‘The High Note’
In another world and another time, some of us might have gone out to the multiplexes to see “The High Note” this weekend; instead, this drama/romance set in the music industry is available to rent on our small screens, skipping theatrical release entirely. (Platforms include Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Xfinity, Vudu, Google Play and FandangoNOW.) It sounded promising enough: Director Nisha Ganatra made a charmer (“Late Night”) last time around, and the casting of Tracee Ellis Ross as a pop-star diva (shades of her mother, Diana Ross) and Dakota Johnson as a personal assistant yearning to use her creative talents as a producer seemed just right.
And … well, adjust your expectations, and “The High Note” works just fine. Considering the wit of “Late Night” (written by Mindy Kaling; this one’s scripted by first-timer Flora Greeson), I was picturing a sort of Los Angeles music version of “Working Girl,” maybe with a little bit of “The Devil Wears Prada” mixed in. But this film isn’t really a comedy, and Ross isn’t doing Miranda Priestly in a catsuit — as much fun as that might be. Her character, Grace, is no temperamental diva; she’s high-maintenance, but reasonably so. Instead, what we have here is a pleasant, glossy tale about two women at different places in their lives, and about the interesting connection between them.
Along the way, I learned a few things about what a music producer does, enjoyed a sweet supporting performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves”) and appreciated Ross’ effortless coolness. (Watch one late scene, in which Grace enters a modest home, and note the elegant understatement with which she conveys distaste; just the faintest wrinkling around the mouth, like an expensive handkerchief.) Is “The High Note” worth paying premium pay-per-view rates? If you’re a fan of the cast, maybe; all others might want to wait until it’s cheaper, or maybe just watch “Working Girl” again.
‘The Half of It’
Lest I sound like a stuck-at-home curmudgeon (well, aren’t we all?), let me note that I fell quite in love with another new movie this week: “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu (“Saving Face”) and available on Netflix. Wu, who formerly lived in Eastern Washington, sets her film in a fictional small town there named Squahamish, though it was shot in upstate New York. In that sleepy town lives high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) with her widowed father (Collin Chou), in a too-quiet apartment over the railway depot where he works. Like every teenager in a rom-com, Ellie is in love: with Aster (Alexxis Lemire), a pretty, popular girl in her class. But Ellie can’t say a word, for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that she’s been hired by doltish jock Paul (Daniel Diemer, deploying a killer not-quite-all-there grin) to write love letters to Aster on his behalf.
Yes, this is “Cyrano de Bergerac” (previously, and happily, translated to movies in the 1987 Steve Martin comedy “Roxanne”), given a new spin. And it’s a wistful charmer. We’re warned from the beginning, in Ellie’s voice-over, that “This is not a love story. Not one where everybody gets what they want,” and she’s right. But “The Half of It” is about more than love; it’s also an enchanting story of friendship, in which Ellie and Paul learn to support each other. Lewis and Diemer, each yearning for Aster but unable to express it, make a wonderful comedic pair. “You could live in the ocean of her thoughts,” muses poetic Ellie, of the object of her affection. Paul, hilariously clueless, tries to remember the phrase at a diner with Ellie. “Your laughter is, um, an ocean of thoughts,” is the best he can come up with.
Ultimately, Ellie grows more comfortable with herself (and sweetly reconnects with her quiet, grieving dad), as does Paul, and “The Half of It” delivers an ending that’s full of possibility. But I found myself shedding a few tears at its end — happy ones, to be sure, but bittersweet. It’s hard enough finding new friends these days (particularly ones who, as the characters in this book do, wax rhapsodic over the “barely repressed longing” in “The Remains of the Day”); it’s even harder when they have to leave so quickly.