High Flying Bird (2019)
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Soderbergh spoke about a new age of B-Movies. Not in the sense of second rate - but going back to the golden age of cinema, when b-movies were cinema fillers for huge audiences.
They were shot on low budgets. Often with limited lighting and not too many stars or spectacular sequences, with crowds of extras.
Instead, the director had to work around his limited means creatively, often filling a lot of the film with dialogue - as it's much cheaper to shoot: if you can't film all those scenes, you can always have one character tell another character what happened.
Be in no doubt, although a lot of those old B-movies were fillers, some were remarkable pieces of cinema. All the better for being forced into creative use of limited resources.
Indeed, this was how film noir was born. And that is very much what High Flying Bird reminded me of. Those old b-movie sports pictures which couldn't afford the big action scenes so left the sport part in the background while the action focused on the backroom talk.
I loved the cinematography. And it was absolutely refreshing to see old school camera angles instead of the tedium we get now - when every kid with a few hundred dollars to spend sports a DSLR and Bokeh inducing lenses.
Boken is no excuse for cinematography. And this is why the use of smartphones is a breath of fresh air. Without those boring ricks to fall back on (do we really need to see another extreme shallow depth of field close up?), every shot in this movie was thought about. Every shot had a purpose. And how great to have the wide depth of field of smartphones bring the surrounded architecture into play. Not a shot or a building was wasted.
And that's what this is all about. Instead of cinema fillers we have Netflix fillers. Who knows, just like the last time some of them may just turn out to be little gems. Soderbergh knows he'll never win any Oscars for these new b-movies. As did those movie directors of old. But he knows he'll have the freedom to make the films he wants to make and have fun doing it.
Instead of an arena, the game is played out in offices and instead of action, there is dialogue. Considering the constrained budget and production schedule, it is a testament to the cast and to the screenplay that the film holds together at all. And yet it does. The performances are naturalistic while the story moves along at pace, generally eschewing exposition.
In keeping its focus narrow, centring on a small cast of characters, Tyrell Alvin McCraney's screenplay cuts to the core of issues of race and power in the NBA without a whisper of melodrama. In fact, considering the wider story it is telling High Flying Bird remains upbeat and inherently promotes a message of positivity.
High Flying Bird will not be for everyone, it could be accused of being a little dry. However it is an intriguing experiment in film-making which finds a new way to tell a story which needs telling.
But I could not get anything out of this movie. It's a movie about basketball, that has no basketball in it. It has an idea but it does not have characters. You don't care about the characters because they simply aren't engaging. They don't have organic character arcs, or come to a satisfying conclusion. The script is fine, but mostly doesn't help the movie become compelling or interesting in any way. It just.. moves along.
There is one main message. Basketball leagues are controlled by white capitalists, although black people are the main players. The idea behind "beating" this game over the game may be interesting in itself. I left this movie with nothing, except the feeling of having seen some clever shots and some politics. But it should have been more of a documentary instead of a 90-minute drama.
Netflix movies are continuing to disappoint.
Some viewers will find it boring because there really isn't any basketball being played. I liked it because of that, because the plot doesn't need it. There is much relevancy on how the media landscape is changing and in turn changing the dynamics of the NBA (owner/GM vs players). I'm a big sports fan and I've noticed this from a long way out. That's the real point of this movie in my opinion.
It'll get mixed reviews and probably some 1 votes. That's okay, the message is right on and empowering, and the acting helps convey that. There are some religious plot lines too but it doesn't take away from anything and will add to the story for some viewers. Enjoy!
Boring, tedious and utterly pointless. Decent cast, absolutely horrible to watch. "Literally nothing happens. Don't give up your time watching garbage like this.
There's a bit more to the plot than this, including how Ray supposedly ends the lockout, how supposedly players are exploited by racist owners and the NBA, which is just a bizarre thing to imply, given that there is a player's union and no shortage of companies ready to endorse players. Everything the movie tries to sell the audience falls apart in the last ten minutes or so, when Soderbergh shows his cards and basically reveals this movie really is about wealthy, privileged African-Americans...fighting against racial injustice? Excuse me, what? I'm supposed to feel sorry for pro athletes who will make as much as $30 million a year or more plus endorsements? Even a bench player on minimum salary makes like $500K a year. The agents make millions. In one scene, Ray triumphantly shows up his boss, tells him he's going to take his job and walks out triumphantly like he just stuck it to the man. The whole scene is just so ridiculous and unbelievable it defies logic. Who would be ridiculous enough to give up the NBA's business because of a lockout to begin with? LOL. Especially one that was coming to an end? I would go into more of the plot, but I won't for the sake of spoilers.
