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

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He Named Me Malala


Malala Yousafzai reflective.

Malala Yousafzai reflective.

(2015) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai, Mobin Khan. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Heroes are few and far-between in this age of self-centered me-first consumerism. We’re all so wrapped up in getting more likes on our posts, or having more YouTube followers that we lose track of the important things. These are First World problems admittedly, but when you think of the struggles of millions of young woman who are being prevented from receiving an education, our problems pale in significance.

Malala Yousafzai was named for Malalai of Pashtu, a folk hero who in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War rallied fleeing Afghan troops back onto the battlefield and towards eventual victory at the cost of her own life. She was 17 (or in some accounts 18) years old when she died. Some relatives urged her father to change her name because it augured an early death for the child but Ziauddin was resolute.

As most people are aware, the then-14 year old Pakistani girl spoke out against the Taliban’s edict preventing any female from attending any school in the Swat Valley. She felt this to be unfair and ridiculous but on October 9, 2013 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman. Her condition was so severe that she was flown to England for medical treatment on a specially outfitted Saudi jet.

She eventually recovered from her wounds but was disfigured slightly and has issues moving certain muscles in her face, leaving her with a somewhat crooked smile which is actually quite endearing. And she has lost none of her fire or passion as she continues to crusade for the rights of young girls to be educated, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond.

Along the way she meets with dignitaries (like President Obama), cultural icons (like Bono of U2) and media stars (like Jon Stewart). Her message never flags and her voice never wavers. She is committed to her cause which in itself is a minor miracle; how many teens do you know that are committed to anything?

&And she is very much a teenage girl, giggling and blushing as she views pictures of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt online, bantering with her brothers and trying to continue to do well with her studies. Ziauddin moved the entire family to England as it was no longer safe for them in Swat Valley as the Taliban has affirmed that they will kill her Malala the moment she sets foot there. What big strong men these are to threaten a teenage girl. They are ideologically bankrupt.

Ideology is important in the story of Malala; when asked if he would like to see the man responsible for shooting his daughter brought to justice, Ziauddin says no. “It wasn’t a man that shot Malala, it was an ideology.” Powerful words indeed, cloaked in truth as they are.

Guggenheim, auteur of An Uncomfortable Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ gets access to the Yousafzai in England and his sequences of Malala at home and relaxed are the best in the movie. The more we see her as a person and the less we see her as an icon, the more powerful her message becomes.

But it’s hard not to see her as an icon, because her courage is so extraordinary and her voice so powerful and clear. If Guggenheim is guilty of hero worship – and he is – it is understandable. The girl’s natural force is like a tsunami hitting the shore but instead of causing damage it is sweeping away intolerance.

Guggenheim uses pastel animations to show the stories of both Malala and her namesake (although there is film footage available – and it is used – much of her young life was not documented and so cracks need to be filled) which can be intrusive at times because they are so stylized, but the animation itself is beautiful. The use of animation in documentaries is rapidly becoming a cliche and great care should be taken in its use for at least awhile.

We do see very little of Malala’s mother and that is on purpose. She is a rather shy and retiring woman, having not received the education that Malala and her father value. Instead, she is more of a traditional Pakistani wife and mother and prefers not to labor under the intense glare of the international spotlight that her daughter must now embrace. It is in no way denigrating her or her values, nor women in general as some ignorant critics have suggested; it is simply that some people don’t want to become famous.

This is one of those movies where the story trumps the technique. Malala Yousafzai is a profile in courage and is worthy of all the praise my inadequate talents can heap upon her, but this documentary is a little bit too by-the-book and too surface-oriented to really be truly remarkable. It’s serviceable and tells you the basic about Malala, who she is and what she has to say. You will come away admiring her but no more than you would from reading her Wikipedia entry and that’s the tragedy of this movie – if it had been half as compelling as its subject, this would have been a powerful experience indeed.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Malala and Ziauddin is touching. Her story is one that everyone should know.
REASONS TO STAY: Guilty of a little bit of hero-worship (and so am I).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and some thematic material that might be upsetting to young children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malala is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared it with Indian child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi in 2014).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gandhi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Winter on Fire

Desire for Beauty


The things we go through to look good.

The things we go through to look good.

(2013) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Kulesza, Maria Czubaszek, Lew Starowicz, Mikolaj Lizut, Katazyna Miller, Piotr Najsztub, Julia Pietrucha, Maria Rotkiel, Marzena Sienkiewicz, Agnieszka Szulim. Directed by Miguel Gaudencio

There is no doubt that our society in general is overly obsessed with physical beauty. We place a great deal of stock in it; We choose our mates largely due to it; we buy products because of it. Sex sells, so we all want to be sexy.

This unusual Polish documentary looks at the obsession with beauty as four individuals begin the road to plastic surgery. Kasia, a wife and mother, is going for a breast augmentation. She has always wanted larger breasts and although her husband insists that this isn’t something that he desires, she quite candidly tells interviewer Agata Kulesza (an acclaimed Polish actress, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the aunt and judge Wanda in Ida) that she is doing this for herself alone.

Kuba is an aspiring actor who seems handsome enough already; he thinks a little Botox here and there might get him roles that he wasn’t being considered for until now. Monika is having a few nips and tucks done; she wants to remain young and beautiful for as long as she can. However, she is denied the procedures she wants done; the doctors believe she is too young for it.

And finally there’s Kamilla, whose nose has been the cause of much bullying (we see a re-enactment of her school days when a bitchy young girl, after borrowing some smokes in the bathroom, proclaims haughtily “If I were you, I’d get plastic surgery.” Fed up with the teasing and the bullying, she resolves to get rhinoplasty which she sees as the key to finding peace and happiness for herself.

We follow all four of these subjects through the various stages of surgery, with Kulesza conducting periodic interviews while in Kamilla’s case, we see re-enactments of the teasing she has to endure. In fact, this is an odd mixture of documentary and drama; one reviewer characterized it as “reality TV” and she isn’t far off the mark. This isn’t scripted all that much but there are segments which certainly are. How much of it is scripted however is not very easily discernible; some of the situations seem rather contrived and/or convenient if indeed they are real.

The cinematography is exquisite here; some of the images are downright cinematic paintings. Subjects look pensively into the horizon, the light of the setting sun creating an angelic corona around their heads. Mothers play with children, chasing after them in the park. Friends hang out in clubs, dancing to the mechanized beat of modern music. While not all of the footage is germane to what is happening in the storylines, the movie would be less beautiful without it.

The subject of beauty and our attitudes towards it has an inherent problem; the subject itself is shallow. Beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and the societal obsession with it is something that would make a great documentary. At times there is some depth to the conversation here but it is incomplete; the director, who has done a couple of features as well as a passel of award-winning music videos, seems more focused on beautiful images than in depth of thought. Perhaps that is his point in a nutshell.

Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more on why society is so wrapped up in physical beauty and why it is such a driving force. This much is universal; it’s the same in Asia as it is in Europe and the Americas. Why is beauty so important to us? Why aren’t we more focused on, say, intelligence, or character? Alas, these questions aren’t even asked and perhaps this isn’t the right venue for it. The people who are focused on here are fairly simple and even though they are all already beautiful, they are not satisfied with it. That is, perhaps, the point after all.

The movie received a brief theatrical release in Europe but is hitting VOD here and can also be seen on Vimeo. While this is certainly not the last word on the subject, Desire for Beauty serves as an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on how this obsession with looks is impacting society – and ourselves.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Interesting blend of drama and documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: Not always easy to tell where dramatic recreations begin and documentary ends. Unavoidably shallow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity and harsh language as well as some graphic surgery footage not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kulesza accepted her role in the film after meeting with the director despite the fact that there was no script written.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Roar