Hamilton

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music, Musical on July 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

hamilton (1)STARS4For those living in a cave, Hamilton is a musical about Alexander Hamilton who was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  The play is known for a couple of daring distinctions.  It stars mostly non-white actors and incorporates hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul into “a story about America then, as told by America now.”  The stage production may make creative selections in casting but it still uplifts what is known as the American Dream for a group of men who were immigrants to a new land.

No musical has had a greater cultural impact on Broadway in the last decade.  Over the past 5 years, shows have consistently sold out and when you could buy a ticket they were prohibitively expensive.  This is a filmed version of the phenomenon that debuted in 2015.  There’s no trying to hide the theatricality of it all which makes it is a rare treat for audiences.  At this point, it’s unclear when theater will resume.  Fans can now witness the visual representation of the work they know by heart.  This was accomplished utilizing the original cast.  Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda inhabits the starring role and Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Aaron Burr.  There’s also Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette & Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Jonathan Groff as King George.  Those are the featured actors.  There are many other talented performers as well.  I wish I could list them all.

The play received a record 16 Tony nominations and won 11 including Best Musical in 2016.  This is a chance to see the magnificent achievements of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry for which they all won.  They may not be conventional choices for those roles, but they are extremely captivating.  Furthermore, the performances from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, and Christopher Jackson were all nominated.  The cast is indeed outstanding.  You can literally see the spit fly when Groff as King George III enunciates his lines and music.  It may be surprising to realize that the rest of the cast actually outshines Miranda in both singing and acting.  One scene where he’s required to cry feel particularly forced.  I saw this performed when the national tour came to San Francisco.  An actor named Julius Thomas III played the titular role and he was incredible.  However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a genius for writing the music and screenplay.  This is a work of art.  (He received Tonys for the Book and Original Score.)

Hamilton, the 2020 film of the Broadway experience, is much more than simply a filmed stage play.  Director Thomas Kail edited from 3 shows (2 with an audience, one without) during June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.  This all from the finest seat in the house.  This is a view better than any theater patron could have ever imagined.  Kail knows when to pull back and afford the presentation a broad overview and when to zoom in and be intimate.  He utilizes close-ups, Steadicam, crane, and dolly shots to give the viewer the very best perspective possible.  It is an impressive achievement and most definitely a perfect manifestation of Lin-Manuel’s artistic vision.  A filmmaker must make many critical decisions when presenting a live performance.  Director Kail’s craft elevates the spectacle to maximum effect.  There’s something undeniably special about being physically present in the theater.  Nevertheless, this is the optimal way to see Hamilton for most people.  Few records of this type have ever felt so immediate, vibrant, and vital.

P.S. It’s hard to catch all of the crucial lyrics of the songs and rap battles as they’re delivered. Turn on closed captioning for subtitles that will make your experience even better!

07-03-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast on July 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on talkSPORT radio with Will Gavin to discuss the latest movies. On this week’s movie segment, hear my thoughts on THE VAST OF NIGHT (Amazon Prime), THE HIGH NOTE, (Video on Demand), and TV show SCHITT’S CREEK (Netflix). My segment begins just 2 minutes into the 2:00-2:30 section (about 27 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Click the link below and hit play:

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Shirley

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on July 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shirleySTARS2It’s now considered a classic, but when Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was originally published in the New Yorker back in 1948 it was extremely controversial. Readers called it “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless”. Most people were confused by the fable. In a similar fashion, this movie appears to seek the same reaction from viewers.  Shirley unfolds like one of her tales.

Shirley is a completely fictionalized biography of the acclaimed American writer.  Shirley Jackson was an actual person.  The author is well known for horror and mystery.  The Lottery became one of the most frequently anthologized short stories in English.  It’s essentially mandatory reading in the U.S. curriculum so chances are you were forced to read it in school.  That’s not a dig. I agree it’s an effective composition that evokes dread, but * full disclosure * my introduction to it was involuntary.   Another work of hers includes The Haunting of Hill House which has been adapted to film in both 1963 and again in 1999.

