An undoubtedly frustrating and absolutely beguiling head scratcher of a fever dream musical, Leos Carax’s Annette (C+) is the love child of Sweeney Todd and Chucky from Child’s Play and plays like a dystopian La La Land in its biting take on twisty Hollywood romance. Set to an unusual parade of songs by the band Sparks, it’s more of a film experience to let wash over you rather than ever taking it too literally or seriously. A sensational and physically ominous Adam Driver absolutely sells the central performance of an unhinged comedian who marries an opera singer (a resplendent but underused Marion Cotillard) and starts a family including the marionette child of the film’s title. Carax is known for mixing the natural and artificial, so it’s appropriate he leverages a Brechtian rock opera approach with songs like “We Love Each Other So Much” as a stand-in for an actual courtship and “I’m an Accompanist” to introduce Simon Helberg’s character who is exactly that on the piano. The oddball styling of the songs and sequences, the bonkers shifts in tone and vocal quality and the meandering plot line don’t add up to a cohesive whole, but boy is it an intriguing mixed bag of an experiment. And for fans of Driver, this is probably the most Driver performance you’ve ever seen.
Benny Boom’s by the numbers Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me (B-) is buoyed by Demetrius Shipp Jr. who is electric in the lead role and Danai Gurira who is effective in a supporting role as his political activist mother. Shakur the man spent his short 25 years as an entertainer, provocateur and man of contradictions, so it’s disappointing the film doesn’t get deeper under the surface at some critical junctures. The film starts as a bit of a superhero origin story, becomes a “behind the music” string of montages for a while and ultimately settles into a gangster epic as our hero joins Death Row Records. Shipp wears it all very well, even when his motivations aren’t always crystal clear. It’s still extraordinarily watchable, absorbing even, if fairly predictable and a bit overlong. Tinged with highlights of the rapper’s music and of period detail, the movie will take lots of folks back to the ’90’s and remind people about a magnificent talent taken away too soon.
Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy (B) is the unconventional telling of the life of musical wunderkind Brian Wilson, the producer mastermind behind The Beach Boys and one of the most acclaimed albums in history, Pet Sounds. Akin to Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not Here, which famously showcased a parade of performers playing the musician, this Wilson narrative casts its subject in two parts, representing a personality in fissure – Paul Dano as the crazed savant in his creative experimental peak in the ’60s and John Cusack as a man medicated into oblivion searching for redemption in the ’80s. The Dano sequences of Brian-Past are by far the strongest as the phenomenal actor displays the spark of creation, the cusp of genius and the brink of madness. He is vulnerable to his own demons and the fear of an abusive father and stunningly alive as a genius savant. Cusack doesn’t stand a chance in the weaker parallel plotline. The film is at its best putting music front and center and posits that the musician summons songs and sounds as a way to cope with and corral the voices in his head. For Wilson, the studio itself becomes a critical instrument that helps heal his soul. Paul Giamatti is effective as a stern therapist and Elizabeth Banks a delight as the love interest of Brian-Present. Flashbacks and fancy film stocks help buoy the character’s misunderstood vibrations. Music lovers will revel in the film’s unusual portal to finding rhythm, and admirers of good acting will enjoy the yin and yang harmony of the Dano/Cusack portrayal. A bit like A Beautiful Mind put to melody at the pace of West Coast cool, this biopic is definitely worth a spin.
In music and in life, synching up is half the battle. For the two lovers orbiting and intersecting with each other through Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years (A), the language of tough love is song, and the deck is shuffled with her story told backward and his forward. The “he” is Jeremy Jordan, and the “she” is Anna Kendrick, and both are in spectacular voice and game for the virtually all-sung emoting. Kendrick’s struggling actress character draws from the actress’ considerable charms and everywoman humor. Jordan is also stunning in his debonair dismissiveness as an on-the-rise novelist whose fame is ablaze just as Kendrick’s character crashes and burns. With hand-held aesthetic and its cunning chronology, it’s a bit like Once meets Memento, with shades of young love out of the Before Sunrise playbook and a found footage quality à la Blair Witch. There’s something else afoot here: a giddiness teetering to melancholy and an overarching uncertainty about where it’s all headed. It does seem clear from the opening sequence that the titular timeline doesn’t end well for the couple, but in still life and snapshots within the various montages, there’s enduring hope. A breezy indie spirit imbues the affair with a veritable home movie quality, with the audience a voyeur to a relationship always on the brink. LaGravenese is scrappy and uncommon in his approach, which rewrites many of the rules of the genre. Naturalistic and unexpectedly moving, it’s a marvel of a musical.
The film’s co-star talks to TheaterMania about the film adaptation of the cult stage musical:
Lightning does not strike twice for Once writer/director John Carney as he brings his wounded souls bonding over music motifs Stateside in the NYC-set drama Begin Again (B-). Mark Ruffalo is a down-on-his-luck producer and Keira Knightley the unlucky-in-love songstress who catches his attention. Together the maven and his muse create an album on the streets of New York and rediscover their stride. It’s often affecting and means perfectly well, but the music never rises to the level nor the milieu to the moment to render a result as uncommon as its makers seem to imagine. Carney coaxes viewers a bit into the fact they’re watching a musical; and this camouflaged concoction filled with recording sessions, crooning and concert sequences occasionally swells to its raison d’être. Ruffalo and Knightly are charming as the chaste protagonists, and Adam Levine is serviceable in the role of a rock star on the rise. Other supporting cast members are given short shrift and are as misplaced as Manhattan by a director who better staged a similar tale among the buskers of Dublin.