About the Legend, But Not the Man

Among the marquee titles that played briefly before the end of 2001 to qualify for Academy Awards but are just now opening their regular commercial runs, Michael Mann’s Ali is big enough and ambitious enough to deserve some attention. It is well-intentioned, sketchy, sprawling and unremarkable. At two hours and 38 minutes, it is also long-winded and exhausting. Covering 10 years in the life of Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali, it begins with the 1964 knockout of Sonny Liston that won him the heavyweight championship, and ends with the disgraced champ regaining his crown in 1974 over George Foreman in Zaire. Punch by punch, blow by blow, we live through every minute in between, but the details come and go like headlines, while Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, George Frazier, Maya Angelou and loony fight promoter Don King drop in like place cards at a “‘scuse me, I’m late and gotta go” picnic cookout. At the end, we don’t know much more about Ali than we did going in.

It took four men to write the screenplay, and each of them seems to have contributed scenes that separate like egg yolks from their shells. None of the events connect to each other, and the time frame goes haywire. In the script, by Stephen Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth and director Michael Mann himself, Ali disgraces his family’s name and respect and sacrifices the love of his first wife for Islam. We never know why. Ali gets fined and sentenced for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army because of his religious beliefs. Again, we don’t know why, and even though the conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court, he still comes off like a coward. Ali loses his title for making unpatriotic remarks about the Vietnam War, struggles against bigotry to make a comeback, and ends up a hero at 32. Meanwhile, we never know what he’s thinking or feeling or why he’s so special. Most of the time he just seems passive and simple-minded. The facts don’t gel, and the fragmented results tell more about Michael Mann’s passion for his subject than they do about Ali. This is not Mr. Mann’s best film; I liked The Insider much better.

Ali is a punishing ordeal, but there are some rewards for patience. The fight sequences are aggressively and powerfully shot, and there are two memorable performances. An unrecognizable but terrific Jon Voight is the spitting image of acerbic sportscaster and loyal Ali supporter Howard Cosell (the portrayal is so realistic you expect Cosell’s famously phony wig to fly off his head every time he bends over). And a beefed-up Will Smith lights up the screen with both fists to show the conflicting sides of the controversial boxer in and out of the ring. Arrogant, pushy, loudmouthed, obnoxious, honest, sweet, funny, dumb as a potato, a womanizer who cheated on his wives and neglected his children, but demonstrated unshakable devotion to the cronies and sycophants who deserted him when the chips were down but crawled over him like ants when he was in the money, Ali emerges as a second-rate husband and father, but a first-rate athlete. Mr. Smith is smoother-featured and better-looking than the champ, but he’s not afraid to take chances. He does all of his own work in the ring without a stunt double, takes a lot of kidney crunches and left hooks, and generally does what the rest of Ali fails to do: He commands and holds attention for two and a half hours in a knockout performance that leaves you hanging on the ropes.

Penn’s Patriarch

Another spectacular workout by the versatile and indefatigable Sean Penn saves the sudsy I Am Sam from the rinse cycle. Playing a retarded man in his 30′s with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old who is trying his level best to raise a 7-year-old daughter, Mr. Penn takes impossible risks and lands on his feet every time in a teary film that otherwise seems strung together with wet Kleenex.

Sam is a loving man, deserted by his wife and forced to provide a normal home for his child, Lucy (played with the kind of clear-eyed gumdrop adorableness guaranteed to reduce audiences of every age to sobs by a moppet named Dakota Fanning, who is 7 going on 70), with the aid of a support group of eccentric neighbors and a circle of autistic friends who share his handicaps. Sam works as a barista at Starbucks, making $8 an hour and spilling more latte than he serves. This arrangement works quite well until Lucy starts hanging back in school, terrified that she will lose her beloved father if she surpasses his I.Q.

