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When He Was King

ALI | Directed by MICHAEL MANN | Written by STEPHEN J. RIVELE & CHRISTOPHER WILKINSON, ERIC ROTH and MANN

From a story by GREGORY ALLEN HOWARD | Produced by JON PETERS, PAUL ARDAJI, A. KITMAN HO and MANN

Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide | Opens December 25

GOSFORD PARK | Directed by ROBERT ALTMAN | Written by JULIAN FELLOWES

Produced by ALTMAN, BOB BALABAN and DAVID LEVY | Released by USA Films | Loews Century Cineplex Plaza, Sunset 5, NuWilshire | Opens December 26

KATE & LEOPOLD | Directed by JAMES MANGOLD | Written by MANGOLD and STEVEN ROGERS

Produced by CATHY KONRAD | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide | Opens December 25

In Michael Mann‘s Ali, the world’s most famous boxer, training for a rematch with George Foreman that even his sportscaster champion Howard Cosell predicts he will lose, jogs through Kinshasa tailed by chanting African supporters, their fists raised in solidarity. A near-identical sequence in Leon Gast‘s 1996 documentary When We Were Kings shows Muhammad Ali mugging for the camera and exultantly accepting Zaire’s homage as his due while vowing to whup Foreman‘s ass. Mann’s film doesn‘t stint on the braggadocio, but his Ali (Will Smith, in case you hadn’t heard) prowls the city more in wonder than in pride, a little-boy-lost gazing wordlessly not just at the adoring crowds but at the poverty around him, and at the crude murals invoking him as an African, as well as an American, hero. Watching his awed, almost troubled expression, one grasps just how hagiographic was Gast‘s enormously enjoyable documentary, which crafted Ali solely from his charismatic public persona, and from the anxious hero worship of sedentary white guys like George Plimpton and Norman Mailer.

Gast’s film pumps up the myth; Mann‘s seeks to close the gap between the man and the myth. Framed by two of the Greatest’s most heroic moments -- his 1964 victory, at age 22, over Sonny Liston, and the fight a decade later in which he trounced Foreman and took back the heavyweight title -- Ali probes the misery years in between, when Ali‘s notorious refusal to accept induction into the military resulted in federal prosecution for draft evasion, lost him his boxing license for three and a half years, and set off a campaign of vilification by a press and public still wedded to waging war against Vietnam.

Ali is far from dispassionate, neither a docudrama nor, in any strict sense, a biopic. Certainly Mann attends to Ali as construct -- how could he not, when the champ tended to it so diligently himself? -- but he won’t take the public persona as read. Which is why I wouldn‘t put money on the movie’s chances at the box office, for what is Ali now -- conveniently stashed away out of the public eye -- if not an icon? Mann will likely get creamed on historical grounds by the current wave of revisionists bent on branding Ali an ignoramus with only the most rudimentary knowledge of politics, a braggart who treated his fellow black fighters with contempt. Ali is an intensely political film, the work of a white liberal imagination attempting to grasp a crucial decade in American history -- specifically, African-American history -- through the eyes of a black man who helped define it, and was almost destroyed by it.

As the movie opens in 1964, the young Cassius Clay Jr. is running again, this time through murky inner-city streets to the tune of a Sam Cooke medley. A white stranger asks him, ”Watcha running from, son?“ As the movie has it, the young fighter is running from a poverty-stricken childhood in Louisville, from his place at the back of the bus, from Cooke‘s murder that same year, from four little girls burned alive in an Alabama church. He’s running toward not just a superstar career but a new black identity, forged from the civil rights and Black Muslim movements. He‘s also running with the rest of America into the shadow of Vietnam -- a shadow that will present him with his biggest test as a competitor and a human being.

