When I write about actors, I always look at their careers to learn more about how their life informs their work. Today, I face a particular challenge. I have to write about Captain Picard. Sorry! I mean, Patrick Stewart. And that is my problem. For me, Patrick/Picard is like a member of my family. I am sure the same thing happens to every Star Trek fan.
Allow me to digress with a personal anecdote. The late Uruguayan journalist Daniel Regueira, a dear friend, once interviewed Carmen Félix. She is the first Mexican analog astronaut - an analog astronaut who participates in earth-bound missions that simulate conditions in outer space. I plead with him to ask her whether Star Trek was a source of inspiration. He was not too enthusiastic about it, but he made the question. Much to our surprise, she answered positively. She was a true Trekkie and even dressed as Mr. Spock when the opportunity arose.
The Star Trek mystique goes well beyond the screen. It is daunting to lead the Enterprise, even if it happens decisively in the world of fiction. To this day, Star Trek keeps inspiring scientists everywhere and feels premonitory. Think of Picard's peculiar friendship with Data, an android with a positron brain who may remind you of current AI advances.
After Star Trek: The Next Generation ran its course on TV, Stewart repeated the role in four feature films. Overall, the franchise has pulled in over 11 billion dollars. A little bit more than what I do in a month! In 2020, Stewart surprised everyone returning for the TV series Star Trek: Picard, catching up with the character in a rather eventful retirement. The final episode of the third, and reportedly last season, will be broadcast on April 20, 2023. Not too shabby for an 82-year-old man.
To embody an iconic character like Picard is quite a feat. Not satisfied with it, Stewart played another one, Dr. Charles Xavier, the wise leader of the X-Men mutants. Even bound to a wheelchair, he always projected steely resolve. Stewart was an actor's actor before lending his chops to two popular Hollywood IP-based franchises. He belonged to the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing in productions of "Macbeth," "Othello," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and many others. He also made his mark in modern works, like Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’" Land.”
Stewart faces the music in a nightmarish concert in "Coda" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
If we set aside Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015), Stewart rarely ventured outside the tightly wound world of franchise cinema to pursue dramatic works in film. That is one of the reasons why Coda (Claude Lalonde, 2019) calls attention to itself. Not to be confused with the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2022, this Coda is a low budget film, a European production about a traumatized pianist who finds a new chance for happiness through his relationship with a younger woman, a music critic played by Katie Holmes. Giancarlo Esposito rounds up the cast as his charming agent.
The movie was officially released in the US in February 2020, just as the pandemic shutdown started to confine around the country. The strategic measure to contain the spread of coronavirus brought life as we knew it to a halt, pulling the brakes on filmgoing. The black hole that swallowed entertainment as the world fought the coronavirus in a life-and-death situation took this and many other films, which now show in streaming services as if out of nowhere. You can catch up with the others now at Popflick.
Coda opens with an intriguing sequence, as famous pianist Henry Cole (Stewart) plays in front of a packed audience and forgets some notes in a musical piece coda - hence the title, which also plays on the theme of death. Life, like a music piece, ends. Not only is Cole old and contemplating his failing health in old age. He is also mourning the untimely death of his wife. Flustered by his mishap, Cole rushes off the stage and sneaks a cigarette in a back alley while the audience claps to bring him back. Coaxed by his brotherly agent, Paul (Esposito), he pulls himself together and finishes the show.
A traumatized old master's best friend: Esposito gives Stewart some tough love in "Coda" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas ventures.
Cole is at the Old Master stage of his career, where the adoring public will forgive anything to hear him perform. He is the one with a problem. Mourning has depleted him of the will to live and play music, much to the chagrin of Paul, doing a hard sell to keep him up and running, at least until a concert in London, which promises to be a career landmark. A huddle of journalists reminds him why he wants to close down his piano for good, but things change when he meets Helen Morrison (Holmes). She is a shy music critic trying to interview him and write a profile for The New Yorker. Before you know it, the pair engages in a chaste courtship, which speaks poorly of her professional bona fides.
After a promising opening, the movie never lives up to the work Stewart is pulling. A time-shifting plot does not conceal a dish-deep view of the insular classical music world or the eminently basic dialogue. Compared to something as lived in as the recent Tár (Todd Field, 2022), which uses a rich reconstruction of this rarified, privileged milieu as the backdrop for an insightful exploration of power dynamics and abuse, Coda comes out wanting. It is aggressively superficial and bland. The script feels like an early draft waiting to be beefed out and rewritten.
If you can deal with the built-in frustration, you may find some satisfaction in the committed work of the three stars, bringing life to their barely sketched characters. Holmes plays a pseudo-intellectual variation of the manic pixie dream girl, with the “manic” part filtered out. Stewart plays up frailty, letting the ravages of time show. Born in 1940, he might have been nearing 80 during the production of Coda. It is striking to see steely Picard, perhaps for the first time, looking and acting his age. If the movie works, it is due to the legend Stewart carries around with him.
* CODA is available to stream, commercial-free, on Popflick.com. You best source to watch independent films online!
A famous pianist suddenly afflicted with a severe case of stage fright is brought to confront old wounds with the help of a free-spirited music critic with an uncommon take on life.Stream Now
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