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Movies

Indie Focus: Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross reach for ‘The High Note’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown being overseen by Times film critic Justin Chang crowned another weekly winner, with Ridley Scott’s “Alien” defeating movies such as “Star Wars,” “The Shining,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Notting Hill.” (Honestly, one of the most fun/revelatory things about this project is realizing how many incredible movies were released during the same week of different years.)

Scott joined Chang for a conversation about “Alien” in which they discussed how 1977’s “Star Wars” influenced his own movie in 1979, how star Sigourney Weaver was cast, the secret behind the notorious “chestburster” and the curious phone call it inspired from Stanley Kubrick.

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Voting on next week’s winner has already concluded, with “Finding Nemo” taking the top spot from such movies as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Up,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.”

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‘The High Note’

Directed by Nisha Ganatra from a screenplay by Flora Greeson, “The High Note” is a combination workplace/romantic comedy set in the music industry in Los Angeles. Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode, who works as the personal assistant to Grace Davis, an imperious superstar singer played by Tracee Ellis Ross. But Maggie harbors ambitions to be a producer and soon finds herself working on the side with David Cliff, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. The cast also includes Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Zoë Chao and June David Raphael. Released by Focus Features, the movie is available on VOD.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang noted Johnson’s understated gifts but added, “The sheer force of Harrison’s charm here might prove even more disarming if you saw his anguished troubled-teen performances in ‘Luce’ and ‘Waves’; here, he’s almost unrecognizably happy, mellow, flirtatious and winning by comparison, with a guitar in his hand, a song on his lips and, in time, a studio microphone in his face. Like ‘The High Note’ at its intermittent best, he gives wish fulfillment a good name.”

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Sonaiya Kelley has a story on the movie that will be published next week.

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “The trio of Ross, Johnson and Harrison Jr. are absolutely infectious. And while ‘The High Note’ is a heightened reality, they each bring a sense of authenticity and groundedness to the emotional layers of their characters. … It’s a showbiz fable that also wants to grapple with the realities of sexism and ageism in the industry, but it’s far more successful at offering up a refreshing swig of intoxicating Los Angeles fantasy. Might as well drink up.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastien wrote, “The diva can be a valuable vehicle with which to study the nature of women’s ambitions in the public sphere. ... [‘The High Note’] seeks in part to both complicate the diva and reveal her humanity, but it doesn’t quite manage to see beyond the surface trappings of fame and fortune.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote about how the character of Grace Davis bears more than a passing connection to Ellis Ross’ own mother, singer Diana Ross. “It’s interesting to watch Ellis Ross play around in this persona, applying her natural, sardonic acting style to a story of iconography she probably knows a version of all too well. But ‘The High Note’ is not a navel-gazing kind of movie, really. Ellis Ross plays this vicarious bit of art imitating life with a wry wrinkle of awareness, yet the film never requires her to draw the comparisons any closer. That real-life stuff is kept at a comfortable distance, giving the viewer the vaguely smug satisfaction of knowing there’s something more going on than the movie immediately lets on, without drowning itself in meta irony.”

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in the movie "The High Note."
(Focus Features)

‘The Vast of Night’

Directed by Andrew Patterson, making his feature debut, from a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, “The Vast of Night” is set over one night in 1950s New Mexico. When a strange signal becomes audible in a small town, it is up to a local DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) to try to figure out who or what is causing it. Released by Amazon Studios, the movie is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Forced to supply my own description, I’d say that ‘The Vast of Night’ exists somewhere at the intersection of radio, television and cinema, and that it excavates some of our fondest old-timey memories of all three in order to build something playfully, strikingly new.”

I spoke to Patterson in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, who reached out to the younger filmmaker after seeing the film. Patterson spoke about the movies that he drew from in making “The Vast of Night” — an eclectic syllabus that includes “All the President’s Men,” “’71,” “Zodiac” and “Before Sunrise” — while Soderbergh touched on what made him lend his support. “I just wanted to be a sounding board,” Soderbergh said. “Because sometimes it’s hard to know where north is, especially when people are saying things that they think you want to hear. And so I have a real empathy for anybody in that situation.”

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For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that Patterson “has strong support — the score and sound design are exemplary — as well as a feel for how to box characters in and for the spookiness of long nights. The actors add some filigree to their genre types but are consistently upstaged by the superb, supple camerawork. With the cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz, Patterson turns the camera into an uneasily embodied presence and when it takes flight so does the movie.”

For The Wrap, Monica Castillo wrote, “Patterson’s retro sci-fi thriller ‘The Vast of Night’ has the look and feel of a restored 1950s Cadillac. There are certain aspects that appear new, but your first impression of the car is of its original time and era, a place that seems both modern yet quaintly of the past. From the moment the opening shot closes in on an old TV set playing an episode of ‘Paradox Theater,’ a riff on old ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ shows, we’re placed in the front seat of a story that feels both old and new, familiar yet different.”

Reviewing the film for Variety, Amy Nicholson wrote, “Audiences who’ve lived in small towns, themselves — or towns that felt small, no matter the size — will appreciate the nuances in ‘The Vast of Night’s’ script that give it emotion and weight. … And there’s a pattern to the callers who ring up the radio station to tell Everett everything they know. They’re black, or they’re female, and no one’s ever bothered to listen to them before. Which gives ‘The Vast of Night’ a self-referential resonance: Pay attention to unexpected voices.”

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in the movie "The Vast of Night."
(Amazon Studios)
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‘On the Record’

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, “On the Record” was already one of the most controversial films of the year even before it was released. The documentary details sexual-assault allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, including the harrowing stories of subjects Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams and Sherri Hines. Having weathered controversy when the production lost both Oprah Winfrey as a producer and Apple TV+ as a distributor just ahead of its premiere at Sundance, the movie is now the first original film on the new HBO Max streaming service.

Justin Chang reviewed the film earlier this year out of Sundance. Calling it “powerful, infuriating and embattled,” he wrote, “The movie never falls into the trap of making Simmons its true subject or raison d’être. His role as the pioneering ‘godfather of hip-hop’ is duly acknowledged, but you will leave ‘On the Record’ thinking more about the unacknowledged contributions of many women who worked alongside him, some of whom note that they sacrificed jobs and careers in the music industry to escape further trauma and abuse.”

Amy Kaufman also covered the movie out of Sundance and caught up with its subjects again more recently to talk about the experience of seeing the movie through to release. As Abrams said, “I mean, look: A lot of people would love to be heard and are never heard. So it’s an absolute privilege to be a part of this project. … But at the same time, I am looking forward to moving ahead and being able to incorporate all of these wonderful experiences — and some of the challenges — into something that will help me be of better service as an advocate and an activist.”

For The Wrap, Candice Frederick called the film “much more than an exposé on the alleged crimes of Simmons, L.A. Reid and so many other men in music whose accusers have yet to step forward. It does what so little of the dialogue has managed to do: Implore audiences to embrace black female survivors and to understand the cultural and painful dilemmas they continue to endure along their avid fight to heal the wounds of the entire black race. Though it’s at times a gutting watch, it’s ultimately about hope and sisterhood.”

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At the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote, “The film, at its core, is about how survivors telling their stories, if and when they choose to, can help sexual assault victims transform the trauma buried inside. Dixon indeed transforms before our eyes. Her transition from victim to survivor also shows us what traumatic recovery, an opaque concept for many, actually looks like in the practical details of a person’s everyday life. Here we find that her daily life, although uniquely hers, doesn’t look that much different from our own.”

Drew Dixon, Sal Lai Abrams and Sheri Hines of documentary “On the Record,” photographed at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Drew Dixon, Sal Lai Abrams and Sheri Hines of “On the Record,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


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