-Tune tarts. There’s a heavy dose of that briefly blazing performer in Asif Kapadia’s potent, powerful documentary Amy

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Awards: ‘Whiplash’ Gets Bloody

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in 'Whiplash' (Sony Pictures Classics"

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in ‘Whiplash’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

A brutal and (literally) bloody musician’s tale that’s about many, many other things besides music (surprise), Whiplash was the little awards film that could. While never quite making a splash along the lines of a Boyhood or The Imitation Game, it plugged along for months on little more than sheer word of mouth. Just like movies used to do.

Whiplash, which was ultimately nominated for five Oscars, will be available next week on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket:

In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: Nick Cave is Still Alive in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in '20,000 Days on Earth' (Drafthouse Films)

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ (Drafthouse Films)

20,000 Days on Earth is a meta-fictional documentary about Nick Cave, art, life, death, and above all writing. It’s beautiful and transfixing and is opening in limited release this Wednesday.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The last thing that audiences need is another documentary about the greatness of another band or artist of the past. It’s all too easy once artists have their glory days behind them to lock all that rough chaos up into a neatly packaged movie, maybe a box set filled with B-sides and rarities. That doesn’t mean that the likes of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Finding Fela and A Band Called Death aren’t worthy films. But today’s documentary audiences could be forgiven for thinking that to be a music fan today is akin to being an archivist. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s new documentary about Australian Goth-poet Nick Cave is a long overdue reversal of that nostalgic trend…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Take Me to the River’

Even Snoop Dog is in 'Take Me to the River' (Social Capital Films, LLC)

Even Snoop Dog is in ‘Take Me to the River’ (Social Capital Films, LLC)

Memphis’s deeply knotted influence on American music gets a timely celebration in the new documentary Take Me to the River, opening this Friday in limited release and then later around the country.

My review is at Film Journal International:

There’s no end of love flowing off the screen in Martin Shore’s thrilled-to-be-here celebration of the Memphis Sound. That should be no surprise, given the legends that longtime producer and (clearly) first-time director Shore assembled for a promising marriage of old and new schools of music. The list of onscreen talent is deep, from Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite to rapper Al Kapone and a bench of murderously talented session men. The organizing principle is that by joining different traditions and generations in the recording studio, the film can divine the source of that alchemical magic Memphis music has produced over the years. It also wants to serve as a monument to these heroes, a few of whom passed away before the film was finished…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: A Stroll Through ‘Memphis’

Willis Earl Beal in 'Memphis' (Kino Lorber)

Willis Earl Beal in ‘Memphis’ (Kino Lorber)

Musician Willis Earl Beal ambles and agitates through Memphis in this half-film and half-art performance piece that feels like something Jim Jarmusch might have done if he’d never left town after shooting Mystery Train.

Memphis is opening Friday in extremely limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Beal is a musician with a cranky disposition and wild talent—that much we can divine. The film is at first a chronicle of his procrastination. He appears to owe an album to somebody but can’t find inspiration. Fighting off boredom and anomie, Beal walks and drives the tree-shaded streets of Memphis. He lives for a time in a large, beautiful home where the only furniture is a mattress and a never-installed, stubbornly symbolic chandelier. Later on, he starts falling through the cracks, moving into a one-legged friend’s cheap rooms and then into the woods, where he ruminates and burns things like an outsider artist stewing over his inner demons…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Holiday Cheer

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How’s your 2012 been? Happy to have survived the Mayan apocalypse?

More importantly, did you finish your shopping? Either way, here’s a consideration from the New Yorker circa 1970, in which a certain “Christmas Consultant” ponders what a good gift for a guy could be:

My list would include useful gifts, like a matched, color-coördinated, full-fashioned set of pre-written thank-you letters. Such a pleasant gift, and so easy to use. Upon receiving a gift—let’s say a myna bird trained to say “You’re wonderful, Fred,” or “Joe,” or “Pierpont”—one would merely use the efficient index system provided and come up with a pre-written note that said something like “I can’t begin to describe to you the emotion which welled up inside of me when I first heard Precious Myna chirp out, ‘You’re wonderful, Fred,’ or ‘Joe,’ or ‘Pierpont.’” There is, you see, a crying need for a pre-written note in such circumstances, since no self-respecting fellow, however practiced in hypocrisy, could possibly bang one out for himself.

Whatever your gift-giving situation, or views on the Mayan apocalypse that wasn’t, you should take a snow day—we’ve all earned it:

Music Break: Rodriguez

The story of Sixto Rodriguez—the Detroit singer-songwriter with the Phil Spector soar to his music and the dark Dylan grit to his lyrics—and how he was rediscovered by a world that was shocked to find out somebody of his talents had lived in the shadows for so long, is one of those rare tales that’s astonishing not just for its oddity but its beauty.

Malik Bendejelloul shot an incredible documentary about Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man (much of it using an iPhone with a $1 Super 8 app), that’s well worth seeking out—check out the trailer here.

Ebert was not far off when he wrote:

I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.

60 Minutes did a segment on Rodriguez recently (“The Rock Icon Who Didn’t Know It“) that gives you the bare bones of the story.

If you listen to him sing “Sugar Man,” you get some idea of what the fuss is all about and how unfathomable it is that we haven’t been listening to this song on classic-rock radio for the past four decades: