Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is a key player in CODA, the new film from writer/director Sian Heder which kicked off the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Taking the song literally, it’s about seeing the world from different perspectives, and there is no better way to encapsulate CODA’s themes. In a time when our differences are continuing to divide us, Heder’s heartwarming film is about things that are eternally universal.

CODA refers to “child of a deaf adult,” and the film’s protagonist, Ruby, played winningly by Emilia Jones, is just such a person, the only hearing member of her deaf family, made up of father Frank (Troy Kotsur), brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin). The family owns and runs their own fishing boat in rough-and-tumble Gloucester, Massachusetts, and they rely heavily on Ruby to be their connection to the world, as she interprets for them everywhere. But Ruby, a senior in high school, has pursuits and desires of her own, such as the crush on her class-mate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and her passion for singing, which makes her join the school’s choir club. Encouraged to apply to the prestigious Berklee College of Music by her supportive music teacher, played by Eugenio Derbez, Ruby must decide if she will pursue her passion or stay behind to support her family, whose business she fears may not survive without her.

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Amazon Studios
If there’s one thing that was made clear in this year’s hit Sundance documentary, The Sparks Brothers, it’s that Russell and Ron Mael, better known as the alternative rock band Sparks, best-known for their work in the ‘80s, continue to be unique and fascinating artists today. The critically-acclaimed documentary, by director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver) revived an interest in the duo, whose quirky, iconic, ironic, subversive and poppy music has received somewhat of a renaissance, riding a wave of nostalgia for the decade of excess and eccentricity.

Timing is everything, because now, less than two months after the release of The Sparks Brothers in theaters, comes Annette, a new musical from visionary French director Leos Carax (Holy Motors), written by the Mael brothers, featuring more than 40 original songs by the duo. Nearly completely sung-through, Annette stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a celebrity couple who are dealing with the strains on a marriage that fame and success can bring. The only other significant cast member is Simon Helberg, who plays an admirer of Cotillard’s character. The rest of the cast is an ensemble, a chorus, if you will, who wander in and out, commenting and reacting to the story. Nothing about this film is cinematically traditional, it feels experimental while still maintaining a narrative structure. Is it weird? Yes. Is it amazing? Also yes.

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Free Guy

Twentieth Century Studios
Leave it to Disney to make a movie about existential dread fun—and for kids! It’s not really a new concept for Disney, though, as Pixar has virtually cornered the market on animated features about self-awareness, including Inside Out and last year’s Academy Award-winning Soul. But Free Guy, the new movie from 20th Century Studios (not really Disney, but still Disney) starring Ryan Reynolds as a background character from a video game who becomes self-aware, finds ways to reach even deeper into the psyche than even those multi-layered animated discourses could dare, probably because Free Guy comes across as being the furthest thing from multi-layered and complex as a film can get, so it blindsides you with its depth. Unfortunately, though, that depth is masked by an over-polished veneer of winking whimsy that becomes as tiresome as it is predictable.

One thing Ryan Reynolds is very good at is that winking whimsy, but the freshness that he brought to Deadpool is a bit stale here, as so much of what Reynolds does feels recycled both from Deadpool and from his public persona as pitchman and generally loveable movie star. There is everything to love about Reynolds’ character Guy, a simply-written video game background character who lives the same day over and over again, someone who sticks to the script of his life and finds an exceedingly sweet amount of joy in everything he does. Reynolds does imbue Guy with a purity and guilelessness. Even when he is made aware of his real circumstances and is forced to question his entire existence, he still finds optimism and courage, without much of the angst that Jim Carrey’s titular character experiences in the similarly-themed The Truman Show. But Reynolds is unfortunately missing a bit of the same edge that Carrey was able to find, and that missing hue of darkness ultimately hurts the film. Without any real variance in tone, Free Guy is the movie equivalent of eating cotton candy for two hours.

