Tag Archives: B+

HIGH FLYING BIRD

Producer: Joseph Malloch
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Stars: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Melvin Gregg, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Duradola, Jeryl Prescott and Justin Hurtt-Dunkley
Studio: Netflix

B+

Steven Soderbergh’s first film made on his iPhone, the thriller “Unsane,” was pretty much a bust, in terms of both story and style. With “High Flying Bird,” however, he proves that the technique can work, at least when wedded to a solid script. Along with the conventionally-shot “Logan Lucky,” it makes you glad that his proclaimed retirement was so short-lived.

The Netflix movie is basically a talkathon, but the dialogue-driven piece by Tyrell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play on which “Moonlight” was based and co-scripted the Oscar-winning film) is sharp and clever, and it’s presented with an impressive degree of fluidity, both verbal and visual.

The plot is set during a NBA lockout, with the players’ association and the owners at loggerheads. The focus is on Ray Burke (André Holland), a cunning, motor-mouthed agent whom we meet in conference with one of his clients, rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg), at a swanky restaurant. The kid has taken out a loan to tide him over until the lockout ends and he gets his first paycheck, and Ray forcefully explains how that was a mistake. But when it comes time to cover the bill, Ray is told that his credit card has been denied.

The reason is explained by his boss (Zachary Quinto): the agency is in dire financial straits, and employees are being laid off or—in Ray’s case—having their expense accounts put on hold. That sets Burke to work to resolve the impasse, and the film follows him as he proceeds; but it keeps us largely in the dark, expecting us to guess about why he’s doing what he’s doing every step of the way. It’s an effective ploy, which carries a satisfying payoff.

A variety of other characters play important roles in Ray’s peregrinations. There’s his assistant, or more precisely ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), who’s moved on to the players’ association headed by hard-nosed Maya (Sonja Sohn), as well as an oily team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) who’s standing in the way of a settlement while pretending to search for one. And there’s Spencer (Bill Duke), the sage coach of a youth basketball program to which Ray brings Erick as an honored guest. Also showing up there is Erick’s prime rival Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), along with his so-called “momanager” (Jeryl Prescott). It’s video of an impromptu one-on-one between the two stars that goes viral and sets off a firestorm that threatens to bring a fundamental alteration in the relationship between players and owners in the sports business.

That business aspect of the NBA underlies the entire script. An unnamed player (Michael Duradola) appears periodically in interview segments to explain how players must behave under the current system for professional reasons, and at one point Spencer succinctly sets out his history of how a game originally played for love was transformed into a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise that makes huge profits for white owners though black athletes do the real work. The premise of “High Flying Bird” is essentially that the reaction to the brief contest between Jamero and Erick suggests that the current business model could be replaced by something more cognizant of where the talent really lies, a realization Ray might be able to use to his advantage—or not.

To be truthful, the analysis of the NBA structure presented in McCraney’s script can be criticized as more than a mite simplistic, and the changes it suggests (in which, as an inside joke, Netflix is mentioned as a possible catalyst) as unlikely. But Soderbergh keeps things moving so confidently (shooting the picture himself, of course, under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews, and editing it under the name of Mary Ann Bernard) that you’re hardly likely to notice—or object.

He’s also secured fine performances down the line. Veteran Duke is particularly impressive as the world-weary coach, but the heart of the movie is Holland, whose razor-sharp timing and machine-gun dialogue delivery make Ray a charismatic ball of fire you can’t keep your eyes or ears from.

“High Flying Bird” might not make it all the way into the cinematic stratosphere, but it comes close enough to capture your attention, basketball fan or not.

CAPARNAUM

Producer: Khaled Mouzanar and Michel Merkt
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writer: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Kestouani, Georges Khabbaz and Khaled Mouzanar
Stars: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Cedra Izam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nour el Husseni, Farah Hasno, Elias Khoury and Nadine Labaki
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Films about homeless children struggling to survive alone in the streets cannot help but carry a powerful emotional impact—as witness the first half of the recent “Lion,” though Garth Davis’ adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s novel stumbled in its second section. Nadine Labaki’s “Caparnaum,” a title which translates as “Chaos,” also wields enormous resonance, though it too makes a decision at the very end that dilutes it.

Populated by non-professional actors, the film, written by Labaki and four others, centers on Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a boy of twelve (or approximately so: his parents neglected to secure a birth certificate for him, or to celebrate his birthdays) who lives with his neglectful mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) in a squalid Beirut apartment with a bevy of brothers and sisters. He works as a delivery boy for Assadd (Nour el Husseini), who lusts after his favorite sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam), who is even younger than he. Zain tries to protect herm but the family’s flat is owned by Assadd’s father, and the clan seems to survive, though precariously, by mixing prescription drugs into juice and having the children sell the result to passersby on the street.

When Souad and Selim effectively sell Sahar to Assadd, Zain rebels and goes off on his own to a town on the coast. In his effort to find food and shelter, he encounters Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who’s working a variety of jobs in order to raise her darling your son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who’s actually a girl). Though in desperate straits herself—she’s trying to raise the money to buy a fake I.D. that would allow her to stay in the country legally—she befriends Zain and brings him home to take care of Yonas while she’s away at work. The three become a virtual family, though Zain clearly chafes at keeping inside the tiny flat all day.

A crisis comes when Rahil is arrested and jailed as an illegal, and Zain, not knowing where she’s gone, struggles to care for Yonas on his own. He eventually reverts to his family’s old practice or preparing extra-fortified juice to sell on the street, with only marginal success. Taking a bit of advice offered by another street child, a Syrian exile named Maysoun (Farah Hasno), he applies for assistance from a refugee agency, pretending to be Syrian himself (we see him practicing a Syrian accent, though the effect will be lost on American audiences). But when the landlord locks him and Yonas out of Rahil’s shantytown flat, he has no choice but to turn to Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), a shady crook who’s been trying to convince Rahil to turn Yonas over to him, presumably for sale to a family, in return for her I.D.

Returning home at long last, Zain finds his family worse off than when he’d left, and in response to a tragedy he feels more deeply than his parents do, he commits an act that lands him in juvenile detention. Unbeknownst to him, he and Rahil are very close to one another in prison.

All of this is told in flashbacks that emerge during a plot device that might disturb some viewers—a trial, presided over by an avuncular judge (Elias Khoury), in which the jailed Zain brings suit against his parents for giving him birth (and, by their recklessness and neglect, dooming him to the misery he has endured). Zain’s represented in court by Nadine, a censorious attorney played by Labaki herself, who helps him present his case forcefully, though Souad and Selim have the opportunity to say their piece as well, and while it doesn’t make them any less horrible, it does provide a bit of understanding.

The periodic court sequences interrupt the narrative flow of “Caparnaum,” but a more serious problem comes at the very close, when Labaki feels compelled to add a closing montage that ends things on a positive note for not just one but several characters, while meting punishment where it’s due. As much of a relief this might provide to the audience, it doesn’t feel earned given all that’s preceded, and in particular closing the picture with a freeze-frame of Zain that can’t help but remind you of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” is a miscalculation, since its function is so very different.

Nonetheless Labaki and her team—particularly cinematographer Christopher Aoun—do a fine job of creating a gritty, realistic ambience under what must have been difficult practical circumstances, and her non-professional actors deliver heartbreaking performances. Al Rafeea, who actually was a delivery boy, carries the film on his slender shoulders, but he’s certainly matched by Shiferaw, who conveys the desperation of a mother torn from her child with real conviction, while Al Haddad and Youssef are equally persuasive as the boy’s conflicted parents.

Despite the connotations of its title, “Caparnaum” proves an exceptionally disciplined piece of work, portraying the brutal realities of life for many, particularly children, in a land racked by political, social and economic turmoil. The attempt at an upbeat denouement might be an artistic mistake, but in human terms it’s an understandable one.