"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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High Flying Bird: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A rather empty cinematic venture that ultimately means nothing.

High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McRaney and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the story of sports agent Ray Burke as he tries to navigate the perilous waters of an NBA lockout. The film is available on Netflix and stars Andre Holland as Ray Burke, with supporting turns from Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto and Kyle MacLachlan.

There are people in the world who love director Steven Soderbergh and claim he is a master auteur and cinematic visionary. I am not one of those people. I find Steven Soderbergh to be a middling talent at best and to be terribly overrated. To re-watch his filmography is to discover a rather shocking lack of any greatness whatsoever and an even more alarming lack of artistic instinct and sensibility.

Soderbergh skyrocketed to fame and acclaim with his first film Sex, Lies and Videotape, a daring and unique film that showed the director to be an edgy auteur. But then something funny happened on the way to cinema immortality…Soderbergh kept making worse and worse films with less and less artistic value showing himself over time to be remarkably artistically toothless for such an alleged avant-garde auteur.

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Oddly enough, Soderbergh, the poster boy for “independent film making”, has perhaps become best known for the highly successful, mindless popcorn chomping, Hollywood star-fueled, Oceans 11 trilogy that boasted George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon among many others in its cast. Those films are a perfect representation of Soderbergh’s abilities, as he elevates the below average material with a certain level of cinematic and visual professionalism but never pushes beyond formula and convention to find meaning under the veneer of Hollywood glamour. The truth is that the Oceans movies only succeed because of the stars that power it. But even with all of that star power and Soderbergh at the helm, the Oceans films at their very best are slightly above average Hollywood fair and never even sniff greatness.

Soderbergh’s Oscar winning film, Traffic, is another example where Soderbergh fails to soar. Upon a first watch the film is compelling and Soderbergh’s visual choices, such as using three different base color gels for each different narrative, keep you interested. But upon further viewings Traffic is exposed as being a shockingly mediocre and thin film with little meat on its Hollywood bones.

All of Soderbergh’s other films suffer from a similar lack of both narrative and cinematic substance. Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky are more mainstream Hollywood junk from this supposed master of independent cinema.

Which brings us to High Flying Bird. In recent years Soderbergh has experimented by shooting his films on an IPhone and High Flying Bird is one of those films. By shooting on an IPhone 8 (with a specially adapted lens) Soderbergh saves money, obviously, on camera equipment, but he also saves on production costs by not having to get a permit to shoot in New York City (a clever way to skirt the city’s production laws). It is in some ways an ingenious move, but the problem with shooting the film on an IPhone 8 though, is that the film looks like it was shot on an IPhone 8. To be fair to our Apple overlords, it doesn’t look awful…but it certainly doesn’t look good, nevermind great.

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The visuals of the film aside, what struck me about High Flying Bird is one of the same things that strikes me about most of Soderbergh’s films…it means nothing and has nothing to say except maybe deference to the status quo. There is no cinematic or philosophical depth to Soderbergh’s movies. In High Flying Bird there is a plot about an NBA lockout and the relationship between labor and management, but at the end of the day, Soderbergh scuttles any serious debate and resorts to the same tired formula he uses in the Oceans 11 films where he withholds information from the audience in a linear time frame but then does a time jump to explain the mystery of why things turned out the way they did.

So High Flying Bird is at its core a heist movie, where we see everything happen and it looks impossible but then the heist succeeds and we don’t know why until Soderbergh jumps back in time to show us a conversation that he chose to withhold from viewers in real time explaining it all.

I find this narrative style to be deeply unsatisfying because it strikes me as inherently dishonest. Deceiving audiences into buying into your story only to have a surprise “twist” that is purposefully kept from them isn’t clever, it is lazy, contrived and manipulative. This style isn’t a sign of film making genius, it is a parlor trick, ham-handed hackery and a cheap ploy.

In this way Soderbergh is in the same category of filmmaker as David Mamet…and that is most definitely not a compliment. Mamet likes to make “con” movies (that are awful) that con his viewers while showing them a con on screen whereas Soderbergh makes “heist” movies that steal from his viewers just as the characters pull off a heist in the story.

High Flying Bird is not on its surface a heist movie, but it really is, for it has the same structure, theme and intent as all of the Oceans films and the god-awful Logan Lucky. High Flying Bird is about deception…deception between the characters on-screen and the deception of the audience by the director.

