What have we been watching on Netflix lately? Well, let's see…
"High Flying Bird" is Stephen Soderbergh's latest, about a sports agent named Ray Burke (André Holland) trying to steer his latest client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), through an NBA lockdown. Other figures in Ray's orbit include his clueless boss (Zachary Quinto), a labor negotiator, Myra (Sonja Sohn), Ray's ambitious assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), Erick's rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), Jamero's intimidating mother/manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), and Bill Duke as Spencer, the elderly coach who serves as a pillar of the local basketball community.
With a predominantly African-American cast and a sensational script by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, "High Flying Bird" offers a rare, insightful critique of the way professional basketball operates and the cut-throat culture that it encourages. Though billed in some quarters as a sports movie, there's hardly any basketball played onscreen. Rather, this is a sports economics movie, keen to dig into all the politics and pitfalls around professional basketball, criticizing the way the system has been set up to the disadvantage of the players. The movie is built around these wonderful conversations and negotiations between different characters, as they struggle to come out ahead. Soderbergh includes Interviews with real professional players interspersed throughout the film, little reminders that the issues being discussed in the story are all very real.
Soderbergh shot the film largely with an iPhone, the same way he shot "Unsane." He follows Ray and Erick around New York, meeting with all these different people and trying to get on top of a bad situation. I didn't find the end results all that interesting visually, but it does add a certain verisimilitude to the interactions, and immediately imbues the characters with a sense of place and culture. Holland is especially entertaining to watch as this epitome of the smooth operator, who may seem to be in over his head at times, but always has another trump card in reserve to play at a crucial moment. The entire ensemble is excellent, including an ornery Bill Dukes still holding his own effortlessly in every scene.
Now on to "Triple Frontier," the long-simmering action thriller scripted by Mark Boal that went through countless cast and creative changes before finally landing J.C. Chandor as director and an all-star cast lead by Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac. I'd assumed this was a war film based on some of the earlier reporting, but it turns out that "Triple Frontier" is a heist movie of sorts, but one with a much closer resemblance to "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" than "Ocean's 11." Isaac takes point as "Pope" Garcia, battling Colombia's drug cartels as a military consultant. One day he receives a tip from an informant, Yovanna (Adria Arjona), about an infamous drug lord's jungle safehouse full of ill-gotten funds. Garcia recruits his old Special Forces pals to help him pull off a heist, including Tom "Redfly" Davis (Ben Affleck), now a realtor, Ben and William Miller (Garrett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam), and pilot Catfish Morales (Pedro Pascal).
The "triple frontier" of the title refers to the area where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil converge in the Amazon rainforest. This is where the heist goes down, and is the source of some of the film's best visuals. There's also a lengthy section of the story that takes place in the stark Andes mountains, where surviving the wilderness becomes a major concern. However, the scenery can only contribute so much, and this is sadly one of those cases where the story could have used more help. Now as an action film, there's little to complain about. The set-pieces are well staged and the tension is terrific. Chandor makes good use of the South American settings, and the various twists and turns of the heist and its aftermath are deployed well.
The trouble comes when the film tries to incorporate anything more substantive. And I don't mean anything related to the region's drug wars and culture of corruption and exploitation, but just the basic character interactions whenever the pace slows down. It's all very generic and surface level. Despite the stacked cast, there's no getting away from how thin these characters are. The script does a decent job of setting them up as a troupe of ex-military badasses who didn't transition well to civilian life, but on an individual level, there is very little to work with. Ben Affleck's character is the only one who seems to come to the situation with any stakes, and the others are barely distinguished from each other. This drastically undercuts the impact of the later parts of the film.
So, as an action film this is a decent film. But as drama, especially one that flirts with the same themes of greed and desperation that have featured in some of the greatest films of all time, it's a miss. I don't expect this to be "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or Kubrick's "The Killing," but it's very disheartening to see such a talented group of filmmakers deliver such glib treatment of similar subject matter.