Emilia Jones in CODA
It’s much easier to forgive formulaic material in a movie when the story it’s serving is otherwise so committed to honest emotion and specificity. Writer/director Siân Heder, adapting a 2014 French film, follows high-school senior Ruby (Emilia Jones), a hearing child of deaf adults (hence the acronym that gives the film its title). Generally committed to helping the family, whether that’s working on her father’s fishing boat or serving as translator, Ruby decides to pursue her own love of music when she joins the school choir. Some fairly predictable plot dynamics ensue, like a romantic interest (Sing Street
’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and a tough-but-caring music teacher (Eugenio Derbez), along the way to the expected familial tensions. But Heder really burrows into the love within this family—non-hearing actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant are all terrific, along with the breakout work by Jones—that makes it so hard for Ruby to think about following a passion that might pull her away from them. And it’s satisfying to see these characters portrayed as earthy, sexual and far from saintly. It all builds to not one, not two, but three key music-focused moments, each of which might put a lump in your through for completely different reasons, making for the kind of crowd-pleaser that earns the designation. Available Aug. 13 in theaters and via Apple+.
It’s not just because it’s chockful of sex and nudity that Lou Jeunet’s historical literary drama avoids the potential stodginess of the genre; nearly every filmmaking choice feels like just the right one. The screenplay by Jeunet and Raphaëlle Desplechin explores the real-life affair in 1890s Paris between early erotica writer/photographer Pierre Louÿs (Niels Schneider) and Marie de Régnier (Noémie Merlant), herself an aspiring writer and the wife of Pierre’s poet friend Henri (Benjamin Lavernhe). The film touches on the social circumstances that trapped Marie in a loveless marriage—essentially sold off to Henri by her cash-strapped parents—as well as the obsession with women as artistic objects that kept Pierre at an emotional distance from Marie. It’s a solid story built on Marie’s discovery of herself distinct from both of the men in her life, but the details help sell it: a terrific score by Arnaud Rebotini that mixes synthesizers with symphonic instruments to emphasize our subjects as people ahead of their time; a wonderful sequence involving a photo shoot at a zoo; the different ways in which Pierre’s photographs become evidence of betrayal. If you want your hot-and-horny French sex drama, you’ll need to get it with a side of directing savvy. Available Aug. 13 via SLFSatHome.org.
Free Guy **1/2
See feature review
. Available Aug. 13 in theaters.
Director Peter Nicks concludes his “Oakland Trilogy” of documentaries—previously focusing on health care and policing—with an exploration of public schooling that both benefits and suffers from the unexpected turn of world events. Since the focus is on seniors at majority non-white Oakland High School during the 2019-2020 school year, our foreknowledge that COVID-19 will turn things upside down hangs over the early scenes in which we see students in boisterous activity, checking their social media in class and occasionally nodding off. But the narrative comes to rest on the efforts of students to address planned school budget cuts by requesting an end to the Oakland School District’s dedicated police force, and specifically on Oakland High’s student representative to the school board, Denilson Garibo. The activism surrounding that issue makes for more compelling material than any of the individual students’ lives, which generally remain vague and unexplored. But as students find themselves out of classrooms in the spring, and national attention focuses on protests against police violence, the crusade by Garibo and his fellow students takes on additional resonance. The result is less a story of admirable youth activism than a reminder of how often it takes horrible tragedy for people take even the most obvious action. Available Aug. 12 via Hulu.
Never Gonna Snow Again **1/2
has already proven that there’s a place for artsy spins on the “superhero origin” narrative, but this Polish drama from writer/directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert attempts a melding of fantasy, history and social satire that never quite finds its footing. Alec Utgoff plays Zhenia, a Ukranian immigrant working as a masseur in Poland, mostly serving the residents of an upscale gated community. As we observe Zhenia meeting with various clients—an unhappy housewife (Maja Ostaszewska); a man dealing with cancer (Lukasz Simlat); a woman extremely attached to her dogs (Katarzyna Figura)—we get glimpses of his backstory where growing up in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster might have made him … different. For a while, it feels like Zhenia is mostly going to serve as a tour guide through the lives of the unhappily wealthy, getting glimpses of marital infidelities and substance abuse often hidden from the view of their peers. The filmmakers find some interesting material there, but Zhenia himself remains enigmatic, the few flashbacks and references to him somehow being on the run feeling completely separated from the scenes with his clients. If this is meant to be a story about an itinerant superhero who briefly drops into people’s lives to help them, we already got that in the 1970s Incredible Hulk
TV series. Available Aug. 13 via SLFSatHome.org.
MGM / UA
Jennifer Hudson in Respect
It’s been nearly 15 years since the release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
, and with every passing year, it becomes more infuriating when a new musical biopic decides to treat it like a road map rather than a cautionary tale. Earnest, dutiful and excruciatingly uninteresting for nearly the entirety of its 145 minutes, Respect
chronicles the life of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) from her childhood as a gospel-singing prodigy in Detroit with her minister father (Forest Whitaker) through the early struggles of her career and her eventual “Queen of Soul” stardom. The narrative reaches its finale with the live recording sessions for Franklin’s landmark Amazing Grace
gospel album, and in theory the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson has a compelling arc in an artist wrestling with her creative identity before finding it in the same place she started. But the reality is that it makes Franklin a passive character for most of the movie, relying on the musical moments for Hudson to shine. As for the rest of it, we get name-checks of the famous people Franklin knew, volatile romantic relationships, struggles with substance abuse and the main character’s “demons” (a word uttered so often here it should get second billing), etc. In short: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out how she’s like Dewey. Available Aug. 13 in theaters
Searching for Mr. Rugoff ***
Director Ira Deutchman’s personal connection to the story of Don Rugoff—a pioneer of New York’s exhibition and distribution scene for independent, foreign and documentary cinema in the 1960s and 1970s with his Cinema 5 corporation—is one of the few things holding back this fascinating snippet of film history. Deutchman chronicles Rugoff’s ascension to taking over the New York theater chain created by his father, and his savvy recognition of—and, at times, creation of—a market for movies like Z
, Gimme Shelter
, Pumping Iron
and Putney Swope
that had no prior foothold in the American moviegoing landscape. Indeed, the best moments in Searching for Mr. Rugoff celebrate that sheer showmanship with which Rugoff marketed his movies, including hiring people to wander through Manhattan in chain-mail armor banging coconuts together to promote Monty Python and the Holy Grail
, or having artist John Willis craft specialized window displays for the movies showing in Rugoff’s theaters. But while Deutchman admirably avoids hagiography in acknowledging how Rugoff could be (Deutchman’s own on-screen words) “a bad person,” the director spends a bit too much time on his own quest to find documentation of Rugoff’s final years in Martha’s Vineyard. Emphasizing the tragedy of what he was reduced to feels like a distraction from honoring how Rugoff almost single-handedly created the American indie-film industry. Available Aug. 13 via SLFSatHome.org.