Words by Harry Moore
Hollywood’s one-time golden boys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated once again to give us what is arguably the best film of the year so far. Following the consecutive releases in his directorial career of “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013, Affleck was hailed as one of the most exciting and accomplished filmmakers of his generation. Unfortunately, his career behind the camera stalled after agreeing to play Batman for Zack Snyder, and it has been almost a decade since his last, not-as-well received outing as a director, “Live by Night.”
Having now retired as the caped crusader, Affleck is able to return to what is undoubtedly his true calling as a director, and for his comeback, the actor/auteur has delivered a compelling and crowd pleasing look at a corporation’s efforts to secure the endorsement of an up-and-coming athlete. Sure, the brand and athlete in question are Nike and Michael Jordan, but it is a testament to Affleck’s skill as a filmmaker, as well as Damon’s presence as a movie star, that a film that is essentially about marketing and corporate strategy is as compelling as “Air” is.
Set in 1984, Air follows Sonny Vaccaro (Damon), a basketball talent scout working for Nike who is tasked with finding a soon-to-be drafted NBA player to build the company’s fledgling basketball division. After watching some tape of the top draft candidates, Sonny decides that Nike must put all their chips into pursuing the expected third pick in the draft — Michael Jordan. But with Jordan preferring both Adidas and Converse, it will be an uphill battle for Sonny to convince the future superstar to join the flailing Nike corporation.
While almost everyone knows how this story plays out, Affleck, Damon and the excellent ensemble manage to keep the proceedings enthralling thanks to an engaging and well-paced debut screenplay from Alex Convery. Every member of the cast is at the top of their game including Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker, Chris Messina and Oscar winner Viola Davis — who was handpicked by MJ to play his mother, Deloris. While Affleck steals scenes in front of the camera as Nike’s dichotomic founder and CEO Phil Knight, it is Affleck as a filmmaker who proves to be the real star of “Air,” deftly turning what could have been rather dry material in other hands into a captivating film that effortlessly manages to pull off the inconceivable feat of making Nike into an underdog that is rooted for by audiences. The director does a remarkable job in contextualizing where both the NBA and Nike were positioned at that point in time and gives Air Jordans the reverence as a clothing item that changed both fashion and sports culture.
“Air” is an excellent comedy drama made for adults that underlines the importance of talented directors and compelling movie stars in order to make old school, crowd-pleasing features.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”
From the quarter-powered arcade machines to modern consoles, Super Mario has been a giant in the video game world for decades now. And with what is, somewhat shockingly, only the second attempt to bring Nintendo’s Italian plumber to the big screen, Illumination Studios, the animation powerhouse behind “Despicable Me,” has given Mario a competent if uninspired family movie.
The story finds Brooklyn based plumber brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), sucked down a magical pipe in the sewers, that transports them to a magical land. Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is led by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), while Luigi is unfortunately dropped in the Dark Lands, which is ruled by the evil Koopa King Bowser (Jack Black) who has ambitions to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and marry the princess. It’s then up to Mario, Peach and Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) to defeat Bowser, saving Luigi and the kingdom along with the help of Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and the Kong Army.
The film succeeds at being a colorful and innocuous distraction for kids but doesn’t reach or even seem interested in achieving the artistic heights of other recent films in animation that have pushed the artform forward such as the surprisingly excellent “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” or any number of releases from Pixar. At a brisk 90 minutes, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” burns through its plot at a breakneck pace, allowing no room for scenes to breathe though the endless expositions and tired jokes that have been done to death in kids movies since at least the days of Shrek. It isn’t just the jokes that are recycled: The list of needle drops in this movie couldn’t be more played out from Beastie Boys and AC/DC to “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Take on Me,” the soundtrack is only noticeable for how regurgitated from other animated kids fare it is. It even uses the famous “Battle Without Honor of Humanity” from “Kill Bill,” a reference that had been overly parodied at least 10 years ago. Many of the creative decisions just reek of staleness and little ambition.
What does work for the film is its sublime animation, a string of Easter eggs that are bound to have any longtime fans of the video game series smiling and a game ensemble voice cast that are all stronger than the screenplay seemingly deserves, particularly Black who steals the show as Bowser with his comedic rocker sensibility, while Pratt rises above the naysayers to give a solid performance as Mario. But there is just a sense of hollowness to this film that has nothing remarkable to it beyond its iconic and beloved characters. While Super Mario may have failed to make the jump to cinematic greatness, the film’s demolition of the worldwide box office in the shadow of the recent superhero bombs “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” as well as the runaway success of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” has signalled there is a changing of the guard in Hollywood taking place before our eyes with video games levelling up as the new hottest properties in the film industry.