Tag Archives: 2021

Dear Evan Hansen

Based on the Tony Award-winning smash of the same name, the new movie musical Dear Evan Hansen is an unmitigated disaster, a winding road of cringe-inducing character moments and baffling creative choices paved with good intentions all the way along. After striking out fantastically with the tragically misconceived Cats in 2019, Universal Pictures tries and fails again to translate a Broadway favorite to the big screen. If their goal is to make the division between musical theater geeks and the uninitiated even larger than it already is, then they’re succeeding better than any other major studio at the moment. This is a film that takes on tough and timely themes like teen suicide, mental health and social media but comes up with bad takes on nearly all of the subjects that it covers.

Reprising the eponymous role he created on-stage starting in 2015, Ben Platt plays a troubled high school student whose anxiety and depression stifle his ability to create meaningful friendships. On the advice of his therapist, he writes notes to himself for motivation to get through the day. One such letter ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a brusque classmate who is incensed by the mention of his sister — and Evan’s secret crush — Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) in the note. A misunderstanding begins when Connor’s parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Danny (Danny Pino) approach Evan with the note, thinking he wrote it to Connor, who took his own life just days afterwards. Instead of clearing up said misunderstanding, Evan perpetuates the lie and insinuates himself into the grieving family, weaving tales through song of moments that never occurred between Connor and himself.

This premise may seem shockingly cold-hearted and in devastatingly poor taste — don’t worry, it is — but what makes Dear Evan Hansen so despicable is how it expands and doubles-down on its loathsome setup. First, we’re to believe that Evan doesn’t clear up the misconception about the intended recipient of the note and his relationship with Connor because social anxiety kicks in when the Murphys meet with him about it. As someone who has struggled mightily with mental health over the past two years, I’m completely sympathetic to those who battle these issues every day of their lives. However, I also believe that even someone who suffers from a particularly profound case of Social Anxiety Disorder would pump the brakes on this mix-up before a sitcom-style snowball effect would start up.

In addition to deceiving the Murphys, Evan also involves a tenacious classmate who is also battling depression played by Amandla Stenberg, the film’s sole highlight. She proposes The Connor Project, a crowdfunding effort to preserve the memory of their fallen classmate and reopen an orchard where Evan claims to have spent many an afternoon with Connor. Where director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson look to cut corners with their shallow protagonist when it comes to visibility into mental health, Stenberg makes up ground with her authentic portrayal of a teen doing her best to overcome. I would have much rather seen a movie centered around her character for many reasons, not least of which being the good it could have done in reducing the stigma of mood disorders among the black community.

But instead, we’re forced to endure a duplicitous creep belt out song after song about his fake friendship while the Likes and Shares inevitably rack up on social media platforms. It’s utterly inexplicable to me that composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who contributed to the miraculous La La Land, could come up with music as cloying and uninspired as this. Perhaps the best of the musical numbers were left on the stage but the ones in this film have the phoniness of bad contemporary Christian music. Only one sequence, set to “Sincerely, Me”, manages to do anything meaningful with the cinematic form but it’s still mired in the movie’s icky subtext of exploitation and deceit. Don’t be thrown by its pretty packaging; Dear Evan Hansen deserves to be marked “return to sender”.

Score – 1/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a Sony Spider-Man Universe sequel starring Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson which finds the titular antihero squaring off against a new alien symbiote.
Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is The Many Saints of Newark, a crime epic starring Michael Gandolfini and Leslie Odom Jr. which depicts the days of the infamous Tony Soprano in his youth.
Premiering on Netflix is The Guilty, an adaptation of a Danish thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ethan Hawke about a 911 dispatcher who receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Like its subject, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a bit difficult to entirely figure out. It’s a biopic based on a documentary that came out over 20 years ago, which does generate a new wave of sympathy for the late Tammy Faye Bakker but seems more than a little late to the party in doing so. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the film also can’t be described as a warts and all account of how she and husband Jim Bakker rose to prominence and fell from grace during the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the movie threatens to spin out of control with montages that condense far too much information but with a 126-minute runtime, it ultimately doesn’t seem to be in too much of a rush either. The one thing that’s clear is that Jessica Chastain puts everything she has into the lead role and gives the project the sense of purpose that it needs.

After a brief prologue set in the mid-90s, we travel back to mid-50s Minnesota, where Tammy Faye was raised to be God-fearing and proper by her stern mother (Cherry Jones). This upbringing later leads her to North Central Bible College in 1960, where she meets the handsome and charismatic Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Smitten with one another, they get hitched and drop out of school to spread the word of the Lord on the road, eventually crossing paths with televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). Working under him at his Christian Broadcasting Network, the Bakkers form their own channel called PTL and reign supreme in the televangelist market until sexual misconduct and fraud allegations bring their operation to a halt.

Director Michael Showalter made quite an impression with his excellent directorial debut The Big Sick in 2017 but his two films since then don’t quite transcend their respective genres. The direct-to-Netflix The Lovebirds was a solid base hit of a romantic comedy and The Eyes of Tammy Faye fits the same descriptor in biopic form. It hits many of the familiar beats, from early childhood to young love, from the soaring heights of success to the agonizing depths of failure. The overall shape of this narrative is nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before and it’s a bit of a disappointment that Showalter doesn’t try a bit harder to shake things up. Aside from a few match cuts that generate some of the film’s best punchlines, it’s hard to see his artistry come through in the way the story is told.

Chastain, on the other hand, has an abundance of personality and perspective that come through in yet another terrific performance in her already laudable career. Tammy Faye Bakker was a larger than life figure and while Chastain wisely embraces the traits that the public knew best, she goes deeper to suggest desires and dreams that the cameras never captured. While it takes a bit of time for Jim to reveal his true colors as a cheat and a huckster, Tammy Faye ultimately comes across as a decent person whose enormous need for love and attention led to unprecedented audience sizes. I saw a good bit of Dolly Parton in Chastain’s performance, someone who also feels deeply, sings proudly and knows how to keep the public’s attention through the years.

A through line of the movie is Tammy Faye’s conversations with God throughout her life, growing more urgent and desperate the more dire her circumstances become. Prayer isn’t depicted very often in mainstream film, just as religion is typically relegated to faith-based movies that are released only to specific markets. The crisis of faith depicted in The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t the driving force of the plot but it’s a revealing track of character development that candidly reflects how beliefs can be shaken in trying times. When you strip away the layers of gaudy and gooey storytelling, there’s a more simple and moving story to be told that sadly feels the need to be done up to appeal to audiences.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Dear Evan Hansen, a musical starring Ben Platt and Amy Adams about a high school senior’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a fellow classmate.
Streaming on Netflix is The Starling, a dramedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd about a married couple who suffer a hardship and find their way through it with the help of a bird nesting in their backyard.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Birds of Paradise, a drama starring Kristine Froseth and Diana Silvers about two ballet dancers who find their friendship tested when they compete for a contract to join an elite academy in Paris.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #58 – Malignant

I’m joined again by my lovely wife Aubree as we carve out some time for Malignant, the new over-the-top horror film from director James Wan. Then we recap some Sydney Sweeney-starring streaming selections, including The Voyeurs (streaming on Amazon Prime) and The White Lotus (entire season streaming on HBO Max). I also get briefly bummed about Pixies canceling their fall tour. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Malignant

As movie theaters around the country still struggle to replicate pre-pandemic numbers, the horror genre could ironically represent the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent offerings like Don’t Breathe 2 and Candyman both exceeded box office expectations relative to their modest budgets and it’s not hard to see why. Scary films have often appealed to younger crowds, who are the most likely to return to theaters despite lingering covid concerns. There’s also something about leaving the safety of one’s home to go into a darkened room with strangers and experience the unexpected and potentially terrifying together that streaming just can’t touch. After all, how scary can something be when you’re half-watching it behind your smartphone? I didn’t see the new horror movie Malignant in theaters but given these factors, I wish I had.

The film tells the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a Seattle-based mother-to-be who is plagued by graphic visions of gruesome murders following an incident with her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She observes these happenings as if she’s in the room when they take place, like a more visceral form of sleep paralysis amid waking nightmares. First, she sees Derek attacked in their kitchen, followed by a woman being abducted in the Seattle Underground. When Madison awakes, she’s terrified to learn that all of these disturbing premonitions are actually events that have already taken place while she was asleep. With more crime scenes piling up, Madison works with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and a beleaguered detective (George Young) to put a stop to the brutal violence.

