Movie Review ~ The High Note


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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Brain Dead (1990)

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a showdown of man versus machine, Martin plunges into a chaotic nightmare trying to save his mind from the megalomaniacal corporation.

Stars: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy, Nicholas Pryor

Director: Adam Simon

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Spoiler alert right from the start: the poster for Brain Dead is very deceiving. The face on the cover doesn’t belong to any of our lead cast members nor does it factor in at all to what happens during the 85 minutes of this low-budget horror film from prolific producer Roger Corman. It’s an effective hook ,though, and I’m guessing it helped earn a rental from most people who never even bothered to look at the back for a plot synopsis. That was Corman’s specialty, creating a box art that that catches the eye and sets some intrigue in the eye of the consumer.

The good news about Brain Dead is that, slightly false advertising aside, it’s a dandy of a horror/thriller hybrid that has several soon to be heavy hitters doing some good work early in their careers. I’m not sure if any of them would necessarily voluntarily list the movie on their resume but their presence alone makes the film an interesting watch. Add to that a script from Charles Beaumont who wrote multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and you have a movie that rises above its meager production to be a somewhat low-wattage cult favorite.

Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman, American Ultra) is a scientist focusing on brain studies. Experimenting with new techniques, he’s contacted by an old friend (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) on behalf of the organization he works for. Seems that one of their employees (Bud Cort) has suffered a mental break and is in a delusional state. He is the only one that knows a certain series of numbers imperative in advancing their business but in his current state he can’t remember or is unwilling to provide a response. Paxton’s character wants Pullman to help extract the data using his untested methods…at least that’s what Pullman thinks is going on.  After a rather standard first half hour the film takes the first of several turns that changes the way Pullman (and we the audience) looks at the situation. The lines of reality blur and we aren’t sure if Pullman is the doctor, the patient, or something in between.

Director Adam Simon keeps things strange enough to keep the 85 minutes rocketing along and there’s enough gore to punctuate the action when it gets staid.  I’d advise keeping yourself distraction free while watching Brain Dead because the plot twists and turns on a dime – you won’t want to miss where the film is heading. While it’s no gigantic achievement, considering the cast alone it’s definitely a hidden gem in the Corman catalog.

The Silver Bullet ~ Independence Day: Resurgence

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Synopsis: Decades after original ID4 alien attack, Earth is threatened with a new extra-terrestrial threat, but will the planet’s installed space defenses be enough?

Release Date:  June 24, 2016

Thoughts: I don’t know about you, but I haven’t exactly spent the last 19 summers wishing for a sequel to 1996 megatron-huge blockbuster Independence Day.  If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie all the way through since it was first released in theaters, officialy launching star Will Smith onto Hollywood’s A-List.  Smith’s not back for the sequel but a lot of familiar faces are, like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Bill Pullman (American Ultra), and Vivica A. Fox.  Director Roland Emmerich (White House Down) has had his fair share of misses in the past two decades but if this energized first look at Independence Day: Resurgence is any indication; he could be walking toward another hit.

Movie Review ~ American Ultra

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale

Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.20/10)

Review: It’s hard to know where to start with a movie like American Ultra because the film itself is all over the map and hard to follow.  Woe be to the individual that opts to wait in the concession line for that vat of overpriced popcorn and misses the first few minutes of the movie…but then again it doesn’t really matter because there’s precious little to encourage you to carve time out of your late summer movie-going schedule for this half-baked stoner action comedy spy flick.

Screenwriter Max Landis’ last big screen effort was the surprisingly slick Chronicle but he trips here with a mulligan stew of ideas and jokes that never gel into a satisfying meal.  I actually can imagine that Landis turned in a worthy, readable, screenplay that just didn’t translate well as it made its way on camera.  The central plot of a government agent/experiment suffering from memory loss living life as a stoner mini-mart worker in a dead end West Virginia town called into action when a rogue CIA sector marks him for death doesn’t have the stench of an also-ran and maybe could have worked (whew…I’m winded after that description…let me take a breath).  But in the hands of director Nima Nourizadeh it suffers from cinematic inertia and a curious lack of any committed tone…not to mention a whole host of casting problems.

I continue to fail to see the appeal of Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me).  He seems only able to play one type of role, a mumbly meek milquetoast and while the film attempts to counteract that with the character’s deadly force training it can’t escape the fact that Eisenberg is terribly miscast in a role he seems uncomfortable in and too old for.  Put him in a dime-store wig with a part that keeps changing sides at random and a lumpy flannel and the ho-hum make-under is complete.

Lucky for Eisenberg he has a game co-star in Kristen Stewart (Still Alice), rejoining her Adventureland co-star and saving his butt in every scene (again).  Stewart feels much more at ease with her role, Eisenberg’s sweet girlfriend that supports his slacker ways and actually loves him in spite of it all.  As the film progresses, we see there’s more to Stewart’s character than we originally were led to believe, allowing the actress some good moments to continue to prove she’s able to play more than a moony vampire lover.

As much as I love Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You) I find that once again she’s used incorrectly as a top CIA operative with ties to the experimental program Eisenberg was once a part of.  Not surprising, she’s the third actress signed to the role after Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone dropped out.  Britton can play a steel voiced authority figure no problem but in chunky boots and wool ensemble she always feels like she’s pretending to be a CIA agent rather than really embodying the role.

At least Britton fares better than Topher Grace (Interstellar) who has managed to remain ageless over the years, even though his eyes are seeming to bug out more than ever.  The worst example of miscasting, Grace parades around as a snobby CIA agent that opposes Britton wearing twice as much rouge as her and not looking remotely aware of it.  Every line reading rings false and he acts without conviction or motivation in a series of scenes that look like deleted skits from the MTV Movie Awards.

In fact, from the astoundingly cheap looking sets, the overall appearance of the movie feels like a late night talk show sketch that runs too long.  The lighting is either brilliantly bold (as in a black-light set action sequence where Stewart and Eisenberg’s teeth glow as bright as the whites of their eyes) or murky and flat.  Several action scenes look like they were culled from the 11th or 12th take based on the exhausted look of the actors and worst of all the film has nothing really solid to say when it reaches its conclusion.  An animated sequence over the end credits is perhaps the most creative thing about the film…but that too is spoiled by an obnoxious score that sonically seems meant to induce dry heaves.

Amidst bloody violence there are some all too brief flashes of what the film could have been, a subversively smart action thriller with a dark comedy slant…but that would have required more effort from the director not to mention a major cast overhaul.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Equalizer

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Synopsis: A former black ops commando who faked his death for a quiet life in Boston comes out of his retirement to rescue a young girl and finds himself face to face with Russian gangsters

Release Date: September 26. 2014

Thoughts: Though he remains one of Hollywood’s most consistent actors, over the last decade Denzel Washington (Flight) seems to be making the same type of film with little to differentiate between the characters he’s playing. Now, mind you, Washington was never known for making light rom-coms in-between his hard-boiled work but I find myself wanting to tell the guy to lighten up a bit. He’s becoming the new Charles Bronson of flawed characters searching for redemption and it’s becoming a bit one-note for me. This big screen (and evidentially much grittier) adaptation of the 80s television series reunites Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen). That collaboration brought Washington an Oscar (undeserved in my opinion) and while I think Oscar lightening won’t be striking twice, The Equalizer at least will fill Washington’s 2014 quota for dark drama.