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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: Folly and excess in 'Annette' and 'Nine Days'

Screen Grabs: Folly and excess in ‘Annette’ and ‘Nine Days’

But a moving 'Ailey' gripping 'Sabaya,' and poignant 'What We Left Unfinished.' This week's new movies!

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Particularly in our era of cookie-cutter franchises, remakes and reboots, true audacity at the movies is so rare, you might think it should be praised no matter what. But some movies misfire so completely, no amount of conceptual or stylistic idiosyncrasy can redeem them. (Although admittedly, it is these filmsthat inevitably gain a cult of case-pleaders sooner or later.) This week there are two such items, whose existence makes life more interesting— but that doesn’t mean actually sitting through them is as “interesting” as it is painful or dull.

Annette is the first English-language film from Leos Carax, the French director who’s attracted cult adoration since his inventive first features (1984’s Boy Meets Girl and Bad Blood two years later), then has done almost nothing but create overscaled, outre follies: 1991’s The Lovers On the Bridge (a commercial disaster that took eight years to be released in the US, by which time many considered it a masterpiece), 1999’s problematic Pola X, and 2012’s Holy Motors, perhaps his most madly eccentric yet successful gambit of all.

Most of these films in one way or another flirted with being “a musical.” Annette, just his sixth feature in nearly 40 years, makes the full leap. In fact, it was originally intended to be a Sparks concept album, and as such is the first movie Carax has directed without principally writing. Pre-existing fans, and filmgoers who saw Edgar Wright’s recent documentary The Sparks Brothers, may be excited by that prospect. But the playful musical and lyrical wit Ron and Russell Mael have traded in for a half century turns out to clash badly with this director’s penchant for the bizarre yet grandiose, making for an awkward cocktail that grows steadily more regurgitation-worthy.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play Henry and Ann, lovers who magnetize the world press because they’re both superstars in different spheres: He as a comedian, she as an opera singer. The phoniness is glaring from the start because, well, opera stars aren’t pop celebrities, even if Carax paints Ann in absurdly stereotypical terms as evidently doing nothing but singing death arias onstage. As for Henry McHenry, we’re supposed to believe he’s accrued an adoring audience doing “provocative,” self- loathing anti-comedy as “The Ape of God.” But what he does onstage is so bad (particularly in unflattering contrast Bo Burnham’s ingeniously post-modernist Inside, which aims at vaguely the same thing), his success makes no sense.

Anyway, they are in glamorous, stormy, frequently-naked love. (You know this is a European movie when you find yourself asking “How many times will we see him eating her out?”) They even marry and have a child. But domesticity brings out Henry’s destructive side (of course he has one—he wears black and rides a motorcycle!), so of course there will be tragedy. Annette is the name of their child, which for reasons quite beyond me is mostly played by a puppet. At least the role is played thus until this movie goes so far off the rails, it culminates in a dead-serious pleading/accusatory jailhouse duet between Adam Driver and a 5-year-old.

Annette takes the overblown but relatively naturalistic showbiz soap-operatics of A Star Is Born and mashes them onto a pop-opera-parable framework as cartoony as Tommy or Phantom of the Paradise. The problem is, Carax has talent, but none for psychological realism, nor for the kind of surreal-satirical excess Ken Russell and Brian De Palma brought to those 1970s rock-opera films. The movie takes itself more seriously the preposterous it gets, and the Maels’ contributions (especially lyrically) seem deadened by its fundamental humorlessness. The leads both do their own singing (with the exception Cotillard’s opera scenes), adequately enough. But she doesn’t really have a character to play, his is repellent as well as just plain silly, and there’s almost no one else of note in these 140 minutes. Except the puppet, of course.

Grand follies have an inevitable fascination, not least in the matter of “Who thought it was a good idea to finance this? Were they feeling suicidal?!?” Annette (which opens Fri/6 at theaters throughout the Bay Area) may bring to mind several past ill-fated contraptions, from Southland Tales to Howard the Duck and beyond. Like them, it is singular in its epic misconception, and will no doubt attract some fervent contrarian defenders. But it is the kind of catastrophe that’s infinitely more fun to read or hear about than actually watch—onscreen, the excesses that should at least be perversely entertaining just fester, screaming for the guillotine. Last week I thought Old would surely be the worst major film of 2021. This week, all bets are off.

A physically much smaller endeavor is writer-director Edson Oda’s debut feature Nine Days, which opens Friday at the Embarcadero, Elmwood and other theaters. But it, too, is grandiose in concept and humorless in execution, to a uniquely pretentious yet rather banal degree. However, this may be a minority opinion: Since it premiered at Sundance last year, some have found the film very profound indeed.

Winston Duke of Black Panther and Us plays the somber, slightly surly Will, who in a lone house on a flat desert landscape puts five applicants through an often puzzling audition process over the titular length of time. They are, apparently, souls, and only one of them will be chosen to assume the vacancy left by a life just extinguished on Earth. Yet these people (if we can call them that) seem like fully formed personalities, if not very complex ones: Alex (Tony Hale) is kind of a pushy jerk, Maria (Arianna Ortiz) seems eager-to-please, Mike (David Rysdahl) is full of self-loathing, Emma (Zazie Beetz) questions everything, and Kane (Bill Skarsgard)…well, I’ve already forgotten what he was like.

In this low-tech limbo utilizing VHS tapes and 16mm projection illusions for no obvious reason, they compete for the prize without really knowing what they’re being judged on. Will, who has “lived before” but doesn’t wanna talk about it, won’t them them, nor will his nicer helpmate Kyo (Benedict Wong).

Oda has said his inspirations for this film included Japanese director Kore-eda’s After Life (which similarly imagined the spiritual plane as a somewhat clumsy bureaucracy) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But he lacks the former’s slyness, and the latter’s cosmic lyricism. Nine Days flies the mother of all Big Ideas as its conspicuous flag—i.e. What is life and why are we here? —yet its metaphysics feel pedestrian, minus true mystery, and this modest Twilight Zone-y conceit doesn’t dramatize them in any particularly interesting, emotional or dramatic way.

It’s quite obvious who’s going to be “chosen” from the start. Nor are we surprised that the authority figure is going to turn out to be the neediest one, requiring Life be Affirmed in a climactic burst of Big Acting that itself is a sort of “audition” piece. Nine Days really does clang a resonant bell for some viewers, and I envy them, but it felt more self-congratulatory than revelatory to me.

If those two flights of fancy fail to lift off, at least there are some rewards this week in terms of new documentary features. An expected pleasure is AileyJamila Wignot’s portrait of the late, great choreographer. Among other achievements, Alvin Ailey pioneered the incorporation of specifically African-American themes, music, and gestural vocabulary in modern dance. However, the price of that cultural ambassadorship was that he sometimes felt trapped playing the “model Negro”—which extended to secrecy around his homosexuality and eventual AIDS diagnosis.

His career began to flourish alongside the medium of television, and the emphasis on adventuresome arts programming in public TV’s early days means there’s much high-quality performance footage to draw on here. Ailey is also abetted by scenes of his current company minders creating a new dance honoring his life and legacy, which (as glimpsed in rehearsal) looks as exhilarating as the artist’s own classic material.

Archival interviews let the man himself narrate this biographical overview to a point, after which surviving collaborators take over. It is the latter who touch on his exhaustion, unhappiness, mental health issues, and final illnesses—matters Alvin Ailey refused to discuss publicly. As a result, the documentary becomes both more depressing and less intimate as it goes along. But the generous helpings of dance it encompasses still provide considerable joy. Ailey is opening Fri/6 at area theaters including the Embarcadero, Shattuck and Rafael.

Two more docs examine different forms of oppression abroad. Miriam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished (now streaming via BAMPFA) is about filmmaking in Afghanistan during its Communist regime of 1978-91, in particular focusing on five features that were abandoned mid-production due to fast-changing censorship limitations and ideological shifts. The Soviet-backed government then was gung ho for funding cinematic propaganda, providing filmmakers with a fair amount of artistic liberty—until they often semi-arbitrarily decided to pull the plug, that is.

The intriguing-looking movies excerpted here were largely thought lost; the doc’s poignancy is underlined by the mixed emotions their original directors experience in now watching footage they hadn’t thought existed for decades. Unfinished provides a fascinating glimpse at an obscure corner of world cinema rendered even more so by the ruthless political upheavals Afghanistan has seldom long been spared off-screen.

A grimmer reality than aborted film projects is exposed in Hogir Hirori’s Swedish-produced Sabaya, which opens at the Roxie Fri/6. It follows volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center as they attempt to infiltrate a prison camp in northeast Syria where tens of thousands of ISIS supporters are held by Kurds. The aim is to rescue women kidnapped five years earlier in raids on villages, when many residents were killed, and younger females abducted for sex slavery. (Yazidis have their own culture and religion, and thus are considered fair game as “heretics” by Islamic extremists.)

Many of these women have been beaten, forced into marriage, and passed from one man to another, some from age 12 or even younger. (One girl rescued is just 7.) Much of its progress occupied by hand-held footage of surreptitious nighttime missions in search of abductees—only 10% or so of whom have been rescued at the film’s close—Sabaya has an often alarming immediacy, if not much explanatory clarity. While probably best seen after some background reading on the subject, it still provides a somewhat hair-raising delve into efforts to right the wrongs of still-ongoing regional conflicts.

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