City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5

The Taiwan Oyster


I wouldn't buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

(2013) Drama (Spoonbill) Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Lim, Erin King, Fu-Kuei Huang, Chia-Ying Kuo, Joseph Shu, Sean Scanlan, Will Mounger, Jimi Moe, Hai-Sen Ni, Eva Liao, Michael Jian, Catherine Li, Magnus von Platen, Bob Bloodworth, Bin-he Feng, Klairinette Wu. Directed by Mark Jarrett

 Florida Film Festival 2013

When you’re an expatriate in a country radically different from your own, it’s not that hard to sometimes be caught by the current that flows between cultures, adrift on that current without much effort on your own part. When that happens, ascertaining what the right thing to do is can be murky viewing at best. It’s easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons in circumstances like that.

Simon (Harvey) and Darin (Palmiotti) are a couple of Americans living in Taiwan. They earn their living as kindergarten teachers by day and put together a very dodgy fanzine by night. Their ‘zine, called The Oyster is their ticket out or so Darin thinks. Simon just wants to write for any magazine. He has an opportunity to return home but he’s unsure what to do. About anything, really.

One night the two of them are drinking with some fellow ex-pats when tragedy strikes. One of their number dies in a terrible miscalculation of his own limitations. He has no family to claim his body and the state will eventually cremate his body and dispose of the remains in some anonymous grave. However, Simon discovers to his dismay that the man signed his “funeral wall” – a wall in the apartment Darin and Simon share in which they and fellow ex-pats have left instructions on what to do if they should die in Taiwan. The two realize they must claim the body and bury it in the right spot, a mournful song by Hank Williams blaring on their boom box.

This is easier said than done. An officious clerk (Feng) won’t release the body to non-relatives and their attempts to disguise themselves as American embassy officials is embarrassing at best. So they steal the body – with the help of a sympathetic clerk (Lim) who Simon quickly develops a crush on, feelings which are reciprocated.

The two then take a journey throughout Taiwan, trying to find the perfect place to bury their countryman, whom they barely knew. As they discover Taiwan, they begin to discover a sense of responsibility that they both have been lacking and figure out that growing up doesn’t have to be so painful after all – but it always is.

Taiwan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to make a decent-looking movie while filming there but Jarrett and cinematographer Mike Simpson have good eyes and make a great-looking movie. It’s worth seeing for the visuals alone.

Darin, who in indie-quirky fashion rips the sleeves off of all his shirts (which I don’t think he understands how that is the 21st century equivalent of a mullet) and Simon both start off the film as kind of typical young guys who are more interested in their next good time than in making something of themselves. Simon in particular is capable of deciding nothing, preferring instead to drift on whatever wind finds him. Darin is not much better but he at least instigates things, although they are often the wrong things.

Harvey and Palmiotti are pleasantly surprising with strong onscreen presences the both of them. They have good chemistry together and the bickering between them, which sounds a lot like good friends in their mid-20s, is believable. Lim is there pretty much as a love interest and as an audience surrogate; her character is a third wheel at times and she knows it. Still, Nikita (her character’s name) can sense the potential in Simon and while he isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, he is changed for the better for his relationship with Nikita.

Jarrett characterizes this as a Texas road film set in Taiwan and that’s as succinct an appraisal of the film as you’re likely to get. There is a good deal of insight here into the nature of being a young man with no direction in a foreign land. While the plot is resonant of other incidents (and the very self-aware Darin probably knows it – he’s more interested in becoming a local legend than doing right by a man he barely knew) it also carries with it a kind of Texas feel to it; while there’s no sagebrush or badland prairie to be seen here, Simon and Darin could easily have been traveling from Plano as they were from Taipei. Larry McMurtry, the noted author, would certainly recognized some of his own style here as would Tim Burton – the ending reminded me a bit of Big Fish in some ways (more in the feel of it than anything else – nobody turns into a giant catfish here).

The screening I was attending was plagued by technical problems, causing it to run late into the night and so I was fairly tired when I saw it which might have something to do with me not giving it a higher rating. I have changed my rating upwards since I saw it, something I rarely do and chances are if you ask me a week from now what I’d give it a higher rating still. Some movies grow on you long after you’ve seen it and this is one of those movies for me. That’s certainly something to consider when deciding whether to see it or not yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. A road picture with insight. Resonates like the work of Larry McMurtry and to an extent, Tim Burton.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some morbid humor, a bit of bad language, drinking, smoking and drug use and some sexuality – not a Disney film by any means.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jarrett was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is quoted at the beginning of the film) and his own experiences while residing in Taiwan from 1999-2001.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has been on the festival circuit for the past year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Magical Universe

Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche