High Flying Bird - 2019
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh
Writer(s): Tarell Alvin McCraney
Cinematography by: Steven Soderbergh
Editor(s): Steven Soderbergh
Cast: André Holland, Melvin Gregg, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan and Sonja Sohn
Steven Soderbergh has had a tremendous career inside the Hollywood system. He has managed to have box office success, with the Ocean's franchise, and Magic Mike; critical success with award-winning films in Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But now seems to be rebelling against the system that made him a household name, showcasing how it can all be undone with the power of an iPhone and a laptop. And any aspiring filmmaker should take note of his recent films, especially his latest endeavor; High Flying Bird. Let's talk about it.
The story follows a successful sports agent, Ray Burke (Holland), dealing with the current NBA lockout. This is drying up his revenue streams, creating tensions with his bosses, colleagues, and clients. Ray is tired of "the game they built on top of the game"; “they” being the white team owners, and wants to show them that this exploitative relationship between owners and players can be destroyed if the players wanted it so. I think it is fitting that Soderbergh picked this script to film during his experimental iPhone days. It is penned by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), and while it certainly tackles themes of "ownership" and unfairness when it comes to the sports business, it can also be a mirror to what Soderbergh is doing in Hollywood. Showing young directors that you do not need the latest and greatest cameras, equipment, and editing software to bring your film to life. You don't need the "game" that the powers that be created on top, because without you, without your talents, they are nothing.
McCraney script creates a good balance of sharp commentary and lighthearted human moments between the characters. This helps the audience buy into the world, and it reduces what can be a bit heavy-handed commentary. Not all the character clicked for me, some came across a bit disingenuous and forced, but when the script was clicking it felt like a gravitational pull that sucked you in and didn't want to let go. You will certainly look at the leagues in a different light after watching this film.
Soderbergh improved on his iPhone experiment of last year, Unsane, thanks to the wide-angle lenses from Moondog Labs (same company that helped Sean Baker's Tangerine). The cinematography is bold and fresh, and knowing that it is shot on a phone helps to appreciate the angles and the blocking even more. There are many scenes that feel intimate and real, almost like they were improvised. But where Soderbergh shines is through his editing. The film's runtime sits at a tight 1 hr and 30 min, and you don't even notice it run by.
High Flying Bird is not a great film, there are a lot of weird moments that take you out of the experience. Some of the performances are not great, but Beetz and Holland carry the bulk of the film and they knock it out of the park. And some of the conversations are a bit repetitive. But all the pros far outweigh the cons, making this a film worth your while. Great social commentary from McCraney, on top of a filmmaker in Soderbergh trying to pave the way for future aspiring directors. Soderbergh is why I love movies.
High Flying Bird is Glass Half Full.
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