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Jungle Cruise

If a movie is going to be derivative, it may as well go all out and be outrageous about it, as long as the result is as much fun as Jungle Cruise, Disney’s new shameless, live-action theme park tie-in, starring Dwayne Johnson (formerly The Rock) and Emily Blunt. Yes, Jungle Cruise is based on the Disney theme park ride that everyone remembers loving as a kid, much like another Disney film franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, was. Similarities between those two films don’t end there, as Jungle Cruise borrows more than a little from those family-friendly pirate blockbusters, as it does a plethora of other films, including The African Queen, The Mummy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to name a few. But, again, this film is definitely not one for the overthinkers out there. It is as Disney as a movie can be, as well as everything you expect and hope it to be. It may not be perfect, but the (not too young) kids will love it and the adults will totally enjoy rolling their eyes.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has packed a LOT into its 2+ hour running time, but Jungle Cruise moves so quickly through all of it that it only feels too long in the last fifteen minutes. It begins by setting the scene of our two main characters. Lily (Blunt) is a scientist in London, but, with it being London during the Great War, her contributions are not taken seriously, so she has her doofus brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) present her request to the scientific society to go in search of the mythical Tree of Life, which is supposed to exist in the deepest recesses of the Amazonian jungle. True scientists are skeptical about funding a search for something that lives only in ghost stories, so Lily decides to embark on the journey by herself, with MacGregor along for the ride. When in the Amazon, she needs a river guide, and stumbles across Frank (Johnson), a seemingly capable riverboat captain (with the ever-present Captain & Tenille hat to prove it) whom she hires to take her to her elusive treasure.

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Black Widow

Marvel Studios
If ever there was a time when the world needed a Marvel film to bring everyone together, it is now. And Black Widow is very likely the one to do it.

COVID-19 put a bit of a kink in Marvel’s plan for world (cinematic) domination, but, with the studio’s new release, Black Widow, they have picked up right where they left off in 2019, when the last Marvel Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame, helped put Marvel’s parent company, Walt Disney Studios, over the $11 billion mark for the year, commanding an historic third of all domestic box office grosses that year. The Marvel juggernaut is a hulking beast in the industry that will not likely stop swallowing up everything around it now that cinema is starting to creak back to normal, but even the genius brain trust with the golden touch over at Marvel are sure to be amazed at the luck of their timing. The fact that Black Widow was the next film in the hopper when the pandemic hit is perhaps the best thing Marvel could have hoped for. Not only will it satisfy all of those mega-fans who have been longing for another Avengers movie, but it is the perfect film to welcome back all audiences to the theater because it finally is an Avengers movie that is made for everybody, and anybody can enjoy it, whether you are steeped in Marvel mythology or not. Unlike Avengers: Endgame, which may have turned off some casual Marvel viewers due to its need for an intricate knowledge of the Avengers compendium to enjoy it in any way, Black Widow merely sprinkles Avengers references here and there, but is mostly just a fun, action-packed thrill ride that anyone can enjoy, with a perfect feminist bent that just may win over the audiences who were disappointed by Wonder Woman 1984.

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The Tomorrow War

Amazon Studios
There’s no denying the increase in the number of movies that look and feel like video games. Hollywood sees the massive popularity of video games in their primary demographic (young men) and is hoping to appeal to them with movies like Extraction, Nobody, The Old Guard and The Army of the Dead, just to name a few–movies that lean heavily on shooting, fighting, a relentless enemy and bottomless CGI and stunts budgets, and not so much on story or character development. The latest entry into this video game-inspired cinematic shooting gallery, Amazon’s The Tomorrow War, however, is so ridiculous, it not only makes Army of the Dead look like an Oscar-winner, but makes video game storylines seem like Shakespeare.

Starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski and J.K. Simmons, The Tomorrow War lays out an ultra-complicated plot about how aliens in the future have landed on Earth and are killing everyone, so people now have to travel to the future to fight them, in order for there to be any hope of humanity’s survival–a not-very-well disguised metaphor for climate change. Governments are forced to impose a draft to send all eligible humans to the future to fight, but the aliens are winning the war in the future, and all hope seems to be lost. Up steps military veteran-turned high school teacher Dan Forester (Pratt), who gets drafted and is stuck with a ragtag group of ordinary joes who are neither prepared nor trained to make the jump to their uncertain fate. Dan instantly bonds with nervous nellie Charlie (Sam Richardson) and cynical, battle-tested Dorian (Edwin Hodge), and they are able to hold their own against the alien enemy, thanks to Dan’s bravery and military skills. Romeo Command, played by Strahovski, the commander in the future, takes notice of Dan’s band of fighters and tasks them with a dangerous mission that, if it works, just might kill the aliens and save all life as we know it. There’s much more, but it would spoil all the non-fun.

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No Sudden Move

Warner Bros.
Despite having delivered some of Hollywood’s most traditionally successful films of the twenty-first century so far, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh continues to be one of the most enigmatic and unpredictable artists working today. Akin to a cinematic shark, he keeps moving from genre to genre, medium to medium, forcing new challenges on himself, never pandering to expectation. With films as disparate in tone and subject as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, Contagion, Magic Mike, Behind the Candelabra, Logan Lucky and Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh continues to break new ground and reinvent himself, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In 2020, Soderbergh took on perhaps the most challenging project of all, serving as one of the producers for the pandemic Oscars. Although he signed up to co-produce the annual awards extravaganza prior to COVID-19, there possibly was no artist better suited for the flexibility and creativity needed to mold a show out of literally nothing. While the show itself fell flat in the end, Soderbergh’s contributions were hailed as the only part of the production that had any life.

It is because of Soderbergh’s immense talent and ability to shape ordinary rocks into diamonds that every new film by the auteur is met with such high expectations. Which is why his latest film, No Sudden Move, is such a rare disappointment.

The concept of cool criminals wasn’t invented by Steven Soderbergh, but his Ocean’s series of films, beginning with Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, certainly defined it for a generation of moviegoers. No Sudden Move is carved from the Ocean’s mold and borrows more than a little from it, but it isn’t able to find the traction necessary to hold together as a consistent or cohesive enough cousin to the iconic heist franchise.

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In the Heights

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Representation matters. I am especially aware of that this month, Pride month, which is why the importance of the new film In the Heights can never be diminished. Based on the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and took to Broadway before Hamilton, In the Heights goes from stage to screen in a big-budget, glossy, cast-of-thousands celebration of the Latinx community like never seen before in a Hollywood studio film. It really is an achievement and big step forward for the industry.

I only wish I had liked it more.

Don’t get me wrong, director John M. Chu is crazy good at mounting gorgeous epics of this scale, as evidenced by his fantastically entertaining Crazy Rich Asians, which I loved, back in 2018. Chu brings a whirling, flash-mob energy to In the Heights, filling the screen with huge dance numbers, mesmerizingly joyful choreography, and dream-like New York cityscapes, rich with color and texture. The opening sequences remind one of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as that film introduced us to the inhabitants of Brooklyn, so does In the Heights welcome the audience to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Washington Heights is a working-class, immigrant neighborhood, mostly Latinx. Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, is a local bodega owner who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic and running his own store there. Usnavi is surrounded by friends and his adopted family in the neighborhood, as it becomes clear that this is more than a block, it is one big, extended family.

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Walt Disney Studios
No matter how much independent film flourished in 2020, which was one of the few positive things that came out of the pandemic, we all knew there was something missing. We craved those expensive, beautiful, cast-of-thousands, mainstream, familiar and fun studio movies, the ones that ignite our imagination and take our breath away. Now that theaters are back open, the studios are starting to release their films that have been sitting and waiting and the first one out of the gate not only doesn’t disappoint, but it reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing.

Cruella is Walt Disney Studio’s most recent exploration of a familiar character and story, bringing it to life in a new and exciting way. The studio’s live-action remakes and reboots of their classic franchises have been hit-or-miss, but, with inventive director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) at the helm of this origin story of the villain from Disney’s classic 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians, Cruella is a knockout and is the best live action Disney film in a very long time.

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A Quiet Place Part II

Paramount Pictures
Wondering what will bring people back to the movie theater? Look no further than A Quiet Place Part II, a pulse-pounding, heart-stopping (yes, it’s both), sweat-inducing monster movie from no other than mild-mannered actor/writer/director John Krasinski. Yes, Jim from The Office is now scaring the living daylights out of you, and boy, is he good at it.

The first A Quiet Place film, released in 2018, was huge, made a ton of money and assured a sequel. The only problem with a sequel to that film is the “hero,” Krasinski’s character, was killed off at the end of the movie. Well, A Quiet Place Part II doesn’t miss a beat, assuredly carrying on, something that’s easy to do when you have Emily Blunt in the cast.

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