HIGH FLYING BIRD (2019)

February 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the “Oceans” franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects (“The Knick”, “Godless”), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.

Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks … a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished.  Andre Holland (also one of the film’s producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray – although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client – hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick’s top pick contract has not yet been executed … so he’s in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.

Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray’s assistant who constantly reminds him, “I don’t work for you anymore”, despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners’ lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray’s boss.

Ray’s work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players’ image. Is it the league, the players’ association, or the player himself? It’s a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.

Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. “You care all the way or you don’t care at all” is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it’s quite obvious this isn’t the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.

available on Netflix February 8

watch the trailer:

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INSIDE OUT (2015)

June 18, 2015

inside out Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1995 to be exact … Pixar revitalized and revolutionized the world of animated movies with the release of the first Toy Story. In the process, they sent our expectations soaring for each of their subsequent movies. Despite the pressure of such high standards, the creative geniuses at the studio have regularly thrilled and delighted us over the years with classics such as Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and Brave (2012). And beyond these, there have been a few true cinematic masterpieces – transcendent  films: Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010).  This most recent release unquestionably belongs in the latter group … it’s one for the ages (and all ages).

Genius and brilliance could be used to describe all aspects of this movie. It’s a technical marvel, a visual kaleidoscope of bright colors across the full screen, and most amazingly, it packs an emotional wallop with real life moments for adolescents and parents alike.

My comments will be brief because this is one you should experience for yourself – and probably more than once. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl who lives in Minnesota and loves her parents, her friends, and hockey. She is happy and well-adjusted. When the family relocates to San Francisco, broccoli on the pizza is only one of the challenges Riley must face. This change affects everything for her – no more friends, no more hockey, and a strained relationship with her parents.  At this point, you are probably saying “So what?  That’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”  And you are correct, except we have never seen it explained the way Pixar does.

We literally go behind-the-scenes of Riley’s brain and see the control panel of her emotions. There is a constant battle between Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and the ring-leader Joy (Amy Poehler). This is an exploration of emotions and memories, and the explanation has some scientific merit. Memories are depicted as marbles, and Riley’s favorite things are shown as islands (Sports Island, Friendship Island, etc). How emotions affect memories is the key point here, and especially how sadness is necessary and vital to our joy. Have you wondered why we forget our imaginary childhood friends (Riley’s is Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind)? Have you wondered why our memories change over time, and are impacted by our emotional state in any given moment? This animated gem will help you understand.

Director Pete Docter (the genius behind Up) has a daughter of his own, and he clearly “gets” the emotional changes brought on during the pre-teen years. His research, and that of co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, takes us on an adventure that should inspire much conversation between parents and kids. And even if it somehow doesn’t break the ice in every family, it will at a minimum help youngsters and parents better understand the link between emotions and memories … plus, they will probably share a good cry and a bunch of laughs along the way. Hats off (again) to the Pixar geniuses. I dare you to top this one!

***NOTE: you should also look forward to another Pixar tradition – the pre-movie short film. This one is a very unique short entitled Lava.

watch the trailer: