Annette

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard

The formidably talented maverick Leos Carax hasn’t made a feature in nine years, nothing since 2012’s batshit Holy Motors, so that’s one thing to thank the new movie Annette for. Whether Annette actually is a Carax movie at all is the question though.

How so, you ask. Because Annette is written by Ron (he of toothbrush moustache) and Russell (he of swooping voice) Mael, the brothers behind Sparks, the US band that bounced into the zeitgeist in 1974 with the song This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, and has returned, comet-like, every few years since with material ear-catching and interesting enough to win new fans.

Originally bracketed with the glam crowd – Bowie, Bolan, Roxy Music etc – Sparks long ago abandoned conventional genre categorisation and have always been up for innovation on their journey along the road less travelled. You might remember their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand a few years back, the resulting supergroup going by the abbreviation FFS. Funny.

Annette is a musical, but it’s not Sparks’ first attempt at one. In the late 1980s, they tried to make a movie musical version of the Japanese manga Mai, the Psychic Girl – both Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola were involved at different points. In 2009 they released a radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

Sparks clearly have fans. Edgar Wright’s film, The Sparks Brothers, also hit screens in 2021 and getting Carax to direct is obviously a coup, as is getting Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard to star.

Driver plays successful stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (more of a conceptual comedian than a funny one) who does his audience-baiting shows in a boxer’s towelling robe. Cotillard is Ann Defrasnoux, a feted opera singer. He spends his nights trying not to die on stage whereas she almost inevitably does die, in one tragic heroine role or another.

Life mirroring art, with male rage as the theme, it’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-kills-girl story conducted at operatic intensity, Cotillard continuing to exert presence after Ann’s gone thanks to a plot involving her vengeful spirit visiting Henry from beyond the watery grave.

Baby Annette arrives on the scene about halfway in – not a real baby but something assembled from offcuts of Pinocchio and a waft of CG, from the look of her – then grows up and becomes a singer in her own right. Baby Annette, a global sensation.

Carax is never one for realism but keeps it within the hedges for the most part, only occasionally really letting things rip, as in the scene on a boat when Henry and Ann’s fading romance finally becomes terminal and the sea around them boils like an expressionist painting. But for the most part Carax shoots as if this were a colour version of a 1940s melodrama – angular lighting, lurid hues, tunnels, corridors down which deadpan characters stalk.

Sparks singing So May We Start
Sparks perform So May We Start



There are a couple of good songs, the grand “here’s the gang” intro So May We Start and the love duet True Love (first time I’ve seen sung-through cunnilingus), plus a lot of what would be called recitative if this was an opera, which it almost is.

Kurt Weill (angularity) and maybe a touch of Tom Lehrer (the raised-eyebrow rhymes) can be detected, perhaps, but the songs most often call to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda – I don’t think for a second the Mael brothers borrowed anything from Miranda, just that his success probably helped make Annette possible and both parties love to get dextrous with the verbals.

Simon Helberg, who you might remember as the accompanist in Florence Foster Jenkins, plays another accompanist here, as the musician with a secret longing to have what Henry has, and Helberg gives it the full tormented-musician shtick, and even gets an amusing song explaining why a relatively minor character in the Ann/Henry firmament is getting so much screen time.

We know Cotillard can sing – she was an amazing (and Oscar-winning) Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (aka La Môme). Though he had a Sondheim number in Marriage Story, it’s Driver who’s the revelation as the pugilitistic comedian, as good as her in terms of sheer performance power, even if it’s hard to match her for pipework.

After all that, all that talent, all that novelty, all that effort, it’s sad to report Annette is a bit of a bore. Two good songs, and both of those up front, can’t hide the fact that there’s a dearth of tunes later on, and things start to go into ambient Sparks auto-generator mode. Given that it’s a tale at least partly about two celebrities struggling to accomodate each other’s fame, a burst of This Town Ain’t Big Enough would have slotted in neatly, but doing things the easy way is not the Sparks way.

Sparks not Carax. The visuals feel like an afterthought, which is odd for him, as if he’s expended most of his directorial energy getting brilliant performances out of his cast. Oh well.





