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

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DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

May 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We couldn’t help but ask “why?” when the sequel was announced, even though we knew the answer was money. There was little hope in improving on the first DEADPOOL (2016), and since that film’s director, Tim Miller, was tied up with upcoming projects for X-Men and Terminator, there was understandable concern that changing the recipe could result in huge disappointment. While it may not be an improvement on the first, only those with unrealistic expectations are likely to be disappointed … the rest of us will spend most of two hours laughing and enjoying the spectacle.

Director David Leitch exploded onto the scene with last year’s surprise action hit ATOMIC BLONDE, and his stuntman experience is once again on display with even more frenzied action and fight sequences this time out. As you might expect, there is no easing into the comedy routine here. The Opening Credits are laugh out loud funny and the only thing better may be the closing credits sequence, which is an instant classic.

No punchlines will be spoiled here, and it’s an obvious statement, but clearly no topic or subject, or at least very few, are off-limits. Targets of barbs include LinkedIn, YENTL, FROZEN, Fox & Friends, and well, the list goes on and on. You’ll likely miss 20 percent of the dialogue whilst laughing. The “Merc with a Mouth” (Ryan Reynolds) breaks the 4th wall in atypical fashion – blurring the line through dialogue incorporated into the story. The self-awareness is comical in its own right.

Some familiar faces are back. Wade’s main squeeze Vanessa (Marina Baccarin) kicks off the “kids” discussion (Yikes!) and the couple seems to have settled into cohabitant bliss – never a good sign in a superhero movie. TJ Miller (despite his recent headlines) is back running Sister Margaret’s Bar, though his minimal presence is noted. Also back is Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), and his expanded role finds him turning Deadpool into an X-Men trainee at Professor Xavier’s School for the gifted. This occurs after tragedy strikes and we are introduced to some new players. Julian Dennison (so good in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) plays FireFist, and of course, the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin) shows us what happens when a time-travelling Terminator type is out for revenge.

Snarking, mocking and irreverence remain in full force throughout, but if you happen to pay attention to the story, you’ll notice a (not-so) subtle transition taking place. The renegade superhero shifts from loner to team player, and even picks up some life lessons along the way – mostly related to loss and collaboration. Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, and one of the more interesting members is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck (yep).  We do get a surprise cameo, and there’s even a shot of Deadpool with no pants … and it’s markedly unsexy. The music selections are inspired, however, if you are unsure whether this movie is for you … it probably isn’t.

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WOLVES (2017)

March 3, 2017

wolves Greetings again from the darkness. Anthony is a good kid with a bright future. He’s a star basketball player and a bright student, and has a loyal girlfriend and seemingly normal home life. It comes as no surprise that most of those elements either aren’t as smooth as they seem, or are more complex than on the surface.

Writer/director Bart Freundlich (known for his 1997 debut feature The Myth of Fingerprints, and for being married to Julianne Moore) slowly unveils the cracks in Anthony’s (Taylor John Smith) façade. His college professor dad (the always great Michael Shannon) is a drunk, abusive man with a short fuse and severe gambling addiction. He’s the kind of guy who is always working on his great American novel, while juggling gambling debts and throwing down quiet jealousy of his son. His mother (Carla Gugino) has good intentions and clearly wants the best for her son, but she’s just not capable of standing up to the menace. It plays like a Maslow’s hierarchy of crappy parenting.

There are plenty of clichés that we’ve seen in many movies, but it’s a pleasure to see so much real basketball being played. Anthony has a sweet jump shot and a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Zazie Beetz), and the interpersonal relationships all have nuances that come across as real life. Even Uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer) seems torn about which family member most needs his protection. Emotional-physical-financial strains abound and it all seems to crash down on Anthony as he strives to earn a college scholarship by impressing the coaches from Cornell.

As Anthony navigates the choppy waters towards independence, the film teases us with some sub-plots that could have been further explored. Anthony hits it off with an older, wiser street baller (John Douglas Thompson) who starts mentoring him. We also are given hope that Anthony’s mom will actually do something for her son rather than regretting what she hasn’t done. Lastly there is a quick tease as to an alternative past that would make some sense – though whether that’s real or imagined is left up to the viewer’s perspective.

The film ultimately plays like a Disney film that utilizes an inordinate number of “F-words”, and it even reminds a bit of the Paul Giamatti movie Win Win. It’s the acting and the periodic sequences of real emotion that allow us to remain interested in the characters right up until the end … even if our hopes differ from one of Anthony’s own parents.

watch the trailer: