[REVIEW] ‘The High Note’ is a Good Enough Note

Like most cinephiles I have been quite depressed waiting for theaters to reopen again since the COVID19 shut-down. I am one of the lucky ones that has been able to go to drive-in movies and see one film in an indoor theater (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Pt 2). You can see all about my experience here:

In the meantime, we have to be content with the films going on streaming and VOD. To see all my reviews of TV and Film check out my RT site. The latest release, which was meant for theaters, is director Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note. While not platinum release, it was an entertaining enough film to recommend and support.

First thing I want to clarify is Tracee Ellis Ross’s character Grace Davis is a supporting role to Dakota Johnson’s Maggie in the film. The trailer had me believing she was if not the main character at least 50/50 but there are long stretches where you don’t even see her and it is all about Johnson and her boyfriend/client David played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nevertheless, the cast is all really good in this and they help elevate somewhat basic plotting.

The story of The High Note centers around Maggie who is a beleaguered assistant for Grace who dreams of becoming a music producer of her own and nourishing new talent with her great ear for mixing and arranging songs. Unfortunately, any attempts she makes to step out on her own are quickly pushed down by Grace’s manager played by Ice Cube. Then one day she meets aspiring singer David and things start moving forward in her career.

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I think most people will agree the best parts of The High Note are when Ross and Johnson get to interact together. The dialogue, for the most part, is pretty good and their conversations felt authentic and true to what the characters would be experiencing in real life. This is not always the case in these types of films where the journey to stardom can feel so phony (Bohemian Rhapsody for instance had some of the corniest stale dialogue I’ve heard in a long time in a film). Here these characters feel true and believable and that is refreshing.

Of course, Ross has a great guide for her performance in her Mother Diana Ross and she channels her quite effectively. She’s not the singer her Mother is but she’s good enough to sell the scenes. I oddly had a harder time buying Johnson as the music producer because I didn’t care for the synthesized sound she added to the tracks but what do I know about R&B music!

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If you are looking for something outside the box and super original The High Note won’t be for you but if you are up for a sweet, enjoyable film with good performances than you will enjoy it. It’s fairly generic and predictable but I enjoyed the ride and recommend the film. If you can see it at a drive-in or local opened theater please go and support those venues. If not, rent it, pop some popcorn, take a big breath in and relax with a movie.

Isn’t that what we all need right now anyway?

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Lovebirds’ or the Sometimes Funny Birds

As shown in my review of the recent film The Wrong Missy most Netflix comedies are not my cup of tea. However, in the case of The Lovebirds I had more hope as it is an acquisition by Netflix not an original film. Indeed, Paramount originally planned to release The Lovebirds into theaters before COVID19 closed everything down.

The film also stars Issa Rae who I recently enjoyed in The Photograph and Kumail Nanjiani who was so great in The Big Sick with the same director Michael Showalter. So how did it turn out? Were my high expectations met? Honestly not really but it had just enough laughs and chemistry to give a mild recommendation.

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The plot of The Lovebirds is similar to 2018’s Game Night but not nearly as funny. Both movies are about a couple who want a simple night of fun and end up in a mad-cap race for their lives with all kinds of violence and over-the-top comedic set pieces. In this case Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) are a couple who have lost their mojo after 4 years together. Unfortunately just as they are breaking off their relationship they hit a man with their car and then one thing after another happens until they end up in all kinds of shenanigans including a sftrange cult ceremony of some kind.

Most of my favorite parts of the movie came from the dialogue particularly from Nanjiani. He was just manic enough to make me laugh without being shrill or annoying. Nanjiani and Rae also have wonderful chemistry together, and I bought them as this established couple struggling with their relationship.

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The problem with The Lovebirds is not all the comic-action set-pieces worked. In particular there’s a sequence where the 2 are tortured by Anna Camp and forced to chose between getting hot bacon grease on them or get kicked by a horse. This kind of body humor isn’t for me and it went on way too long.

I also didn’t love the long sequence at the cult. Basically whenever the plot or the action was supposed to carry the film it didn’t work for me. When they relied on the dialogue and the witty banter between the 2 leads it did.

The Lovebirds earns its R rating with vulgar language and violence so it will not be for everyone. Although obviously I had problems with it, I did laugh out loud quite a few times and that’s enough to give it a mild recommendation. No masterpiece but if you are looking through Netflix for a comedy you could certainly do worse.

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Lance’

This weekend ESPN debuted the first part of a 2-part docuseries on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong appropriately entitled Lance. As a huge fan of the 30 for 30 series this is a film I was not about to miss. Lance is directed by Marina Zenovich and it does a good job of painting Armstrong as a complete narcissist who both is and isn’t to blame for his situation. He absolutely used his fame to ruin people’s lives when they were telling the truth, but he also got caught up in a system where everyone else was doing it and he simply did it the best.

