Singing lifts ‘High Note’

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 09, 2020
Photo by: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross star in "The High Note."

Owls Head — The High Note (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 112 min.). There is some good music and good singing in “The High Note,” which is a rather lightweight, but appealing film about aspirations and how lies can get in the way. The two main characters are superstar singer Grace Davis, a demanding diva played by Tracee Ellis Ross (TV’s “Girlfriends,” “Black-ish”; daughter of superstar singer Diana Ross) and her hard-working assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson of the “50 Shades” trilogy; daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith).

While still very successful, Davis’ career has been stalled, with no new record in a decade. Her last releases have been a greatest hits compilation and a live album, and she now is preparing to release a live album of her greatest hits. Her manager, Jack (Ice Cube of “Boyz n the Hood,” the “Friday” movies), is urging her to do a residency at a Las Vegas hotel, one that could last 10 years. While Davis deep down would like to record new material, and Maggie definitely wants her too, she points out to Maggie in once scene that only five women over 40, and only one black woman, ever have had a chart-topping hit. (Reality check: At the time the movie was made, there had been not one, but two: Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. Franklin, by the way, is heard in the film, but it is a recording she made when 27.)

It is here, the film could have continued on a more serious track, but first-time feature screenwriter Flora Greeson and director Nisha Ginatra (many TV credits) let the moment pass without any follow-up.

Maggie’s ambition has evolved into wanting to become a record producer and there are lovingly realized scenes of her working on a secret remix of Davis’ “Bad Girl” track and in the studio with David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of “Luce,” “It Comes at Night”), a talented, but unknown singer she meets cute at a grocery store. In one of the film’s predictable paths, Maggie and David become more than just working partners, but their relationship has been built on a lie, as Maggie pretends to be a producer, even though her only credit is the uncredited remix of the one Davis song.

Both Ross, for the first time, and Harrison do their own singing in the film, and both have above average voices, making the songs the highlights of the film.

Bill Pullman shows up late as Maggie’s father and Eddie Izzard (“Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Across the Universe”) plays singer-songwriter Dan Deakins, a friend of Davis’. One of the 22 (!) deleted/alternate/extended scenes in the bonus material is a lengthy scene of Davis and Deakins talking about the music business. Sixteen of the 22 (25:48) are deleted bits, while only three are extended scenes. Other extras discuss the creation of the film (5:16), background on Davis’ career (4:04) and the duet music video of “Like I Do.” Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Samurai Marathon (Japan, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 104 min.). In 1855, after Japan’s 260 years of peace and isolation, U.S. Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) arrived in Japan in the “black ships” to open up trading with the island empire. Many Japanese were leery of the Americans, including Lord Itakura Katsuakira (Hiroki Hasegawa) of the Annaka clan. Fearing his men would not be able to fight the Americans if needed, he orders all his samurai, and others, to run a 36-mile marathon to prove their fitness.

One of the lord’s retainers is accountant Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), who actually is a ninja and secret spy for the Shogun, as were his father and grandfather. Mistaking the summoning of all the lord’s samurai as the first act in a rebellion against Shogun Tokugawa, Jinnai sends a coded warning message to the capitol of Edo. When Jinnai learns his mistake, he is unable to stop the messenger and realizes he must help Itakura’s samurai defeat the assassins that the Shogun will dispatch.

Meanwhile, Itakura is trying to enter his daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), into an arranged marriage that she wants nothing to do with. In order to sneak past the Annaka Domain checkpoint, she cuts her hair and, disguised, enters the marathon, whose participants must pass through the checkpoint. Also entering the race are an old man and his very young protégé.

The Shogun’s assassins are led by Hayabusa (Ryu Kohata), who used to live in the Annaka village, but looks down upon it and its people. The assassins’ arrival results in lots of late fighting. Much of the film deals with the race itself, including a couple of cheating schemes. There is one really gross moment of violence.

The film is directed by Bernard Rose, who also served as one of the three screenwriters. Rose has directed the horror films “Candyman,” “Frankenstein” (2015) and “Paperhouse,” as well as the historical dramas, “Anna Karenina” and “Immortal Beloved.” The film’s look is wonderful, as so much takes place in the forest. As the closing message notes, the marathon is still run annually in Japan. The film features a score by Philip Glass, with costume designs by Oscar winner Emi Wada (“Ran”). There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

House of Hummingbird (South Korea, 2018, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 139 min.). This lengthy coming-of-age film centers on a lonely and awkward 14-year-old (a fine Ji-hu Park as Eun-hee) who is trying to figure out who she is and might become. In the film, she tries out relationships with both a boy and a girl. Eun-hee is generally ignored by her parents – especially her father, who is all for having her brother succeed in his studies – and her brother often beats her up. There is an older daughter as well.

The film is set in 1994, which would be an important year for South Korea, as North Korea leader Kim Il-sung would die and there would be a disaster in Seoul that becomes part of the film’s late narrative.

We see the details of Eun-hee’s everyday life, including helping out in her parents’ rice cake shop, attending eighth-grade classes and even shoplifting for fun. At school, her classmates and even teachers think little of her, but she has a talent for drawing and would like to help create comic books, as she tells her new Chinese character tutor (Sae-hyuk Kim as Young-ji), who gives Eun-hee her first encouragement that she may be able to accomplish something with her talents. Eun-hee also has to deal with a medical issue that threatens to leave her with a disfiguring scar.

The film is the feature debut of writer-director Bora Kim. The film has won acclaim on the film festival circuit. It was a bit slow for my tastes. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

Valley of the Gods (Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 126 min.). If this were a documentary on Monument Valley in Utah, the Valley of the Gods for the Navajo nation, it would be a spectacular success, as writer-director Lech Majewski (“The Mill and the Cross,” “Wojaczek”) and co-cinematographers Majewski and Pawel Tybora have filled the film, especially early on, with stunning natural image after stunning natural image. The unique rock formations seem to come to life. However, the film also has a script that tries to weave together three different stories and it just does not coalesce. It also does not help that the fanciful ending is ridiculous.

One story, and I hope I get this right because the timeline is wonky, concerns John Ecas (Josh Hartnett of TV’s “Penny Dreadful”), a copywriter for the firm hired by Wes Tauros’ company, who would rather be writing a book about Tauros, the world’s wealthiest man. John has broken up with his wife Laura (Jaime Ray Newman), who is in the process of divorcing him. At one point in the film, John drives out into Monument Valley, pulls his desk out of his vehicle and sits down to write, out in the open.

John sees a psychiatrist (John Rhys-Davies), who suggests he try something unusual to break through his ennui. Thus, we have a film in which a character – John – ties his pots and pans to his legs as he goes for a hike and tries to scale a cliff, and who also walks backwards while blindfolded in the city. One doesn’t see either often, if ever.

The second plots concerns that wealthiest man, Tauros, played by the always-interesting John Malkovich (HBO’s “The New Pope,” “Billions,” Netflix’s “Space Force”), who actually likes to go out disguised as a beggar and just sit on the city street where, apparently, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Where he lives is stunning, a palace that includes rooms with statues made of people he has known and one of cheap articles, but from his past, as well as an opera stage that includes a waterfall and an indoor tennis court in what should be a museum room. Tauros also keeps his “guests” locked in cells on the lowest level.

Tauros’ current project is to replace the use of oil for energy with “clean” energy provided through uranium. To obtain the necessary uranium ore, he is trying to buy mining rights in the Valley of the Gods, something most of the Navajos are fighting against.

Less clear is the Navajo storyline, which includes Grey Horse (Steven Skylar), who is drunk a lot, upsets furniture a lot and apparently is having problems conceiving a baby with his wife. However, he apparently fathers a stone baby after making love to the ground in a cliff cave. At least that is what it seems like happens.

In addition to the beautiful views of the formations and caves in Monument Valley, there is an exhilarating shot of a hang glider ride, obviously taken from another hang glider. However, by the 45-minute mark I was growing impatient with the film, which never really resolves its schizoid nature. It truly is a director’s vision, but not one that translates well.

The only extra is a making-of featurette (19:15) that includes interviews with Majewski and the four main actors, including Keir Dullea, who plays Tauros’ butler and compares this film only second in importance to his work in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” 50 years previously. Grade film 2 stars; extra 1.5 stars

Dispatches from Elsewhere (AMC/RLJE Films, 3 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 7 hours 35 min.). This 10-episode series was created by star Jason Segel, who also wrote and directed the first episode. Segel (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) plays Peter, one of four ordinary people who feel there is something missing in their lives. The other three are Janice Foster (Sally Field of “Forrest Gump,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”), Simone (Eve Lindley of TV’s “Mr. Robot”) and Fredwynn (Andre Benjamin of TV’s “American Crime”).

Peter starts seeing flyers on poles in the city that seem to trigger memories. They include ads for Dolphin Communications System Training, Human Forcefield Experimentation, Memory to Media, and finally, a have-you-seen-this-person flyer put up by the person it is enquiring about. Pulling off a contact tab and calling the telephone number puts Peter in contact with the Jejune Institute, where he views an orientation video featuring Octavio Coleman (Richard E. Grant, who also serves as the opening narrator, possibly as the same character). When Peter goes to fill out a contact card at Jejune, he sees other cards warning him to get away. Eventually, he is contacted by the Elsewhere Society.

After initially meeting Simone, the two then meet Janice and Fredwynn during a mass gathering of people contacted by the Elsewhere Society and are formed as a team with the assignment of finding Clara and enjoying “divine nonchalance.” One fun scene has Peter instructed to dance while waiting for a message that is delivered by a Bigfoot.

All this leads to the fact that there is a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life. Each of the first four episodes is centered on one of the main characters. Simone is externally confident, but internally anxious, and wishes she could feel as comfortable in the world as she does when she’s alone. Janice has been a dutiful wife and mother for years, but tragedy is now pushing her back into the real world. Fredwynn is a wealthy genius who becomes obsessed with the game’s purpose, its puppeteers and its endgame.

The series is loosely based on the 2012 documentary, “The Institute,” which is about real people becoming obsessed with a massive game and its many secrets. The series was shot in Philadelphia. Special features include a look at the series, character profiles, a making-of the series, another look inside the series and how filming was a love letter to Philadelphia. Grade: series 3 stars; extras 2 stars

The Outsider (HBO/Warner Bros., 3 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 551 min.). This is, in some ways, a simplification of Stephen King’s source novel, yet at the same time expands on the portions that it keeps. Jason Bateman, a recent Emmy winner for directing on Netflix’s “Ozark,” directs the first two episodes here, in which he plays Terry Maitland, a man charged with the vicious murder of a child. Many things, including witnesses and fingerprints on a white van that was probably used in the crime, tie Maitland to the crime scene. Policeman Ralph Anderson (an excellent Ben Mendelsohn), who previously lost his own son to a horrific murder, arrests Maitland at a Little League game in front of 100 community members, wreaking havoc on Maitland’s life and that of his wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson) and their two young girls.

It turns out, though, that evidence also shows Maitland was hours away attending a lecture when the killing occurred. Through Anderson’s at-first reluctant investigation and the more forceful one of hired-hand Holly Gibney (here played by Cynthia Erivo, instead of Justine Lupe, who played her in the three seasons of “Mr. Mercedes”), similarities are discovered in previous murder cases and a picture emerges of a deadly entity that can transform its appearance.

The series was adopted by Richard Price (screenwriter of “Shaft,” “Sea of Love,” “Night and the City”). It has many powerful moments and, always, a creepy sense of evil that may be unable to be averted. Bateman has been nominated for another Emmy Award for his guest acting in the series. Special features six making-of featurettes, an interview with King and an exclusive look into the origins of the supernatural creature El Cuco. Additionally, the cast and producers explore the series in four parts. Grade: series 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Also in release:

NCIS: The Seventeenth Season (CBS/Paramount, 5 DVDs, NR, 14 hours, 11 min.). The central mystery this season has to do with the identity of deadly terrorist Sahar and where the killer will strike next. Racing to identify and stop Sahar, to save countless lives, including their own, are Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) and second-in-command Senior Special Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray). Other cases this season include murdered Marines, attacks at Arlington Cemetery, crashed fighter jets and secrets that threaten to tear the team apart. Co-stars in the 20 episodes are Wilmer Valderrama, Emily Wickersham, Maria Bello, Brian Dietzen, Diona Reasonover, Rocky Carroll and David McCallum.

The 35 minutes of extras include a look at the return of Ziva David, as well as “Other Lives, Other Times”; an inside look at the season; and the “hallowed ground” of the Arizona.

NCIS: Los Angeles: Season 11 (CBS/Paramount, 5 DVDs, NR, 15 hours 26 min.). After the season 10 finale, Special Agent “G” Callen (Chris O’Donnell) and Special Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J) find themselves aboard the USS Allegiance, working alongside Navy Capt. Harmon “Harm” Rabb Jr. (David James Elliot, reprising his “JAG” role) to capture dangerous spies aboard the ship. Meanwhile, Marty Deeks (Christian Olsen) and Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) are trapped in a mobile CIA unit in Iraq under ambush by an ISIS platoon and Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt) has recruited Lt.  Col. Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie (Catherine Bell, reprising her “JAG” role) to help neutralize a missile strike in the Middle East. Other cases involve the theft of a drone protype and a black ops agent from Hetty’s past returning to seek revenge.

On the personal front, Blye and Deeks consider whether they could have children, and tech geniuses Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) and Nell Jones (Renee Felice Smith) struggle to maintain their relationship as Eric goes undercover.

Extras include deleted and extended scenes; showrunners Scott Gemmill and Frank Military providing insight about season 11; a closer look at “Mother,” the series’ 250th episode, written by actor Olsen; and highlights and comments on “Alsiyadun,” in which rapper Offset makes a guest appearance.

NCIS: New Orleans: The Sixth Season (CBS/Paramount, 5 DVDs, NR, 14 hours). The season features the departure of Lucas Black as Christopher Lasalle and the introduction of new series regular Charles Michael Davis as Special Agent Quentin Carter. Special Agent Swayne Cassius Pride (Scott Bakula) has to decide whether to stay within the law or seek vengeance. The set comes with more than 30 minutes of bonus material, including a retrospective of the season with the showrunners, and a look at how the writers and cast dealt with the story of Lasalle since season one.

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