Great Popcorn Munching: Air

If you asked me whether I’d like a movie about a rookie basketball player’s athletic shoe endorsement saga, I’m afraid you’d just get a blank look. Then, if you said the film centers on one of the most exciting stars in any sport, ever, but he’s actually barely in it, I’d probably wander off looking for a snack. I would be wrong.

Air, the new movie directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, is based on Nike’s 1984 effort to woo college junior Michael Jordan and his shoe endorsement away from (then) major competitors Converse and Adidas (trailer). The story will grab you because the outcome, even though you know it, is so well delivered by a top-notch cast and a wholly believable script.

Ben Affleck plays the legendary Nike founder Phil Knight, and he has some superstars on his own team, notably Matt Damon as fixer (I can’t think of a better word for it), basketball superfan, and chief risk-taker Sonny Vaccaro. Jason Bateman plays marketing innovator Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as advisor Howard White, and Matt Maher as down-in-the-basement shoe designer and innovator Peter Moore. At the time the film is set, Nike’s a big sports company known mostly for its running shoes, trying unsuccessfully to move big into the basketball world. They need a star. Incessantly watching the films of college hoops stars and the top NBA draft picks, Vaccaro recognizes Michael Jordan for the game-changer he’s going to be. But other companies want his endorsement too.

An actor playing Michael Jordan barely appears in the film and has no lines to speak of. Instead, Vaccaro’s unconventional recruitment tactics are aimed at his mother, Deloris Jordan, in a pitch-perfect performance by Viola Davis. It’s not appreciated that he makes his pitch directly or that he end-runs Jordan’s flamboyant and foul-mouthed agent, David Falk, played by Chris Messina.

There’s humor there, too, in the marketing meetings, in Vaccaro’s manipulation of Phil Knight (knowing what good friends the two actors are, they can nevertheless argue with real heat), in how Vaccaro tells Deloris Jordan exactly what the other companies’ pitches will be and seeing how that turns out, and how she out-maneuvers all of them. In the end, the new kind of deal they struck became a game-changer for college and professional athletes alike.

Give yourself a cinematic treat, and see this film!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating 92%; audiences 98%.


The Martian

The Martian, Matt DamonRidley Scott’s movie (trailer) based on the runaway best-seller by debut author Andy Weir is a knockout. But then I’m a sucker for stories with a big component of “how to make things work.” The hero of this story, astronaut Mark Watney has to get a lot of things working very fast, when the crew of the ARES III Mission inadvertently strands him on Mars, “the first person to be alone on a whole planet.” Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind when a massive sandstorm threatens the entire crew. Flying debris damages his biotelemetry unit, which registers him as dead. And in the storm, they can’t find his body.

First, he must solve the problems of food and water, long-term, since it will take at least four years until another Mars mission could rescue him, even if NASA knows he’s still alive. Which he has no way of telling them. It’s a test of humanity to put a person in extreme circumstances, and you cannot get any more extreme than the surface of the Red Planet.

Back on Earth, though, eagle-eyed Mars-watchers notice movement on the planet surface and come to an obvious conclusion. The race is then on—against distance, bureaucracy, technological limitations, and the implacable elements of Mars. All I can say is I’m glad I’m not NASA Director Teddy Sanders’s (Jeff Daniels) or his media relations director (Kristen Wiig). Especially strong were the roles of Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (played by Benedict Wong), and ARES III Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Matt Damon is terrific, as always, in the role of Watney. Just the right mix of angst and wit, supported by an excellent script from Drew Goddard. The Martian surface was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

I know there are people who believe they don’t like science fiction. To me, movies like this are less about the science and more about the human spirit and how it can engage with the creative mind. The science makes it read “real.” As The Atlantic critic Christopher Orr wrote, “Excellence in cinema is sometimes a singular achievement . . . On other occasions, it’s the result of extraordinary collaboration. The Martian is one of these.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%, viewer ratings: 93%.