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Film Review – High Flying Bird

Remember when Steven Soderbergh was planning to retire from filmmaking? After helming Behind the Candelabra in 2013, the Oscar winner stepped away from filmmaking only to return in 2017 with Logan Lucky. With High Flying Bird, Soderbergh has crafted something unique, but also returns to some of the facets that make him a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. As he did with last years Unsane, his new film is shot on an iPhone and he has abandoned the traditional theatrical release for a Netflix partnership. Soderbergh has never shied away from his proclivity to embrace new technology. High Flying Bird‘s existence, however, is two-fold. It is quite possibly a commentary on the future of sports. Perhaps, it’s the director’s statement on the current streaming versus theatrical experience battle that is just bubbling to the surface of the national conscience. Regardless, with High Flying Bird, Soderbergh has pushed the envelope again with sharp focus and an utterly captivating piece of work that stands as one of his best films in years.

So what is Soderbergh going for here? High Flying Bird‘s story, penned by Terrell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) follows Ray (Andre Holland) a sports agent facing trying times in the midst of an NBA lockout. His star client Erick (Melvin Gregg) has made some bad decisions financially, and with no end in sight to the lockout, things are only getting worse. Ray sees an end to the lockout not only an opportunity to get Erick back on his feet but a chance to fix the “game on top of the game”. Cut out the middle man, the NBA owners who control the business side, and let the players do what they do best. Soderbergh’s clear-eyed vision vaults High Flying Bird into the conversation as one his most meta.  Through Ray’s eyes, the film seemingly provides a glimpse of one perspective of the streaming wars and even Soderbergh’s core beliefs in making movies. Strip away the business, and let the artists take control.

Ever the master of his craft, Soderbergh isn’t shooting on an iPhone simply to prove he can. He uses his camera almost as a fly on the wall. Soderbergh is taking his audience into spaces where we don’t normally get to go. With a flawless script from McCraney, tremendous performances and the inventive camera work, High Flying Bird feels like something we shouldn’t be seeing. It’s almost as if someone was live streaming and didn’t know it but we as an audience get to see it. That quality makes the film feel more contemporary and of this time than any film of recent memory. Somehow, Soderbergh has managed to predict the future all the while making everything feel in the moment.

Holland is commanding in the lead role as Ray. His ability to take over the screen when he’s on camera is really quite something. Ray is fast-talking and whip-smart but never feels alienating or phony. McCraney’s characters feel lived in, and his success as a playwright has found its way to the big (or small) screen. Zazie Beats also provides a terrific supporting performance and an important one at that. In just 90 minutes, Soderbergh’s work behind the camera, and McCraney’s script flesh out characters and layer them deeper than most films get into in twice that time. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this movie.

Though elements of all of Soderbergh’s movies feel similar, he continues to play with structure in a way few filmmakers do. Cutting in footage of interviews with real NBA players like Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell, the film feels like an accurate representation of life in the league. These interviews serve to tell various parts of the story and even frame it in a way that gives it more gravitas.

Soderbergh has given us not only the best Netlifx original of the year so far (granted it’s early) but one of the most entertaining films of the year overall. Soderbergh’s return to the director’s chair has certainly been a welcome one, and this just might be his best since he came back to feature films. Like an injured player shaking off the rust, Steven Soderbergh certainly seems to have found his jump shot again. This is more than just a basketball film, it’s an important film that tackles some of the more intriguing contemporary issues. The big ideas at play here all connect in a brilliant way. It is a breezy and highly engrossing film that will hopefully reach the audience it deserves.

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