Hollywood’s heavyweight contenders square off for the Christmas box office

Brian D. Johnson December 17 2001


Hollywood’s heavyweight contenders square off for the Christmas box office

Brian D. Johnson December 17 2001




Hollywood’s heavyweight contenders square off for the Christmas box office

As the aircraft banked sharply over Lower Manhattan, passengers craned their necks, scanning the late-afternoon haze for a sign of something not there. The phantom towers. Even in its wounded state, this city is still a place of convergence, perhaps more now than ever. It was the eve of the “Canada loves New York” weekend, but I’d come to witness an invasion of a different order. Hollywood was descending on New York City to unveil half a dozen holiday movies. They were filmed before Sept. 11. But as the Dream Factory taps into the Zeitgeist, fantasy keeps colliding with reality—in All's tale of an Islamic-American who refuses to fight a foreign enemy; in Vanilla Sky's im-

age of man free-falling from a Manhattan office tower; and even in The Lord of the Rings, the story of a war against cavedwelling forces of evil that opens with the line, “The world has changed.”

In the course of a week, I saw pictures about a Muslim boxer, a hobbit crusader,

a crazed Manhattan media mogul, a paranoid Nobel Prize winner, a nouveau Vegas rat pack and a retro English manor full of murder suspects. I came home with a mountain of swag, including three souvenir books, a Gandalf goblet that glows in the dark, a board game, a clock and an Ali boxing robe. I also interviewed directors ranging from Michael Mann to Robert Altman, and actors from Will Smith to Tom Cruise—although, through an unexplained quirk of Hollywood logic, Cruise met me only later in Toronto, after declining to speak to the print media in New York. Even then, it was impossible to talk about his role in Vanilla Sky, as a fallen prince of Manhattan, without returning to the reality of the city he’d just left. The film, said Cruise, “is about waking up from a dream, and when you see what’s occurred it’s very relevant. It’s as if the social veneer has been ripped off society and you’re looking at what’s really going on.”

Michael Mann’s Ai previewed at the Ziegfeld Theater, a grand old red-velvet cinema. I remember sitting there nine years ago, watching The Last of the Mohicans, another Mann picture, and glimpsing a large rat dart across the aisle—which seemed no stranger than watching Daniel Day-Lewis in buckskin and a bad accent. Mohicans was Mann’s least-auspicious moment. But Ali is a triumph. The director who created TV’s Miami Vice, the hallmark of ’80s gloss, has found a subject that can hold up to his style. A lyrical, inspirational portrait of a man who called himself the Greatest, Ali is a movie truly worthy of its hero, and deserves the blurb that critics will find irresistible: it’s a knockout.

In a culture that’s redefining heroism, it also has a profound resonance. Its story of a Muslim who risked everything by refusing to go to war recalls a time when integrity and patriotism in America were far from synonymous. Mann dramatizes a decade of Muhammad Ai’s life that coincides with the upheaval of the Sixties. The movie begins in 1964, when the Beatles were invading America, America was invading Vietnam—and Ai, then a 22-yearold contender named Cassius Clay, de-

feated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. The story concludes in 1974, the year the war wound down, Nixon resigned and Ali regained the championship by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle.” In between, Ai converts to Islam, careens through several marriages, is convicted for resisting the draff, stripped of his title, then stages one of the most dramatic comebacks in sports history after being exonerated by the Supreme Court.

Sidestepping the clichés of the biopic, Ali avoids detailed exposition. It raises more questions than it answers. And although Ai was one of the mouthiest athletes in history—he invented trash talk— Mann propels the story with music and images more than words. The first quarter hour plays like an overture, intercutting a meltdown performance by soul singer Sam Cooke in a Chicago nightclub with shots of Ai jogging at night and training in the gym, his fists a blur against the bag. Mann’s impressionist direction seems to mimic Ai’s rhythm in the ring. Fie dances and feints around his subject, refusing to pound home the obvious. And when Ai’s words are finally unleashed, they fall like a volley of lightning punches.

In the film’s generous fight scenes, Mann also injects new life into a tired genre. And he has assembled a dynamic cast. Jon Voight’s warm portrayal of broadcaster Howard Cosell avoids the pitfalls of easy caricature, Mario Van Peebles brings a

quiet conviction to Malcolm X, and a flamboyant Jamie Foxx weighs in as Ai’s motivator, Drew (Bundini) Brown.

Smith, meanwhile, captures Ai with uncanny fidelity, from his physique to the cadence of his speech. But what elevates his performance is the emotion that he brings to the stretches of reflective silence—as when Ai stops to gaze at a primitive mural of himself while jogging through Zaire’s capital. Denzel Washington was twice cheated of an Academy Award for playing black American icons, in Malcolm X ( 1992) and then The Hurricane (1999). But with Ali, Smith is a serious Oscar contender, especially when you consider Ai is a more palatable hero than either Malcolm X or Hurricane Carter.

