One more Criterion musical watched after last month‘s spree, and this one has the most interesting story. Envisioned as an On The Town sequel with Gene Kelly, but Sinatra and Munshin got replaced by Michael Kidd (choreographer of Seven Brides) as a short burger chef and Dan Dailey (Ethel Merman’s partner in There’s No Business) as a tall corporate sadsack. The three play war buddies who promise to reunite after ten years, and they come through but don’t like each other/themselves much anymore. Through Dan’s advertising job their story catches the attention of Cyd Charisse (her boxing-ring song is the best scene), who tricks them into appearing on live TV with overbearing host Dolores Gray (Kismet the same year). The show coincides with boxing promoter Gene Kelly’s ambush by some gangsters angry that he has messed up their fixed fights, the cameras catch the ensuing brawl and confession, and the guys realize that they still like each other/themselves as long as violence is involved. A drunken dance with trashcan-lid shoes goes on for hours, and Kelly shows up Melvin with a roller skate dance where you can tell the skates aren’t locked.
Lead girl Toni (Royalty Hightower) is boxing with her brother at the rec center until she gets intrigued by the dance team of girls across the hall. And one by one, from older to younger, the dancers start having fits. A good example of movies being much more than their story, because this was endlessly watchable and barely had a story – lots of boxing and fitness and dance practice, the widescreen lens following Toni closely.
Holmer primarily tells her story in the brute strength of her imagery, the way the camera regards Toni as a solitary figure, even when among other people, and then subtly shifts that perspective as she finds herself in a period of discovery and reinvention. Oh, and then her dance teammates start having peculiar, unexplained seizures, a narrative shift that somehow doesn’t dismantle the delicate tonal foundation. It’s the kind of film that’s almost inexplicable — I’m not sure how it was devised, or how it was executed. But I’m glad it exists.
Formally dazzling, which might have been enough had The Fits been a short … or had its central metaphor been a tad less bluntly obvious (these fits only affect pubescent girls, you say? They’re frightening, but also liberating? Those who haven’t experienced them envy those who have? Hmm…).
Back in theaters… not for the happiest of reasons, but I’ll take it. Electrifying for the first half hour, then gradually settles into a biopic-groove despite all of Mann’s trademark flair. But with energy and performances this good, I wasn’t worried at the time, just floating on the great history and character and love in this movie.
Best appreciated in a theater, with a real sound system. The sound mix is key to the legendary opening montage, the way Mann brings Sam Cooke forward and backward, providing structure to otherwise-random memory footage that serves as exposition and context, without feeling like it. The sound is also the key to the fight scenes, in which Mann puts on the screen the subjective feel of being in a boxing match in a way rarely-matched.
Unfortunately, sound at the Grand was turned way down, I guess so the retro boxing movie wouldn’t audibly compete with whatever Care Bears nonsense was playing next door. I get better sound from my barely-in-stereo TV at home.
Even when its momentum falters, its visuals never do. Lubezki, the wizard who went storybook-painterly for Tim Burton’s gruesomely entertaining Sleepy Hollow, shoots nearly the entire film with handheld cameras and gyroscopically stabilized Steadicams, shifting focus spontaneously in each shot as if he’s recording history as it happens. It’s arresting, alive and provocative – a documentary affectation reimagined for Hollywood, and it goes a long way toward making Ali exciting even when it’s not making much sense.
You can tell that one was written in 2001/2002, because not since The New World and Children of Men has anyone equated Lubezki with Sleepy Hollow. This points to another reason that the Ali re-release is less revelatory than I hoped – handheld spontaneity has become de rigueur in Hollywood since its first release (not nearly as purposefully as it’s done here)
So there’s another element to Ali — a ghost in the machine that courses throughout the film. Ali the man desires to be free. But the meaning of that word slowly changes. (“Free ain’t easy,” Bundini says. “Free is real. And real’s a motherfucker.”) Ali seeks freedom not just from the reality of America, but also from everything else with dominion over him. He finds this freedom in the construction of his ever-changing, ever-moving identity. (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”) In essence, he liberates himself by becoming larger than anything that ever tried to control him — larger than the Nation of Islam, larger than the media, or boxing, or even, ultimately, America itself.
Just as narratively complicated as The Strawberry Blonde but with 100% less weight – a fluffy Mae West comedy written by a fluffy Mae West and directed by McCarey, who could surely handle this after dealing with the Marx brothers in Duck Soup. Mae gets all the attention, massive hats, punchlines and glamorous lighting, and there’s nothing else to say about the filmmaking – except for one amazing scene. She has given a few bucks to her maid Libby Taylor (also Mae’s maid in I’m No Angel), who goes down to a musical prayer meeting at the river while Mae stands in her window above the river singing her own song – as the songs collide and blend, so do the visuals.
Anyway the plot is ridiculous – Mae likes a boxer (Roger Pryor, son of bandleader Arthur) but pretends to dump him during training and moves to New Orleans where she continues her hit stage show of standing silently in huge costumes subtly moving her hips to rapturous applause (she also sings sometimes). The boxer comes to N.O. to fight the champ, and Mae’s promoter (professional mustachioed villain John Miljan) is ripping her off. Mae spikes her boyfriend’s water, causing him to lose the fight and ruining Miljan financially – then as his theater burns down, the boxer kills Miljan, and somehow all this is okay and they end up together.
There’s also a rich beau, a damsel in distress, and Duke Ellington, who appears on piano but wrote none of the songs. We didn’t know what instrument Duke plays or what he looks like, so weren’t even sure that he was in the movie.
Wikipedia: “A publicity stunt went awry when 50 parrots were trained to shout the original title of It Ain’t No Sin. The parrots were subsequently released in the jungles of South America still repeating ‘it ain’t no sin’ over and over again.”