Lest this all begin to sound like heavy going, Ali is also an engrossing sports movie, albeit remarkably free of the balletic slo-mos and freeze-frames which, after Raging Bull, must come off as cliches. The staging of the fight scenes, as one would expect from a filmmaker as notoriously attentive to detail as Mann, is both visceral and sophisticated, juiced by a thrilling score and by telling cutaways to those beyond the ropes who have high stakes in the outcome: wives, mistresses, longtime trainer Angelo Dundee (played in near silence by the ordinarily showy Ron Silver), reporters. Ali boasts a whole tribe of outstanding secondary performances, of a which Jon Voight’s Cosell, in an outrageous rug and several tons of pasty-face makeup, is easily the funniest. Some of the movie‘s most touching bits come from the affectionately insulting banter between Voight and Will Smith, its kinetic center as Ali. Smith himself, who gained 40 pounds while training for the part, has all of Ali’s natural physical grace, his dancing feet, and an instinctive comic timing lent weight and wit by the movie‘s literate script, which was shaped by five writers, including the meticulous Mann himself. The actor had turned down the role many times -- by his own account, he feared he hadn’t the chops -- before he finally gave in. Whether or not his anxiety informs the vulnerability he confers on the private Ali, the portrayal carries a compelling authenticity, an undertow of chronic insecurity and loneliness of the kind that besets every man who can‘t do without the spotlight.

He could be gullible, too. Though the film acknowledges that Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam gave Ali his sense of pride as a boxer and a black man, it insists that had Ali remained loyal to his mentor, Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles with a taut discipline he‘s never shown before), he’d have been less open to being ripped off by the movement‘s leader, who used him primarily as a moneymaker and whose deviousness -- along with that of Elijah’s son Herbert -- was clearly understood not by Ali, but by his second wife, Belinda (Nona Gaye), herself a devout Muslim. Ali celebrates black history without laundering it.

Most of all, the film gives Ali his due by refusing to idealize him or to gloss over his failings -- his lousy judgment in abandoning Malcolm X, his weakness for beautiful women despite his insistence that his wives observe full Islamic modesty, his hubris and endless hectoring of the media and of other black fighters. Finally, Ali is an enormously affectionate portrait of a generous man who was fiercely loyal to those who worked for him and took no vengeance on those who wronged him. Ali gave up years of his prime to keep his word and his pride, and in so doing set a tone for a generation of dissent -- an act of courage that, Mann maintains, was in no way diminished by the champ‘s lack of political savvy. ”Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger“: Clueless or not -- and really, how many anti-war demonstrators in the ‘60s could point to Saigon on a map? -- Ali had a gift for summing up a cultural moment.

In a telling gesture during the show-stopping climactic fight scene, Ali, his face puffy and swollen from Foreman’s punishing hooks, winks at a young Zairean woman walking around the ring -- and rises from the mat to whup his opponent‘s ass, as promised. Climaxing with his wildly improbable victory, the movie freezes Ali in time, before the fall, before the fights he should never have fought, before Parkinson’s disease took away his control over his public image. It‘s a good place to stop: By all accounts, George Foreman, after he got over his defeat, went on to become the sweetest man alive. Ali, following his victory, had the misfortune to be canonized. In pursuit of a saint, we lost the human being.

Here’s a novel concept: Agatha Christie, by Robert Altman. The delicious Gosford Park, set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, is a murder mystery and then some. The movie is also a sly meditation on England versus America, and Upstairs versus Downstairs, in an era about to fall down and die of inertia. It‘s about the pleasures of good linen and the idiocy of hunting. It’s about how guilty secrets and terrible losses can mutilate a life. It is a savagely funny satire, and a wonderfully tender drama from a director who, in the last decade, had seemed to be running from his best self into cheap cynicism.

Still, Gosford Park is vintage Altman. The murder doesn‘t take place till fully halfway through the movie, which a 38 leaves time for Altman to do what no other director, save perhaps Renoir, knows how to do better, which is to elaborate a world so richly busy with itself, it barely notices you. At his best, Altman turns us into interlopers who have stumbled into a world that seems to predate us and persuades us it will continue to teem with life long after we leave the theater. The movie’s giant cast is so seamlessly fabulous you could weep, studded as it is with current and has-been stars (including a sprinkling of Sirs and Dames) who are willing to abandon center stage for the pleasure of working with a director who loves actors.

