Movie Review ~ The High Note

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  If everything had gone as planned in 2020, we’d be sitting smack dab in the middle of the start of summer movie season right about now.  The April releases of No Time to Die and Mulan would have arrived and Black Widow along with Scoob! would have shown up in May.  For this particular weekend we’d be on the cusp of seeing Wonder Woman 1984’s release and that means the talk likely had shifted to the favorite way to combat all the big blockbusters and family friendly animated hyperactive stimuli: the counter-programming.  That’s where a movie like The High Note would have entered the conversation and looking over the list of potential releases from back then I can’t think of a title that would have a greater shot to do some business than this one.

Before we take a look at The High Note, we should first go back to last summer and the movie Late Night.  Arriving with a heap of good buzz from the Sundance Film Festival where Amazon Studios had bought it for a jaw-dropping $13 million, it was expected to be that counter-programming sleeper hit when it was released in June.  Starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson giving an award-worthy performance, it was an admittedly formulaic comedy written by co-star Mindy Kaling that was still light years better than a number of comedies released in 2019 but it was an unqualified bomb.  This set Amazon scrambling  (and I’m sure sent some execs packing) and it surely has reshaped the way they bought movies in the future, though to be fair the similar failure of Brittany Runs a Marathon later in the year contributed to Amazon’s buyer’s remorse.

So, now we’re back in 2020 and The High Note has arrived from Focus Features and it’s worth mentioning it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra who also was at the helm for Late Night.  Featuring another diverse set of strong co-leads, you could squint and see a lot of similarities between the two films but what The High Note has that Late Night didn’t is some authenticity that helps carry it through it’s more shallow moments.  While it’s not going to win any awards for daring originality, there’s something winning about the way it worms into your heart…and your ears.

Superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) hasn’t put out a new record in years, coasting on the success of several repackaged greatest hit CDs and a sold-out touring schedule that keeps her always on the move.  That’s just fine by her producer Jack (Ice Cube, Ride Along) who doesn’t want to risk new music from Grace disappointing her loyal fans but perplexes her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) who knows Grace has more inside her.  Maggie wants to produce music, too, and seems to have the talent to back it up.  With her good ear and knowledge of Grace the person as well as the singer, she takes a stab at remixing Grace’s album to satisfying, if not career-advancing results.

It’s when Maggie meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce, Waves) that she sees the chance to take a step forward and be taken seriously.  David’s gifts are raw but with great potential, something that could benefit from Maggie’s guidance…if the two can trust one another to make it work.  At the same time, Jack wants Grace to consider a Vegas residency, which would be financially lucrative but gives her the feeling she is being put out to pasture.  With Maggie feeling the pull to help David (and herself) advance but also feeling a loyalty to her employer, of which she is also a genuine fan, it creates tension between the two that threatens both their personal and professional relationship.

I could easily see first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson turning these situations into sudsy scrap or going in the other direction and creating developments with little basis in reality.  Thankfully, The High Note feels surprisingly grounded and while perhaps holding an outlook on the music industry that’s a bit on the Pollyanna side, still maintains a level degree of authenticity.  For example, a meeting between Grace and a pile of young music executives turns uncomfortable and tense when she’s attempts to assert herself and as she explains later to Maggie it’s not just her age or sex but her race that she has to consider when trying to keep her career going.  Greeson throws some unexpected curveballs late into the game and, for once, they don’t seem like moments designed for a cheap reaction.

We’ll get to the leads in a minute but Ganatra has surrounded them with an interesting mix of faces, some more successful than others.  I especially liked Zoë Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as Maggie’s wry roommate and could have actually used one or two more scenes with her and for my money you can never have enough Bill Pullman (A League of Their Own) in your film.  When he shows up for his brief appearance as Maggie’s dad, you sort of just happily sigh “Of course he’s her dad…of course he is.”  There’s a nice little cameo from Eddie Izzard as a rock star Maggie hatches a plot with and an underused June Diane Raphael (Girl Most Likely) as another one of Grace’s assistants.  I have to think Raphael’s part was trimmed down in editing because she’s so valuable that to have her in such a nothing role is a waste.

The film lives (thrives, even) on its two leads, with Johnson and Ross playing well together and individually.  Once mocked for her time in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Johnson has proven her naysayers wrong by consistently showing up in interesting roles in intriguing films.  While Maggie could have been just another wannabe producer with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart, Johnson goes the extra mile in making her smart, determined, likable, and willing to work for her passion as well.  In a performance that I’m sure would make her legendary Motown singer mother proud, Ross shines as Grace and sings quite well, too.  Though it sounds a liiiiiiitle overly autotuned there’s a bounce to her voice that matches her personality.  The script has a way of ping-ponging Grace’s personality a little too much at times which creates some dizzyiness on the part of the viewer but Ross is so totally engaging that you won’t notice those nitpicks until far later.

With a handful of well-sung songs performed by the actors and a zippy soundtrack to cover the rest, The High Note should have had a shot at a theatrical run because I’m betting it would have found a small but respectable audience.  I also think it would have gone a long way in laying the groundwork for Ross to get some notice as more than just a television actress because she shows here she can handle carrying the duties of a leading lady.  In a perfect world, I’d love to see her name stay in the conversation when the Oscars get talked about…while the movie may not be perfectly pitched her performance is what Best Supporting Actress nominations were made for.

Movie Review ~ The Vast of Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.

Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer

Director: Andrew Patterson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time.  Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better.  Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow?  You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on.  Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well.  For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.

In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual.  Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed.  Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality.  Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.

You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed.  Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel.  Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.

Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game.  In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go.  He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on.  She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.

The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it.  I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off.  Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history.  As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.

I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day.  With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times.  There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene.  While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose.  Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.

The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly  McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses.  Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is.  We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride.   While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.

In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark.  At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.