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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Helberg’

Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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Having already polished off Mrs Pankhurst, Maggie Thatcher and the hotel-owner from Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep moves on to a more significant figure in recent history in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (she is, naturally, playing the title role). To be honest, this is a movie which has fallen victim to an odd curse – a curse which only seems to affect movies in pairs…

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_film

Every now and then some form of folie a deux grips film-makers and they end up making multiple movies on the same subject, seemingly completely by chance. (Well, the zeitgeist may have something to do with it, I suppose.) So you sometimes end up in a situation like the one where Dante’s Peak and Volcano both come out in the same year, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or even two versions of the Robin Hood story (I’m thinking of the Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin movies, both of which appeared in 1991). In a similar, but still rather baffling manner, someone somewhere seems to have decreed that 2016 will be the year of movies about Florence Foster Jenkins, of all people.

Do I really have to go through the explanation of who this woman was again? If I seem tetchy it’s because I’ve already done it, not that long ago (or so it feels anyway), because the other Florence Foster Jenkins movie only came out a couple of months back: Marguerite, a French movie presenting a heavily fictionalised version of the story. Frears’ film sticks closer to fact, in theory at least.

Oh well. The movie opens in New York City, 1944, and initially appears to be about the complicated personal circumstances of actor and general bon viveur St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – Bayfield works with, and is apparently devoted to, his wife (Streep), but at the end of every evening he goes off to his own flat where he lives with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson). But then, after Florence decides she feels strong enough to resume her own singing career, it looks for a while as if the film is actually going to be about her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg): McMoon is startled to discover that his employer, despite her love of music, has a singing voice that primarily resembles somebody stabbing a cat to death, and yet she is indulged and kept ignorant of this by everyone around her.

It’s only after quite a long while that the film actually starts being about Florence in earnest: following one especially successful soiree, she feels moved to record herself singing, and inevitably a copy of this escapes into the wild, causing something of a sensation amongst the public and deep alarm to Bayfield and McMoon. A concert in front of an unsympathetic audience at Carnegie Hall looms…

You can imagine the key personnel of this film emerging, grim-faced, from a screening of Marguerite, and blessing the English-speaking public for their entrenched antipathy towards subtitled films, because otherwise their film would have been in very serious trouble: not only are they based on the life of the same person, but they feature some of the same musical numbers, and even some virtually identical costuming choices. This wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that Marguerite does it all much better – it’s a subtler, wittier film, broader in its scope and with a more interesting cast of characters. I know it’s bad form to claim to be writing about Florence Foster Jenkins but actually go on about the merits of Marguerite instead, but there you go, in this case it’s unavoidable.

The curious thing is that there was potential here for a somewhat more distinctive take on the story – there certainly seem to have been enough idiosyncrasies to Florence Foster Jenkins’ actual life, most of which the French film ended up ignoring. (I’m assuming here that Frears and his team aren’t just making stuff up, by the way.) And yet the film shies away from being wholly a bio-pic of the lady. The basic creative process appears to have been: ‘woman can’t sing well – must be a comedy’.

Well, there are comedies and comedies, and this one is definitely towards the broader end of the scale. The main problem here is that, especially when singing, Streep is trying too hard. ‘Look at how badly I’m singing, isn’t it hilarious,’ is the message she is sending off – she is proclaiming badness rather than unconsciously confessing to it, and this is rather less effective. To be fair, her whole performance is a bit TV sitcom.

Much better is Hugh Grant, in a role which plays to his strengths. I’ve always thought Grant was a very underrated performer, his indifference towards acting too often being mistaken for an indifferent talent. He carries the film here, giving a witty and subtle and actually rather complex and layered performance. Hugh Grant doesn’t make a lot of films, and seeing him here really makes you wish this wasn’t the case.

In the end Florence Foster Jenkins is a bit of a mixed bag – it looks fine (through some cinematic sorcery they have managed to make Liverpool indistinguishable from 1940s New York), the performances aren’t actually bad (some, as noted, are actually very good), and there are some quite amusing moments, especially if you haven’t seen that other film I keep banging on about. But the title character never really comes to life or moves you, which is surely what the film-makers were intending. If you have a choice of films about bad singing to watch, then I’m afraid I can only recommend this one to people with a pathological hatred of the French: to paraphrase Carly Simon, somebody else has done it much better.

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