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Ben Platt

“DEAR EVAN HANSEN”  My rating: B-

137 minutes | MPAA rating PG-13

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a heartfelt humanist statement about teen suicide.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an exercise in cynicism.

Which statement is true?  Having just watched the new film based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, I’d have to say that both are.

Which is a problem.

Ben Platt reprises his stage performance as the title character, a troubled teen whose life is turned upside down by a classmate’s suicide. 

Platt brings to the performance a spectacularly good singing voice (what range! what a way with lyrics!).  He also is called upon to play a character a good decade younger than himself, and while it may have worked in the vastness of a Broadway theater, the cinematic closeup is his enemy.

The film begins with young Evan being pushed by his overworked single mom (Julianne Moore) to stay on his meds (he’s chronically depressed) and make some friends.  The kid is a high school senior but is painfully shy and withdrawn, utterly uncertain about himself.  

He has a kind-of cohort in the tech dweeb Jared (Nik Dodani), who seems to keep Evan around because he’s the one person he can feel superior to.  And Evan has a kinda crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), a couple of years behind him.

A hallway encounter with Zoe’s moody older brother Connor (Colton Ryan) sets the plot in motion. As part of his mental health therapy, Evan is supposed to write encouraging letters to  himself (“Dear Evan Hansen…”) and in an episode of near-bullying, Connor makes off with a printout of one of these self-addressed missives.

Next day it is announced that Connor has killed himself.  His mom (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) have found the Dear Evan note among Connor’s effects and wrongly conclude that Connor had written it to Evan, that in fact the two were best friends.

Rather than tell the hurtful truth that Connor was virtually a total stranger, Evan goes along with the deception, using Jared to create a backlog of phony emails between Evan and Connor chronicling their relationship.

Mom and Dad are relieved that their dead kid had a hidden life in which he wasn’t perennially miserable. Sister Zoe isn’t so sure;  she thinks her older brother was an SOB to the end.

Not only does Evan find himself being adopted by Connor’s family, he becomes the focus of a kickstarter campaign to honor the late student by establishing a park in an orchard that plays a key role in the fictional relationship Evan is promulgating.  Classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) is the driving force; she attempts to assuage her own unhappiness by organizing for various charities and causes.

Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Platt

At some point, of course, this house of cards will collapse.  Evan will emerge older and a bit wiser, but this is definitely NOT a feel-good experience.

Screenwriter Steven Levenson (adapting his book for the stage musical) and director Stephen Chbosky (a specialist in tormented youth, i.e. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder”) have done an effective job of opening up the stage show, delivering rapid-fire montages of teen life and angst (like “Bye Bye Birdie” for pessimists) and employing judiciously selected cutaway shots to flesh out what otherwise would be one guy standing alone and singing.

The handful of musical numbers provided by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek effectively peel away the layers of the characters’ anxieties. But none had a tune that stuck with me, with most falling into a sort of Sondheim-esque esoterica. There is only one dance number, a fantasy celebration of friendship between Evan and the now-dead Connor that is almost jarring in its upbeat chirpiness.

That said, Moore, Adams, Pino, Dever, Stenberg and Ryan all do their own singing and they’re perfectly adequate.  Top vocal honors, though, go to Platt, who really ought to do an album of classic Broadway show tunes. 

In the end “Dear Evan Hansen” finds itself stranded between sympathizing with teen angst and satirizing it.  In particular there are the sardonic observations of Evan’s pal Jared, who looks at his fellow teens with a jaundiced eye that colors the whole experience.  

Perhaps the film will have the same sort of social impact as the stage show, which concluded with info about teen suicide prevention projected on the stage. If so, great.

But as someone well past his teens, I found “Dear Evan Hansen” a deeply ambivalent experience.

| Robert W. Butler

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St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein

“THE NOWHERE INN”  My rating: C+ (VOD)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies don’t get much more meta than “The Nowhere Inn,” a life-imitates-art-imitates-life head scratcher from the dynamic duo of St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein.

Basically this is a fictional film about the making of a documentary. Separating fact from fiction gets pretty sticky.

