May is coming to an end, and while the Summer movies aren’t rolling out, as usual, there are still films to see. Drive-ins are currently one viable option, if available in your area, but right now, it is all about streaming. That has changed things, but there’s still room for new reviews. That in mind, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available or arriving in the near future, along with one retro pick for the week. The following features reviews for The Hight Note, The Vast of Night, The Lovebirds, The True History of the Kelly Gang, and Dick Tracy.
The Setup: The dedicated and overworked personal assistant of a music superstar attempts to reach her dream of becoming a music producer by pursuing a talented younger musician.
Review: Last year, director Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night focused on a hardworking writer who was given her dream job of being a comedy writer for an older talk show host. While the film had its moments, I had issues with how it tried to balance some sharp writing with a sitcom-y plot. Oddly enough, The High Note almost feels like Ganatra going for another feature with very similar thematic resonance and ending with a stronger version of this type of story.
Maybe this has to do with providing better arcs for these characters, or how adaptable the music industry is to these kinds of stories, but there just seemed to be stronger writing or at least a more consistent tone with Flora Greeson’s script. Part of what works comes from having strong female characters in varying positions of power and fame while acknowledging that they are still being held back because of either who they are or their age. There are some hard truths presented, and good reasons for reactions to come out the way they do in various instances.
It also helps that the cast all seem to get along. Tracee Ellis Ross (sitcom star and daughter of Diana) gets a chance to show off her vocals, while also playing into the idea of what it takes to be an older female black singer who has not given up on wanting to bring out something new, yet being insecure about those abilities. Her off and on manager (Ice Cube) plays into this in what is an effective dynamic as far as moving between what’s right for the person and what’s right for a career based on industry history.
The film’s larger focus is on Dakota Johnson’s Maggie, however, and enough is going on in her relationship as the assistant to Ross’s Grace Davis, as well as to the new talent she discovers (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to make for an enjoyable film that balances comedy and drama well. As a character who not only loves music but shows real skill in how to produce, something is refreshing about a film that can believably dive into specifics about an industry, while balancing some standard romantic comedy-drama tropes in the process.
Given the scope of a film that focuses on how to be successful based on ability and confidence, without succumbing to the need for villains or overly elaborate plot turns, The High Note is a well-rounded feature. It gets by relying on a solid cast portraying characters who ultimately just want to do what is right, and not betray what they have worked for. That’s a good way to hit the right note.
Where To Watch: Available to rent on VOD starting May 29, 2020.
The Setup: On a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico, a charismatic radio DJ and a young switchboard operator discover a strange frequency leading them on a scavenger hunt that could change the future of their small town.
Review: This is the sort of lo-fi genre film that was right up my alley. The feature film debut of Andrew Patterson proves to be assured in its filmmaking, as well as a strong character-focused story delving into a time period where flying saucers were on the minds of many. Writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger clearly had a vision in mind for a particular type of film, and The Vast of Night proves to be an offbeat take on a very exciting premise.
Much of what works comes down to the style. While the camera rightfully knows how to hold a tight focus on the faces of the various characters to harness every morsel of nuance out of these performances, the film is not afraid to let the scope overtake the proceedings when necessary. While much of the film’s story comes from our two heroes encountering individuals who have a lot to say about specific things taking place, numerous tracking shots emphasize the nature of the small town, while giving way to show off the ambition Patterson had for designing the look of this feature.
It all adds up to a film that feels heavily stylized, which is most assuredly appropriate, given the framing device that is the Paradox Theatre television program this film is supposedly set inside of. Really, that’s just part of the weird quirks making this whole thing come together in a rather earnest manner. The characters play into a definite rhythm, and there’s no attempt to break from it. This allows for a version of the 1950s that keeps the audience’s attention, as further developments allow for the winning chemistry between Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz to playout, in addition to the subtle level of tension, as the 89-minute runtime builds towards some sort of big reveal.
While working in a specific time period and hinting at big ideas, this is a model of efficiency when it comes to independent filmmaking. There’s just enough going on to make the world feel lived-in, thanks to a high school basketball game that has the whole town’s attention. At the same time, the focus is so specific, that it’s very easy to get caught up in the adventure McCormick’s Fay and Horowitz’s Everett go on to find something that’s more hip than they can imagine. It all comes together well, as this is an ingenious, stylish, and very effective feature. It’s the bee’s knees.
