CODA

CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults and the film takes us into the home or Ruby Rossi, a high school senior, whose parents and older brother are deaf. Ruby is the only hearing person in the family, which is tough. She’s been bullied at school since kindergarten because she talked funny and her family was different.

The movie begins with Ruby belting out an Eta James song on her family’s commercial fishing boat with her dad and brother. Ruby’s needed to pitch in on the boat, monitor the radio and haggle with the fish buyers. She’s integral to her family’s success. Then she races off to school where she’s mocked because she smells like fish. As a bit of a lark, against her best friend’s wishes, she signs up for the school choir, which is taught by the demanding, often perturbed, Mr. Villalobos.

As her father points out, Ruby’s always been an adult. She translates for her parents when they visit the doctor, when the fish dealers are cheating them, when the local news interviews them.

Once Mr. Villalobos sees that Ruby has talent, he taps her to do a duet with a boy she has a little crush on. He pushes her to do her best and to apply to Berklee School of Music. He offers to work with her nights and weekends. Her parents know nothing of this or of her talent. Music isn’t something they appreciate. The plot revolves around the choice of helping her family when their fishing business is threatened or pursue her dream to study music.

Ruby’s down to earth and likable as a girl who’s the third adult in the family. Her singing is beautiful.

The film suffers a bit from the usual Hollywood contrivances: the either/or choice of living your dream or living a dreary working class life, the high school stereotypes with the boring classes, mean girls pecking order and the contest (here an audition for a scholarship). Mr. Villalobos has an acerbic wit, but it’s rather sad since he’s the only one who enjoys his sarcasm. No one ever criticizes him for that. It bothered me that though he states that he is a rags to riches story, he showed little interest till the end in Ruby’s family’s real struggle and the reason they needed her more than most families need a child to help with the family business. In a non-Hollywood film, I think he’d have more dimension as would her best friend.

2020 Best Picture, CODA is definitely worth seeing. Marlee Matlin should have gotten an Oscar for her role as Ruby’s mom just as Troy Kotsur did as her father.

Ned Kelly (2003)

19th Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is a folk hero down under and like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been the subject of many films. Starring Heath Ledger, Ned Kelly (2003) recounts the life of this hero turned anti-hero. As a boy, Ned saved the life of a drowning boy and was honored with a green and gold sash.

Yet as his family was poor and his father was imprisoned for stealing meat and after he got out took to hard drinking before he died an early death. On top of this as a poor, immigrant family the Kelly’s were downtrodden and this shaped Ned’s worldview. He was arrested for bushranging. The film begins when Ned’s released from jail for another robbery. His views on the Law are established and harden police target his family. After a problem with the law, Kelly’s mother is arrested to smoke out Ned, the one they’re really after. This leads to the bank robberies and events which culminate in a historic shoot out. 

I’d learned of Ned Kelly on a walking tour of Melbourne. The film includes all the events which made him a folk hero — how he robbed banks and then burned all the mortgages and loans so that no one had to pay the bank back and how Ned fashioned protective armor for head and body to protect his gang and himself from police bullets. Ned certainly was clever.

Yet the film seemed to drag and lacked the wit and charisma in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the film seemed mediocre. It could do with some editing and a tighter story. The writers seemed to have been working off a check list, drowning scene, check, bank robbery with burning the mortgages with a flat-footed line from the banker, check, romantic interlude, check, etc. Ned Kelly’s certainly got a dramatic life. Perhaps one of the other biopics does a better job of portraying it. I can’t recommend this one. It’s not horrible, but there are better things to watch. 

The Snake Pit (1948)

In The Snake Pit, Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cummingham, a young woman who finds herself committed to a mental hospital but doesn’t know why.  The title comes from the practice from long ago when mentally ill patients were placed in literal snake pits. Of course, they’d be shocked and traumatized, but once they got out of the snake pit, they’d be able to cope with the world, which had less to scare one. (Who thought of that?)

Virginia never goes into a literal snake pit, but the mild mannered, though schizophrenic woman is surrounded by utter madness.  Through flashbacks when Dr Kik analyzes Virginia, who has a history of reacting with fear, wild fear, in her romantic relationships. Virginia’s also plagued with irrational guilt which has compounded her instability.

De Havilland drew me, while her fellow patients repelled me despite my sympathy for their suffering. Most of the staff at the hospital were professional and kind, but one was a Nurse Ratched-type dictator and when that nurse finds fault with Virginia who was ultra-careful to stay on her good side, has the heroine reassigned to the ward with the most disturbed patients. It’s a real hell on earth.

The Snake Pit reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with less corruption, drugs and sex. Virginia is able to help those around her through kindness. She comes to understand the source of her troubles. The Snake Pit shows us what life’s like inside a mid-century psychiatric hospital. Lots of drama and some hope.

The Killers (1964)

I had to watch the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. After all, it was in the same DVD set. I didn’t have great expectations, but this powerful film captivated me.

Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, with Ronald Reagan in a smaller role, The Killers begins at a school for the blind. Two hit men enter looking for Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The rough up the blind secretary and plow their way into North’s class for mechanics. They shoot North dead and make their escape. The contrast between a school for the blind and ruthless criminals is powerful.

After killing North, Charlie Storm (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are on a training Charlie can’t help ruminating over why Johnny didn’t try to evade his murder. He completely accepted it. Johnny was so unlike every other victim. Why?

Another question is Who? Who paid Charlie and Lee $25K when they’d never been paid more than $10K for a hit. Again, why? Why so much?

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So Charlie and Lee switch trains in Chicago and go down to Miami and begin to find out all they can about Johnny North. They soon learn that Johnny was a race car driver, that he fell head over heels for Sheila (Dickinson), a beauty who loves racing and Johnny. She keeps her sugar daddy Micky Farmer. Wining and dining Sheila leaves Johnny ill prepared for the big race. Not only that Micky is in the stands and is not pleased with what he sees with his binoculars. Disaster strikes when Johnny loses control of his car and winds up losing.

It’s clear that Johnny should avoid Sheila at all costs, but he just can’t and she winds up entangling him in Micky’s plan to rob a mail truck that’s carrying a million bucks.

Though the story’s been told before and it’s all done in flashback, The Killer’s kept my attention. The characters are cold blooded, yet passionate. Not one is able to walk away from danger. They have to play the game out to the bloody end. This film has 1960’s cool and a gripping plot. I do recommend seeing both the 1946 and 1964 versions. While you’re at it check on the Tarkovsky short.

Fun Facts

  • The Killers (1964) was supposed to be a TV film, but it had too much violence and sex so it was released in theaters.
  • It was the only film with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy and he hated the film.
  • The director Don Siegel was supposed to direct the 1946 one.
  • Siegel wanted to call the film Johnny North, but the bean counters at Universal said no film with a direction like “North” ever made much money.
  • They shot the last scene first as was usual for a Universal film. Lee Marvin was dead drunk and came 5 hours late. Despite his state, he nailed the scene.
  • This version doesn’t contain a single line of dialog from the short story.

 

The Killers (1956)

As a student, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky collaborated on a short film based on Hemingway’s The Killers, which I found on YouTube. At 19 minutes long it packs a punch just as the 1946 version does.

Tarkovsky directed the first and third scenes. He also plays a customer who whistles a tune while he’s in the diner. According to a Criterion Collection essay that tune was common on Voice of America and in Russia came to represent freedom.The Killers is a good introduction to Tarkovsky whose masterpiece Andrei Rublev is over 3 hours long.

The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.

Miss Juneteenth

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When she was a teen, Turquoise Queen won the Miss Juneteenth beauty contest. Now she’s a single mom and her daughter is old enough to compete in the contest. The high point of Turquoise’s life, which hasn’t turned out how she expected. She had such promise, but here she is approaching middle age, working at a restaurant, cleaning toilets, no glamor, no excitement.

If her daughter were gung ho about the pageant that would be one thing, but Kai doesn’t care that much about becoming Miss Juneteenth and she’s outright against her mom’s idea for the talent portion of the competition.

The film is a slice of life and offers a touching, geniune relationship between a mom and a daughter. I saw the film at Sundance. You can find this film on Amazon Prime. It’s great for family viewing.

Lost Girls

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Lost Girls resembles a made-for-TV-movie more than a feature film. Working class single mom, Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan of The Office, tries to reach out to her estranged daughter. The girl goes missing and  when numerous bodies are discovered in Long Island, Mari presses the police to find her daughter. The first officer in charge sees Gilbert as an annoyance. He’s got a smarmy demeanor and seems fishy. Gilbert’s only help is the Police Captain played by Gabriel Byrne, yet Gilbert doesn’t trust anyone.

Based on a true story, Lost Girls is a moving story, but there’s nothing that distinguishes it from say a Law and Order: SVU. 

Seen at Sundance

Force Majeure

On a family ski vacation in the Swiss Alps, Ebbe, Tomas and their two children Harry and Vera. They’re a young, attractive family with what people’d expect is a wonderful family. As they’re eating lunch after a morning of skiing. As they take in the view, an avalanche, a controlled avalanche moves down the mountain. Soon the avalanche doesn’t look so controlled and viewers panic. While Harry and Vera scream for their parents, Ebbe protects them while Tomas grabs his phone and seeks to save his own skin. All this is captured on video.

The avalanche doesn’t hit the deck. No one’s really hurt — except Ebbe’s trust in Tomas and their marriage.

The rest of the film explores Ebbe’s new distrust of Tomas and his coping with crumbling self-esteem. Every time they share a meal with another couple Ebbe must retell the story and each time Tomas comes out looking like a horrible man.

The film looks at what it means to be a real husband and father and how distrust cuts to the quick. It’s a fascinating exploration of marriage and masculinity. Can this marriage be saved?

I found the film absorbing and didn’t know what to expect. I’m not sure what I think of the end, though I would call it a satisfying conclusion. My only criticism of this quiet, intense film is that the children were so on the sidelines. Perhaps they just are in Swedish families, but while Harry did have moments of realism, Both children’s characters could be more developed.

Cuties

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I don’t know the director’s intent, but Cuties, a French coming-of-age film, was sad and disturbing. The heroine, 11 year old Amy has come to Paris with her mom and two younger siblings. Her mother is devastated to learn that her husband, who’s still back in Senegal, has chosen a second wife. It hits Amy hard, but her reaction is far more self-destructive than she knows.

At her new school, Amy becomes obsessed with joining a mean girls clique, who’re preparing to dance in an upcoming competition. That sounds a bit harmless, though sacrificing your self-respect to befriend people who mock, humiliate and hit you, is not a good choice. I cringed when the girls kick out their lowest status member and Amy strives to get accepted by a group of misguided, powerful jerks.

Amy and her new “friends” get way over their heads in social media and sexy dancing.

SPOILER ALERT

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