Soderbergh, the acclaimed director of "Ocean's Eleven," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" and "Magic Mike" is following up last year's "Unsane," his first film shot on iPhones, with a Netflix movie about an NBA lockout, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney ("Moonlight"). Want to know if it's worth a weekend watch? Here's what the reviews have to say:
'High Flying Bird' Is All About An Agent's Attempt To Outwit The NBA During A Lockout
We meet sports agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) in the glittering bar at the top of The Standard, a Manhattan hotel that looks out over the High Line. Surrounded by huge windows, Ray sits across from his client Erick (Melvin Gregg), a rookie who's signed to play for New York. Erick isn't getting paid yet, and he's not practicing with his team yet, because there's a lockout.
Ray must wheel and deal, wheedle and needle, playing every side at once: his client [Melvin Gregg], a sharp, sensitive star-in-the-making; the head of the players union (The Wire's Sonja Sohn), a longtime friend; his ex-assistant (Atlanta's Zazie Beetz), who's got her own angle; and the president of the local franchise that drafted Erick (coded as the Knicks, but carefully referred to as "New York"), played by a well-oiled Kyle MacLachlan. We trust, because this is a Steven Soderbergh movie, that Ray is one step ahead of everyone, including us, and that he's playing a long game the objectives of which will be satisfyingly revealed.
The iPhone Cinematography Lets Soderbergh Experiment In Exciting Ways While Also Serving The Movie's Story
The iPhone sands away a lot of the cinematic sheen one might get with a bigger, more robust camera, but it can also be put anywhere in a room without taking up much space. In High Flying Bird, that makes it an ideal device for listening in on conversations between agents, executives, owners, and players during a fictionalized NBA lockout.
Credited for cinematography and film editing under the aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, Soderbergh's camera brings the backroom deals in swanky, high-rise bars to life in all their mood-lit, buttery leather seats glory, in stark contrast to the meetings in bland corporate offices, or even the sharp lighting of a community basketball court.
Lest you think this is purely a technical element of production, it adds an energy to the filmmaking of "High Flying Bird" that you can sense on-screen. You can feel the excitement that Soderbergh gets from experimenting with a new form of filmmaking.
The Quality Of The Script And The Characters Make All The Business Maneuvering A Delight To Watch
McCraney's script is designed to challenge viewers' preconceived notions of how the NBA treats its players, but it does so without feeling like a TED Talk about the economy of sports. The banter between Ray, Erick, Spence, Ray's wise assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), and the players-union lawyer Myra (Sonja Sohn) sings with intelligence and wit.
His script zips between sports jargon and scripture, analysis and allegory. One sequence has a character draw parallels between professional sport and slavery, then another character quickly ridicule the same. We're left with Ray's mentor as our guide and castigator: "Anyone who refers to the institution of slavery in front of me, particularly in reference to basketball and its players, must say these words: 'I love God and all of his black people.'"
McCraney's dialogue is lyrical, but punctuated with enough acrimony, bitterness, and zingers to keep it from swaying into Friday Night Lights territory. This isn't about the love of the game — it's about who owns the game, and who has a right to stand where they do.
André Holland's Ray Plays The Agent's Game Like Its A Sport Deserving Of Highlights And Instant Replays
Holland's performance is expressive and precise, as he chews on McCraney's rat-a-tat dialogue and navigates treacherous conversations with the expertise of Indiana Jones making his way through booby traps.
Holland's portrayal of Ray is restrained but impassioned, and as would be the case in real life, there is no clear line between the action he takes in the interests of his clients and the actions he takes in the interests of himself.
Even Though It Echoes The 2011 Lockout, NBA Fans Will Find The Movie's Ideas Are Absolutely Relevant Today
High Flying Bird builds to a showdown and a stunt that on paper seem borderline outrageous. But anyone who's a fan of professional basketball will realize how plausible this specific labor action seems—and how differently the 2011 lockout could've gone had players managed to leverage their own images, and their online brands, against the owners who were demanding they sacrifice future salary to get back on the court. That scenario is what High Flying Bird has fun pondering, and why it's such an unusual delight to watch.
Most modern sports movies feel a few years behind the story—purposefully nostalgic for a feel-good, motivational story. "High Flying Bird" feels like a product of the 2018-19 NBA season, which may not have a lockout but is dealing with the same issues. I wish I could be in the room when some of the young stars of the game like Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid watch this movie. Actually, I wish even more I could be in the room when the owners of their teams watch it.
The Movie Doesn't Skim Over The Tension In The NBA Between White Owners And Black Players
A labor dispute that's led to a long players' lockout sets the stage for this drama about — what else? — money and power. The fact that the battle basically boils down to a control issue between rich white team owners and mostly black athletes largely goes unspoken but is the elephant in the room; if and how that dynamic might be changed lies at the core of this fleet tale in which nearly everyone is upset or annoyed nearly all the time.
McCraney and Soderbergh are not pretending that exploitation of black athletes has just been discovered or that they are delivering brand new insight or brand new connections between professional sports and slavery; they are applying it to a new story in a new way. Bill Duke's role as an old-timer who operates a basketball camp, and who has strong feelings about athletes and slavery metaphors, provides another angle of inquiry for this part of the story.
In its portrayal of black athletes and their families navigating a system that both depends on them and abases them, High Flying Bird is a low-key act of subversion that just happens also to be a sleek, entertaining drama. (Let us praise, among its other pleasures, its perfect 90-minute running time.)
It's Top-Tier Soderbergh, Not A Netflix Curiosity
In picking at a system until it's threaded, High Flying Bird is a classic Soderbergh construct. Throughout his career – from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Erin Brockovich to Che to Magic Mike – he's revelled in telling stories of the individual chipping away at the status quo.
High Flying Bird has the shaggy energy of a palette cleanser, but it's too heady, too invested in big issues, to be called a minor work.
And it leaves you with a lot to think about, in addition to race, class and basketball: what it means to love your work, and why it matters to be paid for it; how utopian visions and tactical calculations work together to create the possibility of change; why we take fun so seriously.
"High Flying Bird" swoops and cuts through the contradictions of modern culture with the fleet momentum of a power forward destroying a flat-footed defense on his way to the hoop.
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