****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A rather empty cinematic venture that ultimately means nothing.
High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McRaney and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is the story of sports agent Ray Burke as he tries to navigate the perilous waters of an NBA lockout. The film is available on Netflix and stars Andre Holland as Ray Burke, with supporting turns from Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto and Kyle MacLachlan.
There are people in the world who love director Steven Soderbergh and claim he is a master auteur and cinematic visionary. I am not one of those people. I find Steven Soderbergh to be a middling talent at best and to be terribly overrated. To re-watch his filmography is to discover a rather shocking lack of any greatness whatsoever and an even more alarming lack of artistic instinct and sensibility.
Soderbergh skyrocketed to fame and acclaim with his first film Sex, Lies and Videotape, a daring and unique film that showed the director to be an edgy auteur. But then something funny happened on the way to cinema immortality…Soderbergh kept making worse and worse films with less and less artistic value showing himself over time to be remarkably artistically toothless for such an alleged avant-garde auteur.
Oddly enough, Soderbergh, the poster boy for “independent film making”, has perhaps become best known for the highly successful, mindless popcorn chomping, Hollywood star-fueled, Oceans 11 trilogy that boasted George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon among many others in its cast. Those films are a perfect representation of Soderbergh’s abilities, as he elevates the below average material with a certain level of cinematic and visual professionalism but never pushes beyond formula and convention to find meaning under the veneer of Hollywood glamour. The truth is that the Oceans movies only succeed because of the stars that power it. But even with all of that star power and Soderbergh at the helm, the Oceans films at their very best are slightly above average Hollywood fair and never even sniff greatness.
Soderbergh’s Oscar winning film, Traffic, is another example where Soderbergh fails to soar. Upon a first watch the film is compelling and Soderbergh’s visual choices, such as using three different base color gels for each different narrative, keep you interested. But upon further viewings Traffic is exposed as being a shockingly mediocre and thin film with little meat on its Hollywood bones.
All of Soderbergh’s other films suffer from a similar lack of both narrative and cinematic substance. Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike and Logan Lucky are more mainstream Hollywood junk from this supposed master of independent cinema.
Which brings us to High Flying Bird. In recent years Soderbergh has experimented by shooting his films on an IPhone and High Flying Bird is one of those films. By shooting on an IPhone 8 (with a specially adapted lens) Soderbergh saves money, obviously, on camera equipment, but he also saves on production costs by not having to get a permit to shoot in New York City (a clever way to skirt the city’s production laws). It is in some ways an ingenious move, but the problem with shooting the film on an IPhone 8 though, is that the film looks like it was shot on an IPhone 8. To be fair to our Apple overlords, it doesn’t look awful…but it certainly doesn’t look good, nevermind great.
The visuals of the film aside, what struck me about High Flying Bird is one of the same things that strikes me about most of Soderbergh’s films…it means nothing and has nothing to say except maybe deference to the status quo. There is no cinematic or philosophical depth to Soderbergh’s movies. In High Flying Bird there is a plot about an NBA lockout and the relationship between labor and management, but at the end of the day, Soderbergh scuttles any serious debate and resorts to the same tired formula he uses in the Oceans 11 films where he withholds information from the audience in a linear time frame but then does a time jump to explain the mystery of why things turned out the way they did.
So High Flying Bird is at its core a heist movie, where we see everything happen and it looks impossible but then the heist succeeds and we don’t know why until Soderbergh jumps back in time to show us a conversation that he chose to withhold from viewers in real time explaining it all.
I find this narrative style to be deeply unsatisfying because it strikes me as inherently dishonest. Deceiving audiences into buying into your story only to have a surprise “twist” that is purposefully kept from them isn’t clever, it is lazy, contrived and manipulative. This style isn’t a sign of film making genius, it is a parlor trick, ham-handed hackery and a cheap ploy.
In this way Soderbergh is in the same category of filmmaker as David Mamet…and that is most definitely not a compliment. Mamet likes to make “con” movies (that are awful) that con his viewers while showing them a con on screen whereas Soderbergh makes “heist” movies that steal from his viewers just as the characters pull off a heist in the story.
High Flying Bird is not on its surface a heist movie, but it really is, for it has the same structure, theme and intent as all of the Oceans films and the god-awful Logan Lucky. High Flying Bird is about deception…deception between the characters on-screen and the deception of the audience by the director.
The biggest problem I have with High Flying Bird and most of Soderbergh’s films is that it doesn’t mean anything. It has no cinematic higher purpose at all. Why make this particular film in this particular way? Why tell this story and why tell it now? At the end of the day there is no compelling answer to that question and that is damning.
As for the cast, Andre Holland struggles to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders. Holland, and most of the other actors in the film, all feel very mannered in their performances and I can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh directed them toward this style, which I found off-putting and disingenuous.
The two bright spots for me were Zazie Beetz, who has a natural screen presence and an appealing magnetism to her, and Bill Duke who perfectly embodies the grizzled old coach archetype he portrays. Both Duke and Beetz felt like real people whereas the rest of the cast felt like actors and came across as very stilted and stylized and not grounded in a reality I recognize. Their dialogue felt like speeches and everything felt manufactured.
In conclusion, High Flying Bird is an absolutely forgettable piece of film making from Steven Soderbergh. The film serves little to no purpose and offers even less insight or genuine drama. Even though High Flying Bird is “free” on Netflix, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend you watch it because it will be a waste of your valuable time…I certainly felt it was a waste of mine.