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Wednesday
Jul292015

Pixels (2015)

Reset Your Expectations

It’s okay to skip Pixels, but at least do it for the right reasons—not the abysmal Tomatometer rating or the highly publicized ravings of an unhinged Internet critic, who probably had no business reviewing the film in the first place. I certainly won't judge anyone for avoiding the multiplex until Mission: Impossible 5 comes out. But bad movies deserve a fair trial prior to execution, and the latest Adam Sandler vehicle has been straight-up framed.

Pixels isn't a great movie, but it's a solid diversion aimed squarely at pre-teen boys. Granted, parents may need to have a talk with Junior after the show to make sure the anachronistic attitudes put across by writers Tim Herlihy and Jim Downing don't register as positives--but that's also true of some horror movies, video games, and raunchy sitcoms. Any adult who watches Pixels’ trailer and expects a high-falutin' love letter to the arcade classics of their youth needs to have their head examined. The 2007 Transformers film at least carried with it the mystery of how well (or poorly) Michael Bay might bring nostalgic action figures to life. Pixels spells everything out with the mid-trailer shot of Sandler's dopey, agape mouth saying, "Pac-Man's a bad guy?"

For the record, Pixels is Sandler's best movie in over a decade, and his first effort in a long time that isn't just a blatant, studio-sponsored-vacation picture. No beach hijinks. No barbecues. No resort excursions where the main attraction is humiliating Drew Barrymore. This is an admittedly glitchy, high-concept sci-fi comedy about four misfits who must stop an alien armada that've taken the form of early-80s video game characters. In 1982, NASA sent a VHS tape loaded with pop culture highlights (including clips from Atari’s entire catalogue into deep space). A not-so-intelligent race of creatures took it as a declaration of war, and they arrive decades later with some simple(ish) rules of engagement: mankind must win three real-life rounds of CentipedePac-Man, and Donkey Kong in order to prove our superiority and save the Earth.

Of course, the only ones qualified to take on these pixel-based menaces are a big-box-store IT guy (Sandler), a hyperactive conspiracy theorist* (Josh Gad), a wily convict (Peter Dinklage), and The President of the United States (um...Kevin James). They were all top competitors as children, and their ability to recognize old-school, pattern-based play gives them an edge over the modern crop of first-person-shooter fanatics. Joining them is a military officer named Violet (Michelle Monaghan), her son, Matty (Matt Lintz), and Pac-Man creator Professor Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama).

Unlike other attempts to corner the nostalgia market, director Chris Columbus smartly uses 80s kitsch as a foundation, not as the focal point of his narrative. He spices up the opening tournament flashback by showing the young Sandler character as a kind of video game savant, with play patterns reflecting in his obsessive eyes. The framing of this shot—a medium instead of a close-up—is an eerie reminder of games’ power to narrow the reality of being in a roomful of distractions and focusing only on small, dancing lights on a screen.

Later, as reality bends to a melee of hundreds of rampaging video game monsters, Columbus juxtaposes the horrors of people and buildings turning to fragmented, energy-cubed versions of themselves with seemingly innocuous images of Frogger crossing traffic or the Paperboy hurling exploding late-editions from his digital ten-speed. Sure, it’s a sanitized version of Destruction Porn, but it’s also really interesting to watch. These CGI atrocities have the same weird, visually compelling arc (turning on a dime from fascination to humor to horror) that made Patrick Jean’s original short film ripe for adaptation.

Maybe “horror” is the wrong word. Pixels doesn’t indulge in the head-scratching, 9/11-style ghoulishness of Man of Steel.** But there’s an edge to the action, a giddy sense of tiptoeing over an invisible adult-supervision line reminiscent of Columbus’ earlier films like The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting, or even the first Harry Potter film.

Much of the discussion surrounding Pixels has been about Sandler's plummeting hit ratio and the alleged desecration of sacred childhood icons, by association. Lost in all the easy, oddly bitter commentary is the fact that Columbus is a really talented filmmaker. He and his team of effects artists put on a hell of a show--no small feat, considering this is roughly the nine-hundredth alien invasion movie to hit since Independence Day. Pixels may be rough around the edges in the story-structure and joke departments, but it's a very well-made movie.