Where To Watch: The film was released in select drive-ins on May 15th, and will be on Prime Video May 29th.
The Setup: A couple in the midst of a breakup is suddenly hijacked by a man who uses their vehicle to run over someone. Caught in the moment looking like the culprits, the couple leaves the scene on a comedic adventure to figure out what’s going on.
Review: Having to pull The Lovebirds from its original theatrical release in favor of Netflix was perhaps the best thing for this film, as there’s really nothing here outside of the comedic chemistry shared between stars Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani. It’s a shame, as they are performers who deserve better as far as letting them riff with one another while putting on display their comedic abilities in various humorous scenarios.
It’s all the more disappointing to see director Michael Showalter truly regress from what made his previous film, The Big Sick (co-written by and starring Nanjiani), such a success. No, The Lovebirds doesn’t need to be as emotionally poignant or personally reflective, but it’s a very flatly shot film for one that wants to involve more kinetic moments of action and a murder mystery on top of everything. The Big Sick may have been a character-focused story set in some apartments, the hospital, and a comedy club, but at least it felt like people were in real locations. The Lovebirds is set (and filmed) in New Orleans, but there’s almost nothing about this film to suggest it takes place in any reality.
That’s the other thing, while I was not expecting a grounded story, the film never quite settles on how far to take its comic universe. Moments are constructed as a full-on cartoon, while others are rooted in dark humor. When you have the main characters settled into wearing ridiculous costumes throughout the middle of the movie, it would be nice to feel the film has a tone that can consistently match. Instead, there are a lot of starts and stops as far as achieving some sort of comedic consistency allowing the film to at least work as a funny farce that doesn’t take itself seriously.
The Lovebirds is missing a lot, really. Not that an elaborate plot was needed, but the results don’t amount to much as far as exploring either the relationship dynamic that is immediately challenged by a breakup or the fugitive/murder mystery element, which ends up becoming redundant and all-too-neatly wrapped up. There aren’t even many memorable supporting players to round things out. While not a big-budget film to rope in someone like Mark Wahlberg (as seen in 2010’s Date Night, another hit-or-miss movie, albeit with more star power to make up for it), one would think these famous funny people could at least be surrounded by other notable funny people popping in on occasion).
As it stands, while the lovebirds work well together, the film has only so much to do, once they leave the nest. It’s a sporadically entertaining comedy, where the stakes never really matter, and the premise only feels like a half-hearted attempt at going for something better.
Where To Watch: Currently available on Netflix.
The Setup: Ned Kelly, the legendary Australian outlaw, discovers the kind of person he is thanks to uncovering his heritage, being nurtured by a notorious bushranger, and desiring justice for the unfair arrest of his mother. This all leads to the man becoming the leader of a wild bunch who pride themselves on their anarchy.
Review: Not only is Ned Kelly a notorious criminal, but his infamy has also been dramatized in film dozens of times. 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang is largely known as the first dramatic feature-length film. So, what is it that director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant figure they can do to bring something new to the table? Well, they make Ned Kelly more punk rock, naturally.
Honestly, the film could have used more of this anarchic energy. Some music cues and the visuals certainly suggest a post-modern way of tackling another biopic of a man whose own legacy has been up for debate (the film opens with the disclaimer “none of this is true”). At the same time, I admired the groove this film settled into as far as moving away from some traditional biopic tropes.
Yes, the film tries to fit a lot in, letting us watch Orlando Schwerdt as young Ned Kelly for nearly half the picture before 1917’s George MacKay takes over to prove just how talented he truly is. However, having the film go out of its way to avoid some broader details in favor of trying to get inside the mindset of Ned at certain periods of his relatively short life was a neat choice.
Not hurting is the solid ensemble cast to help portray all of the various influences on Ned’s life. This includes Essie Davis as Ned’s mom, Nicholas Hoult as a constable with a twisted sense of authority, Thomasin McKenzie as Ned’s eventual companion, Charlie Hunnam as a violent sergeant, and Russell Crowe as a notorious criminal who helps to show Ned what he’s capable of.
While the draw may be in this cast or the chance to see another take on the life of Ned Kelly, I was in it for what Kurzel could bring to the table. While Snowtown is still his best film, Macbeth and (to a lesser extent) Assassin’s Creed have shown just how interesting a visual stylist he is in presenting his features. ‘Kelly Gang’ continues that trend, relying on the various Australian settings to dictate very specific color schemes. At the same time, he shoots his cast with a heavy emphasis on shadows or in the wildest of scenarios to set the pace for the kind of mood these people find themselves in.
Not nearly as sprawling or intricate as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, ‘Kelly Gang’ still seeks to take a ruminative approach to the central figure at large, doing less to show what he did to build up his notoriety, and more to play up themes of fractured masculinity, class-based anger, and other aspects serving as a reflection of the time period that doesn’t shy away from how connective aspects are to society today.
While not the first film to explore what it is to be a man, I admired how the visuals and performances came together in creating a violent and absorbing drama willing to present a hyper-reality that plays into the myth of the man on display. A lot of it may be made up, but Ned Kelly would be proud to see his legacy take such twisted shapes.
Where To Watch: Currently available to rent on VOD.
The Setup: Famed detective Dick Tracy finds his life increasingly complicated by the notorious gangster Big Boy Caprice and his mob, while also balancing the struggles of maintaining a personal life.
Review: Dick Tracy is incredible. It is a fully realized world that consists of nothing but primary colors and elaborate matte paintings to place highly stylized characters into a crime-ridden city, with one man doing all he can to achieve justice. This is a larger-than-life comic strip come-to-life, and its success comes from Warren Beatty making all the right moves to make the ultimate Dick Tracy movie.
Honestly, it shouldn’t work. There are far too many characters, the plot is relatively simple, and the performances are huge. Even still, it all clicks together.
While originally a pet project for Beatty, this film arrived a year after Batman, when studios were suddenly deciding that the retro time period was the reason for the big success of the Burton film. This led to the production of The Rocketeer, The Phantom, and The Shadow. All of them flopped (but are also all a lot of fun). Even Dick Tracy performed below expectations as Disney’s first live-action comic book movie. Here’s the thing though, Dick Tracy is better than Batman.
Yes, I’ll always have a soft-spot for Burton’s blockbuster, but this is a far more accomplished feature as far as giving us reason to root for Tracy, let alone relate with his commitment issues, job dedication, and frustration at trying to do good while criminals such as Al Pacino’s “Big Boy” Caprice (in a rightfully Oscar-nominated performance) run wild. And again, none of this should work.
There’s a stylized world full of weird characters played by huge stars like Pacino, James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino, William Forsythe, and others. Shouldn’t work. The film has Tracy teamed up with a kid (Charlie Korsmo) that would be annoying in any other movie. Shouldn’t work. Madonna plays a pivotal role as an entertainer caught in the middle of Tracy and Big Boy, which requires some real effort to pull off. This really shouldn’t work. Still, it all comes together.
With brilliant cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, award-winning makeup designs, a pounding score by an in-his-prime Danny Elfman, original songs by Stephen Sondheim, and a smart script, this is the kind of movie where every penny is not only on screen but squeezed as hard as it could be to make sure you got all the bang possible. And with action scenes featuring Warren Beatty punching and Tommy gunning his way out of trouble, there’s plenty of bang to be found.
Honestly, with the prevalence of superhero films today, while there are plenty that work for me, none of them have a clear artistic personality in the same way they used to. Whether it is Beatty, Donner, Burton, Raimi, Del Toro, among others, the amount of visual effects and clever references never outweigh the idea of an artist putting their very distinct stamp on the material. This is not about putting down the comic book movies of today, but just a reminder of how good they can be when given certain limits while holding up ambition as the truest way to get something great with such an imaginative genre of film.
Perhaps a bit ridiculous by today’s standards, I would still say anyone should be on their way to checking out Dick Tracy if they haven’t seen this explosion of color and personality making its way into a terrific comic book detective story.
Where To Watch: Currently available to rent on VOD.