Netflix Movie Review: High Flying Bird (2019)

Arriving on Netflix: 
Feb. 8

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The way Bill Duke's community basketball coach sees it, "you either care all the way or you don't care at all, man," and it only takes a few minutes of screen time for us to realize that, when it comes to looking out for his clients during an NBA lockout, André Holland's basketball agent Ray is a man who cares all the way.

Trying to save his lottery pick player Erick (Melvin Gregg) from bankruptcy and himself from unemployment, Ray spends a majority of Steven Soderbergh's ninety minute movie in motion. Talking at the speed of a playoffs game, over the course of a few fateful days, Ray maneuvers between the labor dispute's offense and defense.

A subversive look at "the game on top of the game" of basketball but without any court action in sight, the film, written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) and modeled on Sweet Smell of Success, raises valid, urgent questions about the commoditization of predominantly black athletes by white owners.

Making moves to redistribute the balance of power, money, and control back into the hands of the players alongside his brainy, ambitious assistant Sam (a terrific Zazie Beetz), in High Flying Bird, we get the chance to go behind the curtain of what Ray dubs "the sexiest sport."

Using an outsider's perspective to explore new terrain in an unexpected way, Soderbergh's bold decision to take basketball itself out of the equation gives us a closer look at what we're really seeing when we watch a game on TV.

One of our most curious filmmakers, especially given the scope and objectivity of his character driven films, it's safe to say that had he not entered the film industry, Steven Soderbergh would have made one hell of an investigative reporter.

A unique mix of vintage and modern Soderbergh filmmaking techniques, although Bird was shot on an iPhone (like his recent underrated thriller Unsane), Bird's frames are sharper and more polished, perhaps owing as much to advances in technology as the film's smoother, less frantic tone and approach.

Comprised of the same set-up of two people in a room talking that he says made his name thirty years ago in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the end result is a fascinating blend of theater, journalism, and cinéma vérité brought to life with verve and skill by its top-notch cast in just three weeks.

Best appreciated the second time around when we're better able to digest McCraney's gorgeously penned, theatrical monologues which are so full of meaning that they occasionally feel too big for the screen, Bird also makes for an ideal double feature with the 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success.

Used by Soderbergh as a template for the film when he was first developing it on the set of The Knick alongside Holland, even without Success, Bird is sure to inspire its fair share of think pieces and make for engaging post-film discussion regardless.

Although those looking for a traditional sports movie will be disappointed by its lack of well, sports, those willing to keep an open mind might be surprised to discover that, whether it’s about sports or film, much like Ray (or McCraney or Soderbergh for that matter), they too "care all the way."

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