by Julian Spivey
Director: Sian Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin & Troy Kotsur
Runtime: 1 hour & 51 minutes
I was listening to The Big Picture Podcast (a podcast from The Ringer) earlier in the week and the hosts Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins were doing a “too early of a prediction on Oscar Best Picture nominees” and the prospect of “CODA” being among the 10 nominees for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards was mentioned. “CODA” has been a film I’ve wanted to watch since it was released on AppleTV+’s streaming platform in mid-August, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, but I was surprised to hear it mentioned in a Best Picture conversation, simply because it felt like a small scale film despite it glowing reviews.
I finally got around to watching “CODA” on Thanksgiving and it’s an incredibly lovely film and probably my favorite movie I’ve seen of 2021 thus far (though I must throw out the caveat it’s only the 12th film of 2021 I’ve seen). I’m happy to hear it might get some Academy love, though I would still be a bit surprised if it did.
“CODA,” which stand for child of deaf adults (though I don’t think it’s ever mentioned in the film), is a coming-of-age dramedy about Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), the only speaking member of a family of fisherman in Gloucester, Mass. whose gift of speech makes her vital to the family business. Ruby has a passion for singing and when she finds out she’s quite amazing at it thanks to her choir teacher Bernardo (roll those ‘Rs’) Villalobos (played by Eugenio Derbez) she decides she’d like to pursue the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Ruby’s passion for singing puts her and her family in a bind. She doesn’t want to let her family down, but she doesn’t want the family business to go under because she’s not around to help. They don’t want to crush her dreams, but they also depend on her for their livelihood.
Ruby’s parents, Frank and Jackie, are played by Troy Kotsur and Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, both deaf actors. Ruby’s brother Leo is played by Daniel Durant, also a deaf actor.
“CODA,” directed and written by Sian Heder, did a terrific job at hiring real-life deaf actors to portray deaf characters, something that the 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” the film it’s based off, didn’t do which led to controversy.
It’s incredibly important for films based on minority groups, like the deaf community, to give opportunities to actors within that community, especially when you have such wonderful actors as Kotsur, Matlin and Durant – all of whom are fantastic in their roles, especially Kotsur and Matlin who bring much of the film’s laughs with their voracious sex lives, much to the embarrassment of their daughter.
Jones is terrific in the lead role as Ruby, and she put in so much work before filming in learning not only American Sign Language and taking singing lessons, but also by learning how to work a fishing trawler. The dedication put into this role is amazing and the acting of being torn between two loves is incredibly believable. You really feel for all the main characters in the film.
“CODA” is an all-around beauty of a film and a good family watch, so I was happy to be able to share the experience of seeing it with my wife and my parents on a holiday of thanks, as I’m always thankful for wonderful new films.
by Julian Spivey
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis & Saniyya Sidney
Runtime: 2 hours & 24 minutes
I must say that when I first heard about “King Richard,” a biopic of Richard Williams the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, my first thought was, “Why? Why a biopic about the father and not the two tennis players who have completely dominated the sport for two decades?”
But, after watching “King Richard,” which can now be seen in theaters and streaming on HBO Max through December 18, I understand why the decision to tell the story of the father of the greatest sibling duo in sports history (that’s right any sport) is worth telling.
It must be said that the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is executive produced by both Venus and Serena Williams so you may not be getting a 100 percent accurate or critical telling of the story of their father, but it’s at least you get a film with their blessing that tells you how they feel about the sacrifices Richard Williams made to see two of his daughters succeed in a sport that few African-Americans had succeeded in.
Will Smith, also a producer on the film, absolutely inhabits Richard Williams and it will certainly be a performance talked about throughout award season and likely could result in Smith’s third career Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (he was previously nominated for “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”). I’ve seen and enjoyed several of Smith’s movies and performances throughout his career, and I will say this is the best I’ve ever seen him. He brings out both the determination and caring, as well as the arrogancy of Richard Williams with ease. Most importantly Smith gets lost in the performance to the point of even though you know in your head you’re watching a Will Smith performance you feel as if you’re watching the real Richard Williams.
One thing about “King Richard” that surprised me a bit was its large focus on Venus Williams and not necessarily both Venus and Serena, but it absolutely makes sense. Venus was the oldest of the two and it was largely upon Richard to ensure that she succeeded because his plan, from both girls’ birth was for them both to succeed and if Venus didn’t first there may not be a path for Serena.