St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) is, of course, the pop star/avant garde performance artist who has collaborated with David Byrne and others. Here St. Vincent portrays herself as an artist on tour; her real-life friend Brownstein (also playing herself) signs on to make a documentary movie about the musician.

This setup — two friends making a documentary that will severely test their friendship — offers plenty of opportunities to comment on the madness of stardom, the artistic ego, and the pitfalls of mixing business with personal intimacy.

Initially St. Vincent is thrilled to have her old pal constantly at her elbow; Brownstein hopes the film they are making will provide validation with her ailing father (given her multi-hyphenate job description — actor/writer/director/musician/ comic — validation would seem the last thing she needs).

Dakota Johnson, St. Vincent

But things go wrong.  Turns out that St. Vincent is terminally boring — unceasingly pleasant, inoffensive, sweet-tempered.  So much so that Brownstein pushes her to act out a bit for the sake of the doc.

Careful what you wish for. St. Vincent goes off the deep end. At one point she invites Brownstein and her camera into the bedroom to record a carnal encounter with the singer’s new girlfriend (Dakota Johnson).  

“The Nowhere Inn” is a cool idea that, alas, quickly runs out of steam. Its tongue-in-cheek deadpan sardonicism is good for a couple of chuckles, then settles into a dulling sameness.

Thankfully director Bill Benz recorded several performances on one of St. Vincent’s recent tours, and the dynamism of those moments goes a long way toward redeeming the rest of the film.

| Robert W. Butler

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Andrien Titieni

“THE FATHER WHO MOVES MOUNTAINS” My rating: B (Netflix)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

In the clumsily titled “The Father Who Moves Mountains” a middle-aged man launches a desperate search after learning his twentysomething son has disappeared with his girlfriend on a high-altitude hike. 

Had the film been made by Hollywood it undoubtedly would follow a fairly predictable arc, culminating with a last-minute rescue and a more-or-less happy ending. There might even be a crime at the heart of the disappearance.

But Daniel Sandu’s Romanian entry is something else entirely… part rescue procedural (like a police procedural except rather than solving crime the professionals are attempting a rescue in rugged terrain), part personality study of a once-powerful man learning that throwing around his weight is bringing diminishing returns.

Mircea (Andrian Titieni) is a retired mover and shaker in the Romanian government. He’s doing Christmas shopping with his pregnant trophy wife when he hears a TV news report of missing hikers in the Carpathians.  Learning that his own estranged son is one of the missing, he races to the mountain resort now packed with holiday revelers and immediately begins throwing his weight around.

He is joined by his ex-wife Paula (Elena Purea), still bitter about Mircea’s infidelities but grateful that he still has enough pull in high places to kick things into high gear.

The parents of their son’s girlfriend also show up — though Mircea and Paula make it clear they blame her for everyone’s predicament. If they rescue the girlfriend it will simply be a byproduct of their parental obsession with saving their own blood.

sMircea immediately begins butting heads with the alpine rescue crews who have been searching thick forests and avalanche-prone slopes.  He insists on going out on one of the canvasses, even though he’s so out of shape he slows the progress.

He doesn’t stop there. Before long he’s joined by a unit from the Romanian intelligence service who specialize in sub-zero scenarios.  Much to the chagrin of the year-around mountaineers these black-clad pros set up a tent crammed with high-tech equipment and further complicate an already complex situation. 

The screenplay by Sandou and Christian Routh takes a dispassionate view of these proceedings.  Clearly, the filmmakers are ambivalent about their main character, a ruthless and once-powerful man learning the hard way that there now are some things over which he has absolutely no control.

The result is not a likable film — it starts out with minimal hope and then keeps getting grimmer — but it is a weirdly compelling one.

I’m particularly curious about how Romanians themselves might view this yarn.  That country has been a democracy for 30 years, but for a half-century before that it was a Communist dictatorship with all the baggage that entails.  Mircea is just about the right age to have started his career in the latter stages of the Bad Old Days…how might working for the Communist secret police have molded his bull-in-the-China-shop mentality?