Those worried about another rote scare fest should be heartened by the fact that Malignant is helmed by none other than James Wan, the mastermind behind the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. More pertinently, this is the man who made cars fall from the sky in Furious 7 and made a CGI octopus play drums in Aquaman, which mirrors the kind of devil-may-care attitude he brings to his return to the horror genre. Wan’s direction here is reminiscent of the over-the-top supernatural aesthetic pioneered by Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi, who sadly hasn’t made a horror film since 2009’s minor camp classic Drag Me to Hell. I was also reminded of the lesser-known, Ti West-directed The House of the Devil, which chugs along like a mild-mannered haunted house movie until its bombastic finale.

And boy, does Malignant ever have one of those itself. This is a film that dares you to solve what’s really going on in real time and if you’ve seen a horror movie in the past 50 years, there’s a good chance you’ll guess the broad strokes of what screenwriter Akela Cooper has cooked up. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and Wan saves the most outlandish reveals for the third act, paying off some clever bread crumbs of foreshadowing while taking things further than the Conjuring crowd may anticipate. In this way, Malignant has the most in common with another Wan feature that kicked off a mega franchise: Saw. He peppers in loads of visual cues to that surprise 2004 success, from moodily lit shots of decaying bricks to a skulking, trench coat-wearing killer who moves like the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies.

As distinct an impression as Malignant leaves in its final 30 minutes, I wish the film had been a bit lighter on its way there. Wan and his editor Kirk Morri could’ve cut off about 15 to 20 minutes from the runtime and I doubt much would have been missed. A movie like this really shouldn’t stick around much longer than it needs to, lest the audience give themselves time to subject the narrative to further scrutiny and uncover plot inconsistencies. There’s also heavy subject material at the beginning, involving miscarriages and child abuse, that is tonally inconsistent with the kind of campy conclusion that Wan is ultimately setting up. Malignant could have used a bit more of a surgical approach to carve out its scares but Wan proves that, even with blunt instruments, he can get the job done well.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is Cry Macho, a neo-Western starring Clint Eastwood and Dwight Yoakam about an ex-rodeo star who is hired by his former boss to kidnap his Mexican son and transport him to Texas.
Opening only in theaters is Copshop, an action thriller starring Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo about a wily con artist on the run from a lethal assassin who devises a scheme to hide out inside a small-town police station.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a coming-of-age musical starring Max Harwood and Sarah Lancashire about a teenager from Sheffield, England who aspires to be a drag queen.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Kate

Netflix’s newest action-packed offering Kate stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the titular role as ruthless, Japan-based assassin working under handler and father figure Varrick (Woody Harrelson). Ten months after a botched job in Osaka, Kate contemplates early retirement before Varrick chides (“two trips to Walmart and you’ll be back”) and convinces her to take one last assignment. High atop a Tokyo skyscraper, she lines up her shot but gets violently ill before a doctor gravely confirms acute radiation poisoning soon afterwards. With roughly 24 hours to figure out who tried to have her killed, Kate storms her way up the Yakuza pecking order while unwittingly recruiting an impressionable young girl named Ani (Miku Martineau) along the way.

While Kate isn’t as dispiritingly derivative as Gunpowder Milkshake, another rowdy Netflix dud released earlier this summer, it offers very little new to the saturated sub-genre of tough-as-nails, female-led actioners. Yes, it seems a handful of movies every summer (see also Jolt and The Protégé, both released within the past few weeks) are vying to be the next Jane Wick, even though few, if any, women are involved in the creative decisions behind these projects. Along with writer Umair Aleem, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan seemed to look to the work of fellow Frenchman Luc Besson a bit too closely. Kate borrows liberally from the “ticking time bomb” conceit of his Lucy along with the assassin-with-a-heart-of-gold feel (and even a specific Gary Oldman line) from Léon: The Professional.

Thankfully, Nicolas-Troyan’s background in visual effects for the Huntsman and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchises translates to some kinetic action scenes that make up Kate‘s backbone. Easily the most impressive is a superb Kill Bill-esque brawl in the film’s first act, which includes brutal beats like Kate reloading her gun off of a baddie’s face and pure white shojis being painted with streaks of red. A subsequent street shootout showcases more dynamic gunplay with some neat camera tricks that are just the right amount of showy for this sort of movie. By the time we get to the final showdown, the outcome seems inevitable but the staging and editing still allow us to suspend our disbelief up to the last moment.

Though it’s well under two hours, Kate sadly peters out around the end of the second act and much of that can be attributed to the remove at which the protagonist has held nearly every character in the film. It was around that time that I simply stopped caring about Kate, her motivation and her goals. Winstead is a talented actress but she’s stuck with a one-note character whose coldness and single-mindedness become laborious after a while. She does have some quality bonding scenes with Martineau, who pushes things a bit too hard, but I can’t say that I felt fully convinced of their relationship and its consequences on the story. While it’s not totally uncommon for an all-out action movie like this, nearly every other character is essentially just fodder for Kate to eventually cut, shoot or stab through.

Perhaps it’s an issue of timing more than anything but after seeing Asians be featured so thoroughly and colorfully in Shang-Chi, it’s a bit depressing to watch Kate offer so little for its Japanese characters. While that Marvel outing had its narrative letdowns, it should be commended for filling its story with characters who had agency and development every step of the way. If Asian-cast characters aren’t being served up one by one to the violent protagonist in Kate, they’re whispering platitudes about honor and family that ultimately have no bearing on the outcome of the narrative. I’m not expecting an action movie to give every henchman a backstory but after watching Asian representation being built up on-screen over the past few years, Kate feels regressive in its efforts to sideline its non-white characters.

Score – 2/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and also streaming on HBO Max is Malignant, a horror thriller starring Annabelle Wallis and Maddie Hasson about a woman plagued by waking dreams of grisly murders that she discovers are, in fact, terrifying realities.
Playing only in theaters is Show Me The Father, a documentary which features captivating stories interwoven with inspirational truths about the fatherhood of God.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Come From Away, a live stage recording of the 2017 musical of the same name, which tells the true story of 7,000 passengers who were stranded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in a small town in Newfoundland.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The 25th film in the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings yet another superhero into the fold and with him, a new subgenre to the franchise. Like Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan from last year, this latest entry incorporates martial arts and the fantastical storytelling of wuxia fiction into a mostly satisfying action feature. It’s the MCU’s most inspired standalone entry since Black Panther but includes the most laborious exposition of any of their films since Doctor Strange (and that’s including the one where dozens of characters had to go on a time-travel heist). Despite the heavy amounts of backstory, the movie is as light on its feet as it can be and breezes by with well-placed humor and winsome performances.

When we meet San Francisco-based twenty-something Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), he’s in a bit of a rut. Valeting cars by day under the alias “Shaun” and hitting up karaoke bars by night with his rambunctious cohort Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi’s millennial malaise dissipates suddenly when a bus confrontation forces him to tap into dormant hand-to-hand skills. The goons sent to fight him turn out to be a part of the dangerous Ten Rings organization, headed up by none other than Shang-Chi’s super-powered father Wenwu (Tony Leung). His plan to recover his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) from the cryptic land of Ta Lo seems fortuitous at first, until Shang-Chi learns of the violent measures Wenwu and his Ten Rings intend to take in the process.

My main charge against Marvel’s previous big-screen offering Black Widow was that it felt anonymous, as if you could plug any MCU character into the film as its protagonist and not much would be affected. Certainly, the same criticism cannot be applied to Shang-Chi. The most obvious way that the film distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack is with its dazzling fight choreography, particularly in two, Jackie Chan-influenced action setpieces from the first act. The first, in which “Shaun” turns into Shang-Chi before Katy’s eyes while he takes out several oversized foes, somehow gives the jaw-dropping bus brawl from Nobody a run for its money. The second is an extended sequence atop bamboo scaffolding high above Macau, which merges practical effects and CG to brilliant effect.

Reliance on backstory is often an Achilles’ Heel for those Marvel movies which serve as on-screen introductions to a new superhero and sadly, Shang-Chi‘s convoluted setup is its greatest weakness. The film opens with a gorgeous flashback, featuring a sort of “combat ballet” with echoes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but by the third act, the cutaways to the past become tedious. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton chooses to scatter his exposition throughout the narrative but does so with little regard for the overall flow of the film. The climactic battle is also overstuffed with magical creatures introduced late in the game, who ultimately take up too much screen time and distract from the (admittedly foolish) plan that the villain aims to carry out.