About those jokes. For the second week in a row, I've had to endure mainstream films aimed at wide audiences whose attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality are really quite alarming. One could be generous, I suppose, and call Pixels' humor "old fashioned", but much of it transcends "out-of-touch" and can best be classified as "extinct". Josh Gad's exuberant nerd character can't help but tease a platoon of buff soldiers with gay jokes and slaps on the ass (puzzling, since he has the hots for a scantily clad warrior woman). The film's main black role is relegated to a soldier who, after being rescued from alien captivity, hugs Kevin James' president and says, "Thanks, but you know Obama's my boy, right?"

Monaghan is positively radiant in her thankless job as the film's only main speaking female performer, and it's a shame she's saddled with Sandler--who began his career as the angry, amped-up man-child and now seems content to coast through middle age as the laconic, schlubby suburban dude. Aside from a tried-and-true movie formula of the single mom winding up with the unconfident hero-in-waiting, there's no reason to believe a character like Violet would let Captain Ambien out of the friend zone--no matter how many levels he beat to save humanity.

Writers Herlihy and Dowling (and Sandler, I suspect) firmly affix the Happy Madison stamp of crassness on this project. That's not surprising, but it is disappointing. Reined in just a tad (maybe two more drafts' worth), Pixels could have skirted outright ookiness and remained edgy kids' fare; knock the PG-13 rating down to a PG, and I doubt we'd be having this conversation.

Make no mistake: this is still a children's movie. Getting mad at Pixels for being a teen/adult-targeted Ghostbusters knock-off is like hating My Little Pony for its inaccurate depiction of horses. For a great illustration of the difference between thematically similar films with wildly different audiences in mind, watch the Sandler-pack-produced Grandma's Boy, then the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, then Pixels. The first is a foul-mouthed farce; the second is a gripping, real-life story of ego, competition, and redemption; the third is the Mad Magazine version of all of the above.

There are better kids' movies out there, to be sure. Worse ones, too. As middle-of-the-road fare goes, Pixels at least provides some fascinating things to look at between eye rolls.

*For me, the line, “JFK shot first!” was just about worth the price of admission.

**In fact, it has a leg up on that film, as evidenced by the aliens' final act before heading home.

Sunday
Jul262015

Ant-Man (2015)

We Don't Need Another Hero

"I try not to do anything that's too close to what I've done before. And the nice thing is we have a big universe here. It's filled with new ideas. All you have to do is grab them."

--Stan Lee, Brandweek, May 2000

Too bad Marvel's Chairman Emeritus isn't in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe it's just me, but I expect more from a multi-film franchise based on the House of Ideas' rich, half-century history. Instead, these superhero flicks' narrative returns get tinier and tinier--while brand loyalty, hype, and budgets increase exponentially.

Case in point: Ant-Man, Peyton Reed's famously troubled production that once had fan favorite Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World's End) at the helm. Until alternate-reality travel becomes possible, we'll never know if Wright would have offered a better balance of the comedic and the heroic than what credited screenwriters Adam McKay and Paul Rudd (who also stars) came up with--but it probably would have amounted to more than this middling, confused placeholder of a film that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with the current MCU.

The film's biggest crime is being superfluous and predictable. Unless this is your first go-round with Marvel movies or comic-book films, Reed offers absolutely nothing in the way of surprises, storytelling innovations, or even special effects work. Protagonist Scott Lang (Rudd) is another aloof, wisecracking guy who gets his hand on multi-billion-dollar technology, which he uses to thwart a one-dimensional, one-picture villain with world domination on his mind. He has, in his inner circle, a capable and intelligent female companion whose primary function is to be overlooked, condescended to, and rescued in the third act.

See also Iron Man, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

At the very (very) least, Ant-Man’s creative team deserves credit for not crapping out another Doomsday Device movie. You will not find a single shot of heroes joining forces around a beam of light that’s headed to/from the sky. You will find, however, a feebly executed heist flick that’s less Ocean’s Eleven than Tower Heist—an ostensibly interesting premise bogged down by juvenile humor and an over-inflated sense of its own coolness. I could talk at length about the myriad problems that amount to this unfortunate misfire,* but it’s probably best to confine my written review to a few high-level examples of what drove me nuts here.

Yes, boys and girls, it’s time for another List Review:

1. Paint Face: Right off the bat, Ant-Man stinks up the MCU with a distracting mish-mash of student-thesis old-age makeup and Uncanny Valley CGI. The film opens in 1989, as frustrated scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) storms into Stark Industries (or is it S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters? I don’t recall) to lecture the brass about their intentions for his top-secret shrinking formula. Among those at the table is a twilight-years Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell), whose makeup looks like it was lifted from Back to the Future Part II (which, coincidentally, came out in ’89). Douglas has been digitally de-aged to his Wall Street-era glory days--but the effect is eerily unconvincing.

There's something off-kilter about his mouth, specifically, that sucks the air out of the entire scene. It's not Hank Pym we're seeing; it's Michael Douglas' vanity on display--either that or the pixel-based embodiment of studio-exec fear ("But how will audiences know it's the same guy?"). Look, if Anthony Ingruber can pull off a spot-on Harrison Ford likeness in The Age of Adaline, I'd wager there at least five young-Douglas-types who'd play late-80s Pym for a ham sandwich and a Marvel credit.

2. Phony Snark: Thematically, Ant-Man is essentially Iron Man, minus the inherited family cash. Rudd plays a cat burglar named Scott Lang, whom mega-millionaire Pym hires to break into the lab of his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), in order to steal back the shrinking technology Cross ripped off from him (got it?). Lang accepts the gig to get the cash to prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale) that he's fit to be in his daughter's life. Pym outfits the wisecracking thief with the super-suit he once wore on secret government ops. Much trial end error and corporate espionage ensue.

The key difference is that Iron Man, as a film, has a finely tuned balance of the humorous, the fantastical, and the dramatic. Ant-Man features characters whose motivations and personalities change, on a molecular level, depending on the comedic demands of any given scene. That's fine for Minions, a cartoon designed as airy, episodic, childhood fun--but this film fits squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How does one reconcile the grim political intrigue of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with Ant-Man's trio of borderline racist (or, at the very least, puzzlingly culturally insensitive) trio of obnoxious sidekick hackers? Would Scott Lang's clueless meta-commentary about absolutely everything fly in the the bone-breaking world of Netflix's Daredevil series?

3. The Needs of the Scene Outweight the Needs of the Film (Er...Sometimes): In better hands, Ant-Man could have been a great film. There are some truly inspired moments here that Reed and company destroy by tacking on the dramatic equivalent of a whoopee cushion. Take, for instance, the touching scene where Pym tells his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the truth about her mother's mysterious death. Turns out mom was also a secret super-agent called The Wasp, who disappeared into a realm of sub-atomic particles while trying to defuse an in-flight Russian nuke. Pym narrates a thrilling flashback of the fatal episode, and Lilly's present-day reaction speaks volumes to the decades of lost connection with her dad.

Scott is also in the room for this scene, and instead of offering insight (or at least condolences), he makes a stupid joke and then doubles down by commenting on the fact that he'd just made a stupid joke. It's an offensive co-opting of a perfectly good emotional catharsis that makes zero sense--until you consider that two of the last hands to touch this screenplay also brought us the Anchorman films.

4. Race to the Bottom: Assisting Scott and Hank in their high-tech theft are Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (T.I. Harris). Like Scott, they are career criminals. Unlike Scott, they have no interest in leaving that life behind. Making crooks into heroes is a solid premise, and one that requires the jumping of several narrative hurdles in order to bring the audience on-board. Better films, like the Ocean's series, succeed in this regard by downplaying the characters' inherent villainy, narrow-casting their objective to include only a specific "really bad guy" target, and painting the thieves as smart, lovable rogues.

As written, Ant-Man's supporting-hood parts belong to clueless twenty-somethings--not men in their late thirties to mid-forties whose eyes betray a sense of knowing better. Rudd and Peña, in particular, are gifted actors who've brought at least some degree of innate intelligence to their careers. There's an ugliness to the stupidity with which Luis, Kurt, and Dave are drawn, a stereotyping shorthand that belongs in the Joe Dirt Universe, not the MCU (aren't we way past the era of the Russian hacker who talks like Chekov from Star Trek?).

Getting back to the film's thematic schizophrenia, we're asked to believe, on one hand, that Luis spends his off hours as a wine connoisseur and armchair art critic. Yet, during the climactic heist, he attacks at least three security guards and has to ask Scott if he and the team are "the good guys". The appropriate response is, of course, "No, Luis, we're not the good guys. Those unconscious hourly employees probably have families, mortgages, and dreams".

Instead, Scott gives him a thumbs-up or something.

5. Spinster Spin-off? Ant-Man also carries with it an odd stench of sexism regarding Hope Pym. She's an uptight careerist who's only allowed out of the shoulder-padded business suit for one scene. Throughout the movie, she's told to butt out of the proceedings by a parade of overprotective/scheming/dorky men--even though it's apparent from her second scene that she could (and should) handily steal the show from these clowns.

During the mid-credits "stinger", Hank Pym finally presents Hope with her very own Wasp costume. This would have been a lovely moment in an 80s film, but we're way past the millennium now--way past the point where a strong female character should be "presented" with anything. It's not that Hope doesn't have multiple opportunities to assert herself during Ant-Man, it's that the screenwriters never think to put that thought into the character's head. As such, we endure many elephants in many rooms, wherein the under-qualified buffoon is allowed his Heroe's Journey at the expense of Hope's dignity (and possibly the fate of the planet).

6. The Incredible Shrinking Universe. Aside from the beautiful (and beautifully weird) sub-atomic realm scene and a nod to Marvel comics' early depictions of staged transformations, Ant-Man is a largely uninspired retread of all the other MCU origin-story pictures.**

That's fine if we're still finding our footing in Phase One, but Marvel is set to enter Phase Three of its interconnected film universe. The formula works. First-place opening weekend slots are guaranteed. So why is Disney/Marvel so afraid of a little originality? Ant-Man is two hours and five minutes long,*** but the amount of worthwhile (or at least semi-unique) material can be gleaned from the inevitable two-and-a-half-minute YouTube highlights video.

Notice I didn't mention the villain past my plot synopsis? Notice I didn't talk about the results of the heist, the climactic showdown, or whether or not Scott worked things out with his family? There's no point talking about these things because, as a frequent moviegoer (and possible Marvel devotee), you know how everything plays out. You know that Ant-Man is just a placeholder for Captain America: Civil War, which is just a placeholder for the next three "stand-alone" movies leading up to Avengers: The Infinity War: Part One.

I mentally jumped for joy at the rumor that Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor had been cast as rivals in the upcoming Doctor Strange film. But I now have zero confidence in that movie being anything but a jokey, middle-aged-Harry Potter flick with wands, gags about tea, and a wide-eyed American-girl sidekick whose character development will be sacrificed on the altar of Avengers cameos.

In short: Marvel's dead. 'Nuff said.

*Actually, I have.

**In truth, even the sub-atomic stuff reminded me of a similar self-sacrifice scene from Guardians of the Galaxy.

***And that's a full two hours and five minutes, because everyone has to stick around for the famed "second stinger" after the end credits.

Monday
Jul202015

Reckless (2014)

Dutch Angle

Reckless (originally titled Bloedlink) is a Dutch remake of the 2009 British thriller, The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I can't compare the two, as I've only seen the new version, but cinema is littered with kidnapping movies and bickering-crooks flicks. Neither fact hinders director Joram Lürsen and writer Frank Ketelaar's endeavor. In fact, it sets the stage for a Tarantino-esque, off-kilter analysis of the genre that mostly feels new.

Ex-cons Victor (Tygo Gernandt) and Rico (Marwan Kenzari) kidnap Laura (Sarah Chronis), the daughter of a real estate mogul. They plan to keep her tied up in a fortified apartment while Victor sorts out the ransom details. Of course, something goes wrong. A lot of somethings, actually, as characters cross, double-cross, and even quintuple-cross each other. Films like this live and die by spoilers, so I'll tread lightly.

Reckless is a process movie, which exists to painstakingly set up schemes, abruptly tear them down, and create drama from the characters' reactions as tiny pieces fall out of place. It helps that Rico (sneaky and well-intentioned as he is) is a moron, the walking definition of "liability". Victor is the brains of the operation, and it's not clear until half-way through the film why he even needs Rico--or how he could be so blind to the man's obvious shortcomings. That doesn't mean the we, the audience, are ahead of the game from frame one, though. The film opens with an elaborate and undeniably cool hideout setup, suggesting the work of stone-cold professionals whose undoing will come from external forces.

I don't use the phrase "undeniably cool" cavalierly. Reckless is, at times, hard to watch, especially when Victor and Rico chain a struggling Laura to a bed and strip her down. It's a fascinating scene that's worth revisiting after watching the film in its entirety; not for any lurid reasons, but to note how Lürsen subtly telegraphs future events through a deceptively non-exploitive use of camera and editing. He uses nudity (with male and female subjects) to evoke different emotions in the characters and, hopefully, the audience. He makes captors of us, unbound but unable to look away from the very necessary unpleasantness inherent to understanding where this kidnapping went wrong.

By all rights, Victor and Rico's plot should have been successful. But that pesky human element is always a coffee ring on pristine blueprints, isn't it? Early on, we learn so much about the villains just from the facial features peeking through their ski masks. Victor's eyes are pinpricks of cold light hovering over a robotic, barking mouth, while Rico's features are wishy-washy and clearly focused on other concerns--creating a sense of nervousness that's not necessarily founded in a moral quandary. As it turns out, the mask is the only thing keeping him together, emotionally, and its removal during the job opens the floodgates of chaos.

Reckless wobbles slightly when exploring the depths of Rico's passion-fueled stupidity. One scene in particular is so gob-smackingly ludicrous that the film temporarily slips into Sacha Baron Cohen territory. It's a necessary conduit to much better scenes, but the moment felt like a gap in the filmmakers' otherwise solid plan--a "Revisit Later" note in the script's margin that went unnoticed between drafts.

This minor hiccup aside, I really enjoyed Reckless. The performances are great all around, especially those of Gernandt and Chronis, who are tasked with gradually revealing aspects of their characters' personality without tipping their hands. Gernandt, in particular, has a turn that's so surprising as to warrant A) another look back at the film in its entirety and B) a whole movie about this guy's life in and out of prison. For her part, Chronis plays a woman who's just tough enough to survive a crazy forty-eight hours without magically becoming a superhero. She's cunning but believably vulnerable in situations that escalate from terrifying to terrifyingly stupid but no less dangerous. Again, I have no idea how Reckless stacks up (or doesn't stack up) to the film on which it is based. But Lürsen and Ketelaar's confidence, competence, and vision made for a surprisingly fresh viewing experience.

Friday
Jul172015

Minions (2015)

Outside In

Between movies that ask us to fully engage our brains, and those that demand we turn them off in the ticket line, exists a rare breed of film that entertains while neither insulting nor enlightening the audience. I really enjoyed Minions, even though it wasn't an especially memorable experience.* It came. It went. It was, for the most part, its own thing, and the creative team invested nearly as much in the script as it did in the animation--a breath of fresh air in this summer of franchise flashbacks and recycled reboots.

But, wait. Isn't Minions a prequel to the Despicable Me series? Isn't it just an excuse to produce toys and print money? Yes, on all counts--and that's okay in this case. The downside to Pixar's tremendous legacy of intelligent, heartfelt animation is that it set an unreasonable expectation for other 'toon shops, like Minions' Illumination Entertainment. There seems to be little room, at least in the critical marketplace, for modern cartoons that ignore Greater Thematic Messages in favor of well-executed slapstick and an elevator-pitch plot. Minions isn't a particularly smart kids' movie, but it's not a stupid one, either.

Serving as an origin story for supervillain Gru's (Steve Carell) henchmen, Minions follows the cuddly, gibberish-spouting creatures from primordial soup to swingin'-60s London. As a species, they are genetically drawn to seeking out the biggest, most evil master to serve, which Forrest Gumps them into adventures with T-rexes, Dracula, and Napoleon Bonaparte. At some point in time, they got lost and settled in an Antarctic cave. After years of exhausting every mode of self-entertainment, three Minions set out to find a new rotten overlord.

Unlikely heroes Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin) trek to New York and then hitch a ride with a family of maniacs headed to an Orlando criminals convention. They draw the attention of Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who recruits them to steal the Queen's crown from the Tower of London. As you can imagine, the Minions aren't exactly Ethan Hunt, and Britain soon learns what a lava gun, a hypnosis hat, and an out-of-control royal carriage can do to the national psyche.

