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ALI

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Muhammad Ali is a fascinating fellow, and Michael Mann a very talented filmmaker. But the latter’s big-budget picture about the former, while made with the careful craftsmanship Mann lavishes on all his projects, is a curiously unsatisfying piece which reveals far less about its subject than you want to know. What’s most surprising about “Ali,” in fact, is just how staid and formulaic it is. Not only does it fail to examine the personal life of the boxer to any great extent, but, apart from a couple of exquisitely recreated boxing matches, its presentation of his public career comes across as fragmentary and disjointed. The picture is cautious, pragmatic, even decorous–the very antithesis of its subject.

To be fair, “Ali” doesn’t pretend to be a full biography of the heavyweight champion. It ignores the first twenty-two years of his life and everything after 1974. It offers instead a chunk–a major chunk, to be sure, but still a chunk–of the story, beginning with the 1964 match in which Cassius Clay, as he was known at the time, shocked the boxing world by defeating Sonny Liston and concluding with the Don King-promoted “Rumble in the Jungle,” the highly-touted extravaganza in Zaire in which Ali regained the crown of which he’d been stripped by winning over the favored George Foreman. Between these two pivotal events, the picture covers the fighter’s first two marriages and his introduction to his third wife, his conversion to the brand of Islam preached by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, his conviction for refusing induction into the army and subsequent appeals, and his struggle to reclaim the title after being denuded of it by boxing authorities. The decade was certainly the central one in Ali’s life, and it does impose a certain dramatic symmetry on Mann’s film, with the two major fights acting as bookends; but unfortunately the decision to concentrate exclusively on it leaves the roots of Ali’s character unexplored and the tragic aspects of his life over the past twenty-seven years untouched. Moreover, the picture doesn’t even manage to treat the ten years it does cover very satisfactorily. To often it comes across as history hastily written in shorthand–“Now Malcolm X is assassinated! Now Martin Luther King is shot!”–and there’s a clunky, one-thing-after-another quality to it all that seems more appropriate to the TV screen; at one point sportscaster Howard Cosell (played by Jon Voight) is even made to explain to Ali, in the simplest possible terms, why the government is persecuting him–it’s as though the audience (as well as the title character) are being spoon-fed the most elementary information. The portrait of Zaire under Mobutu in the final reel, moreover, seems simplistic after the far deeper and more effective depiction in the recent “Lumumba.” One hates to bring up Oliver Stone’s hysterically conspiratorial treatments of modern events for comparison, but whatever their faults–and they are considerable–“JFK” and “Nixon” demonstrate a mind selecting and arranging material to some dramatic point–a characteristic that’s distinctly lacking here. Most of the characters, too, have a sketchy feel to them. Ron Silver, to offer one example, is made up to look astonishingly like Angelo Dundee, Ali’s famous trainer, but he’s given virtually nothing to do except to hover in the background. The talented Giancarlo Esposito is so anonymous as the fighter’s father that for a time it’s not even clear whom he’s playing. Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X is an important plot element early on, but Mario Van Peebles makes little of the role, and as Elijah Muhammad Albert Hall is a feeble replacement for the superb Al Freeman, Jr. (in “Malcolm X”). And while Jamie Foxx works to bring the drug-addled “Bundini” Brown to life, his is a performance of obvious tricks rather than real conviction. Other good actors–Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Joe Morton–are pretty much lost in the shuffle.

All this doesn’t mean that “Ali” is without virtues. The fight sequences are very well staged, though they lack the raw intensity of, say, “Raging Bull.” Will Smith, though he doesn’t possess the physique of a prizefighter, gets Ali’s voice and enthusiastic attitude right; it may be more an impersonation than a performance, but at least it has energy. And Voight puts his flair for vocal mimicry, exhibited earlier this year in “Pearl Harbor,” to good use as Cosell. He’s virtually unrecognizable under the makeup, which is so heavy that facially he resembles a mannikin more than a human being (it really does inhibit his ability to show emotion), but his periodic banter with Smith’s Ali provides some of the very few moments which seem vibrant and authentic. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography should also be noted; with its periodic hand-held moments, it manages a mixture of grittiness and gloss which suits Mann’s approach beautifully.

As a whole, however, “Ali” is an ambitious endeavor whose emphasis on surface sheen renders it dramatically bloodless. One can admire the intent of the story arc in presenting this decade of the boxer’s life as his journey of self-realization from Clay to Ali and from America to Africa, but the picture’s failure to delve very deeply into his psyche leaves it overly schematic, more hagiography than history.

THE MAJESTIC

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Frank Darabont’s “The Majestic” is about the refurbishing of a long-shuttered, dilapidated movie theater–a communal event that revives the small town where it’s located by filling the inhabitants with a renewed spirit of hope and confidence. The movie itself is like the project to restore the old building–it represents a dogged attempt to fashion a feel-good Capra picture for the new century, and like its models from the 1940s, it’s almost brutally manipulative in its exaltation of ordinary America’s essential goodness. At the present juncture in our history, that’s likely to play extremely well with mass audiences; one can expect that its soft-toned but relentless tugging at the heartstrings and calls to true patriotism will attract a goodly number of appreciative viewers, ready to daub their eyes with kleenex between the laughs and smiles. A few of us, however, will have to point out that the picture is rather a crock–well-intentioned and slickly made, to be sure, but a crock nonetheless.

“The Majestic” is set in 1951, and centers on ambitious, apolitical young Hollywood screenwriter Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) whose career is threatened when he’s accused of communist ties (he once attended a meeting of a front organization during his college days, but only to court a girl). In despair he drives up the California coast and gets into a car accident that leaves him amnesiac. He’s discovered by one of the kindly residents of little Lawson, a sleepy burg notable for the fact that it lost many of its young men during World War II and has never been quite the same. Peter is mistaken for Luke, the long-MIA son of Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), owner of Lawson’s closed-down movie palace–a young man who was presumed to have died a hero. He reluctantly takes up the identity and bonds with his supposed dad and the other grieving townspeople, including Doc Stanton (David Ogden Stiers), mayor Ernie Cole (Jeffrey DeMunn) and wizened fisherman Stan Keller (James Whitmore). He also hesitantly resumes Luke’s old high school romance with Doc’s daughter Adele (Laurie Holden), a newly-minted lawyer. Luke’s apparently miraculous restoration brings the town back to life, a change symbolized by Harry’s decision to reopen the Majestic–a goal that becomes a full-throated community effort. Unfortunately, Peter is still being pursued by the evil minions of the HUAC, led by smarmy counsel Elvin Clyde (Bob Balaban, an obvious stand-in for Roy Cohn), and eventually he’s publicly hauled before the committee and its nasty chairman Doyle (Hal Holbrook). Will Peter take the deal offered him by the studio bosses (Allen Garfield and Ron Rifkin), confess falsely and name the names wicked Clyde has fed to him, or will he adhere to truth and principle, as Adele tells him Luke would have done? And more importantly, will the denizens of Lawson–and particularly Adele–be able to overcome their disappointment at losing Luke a second time and embrace the man now known as Peter?

Well, you’ve undoubtedly seen plenty of Frank Capra’s ain’t-life-wonderful flicks, as well as Darabont’s earlier efforts in the feel-good sweepstakes (the fine 1994 “Shawshank Redemption” and elephantine 1999 “The Green Mile”–both adapted from more cuddly than usual Stephen King stories), so the denouement won’t come as a great surprise. The predictability of it all is accentuated by the director’s habit of having everything move at a very leisurely pace: the picture is like a 45rpm LP played at 33rpm, and for so flimsy a tale to run for a ponderous two-and-a- half hours is unconscionable. The cast is good, though. Carrey is in restrained mode, the sort he adopted for “The Truman Show,” and he proves a likable schlub in early Jimmy Stewart style. Landau hits all the right notes as his starry-eyed would-be dad, milking every laugh and tear he can out of the part; old pros Stiers, Whitmore and DeMunn make a lovable team, Gerry Black has the requisite gravity as the Majestic’s black doorman; and Garfield has some nice moments as the pragmatic, avuncular studio boss. Holden looks fine as Peter/Luke’s love interest, modeling the period dresses nicely, but in terms of personality she’s a trifle nondescript, and the other female characters are pretty much throwaways. Karl Bury smolders decently enough as Bob Leffert, the embittered townsman who returned from the war minus a hand and isn’t well disposed to Luke’s supposed return (perhaps the character’s intended as a nod to “The Best Years of Our Lives”). On the other side, Balaban and Holbrook are suitably oily villains.

But it’s the big finish in which the last two are involved–Peter’s appearance before the HUAC–which comes across as the phoniest part of “The Majestic.” For one thing, it’s extraordinarily curious that no mention is made whatever that at the time the action is supposedly occurring, the U.S. was once again at war–in Korea. From the look of the bucolic, laid-back Lawson, one would hardly imagine that young Americans were dying in action again. This is connected with the falseness of the speech that Appleton eventually makes before the committee, a rah-rah excoriation of their tactics that is–we’re told–greeted with enthusiastic support by the wider public. The fact is that in 1951 the country was still in the grip of McCarthyism, and anyone who confronted HUAC the way Appleton does here would not only have been charged with contempt but probably jailed or forced into exile. It’s nice for us to think that the innate fairness of the common American people will always come through–that was Capra’s constant message, after all, and it makes moviegoers feel good about themselves (even those who, at this moment, might be making unfounded accusations against people of other faiths or ethnic backgrounds). In this day and age, though, it’s a point of view that seems more than a mite meretricious.

Still, “The Majestic” will probably be a big success. Though unbelievably sappy, it’s been cannily crafted to appeal to viewers who will find its mawkish celebration of old-time American values gratifying, especially at a time of national dislocation, and, as with Darabont’s interminable “Green Mile,” it will warm the hearts of innumerable viewers with its simplistic divisions of right from wrong. Curmudgeons–and historians–will point out, however, that it’s that very simplicity which is the problem.