“He’s also apolitical,” says Mann. “Ai avoided the details of political positions the same way Bob Dylan did. Of course Dylan was against the war. But he was not going to be made into the poster boy for the movement.” Mann, who made the film with his subject’s blessing, says that, at 58, he’s just a year younger than Ai, “so a newscast in 1967 that enraged him enraged me. And I grew up in Chicago, so I knew what 79th Street was like when Ai was rockin’ down to the Tiger Lounge.”

Striving for authenticity, Mann also put Smith through a year of training before the shoot—with the boxer’s legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee, in charge. “Lemme tell you, that kid coulda been a fighter,” says Dundee, 78, who joined the promotional fray in New York. “Will Smiths an athlete. Muhammad was nothing. He was never an athlete. All he could do is fight. But he worked as hard as he talked later on in life. Will Smith could dance. Muhammad couldn’t dance a lick. The only dancing he did was in the ring.”

A bodyguard with a bulge in his suit keeps stern watch outside Smith’s hotel room. But the 33-year-old actor looks like he can take care of himself. His tapered physique is still in fighting trim, biceps swelling under a maroon turtleneck. And the transformation is more than physical. Smith talks like a man glowing with possibility: Ali has changed his life.

For the Zaire scenes, which were shot in Mozambique, he visited Africa for the first time and “it was an awakening,” he says. “God visits everywhere else, but God lives in Africa.” Smith remembers telling the president of Mozambique, “It feels so weird to be in a country where, if Michael Mann and I get into a fight, the police are going to come and shoot him A To be in a country where “everybody is black,” he adds, “gives you a sense of your potential, whereas Ali had to say he was pretty, he had to say he was the greatest, as an affirmation against the pressures of colonization.” Although Ali disobeyed his country’s call to arms, Smith calls him “divinely patriotic.” “The laws of the land are designed in order that a Muhammad Ali is permitted to exist as a check-and-balance system for our government,” says Smith, beginning to sound more like a statesman than an actor. In fact, he has asked United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan about getting a position with the UN—“I have a lot of energy and I want the world to be different because I was here.”

Waiting for the elevator, Smith does a

quick Ali dance, a lightning shuffle. Then, as his handlers husde him off to the next round of media, he says, “I’m so ready!”

Ali, the odyssey of a real-life lord of the ring, is the real heavyweight in Hollywood’s Christmas lineup. But the blockbuster is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, an epic fantasy based on the first book in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Homeric trilogy. It’s the first of three Rings features that were shot simultaneously (an unprecedented act of Hollywood faith) and will be released annually. But the risk is calculated. Since its publication in the ’50s, the Tolkien saga has drawn more than 100 million readers, creating a fan base of several generations. The movie is also the season’s one action extravaganza. After Harry Potters cozy spectacle of unthreatening wizardry, The Lord of the Rings is darker, more dramatic fare. Too violent for small children—and, at almost three hours, too long—it has enough gonzo effects for teens seeking a fix of Matrix adrenaline.

The movie condenses Tolkien’s Byzantine narrative but visualizes his Middleearth with loving, obsessive detail. The story follows the quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood), a 31/2—ft. hobbit who inherits a magic ring coveted by the forces of darkness, who would use it to conquer and enslave the good folks of Middle-earth. So Frodo embarks on a perilous trek, hoping to destroy the ring by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged by the dark lord Sauron. His allies include his hobbit pals, the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), the dwarf Gimli (John RhysDavies), the warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and elf royalty (Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett). They fend off a wild kingdom of monsters, from the hideous ores to the zombie-like ringwraiths.

The movie sometimes feels overwrought —the batdes are relendess—but it has genuine passion. By combining exotic locations in his New Zealand homeland with digital dreamscapes, director Peter Jackson creates a storybook world rich with its own artful reality. He plays with the palette, bleaching the colour out of a number of sequences—except for the indigo eyes of his hero, and Wood has the widest, bluest eyes of anyone since Liz Taylor. As the ring-bearer in an epic marriage between Tolkien mythology and Hollywood machinery, he serves as the film’s emotional centre. And he makes a more fragile, vulnerable hero than the selfsatisfied kid in Harry Potter.

But Mortensen is the film’s revelation. A last-minute addition to the cast, he projects an intense Viking charisma. The 43year-old actor, who had a tooth knocked out in a battle scene, says Jackson’s shoot was arduous, and often dangerous. “At one point,” he recalls, “we did three months of straight night-shooting on wet, rocky slopes. But out of the chaos and desperation, the exhaustion and injury, unusual things happen and end up on film. If Spielberg had been doing this, it would have cost twice as much and looked less frayed, more comfortable.”