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Zenovich starts out part 1 with Armstrong’s early years as a young triathlete in Texas. He grew up with a very young Mom and a father who wasn’t in the picture. In addition his step-father admits to beating him on a regular basis. This brought out the competitor in Armstrong and made him the kind of person who would do anything to win.

Then the documentary continues through his racing years and Tour de France wins and to be honest we are pretty much on his side up until that point. Everyone involved seems to agree that the sport had such a problem that the only way he could have won is to participate in the doping. In one shocking moment Armstrong even advocates for the drug saying it is clean with very few risk-factors in taking it. Maybe these drugs aren’t so bad after all? We almost catch ourselves saying.

We especially want Armstrong to be vindicated because of the good work he is doing to fight cancer with his Livestrong organization and other positive outreach. Even though we know the answer we want it to be the great underdog story we all believed at first it was.

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And then things take a turn… Once the investigations start and he begins hurting the legacies of former friends and teammates Armstrong’s meanness and narcissism is on full display. Possibly most shocking is he has no regrets for his behavior! He says ‘I’m sorry’ but then says he would make all the same choices again if given the chance!

There’s nothing groundbreaking about the filmmaking in Lance but it is all fine and in service to a fascinating character. He in many ways is the ultimate fallen hero but even more than that: He is the hero that you realize was running the ponzi scheme the entire time, which is so sad. Can there be redemption for this kind of betrayal? Is forgiveness possible? I like to believe there are no lost causes so who knows? The documentary doesn’t give us any easy answers so we will all have to wait and see.

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Vast of Night’

One of the things that has kept me sane during this quarantine experience has been attending a drive-in movie theater. There are 2 drive-ins within a 30 minute drive to my house, one of them a temporary make-shift location and one a permanent fixture, that have been operating for some to nearly all of this pandemic. I have been able to see new films like Valley Girl and Trolls World Tour to classics like Jurassic Park and E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial and it has consistently been a great experience.

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Last Friday I even got to attend a critics screening at the drive-in! It was for a small film that will be available on Amazon Prime May 29th called The Vast of Night. This throwback to old-school 1950’s radio dramas and sci-fi films was a perfect piece of cinema to watch at the drive-in and while it has some pacing issues I really enjoyed it.

The Vast of Night tells the story of 2 teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico who work at a radio station in the 1950s. One night they start to hear a strange frequency from the radio and they start to investigate what is happening. The film has a small cast with only 4 actors and spends large sections with just Everett (Jake Horowitz) talking into the radio processing what he is hearing.

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One of my friends on letterboxd called the film ‘Podcast: the Movie’ and he’s not wrong. It does have the feel of a podcast like Serial especially because so much of the drama is Everett just talking into the microphone at the station. I’m hard-pressed to think of another recent movie that has such long stretches of uninterrupted monologuing. This mostly worked for me but there were moments where they pressed their luck and I got a little sleepy (it was also a late night screening so take that with a grain of salt!)

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The Vast of Night is a rare film you could listen to and get most everything out of it; however, the production design is very impressive. On a micro-budget the period details and the skill cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz brought to the project is very impressive. It’s definitely a film that spikes my curiosity for all involved including director Adam Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. I will be very anxious to see what they do next as this showed great potential.

I’ve waited 5 days to write this review of The Vast of Night because it’s a movie that requires some thought. So much of the film lies in long stretches of conversation at the radio station that I almost wish a copy of the script was included with admission price. All good scifi should be trying to say something and I think The Vast of Night is trying to tell us to listen to people and to not give in to modern cynicism. Indeed, the world is vast and spectacular and it may just be trying to teach us something if we are open to listening.

I would have enjoyed a little bit more romance between the 2 leads and sometimes the monologing at the station pushed it but nevertheless, I recommend The Vast of Night as a thoughtful, unique, indie scifi film that will leave you thinking for days. I really enjoyed it, and I think you will as well.

8 out of 10

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[SCOOB!]: a Shoddy Introduction to Scooby-Doo

Going into this year I had a secret shame I knew would come out with this year’s animated offerings. Until today I had never seen anything Scooby-Doo in my life. Growing up I didn’t like anything scary or that had ghosts in it and most of the time we didn’t have cable so something like Scooby-Doo wasn’t a part of my life. In addition, the two live action feature films looked terrible so I never saw those. Everyone has blind spots of pop culture and this was one of mine.

With this gap in my animation viewing I was actually looking forward to the new film SCOOB! from Warner Bros Animation. The animation looked cute and the voicecast is impressive. My hope was the film would be a fun and dynamic introduction into the world of Scooby-Doo.