I appreciated Minions as an episodic adventure with a threadbare plot. It was clear to me that co-directors Coffin and Kyle Balda, and writer Bryan Lynch set out to make a movie that's just for kids (remember those?). The gags range from goofy (Minion in a thong!) to slightly mature (depressed Minions playing soccer!) to downright obscure (Minions wander onto the fake-moon-landing set!)--without stooping to crassness. Grown-ups will either invest in these wacky vignettes or they'll check their watches when the kids aren't looking (as their parents likely did during Tom & Jerry marathons). Adults who aren't movie critics or animated-film completists probably won't check out Minions in the theatre, 'cause this clearly isn't Inside Out.

I'm glad it's not. Illumination has proven that the marketplace is big enough for beautifully realized digital characters, sets, and animations that aren't uniformly heady, emotionally draining theses about the human condition. This Pixar brand loyalty has gotten way out of hand, to the extent that even when the studio itself aims broader (Cars 2 or Monsters University come to mind), fandom practically boots the "lesser" films from the stable. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with those movies,** they just aren't as thought-provoking, original, or smart as Up or Ratatouille (the latter, by the way, had as its main character a French country mouse with Patton Oswalt's voice). Minions feels leagues ahead of the original Despicable Me, in that it doesn't feel like anyone's trying to compete with the Pixar sensibility this time around.

My one glaring problem with Minions is its climax, a lawsuit-worthy mash-up of The Boxtrolls and The Iron Giant. From the crazed, mech-suited villain terrorizing a quaint-looking town square, to the over-grown Minion sacrificing himself by flying a nuclear weapon into space, the filmmakers disgracefully transcend homage by counting on a majority of the audience not having seen what can only be referred to as "the source material".

In hindsight, I'm grateful for the Iron Giant reference, even though it grosses me out. That film is all heart. The average Pixar movie is part heart and part head. Minions aims squarely for the gut, with a consistent flow of laughs, snickers, and silly sight gags whose staying power barely outlasts the end credits. Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I can tell, the filmmakers didn't get the memo about this being a calculated cash-in.

*Aside from my son laughing his head off at certain scenes, which is more than enough, really.

**Cars 2, in particular, is the kind of thematically bold switcheroo that folks who decry cookie-cutter sequels should have slobbered over. But, no, the collective must automatically dismiss anything associated with NASCAR or Larry the Cable Guy.

Sunday
Jul122015

Amy (2015)

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part Four

Amy Winehouse was a junky, a spoiled little millionaire loser who flushed her promising career down the toilet just as thoroughly as she flooded her lungs with crack cocaine. Marked by withering limbs, rotted teeth, and a barely-human hanger-on boyfriend, her oblivion spiral became the pop spectator sport of 2010. When she died a year later, the laughter of a hundred late-night-TV monologue jokes still reverberated, echoing our collective lack of sympathy. Admit it, the cosmic irony of Winehouse’s chart-topping hit, “Rehab”, still makes you giggle.

There are people in this world for whom the above sentiment will forever hold true. You might be one of them, and that’s okay. I didn’t care about Amy Winehouse, either, until watching Asif Kapadia’s ambitious, immersive, and downright amazing documentary, Amy. I’d been a casual fan of Winehouse’s music, but am ashamed to admit that I fell into the easy-jokes crowd like so many of us who made the singer’s downfall possible. No, we didn’t coerce the 27-year-old into an alcohol binge that fatally tipped the scales of her fragile, drug-addled body—but we are complicit.

We are complicit.

The film chronicles the life of a sassy British teen who fell into a music career and ascended to the top of the charts in just over a decade. Comprised completely of photomontages, home videos, interviews, and behind-the-scenes tape (and given voice by friends and colleagues) Amy is, on the surface, an unconventionally presented conventional bio-doc. A sideways glance at the form, though, reveals something darker and far more intriguing: it's the first true-life found-footage horror film—complete with a beautiful, resourceful, but ultimately doomed heroine squaring off against the undying, relentless forces of darkness.

Over the course of two hours, Kapadia presents a beautiful arc that most scripted dramas would kill for. Winehouse, the troubled product of a broken home, sought refuge in singing and lyric writing at a young age. She parlayed that into a music career, thanks to a network of friends who became more like family than her own flesh and blood. She put in the work of gigging and touring and meeting with press, never taking to her label’s attempts at crafting a polished media persona. Especially in early interviews, she comes off as blunt and distracted, always eager to get back to the "music" part of the music business.

