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Review: ‘Air,’ Just Do It, Sonny

Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Ben Affleck star in an absorbing drama, directed by Ben Affleck. 

Kudos to Ben Affleck for starring in and directing the first movie I can recall that revolves entirely around … a shoe-endorsement deal. 

It’s not just any shoe, though, and it’s not just any athlete. To be precise, Air whisks the audience back to 1984 and the small circus that surrounded the signing of pre-G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) Michael Jordan, then an 18-year-old college freshman, and soon to be a professional basketball legend. 

In that ancient era — which Affleck and his production crew take pains to recreate lovingly, repeatedly, and incessantly — a pudgy, 40-something salesman named Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) relentless pursued the signing of Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal with Nike, then only the #3 shoe company in the world. Brought on by Nike’s founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to boost the basketball division, Sonny has proven to be unsuccessful in doing so and may be in danger of losing his job if he doesn’t improve the basketball division’s financial performance. 

A born gambler, Sonny bets everything on convincing Jordan to sign, even though the kid reportedly hates Nike and loves Adidas, the #1 shoe company in the world. (Converse lags at #2 and barely figures into the film.) In a desperately bold move, Sonny even flies to North Carolina in order to pay an impromptu visit on Michael’s parents, Deloris and Julius (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, husband and wife actors who are acting together in a film for the first time), bypassing Jordan’s irascible and incredibly foul-mouthed agent, David Falk (Chris Messina).

If all this sounds like a movie made for streaming, and not necessarily a traditional cinematic experience, it’s hard to disagree. Yet what makes the movie consistently absorbing — and, I would say, quite cinematic — are the marvelously low-key performances by Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker (?!), Matthew Maher, Ben Affleck and Viola Davis. 

Damon takes the lead as the persistent, never-say-die salesman who is convinced that he has seen early glimpses of a man who will become the greatest basketball player of all time, who also oozes charisma and confidence. Bateman and Tucker play Nike execs, with Maher as the nerdy genius shoe designer/engineer/artist, and Afflect as the genius barefoot executive Phil Knight, who is Weirdness Incarnate, yet also pretty relatable and surprisingly supportive. 

The film positions Michael Jordan as a god-like creature who has already soared beyond the confines of puny humans. With only a single line of dialogue, and without his in-person face being shown, it’s as though he emits beams of light that would blind anyone who foolishly dares to look upon his face. 

As silly as that may sound, it’s absolutely essential to the manner in which director Affleck tells the story. Everyone and everything in the movie revolves around a god-like creature. Everyone, though, knows this; they acknowledge that they are lowly people who don’t deserve to be in Michael Jordan’s presence, and will do anything to bask in his reflected light. 

What makes all this tolerable, and even charming, is that genuflection sounds and plays as genuine, authentic, and kind of funny, especially when you know how this all plays out. It’s a key, authorized chapter in the corporate lives of Nike and Michael Jordan, playing out to its finish like a warmly-remembered basketball game with an incredible buzzer-beater.

The film opens April 5 in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities, via Amazon Studios, ahead of its eventual global premiere on Prime Video. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Nanny,’ Immigrant Horror Story

Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector star in a haunting drama, directed by Nikyatu Jusu. 

It’s a very common story: a wealthy family hires someone to look after their child while they work long hours to support their lavish lifestyle. 

Aisha (Anna Diop), an immigrant to the U.S. from Senegal, begins a new job with a new family in Manhattan, hopeful that she will soon earn enough to bring her young son to live with her. The family appears to be ideal. 

Amy (Michelle Monaghan) is gracious and inviting, the apartment/residence is lavishly appointed, and the little girl, Rose (Rose Decker), is well-mannered and polite. Returning home from out-of-town business a few days later, Adam (Morgan Spector) is surprised to see that a nanny has already been hired, and is initially guarded, though he puts on the airs that are expected. 

So far, so good. We learn how Aisha became a single mother in Senegal and understand why she emigrated to the U.S. She even meets a promising young man, Malik (Sinqua Walls), and they begin a relationship that looks like it has a future. 

Signposts begin popping up, however, that signal trouble lies ahead. Aisha finds herself under increasing pressure to deal with turmoil that arises, none of it of her own doing. As she slowly becomes completely stressed out, she also starts to experience disturbing dreams that truly feel like nightmares, things that cannot be easily explained away or dismissed. 

Nikyatu Jusu makes her feature-film debut, writing an intricate, layered, and character-based story and directing it with fluid, haunting grace. Rather than rely on supernatural objects or traditional scary stories, she forges her own path, burning down everything in its way to  make something truly unique. 

She is aided and abetted by the performance by Anna Diop, who makes the role her own with understated ease and relatable anxiety and unease, and Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector, who support and enhance the picture and story, along with Sinqua Walls, young Rose Decker, and Leslie Uggans, as Malik’s unusually insightful mother. 

As a kind of visual tone poem, Nanny burrows its way under the skin while also mesmerizing with its command of precisely calculated framing and visuals. In its own quiet way, it’s quite stunning. 

The film opens Wednesday, November 22 in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to additional cities on December 2. It will begin streaming December 16 on Prime Video. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Radioactive’

Marjane Satrapi’s new film about the extraordinary life of pioneering scientist Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) begins almost at the end of her life. We see her working tirelessly before collapsing off-screen, followed by a gurney trip down a long hallway where her life flashes before her eyes, becoming the film that we’ll watch for the next two hours.

Radioactive shows us Marie’s life as both rewarding and perpetually haunted. The groundbreaking work she did as a scientist discovering two new elements in the late nineteenth century (being radium and polonium) and their unknown combustibility, as well as finding the love of her life in partner and husband Pierre (Sam Riley) certainly resonate as the happier and productive times.

However, personal tragedy, reluctant skepticism from the French intellectual society and some nifty temporal film shifts into the future about how her elements would ultimately be used by advanced societies reveal a woman whose breakthroughs in science could never compensate for some of her personal losses.

As Marie Curie, actress Pike doesn’t reduce her character to anything less than strong, and its her portrayal that carries most of the film. The way she barbs with fellow (male) counterparts when they don’t trust her or how she gently pleads with her adult daughter (Anya Taylor Joy) to remain safe as she serves as a nurse during World War I strips away the normal stuffy biopic regard and make her a compelling and dimensional lead.

Another way that Radioactive skirts the traditional trappings of the genre is when it dares to jump ahead in specific moments of time when radium changed the facade of humankind- from the major (think World War II) to the minor (a young child receiving experimental chemotherapy). Some have questioned this feat, but I found it to be a sobering reminder that the best intentions are often laced with horrifying consequences as time and science advances. If there is a heaven, what do all the creators think of their creations?

Based on the graphic novel “Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss (and adapted by Jack Thorne), this is the second such adaptation tackled by director Satrapi after Persepolis (2007). Here she also wisely keeps some of the novel’s more fantastic elements, such as the tangled shadows of Marie and Pierre rising into the air as they make love or the eerie mood of a seance Marie is dragged to by her friends, initially discrediting them and then falling to her knees in total sadness when she asks the medium for help later in life. Again, its a scene that’s been done before, but Pike imbues it with such guttural ferocity that her cries cut to the bone and Satrapi finds the delicate balance between history and emotion.

At the beginning of Radioactive, we glimpse that Marie’s hands are scarred and red from years of handling her precious elements, and the now understood after-effects were just being whispered about. The thing she discovered ended up killing her, but not before she got the chance to use an X-ray machine and save the lives and limbs of countless soldiers during the war. As her solemn face reveals while being transported on that gurney, there’s no remorse. Radioactive is a good depiction of someone who truly made mankind better, no matter how horribly others would twist her inventions.

Radioactive begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday July 24th.