Review: Solo, High Flying Bird, A Private War, Mid90s

It’s time for the February round-up.

Solo

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“That’s your solution for everything, “live under the sea”. It’s never going to happen!”

While surfing in Fuerteventura, Alvaro (Alain Hernandez) finds himself trapped in an inhospitable stretch of coastline, fighting the rising tide, dehydration and several injuries. Hallucinating from the ordeal, he remembers a host of regretful past actions and confronts the reality that he may never get to make amends.

If you had to compare Solo (“Alone” in Spanish) to anything, I suppose I would plum for The Revenant. Both are films whose biggest positive quality is their cinematography and acting, with the locations and the lead commanding the eye in every scene. And the negative qualities are much the same as well, namely a sense that you are basically watching elongated misery porn, only in this one the main character fights seagulls instead of Tom Hardy.

I don’t mean to make light of it though, as this is based on a true survival story. It’s just that the survival story isn’t all that enthralling. There’s only so long that you can watch Alvaro getting battered by waves, dragging himself across isolated beaches or eyeing up the seagulls nervously before you start getting a bit bored. Hernandez is better in the flashbacks and hallucinations than he is screaming in pain every ten seconds. I mean, he’s still demonstrating acting talent in the second regard, but sixty minutes in the effect has started to seriously wane.

It is in the opening act that the narrative shines the most. Alvaro is a bit of an asshole, reeling from past indiscretions and mooning over the one he let get away, Ona (Aura Garrido). But there’s still something redeemable about him, hence why we don’t want to see him drowned, drained of blood or eaten by seagulls. Unfortunately, director Hugo Stuven largely gives up on plot thirty minutes or so in, and the disjointed hallucination sequences, that take a while to get used to, aren’t a suitable replacement.

At least Solo looks spectacular. The opening shot, a soaring pan across the magnificent desolation of the Fuerteventura coastline before focusing in briefly on the small trapped figure of Alvaro does a great job of putting across his lonely plight without the need for any dialogue. Later the hues of blue that are used in underwater sequences are truly striking. Between the drones and the liquid work, Stuven proves that he has an eye for distant detail and colour, it’s just a shame that Solo doesn’t have the story to match such strong cinematography. For those seeking an aesthetic experience then, but otherwise not really recommended.

High Flying Bird

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Holland is excellent in this, demonstrating a Shakesperian aptitude for monologue. 

With the NBA going through an elongated lock-out and many associated with it enduring penury as a result, sports agent Ray (Andre Holland) hatches an audacious scheme to bring it to an end with the (unknowing) help of his star client Erick (Melvin Scott). His plan has the potential to rock professional sports to their core, even as Ray struggles with the ethics of his actions.

Steven Soderbergh is back with another radical swing for the fences in terms of his narrative focus, going from 2018’s tense horror/thriller Unsane to this, an insider look at the drama beyond the facade of professional sports.  Bound to draw some comparisons to last year’s Amateur, or to 2014’s Draft Day, High Flying Bird is a no-frills drama about sports stars and the people who champion them, but with no disrespect intended, this is a heavier hitter for me. Maybe it’s Holland’s involvement, but it’s also the man behind the camera, or rather, behind the iPhone.

Holland drives this forward, putting in a nuanced effective turn as Ray, who never really loses emotional control, but manages to say so much with a wearied shrug or pointed gesture. He’s out to do the impossible, by manipulating various figures to his own liking, but remarkably does so without ever losing the sense that he is the hero we all deserve. His goal is to shock the system, with plenty of underlying themes dedicated to the uncomfortable reality that professional basketball is a sport dominated by black athletes but almost entirely to the benefit of white owners. Act break interviews with real NBA stars help to ground the story being told in reality, a painful one where young men are easily manipulated and just as easily cast aside.

It’s very fast paced, with key events flying by, and yet never really feels rushed, perhaps because of the deliberately restrained performances and tight script work. I say “tight”, but don’t want that to be mistaken for limited, with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s words are almost Shakespearean in their flow, aided by the delivery, right from an excellent opening scene where Holland harangues a financially reckless Erick in an extended monologue. When I say “tight”, I mean there is no wasted motion: every word seems adept at telling you something else about the plot or the characters, among them the excellent Sonja Sohn as a players representative, Zazie Beets as Ray’s former protege and Kyle MacLachlan as one of the owners seeking to maintain the system Ray wants to destroy.

The iPhone continues to prove that it can serve up feature films, an undercurrent to the watching experience that makes High Flying Bird much more noticeable than it may otherwise have been. Sure, at times there is a slight fishbowl effect in the exterior shots and a certain amount of grain is detectable, but for the most part, this is polished high definition cinematography from a guy who honed the new long-form mobile camerawork skill with Unsane, and is now just carrying that ball. I have a feeling High Flying Bird, and Soderbergh, are scaring the crap out of film-making traditionalists, and rightfully so; the film allegedly only cost €2 million to make, making it perfect fare for the Netflix execs.

It’s slick, it has something important to say, and for a sports movie that barely features any sports, it still manages to be a pretty good sports movie. This is a strong recommend.

A Private War

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The film has surprisingly few instances of pirate jokes.

Across many years and many conflicts, foreign correspondent Marie Colvin crafts a reputation for being willing to go further than anyone else when it comes to reporting from war zones, accompanied at times by photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). But such experiences leave a toll on Colvin’s personal life and mental health that threaten to tear her apart, as she journey’s towards a fateful moment in Homs, Syria.

The central talking point for this one has to be the performance of Rosamund Pike, playing far outside type as the gritty, damaged war journalist, I wasn’t surprised to see Charlize Thereon’s name pop up as a producer in a way, because Pike’s performance reminded me of her in 2003’s Monster, at least in terms of how her usual presentation is subverted to create something altogether different and more real. Her performance otherwise is stupendous, with Colvin given a proper three-dimensional portrait as a woman who exhibits bravery, compassion and ambition in her career, but also has a self-destructive tendency when it comes to personal relationships and the bottle. Like many biopics, there is a frequent sense that you are just supposed to consider Colvin amazing without ever getting to properly experience what makes her so – namely, her reports – but there is only so much director Matthew Heineman can do on that score. A bigger flaw is the mostly non-entity that is Jamie Dornan’s Paul, who exists mostly as someone for Colvin to talk to, and not as a fully fleshed out character of his own.

But that’s not to dimish the strength of the story being told, even if it doesn’t really have anything new to say about journalism, war or that confluence of both. The idea of combat, whether you are holding a gun, a pen or a camera, as an addictive force has been well covered, most recently in 2018 documentary Hondros, and while the fictionalised lens of A Private War allows for more thorough introspection from the characters – one mid-point scene in a psychiatric facility between Pike and Dornan is an emotive exploration of the realities of PTSD – it isn’t on inner message that the film rates most highly. We should have some leeway with Heineman of course, this being his first non-documentary feature; I previously enjoyed his Cartel Land back in 2015.

A Private War zips around numerous warzones – Sri Lanka, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan all come and go quickly, – amounting to a greatest hits of Colvin’s career, and while you never get too comfortable in any one of them, the underlying themes come through in each instance. It is in an elongated Syrian finale, a depiction of one of Colvin’s final reports where she laid bare the lie that Assad’s forces were not targetting civilians, that the film ends where it begins – a lingering shot of a devastated Homs – and throughout this process rarely deviates from its thesis of fear being an impediment to good journalism, as is a loss of empathy for the suffering of those you are covering.

The kind of journalism that A Private War lauds may well be dying away, with one scene, where Libyans take selfies of themselves with Muammar Gaddafi’s corpse, indicating that modern technology is changing how photojournalism as we understand it works. That may mean fewer chances for traditional journalists to be killed or wounded in the line of duty, and conversely, it may mean a diluting of the quality of such work. As such, we may consider A Private War a Last Post of sorts, for both Colvin and her profession, and in that it is both entertaining and engaging. Recommended.

Mid90s

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“There’s a black cloud over this house, that’s been around for three years now…”

Seeking to escape from an abusive home life, 13year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) finds friendship and an emotional outlet in a group of older skaters: wise beyond his years Ray (Na-Kel Smith), party boy “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt) wannabe filmmaker “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) and insecure Ruben (Gio Galicia). At first his once mal-adjusted life seems to be getting better, but the combination of his own self-hatred and the reckless behaviour of one of his new friends soon produces a dangerous situation. I caught a screening of Mid90s at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

With Jonah Hill making his directorial debut here, you’d be forgiven for expecting something in the general vicinity of stoner comedy, which isn’t really a fair assessment of him anymore. He’s branched out in a large way since The Wolf Of Wall Street first indicated firmly he had more in him than the Superbad stuff, and Mid90s is the latest example of that. Influenced in part by his own life during the period described, Mid90s is a hip-hop skateboarding fuelled coming-of-age story, that does its level best to mix the light with the dark.

Suljic puts in an impressive shift as Stevie, being forced to tackle a wide range of scenes and sequences that a veteran might have trouble with, including but not limited to immense physical violence (the film’s opening shot is Stevie being hurled into a wall), self-harm (a self-choking scene with an extension cord is shocking) and awkward sexual interactions. Hill eschews nostalgia in favour of a warts and all look at what it was like to be a young teenager in this time and place, desperate for an identity to block out extensive amounts of mental negativity. In the end the films circles around toxic masculinity, in this case the ability to endure pain as a benchmark for “manliness”, and how Stevie is trapped in a cycle of hurting himself, to the sometimes bemusement or sometimes concern of others.

Stevie’s interactions with his skater friends provides an interesting examination of power dynamics, philosophies and internal politicking in such groups, with everyone bouncing off each other with their strengths and insecurities. Ray is the level-headed one with his eyes on the future, but can’t quite cut loose the dead weight; Fuckshit is the exact opposite, and his live-life-in-the-moment style temperament comes with copious amounts of drink, sex and drugs; Fourth Grade has an eye for filmmaking but is loaded down with insecurity over his penury; and Reuben wants to both grow up too fast and remain as the sole “kid” in the group, eventually viewing Stevie as a threat. The cast, nearly all first-timers, are great.

The five interact wonderfully, and while some will balk at the nature of those discussions and certain words employed, it did feel very natural and real to me. There’s a lot here that will hit home to those like me: the pathetic willingness to do anything to impress the older crowd; being unable and unwilling to associate your friends with your family; and feeling unable to relate to the people society expects you to relate to. In the end, it’s a group of male teenagers hanging out for large stretches, and the director/screenwriter has plenty of material to fit that space. The hip-hop bounces along and the film feels like a genuine love-letter to both that genre of music and to the act of skateboarding itself, an appropriate pursuit in the urban lots of So-Cal, which Hill shoots with skill.

Mid90s skirts with cliche and doesn’t believe in fully-formed happy endings, but does manage to craft an engaging finale all the same, one that points to the positive consequences of unlikely friendship while leaving room for criticism of unworthy behaviour. It doesn’t mollycoddle the audience, and if this is what Hill can do with his first effort, I look forward to seeing what he can do in the future.

(All images are copyright of Netflix, Aviron Pictures and A24).

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