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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22 JUMP STREET (2014)

June 14, 2014

22 Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of 3 minute trailers that give away the best gags, if one can walk out of a comedy having laughed a few times, it must be deemed a success. Such is the case with this sequel to 21 Jump Street (2012), which was borne from the 1980’s hit TV show of the same name.

A couple of years ago, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) went undercover at a high school to bring down drug dealers. This time, they head to a local college for the same purpose. If that sounds like a re-tread, at least the film acknowledges such. In a scene with Nick Offerman, a few minutes of self-parody are devoted to the misgivings of re-do’s … even with double the budget! Co-directors (back from the first, and fresh off The Lego Movie) Phil Lord and Christopher Miller make this film the butt of its own joke, and for the most part, that approach works.

The best buddy comedies work because of two things: the script and the rapport of the leads. The pairing of Jonah and Tatum works very well, even when we get the predictable split into liberal arts and sports (take a stab which actor gets which assignment). There are a couple of actresses who play vital supporting roles – Amber Stevens as Schmidt’s love interest, and Jillian Bell in an offbeat and quite funny take as the nemesis. Oddly enough, Jenko’s relationship is a bro-mance on the football team with the QB played by Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son). One of the poor decisions was to quadruple the screen time for Ice Cube … his antics are funny in more limited doses. Very limited.

There are some terrific “old man” jokes, more than 25 songs, and references to Maya Angelou and Tracy Morgan … both who have been in the news for less-than-uplifting reasons lately. Most will find the best sequence to be after the movie ends and before the credits begin. The mock sequels (23 Jump Street, 24 …) appear in rapid fire mode with a couple of cameos and some creative “schools”. While the movie wobbles between spot on and over-the-top, it delivers what we expect … a funny enough sequel to a funny enough tribute movie.

**NOTE: this sequel offers up a Richard Grieco cameo rather than the Johnny Depp cameo from the first one

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: mindless comedy hits the spot during the summertime OR you enjoyed 21 immensely and have been anxiously awaiting 22

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting another Johnny Depp cameo OR Ice Cube yelling and scowling is an annoyance you prefer to avoid

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21 JUMP STREET (2012)

March 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The original 1987-91 TV series “jump” started Johnny Depp‘s mega-superstardom career, and yes, he is a generous enough to appear in a brief cameo in this updated film from co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The script from co-writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill makes little effort to stay true to the source material and that works in the film’s favor.

We first meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as polar opposites at the same high school. One of them is a pudgy, nerdy looking guy trying hard to throw down an Eminem look, while the other is the ultra-cool jock who is skating by academically. Guess which is which? Flash forward seven years and these two are still misfits … this time at the police academy where one aces the physical fitness tests and bombs academically and the other is just the opposite. Guess which is which? So these two decide to become buddies and help each other live the dream as badass cops.

 Cut to the next scene where they are patrolling a park on bicycles and visualizing their first big bust. When things go wrong … SURPRISE! … they are assigned to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), an angry man who runs the Jump Street undercover unit out of a Korean church. Since neither Hill nor Tatum look anything like high schoolers, the absurdity is written into the script. They become the most mis-matched brothers since Schwarzenegger and Devito in Twins.

Their mission is to discover the dealers and source for a new drug making its way through a local high school. The drug has already killed one student and it takes these two “brothers” about 5 minutes to uncover the dealers, a group of popular rich kids. The supplier is a bit slower to come and the process involves numerous comedy skits involving Tatum as a science geek and Hill as Peter Pan.

 The comedy skits involve nice work from Elle Kemper, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell. The cool kids are played by Dave Franco (James’ brother) and Brie Larson. Car chases, a keg party, science experiments and the prom all play a role, as do white tuxedos and one of the oddest shootouts ever filmed. What seems like 1200 rounds are fired in a hotel room before someone is actually hit.

In addition to Depp’s pretty cool cameo, there are also appearances from Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete, both of whom starred in the original TV series. Of course the story is ridiculous and the film never really takes itself seriously, but I was actually somewhat impressed with Channing Tatum’s ability to play deadpan to Jonah Hill’s slapstick. The two worked pretty well together and there are enough laughs to make this one worth seeing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Channing Tatum generate some laughs (purposefully this time) OR you just need some mindless giggles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a tribute to the original TV series OR you are a fan of realistic police dramas

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RAMPART

February 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dirty cops happen in real life sometimes, and in the movies quite often. It can be an intriguing subject to explore … psychological demons, ego, power-mongering, etc. Typically we see it presented as a cop torn between doing the right thing and feeling like he is owed something. Rarely do we see a cop portrayed as beyond hope … so far gone morally that redemption is no longer even a possibility.

Writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) present to us Officer Dave Brown, known to his fellow cops (and even his daughter) as “Date Rape” Dave. The moniker stems from a vice incident where Brown supposedly dished out street justice to a serial date rapist. With no proof of his guilt, Brown remained on the force and his rogue manner has now escalated to the point where he is a constant danger to himself and others. This guy has no moral filter for everyday living.

 Officer Brown is played with searing intensity by a Woody Harrelson you have never before seen. As loathsome a character as you will ever find, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is hated by EVERYONE! Somehow he has daughters by his two ex-wives (who are sisters) and they all live together in a messed up commune where ‘hate’ is the secret word of the day, every day. Most of the time no one speaks to Dave except to tell him to “get out”. He spends his off hours drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having meaningless sex. Heck, that’s just about how he spends his time while on duty as well.  Dave’s behavior and the theme of the movie seem to be explained in a scene when he tells the IA Detective (Ice Cube) that he is not a racist because a he hates “all people equally“.  

The supporting cast is phenomenal, though most aren’t given but a scene or two. This includes Robin Wright (who nearly matches Dave in the tortured soul department), Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, and Steve Buscemi. The first hour feels like an Actor’s Retreat as most every scene introduces another familiar face.

 Still, as terrific as Harrelson is, and as deep as the cast is, the film is just too one note and downbeat and hopeless to captivate most viewers. Some of Moverman’s camera work is quite distracting and the sex club scene was pure overkill and unnecessary. Downward spiral is much too neutral a term to describe this character’s path and ultimately, that prevents the film from delivering any type of message. Harrelson had been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate, but it would not be surprising if the film itself worked to his detriment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a fantastic performance by Woody Harrelson OR you are just looking for a way to kill that pesky feeling of joy that’s been following you around lately

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need to like at least one character in a movie

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