The whole movie just wasn't fun. It had an agenda from the very beginning. Soderbergh, as usual, tries to sell his story with well-shot scenes in fancy restaurants, offices and coffee shops, actors rattling off dialogue so fast it doesn't allow the audience to understand who exactly individual characters are or what they do. The details of the plot are hard to gather and understand until the plot twist is revealed and then from there, it all falls apart and becomes simplistic agenda-based drivel. It's one thing to pretend to be a sophisticated movie, another to break down and reveal your real agenda was about racism, which most viewers of this film are unlikely to take seriously. The real problem with the majority of players is never examined, particularly how little many of them take education seriously. Before anyone tries to dispute anything I've said about this, I've dealt with this firsthand and know what I'm talking about.
Soderbergh is a slightly more likable version of Aaron Sorkin. I enjoy his movies occasionally but I don't trust people in general who think it is a badge of honor to be the smartest one in the room. He seems to have a complex about this that carries over to the characters in his movies; anyone he likes is always the clever one with a trick up their sleeve to outsmart someone. The bad guys are smart but never as smart as the good guys. Everyone else is just some lovable goof who needs other people to hold their hands to get through life. This is basically every movie he makes and it's annoying. Cut out the last scene and maybe this movie would get a lot better.
Writing (Tarell Alvin McCraney) 2/10: I never knew you could make a basketball movie with only dialogue. The entire movie was just conversation to conversation to conversation. Basketball is barely played in this film. The most we see of it is a single shot in a YouTube video. You should be able to write a film, remove all the dialogue, and still have something comprehensible. If you remove all of the dialogue from 'High Flying Bird,' there are only blank pages. There is no action and, most importantly, no heart. It feels like there is no passion and no emotion thrown into this screenplay whatsoever. In every scene, the characters seem as bored as I was watching it. The only glimmer of hope I was holding onto was the mystery of Erick's 'Bible' which stayed in its package since the first scene of the movie. I was disappointed to find that it served no use to the plot and had no semblance of satisfaction when it was revealed. If the point they were going for was that, with all the religious themes thrown around in the movie, he didn't need his Bible to find who he was and live without an agent, then they really missed the mark.
Performances 5/10: The acting in this film is one of the better aspects of it. Andrè Holland does a good job as Ray and Zazie Beetz does a good job as always. It was also nice seeing Kyle MacLachlan and Zachary Quinto who carried their scenes. Melvin Gregg however barely finds the energy he needs. His acting is subpar compared to everyone else, and that says something when everyone in this film looks bored.
Cinematography (Steven Soderbergh) 4/10: Soderbergh needs to understand that this iPhone gimmick is fun and inspiring as a concept, but it isn't practical. There are reasons why uber expensive Red Epics or Arris are used, it's because they make the picture look nice and comfortable to look at. Overexposed backgrounds and terrible color profiles are distracting and ugly. Also, there is barely a stabilizer in iPhones so when an actor hits a table or walks, the camera shakes and it's noticeable. Also, Soderbergh breaks the 180-degree rule a lot for seemingly no reason. During the film, I was trying to figure out why he suddenly flipped sides and I couldn't figure out why. There was no reason for it. The only redeeming factor for the cinematography is that there were some shots that looked cool, especially considering the camera it was shot on, but Soderbergh needs to give up this gimmick.
Editing (Steven Soderbergh) 3/10: To go along with his not good cinematography, Soderbergh combines it with his bad editing. This goes hand-in-hand with his breaking of the 180-degree rule. In addition, during a two-person dialogue (which was 99% of this film) the film stays on a third person not saying anything as if they're having some big reaction to the conversation, but they aren't. Soderbergh just stays on a bored actor. The only reason his editing isn't getting a 1/10 is that the film is still comprehensible.
Enjoyment 2/10: Normally I don't like to think of a film as worse because it's boring. Take 'Roma' as an example. Most of the film is slow and boring, but it still tells a brilliant story through action and subtext. You can remove most dialogue and have it still be interesting. But because 'High Flying Bird' is almost all dialogue with almost no action at all, a lot of it is hard to follow. I would have fallen asleep to this film had I not finished a cup of coffee immediately before watching it. I will say, it could have been worse. It wasn't painful to watch by any means, but I wish there was some shred of excitement in the plot.
Musical Score (David Wilder Savage) 5/10: Score? This film had a SCORE? It did not feel like it. Most scenes needed some kind of music to be more interesting. It needed some ambiance to give it some atmosphere instead of just the sounds of New York City. Although, I did very much enjoy the opening song. It was fun and was a good opener that made me disappointed by the end.
Sound Mixing 4/10: The sound is rough in this film. The transitions from inside to outside are hard to listen to because of how harsh they are. They needed ambiance in the form of music or just something nondiegetic to give it life.
Production Design (Andy Eklund) 8/10: The design of this movie is pretty nice. Each setting is unique in its own way and tells a little bit about the characters they belong to. The gym set was especially nice and fitting.
Overall 4/10: Steven Soderbergh needs to give up the gimmicks and just stick to the stories. I can't say anything bad about him wearing so many hats because it's worked well in the past, but if he focuses less on the iPhone gimmick and goes back to traditional filmmaking, he'd have better films. Also, Tarell Alvin McCraney needs to write better screenplays.
Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks ... a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished. Andre Holland (also one of the film's producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray - although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client - hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick's top pick contract has not yet been executed ... so he's in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.
Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray's assistant who constantly reminds him, "I don't work for you anymore", despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners' lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray's boss.
Ray's work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players' image. Is it the league, the players' association, or the player himself? It's a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.
Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. "You care all the way or you don't care at all" is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it's quite obvious this isn't the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.
It's a very smart movie, visually captivating (even though it's shooted by an iPhone 8), with a hilarious take on race and politics in basketball + shows the potential of players/agents to change the balance of power. I HIGHLY recommend it!
But no, it isn't like Above the Rim, Coach Carter, Glory Road, or Hoosiers. It's nothing like that, and it doesn't present itself as such. It isn't a film about playing basketball; it is a film about the inherent flaws in the system in which basketball is played--and why it is designed to be that way.
First of all, I have to mention the fact that this movie belongs totally to the director Steven Soderbergh (of the "Ocean's 11, 12 fame). Mr. Soderbergh has made a very intelligent and realistic movie indeed. "High Flying Bird" shines brightly and brilliantly in terms of its social commentary on the commercialization of sports (in this movie, the sport being dealt with is basketball), racism in sports, and this film has got very powerful, witty dialogues.
All actors have given good performances in their respective roles. Please note, this movie is trying to highlight the real problems faced by professional sports players. If you want to watch a sports-drama flick that showcases a tale of redemption and victory, then watch something else. This movie is an intelligent film that deals with actual problems that exist in sports.
The core of "High Flying Bird" is a verbally sizzling script from Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright known best for turning a drama school project into the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Moonlight" in 2016. McCraney's theatre background will help clarify why 90 percent of "High Flying Bird" is conversations in restaurants and office buildings. The film very intentionally deprives its audience of the kinetic pleasures of a sports movie, choosing to focus on the strategy side, enforcing the common cliché that "sports is a business."
Perhaps a better way to frame the movie is that it wants to focus on athletes as people. To enforce this notion, Soderbergh filmed interviews with a few NBA players, most of whom recently entered the league, asking them about the experiences and lessons learned from their transition to the pros. He divides the story up and fills these interviews in to remind audiences that while the movie is fiction, the scenarios and challenges in it are very real.
André Holland, who had a supporting role in "Moonlight," stars as Ray, a top sports manager who has landed himself the number one overall draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), as a client. With the players association and the league locked out, however, players aren't getting paid, which leads Erick to make some short-sighted decisions that could jeopardize his first rookie contract.
The story begins extremely business-like in its approach to the subject matter and slowly reveals the bigger picture at hand, though it remains intellectual in its primary function as a story. The script hints at more emotional subplots, specifically past traumas of its characters, but empathy is largely in short supply. For as smart as it is, however, it feels rushed. You keep waiting for it to change gears and offer something different, but it has a single tone and pace, one that it does extremely well thanks to Soderbergh's naturally sleek style, but nevertheless, it's singular in vision.
Soderbergh's involvement in the film feels less about his direction and more about getting this project financed. The film has points to make, points that are complex and compelling about athletes and the systems that contain them, but they aren't given a lot of time to sink in.
There's a lot of Aaron Sorkin in this film. Sorkin writes scripts that are intellectually stimulating with a pulsing rhythm, that are on to the next witty exchange before you can appreciate the previous one. It's a film that feels smarter than you, that you have to rise up to meet. That's largely the entertainment factor that we get from "High Flying Bird." The Soderbergh-McCraney pairing has that explosive dynamism to it, but the film consciously limits the breadth of what it can offer audiences.
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It's basically a heist movie with a political mission, and the use of basketball in the marketing is not doing it any favors. Dialogue heavy and without flashy action (or Basketball gameplay), this movie is not for everyone. But for such a small budget and being filmed only with an iPhone it's impressive how it manages to hold and keep your attention while still delivering both potent & relevant political commentary coupling it with a satisfying payoff with a twist. It all feels fresh, relevant and realistic, leaving you wondering why Netflix isn't signing deals with rookies everywhere.
The only issue I have is cramming the racism into the political message since it leaves out that the white players wages & bargaining power are just as miniscule.