Titieni absolutely nails Mircea’s fierce drive, but he also chips away at the character’s guilty  conscience.

Given the harshness of the subject matter, the film is unexpectedly lyrically visual. Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s cinematography captures all the harsh beauty  of the mountains in winter while carefully mapping the changing emotions on human faces.

| Robert W. Butler

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Tom Skerritt

“EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS” My rating: B (Video on Demand)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

Tom Skerritt has for decades been one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, yet with the exception of his stint on TV’s “Picket Fences” (1992-’96) he’s largely been denied leading roles.

Now 88, the silver-haired Skerritt shows what we’ve been missing with “East of the Mountains,” a not-quite drama that cannily employs the actor’s low-keyed approach to tell a story that in other hands might overstate its case.

Adapted by Thane Swigart from the best-selling novel by David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), S.J. Chiro’s film finds retired Seattle heart surgeon Ben Givens (Skerritt) preparing for a trip. He informs his daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino) that with his dog Rex he’s going to drive east, across the mountains, to the tiny Washington burg where he grew up.

Renee isn’t too hot about the idea. Ben seems mentally and physically solid enough, but he is an octogenarian, after all. Doesn’t he want some human company? And why doesn’t he sell his house (his wife died a year earlier) and move in with Renee, her husband and children?

Ben curtly — almost cruelly — nixes that talk. Back home he gets out and assembles his old shotgun in preparation for some hunting. Except that he seems also to be measuring the gun’s barrel length against his own reach…what’s that about?

The film finds Ben going through a series of small adventures. When his car breaks down on a lonely stretch of highway he abandons the vehicle without a second thought. He hitches a ride into the mountains, goes hiking with only a canteen and the clothes on his back, shoots some grouse, and goes to sleep snuggled up with Rex (a soulful-eyed Brittany Spaniel).

An encounter with a boorish coyote hunter (John Paulsen) leaves Rex seriously injured. The old man carries his pet several miles through rough terrain to a kindly veterinarian named Anita (Annie Gonzalez) who saves the dog and provides Ben with a meal and shelter.

There’s also an encounter with Ben’s long-estranged brother, Aidan (Wally Dalton), where old animosities are aired.

Periodically Ben’s mind slips back to his youthful courting of his wife and his boyhood, set in an idyllic physical setting but marred by an overbearing father. These are presented without dialogue in a sort of dream fugue.

And, yes, we finally learn that Ben has received a devastating medical diagnosis and that, being a physician, he knows exactly the ugly fate awaiting him.

With the exception of Paulsen’s redneck thug (he doesn’t wear a Trump hat, but that’s only because the novel was published in pre-smart phone 1999), the characters are presented with a disarming matter-of-factness. There are few big speeches; mostly Chiro and Swigart give us bits of casual conversation that slowly build to a suggestion of who Ben is and what he’s about.

And yet the film also acknowledges our inability to fully know or understand another person…especially one as emotional bottled up as Ben.

Some will find this a drawback. Personally, I could use more films that aren’t compelled to spell everything out.

And when you’ve got a leading man like Skerritt, what isn’t said can be more important than pages of dialogue.

| Robert W. Butler

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Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales

“LANGUAGE LESSONS” My rating: B+ (In theaters)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Adversity is good for filmmakers. The old Hollywood Production Code may have been a censorious pain in the ass, but in working around it creative moviemakers expanded the limits of cinema.

The COVID pandemic seems to have done the same thing in the case of “Language Lessons,” a ridiculously simple premise that, by stripping filmmaking down to its essentials, finds depths of humanity and emotion that usually get lost in the technical shuffle.

Written by and starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, and directed by Morales, this two-hander is simplicity itself, unfolding in a series of Zoom and/or Skype/Facetime calls.

The entire picture unfolds through the cameras built into cell phones, iPads and computers. There’s little in the way of editing; mostly we log on and stick with a conversation for several uninterrupted minutes.

