High Flying Bird
Netflix Original Films Offering More than the Local Cinema
There is nothing worth watching at the local cinema this month, so I checked out Netflix, which released the best film made in 2018 (Roma). Roma is a perfect example of why I’m not a big fan of the concept of Netflix Original Films, because Roma deserves to be watched on a big screen, not on a TV (even if it’s 60” wide). The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, released by Netflix in November, is another example of this. But if Netflix is helping these films get made, I suppose I must view this as a positive thing. And some Netflix films, like the just-released High Flying Bird, work fine on a smaller screen.
High Flying Bird stars André Holland as Ray Burke, a basketball agent in New York City who is caught up in a months-long NBA lockout. One of Burke’s star players (Erick Scott, played by Melvin Gregg), is the number one draft pick. Scott is eager to start playing, not least because he took out a high-interest loan on the assumption that he would be receiving a substantial income by now. While Burke doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Scott’s financial struggles, he does understand Scott’s desire to play basketball. And while Burke made sure his own finances were secure, his employer is making major cutbacks, already costing him his top-notch assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz). It’s time to take action.
In a film that focuses on one-on-one dialogue (and one-on-one basketball, though there is very little actual basketball in the film), we watch Burke interact with all the ‘players’ in the various games being played around him. Those closest to Burke are Sam, who remains a part of his life despite working for someone else, and Spence (Bill Duke), his old mentor, a basketball coach full of wisdom and questions, who tells Burke that there is “a game on top of the game”, played at the expense of the players. Defending those players is Myra (Sonja Sohn), the director of the Players Association, whose ‘opponent’ is David Seton (Kyle McLachlan), a local owner. Myra is tasked with making sure Burke and his players (among others) don’t break any rules during the lockout. Then there is Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mother of another high-profile player. She acts as her son’s agent and manager and refuses to participate in Burke’s schemes.
The screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the screenplay for Moonlight) is brilliant, full of snappy intelligent dialogue that keeps you wondering what is really going on while dropping enough hints to let viewers stay in the game (though many viewers will be frustrated by the wordy, slightly-convoluted plot and the lack of action). I did sometimes wish the scenes didn’t bounce around so much, with new players adding voices that didn’t always fit neatly into the bigger game. And sometimes High Flying Bird felt a little too much like a stage play. But I’m a big fan of intelligent heavy-dialogue films, so it worked for me.
The screenplay is brilliant, full of snappy intelligent dialogue that keeps you wondering what is really going on while dropping enough hints to let viewers stay in the game.
High Flying Bird is directed by Steven Soderbergh, who often acts as cinematographer and editor as well as director and who isn’t afraid to try new things, like filming High Flying Bird on an iPhone. The results are amazing, though not always satisfying (at least not for me), as I found the cinematography to be the weakest part of the film. The style, in general, is so unique that it feels like a new form of entertainment rather than a typical film, but that’s part of why the film feels at home on a TV.
What makes High Flying Bird stand out are the great performances all around, especially by Holland, who is superb, and the humanizing message that everybody (players and fans alike) loses when professional sports is reduced to money and greed at the expense of people and the game itself. I tend to be a little cynical about professional sports, but this humanizing theme kept me engaged.
If you have Netflix and you’re looking for a well-made intelligent film to watch, you should check out High Flying Bird.
High Flying Bird is rated TV-MA and is intended for mature audiences (mostly for thematic reasons).