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FilmWatch Weekly: Nike catches ‘Air,’ plus excellent indies ‘Tori and Lokita,’ ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline,’ and ‘Enys Men’

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon star as Nike's vapid chairman and his savvy assistant in the entertaining origin story of the Air Jordan.

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Ben Affleck as Phil Knight in “Air”

It turns out that the new film Air is not an eco-horror fable inspired by the Talking Heads song. Rather, it’s the origin story of a shoe. Despite that, it’s quite entertaining.

Old pals Ben Affleck and Matt Damon star as, respectively, Nike chairman Phil Knight and marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro. It was Vaccaro who convinced Knight to pursue a sponsorship deal with rookie Michael Jordan and to design the iconic, immensely profitable Air Jordans. It’s a story that probably lives rent-free in the brains of most sneakerheads, but even for someone who can’t tell a Puma from a pump, it’s a brisk and smartly told tale.

It’s 1984, and Nike’s Beaverton HQ apparently still consists of a single modest building. The company has established itself as a leader in the running shoe market, but Converse and Adidas dominate on basketball courts. With a limited budget, the plan is to go after two or three players in the upcoming NBA draft rather than spend it all on one guy who could be a wash. Having viewed Jordan’s highlight tapes, especially his NCAA championship-winning shot as a Tar Heels freshman, Vaccaro embarks on a crusade to persuade Knight and Nike chairman Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) to put all their chips on Jordan.

They’re not the only ones he has to convince. Vaccaro’s boldest move is to go around Jordan’s agent Howard Falk (Chris Messina) and pay a personal visit to Jordan’s home, where he contends with the formidable Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis) and her husband James (Julius Tennon). In a clever touch, we never get to see MJ’s face or hear more than a few words from him, which allows him to remain a cipher and highlights his status as a product to be haggled over.

There’s no suspense, of course. Air Jordans will become a huge success, and their namesake will become one of the greatest athletes ever. What’s fun is seeing how contingent these seemingly inevitable events were, and how important the individual personalities were in making it all happen. Davis is fierce as Mother Jordan, Bateman’s impressively feathered hair as Strasser steals some scenes, and Matthew Maher (recently seen in Our Flag Means Death) nicely embodies Peter Moore, the designer of the Air Jordan 1 and the ubiquitous “Jumpman” logo. (Sadly, Strasser died of a heart attack at 46 in 1993, the same year James Jordan was murdered, and Moore passed away last year in Portland.)

This is the first release from Actors Equity, the production company formed by Affleck and Damon last year with the stated intention of spreading the wealth among craftspeople and other “below-the-line” talents, and it’s clear that it’s something of a passion project for both of them. Damon inhabits the frumpy but fiery Vaccaro, and Affleck has a ball as the barefoot bewigged head honcho who’s prone to tossing off dime-store Buddhist aphorisms. The movie’s message, too, jibes with the company’s, particularly in the efforts of Deloris Jordan to make sure her son gets what he’s worth.

The period details are perfect, from a soundtrack full of earworms to the novelty of car phones to dinner at Tony Roma’s. Alex Convery’s zippy, knowledgeable script is his first produced screenplay, but hopefully it won’t be his last. Fast-paced, accessible, smart, and original, this is just the sort of movie that should get discriminating, fun-seeking grownups back in theaters. At least, that’s what Amazon Studios was thinking when they decided to give Air a theatrical release instead of dumping it straight to streaming. And you wouldn’t want to disappoint them, would you? (Now playing at theaters nationwide.)

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ALSO OPENING:

Tori and Lokita: The latest from Belgium’s directing Dardennes brothers continues their string of authentic, immediate explorations of the unseen and the exploited. Twelve-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) and 17-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu) are a pair of West African immigrants living on the margins of urban society. He has papers, but she doesn’t, so they try to convince the authorities they are siblings. They also work as minstrel-esque entertainers in a cheap restaurant and as drug couriers for their exploitive boss to earn money to send back home and pay off the human smugglers who got them to Europe. When Lokita ends up imprisoned as the tender of an underground marijuana grow operation, Tori resolves to rescue her, putting them both face-to-face with the brutality that they both long to escape.

Both lead performances from first-time actors are utterly true, continuing a recent spate of outstanding juvenile acting in European cinema. This is the tenth feature by the brothers, and their oeuvre continues to serve as a call to empathy for the disregarded and fury toward the systems that disregard them. (Opens Friday, April 7, at Living Room Theaters.)

How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Unafraid to put its moral chips on the table, this taut thriller follows a group of eight young environmental activists, each with their own reasons, as they plot to blow up an oil pipeline in rural Texas. Director Daniel Goldhaber’s second feature assumes the premise that this sort of radical direct action is not only justified by the climate emergency, but practically required by it. It’s the sort of earnest project that could devolve into didactic discourse, but the only hint of that comes in the programmatically diverse motives of its protagonists. One is a nihilistic member of the Sioux Nation who’s sick of seeing his people’s land occupied and exploited by the petrochemical industry; another is a college student who’s grown frustrated with the incremental changes proposed by her classmates; yet another is a good ole boy who doesn’t want his family’s land seized by eminent domain to build more pipeline. (There’s also a couple of lovesick punk types from, of course, Portland, but they turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.)

As the group assembles in a remote cabin to construct their bombs and perfect their plans to avoid both danger to humans and a catastrophic oil spill, the tension ratchets up, paused only by the flashbacks that illuminate each character’s origin story. There’s probably not enough detail here to actually teach someone how to blow up a pipeline, but the authenticity of the science lends the whole thing a necessary grounding in reality. And that’s something we could all use a little more of. (Opens Friday, April 7, at Cinema 21, and Friday, April 14 at Living Room Theaters, and May 12 at the Salem Cinema.)

Enys Men: This one opened last week, but I wasn’t able to check it out until afterward. Fortunately, it’s sticking around at least one more week, because it’s the sort of immersive, oneiric experience best had in the cocooning darkness of a cinema. Ostensibly, director Mark Jenkin’s second feature is about a solitary woman (identified only as “the volunteer” in the credits) on a small island off the coast of Cornwall. (The title is Cornish for “stone island.”) She engages in a daily, wordless routine of observing the temperature and status of a clutch of wildflowers growing out of the rock, and then recording her unchanging results in a logbook. As part of her rounds, she pauses to drop a stone down an abandoned mineshaft. That’s about it.

Until, that is, it isn’t. An uneasy slow burn towards…something (chaos? insanity? metaphor?) takes hold. Her measurements start to change. Lichen appears on the flowers. Strange sounds and then visions occur to her, or us? To say that answers, not to mention narrative, are elusive would be a significant understatement. But this is dark poetry, not prose, and Jenkin’s use of specially processed 16mm film, as well as devilish sound design, keeps you both locked in and on your toes. If Enys Men belongs to any genre, it’s English folk horror, with its critiques of rationalism and industry. But it’s a particularly psychedelic member of the genus. (Now playing at Cinema 21.)

REVIVAL AND REPERTORY HIGHLIGHTS:

Films To Make You Feel Some Type of Way: The enigmatic School of Art and Time will be hosting a series of free screenings on Thursday evenings titled “Bitter Bitch.” (As the event guide says, “it’s not yet Hot Girl Summer until we observe Bitter Bitch Spring.”) The patriarchy-piercing titles include the Czech New Wave classic Daisies, Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda. (Thursdays starting April 13, location revealed following RSVP)

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A Colt Is My Passport (1967): Despite having a crackerjack title, this Technicolor Japanese crime saga has been overshadowed by the films of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, and others. But it’s a ton of fun, with the iconic Joe Shishido (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill) as a hit man on the run after offing a rival yakuza boss. (Monday, April 10, Clinton Street Theater)

Night Life: The Portland German Film Festival presents a zany comedy from 2020 about a night on the town for a young bartender and his friends that turns out to be much more than they anticipated. (Tuesday, April 11, Clinton Street Theater)

Shaolin Challenges Ninja (1978): This month’s edition of Kung Fu Theater features Gordon Liu as a Chinese martial arts student who ends up competing in a variety of duels against Japanese fighters as part of a ploy to win back his estranged Japanese wife. Notable within the genre for its portrayal of Japanese characters as honorable opponents rather than sheer villains. (Tuesday, April 11, Hollywood Theatre)

The Cow (1969): One of Iranian cinema’s earliest masterpieces, this neorealist rural drama about a farmer who will stop at nothing to protect his favorite bovine is being presented by Church of Film. (Wednesday, April 12, Clinton Street Theater)

Village of the Giants (1965): Wisconsin-born B-movie auteur Bert I. Gordon passed away last month at the age of 100. To commemorate him, check out this vintage piece of teensploitation, about a bunch of mean kids who take drugs and grow to thirty feet tall. (Thursday, April 13, Hollywood Theatre)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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