High Flying BirdReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/08/19 08:31:56
(Worth A Look)
“High Flying Bird,” the latest film from Steven Soderbergh, may be set within the world of professional basketball but it is by no means a “sports movie” in any traditional sense—outside of a couple of dribbles on the court, the focus on this engrossing, dialogue-heavy drama is on the game behind the one be played out on the court that generates billions for those running the show but which leaves most of the actual players out to dry.As the film opens, the N.B.A. is in a lockout following a dispute between the owners and the Players Association, This means no revenue coming in for anyone and while this is only an inconvenience for the owners and the biggest players, the lesser-known players are definitely beginning to feel the pinch. One of those is Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a top draft pick who is not getting paid anything at the moment and has just taken out a high-interest loan against the advice of his agent, Ray Burke (Andre Holland), who counsels him at great length about the need to act sensibly at this time. Unfortunately, the lunch meeting in which he lays this all out for his client is interrupted when his corporate credit card is declined—since his agency is not bringing in any money either, his salary and expenses are both being suspended until the end of the lockout. Now with skin of his own in the game, Ray bounces around between owners, players and the union rep (Sonja Sohn) in an increasingly frantic effort to break up the logjam until he hits upon an idea to revolutionize the entire method of distributing sporting events to the masses in a way that upends the current structure for good, gives far more power to the actual players and even help dismantle the unspoken layers of racism that exist in a league in which the owners are virtually all white and the actual laborers are almost all black.
So yeah, as basketball movies go, this is not exactly “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” If you can imagine a far more cynical version of “Jerry Maguire” that completely eschewed the romance for the deal making, that is a little closer to what Soderbergh and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (the co-writer of “Moonlight”) have in store here. Needless to say, this is a very talky movie but even if you are not able to figure out every single thing going on during the fast-paced dialogues that make up the majority of the scenes (this is not one of those films where people inexplicably stop to explain things in laborious detail, ostensibly to the other characters but mostly to the audience), they have been written in such a sprightly and compelling manner that even those who have never opened an issue of “Sports Illustrated” in their lives should not have a problem following along. Much of the fun of the film comes from the electrifying lead performance from Holland, who perfectly conveys the attitude of a guy who is constantly searching for an angle in any situation that he can use to his advantage and is perfectly capable of switching streams in the middle of a sentence when needed. The film also demonstrates a snazzy visual style as well that finds Soderbergh, once again working as his own cinematographer, literally playing the angles as well for a rich effect that is all the more impressive when you realize that he, as he did with his previous film, “Unsane,” shot the entire thing on an iPhone, a technique that becomes even more ironic when you see how the story eventually unfolds.That big revelation is perhaps the only real stumble to be had in the film—without giving it away, it just comes across as a little too simplistic to be believed. That is the only time, however, when it feels as if it is going for the easy layup. Other than that, this is a film with a strong and uncommonly interesting screenplay, a directorial style that is audacious without ever becoming overwhelming and strong performances from the entire cast (which also includes nice turns from Zazie Beets as Ray’s ambitious assistant, Bill Duke as an old school coach who recalls the days when African-Americans had their own superior basketball league until the NBA took it over to get their hands on the talent pool and Kyle MachLachlan as the loathsome point man for the owners). For Soderbergh, it is a particular triumph in the sense that 30 years since literally revolutionizing the American independent film movement with the debut of his ground-breaking “sex, lies and videotape,” he shows that he is still capable of making films that challenge audiences, the entire filmmaking apparatus (this time by bypassing theaters to go straight to Netflix) and, perhaps most importantly, his own creative ambitions.
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