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Pop-Op Perfection? 

Annette and Stillwater offer very different French experiences

click to enlarge Waking up in 2021, like…


Waking up in 2021, likeā€¦

ANNETTE. Received rapturously at the Cannes Film Festival — the standing ovation lasted long enough for Adam Driver to smoke a cigarette — this might fairly be interpreted as the long-overdue arrival of the Brothers Mael. That statement, of course, cannot be made, at least by me, without a few disclaimers/asterisks. First, and perhaps most obviously, Ron and Russell have, as has been widely discussed of late, been making meaningful if often overlooked pop records for half a century; not exactly lightweights. Further, Edgar Wright's charming, illuminating documentary The Sparks Brothers having so recently bowed, a great many of us (including the casually aware but largely uninitiated) are newly minted enthusiasts, both of the band and the heartwarmingly iconoclastic siblings who drive it. Thirdly, most cynically and perhaps unfounded, it has historically been anybody's guess what will drive French audiences wild, at Cannes or elsewhere. 

It certainly helps that Annette is a collaboration of the Maels (story, songs and arrangements) and beloved French cinematic oddball Leos Carax. As with so many prominent practitioners of the form, I have long been more aware of Carax by reputation than my own familiarity with his work. He has been making features and shorts, usually to no or little renown, for nearly 40 years. His most recent feature, Holy Motors (2012), is a work of singular vision, a nighttime head-trip that could not — nor would — have been essayed by anyone else, at least with any success. Carax is a visionary, an adept technician, a cynic and a celebrant of the absurd; trés Français

And collaborating with an L.A. band more European than most Continentals, he has made a very French, very American, very strange movie musical about sex and death and art and celebrity that marries his brand of magical realism with the tragicomic absurdist maximalist pop of Sparks. For what it is, what it sets out to accomplish, I suspect Annette is perfect. I may not ever watch it again and a great many viewers might not get through it a first time, but it is a formidable and singular creation; undeniably a work of art. 

Henry McHenry (Driver), a confrontationalist stand-up comedian with a motorcycle, an outsized persona and tremendous fame, falls in love with otherworldly opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). The affair is tempestuous and passionate, troubled by his rage and alcoholism, as well as the protected flame of her own insecurity. Thrust into the public eye, their personal life deteriorates, even as they conceive a magical child called Annette (a proto-Simian marionette with an ethereal singing voice from birth). The proximity of Ann's nameless accompanist (Simon Helberg), as well as suggested questions of Annette's parentage, strain the couple past the breaking point. 

I'll stand by my past, bratty comments about both opera and the bastardized musical theater version thereof. I am probably not refined enough to really appreciate the artistry of the former, but I think watching or listening to it in a foreign tongue ameliorates the effect of the latter, where we are forced to hear contractions and awkward rhymes forced into song structure in order to convey story. And so Annette presents an interesting conundrum: It is every bit a musical, maybe even an opera, with the number of spoken lines countable on two hands. It works as well as it does, though, because it hues so closely to the underpinnings of Sparks songcraft. The Maels have always told stories with songs, often in unadorned, conversational language. And often as not, those stories are set against grand, often orchestral arrangements to punctuate both the detachment and genuine emotion thereof. Annette could be taken as their most audacious concept album, with the band receding into the background as Driver, Cotillard, Helberg and the occasional chorus of strangers present their pared-down, repetitive, mesmeric lyrics. 

Carax, with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, editor Nelly Quettier and production designer Florian Sanson, create an utterly immersive atmosphere within which the narrative can move and breathe; even the stagier passages have a feeling of limitlessness and invention, an unboundedness only possible in cinema but in perfect keeping with the Maels' aesthetic. R. 140M. AMAZON.

STILLWATER. I haven't left myself much room for this, a smaller but equally meritorious movie with similar themes of devotion and loss. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, the story centers on Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an Oklahoma roughneck between rig jobs, whose daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been in prison in Marseilles for five years, convicted of the murder of her girlfriend. Allsion maintains her innocence and Bill, in a misplaced act of loyalty and amends, works to exonerate her.

Very much out of place, unable to speak a word of French despite his many visits, Bill eventually befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Virginie agrees to help Bill with his investigation, which almost immediately goes disastrously awry. 

The story is foregrounded by a mediation on our cultural differences, xenophobia at home and abroad (from both the American and French perspectives) and the banality of guilt and the eternal struggle for forgiveness. It is exceedingly textured and compelling, consummately nuanced.  R. 140M. MINOR THEATRE.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


DON'T BREATHE 2. Listen, I've been trying not to breathe out there for a year and a half. But sure, let's see if the ripped old guy who hears everything and kills everybody can still scare me. R. 98M BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

FREE GUY. Ryan Reynolds plays a man who realizes he's an extra in somebody else's chaotic, violent video game. Lol, same. PG13. 115M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE GREEN KNIGHT. Dev Patel sends you back to the Norton Anthology as Sir Gawain, who goes shot-for-shot with a mysterious, supernatural knight. R. 130M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

JUNGLE CRUISE. Dwayne Johnson captains the Disneyland ride turned well-oiled action comedy with Emily Blunt. PG13. 127M. BROADWAY, DISNEY PLUS, MILL CREEK.

THE NIGHT HOUSE. A widow discovers her husband was up to no good. R. 97M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

OLD. M. Night Shyamalan's thriller about a family visiting a beach that's rapidly aging them and holy Coppertone, I need more sunscreen right now. PG13. 108M. BROADWAY.

PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE. The heroic pups head to the big screen. G. 90M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE PROTÉGÉ. A highly trained assassin is out for revenge after her mentor is murdered. Starring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton. R. 109M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

REMINISCENCE. Hugh Jackman plays a scientist trying to find answers of his long-lost love using technology that unlocks memories in this dystopian sci-fi thriller. PG13. 148M. Mill CREEK. BROADWAY. 

RESPECT. A biographical musical drama of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, starring Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Forest Whitaker. PG13. 145M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

STILLWATER. An Oklahoma roughneck (Matt Damon) tries to save his daughter (Abigail Breslin) from a French prison. R. 140M. MINOR.

THE SUICIDE SQUAD. The bad guys gear up for some anti-hero action, only this time with a lot more color. Starring Margot Robbie, Viola Davis and Idris Elba. R. 132M. HBOMAX. MILL CREEK. BROADWAY. 

For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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