THE HIGH NOTE (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to play an aging diva at the crossroads of a hugely successful singing career than the daughter of Diana Ross? Of course, nothing is ever that easy and if Tracee Ellis Ross wasn’t ultra-talented herself, the film wouldn’t work at all. Now, please understand, director Nisha Ganatra’s follow up to last year’s LATE NIGHT is excessively formulaic and predictable, but it’s a pleasure to watch Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) as singer Grace Davis and to hear her sing for (I believe) the first time on screen.

The film is from the first (and previous Black List) screenplay by Flora Greeson, a former personal assistant in the music industry, and it follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades” franchise) as Grace Davis’ hard-working assistant. While spending most of her time running errands in her Chevy Nova for her celebrity boss, Maggie dreams of becoming a music producer. See, she studied music composition in college and listened to the radio growing up … and she bobs her head when listening to music she likes. So obviously she’s “qualified.” Maggie is as ambitious as she is lacking in self-confidence and experience.

The aforementioned crossroads Grace is facing has to do with choosing whether to record her first new album in a decade, or taking the safe and financially secure route of accepting a long-term Las Vegas residency. Her agent, Jack Robertson, is played by Ice Cube in full tough-guy mode, as he pushes Grace to bank the cash. Although her career is stuck in recycle gear with live albums and greatest hits, Grace longs to record new music, though she also understands the realities of the music business (and explicitly states the history for anyone not following along – including Maggie).

Maggie oversteps her position with Grace by urging her to write and record new songs. Maggie re-mixes some of Grace’s music and butts heads with the hotshot producer (played by Diplo) Jack brings in to turn Grace’s hits into thumping dance beats. “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question, it’s dope!” (Diplo nailing the punchline). June Diane Raphael adds her comic flair as Gail, the career moocher who lives in Grace’s pool house, and offers up advice to Maggie on how to milk the situation.

All it takes is a chance encounter at the local market for Maggie to have a career opportunity fall in her lap. She meets charming and smooth David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr, WAVES), and after some classic music banter, she hears him sing and is convinced she can produce his music. The only problem … she lies to him about her profession and experience. Lying and misrepresentation may have played a key role in the music profession over the years, but it creates a real mess for Maggie and David.

When things go sideways for Maggie in every aspect of her life, she retreats to the security of her dad’s (Bill Pullman) humble home/studio on Catalina Island. He’s a DJ and the one who taught Maggie her love for music. His home also leads to the reconciliation that allows the film to move towards the ending it was meant to have. It should also be noted that Zoe Chao and Eddie Izzard have brief roles as Maggie’s roommate and a veteran pop singer, respectively … both talented performers underutilized here.

The film has a similar structure to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA minus the biting dialogue and insightful commentary on a high profile industry. It briefly touches on ageism, sexism, and nepotism, as well as the ‘money vs art’ question, but the purpose here is entertainment, not enlightenment. True artists have an incessant need to create, often risking a comfortable position to stretch themselves … showing the iconic Capitol Records building a few times, and contrasting Maggie’s Nova with Grace’s Bugatti, doesn’t quite make the philosophical statement that we’d expect for a deeper message. Instead, it’s a feel good movie. It’s comfort food, and it’s delivered with a crisp bow on top. Expect a romantic fantasy, where the love partner is music, and enjoy the talents of Tracee Ellis Ross. And let’s hope they got clearance from Michael B Jordan for his mention.

Available VOD on May 29, 2020 at https://www.focusfeatures.com/the-high-note/on-demand/

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VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Stephen Frears has enjoyed a long career by focusing on the interesting stories of people, rather than the salient specifics of history or politics. He received Oscar nominations for THE QUEEN and THE GRIFTERS, and helmed other crowd-pleasers such as MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, PHILOMENA, HIGH FIDELITY, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. While purely entertaining movies are always welcome, it’s important to note the filmmaker’s approach when the story is entwined with historical importance.

Based on real events … mostly” is Mr. Frears’ cutesy way of kicking off the film and asking us to enjoy the unusual story of connection between a Queen and a servant, and cut him some slack on the historical depth. For most of us, the real enjoyment will be derived from watching yet another standout performance from Oscar winner (and 7 time nominee) Dame Judi Dench as the longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria in her elderly years. It’s a role she played twenty years ago in MRS. BROWN, and her relationship with John Brown (presented in that film) has some parallels to what we see here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Dame Judi is the rare actress who can capture both the loneliness and tiresome burden of six decades of rule and the re-invigorated woman we see learning a new language and new religion. She plays weary and spunky with equal believability.

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, and in 1861 her beloved husband Prince Albert died. This film picks up in 1887 with the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Jubilee – a celebration of her 50 years of rule. The early scenes tease us with obstructed views, and the comedic element becomes quite obvious as we see her so carelessly slurping her soup at the formal lunch. Part of the celebration includes the presentation of an honorary coin by two Indians peasants Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the first chosen because of his height, and the second as a last minute fill-in.

Lee Hall (Oscar nominated for BILLY ELLIOT) wrote the screenplay based on the book by Shrabani Basu. The journals of Abdul Karim were only discovered in 2010, a hundred years after his death. Some of the less favorable moments of this era are mentioned, but most of the Queen’s lack of knowledge or awareness is attributed to the “boring” reports from her advisers. This leads to some awkward moments later in the film regarding the Muslim mutiny and the subsequent Fatwa.

Rather than dwell on history, the film prefers to focus on the unconventional friendship and the re-awakening of the Queen. Abdul becomes her “Munshi” – a spiritual advisor and her teacher of Urda and the Koran. As you would expect, this is all quite scandalous and frustrating for those such as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and the royal staff: Sir Henry (the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), her physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins), and her quivering maid Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). There is even a comical sequence with the great singer Puccini (Simon Callow) as the Queen herself belts out the Gilbert and Sullivan song “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle are all part of the breath-taking scenery, while the absurdity of the royal status is viewed through the eyes of the Indian servants. Most of the focus is on Victoria’s transformation from joyless, isolated monarch to the anything-but-insane (an Oscar worthy scene) and eager to engage elderly woman (one who has an entire era named after her) falling back in love with life as she fights off “the banquet of eternity”. Come for the laughs and the performance of Dame Judi … just not for a history lesson.

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WHISKY GALORE (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There’s good fun to be had in watching director Gilles MacKinnon’s and writer Peter McDougall’s remake of the 1949 comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick and writer Angus MacPhaill, based on the novel from Compton MacKenzie. Whew! Is that enough ‘Macs’ for you? The story takes place on an isolated Scottish island of Todday during WWII, and is loosely based on true events of 1941.

Not only is the community geographically isolated, it’s also mostly insulated from the rationing and hardships caused by the Great War. All that changes when the last bit of whisky is guzzled, leaving the locals “in terrible shape” with nothing to drink but tea (uttered with equal parts disgust and disappointment). Even though it was Irish and not Scottish, if you’ve seen Waking Ned Devine (1998), then you’ll have an idea of the comedic style – mischievous wry humor rather than hysterical slapstick.

The key locals include Gregor Fisher as Macroom, single father to two grown daughters Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick). Of course, where there are two lovely daughters, there is likely to be love in the air. Filling these roles are returning war hero Sergeant Odd (Sean Biggerstaff) and George (Kevin Guthrie), the son of a local ultra-Calvinist mother. Eddie Izzard plays the all too serious Home Guard Captain Wagget, while Fenella Woodgar spouts some of the film’s best one-liners as his wife.

When a cargo ship carrying 50,000 cases of whisky crashes just offshore, the locals begin plotting how to rescue the bounty and return normalcy to their daily lives … all while observing the Sabbath and gazing wistfully at the ship from dry land. There is also a funky sub-plot that ties into the story of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Spencer, but this is mostly a story of local ingenuity and inspiration set to the beautiful music of Scottish bagpipes and violins (from composer Patrick Doyle). The quaint setting and predicament make for whimsical fun and some nice laughs … just remember to change the password if you are guarding the road.

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