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Unfortunately I am walking away disappointed with SCOOB! I don’t know how fans will feel but I didn’t care for this film.

The biggest problem with SCOOB! is the script. My understanding is this franchise is all about mystery and spooky stories with a supernatural angle to them. This film has very little of that and instead opts in for a generic, by-the-numbers superhero story. It kind of reminds me of the recent Mummy film where they took out everything that makes a Mummy movie special and replaced it with a generic cinematic universe building plot. Such a shame!

While I enjoyed the voice work and the character designs, the actual characters themselves were frustrating. The biggest problem is the script immediately splits up our team so you have Shaggy and Scooby off with Blue Falcon and company in space while you have Daphne, Fred, and Velma looking for them. I preferred the DFV team every time but would have especially liked having them all together solving a mystery!

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I would like to know how long this script was hanging around because everything about it felt very dated? From the cinematic universe building to the terrible humor it all seemed to come from 10 years ago more than today. For example, there are multiple Simon Cowell jokes. What is this 2005?

People are going to be upset but I don’t think this is much better than Playmobil: the Movie. Both have nice animation but also convoluted storylines and terrible humor, flat characters. SCOOB! has a more recognizable IP to its name so it will definitely do better but the films themselves are similar.

If you are a Scooby-Doo fan and love this film please tell me what I am missing. I would love to hear your insight. As for me, this is a a definite skip!

3 out of 10

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Current Mini Reviews

Hey everyone it’s time for another one of my quick set of mini reviews for you. All 3 that I am talking about today are from Netflix and in the grand tradition of that illustrious streaming service I didn’t really love any of them. One is an abomination and the other 2 are just ok. So here goes.

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The Wrong Missy

Let’s get the abomination The Wrong Missy out of the way. We have the new film from Happy Madison productions starring David Spade as a man who amazingly has 2 women desperately in love with him. One is a super model played by Molly Sims and the other is an insane person played by Lauren Lapkus.

One day he mistakenly invites the wrong woman to a company retreat and then we are treated to Lapkus portraying one of the most annoying and obnoxious characters in recent memory. She is vulgar, pushy, irritating and not the least bit funny. Then like all Happy Madison productions we are supposed to buy that these 2 fall in love despite them being hateful and awful to each other the entire film.

The attempts for laughs include a threesome with poor Sarah Chalke, a long shark cage scene where the big laugh is Lapkus vomiting chum for a cgi shark and several scenes where characters fall humorously off of 2 story buildings/cliffs unharmed. What on earth? It is so obvious the only effort here is to get a free vacation and it shows. Comedy deserves better. Netflix watchers deserve better. Humanity in quarantine deserves better. No thank you!

1 out of 10

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Becoming

It feels ridiculous to talk about a film like Becoming after The Wrong Missy and to give both films rotten on RT, yet here I am. Becoming is a documentary that follows former first lady Michelle Obama on her recent book tour. Along the way we learn a little bit about her time in the White House and her adjustment after leaving office. We also see her speaking before large crowds and meeting and encouraging youth across the country.

The frustrating part of this documentary is it is so safe! The Obama’s production company Higher Ground have made 2 excellent documentaries Crip Camp and American Factory, so I was expecting more from this film about Michelle. It’s a perfectly pleasant puff piece on the First Lady but it never once challenges her or digs deeper into her private life. I’ve frankly seen biographies on the E! channel that told me more about a celebrity.

I hope her book is more insightful because this told me nothing I didn’t already know about Michelle Obama and isn’t that the point of this type of documentary? For a better example of a well done film watch The Last Dance currently airing on ESPN (or any of the 30 for 30. They are much better than this).

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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A Secret Love

Finally on Netflix we have a new documentary called A Secret Love that tells the story of a lesbian couple Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel who have been together for over 65 years. As the title suggests they had to express their love in secret and were seen by most of the world as roommates rather than spouses.

The film tells the couple’s story in 2 narrative threads: one is about their young life with Terry as a female baseball player in the late 40s. Then we see them in a modern setting trying to work with Terry’s family to sell their home and make the move to assisted living. I preferred the historical segments much more over the modern sequences.

A part of me thinks these sections needed to be their own separate movies. In the modern I was confused by the responses of the family members particularly to Pat, which the documentary didn’t flesh out well. Most of the time was spent arguing over moving when I wanted to know more about the relationships. The historical sections were more focused perhaps because bigoted family members were dead and easier to expose/talk about.

Nevertheless, it is still a tremendous couple and worth a watch just to see how they have lived their lives on the outside all these years. It could have been better but I still recommend it.