Annette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









A Good Year

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good Year

 

In 1989 former adman Peter Mayle wrote a book about how he left the rat race behind and started a new life in France. A Year in Provence was its name and this humorous memoir set the tone for the TV series that followed, starring John Thaw as the escapee to the good life. Though director Alan Parker had been at the Ogilvy agency where Mayle was the UK’s creative head, it was another UK former commercials director, Ridley Scott, who decided to turn Mayle’s novel, about a stockbroker who gets fired and then inherits a vineyard from his uncle, into a film. And Scott stays true to type, laying on the warm amber filtration reminiscent of advertisements for reassuringly expensive French lager (Stella Artois is in fact Belgian, but that never seems to bother advertisers), while drafting in Russell Crowe to play the London City brute who learns of his bequest and heads off to Provence, which he hasn’t visited since he was a child. Once there, he continues his career as an utter bastard and prepares to sell the vineyard off, against the objections of his uncle’s loyal retainers. Surprisingly, things don’t pan out the way Crowe’s Max planned. Of course they don’t – surprises are the last thing Scott, Crowe and Mayle are serving up in this soufflé of stereotypes. Judged against Scott classics such as Alien or Blade Runner, A Good Year is never going to make the cut. But seen as a “holiday” movie for all concerned – Scott, it turns out, is Mayle’s near neighbour in Provence – it’s a pleasant piece of duvet viewing spiked with performances by the likes of Albert Finney (Max’s much loved uncle), Abbie Cornish (as Max’s long-lost cousin, who might want a slice of the estate) and Marion Cotillard (the local waitress Max falls for) which make it more than it might have been.

 

 

A Good Year – Watch it now at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 October

 

 

Birth of Picasso, 1881

On this day in 1881, the Spanish artist Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born. Prodigiously talented, Picasso was painting at a high level as a child, and continued experimenting with different media and styles – the rose period, the blue period, the African period, cubism, surrealism, and neo-expressionism and so on – right up until his death in 1973. Media included paint, sculpture, collage, cardboard, string, pencil, pen, photograph, torch (on film), chalk, oil, whatever was going. He’d draw on napkins to pay bills, draw on walls, any time, place or where. A key figure of hate for anyone who didn’t want to acknowledge that the functions of fine art, painting (call it what you will) had been redefined by the arrival of photography, cinema and mass literacy, Picasso was said by his detractors to produce work comparable to a migraine. Typical of the traditionalist view was the attitude of the British artist AJ Munnings who, in a speech to the Royal Academy, denounced Picasso (and Matisse) as “foolish daubers”. Though, regardless of whether you wonder why the cubist pictures have noses where eyes should be and so on, it is hard to disregard Picasso’s basic facility with a line – his simple drawings are still astonishing, and beautiful, concepts which many painters of the 20th century found to be incompatible.

 

 

Midnight in Paris (2011, dir: Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has a habit of coming back with a blockbuster just when he’s being written off as finished. He’s been doing it at least since Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986. Midnight in Paris was his huge 2011 hit, a film which opens, vaguely along the lines of Manhattan, with a series of loving shots of Paris in all its picture-postcard glory, while Sidney Bechet’s clarinet swoons over the soundtrack. We then cut to the sort of fantasy you can imagine someone of Allen’s vintage having – to be transported back to the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. But being a man of a cynical, comedic bent, Allen puts a twist on it, having his stand-in (Owen Wilson in this case) – a current-day screenwriter in Paris magically transported back to the 1920s each night – finding out that the lives of these heroes weren’t quite as they are in the books. Allen pulls the Marshall McLuhan joke a few times, in other words. Which, if you remember, is the scene in Annie Hall where Allen is arguing with a schmuck in a cinema queue about something Marshall McLuhan said and drags the real McLuhan in to back him up. In Midnight in Paris, Wilson gains first hand knowledge from his nights out with Cole Porter, Hemingway etc which he then uses as a weapon in today’s Paris against the artistic know-all and rival played (brilliantly) by Michael Sheen. Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s “funny films” in other words. And it has something to say about rose-tinted nostalgia, as Wilson and Marion Cotillard (as a woman he meets in the 1920s) go back even further in time to fin de siècle Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Degas are all bitching about the current generation’s lack of imagination. Plus ça change and so on.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Very funny
  • Beautiful, charming and romantic
  • The acting talent – Alison Pill alongside Tom Hiddleston, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Léa Seydoux
  • The name-dropping – TS Eliot, Dali, Man Ray, Matisse, Buñuel, Alice B Toklas

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Midnight in Paris – at Amazon