CODA

AppleTV+
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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Annette

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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