On 'High Flying Bird' and Steven Soderbergh, the Maverick
Steven Soderbergh needs no introduction. The filmmaker behind Ocean's Eleven, Out of Sight, Traffic, Magic Mike and so many more has achieved a level both critical and commercial appeal that places him among the true masters of the craft. But the very quiet release of his latest work last week on Netflix is apropos of the director, who has spent the last several years bucking against the traditional Hollywood system. In fact it's almost impossible not to view this movie, about an NBA agent fighting against the NBA establishment during a negotiations lockout, as metatext for Soderbergh's own career.
After a very public breakup with the traditional studios in 2013, a bitter Soderbergh fake-retired and spent some time making a meandering yet brilliant television show called "The Knick" (which, despite the subject of his latest movie, is not about the NBA franchise) before attempting a glorious return to the silver screen. This time he'd be a disruptor, or as one GQ headline more aggressively phrased it, he was "Back to Destroy Hollywood." In 2017 he made Logan Lucky, a superstar-fronted heist movie set in redneck country and sold as "Oceans 7-11," starring Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes and Adam Driver. He pre-sold foreign distribution upfront to fund the independent project, then decided to forego a traditional marketing campaign in favor of a grassroots + social media approach. It was a gamble, one that Soderbergh ultimately lost (he admitted as much on a recent Bill Simmons podcast). Simply put, no one saw Logan Lucky.
Instead of falling back into line, Soderbergh's next project was a choose-your-own adventure show distributed through an app. Seriously. Seizing on the recent boom in true crime interest, Soderbergh crafted a murder mystery whodunit called Mosaic where viewers (perhaps here they could be called participants) reviewed clues and observed the events from different points of view. After making decisions in how the case should proceed, they were lead to one of several endings. Once again the project failed to gain an audience, and HBO stepped in to salvage it by releasing a more traditional, linear version of the footage.
Soderbergh didn't relent. Unlike filmmakers with similar levels of prestige, he eschews spending years toiling over each project, instead rebounding from Mosaic to release Unsane a few months later, a psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. Now, there's High Flying Bird. Still to come in 2019 is The Landromat, which boasts an unbelievable cast including Meryll Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, David Schwimmer, Jeffery Wright (and so on).
For his recent prolific streak, Soderbergh credits a ground-breaking new production tool: the iPhone. Both Unsane and High Flying Bird were shot with the common handheld device, modified only by some specialized lens adaptations and a handy piece of software called "FiLMiC Pro."
The simplicity of the equipment slashes production prices--Unsane needed a budget of just $1.5 million and High Flying Bird cost $2 million--and drastically cut down on post-production lag time. In fact, Soderbergh reportedly had a first rough cut of High Flying Bird done just three hours after walking off the set of the final shoot.
The resulting movie is a fascinating test case. The viewer is never totally able to divorce the narrative from the hardware used to capture it.. For the generation that spends the majority of each day looking at iPhone videos shot and shared to social media, there is a familiarity to the look of iPhone footage that shows up here, which has the effect of making the narrative seem candid, authentic, almost like a documentary. This is augmented by Soderbergh's ability to film practically anywhere in New York City, where shooting with an iPhone doesn't require the same expensive and restrictive permits that large film equipment would need. He could, and did, attach a camera to a wall or the ceiling or the ground, getting into spaces that a film camera could never dream of.
But this iPhone look and feel also makes the movie feel less precious, less cinematic. Just like that video I saw while scrolling through Twitter a few minutes ago, this narrative flies into the consciousness and then leaves twice as quickly. It's a trained behavior.
From what I remember, the story is thinly veiled, autobiographical wish-fulfillment. Our protagonist Ray Burke, brilliantly played by André Holland, is a smart guy trying to operate outside the firmly entrenched system. When it appears he is about to fail, his fortunes are saved when a video shot by an bystander on an iPhone sparks a bidding war between streaming services (including Netflix) which ultimately leads to the establishment bending towards him. It's almost too on the nose. There is a racial undertone to Burke's resistance, but it doesn't ring quite as powerfully because Soderbergh is decidedly not, say, Spike Lee.
In the brisk 90-minute run time, Soderbergh doesn't bother to hold the viewer's hand or waste time with any exposition. In the midst of watching, I wondered to myself if one could even understand the movie without first a cursory understanding of the NBA revenue structure. Still, the movie is completely entertaining from start to finish, carried by fantastic performances from Holland as well as rising star Zazie Beetz and always-reliable Kyle MacLachlan.
All told, Soderbergh's brilliance is obvious, though oftentimes he is too smart for his own good. His insatiable work ethic and desire to innovate have clearly held him back from the largest possible audiences, a fact that it appears doesn't bother him in the slightest. And why should it? He's Steven Soderbergh, and his slapping his name onto any project is more than enough for me--and hopefully you--to give it a try.
During a couple cross-country plane flights recently, I was able to catch up on some 2018 releases that I sadly missed during their theatrical runs. The biggest surprise was Wildlife, helmed by actor-turned-first time director Paul Dano (of There Will Be Blood and Prisoners fame). Rarely does a first time director have the patience and confidence to produce a first feature quiet as...well...understated as this, which amounts to basically a slow-burn family drama starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. I'm blown away that Mulligan did not receive awards recognition for this role, which blew me away with its nuance and humanity.
The movie tackles a delicate but very impactful subject: seeing your parents as fallible adults. Our adolescent protagonist is first horrified, then overcome, then understanding, then matured by the sequence of events that forces him to come of age. Somehow, each phase strikes just the right emotional note, leaving me quite emotionally undressed as I walked off the plane last week. No, uh, I'm not crying, I have dust in my eyes.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
Without the benefit of hindsight, I can't say this with certainty, but I'm pretty sure 2018 was the greatest year in the history of documentary. Free Solo still rules the roost, but my mind was equally blown by this film. Somehow, the convergence of triplets separated at birth running into each other out of the blue is the least shocking discovery made in the movie, in what is the most thorough and thought-provoking dissection of nature versus nurture every captured on camera. It's at time joyous, at times heartbreaking, and all the time fantastically entertaining. Examples like this underscore why truth will always be more compelling than fiction.