The middle of November for me was filled with movies that were in equal parts about dreams and playing to your passions. Usually these kinds of films are well within my wheelhouse, but maybe because of the times we are living in or changing tastes each left a lingering sour taste. Let me explain.
The High Note
Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is all about authenticity in a business that thrives off the fake and the contrived. Following personal assistant and wannabe music producer Maggie (Dakota Johnson) as she struggles between making a name for herself and keeping her job as megastar Grace Davis’ (Tracee Ellis Ross) assistant. Both are impressive characters and Ross in particular gives a wonderful blend of sarcastic wit and the kind of toxic self-aggrandisement that comes from dwindling fame. It is in how Ganatra gives her vision of Los Angeles life that feels off here however. When Maggie and Grace are in each others orbit, Ganatra makes the most of Johnson and Ross’ electric chemistry and Flora Greeson’s snappy script, finding comedy in a simple friendship but when Maggie is let loose into the city an idealised version of making it in the big city emerges. It all feels painfully privileged and never plays to a story all about risking it all for a shot at making a name for yourself or in Grace’s case, revitalising herself. That isn’t to say that Ganatra hasn’t crafted a strong film, one of warm female friendship, the pains of fame and the effects of misguided expectations. It all culminates in an ending too outlandish to take seriously however which sullies an enjoyable watch by pandering to rom-com conventions despite the fact The High Note isn’t one.
The true story of Zach Sobiech is exactly the kind of inspirational tearjerker that is right up Disney’s alley and it is the basis for Five Feet Apart director Justin Baldoni’s follow up Clouds. Telling the story of terminally ill Zach (Fin Argus) who upon receiving his diagnosis decides with his best friend Sammy (an excellent Sabrina Carpenter) to start writing music instead of letting his condition limit him. I won’t ruin the rest of Clouds for you as this faithful retelling of the story works best as a fresh experience and it is one of the few emotional Disney films of recent years that doesn’t feel exploitative, instead naturally guiding both Zach and the audience through each hurdle, servicing the story and not an audience. Zach’s tale is poignant and life affirming without unnecessary pontificating and the script by Kara Holden never treats its characters like victims. The only disparaging element of Clouds is how it unfortunately isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. This kind of sombre tale is all too frequent and while Clouds is an impressively honest re-enactment that has an admirable warmth to it, it never feels like something different until the credits when snapshots of the real Zach and his friends hit you in a way Baldoni’s film doesn’t.
The King of Staten Island
Judd Apatow’s latest is a film using actor Pete Davidson’s real life trauma (his father died in 9/11 as a first responding fire fighter) as inspiration for this drama about a man child seeking a purpose in his life while still holding onto the loss of his father. While much was made of this semi-biographical feature and the potent mixture of Apatow and Davidson working together, its impossible to ignore the fact that this meandering, sloppy feature squanders what could have been a powerful drama in search of dire comedy and dated bromances. Following Scott (Davidson) as he ignores his families pleas to grow up, intent to coast through life, get stoned and ignore the few things he might actually be good at, namely his artwork. When his mother starts dating fireman Ray (Bill Burr), it seems like this unexpected development might jolt Scott out of his stupor. It’s an interesting start to a feature that never digs deep into the idea of past trauma, instead Apatow and Davidson use this compeling premise to allow Scott to behave like a petulant kid, not someone worth listening to or following for two long, arduous hours full of progressively more pointless subplots and characters. It is only in Scott’s relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley) that Apatow seems to have something relevant to say about Scott’s worth and how hidden behind his insecurities and doubt is a decent human being. However this seems to be something stumbled upon instead of intentionally explored thanks to Powley’s excellent performance, one that seems out of place in a feature full of adults not acting their age. Then again, Apatow has made a career out of that exact premise, here it just feels far too played out, especially for what Apatow considers a drama.
It feels odd in 2020 watching a film that actively embraces the multi-cultural nature of London and the Britain that should be actively championed, the accepting one we have somehow forgotten. Love Sarah feels like a throwback in that regard, both in how it revolves around a successful small business and how it embraces culture and togetherness in a story that stems from grief but is really about joint success and happiness. In her feature debut Eliza Schroeder tells the story of three women trying to honour the titular Sarah whose death opens the film. Following her daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet), best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) and estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) as they attempt to open a bakery in Sarah’s honour, Schroeder’s film is quintessentially British to anyone who was raised on 90s rom-coms and the like. However Love Sarah merges the past and the present in a story that feels inclusive to all. While it might take some getting used to the sweetness, the bright picture that actively seems to ignore the ghost/elephant in the room, it’s hard not to embrace the fairytale idyllic idea of what can be with just a little bit of acceptance. Despite a questionable side plot about Clarissa’s paternity that doesn’t mesh with Schroeder’s story, this is no frills classic british cinema and despite a bland look that fails to add the needed colour to the delectable treats and goodies on display, this is an easy going and most of all fun escape from the reality of today.
In the final part of this series I’ll write about the Jesse Eisenberg starring Resistance, Roger Mitchell’s Blackbird, The poorly titled The Tax Collector and Lilting director Hong Khaou’s follow-up Monsoon. As always leave a message if you have anything to say about anything here.