Here’s the setup: Adam (Duplass) has been given a year’s worth of weekly online Spanish lessons by his spouse Will (DeSean Terry, heard briefly but never seen). The teacher is Carino (Morales), who lives in Costa Rica and speaks perfect English, though she insists on Adam conversing almost exclusively in Spanish. How else is this lazy guy gonna learn?

Right off the bat we sense a lot about these two. Adam and Will live in Oakland in a nice house with a big swimming pool and a ton of trendy art. Will runs a dance company (apparently it pays really well); Adam appears to be something of a kept man.

Carino, on the other hand, lives modestly. Unlike the chatty Adam, she’s reluctant to share too much. Wouldn’t be professional.

Thing is, professionalism only goes so far. Early in the film tragedy befalls Adam and Carino finds herself giving a lot more than just language lessons. She is forced into the position of counselor and therapist. And more even than that.

Given the physical limitations of the production one might expect “Language Lessons” to quickly wear out its welcome. If anything, we’re sucked ever deeper into these two personalities and their respective issues.

Also, thanks to modern technology, we can remain on line while cruising the city streets or exploring a jungle stream, so this is not the static experience you might expect.

Moreover, Morales and Duplass turn in spectacularly good performances…seemingly without breaking a sweat.

On an emotional level “Language Lessons” is a workout, a study of the growing friendship of two dissimilar individuals and the ability of the human connection to span thousands of miles. Smart viewers will have a box of tissues close at hand.

| Robert W. Butler

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John David Washington

BECKETT” My rating: B (Netflix)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s a Hitchcockian simplicity to Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s Beckett,” a man-on-the-run thriller that benefits as much from what it doesn’t do as what it does.

John David Washington plays the title character, an American vacationing in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander).

On a winding rural road at night Becket falls asleep behind the wheel. He awakens to find April unconcious, their vehicle having careened down a steep hill and smack into a farmhouse.

Before passing out Beckett witnesses a woman and a red-haired boy, apparently the residents.

After a couple of days in the hospital and traumatic phone calls back to the States, our man is interviewed by the local police chief (Panos Karonos) who informs him that the farmhouse into which he crashed had been unoccupied for years.

Certain that he saw someone in the house immediately after the accident, Beckett returns to the scene…only to find himself dodging bullets from the cop and a female cohort (Lena Kitsopoulou). Obviously the Yank has stumbled across some deep dark secret; now he’s being framed as a criminal.

So he goes on the run, desperate to get to Athens and sanctuary in the American embassy.

And that’s about all the plot that matters. Later on “Beckett” will dabble in international politics and assassination, but mostly this is a hang-on-by-your-fingernails tale of close escapes and mounting paranoia in a drop-dead beautiful setting.

“Beckett” works because Washington’s character is not some sort of superhero or MacGuyer-esque genius. He’s a grief-wracked everyguy who survives as much through pure luck as smart thinking.

Only once, in the final chase, does Becket do something patently unrealistic, and by that time we’re in a forgiving mood.

| Robert W. Butler

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Alvin Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations”

“AILEY” My rating: B (Available through mulitple streaming services)
82 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Ailey” opens with the 1988 Kennedy Center awards ceremony at which  choreographer Alvin Ailey was  honored for his contribution to American arts.  Actress Cicely Tyson praises Ailey — who would die only a year later — for developing what she calls “choreography of the heart.”  

That’s a terrific description of Ailey’s work.  And in fact the high points of Jamila Wignot’s documentary are the many performance snippets of Ailey’s brilliant creations, especially the life-changing “Revelations,” a distillation of his African American childhood and cultural influences capable of reducing the viewer to tears with a simple but absolutely perfect gesture.

Those moments of physical revelation are key to this doc because, truth be told, Alvin Ailey is knowable almost exclusively through his dance. The man himself kept his cards close to the vest.

The film employs creative editing of old footage to evoke Ailey’s childhood — born to a single mother in Depression-era Texas — and his subsequent adolescence in Los Angeles where he was exposed to the ballet and became a huge fan.  Later he became a dancer, working in New York before founding his American Dance Theatre and becoming a major force in the ballet world.

