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It’s 30 years since Steven Soderbergh unveiled his debut film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, at Sundance, going on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and changing the tone of American independent cinema in the process. To this day, a large clutch of the offbeat indies unveiled at Sundance owe something to that film’s scratchy, scrappy, on-a-shoestring confessional comedy – and the comparison does not usually flatter them. (If you’ve forgotten its grungy power, it’s readily available online.)
Twenty-seven films, many much loftier budgets and one Oscar later, Soderbergh was back in the snows of Park City last month – not for Sundance, in fact, but Slamdance, the Utah festival’s simultaneous, lower-profile sister event. If that seems like a strangely off-the-radar place to premiere his excellent new film High Flying Bird, that’s sort of the point. Soderbergh’s relationship to the mainstream film industry has been an ambivalent one ever since he announced his retirement from big-screen film-making in 2013.
The announcement was premature: we’ve since had his films Logan Lucky and Unsane in cinemas. But the director has somewhat stuck to his guns by embracing the possibilities of Netflix distribution: days after its pointedly quiet festival debut, High Flying Bird is now available to stream.
It’s a must, too. Soderbergh’s liveliest, most big-thinking work since Magic Mike, this is a quick, zingy, all-business sports drama that plays like Jerry Maguire with twin degrees in economics and sociology. Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (fresh from his Oscar for Moonlight), it stars the superb André Holland as Ray, a wily, up-against-it sports agent who tasks himself with ending a stalemate labour dispute in the National Basketball Association, challenging the league’s gatekeepers and power-players along the way.
If that sounds a bit niche, rest assured that no NBA knowledge or enthusiasm is required to enjoy the ricocheting plot that ensues, while the fractious racial politics in a sport largely dependent on black athletic talent, but controlled by white fatcat executives comes spikily to the fore. As in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, the most compelling gamesmanship here is happening away from the arena.
Soderbergh shoots it all with candid, agitated energy on an iPhone. It’s the second time he’s tried the technology, and it works to crisper, more limber effect than in last year’s deliberately grimy thriller, Unsane.
In taking his iPhone-shot film to Netflix, then, Soderbergh is doing his best to redesign the shape of cinema at both the production and exhibition stages. As some film-makers cling romantically to film over digital, big screen over small, the director who winkingly promoted the possibilities of video in his very first film – and confounded Hollywood by shooting his 2005 miniature Bubble on HD, well before that was standard – is still trying to stay ahead of the game.
By adapting to make films that play naturally on tiny formats, not least because that’s how they were shot to begin with, Soderbergh may yet be the quintessential Netflix auteur. He already has another, bigger project, the Meryl Streep-Gary Oldman political drama The Laundromat, lined up with the streaming giant. For now, High Flying Bird finds him fully in command of his shifting medium.
New to streaming and DVD this week
A Star Is Born
(Warner Bros, 15)
Bradley Cooper’s stout-hearted take on an old Hollywood chestnut soars for its first half. He and Lady Gaga’s all-in performances see it through a rougher second.
(Curzon Artificial Eye, 15)
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio films Naomi Alderman’s novel of repressed lesbian desire in north London’s Jewish enclave with elegance and empathy.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Fortuitously timed, with Boy Erased now in cinemas, Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance winner offers a wry, delicate female perspective on gay conversion therapy.
Gaspar Noé’s latest doesn’t shock in the manner of his most abrasive work, but this vertigo-inducing night in the collective life of an LSD-crazed dance troupe is a memorable trip.
Also going straight from Sundance to Netflix, Dan Gilroy’s flashy blend of art-scene satire and slasher film has an amusing Jake Gyllenhaal turn, but is a step down for both from Nightcrawler.
Source: The Guardian
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