Shirley, however, isn’t really about anything that concerns those contributions.  Actually, the facts of this story are a humorous detail.  The movie, directed by Josephine Decker, is adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell.  In what I assume was an innovative attempt to make the career of Shirley Jackson more interesting, her life and that of her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) has been reimagined.  Jackson is suffering from depression, unable to write.  She rarely leaves her bedroom.  Stanley invites a couple — Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) — to come to live with them in North Bennington to help out.  This situation inspires Jackson to write a book.  There is some validity.  Shirley was a married author who released a novel called Hangsaman.  The screenplay fictitiously envisions that piece was inspired by this arrangement.  However, the rest of the narrative including the very existence of this couple is made up.  I’m all for creative license, but why in this case?  Was the truth even more dreary?  If the writers had been a slave to authenticity perhaps there might be some excuse for the banality of this tale. Yet this is a complete fabrication where the writer could have created any number of scenarios in which to delight the audience.  The fabrication they chose didn’t do it for me.

Shirley is such a bizarre film because it seems to eschew the basic qualities that make a captivating picture.  The central protagonist isn’t likable, it moves at a snail’s pace and nothing particularly exciting happens.  Elisabeth Moss conspicuously goes the actorly route by sporting unkempt hair and a pair of unflattering spectacles.  How closely her behavior matches the real author is not something I am qualified to review.   I know what I find entertaining, however, and this ain’t it.  I’ll concede that Moss is good.  She perfectly affects a decidedly unique personality so her achievement is effective on that level.  A devotee of the author could easily imagine that the actual woman might be a dark person.  However, in this portrait, she isn’t a subject that you’d want to construct an entire production around.

An amusing addendum.  I recognize that Shirley Jackson’s most famous work was originally published in the New Yorker in 1948.  That esteemed magazine was a pioneer in giving the author significant attention.  The periodical could well be considered her very first fan.  That “weekly” publication (47 times annually) still exists and continues to review films as well.  Their numerical assessment of this movie?  40/100 according to Metacritic.com.  Ouch! And I thought I was being harsh.

06-09-20

7500

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sevenfivezerozero_ver2STARS2.5Airborne thriller concerns the hijacking of a plane by Islamic terrorists.  Add this to the growing list in the aviation genre that includes movies like Airport, Alive, and Final Destination.  This is definitely one selection that will never become a part of your  in-flight entertainment.  Count your blessings.   That’s a good thing in this case.  The narrative is efficient in the extreme as the drama ultimately becomes a two-hander between one pilot (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and one terrorist named Vedat (Omid Memar).

Our central protagonist is Tobias, an American co-pilot on a flight traveling from Berlin to Paris.  A small group of Islamic extremists — and I’ll clarify, I counted 3 — attempt to take over the aircraft.  Their weapons of choice are shards of broken glass.  Writer-director Patrick Vollrath was previously nominated for an Oscar in 2016 for his live-action short Everything Will Be Okay.  He makes his feature directorial debut with this economical drama.  That’s a nice way of saying the entire picture is completely set in one room — the cockpit of a plane.   To say this drama is claustrophobic would be an understatement.

7500 creates a harrowing scenario so there is tension but it’s unpleasant without being engaging.  All of the exciting moments occur in the first half.  The hijackers make demands.  People are threatened.  The navigator is conflicted.  Then our attention begins to wane as Vollrath seems to repeat the cycle with more of the same.  Joseph Gordon Levitt does his best with substandard material.   However, the characters are superficially detailed.  I mean they’re people so we care because they represent human life but the screenplay is unable to afford them any depth.  They aren’t relatable or interesting.  Director Paul Greengrass tackled very similar material in an infinitely better way with United 93.  My recommendation is to watch it instead if you haven’t seen that far superior film already.   You would do best to skip this….unless you happen to be a Joseph Gordon-Levitt completist.