The biggest problem I have with High Flying Bird and most of Soderbergh’s films is that it doesn’t mean anything. It has no cinematic higher purpose at all. Why make this particular film in this particular way? Why tell this story and why tell it now? At the end of the day there is no compelling answer to that question and that is damning.

As for the cast, Andre Holland struggles to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders. Holland, and most of the other actors in the film, all feel very mannered in their performances and I can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh directed them toward this style, which I found off-putting and disingenuous.

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The two bright spots for me were Zazie Beetz, who has a natural screen presence and an appealing magnetism to her, and Bill Duke who perfectly embodies the grizzled old coach archetype he portrays. Both Duke and Beetz felt like real people whereas the rest of the cast felt like actors and came across as very stilted and stylized and not grounded in a reality I recognize. Their dialogue felt like speeches and everything felt manufactured.

In conclusion, High Flying Bird is an absolutely forgettable piece of film making from Steven Soderbergh. The film serves little to no purpose and offers even less insight or genuine drama. Even though High Flying Bird is “free” on Netflix, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend you watch it because it will be a waste of your valuable time…I certainly felt it was a waste of mine.

©2019

Logan Lucky : A Review

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****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!****

My Rating : 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SKIP IT. No use seeing this clunker anywhere or at anytime. 

Logan Lucky, written by "Rebecca Blunt" and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the story of Jimmy Logan, a down on his luck West Virginian from a perpetually unlucky lineage, who decides to pull off a heist of a NASCAR race with his family and friends. The film stars Channing Tatum, and features supporting turns from Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Seth MacFarland, Katie Holmes and Hillary Swank.

David Lee Roth and Elvis Costello

David Lee Roth and Elvis Costello

A few years ago, director Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from directing movies. I know people who hold Soderbergh in the highest artistic regard, so much so they would place him on the Mount Rushmore of American filmmakers alongside Kurbick, Scorsese, Malick and Altman (or whatever filmmakers you may choose for such an honor), so when he retired they were downtrodden.  I have never disliked Soderbergh, but I have never held him in such high esteem either. Soderbergh is worshiped by critics, which, considering my tepid opinion of him, always makes me think of what Van Halen's frontman Diamond David Lee Roth said in 1984 about another critical darling, Elvis Costello, who is the musical equivalent of Steven Soderbergh. Roth said, " I think music critics LIKE Elvis Costello, because they LOOK LIKE Elvis Costello". I believe the same can be said of Steven Soderbergh. 

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh

I think Soderbergh is a very skilled director, but if I am being honest, I think his greatest talent is in elevating otherwise mundane material into moderately above average films. Even his great films (meaning most successful financially and critically) like Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's Eleven trilogy, are anything but transcendent. Traffic is arguably Soderbergh's best film and won him a Best Director Oscar, and while it is certainly an interesting film, it never rises to be a truly great one. 

 

That said, I did enjoy Sex, Lies and VideotapeTraffic and Che (maybe my favorite Soderbergh film), and was even entertained by the technical proficiency of the Ocean's Eleven franchise, so when I heard Soderbergh was returning from his self-imposed exile, I thought I'd go check out the fruit of his labor. 

The thought that came to my mind while I sat through the first third of Logan Lucky was…Steven Soderbergh came out of retirement for this? At the half way point of the film, the thought I had was…Soderbergh definitely should've stayed retired. In the final third of the film, it occurred to me…he did.

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Logan Lucky is a derivative, repetitive, manipulative and painstakingly dull movie with no redeeming value whatsoever. The film is an homage to Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven films, and even self-consciously describes itself as Ocean's 7-11, a play on the fact that it is a heist movie featuring hillbillies in West Virginia and not professional thieves in Las Vegas. The question remains though, were people clamoring for a redneck Ocean's Eleven? And why would Soderbergh return to moviemaking with such an insidiously frivolous and insipid film that, even giving it every benefit of the doubt, has no artistic purpose to it and is devoid of any greater meaning? I understand that not all movies have to "mean" something, and I readily accept that Logan Lucky is meant to be nothing more than pure entertainment, but that still doesn't explain why it would be Soderbergh's comeback vehicle.

In terms of entertainment and fun, Logan Lucky fails in the most conspicuous way because it contains absolutely zero laughs. The continuing and only punchline in the film are the hillbillies who inhabit it, which makes Logan Lucky feel uncomfortably like a modern day version of Stepin Fetchit set in Appalachia meant to belittle and demean working class White people. Everyone in the movie is a one-dimensional idiot and a walking caricature and if they were a racial or religious minority would undoubtedly be considered extremely offensive. 

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Another huge issue with a heist movie populated with idiotic bumpkins, is that it makes the heist seem totally unbelievable. In the Ocean's Eleven films you had professional thieves concocting elaborate schemes to rob a casino, and those films certainly strain credulity, but they are able to maintain a tenuous grasp upon reality because they have set up the premise of an all-star group of sophisticated con men attempting to pull off the job. In Logan Lucky, the exact opposite occurs, the set-up for the film is that everyone is a moron with "Born to Lose" tattooed in their chests, yet they are somehow able to conceive, coordinate and then pull off this complicated and convoluted heist in the most improbable way. The film suffers from this detachment from any sort of believability also because of its own disgust with the culture and people it portrays. 

The other problem with having a cast of characters that are all nitwits, is that you never connect with them, you only laugh at them. What this does is eliminate any sort of suspense or drama when they are trying to pull off the heist. You don't care if they get caught because you don't care about them. It is impossible for an audience to care about characters when the filmmaker doesn't, and in Logan Lucky, Soderbergh is holding up the rednecks for ridicule, not reflection. 

It doesn't help that uniformly, the cast does a second rate job of acting. The accents are all too big, too showy and hit too hard to be even remotely considered believable. And it seems everyone, with the notable exclusion of Channing Tatum, turns their character into a quirky  eccentric for quirkiness and eccentricities sake. The film is so stuffed with wacky, unreal characters it feels more like an homage to Hee-Haw than Ocean's Eleven.

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Sadly, the film also boasts what may be three of the worst performances I've seen this year. Seth MacFarland, Hillary Swank and Katie Holmes are so bad in this movie it is staggering. MacFarland is so atrocious he should be banned from ever appearing on any screen, anywhere, ever again. Holmes  strains so hard to be her "character", I was afraid she was going to have a stroke. And Hillary Swank makes the unbelievably poor decision to try and imitate Clint Eastwood with her performance as an FBI agent. I am not kidding, she looks like a third-rate Rich Little trying to impersonate Clint, with everything from her voice to her posture mimicking the iconic tough guy. Not surprisingly, it comes off as amateurish, unreal and frankly embarrassing. 

What made the Ocean's Eleven films successful were that they were efficiently made, beautifully shot, and they allowed the audience to feel like they were hanging out with the biggest movie stars in the world. Men got to project themselves onto George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and company, while women got to project themselves with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and company. At their core though, what the Ocean's films really did, was give the celebrity worshiping audience an opportunity to watch good looking famous people have more fun than they ever would, at a party they could watch but weren't invited to enter.

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Why Logan Lucky fails is that, while efficiently, but certainly not exquisitely, made, it gives the audience an opportunity to hang out with people with whom they would never choose to be around. It gives male audience members no one to project themselves onto, and gives female audience members no one to swoon over. At Logan Lucky's most basic level, it is an utter failure. The blame for that rests on Steven Soderbergh, and on screenwriter Rebecca Blunt, who may or may not be a real person, and may be a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself. I can see why Soderbergh would want to hide behind a fake name for churning out the piece of excrement that is this script. 

In the final analysis, unlike say Detroit, which was an awful movie about an important topic, Logan Lucky is a meaningless movie about nothing, so it being as dreadful as it is didn't make me angry, it just made me bored. I had no interest in anyone or anything in this movie. I was daydreaming and even considered leaving, but I figured, if nothing else, I'd sit in the air condition and enjoy the full two hours of cool darkness. That said, even if you are desperately attempting to avoid sun stroke or dehydration, don't do it by sitting through Logan Lucky. I recommend you embrace your heat induced hallucinations rather than waste your time and money sitting through this dead-on-arrival piece of detritus. And even if you stumble across it for free on tv, skip it, life is too short to spend two hours of it watching something as inconsequential and moribund as Steven Soderbergh's latest, and hopefully final, film.
 

©2017