With Muhammed Ali recently passing away I took the opportunity to watch Michael Mann’s biopic starring Will Smith, Ali. (You don’t have to die for me to blog about you, I swear.)
Spanning a mere decade of Muhammad Ali’s life from 1964 to 1974 this film deals heavily with the tumultuous race relations of the time. While Ali floats from name to name and title shot to title shot the sharp topic of racism stings because I’m shocked at how bad things were and, in some ways, still are. I know very little, perhaps embarrassingly little, about the civil rights movements of the time. As such I appreciated the movie’s raw depiction of divisive topics like the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, and the varying responses to them. (I did keep wikipedia handy to check facts here and there. Remember, movies aren’t the truth.)
Rather than give us a figure that is swept up in these dramatic issues though the movie interestingly uses them as a backdrop to show how focused Ali is. Through the movie people are trying to use his status and celebrity for their own reasons. His friends, his promoters, the media, the Nation of Islam, and even the United States government try to use Ali to further their own agenda. Ali however always stays focused on what he believes and what he wants out of life, sometimes to a fault. He makes mistakes along the way but he always does what he feels he needs to do. And when everyone else tries to get in his way for not playing ball he does what he does was reportedly the greatest at; fight. I enjoyed that aspect of the character as it painted Ali as flawed but admirable still.
From what I can tell from YouTube videos of the man himself Will Smith did a great job of portraying the master of the sweet science. From dancing around the ring to boisterous aggrandizing Smith seems to have really captured Ali’s character. It’s a very convincing impression, but it rarely feels like it goes deeper than that. While Will Smith is right at home when Ali needs to be loud, charming, and talking smack, things feel a little strained and wooden during the dramatic turns. That fault may not be entirely Smith’s though as the script never gives him the opportunity to delve into Ali’s personal feelings much making the rare occasion that it does come across as unnatural. I liked the characterization of Ali as a man of singular focus and drive, but unfortunately that’s about all I get from him. There is almost no deviation from his dogged struggle to continue to fight and be the best he can be in his sport. I would have like to see a tad more levity sprinkled here and there. Ali’s motor mouth certainly provides some fun, but I also found myself intrigued by his friendly picking on Howard Cosell and wished to see more of that bond they had. (Of course, maybe there wasn’t much more than what was on the screen in reality. Such is the way with true stories.)
Ali gives us a one note impression of a man who was a great athlete as well as a great showman. That one note ends up getting a little monotonous by the end of the film, but with Will Smith’s performance and the chance to learn more about a sports titan I found it compelling overall.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Tammy – Written by and starring soon-to-be ghostbuster Melissa McCarthy, this collection of wacky hijinks wears thin very quickly. There is novelty in seeing Susan Sarandon acting crazy and coarse, but both her character and the titular Tammy are just idiotic assholes. Oddly, the movie develops a heart in the eleventh hour and all the stars actually put in really touching strong performances for about two scenes. I hope McCarthy brings those acting chops to something worth watching.
The Gallows – Four high school friends break into their school at night to sabotage the school play only to hunted by the angry ghost of a boy who died by hanging during the very same school play twenty years earlier. When they watch the twenty year old tape and it’s dated 1993 I feel old. And that is the only feeling I have watching this wholly unoriginal and totally forgettable found footage flop. I watched this movie and it left no impression whatsoever, it instantly left me with zero lasting flavor. This movie is the Fruit Stripe gum of movies.
The Conjuring 2 – The Warrens return to fend off another angry paranormal spook in this horror flick based on a true story. Well, inspired by a true story. Kind of. I mean, the Warrens WERE there. For a day. Ish. This movie spends way too long keeping the Warrens separated from the haunted family and during that time things feel disjointed as we split our focus. Once everyone is together under the same haunted roof things settle in for a better than average jump scare fest. Tension, misdirects, and sudden loud noises abound are complemented by visually striking specters. (Although I suspect I may be in the minority in kind of liking the look of the Crooked Man ghost.) Skip the forty-five minutes of this overly long movie and you’ll get a decent scary good time.
Sunspring – Am I counting this eight minute short film that you can watch on YouTube? Yes I am, because the story behind it is so bizarre it has to be mentioned. A computer program called Jetson that could write screenplays was fed hundreds of sci-fi scripts as examples. Two things happened. First, the program asked to be called Benjamin from then on, then it wrote the script for Sunspring. The automated process results in a script that is made of English words but is almost entirely nonsensical. I find this project fascinating for two reasons. Seeing the words and subjects the program chose speaks to common themes in modern sci-fi. The unknown, feeling alone, etc. Even more amazing though is the human element and how the actors manage to imbue meaning and intent to the nonsense they are given. I sometimes find it hard to judge acting in foreign films because I don’t know the usual cadence and style of the language. This short film feels like a strange middle ground. It is in English so the rhythms and tones sound natural to my ear, but the words are such gobbledygook that they almost fall away leaving me to judge the performance of the actors solely on their expressions and the emotions they put into their voice. The final monologue is quite moving.