Jackson shows up for an interview in a polo shirt, shorts and... bare feet. A short, roly-poly man with a crazy tangle of dark hair, a bushy beard and merry eyes darting behind saucer glasses, he looks more like a hobbit than the ones in the film. And he seems an unlikely ringmaster for the most ambitious movie project since Titanic. “If you were entrusting $270 million (U.S.) to make three movies, you wouldn’t choose me,” he admits.

But for Jackson, 40, LOTR marks the climax of an odyssey that began at the age of 9, when he saw the original King Kong and fell in love with movies. At 12, he shot his own stop-motion Jurassic Park with plasticine dinosaurs and a Super-8 camera. After launching his career with splatter films, he revealed his artistic brilliance with Heavenly Creatures (1994), Kate Winslets screen debut. And now, with LOTR, he has made the great literary monster movie.

Inevitably, LOTR will be compared with that other blockbuster based on an English book about an orphan hero who becomes a sorcerers apprentice. “But I’ve always had fond feelings towards Harry Potter,” says Jackson. “The rivalry between us is mainly an invention of these big fan bases on the Internet. Nothing strengthens our position from a purely cold-blooded financial point of view more than Harry Potters success. If people go see it and there’s heat about fantasy and wizards, they have a year to wait for the next Harry Potter, but we’re coming along four weeks later.”

Like Potter, LOTR forges an unholy alliance between a distinguished international cast and crass Hollywood merchandising. Jackson, however, shrugs off the commercialism as the simple cost of doing business. McKellen, meanwhile, is tickled that he has become both an action figure and an image on a New Zealand stamp. “Everyone sending a Christmas card from New Zealand is going to lick our backsides,” he chordes. “Can you believe that! There are not many people alive who are on a stamp and a Burger King cup.” McKellen adds that he received an e-mail from a friend saying, “I can’t believe that an openly gay man is being given away with hamburgers.”

While LOTR and Harry Potter feature some of England’s finest actors, American director Robert Altman has marshalled the most impressive brigade of Brit talent for the genteel shenanigans of Gosford Park. Filming in England for the first time in his 40-year career, Altman combined a sprawling cast and a small budget to create an upstairs-downstairs murder mystery set at a country estate in 1932. The film is a Who’s Who of English thespians—including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Jeremy Northam, Michael Gambon and Richard E. Grant.

Like a sophisticated, class-conscious Clue, the movie is a comedy of manners that evolves into a belated murder mystery.

Its characters convene at a mansion called Gosford Park for a shooting party hosted by an ill-tempered baronet (Gambon) and his snobbish wife (Scott Thomas). The guests range from a world-weary countess, played with droll hauteur by Smith, to Ivor Novello, a vain matinee idol played by the ever-suave Northam. Novello is the one real-life character in the film, the star of Charlie Chan in London—an actual movie being mounted by a fictitious American producer (Gosford Park co-producer Bob Balaban).

The story’s murder plot almost seems beside the point, just another conceit in the vintage fabric of the film. The story lacks the narrative tension to sustain the film’s 2 lh hours. And you almost need a program to follow the players. But within Gosford Park is an intricate beadwork of glittering performances. The action unfolds from the viewpoint of the butlers, valets, maids and footmen who work “backstage” in the bowels of the mansion. And what clearly fascinates Altman are the cruel nuances of hierarchy, not just between servants and masters, but within both classes.

At a New York screening, I found myself drifting in and out of Gosford Park, sensing that there was more to the movie than met the eye. But Altman says, “You have to see this picture twice to get it.” Although that seems a lot to ask, he may be right.

Altman is sick with the flu. The 76-yearold director ends up cancelling most of his interviews in New York, but makes it to an early roundtable session with a group of press-junket journalists. It’s been a while

since I’ve attended one of these, and they can be frustrating at the best of times. But at this session, three of the five American journalists at the table type Altman’s words on laptops while he talks. A new style in fast-food reporting.

Sipping tea with honey, Altman says he cooked up Gosford Park with Balaban because he’d never done a whodunit. “I’m not much of an original film artist,” he says. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the most trite western story ever done. But I like to get a genre and turn it a bit. This wasn’t going to be a whodunit, but a who-careswhodunit. Once you know all that stuff, then you can look into the corners, and that’s where the film is. Like a magician, I bring your attention over here while something’s going on over there.”

Calling Gosford Park “the best experience I’ve ever had in filmmaking,” Altman says, “This picture couldn’t have been done in America for a billion dollars. Because you couldn’t get an actor of the quality of Alan Bates to come to work for six out of 10 weeks without a line to say—he was in the background, a minor extra. The Brits are ensemble players. They are all workmen.” And Altman is an actors’ director. Once a movie is cast, he says, “I don’t have much to do, except sit there so everybody has a focus point. The actors do it. I don’t direct. I applaud.”

For a sick man, Altman seems uncharacteristically mellow. But when asked about TV’s version of his film ALASH, he displays some of the old vitriol. Condemning the show for portraying Asians as the bad guys, he says, “It was on American TV every f-—g night for 12 years, and if that isn’t the worst kind of irresponsible propaganda I don’t know what is.”

“So what are you doing next?” ventures one of the junketeers.

“I’m going to the loo to throw up.”

As a cardsharp who shuffles ensemble players, and disdains the obvious, Altman offers an antidote to Hollywood formula, which typically involves a single hero trying to overcome the odds. A Beautiful Mind is a formula movie about a man who gets lost in a maze of formulae. Based on a true story, it’s an earnest drama about John Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe), a mathematics genius who made a breakthrough in the 1950s, tumbled into schizophrenia, then staged a gradual comeback —winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1994 for his pioneering work in game theory.

Hollywood always has trouble depicting genius. Under the soft direction of Ron Howard (Apollo 13), this film tries to portray it with glimpses of algebraic mumbo jumbo on the blackboard. And it glosses over Nash’s eureka moment with a scene in a bar about how to pick up a blond. By the time we learn his theory has become a vital key to modern labour relations and international trade, it would have been nice to know what the hell it was about.

The film focuses on Nash’s slide into madness, as he becomes convinced that he’s decoding Soviet spy messages hidden in the news media for a top-secret CIA project. But it’s hard to buy delusions in the form of flesh-and-blood actors—notably Ed Harris, who plays Nash’s imaginary spymaster. Cast against type, Crowe captures the idiosyncrasies of a gladiator trapped in the ring with his own demons, while Jennifer Connelly plays his loyal, long-suffering wife. Beautiful Mind gives us a glimpse of an extraordinary story, but Howard’s attempt to distil noble virtue from a complex life seems false. And compared with Alis 10-year roller-coaster of rise, fall and comeback, the story of a mind gradually piecing itself back together over several decades strains for dramatic effect.

Vanilla Sky is another movie about a mind unhinged. For this remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Spanish thriller, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), writer-director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) re-teams with Tom Cruise, his star in Jerry Maguire, who serves as co-producer. And

Penelope Cruz reprises her role from the original film. Since the shoot, Cruise ’n Cruz have declared themselves a couple, and in their love scene you can detect some chemistry, certainly more than was visible between Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. It’s an odd transition— from Eyes Wide Shut to Open Your Eyes, another movie about a master of the universe who is ruined by sexual obsession.

Opening and closing above the rooftops of Manhattan, the film toggles between reality and dream, with a sleeper sci-fi subplot. Cruise stars as a New York playboy who runs a publishing empire. After meeting the girl of his dreams (Cruz), a run-in with a spurned lover (Cameron Diaz) leaves him horribly disfigured. Well, not as disfigured as the character in the original film—he still looks like Tom Cruise. While often copying the original with dogged literalism, the remake adds a trippy overlay of pop culture. And there are eerie resonances, as when Cruise’s character says George Harrison is his favourite Beatle.

Cruise is an intensely physical actor, who seems to flex more abs just getting out of bed than most people do at the gym. He’s a gestural performer, who makes thinking look like a muscular activity. And in person, Cruise exhibits the same torqued focus. Sitting with Crowe in a Toronto hotel room, an athlete with his coach, he delivers groomed answers, with phrases like “finding your own humanity to tell a love story.” He’s careful to distinguish between himself (“I have a lot of responsibility”)

and his character (“snowboarding through life”). And asked about his love scene with Cruz, he agrees it’s the most tender he’s done. “I’m very proud of it. That’s what Cameron wanted, that real intimacy.” Later I meet Cruz, who praises Crowe’s ability “to capture the little moments” and delivers model answers about Tom. “I was amazed by his energy,” she says, recalling their first meeting. “And what I like is that he doesn’t take for granted what he has.”

Ocean’s Eleven is the season’s other remake, although it’s a distant cousin to the original. Transplanting the notion of a casino heist to contemporary Las Vegas, Steven Soderbergh assembles a mock Rat Pack that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, with a cold-eyed Andy Garcia as the casino boss and Julia Roberts as his wife. The movie is eminently watchable. Soderbergh’s direction is Starbucks-smooth, the sound track coolerthan-thou and the heist is a high-tech lark. But what’s missing is the guilty pleasure of the original, which was so bad it was good.

Soderbergh is incapable of vulgarity. Even with Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner hijacking scenes in broad daylight, the movie is so well behaved. Aside from Pitt, Garcia and Reiner, the cast is on cruise control. And the romance between Clooney and Roberts falls flat. In the end, Oceans Eleven is nifty, but makes us nostalgic for the lost reality of the Rat Pack, and for a Las Vegas that—like Hollywood—has been overtaken by themepark fantasy. G3