The Ailey legacy looms large.  As a child he could not conceived of a black professional dancer, and his creation of magnificent black-themed ballets was revolutionary.  At the same time, he insisted that his company be integrated.  Talent, in Ailey’s eyes, was color blind.

But the man himself?  Well, even people who worked with him for years — among them famed dancer Judith Jamison and fellow choreographer Bill T. Jones — had trouble getting a handle on his personality. 

(more…)

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“CODA”: Talking hands

Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin


“CODA” My rating: B (Apple+)

111 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

The cynic in me approached “CODA” with some trepidation. The trailer makes it look like an inspirational tale with a capital “I.”

Well, it is, but the marvel of Sian Heder’s first feature lies in the way it roots its story in a gritty reality…albeit a reality relatively few of us have been exposed to.

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a high school senior living in a New England fishing village. On the surface, anyway, it’s picturesque as all get-out. Look closer and you see a town and a way of life in economic decline.

Ruby has grown up working her family’s fishing boat. We soon learn that she is essential to the clan’s financial stability. Ruby, you see, is a CODA (child of deaf adults).

Her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and big brother Leo (Daniel Durant) rely on Ruby’s signing skills to run interference with the hearing world, whether it’s answering the marine radio or negotiating a sale price for their daily haul.

Heder’s screenplay (an adaptation of a 2014 French/Belgian production) centers on a conflict with existential implications. Ruby loves to sing. It’s about the only thing she’s good at.

And of course it is an avocation that cannot be shared by her hearing impaired family. In fact, they tend to be dismissive of Ruby’s artistic desires. Her mom pointedly asks if they were blind, would Ruby become a painter?

Things get dicier when the high school music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) sees potential in Ruby’s voice. He gives her a prominent role in an upcoming show; moreover, he begins pulling strings to have her considered for a scholarship by his old alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

This opens up several wormy cans.

Can Ruby in good conscience abandon her family to pursue a personal dream? There’s Frank and Leo’s effort to create a fishermen’s co-op in a last-ditch effort to save the local fishing industry. There’s Mama Jackie’s stubborn view that deaf culture is vastly superior to the hearing world and that by pursing singing Ruby is betraying her roots.

And, yeah, there’s a guy…Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Ruby’s classroom singing partner and slowly percolating love interest.

The possibilities for saccharine uplift are legion — yet Heder and her cast sidestep all the pitfalls by giving us characters that are fully formed and absolutely believable. Ruby’s family is a brawling, beer-chugging, pot-sniffing bunch, incredibly funny even as they are infuriatingly exasperating.

And the casting of deaf performers in key roles is a huge plus. It now seems like a no brainer, but for most of Hollywood history hearing actors would have been used.

Jones, a Brit, effortlessly slides into Ruby’s sometimes chaffed skin; she’s a natural who never seems to be trying too hard. And she’s got a terrific singing voice (or seems to…nothing is ever quite what it seems in the movies).

| Robert W. Butler

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Lily Hevesh

“LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD” My rating: B (On Discovery +)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

While still a teen, Lily Hevesh became the best domino artist on Earth.

She excels at creating huge, complex designs with colored dominoes, which are then toppled in a chain reaction of gravity and kinetic force. The effects are mesmerizing…often it takes several minutes for one of her creations to deconstruct.

It’s like watching some sort of living creature collapsing and decaying…except that even in ruins Lily’s creations make an artistic statement.

Jeremy Workman’s documentary “Lily Topples the World” is a celebration of an unusual art form and a study of a young woman who appears to be almost painfully normal except for her ability to envision and execute these mind-boggling constructions.

A decade ago, when she was only 10, Lily started toying around with domino designs.  She recorded their spectacular collapses and posted the videos on her own YouTube channel.  She got a huge following…but pointedly never appeared in the footage.  

This had the effect of making her a sort of mystery figure…particularly since there was no hint that the creator of these works was a) a teenage girl and b) Asian.

Lily was born in China, abandoned by her natural parents, and adopted by an American couple who already had two children. Her father now accompanies her as she travels around the world for domino toppling tournaments and workshops and to create domino designs for movies, television and advertising.

Workman’s film is basically about Lily’s burgeoning career (we see her rubbing elbows with the likes of Jimmy Fallon). 

It is less about her as a person…indeed, at heart she seems your run-of-the-mill nerd girl who lives for her obsession.  There’s no mention of dating, although Lily tells us that her one year of college was noteworthy as the most heavily socialized nine months of her life.

Perhaps this lack of revealing detail is why “Lily Topples the World” feels padded at 90 minutes.

The good news is that at least a third of the doc is footage of her marvelous mandelas of tiny tumbling monoliths, and these segments are hypnotic.

| Robert W. Butler

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Adam Driver, Marian Cotillard

“ANNETTE”  My rating: C(Amazon Prime)

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Film festival veterans know how under those pressure-cooker circumstances public and critical praise can be showered on a movie which, once it hits the theaters, goes down in flames.  

Here’s the deal…when you’re watching four to six feature films a day, the critical faculties get blunted.  Before long you’re turning to your companions and asking: ”Is this any good?  I can’t tell any more.”

Such appears to be the case with Leos Carax’s “Annette,” which was the darling of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and last week debuted on Amazon Prime to near-universal head scratching.

I won’t call the movie a failure, exactly.  On many levels it is arresting. It’s got a fearless performance from Adam Driver. Great visuals.

Basically I admire “Annette” without actually liking it.

But it says something when the online chatter is filled with viewers describing the point in “Annette” when they could take no more and looked for other entertainments. It’s like some sort of cinematic ice bucket challenge in reverse.

The object of all this flapdoodle is a show-biz romance (you could call it a perversion of “A Star Is Born”) told largely through carefully choreographed set pieces and musical numbers.

The film was written by the musical brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose long-running rock band Sparks has a worldwide cult following. 

 In fact. the film’s long opening tracking shot begins in an LA recording studio where Carax sits in the control booth while the Mael Brothers perform surrounded by the film’s cast. Then everybody gets up, still singing, and marches down the street.  By the end of the song the actors have donned their costumes and the film proper is ready to begin.

The first 40 minutes follow the romance of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a standup comic, and operatic soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard).  

He’s a brooding dude who buzzes around town atop a motorcycle in dark clothes and a feature-hiding helmet…like one of Death’s messengers from Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”  His live act is equally intimidating…he bounces on stage in a fighter’s hooded robe, and spends most of his time sighing and insulting the audience.  It’s less traditional standup than performance art…imagine Andy Kauffman as a mean-spirited misanthrope. (It’s at this point that most folks will bail.)

Ann, on the other hand, is a classic diva, beloved of fans and treated as musical royalty.  

It’s sort of a beauty and the beast relationship.

Anyway, Henry and Ann woo and wed (their affair is chronicled in “Entertainment Tonight”-type news segments) and eventually become parents.

Simon Helberg with Baby Annette

Their baby is called Annette and she’s played — at least until the very last scene — by a series of eerily realistic puppets.

Enter an an old show business cliche: Ann’s career continues to soar while Henry’s flounders.  He was always a grumpy s.o.b., but this has turned him boozy-violent.  During a family boating trip tragedy strikes…or is it murder?

Anyway, Henry finds himself a single parent. And when he discovers that Baby Annette (still a puppet, right?) has the singing voice of an angel, he launches a worldwide tour to capitalize on the mania.

Basically it’s child abuse.

There’s a third character here, Ann’s conductor and one-time paramour (Simon Helberg) who stuck around after she took up with Henry and now serves as a buffer between the little girl and her domineering and manipulative father. It’s not a good place to be.

“Annette” has no shortage of themes and ideas, and is peppered with visual showstoppers (the musical score left me underwhelmed)…but it never engaged the emotions, never made me care.  

The movie belongs to Driver, whose Henry is some sort of ego-driven monster.  He’s undeniably good, but it’s a thankless enterprise. The better he is at his job, the more we despise his character.

| Robert W. Butler

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