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Soderbergh shoots and scores with ‘High Flying Bird’

February 11, 2019
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Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to make a sports movie with hardly any sports action in it.

The auteur’s latest offering is “High Flying Bird,” released direct to streaming via Netflix. It’s the story of the game behind the game in the world of professional basketball as one agent, in an effort to do right by his client during a lockout by the owners, threatens to upend the entire model and throw the league into chaos – and one could argue that he’s right not just in economic terms, but ethical as well.

Soderbergh’s malleable ideas with regards to what it means to be an upper-echelon filmmaker in the 21st century continue on their merry way with this one. Following experiments both successful (shooting last year’s “Unsane” exclusively via iPhone) and not-so-much (the self-distribution effort to sidestep the system with 2017’s “Logan Lucky”), he’s keeping what works – the iPhone – and tweaking what doesn’t by letting Netflix wrangle the eyeballs.

The end result works – not surprising considering you’ve got Soderbergh directing a script from Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s an insightful look behind the curtain of pro sports that feels genuine, a compelling illustration of how the sausage is made.

Ray Burke (Andre Holland, TV’s “Castle Rock”) is a prominent sports agent. His biggest client is a basketball player named Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg, TV’s “American Vandal”), a recent high draft pick of the (unnamed, likely for trademark reasons) New York professional basketball franchise. However, there’s currently a lockout due to disagreements between ownership and the players’ association regarding the distribution of revenue.

Erick is in some financial trouble; he took a loan from a less-than-scrupulous source assuming that he’d be able to pay it back quickly, but he can’t get paid until the lockout ends. Unfortunately, the two sides – represented by team owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”) and union lawyer Myra (Sonja Sohn, TV’s “The Chi”) – remain far apart, with neither willing to budge.

Ray’s having struggles of his own. His assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz, “Deadpool 2”) has been moved laterally within the agency and no longer works for him, though she’s still loyal. His boss David (Zachary Quinto, “Hotel Artemis”) is on the verge of firing him. And his old mentor Spence (Bill Duke, “Mandy”) is sick and tired of the whole mess.

But Ray has a plan. While everyone else sees the lockout as an obstacle, he senses an opportunity – a loophole through which he can potentially turn the entire broken system upside down. He sees a chance to put more power into the hands of the players, allowing them more professional agency. But not everyone understands what he’s doing, and he’s messing with some powerful people … and some bridges can never be unburned.

“High Flying Bird” features almost no on-court action, yet it still has the rhythms of a sports movie. It is very much of that world, capturing the nuanced machinations required to operate a pro sports league at a high level. It’s very inside baseball … well, inside basketball, anyway.

Soderbergh has clearly embraced the flexibility that shooting with the iPhone has granted him. There’s a degree of intimacy and interiority to this film that you don’t often see – it’s very different than the in-your-face paranoiac close-ups of “Unsane,” but one could argue that it’s the other side of the same stylistic coin. His gifts as a visual storyteller are as good as ever, and when he has a script this good from which to work, the end result is bound to be strong.

(Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this very interesting project is the collection of interstitial moments that Soderbergh has assembled. Basically, he did interviews with three real-life NBA players – Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson and Donovan Mitchell – where he spoke to them about their relationship with the game and their experiences as professional players. Snippets of these interviews (all in black-and-white) are interspersed throughout as expository, explanatory and/or exclamatory connective tissue, lending a healthy helping of verisimilitude to the proceedings.)

Soderbergh gets a great performance from Holland, which is good, because Ray is nigh-omnipresent in this film; even when he’s not on-screen, his presence hangs over everything. That character is the foundation of the story; Holland bears up nicely under its not-inconsiderable weight. It’s a bright, sharp performance – a triple-double, if you will.

The ensemble falls into place nicely behind him. Gregg does good work, portraying a stereotypical athlete while also hinting at the real person beneath the veneer of baller bravado. Beetz is magnetic to watch, performing with an easy comfort that marks her as someone to watch. MacLachlan is suitably oily, though it might have been nice to get to spend a little more time with David Seton, while Duke is an old pro who lends an air of exhausted gravitas to every scene he’s in. It’s a good group.

“High Flying Bird” is an anomaly, a basketball movie where nary a game is actually played. It shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to a talented director, a great script and a quality cast. It’s a reflection of the current state of the game, to be sure, but it’s also a glimpse at what the future may hold. Time will tell regarding the film’s prescience, but in the present moment, there’s one thing we can say for certain – it is very good.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 February 2019 18:13

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