When you get involved with a movie's plot, sometimes you don't notice the most obvious stuff. That was the case when I watched "High Flying Bird," the newest film by Steven Soderbergh. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
I was surprised to learn that the Netflix original film “High Flying Bird,” was shot on an iPhone. The film had been recommended to me by my Movies 101 partner Nathan Weinbender mainly because it was directed by Steven Soderbergh – one of the most inventive filmmakers working today.
I was also interested in the movie’s theme, which involves the world of professional basketball – specifically, the National Basketball Association – and the money machinations that engage the athletes, their representatives, the team owners and the league office.
But when I mentioned to friends that I had seen “High Flying Bird,” one of them said, “Isn’t that the movie that was shot on an iPhone.” And I shrugged, before almost immediately thinking, “Well, that’s hardly a shock.”
This is, after all, Soderbergh.
Since achieving his first success with his 1989 feature “sex, lies & videotape,” the independent-minded Soderbergh has managed to navigate the extremes of contemporary cinema, directing both big-budget projects such as “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy, and smaller, alternative projects such as “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal.”
In between, and despite his ongoing struggle with the blockbuster-movie industry, he managed to snare a Best Director Oscar for his 2000 film “Traffic.”
Soderbergh also is famous for experimenting with new technology, whether that involved being an early adapter of digital technology, or – as have directors such as Sean Baker and Jay Alvarez – shooting entire features on the same kind of implement that the rest of use to text, explore social media, play games and – on occasion – even make phone calls.
Which brings us to “High Flying Bird,” a movie that is experimental beyond Soderbergh’s choice of filming tool. Yes, it is a project that speaks mostly to the sports-minded, its protagonists being a sports representative named Ray (played by André Holland), his chief client, rookie star-in-the-making Erick (played by Melvin Gregg) and Ray’s on-again/off-again assistant Sam (played by Zazie Beetz).
Based on a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McRaney, who shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar with Barry Jenkins for 2016’s “Moonlight,” “High Flying Bird” opens with Ray and Erick facing a problem: Because of a contract dispute between the player’s union and the league, the players have been locked out – delaying Erick’s initial, and much-needed, payday.
And, actually, Ray needs the money, too, because his credit cards have all been mysteriously canceled.
But things get only more interesting from there. Amid all the talk of contracts and the haggling between the league and the union, not to mention Ray and his supervisor (played by Zachary Quinto), Ray ultimately comes up with a plan that is as forward-thinking as it is subversive to those who control the finances. The only problem: Can he get all the aspects of his plan to work at once?
Soderbergh, though, doesn’t just tell a fictional story. He periodically cuts to interviews with real-life NBA first-round draft picks whose personal experiences add a documentary touch to screenwriter McRaney’s script.
Given everything else, Soderbergh’s use of an iPhone may be the least surprising aspect of his whole movie.