Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

CODA (2021)

© Apple TV+

CODA – Film Review

Cast: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin

Director: Sian Heder

Synopsis: As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby (Jones) acts as an interpreter for her family. When the family business comes under threat, she finds herself torn between helping her family, and pursuing her dreams…

Review:  Families, it can really mean the world of difference to have them around us as we navigate this storm that we call life. They can be our influences for what we want to do with our lives, as well as being essential pillars of support as we grow up, and navigate the testing periods of our lives. There might be situations where a barrier, such as a communication barrier, prevents someone from being truly unable to fully understand and appreciate the passion that drives someone to be who they want to be. When such barriers exist, the bond and the love that each family shares can be so strong, that it has the potential to break those barriers down.

High school student Ruby Rossi is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), and the only hearing member of her family. When not at school, she works on her family’s fishing business. As she’s the only one in her family who can hear, she acts as a crucial link of communication between the family business and their bosses. Outside of school and her job with her family’s business, Ruby has a strong passion for singing and harbours ambitions to go to a prestigious musical college. However, this puts her in an extremely difficult position, as her family depend on her for the survival of their business. When she tells her family of her dreams, they don’t want her to go as she is integral to the survival of the business. Furthermore, because they are unable to fully appreciate her talent, they can’t understand why this means so much to Ruby. Consequently, this leaves Ruby in a difficult position as to whether she should continue to support the family business or pursue her dreams.

There’s been no shortage of coming-of-age stories over the decades. Hence, it would feel unlikely that a film in this genre could do much to reinvent the genre. In truth, there are extremely familiar beats throughout the film, but there’s something about CODA and its approach to its story that feels very sincere and authentic. A lot of this comes down to the extraordinary performances of the entire cast, but especially Emilia Jones’s wonderful leading performance as Ruby. Before production on the film started, Jones spent nine months learning American Sign Language. Putting in that time to initiate herself with what someone in that situation would go through requires an extraordinary amount of dedication and commitment. In turn, this translates into a very sweet and sincere dynamic between her and the rest of her family.

Speaking of the rest of the family, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, who are deaf in real life, give equally wonderful performances as Ruby’s parents, Frank and Jackie. Despite the communication barrier that exists between them and Ruby, they both want to do their utmost to connect with their daughter and understand her passion for singing.  The casting of real-life deaf actors is crucial, firstly because representation matters, but also because they add so much depth/sincerity to the emotional impact of the film. There’s always a risk that when it comes to such a heartwarming story like this one, it will come across as a bit too saccharine. However, Sian Heder’s script expertly strikes the right tone between the impactful family drama and outright hilarious scenes. These scenes involve some awkward moments between Ruby and her parents, who are blissfully unaware of how loud they are in certain situations, causing maximum embarrassment for Ruby.

Aside from the sweet and hilarious family dynamic that Ruby shares with her family, another crucial figure is Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s choir teacher, Bernardo Villalobos. We may have all had one particular teacher at school who understood better than anyone else that passion you had for a particular subject. Yet, for whatever reason, be it due to bullying, or an unwillingness to come out of your shell, you were unable to fully translate that passion into realising what a true gift that you had. He’s that teacher who, through their sheer enthusiasm and passion for the subject, is able to unlock Ruby’s potential. Music teachers have sometimes been portrayed as quite the hostile and threatening type to demand excellence from their students. While Bernado is not quite on the level of throwing chairs at his students, he’s not afraid to say what he thinks when he senses the conflict that’s going on in Ruby’s mind and why she might be holding back from pursuing this dream.

The film does not reinvent the genre, because it does not need to. Its approach its story is so sweet and heartfelt, that it doesn’t matter that it plays out exactly how you would expect it to. They may be familiar beats of most coming-of-age stories, but when the characters are this well realised, in a story that’s likely to connect with all who watch that by the time the credits roll, you’ll be having a hard time trying to hold back the emotions.

While it undoubtedly has familiar narrative beats that have been seen in many a coming-of-age story, thanks to the flawless performances of its cast, this beautiful and heartfelt coming of age drama hits all the right notes.

Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review, London Film Festival 2021

Belfast (2021)

© TKBC, Northern Ireland Screen, Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Belfast  – Film Review

Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Lewis McAskie, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Synopsis: Telling the story of the lives of one family living in Belfast during the 1960s…

Review: Irrespective of where we’re born, there’s a universal truth to the saying: “Home is where the heart is.” No matter who you are or where you come from, there’s likely to be a particular place on this Earth that means a great deal to you. Perhaps it is the town where you were born, or perhaps it is the place where you made those first memories that will shape you and who you are for the rest of your life? That special ode to your hometown and the immeasurable impact it can have on your life during your formative years is the heart beating at the centre of this deeply personal film from Kenneth Branagh.

Buddy (Hill) is a young boy living in Belfast during the late 1960s. He’s surrounded by his loving family, which consists of Ma (Balfe), Pa (Dornan), his brother (McAskie), and his paternal grandparents (Dench and Hinds). Like any child, Buddy goes to school, works hard in class, and seeks to win the heart of a girl in school who he has a crush on. Outside of school, playing on the street with his friends, and going to the pictures with his family, all with the carefree innocence that any child would have. It should be the perfect family life, but it’s about to be turned upside down. The country is about to be engulfed in political tension and violence which, will bring much uncertainty to this tight-knit Northern Irish family.

Given that we see the entire film from Buddy’s perspective, there’s a lot riding on Hill’s shoulders. Fortunately, he carries the film beautifully, balancing the naivety of youth, with an acute awareness of the tricky situation that’s developing. Alongside a brilliant leading performance from Hill, the rest of the cast are faultless in their performances. As Buddy’s parents, Ma and Pa are faced with an increasingly difficult choice of what to do and how best to raise their children in the politically charged circumstances that they find themselves in. Pa’s job in England is the main source of income for the family, hence money is tight. It’s a dilemma that puts a strain on their relationship, which is only compounded by the fact that he’s away for so much of the time.

Plus with the ongoing political tension that Belfast is engulfed in, there’s a dilemma as to whether they should leave the city that means so much to both of them behind? Do they want to uproot their two children from the lives that they have built in the city? Special mentions must go to Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, both of whom give career-best performances. They clearly both love one another and care deeply for their children. So, they want to do what is best for them. Furthermore, due to his father’s absence, Buddy’s mother has quite the job to raise both him and his brother, mostly by herself. As such, Ma has a tendency to be quite overprotective of both her sons, but especially Buddy. They’re not on screen together a lot, but when they are, Balfe and Dornan’s wonderful chemistry helps add so much depth and layers to their characters. It’s always the sign of a quality performance that you no longer see the actor, instead, you see the character that they are playing, and this is true across the entire cast.

For a film that’s set in a time where political tensions are on a knife-edge, where violence could erupt at any given moment, it seems unlikely that the story would allow for much humour. Yet, Branagh’s screenplay allows for plenty of humorous moments to shine through. A lot of the humour comes from the dynamic between Buddy and his grandparents. Both of them impart their wisdom and knowledge to Buddy as he negotiates this difficult period in his life. This is where Ciaran Hinds, in particular, really excels. As well as being the kind and gentle grandfatherly figure, be a little cheeky and share a humorous moment with Buddy.

Branagh’s screenplay expertly walks the line between the dark and tense nature of the political tension of the time, with the family dynamic. It would be easy for Branagh’s screenplay to get bogged down by the intense nature of the politics of the time. However, the film avoids this by keeping it focused on seeing the world, and the ongoing situation, from Buddy’s perspective. Branagh has crafted a story that anyone will be able to connect with. No matter where you are from, or no matter how far you go in this world we live in, you never forget your roots.

The most personal film that Branagh has ever made, and quite possibly his best. A beautiful celebration of childhood, the places and the people that make us who we are.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Booksmart (2019)

Image is property of Annapurna Pictures and Gloria Sanchez Productions

Booksmart – Film Review

Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Billie Lourd, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis

Director: Olivia Wilde

Synopsis: Two high school students who’ve shone academically realise they have have missed out on some major high school/teenager shenanigans. On the last night before graduation, they decide to go out of high school with a bang…

Review: In many ways, high school/secondary school is the place where we really start to grow up, the place where we slowly start to make that steady transition from childhood to adulthood. We undertake some important exams that can potentially shape the rest of our lives. Whilst simultaneously, it’s a time when we usually start going out, partying and with any luck, making long lasting friendships and relationships. Some may choose to party too hard, some may get the balance right, and some may work too hard and not party enough.

Best friends Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) are most definitely the latter. They have spent their time very much concentrated on the academic side of high school with the focus of attaining a place in a top class college. However, as they prepare to graduate, it dawns on them that their focus on their academic work has been so razor sharp, that they have missed out on several years worth of partying and letting their hair down. Desperate to rectify this mistake, they realise that they must use the last night before graduation as their chance to cram as much partying and raucous behaviour into one night as they possibly can.

Look at these pesky up-to-no-good troublemakers….

Putting a refreshing and wholly unique take on the high school sex comedy/drama, is by no means an easy challenge. However, for her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde does exactly that. Having women front and centre, both in front of and behind the camera, definitely plays a massive part in ensuring this film stands out from the crowd. As the leading ladies, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever both give terrific lead performances. These two bounce off each others’ personalities to wonderful and hilarious effect. Their interaction and chemistry on screen is so warm and fuzzy, that they feel like fully fleshed out people. Right from the moment you meet them, they genuinely feel as though they have been friends for years.

Feldstein, who arguably stole the show with a wonderful comedic performance in Lady Bird, maintains that wonderful level of humour in a role that really gives her the chance to shine. She comes across as a bit aloof and snobby to the other students, but there is a warmth and sincerity to her, as well as a brilliant sense of humour.  By contrast, Dever as Amy is a much more withdrawn individual. She carefully chooses the right moments, when she is not with Molly, to come out of her shell.  Both have rich layers to them, so much so that there will almost certainly be people out there who will relate to them in some capacity, whether it be the desire to place emphasis on those hours of studying or being slightly withdrawn when it comes to social interaction, or perhaps even both.

Alongside Wilde in the directors chair, the film’s female team of writers (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel & Katie Silberman) pen a fantastically witty script full of some truly brilliant jokes that are downright hilarious. There are one or two jokes don’t quite hit their mark, but the rest are just fantastic and extremely unique in terms of the delivery and the punchlines. Try as we might, those high school years are not a constant barrel of laughs, there will be times when some drama unfolds. Wilde’s excellent direction and the sincere performances from every member of this cast, ensure that this is captured in such an honest and authentic manner. It just goes to show that when you do your homework, as the cast and crew most certainly did, that it will pay tremendous dividends. Top marks all around.

Hilarious and heartfelt, with very sincere and genuine performances, a wonderfully refreshing take on the teen drama/coming-of-age comedy. 

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Lady Bird (2018)

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Lady Bird – Film Review

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein

Director: Greta Gerwig

Synopsis: Lady Bird  (Ronan) is a 17 year old woman in the final year of high school, while having a tricky relationship with her mother, must negotiate friendships, romance and the prospect of college…

Review: For some, those teenage years  are the best times of your life, on the brink of adulthood but not quite at that point where you have to start looking after your own affairs. It’s something that we all go through and is as much a part of life as death and taxes. As such, to make such a film about going through that particular period of life, and to give it such a refreshing and unique spin is a very impressive feat, even more so considering that this is the film that marks the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig.

Focusing on Christine or Lady Bird as she prefers to be known, as she navigates her final year of school before heading off to college. Before that can happen though, she experiences everything people go through in their final year of school, establishing friendships, making new relationships, and bickering with your parents. It is such a simple, almost by the numbers premise that has been done so many times before. Yet through her remarkable and screenplay that has some razor sharp wit and humour, Gerwig fashions a story that will be relatable to almost all who watch it, as everyone will have remembered that point in their lives when they were in the exact same position as Lady Bird finds herself here, particularly when it comes to moving away from home and settling down at college/university.

A key reason as to why this film feels so fresh and so impactful is the performance of Saoirse Ronan. You know that when you just see the character and not the actor is when you know you’re witnessing a good performance, and that is applicable for almost everyone in the film. Everything about her just feels so real and genuine, and though she has a bit of a temper (let’s be fair who didn’t when they were a teenager?) she is effortlessly watchable.  To have already garnered three Oscar nominations at the age of 23 is a staggeringly impressive achievement and it is a testament to her wonderful ability as an actor. With everyone everyone else on screen giving perfect performances, it does feel like you’re watching real people with real lives, rather than watching a film.

Special mention must go to Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother. This Mother-Daughter relationship makes up the most significant portion of the film. It is a relationship that is far from perfect, indeed it’s a pretty fraught one at times. Yet there is a clear respect for one another, even if they don’t always show it. In everything the film says about the typical struggles a teenager goes through, especially for teenage girls. It manages to tell them in a manner that almost no coming-of-age film has done before. What’s more, the film is utterly hilarious, it finds its humour in all of those little moments that life throws at us when we’re on the brink of adulthood. The road of life is full of ups and downs and this film captures those moments of joy and heartbreak and tells them with such affection, that you will want a pal like Lady Bird around in your life. She’s just that lovable.

A familiar tale, but told in such a refreshingly original manner, this is a coming-of-age drama done almost to perfection, with a stunning turn from Ronan at its centre. 

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Moonlight (2017)

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Moonlight – Film Review

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali

Director: Barry Jenkins

Synopsis: Set in three distinct acts, chronicling the life of a young black boy growing up in Miami, charting his childhood, teenage years and finally his growth to adulthood.

Review: Growing up no matter who you are can be extremely difficult, no matter the circumstances. However, there is in certain parts of the world, a massive stigma that is attached towards people who are homosexual, which for any person in that situation, can be extremely difficult to come to terms with who you are. This makes Barry Jenkins’s coming of age drama about a young black boy growing up in a difficult Miami neighbourhood feel particularly relevant and poignant, what with the extremely delicate racial tensions occurring in the USA right now.

Adapted from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unfinished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, we follow young Chiron in three stages of his life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood (played in each by Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes respectively). To say he leads a difficult life is an extreme understatement. Picked on at school, an absent father whose whereabouts are never disclosed,  a mother who is addicted to drugs (Harris) and facing questions about his sexuality. In comes Juan, a father figure to Chiron who fills that void that so desperately needed filling. With the help of Juan, Chiron seeks to find his place in the world.

YE-Film-Top 10

With three distinct acts, the film chooses to not do what Boyhood did and narrow its focus to a few quite specific points in this three very different stages of life. This first act is the Mahershala Ali show, he’s the figure that Chiron needs in his life right now and there are a few scenes in particular that feel raw and emotional. With the move to adolescence, Juan is now out of the picture and although Sanders’s performance feels very raw, Juan is sorely missed as his absence is really felt. Jenkins script and direction helps to capture that struggle that it’s quite possible every teenager goes through, which is only compounded when you’re getting ruthlessly picked on because of your sexuality.

However, despite the delicate themes that the film seeks to explore, there is something in Jenkins’s screenplay that feels absent. As emotionally impactful as the subject matter may be, there isn’t really enough to really engage the audience or to get them to care about Chiron perhaps as much as they should. The dialogue at times feels drawn out and aimless in its direction, and though there is some character development, there is not sufficiently enough to the point where you feel completely invested in the life of this young man as you really ought to, and the final act in particular drifts painfully aimlessly to an extremely melancholic conclusion.

Alongside Ali, Naomie Harris gives perhaps her best ever performance as Chiron’s drug addicted mother. A woman who clearly loves her son, but though she tries so hard to show it, her addiction really harms their relationship. Harris rightfully scooped an Oscar nomination for her impact performance, and Ali went one step further and also very deservedly became the first Muslim actor to win an acting Oscar.

Nicholas Britell’s accompanying score is also worthy of immense praise, adding to the raw emotion really effectively in particular scenes. The Best Picture gong at the 89th Academy Awards indicates that there is no shortage of admirers for Moonlight, but for a film that has such delicate subject matter, there was a real opportunity to make a powerful statement, but with such an uninspiring third act, it feels like a glorious opportunity squandered.

With great performances from Ali and Harris, there’s something to be admired about tackling such tricky subject matter, but the end result is just not as compelling in a way that it could, and perhaps ought to be.