This film is speaking my love language. As the teenage daughter of deaf parents with her only sibling deaf as well, Ruby, played with sublime grace by Emilia Jones, seeks to be a standout in the field of choral music, which no one else in her rural New England family can actually hear, in the formulaic but feel-good dramedy of the summer, Sian Heder’s CODA (B+). Heder writes and directs the film with an admirable lack of sentiment and grounds the central family in a highly relatable milieu. The protagonist’s quest to pursue her art while also pulled into the mounting demands of the family fishing business (she’s their sole interpreter) provides ample material for conflict, but most everything comes back to love in an overall work that can best be described as heartwarming. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are outstanding as the parents, Daniel Durant charming as the brother and Eugenio Derbez is a delight as the music teacher. Ruby and her family feel real in their every interaction, and even when the story unfolds in pretty much the way a viewer would expect it to, it still does so in surprising ways because of the composition and cunning of this unconventional family. Viewers will be won over by the sweet-natured strengths of the ensemble, the unexpected representation and inclusion of the casting and the writer/director’s skills at quiet observation. Additionally the music sequences are wonderful. Far from a chore or a bore, this film is uplift from beginning to end.
Betting on the scrappiness of a bunch of bros who become woke in a history-bending take on the founding of the country, Matt Thompson’s America: The Motion Picture (B-) is an irreverent and often quite funny animated film aimed at the adults of the household. The movie’s tipsy time bandits traversing a stew of history involving George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Geronimo, a female Thomas Edison and many others throw out a lot of vulgar gags and end up with a winning comedy in the tradition of the South Park movie, Team America: World Police or even the live action This is the End. Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Killer Mike and Andy Samberg are among the spry voice cast ensemble in this veritable Mad or National Lampoon magazine come to life. The animation is accomplished and the profane and prophetic jokes abundant enough to keep surprising even the most academic viewers. It’s anachronistic, anarchic and lots of mindless fun and ultimately pulses with a patriotic heart.
It’s the family friendly horror film franchise that’s just as much fun with the mute button on, and its sonic release in theatres after a year of pandemic may be the ultimate gimmick that amps up the tension even more. Director John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II (B+) expands on the suspenseful milieu of its predecessor and pulls back the lens from one small town family on its homestead farm to a bit more about their actions’ implications on a struggling post-apocalyptic society around them. In this dystopian future world inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing, Emily Blunt’s character tries to stealthily hold her family – including a newborn – together despite a splintering side quest led by her feisty daughter, played with aplomb by Millicent Simmonds. A mysterious new character played by a winning Cillian Murphy plus expressive teen Noah Jupe both stoke the kindling of several plot paths along the journey, and Krasinski consistently builds both mounting anxiety and the pulses of familial emotion. The novelty of the original film is dialed down this time around in lieu of world building, and regrettably Blunt’s character is a bit defanged but there’s enough fresh material to keep audiences on the edges of their seat. Overall it’s an effective thriller broadening its exciting universe with deeply relatable characters. Sure there are jump scares, but the biggest surprise is just how well crafted this sequel is and how much it justifies its existence.
Fast becoming the king of the Neo-Western, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote high-minded screenplays ranging from Sicario to Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with a rather routine but entertaining thriller elevated by the work of its leading lady and a pair of actors playing ruthless villains. Sheridan’s wilderness adventure Those Who Wish Me Dead (B-) introduces two converging storylines, the redemption arch of a brassy Montana smokejumper played by Angelina Jolie recovering from a tragedy and the crime thriller chase film featuring a child (Finn Little) who observes his father’s murder and is stalked Witness-style by two assassins, cunningly played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. The film is a throwback to ’90s action films with its propulsive parade of set pieces and showdowns, even amidst some lackluster forest fire special effects and a plot that doesn’t tread all that much new ground. Jolie is effective as she bonds with the boy and brandishes her acumen and adrenaline in some knockout moments, but it’s Hoult and Gillen who milk the most out of their sequences as the veritable renegade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of an ensemble that also includes an effective Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore. It’s a rollicking ride with taut action aplenty.
You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
Like a ghost story or a mystery of memories, a new film with a dementia-plagued protagonist puts viewers smack dab in the middle of his deteriorating mind. Florian Zeller’s handsomely produced and occasionally frustrating The Father (B) takes place primarily in an impeccable flat, and the denizens there are going through rapid melancholy decline and hunkering deeper and deeper behind closed doors. The film depicts a complex Anthony Hopkins who rationalizes the activities and relationships in his life even as his faculties are escaping him. Olivia Colman is moving as the most prominent of the characters surrounding the charming Englishman: a frustrated daughter and caregiver who becomes an engaging foil to the titular subject. Hopkins gives a devastating and forceful performance as a man who feels the rug is consistently pulled out from under him. It’s quite an impressive role and portrayal. The viewers see other characters as he does, sometimes shape-shifting or reacting with confounding responses. It’s a smart drama, well acted; and what it lacks in plot momentum or story immediacy, it makes up in quietly observed intimacy.