Venus is played by Saniyya Sidney, and Serena is played by Demi Singleton in the film, and both do an apt job at portraying the teenage Williams sisters without having to be very showy or really do a whole lot as the focus is on Richard.
Aunjanue Ellis is terrific as Oracene, the mother of the girls and Richard’s wife, and truly deserves some award recognition herself for a strong performance in which she manages to go toe-to-toe with Smith’s Richard on multiple occasions, even if the film doesn’t spotlight her quite so much.
Speaking of great supporting roles, both Tony Goldwyn as Venus’ first professional coach (her dad was always her first coach) Paul Cohen and Jon Bernthal as her second coach Rick Macci are both fantastic in their roles. Bernthal’s Macci certainly gives the film some levity in dealing with the hard-lined Richard.
“King Richard,” written by Zach Baylin, focuses on Richard and the Williams sisters from about 1990 until 1994 when Venus competes in her first professional event at the age of 14.
My only real complaint about "King Richard" is at almost two-and-a-half hours it's a bit too long, but at the same time it doesn't drag much at all.
by Julian Spivey
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Starring: Tom Hanks
Runtime: 1 hour & 55 minutes
“Finch,” directed by Miguel Sapochnik, opens in post-apocalyptic America 10 years after a solar flare finished off the ozone layer turning Earth into a mostly uninhabitable place ravaged by severe weather and the sun’s ultraviolet rays that make movement in the daytime essentially non-existent without a protective suit.
Finch, played by Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, is a scientist – something that’s helped him survive this post-apocalyptic world where the few remaining humans have turned on each other to survive. It’s not long into the film we learn that Finch is dying from an undisclosed sickness and he’s desperately trying to finish work on a robot, that eventually becomes known as Jeff, before a massive storm reaches his home of St. Louis that he’d unlikely survive. The robot is to take care of his beloved dog Goodyear, though he’s simply called dog for much of the movie because who needs names in a post-apocalyptic world, when Finch dies. Finch is trying to get Jeff and Goodyear to San Francisco, where there’s hope of a better life (though it’s truly unknown) and to teach Jeff how to care for Goodyear before his passes on.
“Finch,” which is only Sapochnik’s second directorial effort and his first in more than a decade, is a simple film. Hanks is the only cast and he’s playing off a CGI robot (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) and a dog (played by Seamus) and he has this simple goal of teaching the robot to care for the dog. Few actors could pull off such a performance, but it’s no surprise Hanks does so with aplomb. He’s the best his generation has had, after all.
One thing I really took from “Finch” is the lengths a man would go to to take care of his dog and make sure it’s cared for after it’s human is gone. Most of us don’t have the means necessary to build a robot for our pets, but I’m sure we’d all do so if possible. I didn’t need any extra reason to understand why Finch would want to go to such lengths for his dog, but the film gives us a tragic scene to show us that Goodyear truly is more to Finch than just a companion in a world without companionship.
“Finch” is a charming film but be warned it’ll make you teary-eyed (you pretty much realize it’s going to from the start, but don’t worry the dog survives). It’s not the type of film you’re going to hear about come awards season, but it makes for a lovely and breezy almost two-hour watch. “Finch,” which was written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, can be seen on AppleTV+.
by Julian Spivey
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba & Regina King
Runtime: 2 hours & 19 minutes
Jeymes Samuel’s feature-film directorial debut “The Harder They Fall,” which premiered on Netflix on Nov. 3 after a limited theatrical release, is a beautifully-filmed Western with an excellent cast and plenty of dramatic shootouts.
“The Harder They Fall,” begins with 11-year-old Nat Love eating dinner with his parents when two bad men, one the feared Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, bust in and kill Nat’s parents and carve a cross into the young boy’s forehead. The film then picks up 20 years later when Love, now an adult and played by Jonathan Majors, is an Old West outlaw on a mission to kill those involved with the murder of his family. Love has a gang of bandits that includes his love interest Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quick draw Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler).
If some of these names strike you as familiar it’s because Samuel, who co-wrote the film with Boaz Yakin, took real-life African-American figures from the Old West for his characters (even if they didn’t intertwine in real-life or even live in the same time).
Early in the film Buck is freed from a train carrying him from one place to another by his gang that includes Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). They return to their former stronghold of Redwood City and Buck effectively takes over control once again.
The cast of this film is absolutely stellar, but one thing that’s noticeable almost immediately from the go is that the gang of villains (Elba, King and Stanfield) are more interesting than the good guys, which isn’t all that unusual for a Western, but in the end you want to root for the good guys and you know more often than not they’re the ones who are going to come out on top. Part of this problem might be that King and Stanfield as such talented and intriguing actors with full fleshed out characters and the film doesn’t spend a whole lot of time building up Pickett or Beckwourth. Honestly, there’s not a ton of character building for anyone in the film, but the film is such a beauty to watch and there’s so much action and so many shootouts, done with bright, gloriously colorized violence that you don’t spend too much time worried about that. You’re entertained and as with many Westerns throughout film history the old good guy versus the bad guy plot is enough to hold your attention.
One fantastic performance in the film is Delroy Lindo as U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who I’d absolutely love to see a biopic made about. Lindo seems tailor made for the veteran lawman who ends up taking sides with Love, despite the fact he’s been after him for some time. The film also sees memorable performances from Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffie, essentially Mary’s bodyguard, and Deon Cole as Wylie Escoe (such a great Western name), once an ally of Buck who’s run out of Redwood City and eventually turns on his old friend.
My favorite part of “The Harder They Fall” is the epic final shootout, which takes up a good portion of the film’s second half and is terrifically shot and choreographed.
This is one of the more impressive debut films I’ve ever seen from a director, so I’ll be on the lookout for whatever Samuels does next and based on the film image of “The Harder They Fall” we may be seeing some of the characters who survived the events in the film again in the future.
by Julian Spivey
The Harder They Fall – Netflix – Wednesday, Nov. 3
I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since I saw the amazing trailer for it months ago. I just hope it’s not one of those movies where the trailer is amazing and the film a disappointment. It’s a Western with a terrific cast including Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Zazie Beetz. That’s all I need to know to have my interest piqued. “The Harder They Fall” is directed by Jeymes Samuel and is his first feature film. It looks incredibly stylish and fun.
Finch – AppleTV+ - Friday, Nov. 5
Tom Hanks, a dog and a robot in a post-apocalyptic world. I’m in. In “Finch,” directed by Miguel Sapochnik – his second feature film and first in more than a decade – Hanks plays the last man on Earth, an ailing inventor who builds an android to keep him company and the two and the dog (shouldn’t the dog be enough Finch?) journey across country.
Passing – Netflix – Wednesday, Nov. 10
Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with “Passing,” starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and based off the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. “Passing” refers to light-skinned African-Americans who could pass for white people and gets into the lifestyle and controversy that can be had and felt by members of the African-American community.
The Shrink Next Door – AppleTV+ - Friday, Nov. 12
Will Ferrell’s first foray into television since he left “Saturday Night Live” almost two decades ago has me interested from the star. In AppleTV+’s limited series “The Shrink Next Door,” Ferrell plays Marty Markowitz, who’s psychiatrist, played by Paul Rudd, gets a little too invested into his life. The series is based on Joe Nocera’s Wondery podcast of the same name that tells the true story of Issac Herschkopf who abused his doctor-patient relationships to exploit them for personal gain. “The Shrink Next Door” is billed as a dark comedy, something I think Ferrell and Rudd will chew up.
Mayor of Kingstown – Paramount+ - Sunday, Nov. 14
November is going to be a huge month for Jeremy Renner. Disney+’s long-awaited “Hawkeye,” which I honestly don’t care about, but will be massive, debuts on Nov. 24. The Renner project I’m looking forward to is “Mayor of Kingston,” which seems to be the first truly major Paramount+ original (hence not originated on another platform like the previous CBS All Access like “The Good Fight” or CBS like “Evil”.) “Mayor of Kingston,” which comes from “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan and Hugh Dillon, features Renner as Mike McLusky and Emmy-winner Kyle Chandler (one of my TV favorites) as Mitch McLusky, who’s family are thriving off the business of incarceration in Kingstown, Mich. With Renner, Chandler and Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest this is bound to be a must-watch.
King Richard – HBO Max – Friday, Nov. 19
“King Richard,” which will debut on HBO Max the same day it premieres in movie theaters, is the story of Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. In the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the titular Richard Williams is played by Will Smith in his first prominent non-action film dramatic role in many years. I’m sure Smith is going to knock this performance out of the park, but I also can’t help but wonder if there’s a movie to be made that focuses more on the Williams sisters than the man who raised or as some would say “made” them.