Indie Focus: music and melodrama in ‘Annette’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The ongoing saga of the future of the Golden Globe awards perhaps began a new chapter this week as the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. voted for new bylaws intended to revamp the organization and restore its damaged credibility.

Stacy Perman reported on the decision, as well as the skeptical response from the rest of the industry.

“It’s not just they have passed,” said one entertainment publicist. “We have to see the bylaws, they have to be made public and they have to be meaningful, and there has to be a full accounting of what exactly they are doing and who exactly is doing it.”

Also on the awards front, the Gotham Awards announced that their acting categories will no longer be defined by gender. Rather than separate actor and actress categories, starting this year there will be awards for lead performance and supporting performance, with an expanded number of nominees in the consolidated categories. The nominations will be announced on Oct. 21.

If you are anything like me, the last few weeks have in part been about waiting for Sunday night’s new episodes of HBO’s “The White Lotus.” We don’t often talk about TV here, but since the show was created, written and directed by Mike White, filmmaker of the movies “Brad’s Status” and “Year of the Dog” and screenwriter of, among others, “Beatriz at Dinner,” “The Good Girl” and “School of Rock,” we will make an exception.

Meredith Blake wrote a fantastically in-depth piece on the show, talking to White and performers Murray Bartlett and Brittany O’Grady about the show’s depiction of a luxury Hawaiian resort.

“I don’t usually have dead bodies in my show,” White said. “But I was like, ‘Give the people what they want: here’s your dead body!’ And I do think it helped stoke this sense of ‘What’s going to happen?’ So that there’s a little more blood in the mouth than a ‘California Suite.’”

Next Thursday will be the first in-person Indie Focus event since March of 2020, as we present a screening of the mind-bending thriller “The Night House.” The Q&A with actress Rebecca Hall and director David Bruckner was pre-taped and will show after the film.

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‘Annette’

Directed by Leos Carax, who just picked up the best director prize when the film premiered at Cannes, “Annette” is a musical melodrama co-written by Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the band Sparks. In the film, Adam Driver and Marion Cottilard are a couple — he is a controversial comedian, she is a renowned opera singer — struggling to hold their relationship together amidst the pressures of fame and parenthood. The film goes in unexpected directions from there with a dazzling mix of audacity and emotions. The movie is in limited theatrical release and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Aug. 20.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote “’Annette’ might be unfolding in an elaborate hall of cinematic mirrors — perhaps even the same one as “Holy Motors,” which, like this film, has a thing for monkeys, limousines and the color green. But where that deranged masterwork had a boundless sense of imagination that seemed to widen by the minute, the emotional and aesthetic possibilities of ‘Annette’ curiously seem to constrict as the movie progresses: By the end, it’s painted itself into a poignant corner, one that feels like the logical (if that’s the word) endpoint for the punishing story of fame and futility that Carax is telling. He’s the movies’ reigning poet of l’amour fou, and here he shows us the bitter reality — more tragic than comic — of what happens when that love is lost.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The fact that the characters sing more than they talk — even during sex — is in some ways the least strange thing about the movie, which casts a series of mechanical puppets in the title role. … ‘Annette’ masters its own paradoxes. It’s a highly cerebral, formally complex film about unbridled emotion. A work of art propelled by a skepticism about where art comes from and why we value it the way we do. A fantastical film that attacks some of our culture’s most cherished fantasies. Utterly unreal and completely truthful.”

For Vanity Fair, Cassie Da Costa wrote, “Annette is remarkable for its formal intensity—how every image and song is not merely reflective of, but tangled up in the ideas they give life to. Driver looms over Cotillard with his large hands splayed out like Nosferatu’s. How has this horrid man scored such a lovely woman, Henry asks himself? … Like Carax’s last ambitious project, ‘Holy Motors’ —also shot by [Caroline] Champetier and starring Carax-regular Denis Lavant as an alternately tender and monstrous actor — ‘Annette’ is interested in how both artifice and authenticity save and terrorize us. Specifically, Sparks’ screenplay explores how a man’s own confusion about what is real and what he’s made up can quickly turn from generative artistry to relentless abuse.”

For rogerebert.com, Sheila O’Malley wrote, “‘Annette’ is not just a musical, it is also a soapy melodrama incorporating elements of the supernatural (a common theme in Carax’s films). ‘Annette’ is filled with dark and sometimes self-destructive energy, where emotions are barely manageable and can only be expressed through song. This is the conceit that is so often not properly addressed in the modern movie musical. It feels artificial to start singing in the middle of a scene. It is artificial. Carax, though, is comfortable in the fluidity of the ‘real’ and the ‘assumed.’ He doesn’t worry about what is or is not artificial. This sensibility has been passed on to his talented cast, all of whom accept the conceit of the musical, and have no problem meeting its demands.”

For Artforum, Amy Taubin wrote, “With original story and music by Sparks and lyrics by Ron Mael, Russell, and LC (Leos Carax), ‘Annette’ is a full-on musical, with some 40 songs. Many are fragments, and only two are truly memorable, but that’s enough. When the actors aren’t singing, they are speaking as actors speak in musicals— with instrumentation pulsing beneath their voices and a delivery halfway between speech and song. The moments when the music drops away, leaving the actors’ voices stripped naked, are few but devastating. What makes ‘Annette’ formally complex and compelling is the marriage of Sparks’ precise but driving percussion and rhythm sections and Carax’s expansive, unpredictable, even Wagnerian onslaught of lighting and camera moves. … If the film has a flaw, it is that Driver’s performance nearly obliterates Cotillard’s, thereby reasserting a gender-defined power dynamic that Carax wants to remedy. For that to change, we must believe in the human future of Baby Annette.”

Adam Driver, left, and Marion Cottilard in ‘Annette.’

(Amazon Studios)

‘The Suicide Squad’

Written and directed by James Gunn, “The Suicide Squad” isn’t exactly a sequel to David Ayer’s 2016 film “Suicide Squad” but it’s also not not a sequel. If that’s confusing, it will put you in the right frame of mind for this over-the-top mélange of action and mischief. Starring Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Idris Elba and John Cena, a group of supervillains are contracted by the U.S. government to engage in a secret mission to recover a secret weapon from a small South American country. The film is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Psychotic, battle-weary and devoid of compassion as they may be, these merry professional killers aren’t entirely dead inside. By the same token, Gunn’s insouciant swagger isn’t entirely devoid of warmth or sentimentality, and the bonds of kinship that emerge between comrades — warm little cracks in the movie’s nihilistic facade — can’t help but sneak their way into your own affections. … Tellingly, one of the targets that ‘The Suicide Squad’ consistently jabs at is an idea of America itself, a nation with a long history of fomenting violence in other nations and refusing to acknowledge its complicity in human suffering. Maybe that’s an obvious, tired point, an attempt to bring some seriousness to a movie featuring a really, really big intergalactic starfish. Or maybe there’s still another lesson here, namely that a sincere effort to fight evil with evil would, for more than a few people, begin with an honest look in the mirror.”

Sonaiya Kelley broke down how the film’s post-credits scene connects to an upcoming DC spinoff series on HBO Max starring Cena, noting, “Whether the studio’s foray into television will achieve success comparable to Marvel’s recent Disney+ series — or stumble like Netflix’s earlier attempts — remains to be seen. But as the DCEU continues to try to find its footing, offering creative control of a television project to an established and idiosyncratic filmmaker seems to be a promising first step, and one that none of the Marvel projects have done before.”

Tracy Brown spoke to Daniela Melchior, the Portuguese performer who makes her English-language debut playing Cleo Cazo, also known as Ratcatcher 2. It was Melchior who decided to lean into the stereotype of the, in her words, “lazy millennial” in playing the character, adding, “James told me, ‘I can really believe that you don’t want to be here.’”

Melchior added, “She’s not a supervillain yet because she never killed anyone. This was a good opportunity to see her first mission and it’s a good starting point. Maybe in other things — if there are any other things — we can see her learning those skills. Learning how to kill someone if she has to, learning how to fight or learning how to deal with her daddy issues in a better way.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis compared the movie to Robert Aldrich’s 1967 “The Dirty Dozen” when she wrote, “Aldrich saw ‘The Dirty Dozen’ as anti-authoritarian, which appealed to the original ’60s audience, but then Americans have long imagined that they are free-thinking mavericks. ‘The Suicide Squad’ dutifully serves up the same evergreen fantasy with amusing flourishes, disappointing stunt choreography and much cartoonish slicing and dicing. The violence is the most consistently inventive part of the whole package, though it grows tiresome in its thudding repetition. Like the story’s superficial finger-wagging at American wrongs, the brutality is both decorative and ritualistic. It keeps eyeballs fixed and worlds unrocked, giving the audience what it expects, no less and certainly no more.”

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “What’s remarkable about ‘The Suicide Squad,’ is that for all its bloody sneering and snark, you care about all of these characters, who actually feel like real people. Even as it climaxes in a surreal and hallucinatory kaiju explosion that’s a cartoonish mashup of ‘Godzilla,’ ‘Alien’ and even Gunn’s 2006 directorial debut, ‘Slither,’ the actual conflict is grounded in real political history, and the film makes a razor-sharp commentary on American intervention overseas, especially in Central America. It’s not often a comic book flick will have you critiquing Reagan-era politics while also enjoying the lizard-brain pleasures of a creature feature smash-’em-up, but that’s just the special sauce that James Gunn brings. Here’s hoping he heads to the dark side again soon.”

Harley Quinn, Ratcatcher 2, Bloodsport, King Shark and Polka Dot Man stand amid rubble.

(from left) Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, Idris Elba as Bloodsport, King Shark and David Dastmalchian as Polka Dot Man in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action-adventure “The Suicide Squad,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(Warner Bros. / DC Comics )

‘Swan Song’

Written and directed by Todd Stephens, “Swan Song” is a showcase for character actor Udo Kier in a rare leading role. Kier plays a once high-flying hairdresser, living out his years in Sandusky, Ohio, who is asked to style a former client for her funeral. (Linda Evans and “The White Lotus” star Jennifer Coolidge also appear.) The film is in limited theatrical release and will be on-demand Aug. 13.

For The Times, Kimber Myers wrote, “‘Swan Song’ recalls the glittery vibes of ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’ particularly in its fish-out-of-water road trip and a drag show scene featuring a marvelously improvised headdress and Robyn’s eternal banger ‘Dancing on My Own.’ But Sandusky native Stephens imbues ‘Swan Song’ with a shabby charm all its own, coupled with emotional resonance born of both the story’s basis in the writer-director’s own experience and Kier’s touching performance. The story examines love, grief and connection in the gay community, and Kier gives a nuanced turn to match, nailing comedic and touching scenes alike. A little too broad at times, ‘Swan Song’ smartly balances its excesses with small, sweet moments that leave an impression on the audience just as significant as Pat’s imprint on Sandusky.’

In Paste, Kyle Turner unpacked the film’s use of Judy Garland’s landmark Carnegie Hall recording and its relationship to queerness, writing, “ Concerning itself with death and history, ‘Swan Song’ asks for an assured hand, but gets an ambitious assistant’s — one whose scrutiny and interest in the assortment of ideas within the work dithers, but whose ideas are nonetheless present if left only simmering. There’s a glimmer of maturity not totally obfuscated by some of the film’s inelegance, as Pat considers how much about gayness and queerness has changed in the micro and macro on his journey into the past. You can almost sense Kier’s history as a screen legend unfurling along with him, a meta-meditation on his own career, ‘Wild Strawberries’-style (strawberry is a fruit, wink wink). It’s also just a pleasure to see Kier gussied up like Quentin Crisp. If only ‘Swan Song’ felt the freedom to be as expressive, heightened and scorched in its unleashing of history as Judy did when singing her own back in 1961.”

Udo Kier holds a cigarette while wearing a mint green pantsuit, sunglasses and a fedora with his legs crossed at the knee.

Udo Kier in “Swan Song,” a Magnolia Pictures release.

(Chris Stephens / Magnolia Pictures)

Mary E. Alvarez

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