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FilmWatch Weekly: Operatic ‘Annette,’ ‘Whirlybird’ & ‘Nine Days’

Adam Driver in a busy musical, a searing documentary about news in the sky, a tale of philosophical gravy.

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Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in “Annette.”

There’s a lot going on in Annette, so much so that it’s hard to know where to start.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are the stars of Annette, but neither of them plays Annette (more on that later).

Annette is a musical, featuring a screenplay and songs by Ron and Russell Mael, otherwise known as the offbeat, venerable band Sparks, which recently had its fandom expanded by the admiring documentary The Brothers Sparks.

The director of Annette is Leos Carax, the French auteur and onetime enfant terrible, making his first feature since 2012’s Holy Motors (and only his second feature this century).

In other words, if you came up with a description of a highly anticipated art film using some sort of cinematic Mad Libs, you probably wouldn’t get anything more unexpected than this. And yet, it works—at least enough of it to satisfy film fans looking for something big, brave, and bizarre in an era of corporate cookie-cutter culture. (Yes, there’s a certain irony in the fact that it’s being distributed stateside by Amazon Pictures.)

After a dazzling, one-shot opening number (“So May We Start”) featuring Sparks, Carax, and most of the movie’s cast, we’re introduced to Henry McHenry (Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). He’s an aggressive standup comedian who attacks his material and confronts his audience like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. She’s a world-renowned opera singer who belts out arias while dying every night on stage. And they’re in love, their relationship tracked avidly by the entertainment media.

For the first third of Annette, there’s not much narrative momentum, exemplified by the repetitive chorus of “We Love Each Other So Much” that Henry and Ann sing to each other, most memorably in the throes of lovemaking. I can’t wait to hear John Oliver’s reaction after seeing this movie.

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But, eventually, stakes arrive in the form of their baby daughter Annette. (See, I told you we’d get there.) About Annette, the less said the better, except to note that it becomes clear this story is about a man so wrapped up in his own narcissism and self-loathing that he can’t fully recognize the humanity in others.

There’s also a romantic triangle, with a character known only as The Accompanist (Simon Helberg), Ann’s regular pianist who pines for her affections in Henry’s shadow. Ann herself fades into the shadows at times, and there are moments where it feels like the screenplay shares Henry’s lack of empathy for the other people in his life. But, again, that’s kind of the point.

Since it would be rude to discuss much of what happens in the last half of this slightly overlong film (except to reveal that there’s a dramatic shipwreck!), let’s focus on the world that Carax and Sparks have created. Carax has always been drawn to artifice, outsized emotion, and a mythic approach to matters of the heart. His first feature, shot when he was 24, was titled Boy Meets Girl. With Annette, he shifts into fully operatic gear. There are duets between Henry, backed by four singers, and the audiences for his increasingly toxic performances. There are patently artificial conceits throughout. And there is, of course, heartbreak and death. Juxtaposed against all this, like chocolate to its peanut butter, are the percussive pop beats and complex lyricism of the Mael brother’s compositions.

All John Oliver jokes aside, it’s important to recognize what Adam Driver is accomplishing. Many actors alternate commercial, franchise films with more engaging, independent work, but Driver has been among the most adept, parlaying his portrayal of Kylo Ren into opportunities to act for Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and now Carax. Next up are a pair of bigger-budget projects with the indefatigable Ridley Scott, including the tantalizing House of Gucci. And, quite possibly, a third Oscar nomination. (Opens Friday, August 6, at Cinema 21.)

***

Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard in “Whirlybird.”

ANYONE OVER A CERTAIN AGE remembers where they were when O. J. Simpson and Al Cowling led police on an interminable, slow-speed freeway chase in October 1995. (Me, I was at a Grateful Dead show, so I had no idea in those pre-smartphone days what was going on.) The helicopter footage of that event was broadcast live to something like 80 million viewers, and was the career capstone of the dean of aerial TV journalism, Bob Tur.

The documentary Whirlybird tells the story of the mercurial, ambitious Tur and his long-suffering wife and partner Marika Gerrard, who pioneered the use of helicopters to capture the news, most of it bad. The first-ever live broadcast of a high-speed chase ends with the police shooting and killing the driver. The occasional disruption of a celebrity wedding (cue Madonna flipping Tur’s bird the bird). Most wrenchingly, the civil unrest following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, including the horrifying footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being pulled from his vehicle and beaten in broad daylight.

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While all this was going on, the relationship between Marika and Bob (who transitioned in 2014 and is now Zoey Tur) became increasingly strained and dysfunctional. She’s leaning out the door of the chopper he’s piloting around the city, shooting footage while he berates her unforgivingly over the headset. At times, it’s very tough to listen to, and Zoey now acknowledges that, to put it bluntly, “testosterone made me an asshole.”

Adding to the surreality of the tale are the presence of Lawrence Welk’s grandson, an employee of the couple, and of their daughter Katy Tur, now an MSNBC correspondent despite (or because of) growing up in this environment. Whirlybird is a darkly nostalgic glimpse back at the dawn of a new age in journalism, and a portrait of someone who had to find their true self in order to be at peace. (Opens Friday, August 6, at the Kiggins Theatre.)

***

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days.”

I’M ALWAYS GAME FOR A LITTLE METAPHYSICS in my movies, but the deliberately paced Nine Days ladles its philosophical gravy on so thickly that the taste of its narrative meat disappears. The concept is this: In the limbo of pre-existence (depicted as a small house in the middle of a desert), a man named Will (Winston Duke) interviews several unborn souls in order to determine which one will be born into the world as a new human. Will, as he says, is just “a cog in the machine,” spending much of his time monitoring the souls he has previously passed by watching a bank of TV screens that display their human points of view. When one of them abruptly appears to commit suicide, Will’s confidence in his ability to discern which souls will cut it on Earth is shaken.

It’s a fascinating setup. Director Edson Oda, making his first feature, has a steady hand, and guides his ensemble cast (which includes Tony Hale, Zazie Beetz, and Benedict Wong as a colleague of Will’s) to committed performances. But the candidates themselves are broadly, almost generically drawn, and Will himself is so reserved and unreadable that it’s hard to identify with his predicament. Still, taking on the Big Questions is always worthwhile, and Nine Days should prompt a few post-film colloquies on the nature of existence. If that’s your thing. (Opens Friday, August 6, at the Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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