There’s a compelling story seeking its sweet freedom in Kevin Macdonald’s circuitous Guantánamo Bay detention camp legal drama The Mauritanian (B-), but it takes a frustratingly obtuse approach to its subject. Jodie Foster’s defense attorney character enters the lair of Tahar Rahim’s imprisoned man in shadows as if fava beans and a nice cannibal-endorsed Chianti are on the menu, but the film subverts expectations as the incarcerated man in this case may or may not be guilty of 9/11 terrorist crimes. Rahim is the revelation here, charming and complex in his origin story and flashbacks that comprise the heart of the film, with sequences blocked like home movies compared to more procedural sequences. It’s a treat to see Foster do what she does best, serious and singleminded of purpose as she endeavors to protect the rule of law and the man she’s defending. Less successful are an underused Shaleine Woodley as her bland junior legal colleague and Benedict Cumberbatch as a boring military prosecutor with a Southern accent that seems to just be begging, “Why am I not being played by Dennis Quaid?” The film is dotted with interesting details for courtroom and cover-up fans, but little of it levels up to much of a breakthrough. Still, it’s a solid showcase for Rahim and a welcome return for Foster, which should silence the lambasters.
Uplifting GBLTQIA+ love stories free of melodramatic or tragic tropes aren’t always easy to find; sometimes you have to go to western South America for a really good one. Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo’s Los Fuertes (aka The Strong Ones) (B+) is a thoughtful and engrossing romantic drama about love that emerges between just the right people at almost exactly the right moment. Samuel González plays a student buying time in Southern Chile before graduate studies in Canada who meets a mysterious fisherman (with a most uncommon side hustle of historical battle reenactments in local fortresses) played by Antonio Altamirano. This is a film of wisely observed episodes in which there’s not a huge sweeping plot, just a swoon-worthy coastal courtship and the onslaught of potential longing and loss. Both ruggedly handsome actors are excellent in portraying men letting down their guards. They commit fully to authenticity on screen. Hidalgo wisely foregoes heavy-handed symbolism or amped-up high stakes and simply captures this love in bloom in sequences of joy, yearning and consequence. The gorgeous scenery and surroundings lend a lived-in quality to the proceedings equally interpreted as epic or fleeting, and the reality of the relationship that plays out is worth exploring.
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Talk about a son possessed – and often obsessed – with the topics fascinating his famous father! Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (B) follows in the footsteps of his filmmaker dad David Cronenberg, with both men specializing in intellectual tales of psychological trauma played out against the human body as a bloody and phantasmagoric canvas. Expect rage and repercussions. Andrea Riseborough is ostensibly the star of the film although her character is largely inhabiting the mind and body of Christopher Abbott, who gets the real juicy part, in a film that also features Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh in effective small parts. The plot involves assassinations carried out through a diabolical mind control process, but it’s largely style over substance as memories and intentions collide in some epic suspense showdowns. Wall to wall with hallucinogenic imagery and graphic violence, the film is catnip for fans of thriller and horror genres. The set-up is strong, set pieces superb and stakes high throughout. The film can’t quite bear the weight of both its protagonist and parasite, but it’s boldly audacious nonetheless. The auteurist apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and it’s rotten to the core in the best possible way.
Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (B-) is a devastating and uneven glimpse at a tragedy befalling an American couple soon after bringing a child into the world. The performances are so stunningly good that it’s a shame there wasn’t a more compelling or urgent through-line to maintain the interest generated in a searing prologue. The film will undoubtedly be remembered for the hook of a prolonged childbirth sequence magnificently filmed in a single take and the central performance by Vanessa Kirby, whose acting is incredible especially as she has to show viewers her interior struggles. Shia LaBeouf is good in an underwritten role as her husband, but the other acting powerhouse here is Ellen Burstyn in the kind of fierce role that begs for its own movie. The film’s autumnal elegance and grace is maintained throughout, but its plot and pacing keeps viewers at a slight distance just when you want to find out more about what’s driving the relationships and maternal instincts. It’s a tough watch, recommended mainly for awards season completists because the female performances are peerless.
First-time director Regina King’s assured film adaptation of stage play One Night in Miami… (B) is a fierce four-hander with magnificent acting by Kinglsey Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke experiencing a fictionalized meeting after a Florida boxing bout circa 1964. King creates safe space for a dramatic moment in time showcasing religious, civil rights, sports and music titans getting real in dialogue about their lots in life and a collective summons to seize their destinies. These kindred spirits’ struggles pulse with resonance in a social justice reckoning culture some five and a half decades later. It’s a handsome production with lovely period detail and art direction. All the actors are superb, with Ben-Adir an empathetic and humane standout (he actually out-Denzels an already iconic screen performance). King brings a sensitive voyeur lens to conversations these Black men have when utterly unfiltered, akin to a style pioneered by Spike Lee in the superior Get on the Bus. The talky technique doesn’t always transcend the audacity of its premise, but it’s ultimately a night of uncanny wake-up calls.
Paul Greengrass delivers a star vehicle for Tom Hanks in full, gallant, paternal nobility mode in the old-fashioned but pleasant enough News of the World (B), a western that could have used a bit more bite. It’s a handsome production gorgeously shot, and the subtext that not too much has changed in the 150 years since it takes place seems to want to rear its thematic head in what turns out to actually be a fairly routine endeavor. Hanks is solid as the military veteran and roving newspaper reader who finds a new calling when he discovers an orphaned girl, and the plucky Helena Zengel is at least competing on the same aisle and shelf with Wilson the Volleyball in the supporting boon companion department. The action sequences when they happen, from a canyon shootout to a brief wagon chase, are rousing enough. Overall though the characters could have been more interesting and the stakes much grander. It seems the higher calling of showcasing Hanks as another cinematic saint takes the edge off a more grandiose frontier of possibilities.