06-20-20

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted in Comedy, Music with tags on June 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

eurovision_song_contest_the_story_of_fire_sagaSTARS3So the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was originally scheduled to culminate on May 16.  For the first time in the festival’s 64-year history it was canceled, but that doesn’t mean we can ‘t honor the spirit of that competition in a work of fiction.  As I sat there watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it gradually dawned on me what makes a successful comedy.  Sorry, no.  This is not a great comedy.  However, it does indeed contain marvelous segments that occasionally elevate the film.  The problem is those inspired bits must be connected by dialogue that unites the pieces into a coherent whole.  That’s where this movie comes up short.

For the uninformed, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international tournament held since 1956 among mainly European countries.  Many Americans are still unaware of this cultural event.  Some facts: Ireland holds the record for the most wins with 7.  Sweden is close behind with 6.  As a fan of ABBA, I happen to know they won for Sweden with “Waterloo” in 1974.  Most of the winners are unknown to American audiences although French-Canadian singing sensation Céline Dion won in 1988 representing Switzerland of all places for reasons I still don’t understand.  Regardless, some allege the match tends to recognize the most bombastic, overproduced pop music you can imagine.  And to those people I say, what’s wrong with that?

This is a surprisingly respectful take on the event.  Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny because it’s true.”  Even a simpleton like him knows that humor is most effective when there’s a kernel of truth to it.  The thing that saves the production is that Eurovision is less a parodic skewering but rather holds genuine affection for the source material.  There’s a lot of infectious music in this movie that brilliantly straddles the line between frivolous fluff and melodic earworms.  The first instance occurs early on, not 3 minutes into the picture.  Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) of Fire Saga present a mesmerizing pop video called “Volcano Man”.  The spectacle features costumes that would’ve made KISS look restrained in their heyday.  I relished the sight of Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams excessively dolled up in shiny armor and resplendent fur respectively.  The lyrics are silly, but the tune is a bass-thumping banger.  It’s brilliant.  Unfortunately, their fantastic number is cut off halfway through for a laugh.  I’m still disappointed by that.

All of these wonderful musical ditties are poorly united with a screenplay by Will Ferrell & Andrew Steele (The Ladies Man) that is a real downer.  For one thing, the chronicle is far too long.  The film is over 2 hours and it goes through a lot of tangled machinations.  The Icelandic council first needs to pick twelve acts to compete for the Eurovision slot.  This includes a frontrunner named Katianna (Demi Lovato).  Fire Saga succeeds with another feel-good jam called “Double Trouble”.  However, one judge named Victor (Mikael Persbrandt) doesn’t want his own country to win for an illogical reason that could easily be solved by simply not participating.  Bizarrely all of the potential entrants die in a freak accident, save one.  Guess which act survives?  In Scotland, the heads of our central duo are tuned by other singers.  Sigrit is drawn to Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) a Russian competitor and Lars by Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece.  We the audience know that Fire Saga must get to the semi-finals.  I mean that is the whole point.  Yet there is so much convoluted nonsense that really taxes the viewer’s patience.  This is an endurance test.

Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) is a vision as Sigrit Ericksdottir.  She is the more charismatic half of their amateur pop musical duo.  Her charm is undeniable and when she sings it is a revelation.  Alas, it is not her voice but dubbed by a performer named Molly Sandén, who represented Sweden at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.  There is one point in the adventure where McAdams does sing a ballad about her hometown “Husavikat”.  Not the climatic version but earlier in a quiet moment at a piano.  Sigrit is a captivating presence.  When she pleads with fellow partner Lars to stay in the competition, all of our sympathies are with her.  We resent Lars for the decision he makes.

