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Indie Focus: A ballad of family in ‘CODA’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The ways in which audiences and movies meet each other is evolving, as distributors continue to respond to the streaming era. For example, both David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” currently only in theaters, and James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad,” in theaters and streaming at home, are generating a lot of conversation among people who have seen the films wherever they may find them. Including us.

Jen Yamato, Justin Chang and I jousted with “The Green Knight” and how we all have conflicted feelings about it, yet each in distinct ways. As Justin put it, “A movie whose questions and ambiguities persist in the memory strikes me as an experience to cherish these days. Not that I begrudge anyone their impatience with ‘The Green Knight,’ which certainly moves to its own leisurely rhythms (though I have to say, it felt a hell of a lot shorter than ‘Jungle Cruise’) and delights in playing a confoundingly circular game with the audience. How the viewer responds to that game, that challenge, is entirely up to them.”

Justin also joined Tracy Brown and Sonaiya Kelley for a chat about “The Suicide Squad” that covers many spoilers that couldn’t be covered in Justin’s review. As Tracy wrote, “I love comic book movies, but after a decade of watching multiple Marvel and DC offerings every year, I’m not always surprised by them anymore. That’s not to say they aren’t still delightful — a lot of them are also just predictable. But ‘The Suicide Squad’ manages to be surprising, without coming across as just shock for shock’s sake. So even though I feel like I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gunn presented us with a ridiculously fun adventure starring a ragtag group of misfit criminals, I was.”

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Daniel Hernandez spoke to Robert Rodriguez for the announcement of the filmmaker’s two-year deal with HBO and HBO Max. On what drew the veteran maverick to the company and the deal, Rodriguez said, “They have Latin executives, and they’re really into it. Two years gives us enough runway, but they also need product. And that’s the content creator’s dream, that you have partners that need and want content, and they want it to be diverse. This is the Gold Rush era, and it just feels amazing that it’s all happening now.”

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‘CODA’

Directed and written by Siân Heder, adapted from the 2014 French film “La Famille Béilier,” “CODA” won four prizes when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. In the film, teenage Ruby (Emilia Jones) acts as the hearing interpreter for her Deaf parents (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin) and their family business, leading to conflict when she wants to pursue her own career as a singer. The film is playing in limited release and is streaming on Apple TV+.

For The Times, Glenn Whipp wrote, “Let me say that ‘CODA’ contains a great many elements familiar to this kind of movie. … But because Heder — whose previous work includes the Netflix series ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and ‘Glow’ and feature ‘Tallulah’ — is so adept at establishing the emotional bonds between the film’s close-knit family, the presence of all these conventions doesn’t matter. Much. You might find yourself in the film’s final 20 minutes begging for mercy as the story careens from a heart-to-heart talk between mother and daughter to a beautiful moment between father and daughter to the use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ in a way that literally embodies the lyrics ‘tears and fears and feeling proud / To say, “I love you” right out loud.’ But you will not mind because Heder has earned the right to destroy you emotionally.”

Amy Kaufman spoke to the creative team behind the film about how the production worked to accommodate the Deaf actors in the cast, bringing a necessary authenticity to their performances and the film itself.

“There are so many stories within these communities that need to be told. I feel frustrated about it. Disability representation onscreen has been abysmal,” said Heder. “But I feel hopeful about it too. Because I think the more people that respond to the movie and are inspired by these actors will encourage others to start creating roles. I hope these actors can become muses for other people the way that they are for me.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “‘CODA’ relishes the opportunity to showcase the expressiveness of sign language. (The film is extensively subtitled.) The actors work together seamlessly, the blue-collar coastal setting is richly realized and the family’s cohesiveness solidly established. And if some interactions move to the clichéd beats of a sitcom, Ruby’s efforts to share her musical talent (notably in one lovely scene with her father) are remarkably affecting. … In moments like this, when the quippy dialogue subsides and the story relaxes, we see the ghost of a more fruitful movie, one that would rather surprise its viewers than feed them a formula they have come to expect.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Will Ruby and Miles ever kiss? Will Ruby nail the big audition to get into Berklee College of Music? Will Frank’s fishing business survive without the negotiating acumen of his daughter? The audience knows that the answers to those questions are mostly preordained. But that doesn’t detract from ‘CODA’s’ myriad joys, which have less to do with novelty than with the film’s simple, straightforward taste and a grounded sense of honesty. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the film’s climactic scene, an adroitly staged performance in which the feelings come fast and furious, each more contradictory than the last. You’ll laugh, all right. You’ll cry. You’ll do both at the same time. ‘CODA’ is just that kind of movie. And thank goodness for it.”

Two standing women flank a seated man.
In “CODA,” Emilia Jones, left, plays the hearing daughter of Deaf parents Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

‘Ema’

Directed by Pablo Larraín, “Ema” features a dynamic lead performance by Mariana Di Girolamo as a young dancer in Valparaíso, Chile, struggling in the aftermath of a series of troubling incidents involving the young boy she and her husband (Gael García Bernal) had adopted. A portrait of identity and self-possession, the movie’s story is punctuated by riveting dance sequences. (“Ema” premiered at festivals in fall 2019 and Larraín has since made “Spencer,” a biopic of Princess Diana starring Kristen Stewart, which is one of the fall season’s most anticipated items.) The film is playing now in theaters.

For Artforum, Phoebe Chan wrote, “Maybe it’s redundant to spotlight kineticism in a film about dancing, but the choreography teases a much deeper, stranger physics of desire. Ema moves with a dancer’s need for constant flux and is also the plot’s prime mover, uninterested in the whys of her want and only in taking the steps to fill it. But the film’s narrative stakes are less interesting than the way it seems to ask: What does it mean to move or be moved? In the end, we realize how much the story has been pulled by the gravitational force — nothing so easy as ‘maternal instinct’ — that secures a mother to her child. … There’s a wildness that works in being moved by something new, and Larraín has managed to build a film out of his thrall to the beauty of a new disorder. There is a word for that particular movement, when one thing tempts another off-path and into its orbit: chaos, or as Larraín might have it, seduction.”

For Remezcla, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Incendiary and remarkably bold, in the same manner that a fire is terrifying and fascinating, Larraín’s ‘Ema’ boasts top-notch acting from a cast that comprehends there are no schematic evildoers or virtuous saviors in his domain. Some conversations speak directly about the fictional reality, others muse about emotional catharsis or the central couple’s inability to agree on whether they despise each other or not. All in all, what the cerebral storyteller, perhaps the most influential Latin American director of the decade, proposes is openness to uncomfortability if this leads to unexplored pleasures of the body and soul.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “Larraín does eventually carve out a clear(ish) plot, but most of ‘Ema’ is about someone — someone who’s lost a valuable part of themselves, and tries to find it again by following her own unquenchable life force — getting all disoriented and f— up. It’s not as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it’s not depressing at all. This isn’t a sad-faced social drama about an unprepared mother who throws herself at the mercy of the courts and promises to reform her wicked ways, this is a feral and deliriously nonconformist riot of sex and rage; it’s the spray-painted portrait of a torrential young woman who refuses to water herself down.”

A woman and a man lean their heads together as they stand before a glowing red ball.
Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in ‘Ema.’
(Music Box Films)

‘Respect’

Directed by Liesl Tommy from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson, “Respect” is the story of the rise of singer Aretha Franklin, from her childhood through the early struggles of her career to finding herself as an artist and ultimately into the triumph of her “Amazing Grace” concert. Franklin is played by Jennifer Hudson, with a cast that includes Marlon Wayons, Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige and Audra McDonald. The film is playing now in theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “As in ‘Dreamgirls,’ Hudson seems to express her character’s feelings more vividly in song than in dialogue — hardly a fatal flaw in a musical, though it does leave a nagging emotional vagueness at the heart of some of the more straightforward dramatic scenes. That’s partly by design: If the aim is to capture the spirit rather than the letter of Franklin’s immense presence, that spirit in ‘Respect’ is still unformed. The Aretha we see is calculating, hesitant and sometimes even deferential, not yet possessed of the strong artistic identity and music-industry savvy that would define her reign as the Queen of Soul.”

Lorraine Ali interviewed Hudson, who said, “Playing her is a completely different thing from being a singer and fan who sings her songs. I mean, thank God I already knew the majority of her material. That was one less thing I had to worry about. But I remember saying on the set, ‘She doesn’t know this song yet.’ Jennifer Hudson knows the song. We all know the song. We know what it became. But in Aretha’s life, in that moment, she doesn’t. She’s learning it. It hasn’t manifested yet. We can’t overshoot the story and speak of her as who she became because we’re in the beginning phases of the making of Aretha.”

For Vulture, Robert Daniels wrote, “This movie isn’t concerned with Franklin beyond her hits and reduces her years lived to boxes checked. As a standard, and therefore shallow, musical biopic, it’s more interested in dropping beats than in finding depth. … The two draws for ‘Respect’ — the resplendent costumes by designer Clint Ramos and a bevy of hit songs — aren’t enough to cover the film’s paper-thin story.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Hudson also shows us a woman who held tight to her own spark of light, no matter how much people around her tried to control her. Hudson’s voice, at once resonant and downy-light, is no match for Franklin’s — no one’s is. And so, instead of mimicking Aretha, Hudson glides along on a parallel track, re-creating these infinitely familiar songs as if to show them to us anew. How do songs get made, from writing to arranging to performing, and on to that eternity of just being? ‘Respect’ shows us one path, forged by a queen. Anyone who ever abused, troubled or controlled her in life can bow down now. And stay down.”

A man and woman in eveningwear are surrounded by photographers.
Marlon Wayans, center, and Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.”
(Quantrell D. Colbert / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)


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