As fans of Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar well know, his films combine personal narrative obsessions and familiar stylized production design with a kind of raw, emotional reality that we all can relate to.
His most recent feature, Parallel Mothers, which is rentable on streaming sites such as Amazon Prime for $19.99, is a powerful and disorienting case in point. It’s the story of two single moms who bond in the maternity ward as they give birth to baby girls. One of the women is a mature and successful photographer, Janis, played by Penélope Cruz. She became pregnant after a one-night stand with one of her subjects, a married forensic archaeologist. The other woman is teenage Ana (Milena Smit), who was gang-raped. After the infants are born, the mothers stay in touch, their lives entangled in ways that neither they nor the viewer could have anticipated.
Almodóvar’s concerns here go way beyond issues of maternity, however. Janis had asked the forensic archaeologist to help her excavate a mass grave in the village where she grew up, because she strongly suspects her great-grandfather is among the bodies. The victims were killed by Franco’s Fascists during Spain’s civil war in the 1930s. Almodóvar’s films first brought him fame in the ’70s, just as the brutal dictatorship was ending, and he has never really dealt with the wound to the Spanish psyche that Franco inflicted.
But in Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar is rightfully obsessed with the traumas of the past and the need for honesty in the present. Cruz’s performance, which is Oscar-nominated, is a marvelous amalgam of vulnerability, polyamorous desire, and fierce independence. She navigates Almodóvar’s chic sets and various plot twists and turns with aplomb.
Almodóvar has three principal storytelling modes — melodrama, comedy, and film noir. In Parallel Mothers, he’s in peak form, gliding smoothly between all three genres as he explores the emotional DNA of his characters.
Watching Joel Coen’s eerily beautiful production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, which is streaming on Apple TV+ for subscribers only, one has difficulty accessing any emotions at all. Coen, as screenwriter and director, is working for the first time without his brother Ethan, and he produced this adaptation of the Shakespeare play with his wife, Frances McDormand, who takes on the role of Lady Macbeth.
The movie’s icy storytelling is not due to lack of talent. Coen regular Carter Burwell composed the haunting, unsettling score. The black-and-white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated for his sixth time) is stark, misty, otherworldly, and rigidly choreographed; arches and stairways, shadows and heaths, sword fights and soliloquies — all are composed as precisely and obliquely as an Escher print. The overall effect is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood, but shot on an L.A. soundstage.
And then there are the performances. In a play about murder, monarchy, and the lust for power in medieval Scotland, Coen’s color-blind international casting is inspired but a bit disorienting. Denzel Washington, Oscar-nominated as Macbeth, is weary yet driven by fate: he rarely raises his voice. Washington is peerless at creating unlikable characters (He’s Got Game; Training Day; Flight), but here, he renders Macbeth’s narcissism with noble grace — it’s fascinating to watch but barely relatable. His climactic encounter with a Black Macduff (Corey Hawkins) has the right pre-ordained feel to it but lacks the fiery intensity of revenge.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent and — with the exception of Brendan Gleeson’s beneficent King Duncan — cold. That includes McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, demented by guilt and ambition, and, as the three Witches, the croaking contortionist Kathryn Hunter.
With or without his brother, Coen is a gifted filmmaker. But his Tragedy of Macbeth replaces suspense with inevitability. It’s exquisitely shot and crafted, but offers more whimpers than bangs.
The Oscar-nominated film CODA, also streaming on Apple TV+ for subscribers only, is an indie version of a Capra-esque movie — it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance but has a conventional triumph-of-the-underdog script. The movie follows the story of high school senior Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the hearing Child of Deaf Adults (thus the acronym of the title), who works with her father (Tony Kotsur, Oscar-nominated) and older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), on their fishing boat in Gloucester. Marlee Matlin plays her mother, and all the actors in deaf roles are deaf themselves.
Ruby is deeply conflicted. She has a lovely singing voice and has applied to the Berklee School of Music in Boston at the prompting of her cantankerous choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez). But she’s also painfully aware of how dependent her deaf family is on her constant presence — they rely on ASL to communicate in a financially struggling blue-collar community that doesn’t understand them.
CODA, directed by Sian Heder, is the kind of film that Hollywood seems incapable of making anymore. (Heder’s screenplay, based on the French film, La Famille Belier, is Oscar-nominated.) Characters are full of quirks, and dialogue is written with a careful mix of playful nastiness, mild vulgarity, and expressive tension and drama. It’s all indelibly human storytelling, which is, in fact, quite difficult to pull off with taste and verisimilitude. But when it works — and in CODA it works like a charm — it’s moving and engaging, and you’re not made aware of the mechanics that got you there.