If anything, it‘s a coup to land a lowly part in Gosford Park, for that’s where the movie‘s sympathies lie. The idiot gentility of the masters, their backbiting hypocrisy and petty standing on ceremony, are observed through the eyes of the servants -- some devoted, others scornful, still others clear-eyed and tolerant. The interdependence between the layers of this rigorously divided society is more complex than it seems, as quickly becomes clear when we learn that everyone above and below stairs is beholden to or has a score to settle with the estate’s owner, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose bitch of a wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas at her freezing best), is every bit as randy and ruthless as he. In one way or another, Sir William also supports the whole army of do-nothing hangers-on, including his wife‘s gossipy, self-absorbed maiden aunt (Maggie Smith), who have gathered under his roof for a shooting party.

This unappetizing crew is observed with a mixture of amazement and ill-disguised distaste by Morris Weissman (played by Bob Balaban, who cooked up the idea for the movie with Altman), a Hollywood movie producer who accompanies the fading English screen idol and singer Ivor Novello (the congenitally suave Jeremy Northam) and who happens to be researching his latest mystery movie, Charlie Chan in London. Below stairs, another ice queen reigns: Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), a termagent with no discernible emotional life, presides with stiff-necked Jennings the butler (Alan Bates) over both her own staff and the visitors’ entourage, which includes a mysterious valet played by Clive Owen, and another (Ryan Phillippe in a not-half-bad Glasgow accent) who‘s nowhere near as mysterious as he thinks he is.

In a less generous mood -- say, the one that produced Short Cuts -- Altman, who loves to take a genre and bend it to other purposes, might have been tempted to play Gosford Park as vicious social satire or Pythonesque spoof of costume drama. If Altman is poking fun at the country-house mystery genre -- the detective who shows up after the deed is done is a bumblingly inept Poirot knockoff, played by Stephen Fry -- he’s also embracing and enjoying it, craftily planting motives like a pro. Though scathingly funny where it needs to be, Julian Fellowes‘ deft screenplay achieves a wry wistfulness as it moves downstairs, where the murder sets off another drama altogether.

In a movie with not a single bad performance to its name, Emily Watson towers over the ensemble as the head housemaid, Elsie, a quiet young woman with a shrewder appreciation for the vagaries of human nature than any of her betters can muster. Fired for blurting out an unwelcome truth at dinner, Elsie watches as Gosford Park, and the anachronistic world it represents -- a world so cruelly self-regarding that servants are required to take their masters’ last names and, worse, like it -- crumbles. As she steps into a car with Morris Weissman, who leaves the estate with a readymade plot for his new movie, she‘s also the shape (in more ways than one ) of things to come.

Sisters, let’s you and I forgive James Mangold for premising yet another movie on a frantically overcommitted career woman with no time for love. Kate & Leopold is less an attack on the fruits of feminism than it is a lament for the beating that romantic civility has taken in the last century. This winning confection, from a director (Heavy, Cop Land) not known for the lightness of his material or his touch, shows a fine understanding of what the screenwriters of the ‘40s instinctively grasped, that good screwball is about dialogue and chemistry. Wearing mannish clothes and a ’do that gives her the air of a puzzled Afghan hound, Meg Ryan is her usual compulsively cute self, here a clever, hassled market researcher who only has eyes for promotion. Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, the noble-browed Duke Leopold (Hugh Jackman) pouts over having nothing whatever to do in life but find a suitably rich bride. It falls to Kate‘s former boyfriend (a very good, if underused, Liev Schreiber) and her younger brother (a very funny Breckin Meyer) to drag Leopold into modernity, where he will instruct Kate in the pleasures of honorable business conduct and the sensual life, and spend much of the movie with his mouth agape at the tricky wonders of modern technology. I’m none too sure what the queen of gamine gives him back, beyond a lot of blue-eyed reaction shots and the old skimpy-undershirt-and-sweatpants routine, but it doesn‘t much matter. Peppily written by Mangold and Steven Rogers, Kate & Leopold takes hold of your heart less through their romance than through the powerful wish it expresses that life would slow down enough that one could live it, rather than just trying to keep up.