Steven Soderbergh is back with an engaging and entertaining look at the dynamics of the big guy vs. the little guy through the eyes of a middle man who does his best to bring them all together.
André Holland stars as a sports agent, Ray, whose many basketball clients are in the middle of a lockout with their league. Running on for weeks, bank accounts are drying up, agency are trimming fat and players are starting to get restless; all while the ownership sits back and doesn’t sweat it as their shiny toy not making millions of dollars is no sweat off their back. Pressed by his management to solve this crisis, the sharp and well respected agent takes matters into his own hands and starts moving all the pieces he can manipulate across a three-dimensional chess table.
Soderbergh shoots this film, for the second time in a row, on an iPhone which allows him to keep things intimate while finding inventive set-ups in every scene. The film remains sharp and pointed, much thanks to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s talky script, and Soderbergh follows Ray from one meeting to the next, stacking a house of cards while people keep coming in and trying to blow them all down. He seems more adventurous this time out with more tracking shots and camera movement than the much more locked in Unsane, but this speaks to both films as Ray is always on the move where Unsane’s protagonist was literally being locked away without her (knowing) consent. Regardless, the film looks pretty damn good for being shot on an iPhone, and I wonder if most viewers will even notice any more.
André Holland is fantastic as Ray, keeping his cool and keeping his drive forward as he tries to solve a crisis for almost everyone around him. Holland is great every time he pops up in something, but his work with Soderbergh (watch The Knick!) is my absolute favorite. You can’t help but get behind Ray and his ability to talk circles around just about everyone he meets. Zazie Beetz stars as an ambitious and fast rising star of the player representation world, and she plays the part knowingly without ever coming across as a robotic genius that’s going places. Like Holland, Beetz and he play their parts so smooth and cool, you just find yourself being swept right along with what they are slinging. Melvin Gregg is a convincing soon to be rookie and has a great face of cluelessness as Holland and Beetz’s characters constantly spin this guy in circles. Sonja Sohn plays the Player’s Association representative in the league, and while she might be a bit jaded and tired, she knows how to hold a firm line, Sohn balances that divide beautifully. Kyle MacLachlan also shines as a billionaire owner type, an eccentric weirdo type the man has no problem falling into.
High Flying Bird is a great little sport movie that has little to no sports in it. More basketball plays out on the TV’s in the background than in the context of the film, but anyone who cares or thinks about the dynamics of owners and their employees will find something to chew on here. McCraney sneaks in some interesting black power food for thought as well, but I’m not quite sure that landed as well as it could have. Still, fans of Soderbergh should fire up Netflix this weekend and check out another solid picture from one of our greatest and most prolific directors.