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Game changer

Soderbergh’s Netflix movie is better at tech than drama

Melvin Gregg and Zazie Beetz in “High Flying Bird”

Peter Andrews

For his entire career, director Steven Soderbergh has been as much a revolutionary as a filmmaker. Now, perhaps even more so.

An industry disruptor from the start—his 1989 watershed “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was a catalyst for independent cinema—Soderbergh refuses to coast on Oscar-winning success (“Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich”) or blockbuster hits (the “Ocean’s” trilogy).

Lately, however, he’s seemed more fascinated by process and form than by story. Technology evolutions and testing distribution norms have driven Soderbergh’s recent work. “Logan Lucky” (2017) usurped studio marketing conventions (albeit to box office failure), then 2018’s “Unsane” made Soderbergh the first major filmmaker to shoot a movie entirely on an iPhone.

As with those two films, it’s Soderbergh’s behind-the-scenes experimentation that proves more interesting than the drama itself in “High Flying Bird,” his second iPhone feature and first to debut exclusively on Netflix on Feb. 8.

“High Flying Bird” follows Ray Burke (Andre Holland, “Moonlight”), a sports agent looking to shake-up the NBA power structure during a labor dispute lockout. Burke, using his star No. 1 Draft Pick client as a pawn, challenges the league’s quasi-serfdom that, via million-dollar salaries, ends up owning most players’ long-term autonomy and volition.

Dynamics of money, power, and corruption are themes that Soderbergh has explored before—now laced with provocative parallels to real-world corporate racism—but here that mix feels like a familiar formula that Soderbergh autopilots through as he focuses on the tech he’s obsessed with.

The result is a labyrinth scheme that becomes a chore to track. But to Soderbergh’s credit, in terms of a high visual quality achieved through low-tech gear and accessible software, “High Flying Bird” is substantially superior to the blurry, blown-out grit of “Unsane” from just one year ago. This is a legitimate breakthrough.

“High Flying Bird” is the most advanced, substantial step forward we’ve seen yet in digital, democratized filmmaking. Its sharp, vibrant images were captured and produced on three iPhone 8s, the FiLMiC Pro app, the Moment 2X Tele lens, and the Moondog Labs 1.33x anamorphic adapter, all shot over a brisk two weeks with an initial rough cut completed in less than three hours. That is what makes this film exciting.

Thankfully, even as the story strains, there’s interesting character work from the cast—especially Bill Duke’s old sage, Jeryl Prescott’s manipulative self-righteous mother, and Zazie Beetz’s agent protégé—set to impressive visual artistry that places the dense, talky narrative against an eye-popping metropolitan backdrop. There are well-aimed indictments at professional sports, too, but it’s too bad that the bullet Soderbergh aims at his corporate target is such a blank.

The “game changer” that could flip the script on the NBA doesn’t occur until nearly an hour in, and when it does (in the form of a viral video) it plays like an implausible stretch, from public reaction to business implications, almost as if Soderbergh and Netflix are openly workshopping a financial venture for themselves. (Yes, Netflix becomes a lynchpin in Ray’s subversive strategy.) The movie asks the right questions and pushes the right buttons, but through a far-fetched hypothetical.

This sports business parable isn’t likely to strike fear in the hearts of major league execs, NBA or otherwise, but the film’s veracity is beside the point. The evolution of modern moviemaking is what matters here.

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