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Indie Focus: Catching up with Steven Soderbergh’s ‘High Flying Bird’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

If you’re feeling some kind of Sundance withdrawal — for us that means catching up on sleep and fighting off any lingering cold-weather effects — you can listen to the Team LAT wrap-up of the festival on our entertainment podcast “The Reel.” Kenneth Turan, Justin Chang, Jen Yamato and Amy Kaufman joined me to talk about our favorite movies and moments.

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Now that the Oscar nominations are set, actual voting commences soon. Times awards analyst Glenn Whipp made a few predictions in the documentary, animation and foreign language categories. (Short answer: for now he’s picking “RBG,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Roma,” but that could still change.) And Robert Abele reviewed the roadshow program of Oscar-nominated short films, categories that frequently flummox peoples’ at-home Oscar ballots.

We will have more screening series events to announce soon. For info and updates, go to events.latimes.com.

Andre Holland and Zazie Beetz in "High Flying Bird."
Andre Holland and Zazie Beetz in "High Flying Bird." (Photo by Peter Andrews / Netflix)

‘High Flying Bird’

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “High Flying Bird” is a thrilling movie about the business behind pro sports. An agent (André Holland) scrambles to bring an end to an ongoing basketball player lockout, giving his everything to what one character calls “a game on top of a game,” plotting and scheming to get both sides in an entrenched negotiation to finally move.

Reviewing the movie for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, ““High Flying Bird” feels so inside this high-powered world that there are moments, both verbal and plot-wise, that can be hard to follow .… But what is on this stimulating film’s mind is completely clear by the conclusion, and by the time we get there we’re more than pleased to have spent time in a universe that feels not only real but rarely, if ever, visited with such an astute vision.”

I spoke to Soderbergh just before the recent world premiere of “High Flying Bird” at the Slamdance Film Festival. He is a serious thinker not just about his own work, but also the industry and practice of making movies. Listen to our conversation on “The Reel.”

For the Undefeated, Soraya Nadia McDonald noted, “Adopting the same wide-angle glances and fish-eye perspectives that he used in his last film, ‘Unsane,’ Soderbergh melds narrative feature with cinéma vérité. Like ‘Unsane,’ ‘High Flying Bird’ was shot on iPhones. Documentary-style interviews with real-life NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell, shot in black-and-white, punctuate the fictional story … while adding a subtle callback to Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game.’”

For the Ringer, Adam Nayman drew a comparison to sports-adjacent movies such as “Jerry Maguire” and “Moneyball” by noting, “those stories are fantasies about showing their characters — and their audiences — the money while also reckoning with the love of the game. In Soderbergh’s harder-edged, scrupulously realistic rendering of the pro sports industrial complex, the game isn’t being played and the business itself becomes the only real opponent.”

Victoria Carmen Sonne and Lai Yde in "Holiday."
Victoria Carmen Sonne and Lai Yde in "Holiday." (Breaking Glass Pictures)

‘Holiday’

The Danish film “Holiday” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a full year ago, but is only getting a release now. That delay doesn't make it any less timely, as director Isabella Elköf, in her feature debut, has crafted a confident, tricky crime drama about a young woman (Victoria Carmen Sonne) who goes from being the kept woman of a gangster to finding some kind of freedom.

Reviewing for The Times, Kimber Myers wrote, “For her debut feature, director Isabella Eklöf brings an unblinking eye to the life of a modern moll. “Holiday” refuses to cast judgment on its protagonist with its stark cinematography and long takes, letting lead Victoria Carmen Sonne’s subtle performance shine in this crime drama about imbalances of power.”

At IndieWire, Eric Kohn wrote, “‘Holiday’ is a fearless work, anchored by Sonne’s bold, subtle performance, which keeps her motivation unclear until a burst of developments at the startling conclusion .… The movie eventually becomes a traumatic survival story in which victory comes not from escaping the boundaries of a corrupt world so much as learning to play by its rules.”

Reviewing the film for Variety, Guy Lodge wrote, “It’s up for vigorous debate whether ‘Holiday’s’ most shocking material offers substantive commentary on the toxic behavior it portrays, or simply eye-searing observation thereof; a steady female gaze behind the camera tilts the film’s politics in unexpected, deliberately discomfiting ways.”

Ahmet Rifat Sungar in "The Wild Pear Tree."
Ahmet Rifat Sungar in "The Wild Pear Tree." (Cinema Guild)

‘The Wild Pear Tree’

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Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has never quite broken through from being a favorite of the international festival circuit — he has won Cannes’ Palme d’Or — to wider audiences. His latest film “The Wild Pear Tree” explores the relationship between a father and a son.

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In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Ceylan has steadily become one of the world’s most renowned cinematic auteurs. He is a sharp, sympathetic critic of the ennui and malaise that afflict wide swaths of Turkey’s contemporary middle class — a subject that he tackles with such disregard for the usual narrative niceties, and such subtleties of tone and image, as to risk the audience’s impatience, even boredom. I mean that as high praise.”

At the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Futility is less the theme of ‘The Wild Pear Tree’ than the soil from which its delicate narrative tendrils sprout. Nearly everyone seems thwarted, and they respond with resignation, dissipation or truculent and empty gestures of rebellion. That’s Sinan’s approach, and much of the film — the most absorbing scenes as well as the most abrasive — consists of his arguments, harangues and bull sessions with people who sometimes unwittingly become the target of his resentment.”

For the Guardian, Simran Hans wrote, “Ceylan is clever to expose the quietly conservative attitudes of a certain type of liberal young man .… Yet for all Sinan’s misanthropy (and, it must be said, misogyny), the three-hour film is mostly tender towards its characters.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.

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