An industrious sports agent plots to single-handedly end an NBA lockout.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, and Melvin Gregg
Review by Jon Kissel
Steven Soderbergh gave a speech in 2013 about the state of cinema, and what he interpreted as a dire future for the art form. Directors like him who operated in the mid-budget range were being squeezed out in favor of micro-budget horror and macro-budget spectacle, trends that haven’t abated in the last five years. If a studio didn’t envision a narrow, Academy-friendly path forward for a film that wasn’t either of those, it wasn’t going to get made, or if it was, it was going to be dumped and disrespected and kept away from wider audiences. In the time since that speech, Soderbergh has been the visual master behind a best-of-the-decade prestige drama series, experienced the exact mid-budget underperformance that he talked about, and gone experimental to conform to the low end of the budget continuum, namely shooting two movies on an iPhone. The first, Unsane, did marginally well in theaters, but the second, High Flying Bird, skipped theaters altogether and went straight to Netflix, the studio equivalent of HBO at the dawn of the Golden Age of Television such that they throw money at creators and take a big step back. Soderbergh is a director who thinks clearly and publicly about his next moves and how they fit within the framework of his industry, making him the perfect director to bring High Flying Bird into the world because it’s about someone very much like him.
World class parodies sadly don’t make money, but it would be better for moviegoers and filmmakers if they were more successful. Formulaic romantic comedies don’t get made if the public recognized their hacky tropes from They Came Together. Cop thrillers get 50% better if Naked Gun is playing on a loop by craft services, and the Lonely Island HBO Sports specials would force future 30 for 30 directors to raise their game. Of all these, it’s Walk Hard that is apparently the most underseen, because that John C. Reilly comedic masterpiece filets not only the musical biopic but the biopic in general, making it impossible for an ineffectual writer to coast on the shorthand of a Greatest Hits list. It’s been over ten years since Walk Hard’s release, and the makers of Bohemian Rhapsody clearly thought that was enough time to put in the rearview. Just as Dewey Cox is cribbing from serious musician biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be cribbing from Walk Hard. On the one hand, if stealing must happen, then steal from the best. On the other hand, this film exemplifies the worst and laziest of the genre, sabotaging any future attempt to flesh out one of pop music’s grandest personalities and generating exactly as much entertainment value as any single youtube video of Queen.
The world as we know it came extremely close to dramatic changes a mere decade ago. During the fall of 2008, it was a very real possibility that there was going to be no cash in ATM’s, that paychecks wouldn’t clear, and that the spiraling panic would destroy the global economy and produce the violent aftershocks that economic calamities always produce. We escaped that outcome in the immediate, though the same results may still be coming on a slower timeline. In the intervening years, a liberal canard has emerged in the idea of ‘doing everything right,’ and still struggling to stay ahead of disaster. While some portions of the American public, usually the minority portions, have long dealt with this uncertainty, it’s a new feeling for many. What is it like to constantly have the Sword of Damocles hanging over you, to know that a health emergency or a layoff caused by macro forces beyond one’s control can move a family from their home to a week-by-week hotel room? The brilliant Take Shelter places that dread within the context of mental illness, of a schizophrenic bread winner who senses calamity even when the skies are clear. Jeff Nichols, cinematic chronicler of the rural American male, makes his masterpiece by tapping into the psychic undercurrents rippling through the 21st century US and bringing them to the surface.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron returns to his homeland for Roma, an autobiographical film about an upper class family in Mexico City. Cuaron last filmed in Mexico for Y Tu Mama Tambien, an all-timer that also backdropped Mexican political strife against regular people living their lives. Roma features less horny teenagers than his first masterpiece, and instead focuses on the family maid caught in the throes of her own personal drama, the family’s dissolution, and protests in the streets. Like the best films, Roma gives the impression that concurrent stories are happening around the one being told here, and I went into this film sure that it would knock me out. However, Roma somehow never breaks through my emotional barriers, leaving me to praise and admire it but not exalt it as the modern masterpiece that so many critics have hailed it as.
If a theme had to be forced onto the films that just happen to have been released in 2018, despair comes to mind. It’s been present in works ranging from arthouse indies like Eighth Grade and You Were Never Really Here to the big-budget spectacles of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Nowhere is despair more prevalent than in Paul Schrader’s haunting First Reformed, where all forms and all scales of dread are encapsulated by another of Schrader’s ‘god’s lonely men.’ Calling to mind the spare, religious-inflected introspection of mid-century masters like Robert Bresson, First Reformed is a bleak rebuke of hope and a dense treatise in search of it.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.