As the setting for an interesting tale, Eurovision is a great idea.  Will Ferrell gets a lot of credit for that.  He isn’t just the star, but also its writer and producer.  However, I wish he could’ve swallowed his ego and cast someone who fits the part of nordic pop star Lars Erickssong better.  Alexander Skarsgård is the most obvious choice but Joel Kinnaman or Jakob Oftebro also come to mind.  Will Ferrell may “only” be 11 years older, but he seems more plausible as Rachel McAdams’ father than her love interest.  Oh, but on a related note, the actor playing Will Ferrell’s father Erick is none other than James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan sports a graying beard but the two guys still look like they’re nearly the same age.  I had to check.  Brosnan is merely 14 years Ferrell’s senior. Apparently, father Erick started young.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that every casting decision flatters a star who also happens to be the producer.

Key moments uplift this picture into something worth watching.  A cinematographer can elevate a film.  That previously mentioned video for “Volcano Man” is stunning.  The piece was photographed on location at a real volcanic lava field near Keflavik, Iceland.  The segment is lavishly photographed as is the rest of the production which highlights gorgeous vistas shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow when they get to Scotland.  Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) deserves some serious credit for raising the film’s aesthetic into art even when the words coming out of the actor’s mouths are not.  Another high point occurs when the contestants gather together for a party.  Suddenly it’s time for a group sing they call a song-along.  The joyous medley combines Believe (Cher), Ray of Light (Madonna), Waterloo (ABBA) Ne partez pas sans moi (Celine Dion), and I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas) into one singular anthem.  Eurovision fans in the know will recognize a raft of past performers in a series of cameos.  It’s performances like this that ultimately push my review into a recommendation.   It’s such a pity that the non-musical portions are so tedious.

Da 5 Bloods

Posted in Adventure, Drama, War with tags on June 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

da_five_bloodsSTARS3.5Oh boy, I’ve seen a lot of movies.  But you needed’t be a film studies major.   As Da 5 Bloods unfolded it sparked the fond memories of two classics.      This narrative is clearly inspired by an amalgamation of Saving Private Ryan and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Ah, but with Spike Lee, the filmmaker certainly puts his own spin on it.   This has an added component that when filtered through the context of our current reality.  Da 5 Bloods is a blistering critique of U.S. exploitation of African-Americans in war and in general.  It is presented as nothing less than a major statement for our time.   Spike Lee still has his finger on the pulse of modern America.  As a piece of entertainment, it’s adequate but as a reflection of the current zeitgeist, it’s one of the most noteworthy releases of the year.

Spike Lee’s work is a  blending of pop culture references.   Even he acknowledges his debt to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  When Paul (Delroy Lindo) demands to see the credentials of a Vietnam official  waving a gun named Quan (Nguyen Ngoc Lam), the man replies, “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”   That’s an obvious reference.   There are more: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Three Kings are others.   Lee is a student of film.  Meanwhile, the soundtrack utilizes songs from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a concept album released in 1971 that is just as much of a political statement then as it is now.

Spike gets even more serious with an intro that he usually saves for the climax utilizing historical footage of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X then blissfully confronting the viewer with every recognizable Vietnam- era photograph in a deluge of snapshots.  A little background history: the montage includes the suicide protest of Buddhist monks Thích Quảng Đức & Ho Dinh Van, also Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack and the Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém.  I recount their names out of respect which is significantly more due than that the movie affords these individuals in this rapid-fire array.  These are iconic portraits so powerful that they singlehandedly changed the public perception of an entire war.  The superficial appropriation of these images is problematic in this context.  My review largely disregards this brief sequence but I think its inclusion bears a mention.

“Male bonding” is a cliched phrase but here it is the enjoyable highlight of the picture.   The story was developed by Lee and his regular collaborator Kevin Willmott from an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.   It concerns 4 black war veterans returning to Vietnam.   Officially they’re there to locate and recover the remains of their fallen squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Boseman).  Why the nickname of Gulf War general Norman Schwarzkopf is invoked as a comparison to this individual is a mystery.   Anyway, the band is also trying to uncover a stache of buried gold bullion once thought to be lost.   What ultimately endears an adventure to an audience is the people involved.   The best thing about this narrative is the camaraderie between the four principals they each have a distinct personality and the way their personalities mesh is the enjoyment of the picture.  The four actors are Clarke Peters, Norm Lews, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and Delroy Lindo.