Despite the awkwardly placed bits of storytelling, the film remains engaging throughout mainly due to the liveliness of the performances. As the titular warrior, newcomer Simu Liu brings an earnest charm to his role that plays nicely against his fierce fighting abilities. Awkwafina has been on the rise over the past few years and she turns in another effortlessly funny sidekick performance while also not being relegated to a love interest for the lead. The menacing work from the great Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung will elate those still bitter about the Mandarin fake-out from 2013’s Iron Man 3. With some tighter direction, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could have been one of the better chapters in the MCU canon but even as is, it’s another reliable entertainment from the most prolific assembly line in the business.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Cinderella, a romantic comedy starring Camila Cabello and Idina Menzel reworking the classic fairy tale into a modern-day musical.
Streaming on Netflix is Worth, a legal drama starring Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci about a headstrong Washington D.C. attorney who battles against bureaucracy and politics to help victims of 9/11.
Available to rent on demand is The Gateway, a crime thriller starring Frank Grillo and Olivia Munn about a social worker who intervenes when an inmate returns to his family and tries to lure them into a life of crime.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Night House

A year and a half after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a hefty Searchlight Pictures acquisition finally sees the light of day, which is to say the dark of the movie theater. The atmospheric and genuinely chilling The Night House is half tantalizing mystery and half psychological horror but wholly gripping all the way through. Like Netflix’s The Woman in the Window from earlier this year, the film depicts a female protagonist who isolates herself from the rest of the world to pull a nagging thread that threatens to unravel everything around her. Just as Amy Adams knocked it out of the park in that unfairly maligned Netflix offering, Rebecca Hall turns in a fiercely committed performance that puts us firmly within her fractured psyche.

Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher failing to make sense of the abrupt suicide of Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her loving husband of almost 15 years. Retreating to the ornate lake house that he built for them before their marriage, she goes through mementos like wedding videos and love notes before happening upon the blueprints for their luxurious home. Strange inscriptions and evidence of hidden rooms prompt Beth to dig deeper, which in turn causes sleeplessness and disturbing visions that only get her more involved in the dark secrets that are waiting to be uncovered. Beth’s new obsession disturbs friends like Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and neighbors like Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) alike, begging the question if all of these supernatural connections are simply a matter of Beth’s grief-stricken imagination.

Directed by David Bruckner, veteran of horror anthology showcases like V/H/S and Southbound, The Night House doesn’t have the sturdiest script around but makes up for the more ungainly plot elements with some well earned scares. Yes, there are jump scares and yes, some of them are cheaper than others, but the movie also provides more drawn-out sequences that give us time to study the frame and investigate the shadows that may or may not be there. While the film has slightly different goals and intentions than last year’s The Invisible Man, both movies share a proclivity for negative space in the frame, suggesting the evil that may lurk there and allowing our imagination to fill the chasm. The Night House makes even more evocative use of moving shadows and shifting rooms, to profoundly creepy and unsettling effect.

Bruckner also thematically and visually quotes several films of a master filmmaker not traditionally associated with the horror genre: Ingmar Bergman. His narrative invokes Jungian duality and doppelgängers in ways that brought me right back to Bergman’s endlessly debated masterwork Persona. A shot late in the film between Beth and a deathly figure is composed and choreographed so similarly to the iconic chess scene in The Seventh Seal that I find it impossible for it not to be intentional. More obliquely, the crimson-tinged third act of The Night House recalls the inescapable reddish rue of Cries and Whispers and all of its stirring underpinnings. It’s heartening to see directors implement concepts of classic cinema so seamlessly into a modern ghost tale.

Since appearing in The Prestige 15 years ago, Rebecca Hall has become one of the most captivating actresses around and here, she proves that she can hold a movie together with little help from other performers. Her Beth isn’t always likable in the traditional sense — she’s not afraid to confront people and make them uncomfortable if it seems warranted –but her struggle to put these twisted puzzle pieces together is always engaging. Hall wears the fears and insecurities of her characters with such boldness that it’s often inspiring; if her characters can overcome their baggage and damage, perhaps we can too. When Bruckner introduced the film at Sundance, he said it’s “about which idea you find scarier: that ghosts exist, or that they don’t.” The Night House has the capacity to haunt properly, no matter which option you choose.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Candyman, a supernatural slasher sequel starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris about a Chicago-based group of young professionals who awaken the titular bogeyman once again.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends, a comedy starring John Cena and Lil Rel Howery about a couple whose wedding is crashed by a pair of casual friends from a vacation.
Available on Netflix is He’s All That, a gender-swapped remake starring Addison Rae and Tanner Buchanan about a high school girl who accepts a challenge to turn the school’s least popular boy into prom king.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Annette

For a band that’s toiled in obscurity for decades, Sparks is finally finding themselves squarely in the spotlight this year. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival back in January, The Sparks Brothers is a documentary/love letter from director/fanboy Edgar Wright covering 50 years of the duo’s idiosyncratic work in the music industry. Now comes Annette, an undeniably eccentric but frustratingly hollow musical that Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael conceived with French writer/director Leos Carax. Its oddball energy and conviction to its own brand of strangeness would suggest the singular vision of a stubborn auteur but apparently, this trio of outsiders found a common ground upon which to craft this audacious but arduous melodrama.

Meet Henry McHenry (Adam Driver). He’s a stand-up comedian whose persona hinges on the premise that he’s the last person who should be performing on-stage. He appears to crowds disheveled in a bathrobe, murmuring petty observations with his back to the audience, generating comedy from the mere fact that no stand-up in their right mind would go forward with this act. Somehow, McHenry has captured the affections of luminous opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), whose international popularity in the theater scene means that the couple is plagued by paparazzi nearly everywhere they go. With the world watching, Henry and Ann welcome their daughter Annette in the world but struggle to raise her together as Henry’s career stalls out while Ann travels the world to perform for sold-out crowds.

Beginning in a recording studio where the Mael brothers (playing themselves) address the audience and launch into the cheeky, walk-and-sing opener “So May We Start”, Annette benefits from an infectious and lively energy from the first frame. Sadly, it’s mostly a tease, promising a fun and rambunctious challenge to the conventional musical when what follows is a moody half-opera with saturnine pacing. It’s a film whose narrative shifts quite wildly around the halfway mark, following a tragic turn that has McHenry and an accompanist played by Simon Helberg renegotiating their relationships to Ann and Annette. Both halves are held together by themes from the allure of fame to the bounds of artistry, exploring the efficacy of entertainment in profoundly weird and sometimes unsettling terms.

Driver is quite excellent throughout, disarming our inclinations to write off his narcissistic protagonist by committing fully to his beguiling but compelling anti-comedy schtick. It’s hard to know where “McHenry” stops and McHenry begins, creating a line that Driver has some serious fun dancing around. He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice out there but as we found out from La La Land a few years ago, you don’t need world-class pipes to weave together some movie magic. His conviction to such a deranged but magnetic central character reminded me of his work in the similarly cockeyed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, doggedly holding the center in both of the deeply out-there tales.

The Sparks-crafted music that serves as the backbone for this project bares the off-kilter and droll watermark the duo has perfected over the decades but the coinciding lyrics are often redundant and deprived of subtlety. When Driver and Cotillard croon the lines “we love each other so much, it’s so hard to explain” over and over at one another, I actually laughed at how unsophisticated the underlying sentiment was and I don’t think that’s what Carax and crew intended. Then again, there are quite a few fourth-wall breaks, including a number where Helberg’s character spills his heart out to the audience while apologizing for having to get back to conducting an orchestra, so maybe I’m just not fully in on the joke. Those who want to take a dive in the deep end may give Annette the attention it demands but your best bet may be to stay out of the pool altogether.

Score – 2.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Reminiscence, a sci-fi thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson about a scientist who discovers a way to relive his past and uses the technology to search for his long lost love.
Playing only in theaters is The Night House, a psychological horror film starring Rebecca Hall and Sarah Goldberg about a widow who begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
Also playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+ is PAW Patrol: The Movie, an adaptation of the popular animated children’s series starring Iain Armitage and Marsai Martin which finds the band of pups up against the evil mayor of their city.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

CODA

The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.

Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.

Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.

Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup