CODA


Ruby sings the blues.

(2021) Drama (Apple) Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth, Courland Jones, Molly Beth Thomas, John Fiore, Jose Gonsalves, Armen Garo, Garrett McKechnie, Rebecca Gibel, Lonnie Farmer, Kevin Chapman, Owen Burke, Lance Norris, Jared Voss, Emilia Faucher, Marilyn Busch. Directed by Sian Heder

 

CODA stands for “child of deaf adults.” It also is a musical term which signals the cessation of a piece of music. Both terms are apt for this new movie, which is playing currently at the Enzian but also concurrently on the Apple Plus streaming service (see below for link).

The titular child is Ruby Rossi (Jones), a high school senior in Gloucester, Massachusetts (and who will ever hear the name of that fine town without thinking of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer in The Perfect Storm grumping “Gloucester! It’s always some guy from Gloucester!”) whose father Frank (Kotsur) is deaf, as is her older brother Leo (Durant). Every morning she goes out on their fishing boat and helps sell their catch to the local broker before heading off to school. Her mother Jackie (Matlin) is also deaf. In fact, Ruby is the only one in the family who hears and acts as the official family interpreter, signing what others are saying so that her parents can understand what’s going on.

Times are hard and new government regulations is cutting down the profit margin to the breaking point. Ruby is hoping that the family business will sustain them as she expects to be part of it after she graduates high school. However, on a lark, she decides to join the school choir.

It’s not as outrageous a thought as you might think. With her brother and father silent on the boat, she often sings along to the radio or by herself just to hear something, but she is naturally shy and was bullied as a child for smelling like fish when she got to school (which shouldn’t seem to be a big deal in a town like Gloucester whose economy is so wrapped up in fishing) but also because as a child she didn’t have someone to help her learn to talk other than her parents, who speak in the flat tones that deaf people take. She panics at the audition and flees, much to the bemusement of Mr. Villalobos (Mexican comedy star Derbez), the grouch of a choir director – but with the requisite soft heart.

But when she auditions for him privately, he begins to realize that she has a true gift and urges her to apply to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, which he himself is an alum of – but only if she’s willing to take singing lessons from him. This adds a burden onto her already full schedule of working and school, and it seems, something has to break.

She’s also been paired up with comely senior Miles (Walsh-Peelo) to do a duet of the Marvin Gaye-Tammy Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Sparks fly, and as time wears down and they come closer to the big recital (and Ruby’s big audition at Berklee), things begin to get more desperate for the family fishing business, and Ruby is needed more than ever, but will she – can she – give up on her dream in order to help her family?

Now, I’m going to say a few things about the movie and it’s going to sound like this is going to be a real negative review. The plot has been done many times before and there aren’t a lot of chances taken with the narrative or the character development. Particularly in the third act of the movie, there are a whole raft of different emotional peaks that are blindingly, unapologetically manipulative – but fuck if it doesn’t work.

The family dynamic between Jones, Matlin, Kotsur and Durant feels genuine and warm. Yes, there is much bickering but that only serves to make that dynamic feel more realistic. There is an ongoing joke about the parents having loud sex at inappropriate moments which is a nightmare every kid dreads, but even that feels less raunchy than it does affectionate.

Part of the charm are the performances by the principles; Matlin has already won an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God (a movie that should be considered a classic but for some bizarre reason isn’t) and yes, Jackie is having a very hard time with the notion that her baby girl is ready to leave the nest. Rather than playing it shrilly for laughs, Matlin gives it a gentle, wistful clinginess that she eventually realizes she must put aside; it’s a fine moment in the film (one of many) when she realizes that she must. Kotsur is a bit gruff as Frank, but Frank is a fiercely devoted father and that shines through in Kotsur’s performance.

Jones, an English actress, had to learn American sign language for the part as well as the mechanics of working on a fishing boat; in fact, Kotsur, Durant and her are actually fishing (and in a somewhat surreal trivia fact, on one of the shooting trips they had to take a Fish & Game observer with them, similar to what occurs in the movie). The final scenes – particularly her audition at Berklee – is so magically handled that you don’t mind that you’ve been toyed with, so full of the warm fuzzies you’ll be.

The movie played Sundance earlier this year and was subject of a fierce bidding war. Apple won that, paying out $25 million for the rights to the movie and they should be more than happy with their purchase; this is by far the best movie playing on Apple Plus from an original standpoint. And for those Apple Plus subscribers wondering if they should go out and see it in the theater, by all means do; films like this should be supported as much as possible.

As surrounded by uncertainty as we all are in these times, there’s something comforting in the familiar. You know exactly where this film is headed and pretty much how it’s going to get there, but that’s not the point; like a visit to an oft-visited beloved grandparent’s house, the way there may be familiar but the arrival at the destination is guaranteed to make you feel warm and happy inside.

REASONS TO SEE: The final act is mesmerizing. Matlin and Kotsur deliver terrific performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unapologetically, outrageously manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlike the French film this is based on, all of the deaf characters in the film were played by deaf actors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pitch Perfect
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Outsider

Murder on the Cape (Murder on Cape Cod)


A romantic and picturesque image does not a great movie make.

(2017) True Crime Drama (Vision) Josh Walther, Jade Harlow, Heather Egeli, Tim Misuradze, Chris Lazzaro, Kevin Cotter, John Clayton, Sarah MacDonnell, Bragan Thomas, Bryce Egeli, Christina Egeli, Tobias Everett, Lisa Hayes, Alison Hyder. Directed by Arthur Egeli

 

This film, which has made some film festival appearances before moving on to various streaming and VOD services, is based on the real-life murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington. The crime has been the subject of a 48 Hours investigation and more recently a video podcast by the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 revisiting the crime.

As with most true crime films some of the details are changed but we’ll get to that in a moment. In Murder on the Cape fashion writer Elizabeth Baldwin (Harlow) has moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet and picturesque New England fishing village of Denton Harbor (a fictional town standing in for the real location of Truro, Massachusetts). Mike Luna (Walther), an unemployed fisherman who is delivering firewood to help make ends meet for his family, brings some to Baldwin who takes a liking to the handsome and burly Mike.

Mike is married to Nancy (H. Egeli) who is supportive but is running out of patience. Mike insists that he’s a fisherman and that’s what he’s meant to do; when a job working for the town police department monitoring the shellfish population and making sure that people have the proper permits to harvest them. Mike considers it a humiliating job but after a dust-up with Nancy he admits that he needs the work and does what he has to.

He runs into Elizabeth when her neighbor Peter Benedict (Misuradze) inadvertently violates town policy and gets hypothermia in the process. Although Peter has ideas about developing a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, she only has eyes for Mike. Flattered by the attention, he begins an extramarital affair with the beautiful writer.

Eventually the inevitable happens and he gets her pregnant which leads to a series of complications. Then when Elizabeth turns up brutally murdered, the list of suspects is long but only the town’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Lazzaro) knows the truth about who really murdered Elizabeth Baldwin.

The cinematographer Jonathan Mariande acquits himself nicely with some beautifully shot footage mainly in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts. One gets a real sense of the charm of a New England village and of the pace of life on the Cape.

The titular murder doesn’t take place until near the very end of the film and there is no focus on the police investigation that followed – if you’re interested in that (and the story is an interesting one) it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find the footage from the various network newsmagazines that covered the murder. The Egelins and co-writer Ian Bowater focus more on the circumstances of the star-crossed lovers (the real person based on Mike Luna was a prime suspect early on in the case; one doesn’t get that sense from the movie) and on the economic upheaval that brought poverty to much of the fishing community in Denton Harbor. That’s fascinating material. However, those who are familiar with the case may be aware that there are some very significant differences between real and reel in this case.

Unfortunately they torpedo what could have been a much more interesting film by focusing on the more prurient aspects of the affair. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the actors look uncomfortable reciting it. This comes off as a made-for-TV film in a lot of ways and not in ways that I would especially be pleased about. The movie doesn’t really add a whole lot to the genre but there are enough entertaining elements to make it worth checking out if you happen upon it.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is lovely showing off Provincetown very nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels very much like a Lifetime TV movie with somewhat stiff acting and clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some disturbing images and an off-camera murder.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arthur Egeli and his wife Heather who co-wrote the film knew some of the people involved in the Christa Worthington murder including the woman based on the character that Heather plays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Foxcatcher
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Family I Had

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy