High Flying Bird ★★★½

I am a big supporter of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane, particularly using the iPhone as the camera. For that film, it makes everything we're watching feel like contraband or evidence. Like we were smuggled into a for-profit mental ward or we were seeing the point of view of her stalker/her point of fear about being stalked. It was perfectly intimate and grimy. With High Flying Bird, I think the cellphone directly undercuts a high flying script from Moonlight's Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney has written a high pace business script in the vein of Sweet Smell of Success in which a deadline, here the NBA player's strike vs. the owner's over television contracts, is looming. The dialogue is fantastic; there are allusions to how owners, because they created the game and owned the game but now the game is mostly played by black Americans and international players, "they've built a game on top of the game" in which they own all the rites without the means of production—a version of slavery where the producers get a lot of the reward but still are kept as pawns to be traded on a whim. Whenever an allusion to slavery is said, Bill Duke requires that everyone say a prayer in front of him for loving Jesus and all his black people. It's a collective push forward, acknowledge the past but push forward together.

This collective bargaining as a people, as a game, as a business deserves a breakneck pace like Sweet Smell, like Soderbergh's Contagion, but the method of shooting and the tinny sound of the dialogue, somehow inhibits the pace. McCraney's script breaks ankles with his dialogue but the movie is slower. If anything, I think High Flying Bird shows how unsexy editing is using camera footage, that unless the camera is moving all the time, you have to let scenes sit a little longer for an organic cut. It just feels so stuffy.

Soderbergh's modern player interviews also slow the speed down without adding too much—Donovan Mitchell's candid admission aside, but he's such a magnetic personality, one of the new beacons of the game that we'd all know if he weren't playing in Utah; those disruptive interviews plus Soderbergh's personal iPhone challenge, are both Soderbergh's game that's built upon the script's endgame.

But the endgame is very strong. The last 20 minutes reveal how Andre Holland's agent has been breaking the ankles of players, management, agents, and television providers, during the entire runtime. It's pretty glorious. I just wish the movie had the same energy that you feel in the final moments.

There is also something pretty self-serving about a Netflix movie having a subplot about how Netflix is both the great disruptor and also the great leveler of old school entertainment. It gets to be both. But while Soderbergh's iPhone film might only get made due to the budget of an iPhone for an indie distributor, Netflix surely would've let this auteur shoot on any camera he wanted, no string attached. And it would've fit the film better. Whereas Unsane felt smuggled into an area we're not supposed to see, High Flying Bird is about multi-billion dollar contracts, high end restaurants, and lofty ideas. And McCraney, Holland, Bill Duke and Zazie Beetz hit the bottom of the net time and time again. I wish Soderbergh had gotten out of his own way a little and filmed that game as opposed to adding his own game on top of it all; clearly in love with his own disruptor status but only making a measured and level film when it could've been more. We could've had an all-time great championship level black business thriller and instead we have an expertly written All-Star game sideshow.

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