Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day – three great days of family and tradition, and three trips to the movies. Here’s my take on what the movie Santa brought us.

Starting in the middle, I went on Christmas Day to see Michael Mann’s Ali. Mann is one of the finest American directors. His style alternates between slick (he created Miami Vice) and artfully messy; he draws equally on psychological exactitude and melodramatic grandstanding – much of the fascination of The Insider, his last film, came from the tension between Russell Crowe in the former category and Al Pacino in the latter. His films are glorious works of design and drama, with the music track almost perilously foregrounded. I don’t suppose Mann smokes cigars on the set, but I always imagine he does – he’s that kind of old-fashioned auteur general.

Ali presents him with overwhelming opportunities in these areas, and the greatest surprise of the film is Mann’s relative restraint. Not that the film lacks his usual panache. The opening sequence, intercutting between Ali training for a fight against Sonny Liston, a Sam Cooke night-club performance, and miscellaneous snippets of Ali’s history (including traveling as a boy on the “coloreds only” section of the bus), is dazzling. The fight sequences are staggeringly well-realized. I could go on. But the heart of the film, of course, is the man himself. And for once, Mann seems to blink, coming close to giving the film a soft centre.


Fortunately, he has Will Smith in excellent, perhaps Oscar-winning form, conveying Ali’s mixture of canniness, rough-edged charisma, and bull-headed naivete. The movie has been widely criticized for not explaining Ali to us, but I think it shows how he surely defied explanation even to himself. Near the end, road-training in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he wanders off the road, a crowd accumulates around him, and he comes across a huge drawing of himself on the side of a battered old wall. Mann holds the scene at great length; just soaking in Ali’s almost overawed reaction, almost puzzlement (despair?) at the weight of his own myth and rhetoric. The scene goes on for so long, the movie seems about to throw in the towel. And indeed, thereafter, it functions largely as a recreated documentary (largely reenacting the material covered in the documentary When we were Kings).

Veteran sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, in the New York Times, describes as a “major lie” the context in which Ali says the line “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” The movie, says Lipsyte, presents the line “as a measured explanation for his refusal to be drafted” whereas the truth is that the sentence was “blurted…after a long day of being hectored.” This must illustrate the ambiguity of the film’s portrayal, for it seemed clear to me that the move’s Ali basically does “blurt” out the line, and then decides to stick with it, making up his philosophy on the hoof (one of several such instances in the film). It’s the same mixture of waywardness and populism that has Ali calling himself “The Peoples’ Champion” while insisting in the next breath that he’s going to be the kind of champion he wants to be.

Lipsyte also criticizes the film for leaving out “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy, (the fact that) Ali’s unique gifts of movement and speech (became) seriously impaired.” The movie ends after the 1974 “Rumble” and doesn’t address Ali’s subsequent Parkinson’s disease, not even in the ending captions. But it’s hard to see how such a last chapter wouldn’t have fallen into morose irony and easily reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. Still, my guess going in would have been that Mann would take it on. His refusal to do so is another example of how he keeps the gloves off. In all, I thought Ali was terrific, one of the year’s best. Still, a lot of that opinion may be based in an appreciation of how it relates to Mann’s other pictures. Absent that perspective, it’s probably too problematic a film to win general acceptance.

Gosford Park

On Boxing Day, I saw Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. As I pointed out recently, virtually every estimable new film nowadays is compared to some Altman film or other. It’s a pleasure to see that the man himself can still get it done. The new film is set in a British country house in 1932, where a group of aristocrats gathers for the weekend. The film devotes equal time to the servants, inhabiting a below-stairs community with its own rules. The essence of the picture lies in its coordination and juxtaposition, and Altman’s handling is masterly – shot after shot takes your breath away with its deftness in moving from one character and mood to another.

The broad premise is that the upper-class are barren and spent (a point ruthlessly executed here) and on the verge of being, if not displaced, at least squeezed by their underlings for supremacy (of any kind). Almost any randomly chosen five-minute chunk of the film would demonstrate this point. The movie turns into a nominal whodunit, with the bumping-off of one of the toffs precipitating an investigation. Altman’s handling of this aspect is so perfunctory that it’s clear it barely matters. Even so, although the denouement is dramatically little more than a shrug, it supports the overall theme. I enjoyed the film enormously, yet among Altman’s later works I think Cookie’s Fortune remains his most rich and scintillating.

The Majestic

Jim Carrey’s latest shot at an Oscar (it’s hard not to concede to the tabloid wisdom on this point) turned out to be his biggest box office flop, and a backward step in terms of artistic credibility. The Majestic has been critically derided, and Carrey may be the weakest thing in it.  It’s a dawdling, feel-good piece about a 50s Hollywood screenwriter who loses his memory and ends up in a small town where he’s mistaken for a long-lost son who was presumed killed during WW2. Carrey helps his presumed father renovate the local movie theater, romances the dead man’s former girlfriend, and has no idea that the FBI is searching for him as a suspected Communist subversive.

The latter element is supposed to establish the film’s seriousness, but is so lamely treated that it undermines the “Capraesque” qualities of the rest. The Majestic is almost incalculably far below the other two films dealt with here. Even so, I find myself more positive on the film than most critics. It seems to me almost identical in quality to director Frank Darabont’s previous The Green Mile; since that (Oscar-nominated) film was incredibly overrated, The Majestic comes as no surprise whatsoever. Much as with Ali, although in a very different way, a lot depends on your expectations. But then that’s Christmas for you!

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