A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2019


2019, No MPAA rating, 90 mins.


André Holland as Dean  /  Zazie Beetz as Sam  /  Melvin Gregg as Erick  /  Sonja Sohn as Myra  /  Kyle MacLachlan  /  Zachary Quinto  /  

Directed by Steven Soderbergh  /  Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney






One thing that I'll give Steven Soderbergh is that - at a relatively late time in his career when most other directors would be too timid to stray too far away from their own established comfort zones - he's unafraid to push his skill set and the medium forward in audacious new directions.  

HIGH FLYING BIRD is his latest unorthodox effort, streaming now on Netflix and shot once again utilizing just iPhone 8 cameras (which he sunk his creative teeth into with his last film, the very underrated psychological thriller UNSANE from last year).  Two things stand out in this NBA themed sports drama: (1) Soderbergh is daring enough to emerge from previous self-imposed filmmaking retirement to refreshingly tackle subject matter he really hasn't before and (2) he might be the only veteran filmmaker right now that's thoroughly pushing the aesthetic and technical boundaries of how films are shot.  I like the manner that he seems unafraid of genre and production challenges and risks here, which helps HIGH FLYING BIRD emerge as a unique - albeit somewhat undisciplined at times - genre effort. 



One thing that shouldn't be overlooked here is that HIGH FLYING BIRD also represents a unique marriage between Soderbergh and MOONLIGHT screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, and the dynamic tandem work smoothly together to craft a film that comments on the whole paradoxical idea of how white men in places of limitless power in the NBA own and control the league's black athletes.  One of the more sobering aspects of HIGH FLYING BIRD is its dissection of the modern sports athlete and the power plays that exist - oftentimes to detrimental effect - between them and the owners that essentially, well, own them.  Then there's the idea of how today's athletes are trying increasing hard with every new year to make an even bigger presence for themselves on social media, but the manner with which these players - especially young ones entering the game for the first time - become commodified bargaining chips is more than a bit unsettling.  Even though I believe Soderbergh's and McCraney's approach at times in relaying these timely and important sports themes lean towards obviousness and heavy handedness at times, there's no question that their film will still strike a potent chord with both sports fans and those more on the fringes of fandom. 

HIGH FLYING BIRD opens by introducing us to sports agent Ray Burke (a rock solid Andre Holland), who was once a high powered and deeply respected power player in his field that is now struggling to keep his job afloat because of a lingering NBA lockout (since players don't get paid during the lockout, agents like Ray don't either, which creates a powder keg of a dire situation for all).  Ray is pretty dirt poor and wouldn't have much overall hope moving forward if it weren't for the fact that he works with the number 1 NBA draft pick in Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), who's just itching to see the lockout end so that he can truly make a name for himself.  Early on in the story there's an ironic scene between the pair at a posh restaurant as Ray criticizes the young and impetuous rookie for a questionable loan he's just taken out...all while Ray's credit cards are coming up declined while feebly trying to pay for their meal. 

In any event, it seems that both men have been rendered financially broken by the lockout, leaving both of them in pure desperation mode.  Making matters worse is the fact that Ray is on the verge of being fired from his agency due to lockout influenced budget cuts.  The rest of the film chronicles Ray trying as he can to keep his chin up and broker with as many industry players as possible to keep his own job afloat and ensure that Erick has a future as an all-star player.  While dealing with Players Association rep Myra (Sonja Sohn), his former assistant in Sam (DEADPOOL 2's very good Zazie Beetz), and an NBA team rep in Favid (Kyle MacLachlan), Ray realizes that he's going to have to pull out all of the stops to keep both himself and his client relevant in the current lockout conundrum.  Adding extra complexities to everything is that Ray is trying to fight the lockout and influence its end while ensuring that Erick - potentially being his future meal ticket - doesn't abandon him for safer business waters.   

Unlike so many sports films that are about the sporting contests themselves and the unavoidable clashes between star players in the "big climatic match", HIGH FLYING BIRD - much like, say, MONEYBALL - is mostly and more compellingly concerned with the behind the scenes personas that dictate the sport from behind closed doors.  By tapping into the troubling realities of the NBA - and most sports leagues in general - as a business first and foremost, Soderbergh is attempting to explore how the pureness of the game of basketball has been severely tainted by notions of fame and superstardom.  This is driven home by a subplot involving a South Bronx basketball coach (a wonderful Bill Duke) who tries to impart of his young disciples the truly important parts of the sport that haven't been tainted yet by the allure of unfathomable wealth.  Unfortunately, this lowly coach knows that it's becoming increasingly hard to keep promising players away from such distractions.  Soderbergh also intercuts interviews with various NBA players throughout the narrative that discuss about the sacrifices one makes to be a star player, especially when they can become easily replaceable investments first and human beings with needs a distant second.     

All in all, this is an invigorating change of pace for the Oscar winning director, and HIGH FLYING BIRD mostly achieves lift-off when it captures what a depersonalized experience it can be for young and impetuous players to be thrust into the limelight of a league that's only focused with the bottom line.  And, of course, something has to be said about the director once again going back to employing iPhones exclusively to make his film, this time, though, mixing things visually up a bit by also adding new state of the art wide angled lenses attached to these smart devices, which gives HIGH FLYING BIRD a surprising richness, clarity, and ultra engrossing depth of field of the image (this film looks positively pristine and polished compared to the graining, grungy, and low rent feel of the iPhone shot UNSANE).  Even though I do find it endlessly fascinating to see an established director toy around with new cameras and sleight of hand technical tricks to tell stories, I'm still not 100 per cent confirmed that Soderbergh is truly leading a filmmaking revolution by using iPhones to make his movies.  Maybe when a heavy hitting populist filmmaker like Spielberg shoots the next Indiana Jones adventure with a smart phone then I'll be a tad more convinced, but until otherwise...yeah...the jury is till out.   

Filmmaking artifices aside, HIGH FLYING BIRD remains engaging throughout in its tale of how the hoop dreams of some can come at a cost of the uber wealthy that can either make them happen...or not.  The performances are also superb, especially by Holland, who's the - pardon the mixed sports metaphor - the dramatic quarterback that keeps the overall story moving forward with a strong momentum.  Still, HIGH FLYING BIRD isn't really the first film to tackle the business hurdles and perils of sports, and there are times when I found the screenplay lacking focus and cohesion (sometimes, it careens from one vantage point to another, often making the whole enterprise feel a bit lopsided and meandering).  Plus, there's an awful lot that Soderbergh is trying to say here in the span of a very tight and perhaps too brief 90 minute running time (considering the taking heads approach of having those aforementioned player interviewers sprinkled in throughout, watching HIGH FLYING BIRD made me almost wish that Soderbergh crafted this material into a long form documentary series instead of a short Netflix drama).  

But, again, I tip my hat to Soderbergh for taking bold and experimental artistic plunges that many of his contemporaries would not.  HIGH FLYING BIRD may not be a three-pointer with nothing but net success as a speculative sports drama, but watching a filmmaking player like Soderbergh come out of retirement to take to the court with some new moves is endlessly commendable. 

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