Tag Archives: C

THE HIGH NOTE

Producers: Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner   Director: Nisha Ganatra   Screenplay: Flora Greeson   Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Zoë Chao, Eddie Izzard, June Diane Raphael, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson and Diplo   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: C

Wish-fulfillment fantasies set in the music business usually focus on a guy or gal who wants to become a recording star as a solo singer or hot-shot guitarist. The dreamer in this one wants to be a recording star too, but of a different sort: her goal is to produce hit albums, not sing or play on them.  Let’s just say that doesn’t come across as the loftiest of ambitions—or the most cinematically exciting. 

In the case of “The High Note,” moreover, the script by Flora Greeson is so cluttered with clichés, implausibility and coincidence that by the close even the most credulous viewer will probably be slapping his or her forehead in exasperated disbelief.

Nonetheless there’s pleasure to be had in watching Tracee Ellis Ross doing what amounts to a homage to her mother Diana as Grace Davis, a diva with a long career and a big following.  Grace also has a crusty manager named Jack (Ice Cube), who’s negotiating a permanent slot at a Vegas casino for her, even though Grace likes to tour and is leery about the prospect of settling into something that feels very late-career.

Another person who thinks the Vegas deal is a bad idea is Grace’s assistant Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a mousy but ambitious sort who’s been seeing to the singer’s wants and needs for three years.  Maggie is a pop music junkie—we meet her father Max (Bill Pullman), an old-school DJ, late in the film, and that explains her encyclopedic knowledge—and she believes that what Grace should do is release a new album.

And that’s not all—Maggie’s sure that she’s the one who should produce it.  In fact, she’s been secretly working on a remix of Grace’s classic hits—something that sends Jack into the sort of seething paroxysm that Ice Cube is so good at when he hears about it.  Maggie should stick to her job, Jack snarls, and not try to intrude on his space.  And though Grace appreciates Maggie, she can be curt and shrill when the girl fails to keep her schedule in proper order. 

Still, Maggie persists despite supposedly wry warnings from her typically tart-tongued roommate Katie (Zoë Chao) and admonitions from Grace’s brash housekeeper Gail (June Diane Raphael).

A new wrinkle is added, moreover, when Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.).  They bump into one another “cute,” of course—getting into a debate about their favorite songs while waiting to check out at a grocery store. And when she hears him perform at a little outdoor gig, she’s so impressed that she can’t help telling him that she’s a big-time producer and offers him her services.

In no time at all the two are spending a lot of time together, working on new songs and laying down some tracks, with Maggie at the soundboard at last, even if the shots that are supposed to demonstrate her producing acumen only show that she can push levers and knobs.  The trouble, plot-wise, is that she’s giving so much time to David that her work for Grace suffers.  And when she tries to manipulate things so that David will open for Grace at an album release party, everything falls apart.  David learns Maggie’s been lying to him about her job and sulks off, and her days as an assistant are over.  What to do but go back home to Max and get some sympathy from the old man?

In a romantic comedy-with-music like this, such an apparent collapse of the dream is inevitable in the third act, of course, but so too is the ultimate reconciliation—and that’s what we get here, as all three major characters wind up at Max’s place.  But Greeson isn’t content with that; she adds a revelation so outlandishly coincidental that even in a fantasy like this, it invites the worst sort of derisive laughter.  Simply put, the twist “The High Note” delivers in the last act is a low blow indeed.

Nonetheless, up to that point fans of “Behind the Music”-style nonsense can find a good deal to enjoy here.  Johnson is as bland as ever, but Ross delivers strongly, making Grace a believably mercurial prima donna, and Harrison is as charming as David as he was chilling as Luce.  It’s a pity that people like Pullman and Eddie Izzard, as a business insider Maggie calls on for help with her schemes for David, have so little to do, and that Chao and Raphael are stuck with such sitcom-level material, but it’s fun watching Ice Cub smolder and shout. 

The production side is fine too, with Theresa Guleserian’s production design and Jenny Eagan’s costumes (especially for Ross, of course) impressively glitzy and Jason McCormick’s cinematography excellent.  On the other hand, the music—especially David’s—isn’t sufficiently extraordinary to make you believe the fairy-tale, and the editing by Wendy Greene Bricmont could be sharper; at 113 minutes, the movie outstays its welcome.  A few shots of limo rides could easily be dispensed with. In the end this “Note” doesn’t aim very high, and then only sporadically his the target.   But as Ross plays her, Grace is something to see.   

