20 July 2015

Quickie Review: AMY (2015)

Whenever I watch films about artists with issues or peccadilloes (cf. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOVE & MERCY, et al.), I get this naive idea in my head that, "Of course, I don't want to be as fucked up as that artist, but if I could just dip my toe into that pool of mad genius...." I think, "I have my dysfunctions too. But if I can somehow learn to leverage them somehow while keeping them dialed back just enough so I don't implode, well then I can be brilliant without the train wreck, right?" Of course, the difference is that if I try, and then inevitably crash and burn, it would just be a clear case of pride going before a fall. When it comes to real artists and truly troubled artists, it's not a strategy. It's a very precarious way of life.

I only knew the basic facts about Amy Winehouse before I saw this documentary. First was that Voice. I'd heard it back in the day, and knew instantly what Tony Bennett knew instantly. I wasn't surprised that it came to endear her to fans and musicians alike, from the up-and-coming-at-the-time Daptone Records stable to Bennett himself. She was brilliant and I never questioned that. And of course, I knew about the spiral. Not the details, you understand. You see enough star meltdowns, and its easy to think we've seen it all before. "[So-and-So] found dead after a long period of [insert issue here], wash, rinse, repeat, next case."

This documentary doesn't really provide much in the way of missing pieces that lead us to a better understanding of Winehouse's trials and tribulations, or even necessarily to increased sympathy. I don't see AMY changing anyone's opinions, for better or for worse. But I did learn a few new things. I learned how well documented life was in her circle. Because that's just how the kids do things nowadays. I learned how soulful and penetrating her lyrics are. I had no idea. Luckily, the film literally spells them out for you. If Bennett likens her vocal chops to Billie Holliday's, then her songwriting rates at least as highly as Cole Porter's. And I definitely didn't realize -- if one accepts the film's narrative, and I have no reason not to -- how many times Winehouse came so close to pulling herself up out of the spiral. That's the saddest part, to me.

Not that she didn't make her bad choices. But trapped as she was in the petri dish that is the music business, constantly under a media microscope, having started out with a life that came close to being as tortured as that of any other troubled artist you could name, what choices did she really have?

18 July 2015

Quickie Review: SEVEN GOOD YEARS by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years: A MemoirThe Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to read essay collections for facts, details, or wit. And if I stumbled across the occasional bit of truth or wisdom, so much the better. Now this could be my bias towoard Etgar Keret (#2 on my I'll Read Anything They Write List), but this collection is brimming with both. Okay, maybe more of the former than the latter... but I think even Keret would say that.

Remove the surrealist and speculative elements from Keret's writing and you're still left with his sense of the absurd, with keen observations of (by way of projections onto) other characters, and not surprisingly, his friend Uzi who, just like in the stories, offers advice such as...
What you need isn't a bunch of lies from a PhD in clinical psych. You need a real solution: a nest egg in a foreign bank account. Everybody's doing it.
Not every essay reached me; there were a couple that left me scratching my head. But I'm used to that experience reading Keret's short stories, so I'm okay with it.

View all my reviews

09 July 2015

Quickie Review: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Okay, maybe not so quickie. Anyway, I'll begin by stipulating to three points. Spoilers, ahoy!

First, it's a gorgeous film. I can't remember the last time any film's visual narration made my eyes widen.

Second, if this film had a literary modal equivalent, it wouldn't be that of a novel, but rather a novella. FURY ROAD is a work with a lean-muscular, 0%-body-fat plot and very tight character development, such that everything you see and hear is exactly everything you need, with no real examination or extrapolation of subtext necessary (unless you're into that kind of thing). I've seen people accuse the plot of being thin, but that's bullshit; people nowadays are just used to having it exposited for them. Creator/director George Miller will have none of that mess.

Third, it is a feminist film. Not a perfect one, but one nonetheless. Want to know more? Google it. Want to argue about it? Then take it to one of those sites. FURY ROAD is Imperator Furiosa's story and yes, the spotlight shines on her frequently. But the idea that this comes, or indeed, must come at a cost to Mad Max -- either as a character in this particular film or to the franchise in general -- is bullshit. And I've seen this argument on both sides of the "MM:FR is Feminist" debate.  And you know what, if some folks feel the interpretation of "Max has to be sidelined so Furiosa can be front and center" is necessary -- well I just don't think that's the worst thing in the world; it's totally arguable. I just don't buy it.

Personally, I thought the Max I saw in FURY ROAD is pretty compelling. THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME make clear that Max is ultimately concerned about exactly two things: His immediate survival and a shot at redemption, in that exact order. In that context, it makes absolute sense that Max's alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe's Wives didn't happen after any kind of "Come to Jesus" moment about the righteousness of their cause. There was no indication he thought or felt anything along the lines of, "I must help burn down this Patriarchy That Objectifies Women and Brainwashes Boys to Perpetuate the Cycle!"

In fact, the moment Max had anything resembling an upper hand in the film, his first move was to threaten Furiosa with throwing her, The Wives, and himself under Immortan Joe's fast approaching bus. This, AFTER coming to understand their plight. A bluff? Maybe. But regardless of his intentions or subsequent deeds, this act (for which I don't think he ever formally apologized) is the modern-day equivalent of tweeting out...

@MadMax: Sorry @Furiosa but if I don't get away, none of us do. Hope #WeAreNotThings was fun while it lasted... #BloodBag #WhatALovelyDay #ZeroFucks

But instead of throwing under, he throws in, because just like ROAD WARRIOR and THUNDERDOME, these people end up being the keys to both his immediate survival and a shot at redemption. And he knows it. Which means, of course he climbs all over the War Rig to keep it moving. Of course, he lets Furiosa use him as literal support to take out the Bullet Farmer. Immediate survival. And of course, he encourages them to go back to the Citadel. That's for some redemption, something Furiosa wants for herself as well.

So, don't listen to any of this "FURY ROAD sux 'cos Max isn't driving the plot of his own movie!" crap. I mean, except for MAD MAX, has Max ever really driven the plot? Granted, I haven't watched ROAD WARRIOR or THUNDERDOME in awhile but as I recall them, you can argue they were both about Max stumbling into other people's squabbles, trying to work a hustle, failing, and then ultimately fumbling his way to doing The Right Thing before resuming his Walkabout. Hell, in the first movie, Max was lackadaisically half-assing his cop gig for two-thirds of the story before his wife and kid get killed.

All that said, I do have two nits that I almost missed because yes, the movie throws you right into the action and doesn't stop. One: Is George Miller really trying tell me that in a post-scarcity economy, it makes sense for Immortan Joe to burn guzzoline to get guzzoline from a town withing spitting distance? He had engineers and mechanics, and no one thought to build a pipe? "But it was his display of wealth and power, blah blah...." Whatever. Two: No third party narration at the end. If someone pointed a gun to my head and forced me to come up with one thing that didn't make this a "Real Mad Max movie" to me, okay... it'd be that.