5.5 out of 10

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So there you have it! My reviews of 3 films from Netflix. Let me know if you see any of these and what you thought of them. Sure love ya!

PS. I will be having a review of the new Valley Girl remake over at Backseat Directors coming soon so keep an eye over there!

Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

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I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Bad Education’ Makes for a Good Movie

Like most of us I have been sitting through quarantine waiting for the next big hit to appear on my television. Unfortunately there have been more misses than hits but occasionally you run across a real gem. For me during quarantine I’ve found 2 gems from HBO: the first is the docuseries McMillions, which I adored, and the second a new dramatic film called Bad Education that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2020.

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There are many great things about Bad Education but the biggest standout is the dynamite script by Mike Makowsky based on a book by Robert Kolker. The plot is based on the true story of former superintendent Frank Tassone who in 2004 was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the local school system in Long Island. Evidently Makowsky was a student at the very schools when this was all happening and that closeness gives the script a sharpness I don’t think you’d have otherwise.

When I compare Bad Education to something like The Big Short it is especially impressive. The script does not waste any time over-explaining the scam. It doesn’t make Tassone into too much of a sniveling greedy rich guy. He has a lot of softer moments but then they are put alongside some that are exceedingly selfish. I was so impressed by how tightly written the script was and how well done every character is written. Even small characters like Tassone’s life-partner gets a full character arc in only a few scenes.

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It almost goes without saying but Hugh Jackman is remarkable as Tassone, as is Alison Janney as his partner in crime (literally). Again these are very selfish characters but their weaknesses are easy to imagine falling into, making the story all the more compelling. Their great performances and the terrific script make for a very entertaining ride.

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I also thought Geraldine Viswanathan was excellent as the young student who begins digging into the waste and corruption at the schools. At first Tassone thinks he can patronize her assuming her work will come to nothing. Then the more she digs the more scared he gets. It was very well done!

In addition, don’t miss Ray Ramano in another excellent supporting role. Honestly, the whole cast is great.

If I was going to nitpick the film probably spends a little bit too long on Tassone’s personal life but even that I didn’t mind much because it was so well executed.

If you like captivating true stories then you definitely need to see Bad Education. It is funny, chilling, well acted wonderful film. I highly recommend it! If it was in the theater it would be an R rated film but it’s not too bad. Some mild sensuality and language is all.

Check it out!

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Willoughbys’ or Not My Kind of Dysfunction

If you are an animation fan there is perhaps nothing more exciting than what is happening over at Netflix. In recent years they have been gathering a group of talented animators and collaborators unmatched by any other studio. This is true for series like Hilda and Disenchantment and feature films like last year’s Oscar-nominated Klaus (also my favorite movie of 2019!). What’s especially exciting is they are experimenting with new animation styles and bringing back traditional artistry like 2D animation.

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Unfortunately they can’t all be winners and their latest entry The Willoughbys wasn’t my cup of tea. I love the animation and appreciate some of the moments of heart, but its hurt by an uneven tone and a story that fails to produce laughs or provide us with memorable characters.

The Willoughbys is based on a novel by Lois Lowry, and I can imagine the humor working well on the written page. A lot of the jokes are of the dark and dry variety, which is very tough to pull off and not feel mean-spirited. It’s similar to the challenges found in adapting Roald Dahl to the big screen. His books are so strange and dark that when you translate them to screen you have to add a lot of whimsy to make the stories palatable. It’s the same problem with The Willoughbys, and I don’t think they succeeded in finding that balance.

The Willoughbys tells the story of the eponymous family who have the most horrible parents since the Mom and Dad in Madeline. They are disgusted by their children and have no interest in taking care of them. One day they find a new baby and the parents tell the kids to get rid of the baby and not come home until they do. In revenge they decide to send their parents on a ‘murderous vacation’ so they can be on their own and be orphans.

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I can see why some kids will like this style of comedy. I used to love playing orphans with my friends and pretending to take care of ourselves without need of parents. It was an empowering game. However, the tone in The Willoughbys is too all over the place to work on that level and the humor almost never made me laugh. I also didn’t feel like I got to know any of the children very well.

If you look at a similarly structured film in Coraline, I get to know her way better than any of the kids here. Coraline also has a much more consistent tone which makes the scary and funny parts work much better than anything we see in The Willoughbys. I’m rooting for Coraline in a way I never am for these kids who are more props for jokes than compelling characters.

All that said, if you are jonesing for something to watch on Netflix you could do worse than The Willoughbys. It’s not awful. I just didn’t think the script was sharp or funny enough for a recommendation. I would strongly recommend you watch Hilda or Klaus instead of spending time with The Willoughbys.

4.5 out of 10

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