STREAMING REVIEWS: Facing the music

Published August 16, 2021, 7:44 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Facing the music is taken literally in the film CODA, with a very interesting twist about the deaf community, while The Courier takes us back to the 1960’s and the Cold War, with average Joe’s metaphorically facing the music for getting caught spying. 

CODA (Apple tv+) – This heartwarming tale won four awards in Sundance earlier this year, including the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and it’s easy to see why. While it could be described as a coming of age and teenage romance film, it’s affinity with music, has it coming across like a Glee made with indie sensibilities. Then there’s the all-important differentiator, the film’s narrative has strong deaf community inclusivity. The lead protagonist, Ruby Rossi (young British actress Emilia Jones) is the only member of her family that can hear – her parents and older brother are all culturally deaf, and they live in the fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. A girl born to sing, it’s when her teacher introduces the idea of applying for a scholarship at the Berklee College of Music that the conflict arises, as the family has been dependent on her to be their ‘ears’.

Minari took the big prize at last year’s Sundance, and this one reminded me more of Little Miss Sunshine, another former Sundance favorite. It’s got strong family values, a quirky comedic sheen, strong dramatic notes, and winning performances. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin plays the Mom, and Troy Katsur is the scene-stealing father. What’s interesting to note is how genuinely deaf actors were cast to play around Emilia Jones’ Ruby. Sure, there are some beats to this film that people can call paint-by-numbers and predictable, but it’s how the film is so natural in portraying these deaf characters living their lives that’s refreshing and makes this film substantively different, and one we cheer for. If you don’t get moist tear ducts, don’t get moved at all by this film, please check your pulse and heart. There are no simple answers in this film, and while the ending is something we can see from millions of miles away, I can say the journey the film take us on, is still a rewarding one.

The Courier (Video on Demand) – Based on a true story, this Dominic Cooke directed film paints a sobering, unglamorous picture of what Cold War espionage and spycraft was really all about. For those who don’t remember, this was the time of Russia against US and it’s allies, of Nikita Khrushchev versus John Kennedy, of 1960’s brinkmanship, when information and knowledge were the most precious currencies for conducting this war of diplomacy, and who would blink first. The danger of nuclear war was very real during this time. And rather than give us James Bond-type, romanticized and fantasy-fueled spy games with femme fatales, The Courier sets out to depict what the real picture was, and how casualties and fatalities figured in this dangerous game of smoke and mirrors. 

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, literally a regular businessman operating in Eastern Europe and co-opted by both MI6 and the CIA, to do business with the USSR and be the liaison to a top military officer in the GRU, who’s ready to trade secrets in the name of peace. Merab Ninidze portrays Oleg Penkovsky, the Russian officer, and he’s as much a lead role as Cumberbatch’s. The thing with this narrative is that you’ll get no car chases, gun fights or cool gadgets, this is boilerplate spying until they’re caught, and it’s the reality of what’s being shown on screen that makes this still a riveting film to watch. Cumberbatch is on form here, and it’s good to see him outside the superhero (Doctor Strange) and Sherlock roles, we’ve grown accustomed to watching him in. He’s still a consummate actor, and it’s nice to be reminded about that, through films such as this.