For strong evidence that God not only exists but is a cruel and gifted black-humorist, look no further than Winehouse’s introduction to Blake Fielder-Civil at the precise moment her career truly took off. The self-styled addict, club promoter, and poon-hound seduced Winehouse, greasily filling the roles of lover, father figure, and purveyor of hard drugs. He became as addicted to the suites-and-sweet-rides lifestyle of Winehouse’s awards-show ascent as she did to his essence—the scumbag je ne sais quoi that compelled her to get “Blake’s” tattooed over her left breast.

To further twist the narrative knife, Winehouse’s father, Mitch, re-entered her life under the guise of reconciliation and became a fixture of her inner circle. He and Fielder-Civil never officially aligned to squeeze Amy dry, but the effect was downright conspiratorial: Dad’s desire to be taken care of superseded any consideration for his daughter’s well being. He proved himself a gross opportunist who set the tone on Amy’s staff of looking the other way and preserving, at all costs, the integrity of his gravy train’s increasingly isolated engine—even if it was clearly fueled by pills and pipes that emitted black clouds of depression.

Despite this inevitable second-act turn, Amy is not a complete downer of a film; its first half is the exact opposite, which makes Amy Winehouse’s death so gut-wrenching. Kapadia takes great pains to portray her as a supremely talented cool girl whose throwback soul sound was a reaction to the bland pop of her day. She didn’t want to be famous; she wanted to perform great, non-committee music. In every video and photograph, we are drawn to the fierce spirit behind Winehouse’s eyes. In the darkest moments of her decline, that light never diminishes; it transitions from radiance to rage within a deteriorating mental and physical shell. Like the final girl in a horror movie, we want to see Winehouse survive, and at several points I felt compelled to shout, “No! Don’t go in there!”

Winehouse was a celebrity, for sure, but Amy captures the essence that would have made her a star, had she lived. In one scene, she's on stage at a remote-feed Grammy concert, waiting for Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole to announce the Record of the Year. We can see Winehouse's heart beating through her chest and her eyes are a frenzied mix of anticipation and disbelief that two of her idols have spoken her name aloud (and are perhaps about to do so again). The celebration that follows is heartwarming, but this scene's stinger is devastating in both theme and delivery. I won't spoil it for you, but there's no finer example of just how thoroughly and insidiously substance abuse can eclipse the sun.

That Kapadia and editor Chris King could fashion a compelling eleven-year narrative of the Winehouse orbit is a chiling commentary on our societal obsession with capturing absolutely everything on film. At times, I had to remind myself that this wasn't a painstakingly assembled drama meant to feel like a collage of artifacts. The scene where Bennett helps Amy push past nerves and insecurities during a studio session convinced my mind, momentarily, that I was watching Oscar bait starring Robert DeNiro and Anna Kendrick. A later scene is a multi-angle fireworks display of paparazzi flashbulbs that's so immersive I wondered if I'd somehow forgotten being in a London crowd with my phone camera that day. 3D blockbusters aren't this convincing.

If it's playing in your city, I highly recommend catching Amy in a theatre--over just about any mainstream distractions available right now. That may sound like an odd endorsement for a documentary, but Kapadia has fashioned a truly unique film whose full effect, I imagine, will degrade on the small screen. This is a movie worth rooting for, and worth telling your friends about. This is one of my favorite films of the year.

That said, your primary emotion on exiting the auditorium probably won't be joy, or even sadness. It's more likely to be anger. Anger at a scumbag boyfriend and scheming father who put their own desires above the life of someone they claimed to love. Anger (fair or unfair) at an intelligent and gifted artist who ultimately wasn't strong enough to beat her chemical and emotional demons. Anger at a culture that prizes gossip, tabloid humor, and an insatiable need for content above basic human dignity. Anger at an entertainment machine that sits atop the heap, ready with niche-proven replacement pop stars when the flavor du jour has gone sour.

For example, I don't doubt that Adele is a talented person with dreams just as legitimate as Amy Winehouse's, but her ascension coincided perfectly with the market's need to keep the fallen singer's sound going. I suppose this assembly line has been up and running for decades, but Amy (just like Amy) asks us to look beyond the bullshit and reclaim art from its glossy, commoditized packaging. It's a struggle, I know, especially in a time when we carry digital bandwagons in our back pockets. Maybe we could all use a little rehab, starting with admitting there's a problem--and then watching this movie.