The authorities intercede, Sam loses his job, and the state is about to take Lucy away when a smart lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) takes his case pro bono . If ever there was a case for lawyers, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer. Gorgeous, spiky, brittle, career-driven and determined to teach bureaucracy a lesson, she whirls through the movie knocking over jelly beans, dropping cell phones and firing everyone in sight. Clearly she needs a shrink and some parenting lessons of her own, yet she tackles a case load of social issues to prove how little a person’s intellectual capacity has to do with their capacity to love. In the long haul of custody hearings, court battles and wrenching personal revelations, she becomes so emotionally involved with the helpless, childlike Sam that she ruins her own practice to help him beat the system. Now there’s an attorney we need more than a tax rebate. Unfortunately, she’s such a tidal wave you never worry much about how it all turns out. She’s on the case, even after the movie ends.

Directed by Jessie Nelson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kristine Johnson, I Am Sam has impeccable credentials and heartwarming intentions, but it almost drowns in bathos. There isn’t a moment of subtlety in it, and the cards are so neatly stacked in Sam’s favor that you spend too much time asking angry questions like “Why are all these awful people doing such mean things to this nice man?” instead of feeling challenged by the social issues that gnaw at the film’s inner core in silence. Still, the acting is so efficient that the film wins you over, whether you like it or not.

Dianne Wiest as an agoraphobic neighbor who must test her own sanity to venture off to court to save Sam and Lucy; Laura Dern as the court-assigned foster mother who is too good to be true; and Mary Steenburgen as a star witness are all wonderful. But it’s Sean Penn who really steals the picture from start to finish. With short arms, unfocused, dull eyes and halting speech, trying to balance a baby in one arm and a shopping basket full of Pampers in the other, or timing the baby’s bottle by the hours different sitcoms come on Nickelodeon, he makes you laugh and breaks your heart at the same time. Despite its flaws, I Am Sam is a little film with a big capacity to heal a hurting heart.

Off-the-Wall Werewolves

The first shocker of 2002 is Brotherhood of the Wolf , a French bouillabaisse of frenetic head-bangers that defies interpretation or analysis but keeps your eyes popping and your adrenaline flowing. This wild thriller is the 18th-century French version of a Japanese samurai-flick- cum -horror-movie about werewolves, with black magic, devil worshippers, epic Napoleonic battles and just enough camp to make you giggle. The cinematography is opulent, the special effects are awesome, and the director has obviously seen entirely too many cheesy installments of Beastmaster on French television.

In 1764, on the eve of the French Revolution, a monster called the Beast of Gevaudan terrorizes the peasants in a rural province in France, where a spooky old priory has been turned into a makeshift hospital to treat the howling victims of the beast’s savage attacks, some of them ravaged beyond recognition. The monster is a female. “She” is described by eyewitnesses as a demon with a spike in her back and knives five feet wide for incisors. It’s not safe to be a goatherd.

When Louis XV offers a reward, swordsmen, adventurers, soldiers and fortune hunters gather to hunt the beast, but it’s the dashing scientist Grégoire de Fronsac (played by French hunk Samuel Le Bihan) and his sidekick, Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois Indian who befriends the wolves for directions to the beast’s lair, who have the inside track. The heroine (Emilie Dequenne) is a virginal countess who gets raped by her insane, one-armed brother; the villainess (played by glamorous Monica Bellucci of Malèna and the upcoming Matrix Reloaded ) is a whore who works in the most decadent brothel in France and doubles as an undercover agent for the king. From here on, the script gets tangled in so much craziness that the plot makes a rope of Boy Scout knots look like a string of dental floss. But the film is dressed up with enough lavish dinner parties, martial-arts demonstrations, sorcery, witchcraft, magic and gore to hide the fact that behind all the action, it’s nothing more than a sumptuous banquet with nothing under the silver serving platters but meatballs.

When you finally discover the identity of the lady werewolf (a secret that reaches all the way to the Pope!), you may want to scratch your head, slap somebody, or both. Still, I was able to suspend disbelief enough to have a whale of a good time. Christophe Gans is one off-the-wall director, with a helluva bizarre and freaky imagination, and Brotherhood of the Wolf fills the bill for anyone who needs their pulse pumped up a notch. Flaky, menacing and mesmerizing, it’s a true original.