Sunday was supposed to be a day of sports and soldiers. I was planning on seeing a documentary called Facing Ali, a feature film about soldiers called The Messenger, and another documentary called Warrior Champions, which showcases some severely wounded veterans competing in the Paraolympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Instead, Sunday was a day of sports and scene kids.
My day began again at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. Those Alamojitos make it easy to find myself at this place about three times a day.
It’s no secret that boxing is my favorite sport. It’s also no secret that Muhammad Ali is my favorite (non-fictional) sports figure. So, for me, this otherwise minor documentary turned into one of the festival highlights thus far. Lionsgate Films and Spike TV present this great documentary about Muhammad Ali, told from the vantage point of his opponents. In Facing Ali, there’s certainly a historical picture of Ali, and some reflections of his greatest bouts. For Ali enthusiasts, there’s plenty here. Archival footage mixed with a two-camera set-up interview system, and several Ali quotes flash across the screen during beats.
More interesting to me, however, is the boxers themselves. Some of the names include Joe Frazier, Leon Spinks, Ernie Terrell, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman, George Chuvalo, and Ron Lyle. These greats have their own stories, and Facing Ali provides a venue for these athletes to showcase that. We learn about Chuvalo’s personal and family struggles, and we see Lyle working in a soup kitchen. Norton and Shavers damn near steals the show, and Cooper’s soft accent (he was a British Empire Champ) and quick wit make for several huge laughs. We hear Foreman talk about his conversion to Christianity amidst a conversation about Ali’s conversion to Nation of Islam. And don’t forget the fights. We hear about the fights. The doc covers issues of race, religion, war, friendship, family, fights, and even the Phantom Punch — and it makes all boxers look like champs.
It’s not hard to get me to like a documentary, and it’s really not hard to get to me like one about boxing. I knew I was going to love it coming in, so my A-triple-plus rating might be a little skewed. Besides for Frazier (and a few others, including Ron Lyle) being subtitled (it comes off as a bit rude, and is entirely unnecessary for boxing enthusiasts — though, perhaps understandable for those who aren’t accustomed to retired-fighter-slur), this film is a first-round knock-out.
Interesting factoid: The live-wire fighter George Chuvalo was Stallone’s inspiration for the first Rocky. He fought 90-some-odd times, and was never knocked out. Ali beat the crap out of him, but didn’t knock him out (to quote my dad). Rocky mirrors Chuvalo, and Apollo obviously borrows from Ali.
Bait and Switch
Next up, I snuck in the back of The Messenger at the Paramount. The filmmakers were stuck in a famous Austin traffic jam, and couldn’t get there on time to announce the film at 7PM, so a full theater was delayed. Woody Harrelson, portraying a sent-home injured soldier whose new post includes notifying families of military casualties, was also supposed to be in attendance. Judging from the party last night, and from some whispers about his behavior at the press day (nothing shocking, just Woody being Woody), I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a bit late, too. Either way, I met a few folks and ducked out before the show at my editor’s suggestion — heading back down Sixth Street to the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.
I had a few minutes, and figured I could talk my way to the front of the line (I always do), so I stalled in front of an open-air blues bar where a really great Son House cover was underway. Finally, I made it back to the Ritz where, seated next to those oh-so-gravy Slackerwood gals and FSR Editor Neil Miller, I settled in for The Scenesters.
Introduced by Todd Berger its director and one of the stars, The Scenesters has so far been a festival favorite. But I didn’t see it. What could have easily been a pretty cool indie noir murder mystery/serial killer flick was more of a lesson in what precisely the filmmakers want me to know that they know about filmmaking. While moving between the courtroom and flashbacks of an unfolding mystery about a series of similar murders could have worked fine, the amount of internal commentary about the film during the film was almost intolerable.
I understand the gimmick (the film itself knowing that it’s a film), and there’s a way to do it that it would have worked — but the Vacationeers (the troupe that made the flick) ultimately fail. It’s okay to be meta, and to be excited about filmmaking, and to showcase that in your film — but the ultra-bourgeois and incessantly meta gets old, fast. I was constantly taken out of the story — or the story about the film that has to do with the murder mystery — because of the near compulsory eye-rolling that comes with someone telling you what they know about art instead of just making it. The audience completely ate it up — and there are a few really great laughs (none of which are accomplished by the filler commentary about film, all of which come from smartly written dialogue that has to do with the actual mystery), but, on top of laboring through the graduate school level filmmaking commentary, I found the mystery’s endgame to be weak.
Several Alamojitos and a $5 shake couldn’t even make it worth skipping both The Messenger and Warrior Champions. I was audibly upset, bitching to anyone who would listen on the Reject HQ Party Bus, and arrived back at Reject HQ ready to vent. Instead, I found Reject Radio in medias res and several wonderful people and fellow film journos partying inside and out. Talking, laughing, broadcasting, screeening: this was more my scene.