Friday, August 13, 2021

'CODA' will play with heartstrings; 'Respect' Aretha, if not the film

Jones and Matlin face off in a language of their own.
With Labor Day just weeks away, the most winning movie in the summer of '21 finally has arrived. It's called "CODA," an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults but, if you really want to go deeper, the same small-letter musical term certainly could be playing a significant role, too.

After all, this is a story about a lovely girl with a matching voice we hear floating into view from a small fishing boat, where high school senior Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is seen and heard sorting the day's catch while warbling Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me," of all things.

That first scene only hints at where this small, special movie takes us, particularly with an uncanny ability to surprise as much with plot motivations as it does to inspire either a silent teardrop or loud laugh in so many unexpected places. 

As advertised, Ruby has lived her entire short life with hearing-impaired parents (played so naturally by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and scene-stealing Troy Kotsur) and her ever-brooding older brother (Daniel Durant). All are superb as aloof, though protective agents to Ruby's growing pains. So is veteran actor Eugenio Derbez, as her flamboyantly tough-love music teacher.

Kudos to writer/director Sian Heder ("Tallulah") for surrounding talented young Brit Jones with such a splendid cast in this equally engaging adaptation of the 2014 French film, "The Belier Family."  It couldn't have been this good, could it?  

("CODA" is streaming now on AppleTV+ and in a few major cities. It opens Aug, 20 in some select Ohio theaters, including the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights.)

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: strong sexual content and language, and drug use; 1:52; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

When Hudson sings, everyone likely will listen.
If you don't come out of the shaky Aretha Franklin biopic "Respect" humming either the classic hit that inspires the film's title or "A Natural Woman," this corner's all-time favorite from the Queen of Soul, then there's even more missing than I already think there is.

I mean, among too many melodramatic miscues, the sequence showing Jennifer Hudson, as often-troubled diva Franklin turning "Respect" from a slight Otis Redding crossover hit into Aretha's signature own, becomes a rare show-stopper. So does the major "Natural Woman" surprise at the very end, which is too late to save a film that pales in comparison to what we either know or have seen previously. (Among other things, last March's "Genius: Aretha," a limited series on National Geographic and Hulu, went into much greater depth about Franklin's stormy relationship with her minister father in a production that apparently was not "approved" by the late, great singer's estate.)

This latest telling, which comes with the family's blessing, fumbles its way through an essentally dull first hour, comes to life with Hudson shining only when she belts out an array of Aretha ditties, and falters around an array of talent that seems out of sorts here. For instance, the halting delivery of usually reliable Forest Whitaker does his performance as the controlling Rev. C. L. Franklin no favors, and comedian Marc Maron, uncregnizable in his makeup, somehow brings Robert De Niro more to mind than the legendary record producer (Jerry Wexler) he portrays.

Of the try-hard rest, just the ever-grand Audra McDonald, as Aretha's early-departing mother, really seems extremely comfortable in her character's shoes. True to form, though, this frustratingly incomplete tale never lets us really know why such a loving Mom would leave her four children behind. Judge for yourself only in theaters everywhere.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material and smoking; 2:28; $ $ out of $5

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