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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: ‘The Great Wall’

dfn-great_wall-300Despite the advertising that makes it look like Bourne in China, The Great Wall is best considered as the latest action spectacle from Zhang Yimou.

After more than a dozen years of crafting finely-honed, modestly-produced dramas such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, Zhang came under fire for abandoning the art house circuit to make Hero, starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen. In the wake of the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film sounded like a rip-off, featuring martial arts fighting and battles between massive armies.

Zhang, however, applied his cinematic artistry to the familiar tale. Hero, followed by House of Flying Daggers, showcased the rarely-utilized possibilities for blockbusters. Zhang’s flamboyant use of color looked absolutely spectacular when multiplied by visual effects and spread across a widescreen vista.

The deliberate pace of Zhang’s blockbusters are very effective in a theatrical setting, the better to appreciate the play of color and detail. The director next made Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, followed by Curse of the Golden Flower, a fabulous one-two punch that contrasted a simple drama with a visually elegant period picture.

His contributions to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, held in Beijing, were, again, spectacular. After that, he remade the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, a bold attempt that fell short, and made the historical war movie The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale, a rather dull and plodding affair.

Now comes The Great Wall, arriving in the U.S. amid accusations of ‘whitewashing.’ Reportedly budgeted at $150 million, the film certainly reflects the money spent, especially in the higher quality of the visual effects, which revolve around an army of CG monsters that attack every 60 years.

Because it’s not based on a pre-existing property, one imagines a Hollywood star was a prerequisite and so we have Matt Damon on hand. He plays William, a European trader in company with his longtime business partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Along a trade route one day, William and Tovar encounter a strange sort of beast that William manages to kill. They approach the Great Wall, where their motives come under serious fire by the massive armed forces that are assembled there. Soon enough, they are marked for death, but before that can transpire, the wall comes under attack by thousands of monstrous beasts.

Having acquitted themselves well in battle, William and Tovar are begrudgingly accepted by the large army. They learn that Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a grizzled character, has been stuck there for 25 years, and they do not wish to share his fate, but they must bide their time.

Ballard taught English to Commander Lin (Jing Tian), so she serves as William’s translator and guide. William is more open to his new surroundings than Tovar, which affects how they each respond as the valley below the wall keeps filling with monsters.

The armed forces at the wall are led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), with Commander Lin as his second-in-command — she commands an all-female regiment of warriors — and his other commanders include Wu (Eddie Peng), Chen (Kenny Lin), and Deng (Huang Xuan). Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) provides expert military advice in a senior role.

Though William provides a couple of key strategic suggestions, he only becomes more central to the battle planning because of attrition. The troops are all dedicated, loyal and obedient to their commanders; there are no cowards on the wall. Commander Lin’s respected position is notable, especially as far as diversity is concerned. Really, when thousands of monsters are attacking, all that matters is teamwork and individual courage.

The screenplay is credited to the writing duo of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, and also Tony Gilroy, the latter of whom is responsible for writing the Bourne movies. The story is credited to Max Brooks (?!), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. The collaborative effort is very well structured and the timely comic relief certainly comes in handy when things threaten to become too dark.

Truth be told, I was ready to suffer through a lackluster affair when I sat down for The Great Wall. It definitely far exceeded my admittedly modest expectations and made me glad I’d seen it on a big screen.

The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘Elysium’ Fights Hard Without Scoring a Knockout

Matt Damon in 'Elysium' (Sony)
Matt Damon in ‘Elysium’ (Sony)

As he did in 2009’s superb District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp has created another piece of absorbing, socially-conscious science fiction that is visually sumptuous yet disturbing in its implications for the human race.

Rather than depict the long-term ramifications of an alien invasion, Blomkamp imagines a future in which the wealthy few have separated themselves entirely from the poor and downtrodden billions. By the year 2154, a gorgeous, rotating space station called Elysium has been constructed, circling and taunting those left behind to eke out a pitiful existence on a ruined Earth. The 1% have fled the planet and live out their lives in beauty, peace, and serenity, enjoying perfect health thanks to automated medical machines that can treat and cure any condition in mere seconds.

But the citizens of Elysium guard their cossetted, privileged existence jealously, reserving the space station’s glorious benefits only for themselves; intruders from Earth are considered illegal immigrants and are definitely not welcome, as Elysium’s merciless Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) makes abundantly clear. Meanwhile, the huddled masses on Earth stare into the sky and pass the time in abject poverty.

As a child, Max (Matt Damon) dreamed of living on Elysium. Instead, he drifted into petty crime and ended up in prison. Now on parole, he is determined to go straight and works a demanding factory job. When his arm is broken in an incident with the robotic police, he is delighted to discover that his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) has achived her dream of becoming a nurse. Sadly, Max must be the unluckiest boy on the planet, because he soon suffers a horrific workplace accident and is told he has only five days to live. Determined not to go quietly into that good night, he makes a deal with an old criminal cohort known as Spider (Wagner Moura) and then hurtles toward a close encounter of the fateful kind.