INHERITANCE

Producers: Richard Baxter Lewis, David Wulf and Arianne Fraser   Director: Vaughn Stein   Screenplay: Matthew Kennedy   Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Chace Crawford, Connie Nielsen, Michael Beach, Marque Richardson, Rebecca Adams, Mariyah Francis, Alec James, Josh Murray and Lydia Hand   Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Grade:  C-

A skeletons-in-the-closet dynastic thriller in which the major skeleton literally still has meat on its bones, Vaughn Stein’s sophomore feature is equal parts pretension and absurdity.  You’ll want to turn down this “Inheritance.”

The movie starts with an almost insurmountable flaw—the casting of Lily Collins as its central character, Lauren Monroe, the District Attorney for New York City.  Collins might be around thirty, but at least in this movie she looks much younger—and acts it, too, frequently coming across as a shrill-sounding college student.  The fact that Lauren’s not the brightest bulb in the box, despite being in the middle of a huge case, is a further impediment to plausibility. 

Only marginally less incredible is Chace Crawford as her brother William, a U.S. Representative running for re-election.  The actor’s blandness is acceptable in such a position, but his lack of the slightest hint of gravitas is a stumbling-block. 

But that’s secondary to the inanity of Matthew Kennedy’s screenplay.  The picture opens with the sudden death of the Monroe paterfamilias Archer (Patrick Warburton) of a heart attack.  He’s been under investigation for impropriety in which William’s rival argues he could be implicated. 

At the reading of Archer’s will, Lauren is given a special responsibility by the dead man’s long-time lawyer Harold Thewlis (Michael Beach).  It involves a misdeed by Archer that’s unrelated to the accusations against him, and much more perverse.  When Lauren uses a key she’s been bequeathed to investigate a bunker buried in the back yard of the family estate, she finds a man (Simon Pegg) chained to a wall in it, looking as unkempt as a cut-rate Howard Hughes. 

Naturally Lauren is taken aback, and working through why the man has been kept in such dank surroundings for decades takes her away from her official responsibilities (as well, it appears, from her family, husband Scott played by Marque Richardson, and their son). With some prodding and a few little bribes, she eventually gets the man to identify himself as a fellow name Morgan, who was an erstwhile buddy of her dad’s while they were sowing their wild oats together until the night Archer did something that could threaten his future—at which point Archer turned on him and left him as he now is. 

Lauren, a good girl at heart—and, as it turns out, a rather gullible one in many respects despite her supposed political savvy—decides to try to make it up to Morgan for the way her father had treated him. 

“Inheritance” wants to be twisty and surprising, but in the end the only thing surprising about it is how humdrum the twists turn out to be.  We’re doled out information about the past shared by Archer and Morgan in flashbacks (in which the young Archer is played by Josh Murray and the young Morgan by Alec James, with Lydia Hand as the young version of Lauren’s mother Catherine, played in the present by Connie Nielsen), but since we all know how misleading flashbacks can be in a movie like this, they don’t tell us much of value.  And when the “truth” is finally revealed, it turns out to be a rather flat revelation—as is the resolution of the tale, which could just invite a sequel about a whole new bunch of Monroe family secrets—a prospect devoutly to be rejected. 

Actually shot in Alabama, “Inheritance” actually looks quite good.  Diane Millett’s production design is solid, as is Michael Merriman’s cinematography; the Kristi Shimek’s editing is smooth enough, and Marlon E. Espino’s score establishes an appropriate mood of foreboding. 

But in the final analysis there’s only one aspect of the picture that might make it worth a look—the turn by Pegg.  It’s not a good performance by any means—it’s showy in a “hey-mom-look-at-me!” way, and never remotely convincing.  But at least he seems to be having fun with the half-baked material, which the rest of the cast try to play straight.  A pity that Kennedy and Stein do him no favors by prolonging the scene in which he goes totally off the rails to such an extent that it passes from the sublimely ridiculous to just ridiculous.

It’s possible, one supposes, to enjoy the movie for the nonsensical potboiler it is.  But if you do, you’ll probably regret it afterward.