Delroy Lindo is the standout as Paul.  The actor plays a Vietnam veteran whose conservative politics are driven by a mentality of betrayal.  Lindo surprisingly dons a MAGA hat revealing himself to be a Donald Trump supporter.   But as we get to know Paul, the layers behind his stance become apparent.  His performance is restrained yet intimate.  Director Lee has worked with Delroy Lindo on three productions before Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), and Clockers (1995).  They collaborate here on a character that makes perfect sense in his motivations and desires.  What’s not surprising is that his achievement is garnering Oscar talk.

Da 5 Bloods is a mid-level work for Spike Lee.  It’s good but not great.  Comparatively, BlacKkKlansman from just 2 years ago was better.   To its credit, the plot is inherently simple at its essence.   Yet there’s an overabundance of labored machinations in this 2-hour 34-minute feature.   Thankfully the story hits its stride in due time within the 2nd half.   I prefer the simplicity of a straight-ahead narrative.   As such, I am not a fan of flashback sequences.  They are a cinematic affectation that should be used sparingly.    However, this saga has an almost obsequious reliance on them.  Each one further highlighted because it’s shot on 16mm film.   Regardless,  the timing couldn’t be more prescient.  The Black Lives Matter movement currently blankets every single aspect of American life.   Furthermore thanks to COVID-19, Hollywood studios have essentially placed a  moratorium on new releases.  Meanwhile, Da 5 Bloods has been rightfully elevated as a major cultural event because critics have deemed it to be a “work of art”.   That makes this one of the most significant releases of 2020 to be sure.

Addendum:  Da Five Bloods debuted on Netflix on June 12.  After briefly occupying the #1 position, it promptly dropped out of the Top 10. The current #1 movie?  An animated picture from ToonBox Entertainment called The Nut Job that made under $65 million in 2014.

06-13-10

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Drama, Podcast on June 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on talkSPORT radio with Will Gavin to discuss the latest movies. On this week’s movie segment, hear my thoughts on THE LOVEBIRDS (Netflix) and THE WRETCHED (Video on demand).

My segment begins just 4 minutes into the 2:00-2:30 section (about 26 minutes from the end).

Click the link below and hit play:

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Artemis Fowl

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

artemis_fowlSTARS1I couldn’t decipher it.  For the uninitiated (that would include me) Artemis Fowl is an impenetrable hodgepodge.  This is an adventure so confusing that it practically dares you to understand it.  I have a college degree mind you and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the random assemblage of stuff thrown up on the screen.  Lovers of the 8 young adult fantasy novels written by Irish author Eoin Colfer have sadly waited nearly two decades.  This adaptation has languished in development hell after the first book was published in 2001.  Artemis Fowl is a fanciful tale that aimlessly fluctuates between both human and fairy type characters.  The latter encompasses elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, sprites, gremlins, and demons.  I didn’t realize what I was getting into.  Unfortunately, the narrative never makes any concessions to try and draw the viewer into this complex world.  However, I will do better by trying to make sense of what I saw, dear reader.

Let me see if I can piece together some semblance of a story.  Let’s begin with the complete snooze that is the central protagonist.  Artemis is a name most famously attributed to the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology.  Here however it refers to a highly intelligent 12-year-old boy, a child prodigy and we’re told a so-called criminal mastermind.  Criminal?!  He’s more of a dispassionate philanthropist.  As embodied by teen actor Ferdia Shaw, he is a cold, unemotional individual that elicits zero enthusiasm.  Shaw lacks the charisma to be the focus of a production.  The screenwriters seem to indirectly acknowledge this because he’s frequently relegated to the background while a couple of side characters become the center of attention.  Elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — a large dwarf that resembles Hagrid from Harry Potter — are comparatively more interesting.  Probably not a good foundation to kick off a cinematic franchise.  Judi Dench also shows up as an elven military commander who at one point tells someone to “Get the four-leaf clover out of here!”   That’s an amusing line.  Unfortunately nothing else she says afterward ever is.

The Fowl clan is kind of a family along the lines of the Corleones in The Godfather.  They are a close-knit group of people.  So when Dad (Colin Farrell) goes missing, Artemis — with the help of his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) — must recover an acorn-shaped artifact called the Aculos.  That’s about all I can tell you.  The narrative doesn’t offer a plot but rather a vomit of action sequences and special effects.  It haphazardly jumps from one event to another with little explanation as to why anyone is doing what they are doing.  I sat there dumbfounded for 95 minutes bewildered by the utter cacophony of noise and spectacle that unfolded before my eyes.  It’s as baffling as anything ever committed to celluloid and that includes the opening monologue to David Lynch’s Dune.

I hated this movie.  Artemis Fowl is among the worst films of 2020.  Given our current reality, that’s really saying something.  There are explicit reasons why this property was greenlighted.  It’s called “MONEY”.  The search for the next literary work that can mimic Harry Potter’s success continues.  It superficially involves fairies, dwarves, trolls, and other  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.   Oops sorry!  That was yet another unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Harry Potter’s magic.  Given the chilly response, Artemis Fowl hasn’t placated even the most devoted supporters.  This release is an insult to every human being that enjoys cinema so if you aren’t deeply familiar with the text, this will be an even more frustrating experience.  How did Disney (a studio that usually knows what people want) allow this mess to get a release?  A lot of the blame should be placed on the screenplay by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl but director Kenneth Branagh is culpable too.   His ability to helm a coherent feature is seriously in question.   The Irish director has given us many other examples over the course of three decades: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), As You Like It (2006), Sleuth (2007), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) weren’t good movies either but he’s surprisingly topped himself in 2020.  It pains me to say it, but this is unquestionably Branagh’s worst film.

06-12-20

You Don’t Nomi

Posted in Documentary with tags on June 14, 2020 by Mark Hobin

you_dont_nomiSTARS3.5Depending on how you approach it, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls could either be the worst movie ever made or the most hilarious.  The highest-grossing NC-17 rated film was critically reviled when it was released back in 1995.  In the ensuing years, however, it was been reevaluated by a large segment of the population as a cult classic.  The cleverly titled You Don’t Nomi is a fairly scholarly examination of cinema.  If you love Showgirls, you should appreciate director Jeffrey McHale’s documentary as well but even if you don’t, you still might savor this intelligent assessment.

Were the creators aware of the camp appeal in their work?  McHale considers the idea. I’m convinced that screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven had every intention to do a serious drama.  A rags to riches tale that utilized the blueprint of All About Eve.  A portrait of one Nomi Malone and her drive to claw her way into the starring role of a Las Vegas spectacular called “Goddess”.  The movie was not well-received initially.  Paul Verhoeven was able to put the setback behind him but star Elizabeth Berkley wasn’t so lucky.  Her career was completely derailed in the aftermath.  There is a happy ending of sorts though.  As we see here, she ultimately found peace from the adulation of the fans who have embraced the film.

Director Jeffrey McHale’s is clearly an admirer.  Who else but a true fan would dare to subject themselves to such a detailed study of something they hated?  Nevertheless, he concedes the more ridiculous aspects of the production.     He celebrates the film for its style and panache.  Along the way he presents a studious consideration not just of Showgirls but of Paul Verhoeven’s entire oeuvre.  He holds a genuine appreciation for the auteur’s work but also understands why people dislike some of this particular picture’s more unsavory aspects.  I do wish You Don’t Nomi had taken a harsher condemnation on the rape scene though.  Truth be told, I actually own the DVD.  I freely admit that.   However, I always fast forward over that reprehensible part — my own bit of removing something that is extremely unwatchable.

You Don’t Nomi isn’t a revolutionary appraisal. Showgirls has already undergone a critical reassessment in the 25 years since it came out.  It has earned a devoted cult of enthusiasts.  McHale’s assessment is still enjoyable.  He asserts it’s well-made but he also pokes fun at the unintentional comedy.  A winking screenplay that is knowingly awful is never as entertaining as the big-budget efforts that attempt something great and fails miserably.  Valley of the Dolls, Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu, or Mommie Dearest all exist in the rarefied air of hilariously bad cinema.  This documentary reinforces the belief that Showgirls is a worthy addition to that tradition.

05-17-20

The High Note

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on June 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

high_note_ver2STARS3At first, the focus of this fetaure appears to be Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B/pop music superstar along the lines of Beyoncé or Rihanna.  However, Grace Davis is older than those artists.  To its credit, the screenplay makes a feeble attempt to address the concerns of an aging woman in the music industry.   Unfortunately,  it merely pays lip service to those feelings without tackling them in any meaningful way.  Manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) assumes that her hit-making days have passed.  He advises Grace to accept a Las Vegas residency.  He’s not wrong.    I’ve always regarded a residency as an impressive honor.  In the last decade beloved performers such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have solidified their ongoing appeal in this way while reaping millions of dollars in the process without having to tour.  Curiously the drama regards the very consideration as an embarrassing desire — an acknowledgment of being irrelevant.  Call me crazy, but the idea is not hitting rock bottom folks.  Far from it.  This is in fact an account detailing the enviable choice between two very attractive options.   There are literally no stakes here and therefore the plot is inconsequential at best.

The narrative slowly morphs, however, into a tale centered around a completely different person.  Grace is indeed a big personality.  She is a demanding individual with a huge talent and the sizable ego that comes along with it.  But she also has Maggie, a personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who is a dedicated and overworked soul.  Maggie’s job description apparently requires her to do trivial things like break in Grace’s new pair of shoes.  Maggie’s dream is to be a record producer.  Much to my surprise, it is really her ambitions that ultimately become the main focus of the film.

Figuring out the point of view of The High Note is rather confusing.   You’d think supporting the achievements of an aging woman in show business would be something we should admire.   Yet Grace Davis is presented as a wholly self-centered creature.  She carelessly dismisses a request from a fellow accomplished and well-known musician (Eddie Izzard) because he doesn’t have as many Grammys as she does.  In other scenes, Grace is hellbent on suppressing her own creativity.   It has been years since the artist put out new material.  Assistant Maggie encourages her boss to release a new album because she believes in her talent.   Nonetheless, Grace doesn’t agree.  She counteracts with a declaration highlighted in the trailer:  “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black.”  [Fact-check: Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Sia and Mariah Carey have all had #1’s over the age of 40.]  Maggie is trying to support the creative expression of this celebrity, while the woman herself argues against the idea.  Maggie has taken the time to learn everything she can about her employer.   She is uplifted as an intrinsically kind-hearted human.   I’ll admit these admirable qualities may be a requirement of Maggie’s job but Grace can’t even be bothered to learn Maggie’s last name.  Ouch!

The High Note is a glossy pop distraction directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.  This superficial fable won’t any awards for originality.  However, it’s well-acted by the entire cast.  It exists as lighthearted entertainment that is easily consumed as comfort food to make you feel good while sheltering at home during dark times.  Let’s not ignore the fact that this music superstar is depicted by the daughter of one of the most iconic personalities that ever lived: Diana Ross.  Tracee Ellis Ross brings knowledge and depth to a role that few others could.  There are two additional standouts: Dakota Johnson is engaging as the assistant.  I continue to be impressed by her.  Check out The Peanut Butter Falcon if you need further proof.  There’s also Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays David, an aspiring singer who becomes Maggie’s love interest.  The actor was also in Waves last year and he’s definitely a rising star.   See the movie for them.  If you want to watch something new and you need it now. The High Note will suffice.

05-30-20