Elysium is sketchy in its execution, which is not surprising in view of its novelistic premise. Blomkamp quickly sets up intriguing, apparently deeply-rooted conflicts between characters that cry out for more detailed examination. Instead, the story is periodically placed on pause so that routine action sequences can fill the prescribed quotient of time in an expensive summer blockbuster. It feels like a trade-off: to create a highly-detailed future such as this one evidently requires much more money than the more modest District 9. In that picture, the action sequences fulfilled story-based purposes; here, they play more like commercial breaks in a TV show.

Max’s actions and motivations are laid excessively bare, in stark contrast to all the other characters, and Damon does a good job, making Max sympathetic, even as he takes on some unflattering characteristics. Max has been kicked around by life, and when the tables are turned and he has the opportunity to dish out some punishment, he’s not shy about doing so. Yet the humility he learned as a child ultimately regains control of his personality.

Max’s allies — Frey, Spider, and Max’s best friend Julio, played by Diego Luna — are well-cast and perform ably within the tight confines of the narrative. They all live in Los Angeles, which has become a cesspool of poverty and crime, inhabited in the main by brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people. Up on Elysium, the wealthy are (generally) lighter skinned, but with a mixture of races.

Thus, Jodie Foster’s Delacourt speaks with an accent that sounds likes she hails from South Africa; Elysium’s leader, President Patel (Faran Tahir) is apparently Indian or Pakistani; businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner) may be South African; and so may Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert operative who is a little too aggressive for official taste.

It’s a fascinating dichotomy which, again, I wish could have been explored further. Because it isn’t, the villains are left as implacable, one-dimensional agents of evil, which limits any interest in the outcome of the aforementioned already-routine action sequences. The performances by Foster, Fichtner, and Copley are as good as the material they have been given, which isn’t really as good as it needs to be for a satisfying, character-based drama.

Still, there are a lot of fascinating ideas tossed out during Elysium, plenty enough to stir emotions and thoughts about the future of mankind. And the visual effects are splendid to behold on a big screen, both for the beauty and the squalor that is depicted in vivid detail. It’s not a knockout punch, but Elysium puts up a good fight.

The film is now playing throughout the Metroplex. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

Review: ‘We Bought a Zoo’

'We Bought a Zoo'
'We Bought a Zoo'

Matt Damon stands head and shoulders above ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ giving a wonderfully-layered performance in a movie that insists on spelling everything out. It’s a bracing reminder that as a filmmaker, Cameron Crowe is a heckuva magazine writer.

Nonetheless, with its warm-hearted gaze into the complexities involved in achieving domestic bliss, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is fine family fare for the holiday season, tapping directly (and often) into the wellspring of emotion that gushes forth after the death of a loved one. Six months after his wife died, Benjamin Mee (Damon) is plagued by memories of her everywhere he turns, and is beginning to resent all the sympathy extended to him by friends, workmates, and neighbors. His 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is moody and withdrawn; he draws morbid pictures of death and decapitation, and, as a result of his anti-social behavior, has been expelled from school. On the other hand, 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a bright and bubbly girl, seems to be doing OK.

Still and all, Benjamin decides the family needs a new start. He quits his full-time job as a newspaper journalist and resolves to move the family to a new neighborhood. An exhaustive search for a new home proves fruitless until he stumbles upon a large property with a (comparatively) low asking price. The property is beautifully situated, with gorgeous landscaping, though the ramshackle house is badly in need of repairs. Oh, and then there’s the zoo in the back yard.

Yes, a zoo.

The prospect of owning a zoo would appear to be a deal breaker for Benjamin, but, as he prepares to leave the property, he loses track of Rosie. Following her voice, he walks up a small hill and at the top he sees Rosie below, happily playing with peacocks. He hunkers down, smiling at his bundle of walking joy, as the sun begins to set beautifully behind him, and inspirational music swells, and his smile grows … and the tension grows unbearable: What, oh what, will he do?!

There, then, is the final dividing point of ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ The remainder of the film plays out in predictable fashion, with occasional pauses to make sure everyone knows a certain moment is indeed, “Important and Significant” in the life of the characters involved. The dialogue is always to the point and over-explanatory, leaving no thought unspoken out loud. And, though the film places an emphasis on emotional honesty, it is an adulteration of the true story that served as inspiration, reflecting Crowe’s own interests and concerns.

(‘We Bought a Zoo’ is the title of a memoir by Benjamin Mee; his wife tragically died within days after they moved to the private zoo they had purchased after months of negotiations, in part to help Benjamin’s mother deal with the loss of her husband; Benjamin has two young children, both pre-teens; Benjamin’s mother lives with the family; Benjamin’s brother has been entirely supportive of the project.)

On the flip side, ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is relentlessly positive, seeking to portray a family dealing with huge, life-changing challenges, and is likely to pull the heart strings of parents of any age. If you can ignore the constant nudge-nudging in the dialogue, Damon’s performance is a subtle wonder to behold, accompanied by solid supporting work by Scarlett Johansson as the head zookeeper, Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s cynical brother, Angus Macfadyen as a feisty zookeeper, Elle Fanning as a very forward love interest for Dylan, and Patrick Fugit (‘Almost Famous’) as a zookeeper with a monkey on his shoulder.

Like a proud papa, Crowe relies too much on reaction shots from little Maggie Elizabeth Jones to enliven routine scenes with an overdose of cute. The same could be said for the movie as a whole: the intentions are good; there are just too many of them.

‘We Bought a Zoo’ opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow.