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“Free Is Real, and Real Is a Motherfucker”: Michael Mann on Ali, 15 Years Later

Last June, after the death of Muhammad Ali, Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 film Ali was briefly re-released in theaters. This allowed many of us to see it with fresh eyes. What felt like an ambitious but underwhelming biopic 15 years ago now seems more and more like a masterpiece — an immersive meditation on what it meant to be Muhammad Ali (who would have turned 75 today), and a portrait of a man attempting to forge his own identity in the crucible of the 1960s. Now, Mann’s film has just come out on Blu-ray, in a brand-new cut that makes its themes clearer and even adds some contemporary relevance. This new version of Ali feels both more political and more personal. I talked to Michael Mann about what prompted him to revisit the movie, along with his memories of making it.

This is, I think, the third cut of Ali that you’ve released. What made you want to go back in there and do a new edit?

What made me want to go back into it was time. It’s a different time. The original dealt with a number of evolving dynamics in Ali’s life. It was all kind of woven together: the political conflicts, his tumultuous romantic life, his identity quest. Who exactly was he going to be? He was a representational figure — and he was constructing that figure as he went through life. And in 2016 what I really wanted to see was somewhat different, which is that the biggest adversary Ali had was political. I wanted to strengthen that as the central conflict in the whole story. To my way of thinking, it makes everything more relevant — including the more intimate scenes, like his split with Belinda. It’s a process of expanding and compressing. I couldn’t even tell you if this film is longer or shorter than the theatrical release.

I noticed more political and historical context in there. For example, we see the execution of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

Yeah. I wanted to make that tangible. In the earlier visit to Africa, when Ali bumps into Malcolm, there was a lot of work done there to really connect the dots and make associations play in a much clearer way. And to show the death of Lumumba — even though it’s a historical shift, because Lumumba got killed I think in ‘61. I wonder if people get it that the general who, after Lumumba is killed, walks into that room full of other military guys and says, “It’s done. C’est fait. It’s done.” I wonder if they get that that’s Mobutu.

Probably not, but I’m still glad you included it. Structurally, it also helps set up the scene later, with Idi Amin and Mobutu watching the Foreman fight.

And you couldn’t make that up. The fight was only televised in one house in Zaire, and that was the palace, and Mobutu’s dinner guest was Idi Amin!

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The killing of Lumumba also resonates with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that we see later in the film.

The operations of FBI, COINTELPRO, and the CIA — their true connected assault on Ali is because of his race politics and his position against the war and because of how dangerous he was. It’s like Cosell says, “All they are is political. You’re the heavyweight champion of the world.” So, all that just focused the drama for me in a much better way. Suddenly things clicked. I put back in an extra press conference in Africa; I dropped out the Cleveland Williams fight.

I think you cut out the Ernie Terrell fight, too.

Yeah. I was trying to enhance the transformational moment — which for me happens when Ali is in Kinshasa and is running in the favelas and comes upon the murals, in which he realizes what he’s come to represent to everybody rising up from below. He represents every form of aspiration. He can cure sleeping sickness, he can fight off repressive militaries, he can knock out George Foreman. He represents possibility. And that was coming from eleven-year-old kids — eleven-year-old kids did that mural, by the way. That is really the quintessence of the mantle that he wears willingly. It’s not something that’s imposed upon him. “I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be.” And he’s essentially saying, “I know that I am representational, and so I have an obligation, because I’m walking into that ring, and people’s hopes and aspirations are with me.”

It’s also what fuels him in the fight, particularly in the Foreman fight. Also, his argument with Belinda before he runs into the murals — I flipped the order of those scenes. That became an obvious improvement. She doubts him, when they’re talking in their compound in N’Sele, on the banks of the Congo River. That doubt undermines him and we understand the split. But it’s not really about the breakup of his second marriage; it’s about fighting Foreman and that quest for living out his identity.

Here’s a question for you: Did you feel at the end of this that it had a more coherent embrace of a near-religious identification of Ali as a representational figure — this idea that he’s a figure of the masses, and that there’s a connection that he’s feeling at the end of the Foreman fight — compared to the theatrical version?

I think that’s always come through. It may be a little clearer here because, for example, I noticed on his way to the Foreman fight, you added some footage of people on the street at night cheering him on. Whereas before, we just saw him alone in the car. I think Mailer talks about this in The Fight, this lonely car ride Ali took to the fight. But now, seeing these people there by the side of the road gives you the sense, especially after the earlier scene of him running with all those people following him, that these people haven’t left, they’re still there cheering him on.

I’m still struck by how much this film, more than a “biopic,” feels like an essay about Ali and about his own struggle to find a way to be free from all these other things. I noticed something else in here that wasn’t in the theatrical cut, though it was in the longer cut you later released on DVD: The shots of him watching his dad sign the contract allowing him to be owned as a boxer by the Louisville syndicate. It’s there in that opening montage right after we see Dad painting the white Jesus. I thought that was an inspired juxtaposition.

It wasn’t in the theatrical, but it had to be there; it should have been there. That’s why I restored it. The film is a very ambitious undertaking. Some people will say it wasn’t that successful, but it’s still a very ambitious undertaking: I wanted to put you in the shoes, looking through the eyes, in the skin of Muhammad Ali in 1964, of Cassius Clay in ’63, ‘64. Obviously, there’s no point in doing this expositionally. I wanted to do it experientially, to get people to feel what it is to be a colonized people in their own country, living under the yoke of a white value system.

The dislocation, as it appears to nine-year-old Cassius Clay, of seeing his father painting a white, blond, blue-eyed Jesus in a black Baptist church. Or the confusing de facto apartheid of the Border South of Louisville. Being black in Alabama and Mississippi is a rougher experience, but maybe not as confusing. But Louisville’s confusing. Right across the river, you’re in the North. So there are these “colored-only” drinking fountains, but people are polite. But the value system is the same: He had an uncle who was a very, very bright guy, college educated, could only get a job as a window washer, and eventually committed suicide.

Ali came from an accomplished, bright family, and in looking for explanations for the contradictions that he’s living in, he starts reading Muhammad Speaks, probably in 1959, 1960, 1961. So he knew who Patrice Lumumba was, because in the inside section of Muhammad Speaks there was a lot of news about the third world, about Nkrumah in Ghana, and about events in the Congo.

So the whole Sam Cooke medley is an attempt to bring you into that place, and the genius of the counterassault against the culture of imperialism — “black is beautiful.” It’s like a counterpunch, which is maybe an unfortunate analogy. But that’s what Ali embraces. To bring you into a movie about his quest for the ultimate manifestation of who he is, that’s where it begins. And then the transformational moment, for me, is the murals in Kinshasa, and then the full occupation of his identity is that moment in triumph at the very end of the film.

The scene where he’s running in Kinshasa and sees those murals — it’s one of the most powerful scenes you’ve ever directed.

I talked to Ali about it a little bit, but I also think I read it in Norman Mailer’s The Fight, where Ali talks about how he would run in the morning with all kinds of security around him and then he’d just split off and go into these other areas. So that’s where that idea came from. Also, instead of signage, there’s a lot of pictograms in Africa. Like, there’ll be a picture of somebody dressing somebody’s hair painted on a wall instead of the word “hairdresser.” So it’s common, you know.

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What was Ali’s response to the film?

I think it’s probably complicated. I don’t know that there is one answer. You know, he was around the whole time. He wasn’t in Africa because he couldn’t fly, but pre-production he was there all the time, through shooting, at 5th St. Gym in Miami. And then he was there in editing quite a bit. He and [photographer] Howard Bingham, who sadly died a couple weeks ago, would come by the editing room all the time. At the premiere I was sitting right behind Ali and his family, and he was catching all kinds of looks from his daughters. [Laughs]

But he could walk into a location in Miami, and the 5th St. Gym is re-created. We’ve made it live again: It’s a functioning gym, not just a set. So, he’s being transported back into his life with a high degree of authenticity, and that brings back a lot of things. So I don’t think there’s a simple answer to it. Early on, he told me that he wanted the film to not sugarcoat anything. He didn’t want hagiography. He was opposed to any kind of idolatry and felt it diminished him as a man. Mistakes and all, he wanted everything in. I asked him at one point, “What’s the biggest mistake you think you made?” and he said it was not repairing the relationship with Malcolm X, who he truly loved.

Toward the end of the shooting, when we were in Miami, I had Attallah Shabazz, who was working with us on the film, and it was kind of freaky when she walked into a room because she looked like the female Malcolm X. You know, light-complected, red hair, she looked just like her father. I asked Ali, “Attallah Shabazz is working with us, did you want to meet her?” He did, and they actually arranged a meeting, and he was very emotional. He told her how much he loved her father, and regretted not mending that relationship. Because shortly after Ali rejected him, Malcolm was assassinated.

Was there a particular quality in Will Smith at the time that made you think that he could be the one to do this?

Well, he had the project before I was involved. I had to come up with a kind of program for him to be Ali, because his main question was, “How do I make myself into Muhammad Ali?” Now, what’s motivating Will and what’s motivating me are different, but it was a ferocious ambition. Will was 33 then, and if he was ever going to play this gigantic figure, it was going to have to be right about that time. For me, I’m one year younger than Ali, and the rage that Ali felt at the Birmingham bombings, and at footage on CBS from the war on Vietnam in ’67, on the six o’clock news on a Tuesday night, was the rage that I felt.

The politics of that period were very different from the politics of the ‘90s. I mean, Fred Hampton gets murdered because he’s dangerous. Why is he dangerous? Because he’s forming alliances with the anti-war movement, with La Raza Unida, and with poor whites, particularly Appalachians living on Wilson and Broadway in Chicago. And that makes him dangerous. When Malcolm is talking to Martin Luther King, that makes him dangerous. The politics of the ‘60s … it was a war.

But the spirit, the ambition, and the commitment that Will had, and the artistry … I knew he could do it. And we didn’t kid ourselves about the degree of difficulty involved in it, and not just the boxing. The boxing was just one part, eight months of training, including some ridiculous stuff — some very esoteric work with the guy who was the chief of [the] Division of Sports Medicine at UCLA, who was a physician for the U.S. Olympic team. And reflex training, because you could not get down the head and shoulder things that Ali did. Ali moved like a welterweight, but he hit like a heavyweight.

And [Ali’s trainer] Angelo Dundee was around during pre-production quite a bit in the boxing training, along with Darrell Foster, Michael Olajide, and Michael Bentt, who played Sonny Liston. Angelo would say something to him, “Will, Will, Will, you’re zigging; you gotta be zagging!” I don’t know what that meant, but after he said it, you know, something improved. Along with that was, you know, meetings with Islamic scholars from UCLA, the difference between the Nation of Islam and traditional Islam. Spending time with Geronimo Pratt, who was a Black Panther who was wrongly convicted of a murder, spent 25 years in San Quentin, was finally exonerated. Leon Gast gave me some really terrific outtakes to look at from When We Were Kings. He was amazingly helpful.

And the dialect! Ali was a master. When we would analyze how he spoke with some of these rhyming couplets — this kind of rap that he did — we really started to realize he’s taking three different parts and he’s dropping into three different regional accents within the same set of lyrics. At one point he’s doing kind of Southern folklore, and then he’s suddenly being an omniscient narrator, and then he’s back again. So, there was so much to do, and Will was there with complete dedication. You can’t have a better partner in life than Will Smith. I can’t say enough good things about him.

You also went on to make several films with Jamie Foxx, and since then obviously we’ve all come to appreciate what a great actor he is. But at the time most of us knew him as a comic performer, and he was a revelation in this film. What was it about him that struck you as right for Bundini Brown?

I think comedy is genius. Jamie Foxx on In Living Color is just … to me, it’s like Einstein. He’s brilliant in ways that Jonathan Winters could be brilliant. I just had a feeling that he could be Bundini like nobody else could. We did a couple of auditions. At one, in my office, he did the most important Bundini scene in the whole movie, which is in the flophouse, where he says, “Free ain’t easy. Free is real, and real’s a motherfucker.”

And Ali’s guttural reaction against a man sinking that deep into self-loathing was totally understandable: Within Ali’s cultural politics and real politics and race politics, it’s anathema that you allow yourself to sink that deep. Anyway, we did that scene in my office, and Jamie just, in that one moment, he just killed it and that was it. And we wound up doing that film, and then Collateral and Miami Vice. Jamie’s brilliant. He’s a complex, brilliant man.

That moment, “Free is real, and real is a motherfucker,” that to me is kind of the key to the movie in so many ways.

It is. And that’s also a key line because it got us an R rating. That word. “Motherfucker.” That’s an R rating. They literally said, “If you change it, you can call him a ‘fucker,’ but if you insist on ‘motherfucker’ it has to be an R rating.” You know, it was crazy. And I got people like Cornel West to write letters saying, “Wait a minute, this standard is racist. ‘Fucker’ is okay, but ‘motherfucker’ is not okay?” That’s a word that is in black culture, in a parlance, and that’s a word he would use and that’s authentic. And it moved Jack Valenti — who I otherwise liked and got along with — not at all.

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Now Is the Time to Discover Michael Mann’s ‘Ali’

Here’s a chance to reassess a movie that disappointed many during its initial release. The death of Muhammad Ali has understandably led to a revival of many of the films made about the legendary boxer — among them Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 biopic, Ali, currently back in theaters across the country and on HBO Go through July. I didn’t care for it much back in 2001, finding it a slow, incoherent slog enlivened by a couple of lovely scenes and some energetic performances — Smith’s, certainly, but also Jamie Foxx’s touching turn as cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown and Jon Voight’s dead-on impression of sportscaster Howard Cosell. As a fan of Mann’s work, I’ve returned to it over the years, but it wasn’t until I saw Ali again on a big screen last week that it all finally clicked. This time, I was overwhelmed by Mann’s film. It may be one of the most unique historical dramas of the past several decades — more a filmed essay than an attempt at re-creation.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have plenty of verisimilitude. Mann’s attention to detail and Smith’s dedication to his role immerse us in the mood of the 1960s and early ’70s, in the sights, sounds, and cadences of the era; not a hairstyle or shirt or piece of wallpaper seems out of place. Mann, Smith, and their team also get the fight choreography right — from Ali’s lightning-quick footwork to the burst of sweat that explodes off an exhausted George Foreman’s head when Ali finally lands some real punches near the end of their title bout in Zaire.

But it’s clear from the opening moments that the movie is after something more. As the young singer Sam Cooke (David Elliott) takes a nightclub stage in 1964, we get a fleet-footed medley of glimpses from Ali’s life and a divided America, hopping back and forth in time. We see Ali jogging at night, briefly accosted by two cops on patrol. We see him as a child, walking to the back of a segregated public bus and catching a newspaper headline about the gruesome murder of Emmett Till; this is poignantly juxtaposed with an image of Cooke playfully flirting with one of the women in his audience. Ali watches Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) speak out against “turning the other cheek,” hears Sonny Liston promise him he’ll “beat your ass like I was your daddy,” and observes his own father (Giancarlo Esposito) painting white Jesus figures in churches — and signing away his son’s professional career to a collective of Louisville businessmen. All this happens in the opening fifteen or so minutes. And all along, Cooke sings, dances, chats up the ladies in the crowd — the remarkable dexterity with which his band changes tempo and tone echoed by the film’s flow of images and incidents. This foreshadows the jazzy energy of what would become Ali’s own personal style. But the Greatest isn’t there yet; for now, Mann cuts repeatedly to Ali punching a speed-bag, the boxer’s face a mask of quiet determination. For all of Smith’s physical transformation and passion, his performance is at its most beautiful when he’s simply observing and absorbing everything around him.

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When I discussed these scenes with Mann earlier this year, he said he wanted “to try and drop you into what it is to be Ali…to experience the contradiction of growing up black in white America, and the cultural imperialism imposed as white values.” And so we see how the violence, anger, and hurt all around Ali fueled his aggressive playfulness and performative style: As soon as the montage ends, he bursts into his weigh-in with Liston, Bundini at his side. Finally, the fighter’s demeanor changes, from solemn and reflective to light, funny, extroverted. The music comes to a stop, drowned out by Ali’s boisterous poetry: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” Everything has been building to this.

The contained back-and-forth of these early passages plays itself out on a broader scale throughout the film, as incidents and impressions from Ali’s life collide with and inform one another. Ali tells Malcolm X about the day he learned of Till’s death, and Malcolm speaks of the impotence he felt in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, had banned him from speaking out, so Malcolm had to quell his fury: “My muscles seized…my leg gave out. All I wanted to do was find something and break it.” If Malcolm’s body seizes up from his inability to speak out, Ali’s body becomes an expressive instrument. This is part of the aesthetic strategy of the film. Extended passages of melancholy, silence, and subdued anger give rise to bursts of poetry and physicality.

At the same time, Mann is subtle but clear in the way he shows Ali’s growing ability to manipulate the media, to play dumb while demonstrating an almost supernatural self-awareness. You sense it in his rejection of the draft. (“Yeah, I know where Vietnam is. It’s on TV. Southeast Asia? It’s there, too?”) You sense it also in his interactions with Cosell, as when he playfully threatens to pull the sportscaster’s toupee off on live TV. Ali is a man playing a part who knows he’s playing a part…but also wants to lay bare the artifice and make it clear that everyone else around him is also playing a part.

That almost postmodern quality extends to Mann’s visual palette. The director has spoken of how he discovered the possibilities of digital video during production, impressed by the “truth-telling style” of the technology. Most of Ali is shot in 35mm, but the digital shots interspersed throughout clearly jump out: They’re darker, pixelated, but also more immediate. When Mann and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use video, it’s often in over-the-shoulder shots, or other ways that replicate what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing in that instant, as when he looks out at the sky over Chicago and sees fires burning in the distance, or as he jogs alone at night, or in the heat of a fight. But along with this immediacy comes a kind of abstraction. Such shots may put us in the moment, but they also pull us out of our cinematic reverie, almost breaking the fourth wall — a stylistic corollary to what Ali was doing with his very persona.

Even those unimpressed with Mann’s film generally admit that it has two brilliant sections — that opening Sam Cooke medley and a later lengthy scene of Ali jogging before his fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, as he’s slowly encircled by throngs of people who chant, “Ali bumaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”). These sequences are two sides of the same coin: If that opening montage shows how Ali processed the anger of the world around him into something poetic and bitterly playful, the later one shows the complicated swirl of emotions emerging from the love and affection of the masses who idolized him. The jogging scenes are not jubilant, despite the cheering Africans surrounding the boxer. When Ali comes upon a rough wall-drawing depicting him as a larger-than-life figure — shown taking down everything from Foreman to military jets — there’s a clear disconnect between the man and the myth. That image is an ideal to which he knows he will never live up, but he’s clearly moved and awed by it. There’s a profound loneliness to Ali at this point, and it’s carried through to the final fight with Foreman.

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One of Mann’s sources for Ali was Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, an excellent book that, like the film, contemplates Ali’s complex relationship with the public and the politics of his era. Marqusee writes: “Ali liked to say he found ‘strength’ in ‘the love of the people.’ That was more than poetic license. By some complex psychological process, he brought this love into the ring with him, and converted it into strength. He turned the burden of representation into an inexhaustible reserve of patience and determination.” The author, who also wrote a book about Bob Dylan and the Sixties (Chimes of Freedom), compares and contrasts Ali with Dylan, describing how the songwriter, troubled by that “burden of representation,” eventually sought to shed his status as counterculture icon. Ali was also troubled by the weight of everything he came to stand for. But he took a different path, finding independence in the way he crafted his own unique persona.

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.

 

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Rebuilding Year: Spider-Man Does the Same Things Spider-Man Always Does

Since 2002, the year Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit theaters, the other Spider-Man, the hero of the actual comic books, has joined the Avengers, revealed his secret identity to the world, and become a highly paid inventor who has engineered, among other marvels, a limitless energy source science has dubbed “Parker Particles.” He’s met President Obama, traveled through time, and adventured with his counter-earth alter-ego, a teenager of Latino and African-American descent. He’s built Spider-Armor and a half-dozen new costumes; he’s seen every single person in Manhattan develop spider powers at the same time, and endured flat-topped sumbitch newsman J. Jonah Jameson’s election as the mayor of New York. (That happened while Spidey was larking about the Negative Zone with the Fantastic Four.) For the last 30 issues of Superior Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s body and life have been taken over by the consciousness of Doctor Octopus, who, while wreaking consummate havoc, found time to earn Parker a Ph.D. and fall in love with a comely dwarf.

Movie Spider-Man, meanwhile, is still stuck solving the mystery of how he got his powers. Already as swollen as the liver of a foie-gras goose, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 devotes some 25 minutes to Peter Parker discovering the secret history behind the science-magic spider bite that made him Amazing. “His greatest battle begins” promise the posters for this installment, which perfectly illustrates the problem: five movies in 12 years, and he’s still beginning. The clever, inventive, ridiculous variations that comic-book writer Dan Slott pulls off in print each month seem impossible for Sony’s big-screen take on the character. Here again he learns that those he loves most are in danger, and that with great power comes you-know-what, all while his rich-boy pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) struggles with the troubled inheritances — madness and Oscorp — that you may remember from Spider-Man 3, just two movies ago. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but it feels like the most-est. Couldn’t we just get to that greatest battle now? And then, in this sequel’s sequel, aim for an even better one?

So, this Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Man’s done before — and during the cluttered, confusing, back-to-back climactic villain fights, he just does whatever. As he and its-complicated girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) manipulate New York City’s power grid to somehow bring down Electro (Jamie Foxx) , the movie leaves it to you to figure out what’s going on.

Still, not all is lost in this latest Spider-Man rebuilding year. The movie improves in most ways on its predecessor, whose most interesting feature was the gulf that yawned between the gawky effervescence of the character scenes and the drab and mechanical sequences whipped up by the pre-vizualization crew: Watching it was like alternating sips of a crisp Riesling with chugs of Mountain Dew. This time, that crispness — the teenage joy of life ahead offering nothing but possibility — edges much more of the web-slinging, especially in the film’s first third. Webb and Garfield give us a quipping Spider-Goof, a hero who’s more a Bugs Bunny trickster than a grim ass-kicker. In a welcome corrective to Man of Steel, this Spider-Man’s always risking defeat in battle to save strangers’ lives, and he even takes the time to fix a bullied kid’s science project and offer some buck-up encouragement.

His love life has brightened, too. While they continue their maybe/maybe-not romance, Peter and Gwen aren’t mopey and inscrutable, as Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were. Instead, they twitch and blush, joking about how achingly hot they are for each other even as they try to will themselves apart. These two feel so much at once that all the emotion bunches up in their faces, like they’re about to sneeze; both then take turns bending over, expelling a raw giggle, sneaking a frisky glance at the other. It’s like the most crushed-out moments of first-rate indie romances The Spectacular Now or Webb’s own (500) Days of Summer but woven, with some emotional coherence, into a movie where a lightning-coughing Jamie Foxx kablooeys Times Square in an emo rage.

Of the three supervillains who turn up, Foxx’s makes the least sense: He’s an angry “nobody” — the movie’s word — whose plans for a citywide power grid were stolen by Oscorp, his employer. (Why the company wouldn’t encourage so gifted an engineer is the rare mystery that the script doesn’t over-explicate.) He carps that nobody in the world “sees” him, but instead of writing Invisible Man, he rampages after gaining ill-defined electricity powers from one of those high-tech cock-ups that should make scientific experimentation illegal in Spider-Man’s Manhattan. His entire motivation seems to be getting people to notice him, which he doesn’t quite pull off: A week after seeing the movie, you probably won’t remember him.

Eventually, the sparkling lightness of the first hour darkens. Then the movie bloats up with mysteries and emotional crises, few of which develop with much power. In the long, sagging middle, there’s no urgency connecting one sequence to the next, although the actors manage some grace notes — savor DeHaan’s Harry Osborn turning from nice friend of Peter Parker to a wolfish loon demanding Spider-Man donate him some blood. Never a disaster but only fitfully inspired, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t quite end well, but it does end promisingly, with hints of a huge supervillain team-up to come. The next one probably won’t be his greatest battle. It probably won’t even be as good as Garfield’s scenes without the mask. But at least it will be something new. If the last minutes of this had been what 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man had started with, Movie Spidey might be getting somewhere by now.

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White House Down Is the Most Sharply Observed Spoof Comedy Since Team America

Surprising proof that Hollywood still can craft a memorable studio comedy, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur’s intentions be damned. It’s not just a pitch-perfect attack on every risible plot point afflicting today’s all-exposition-and-explosion filmmaking, it’s also a mad liberal’s vision of an America beset by white wingnut terrorists, set in a sketch-comedy White House so broad that if you didn’t know Jamie Foxx was starring as its president you might guess it to be Leslie Nielsen.

Apologies if revealing that the terrorists are Stormfront-types strikes you as a spoiler. Doing justice to the breadth of hilarity on display here will involve divulging some details, but the film is as crazy-dumb durable as a Twinkie. Lifetimes could pass with me spilling its secrets, and it would still sit there, spongy and triumphant.

That would include celebrating, in point-by-point specifics, the delicious way every single thing any person says or does in the first half-hour pays off much later in the most rousing, ridiculous ways—in moments audiences will applaud out of appreciation that, at last, the most shameless tricks of the most shameless directors have been exposed by a master satirist. Remember the hurt you felt when Spielberg, in that Jurassic Park sequel, threw a set of uneven bars into a dino-island storage shed just so the acrobatic skills the tween daughter had mentioned on the mainland could come back to dispatch those raptors? A bit of flag-team heroism in White House Down does to that moment what Airplane did to Airport, what Walk Hard did to Walk the Line, what Emmerich’s own The Day After Tomorrow did to real global warming. The tragic is inflated to sublime comedy.

(Sorry: spoiler for Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)

Anyway, if a stupid moment has turned up in too many movies, it’s here, too, only funnier. I probably shouldn’t mention that a straight-arrow character’s weirdly comic ringtone—”The Spanish Flea”!—heard in the first 15 minutes might happen to be crucial in the last 10. Or that there’s key exposition embedded in the scene where a know-it-all kid schools a White House tour guide—a tour guide who later stands up to armed, murdering terrorists to defend a precious vase. (Pronounced vahzz, of course, just like Margaret Dumont would. She was also in comedies!) Or the way that Emmerich—whose other comic mode is idiot destruction à la Jonathan Winters at the gas station in It’s a Mad, Mad World—actually finds a way to stage a car chase without leaving the White House. Three armored SUVs circle the North Lawn Fountain, like Chevy Chase’s family stuck in the Parisian roundabout in European Vacation, which is nowhere near as funny as this movie. Then the president of the United States fires a rocket launcher out the window of a car while terrorists are machine-gunning him—a vicious burlesque, perhaps, of Harrison Ford’s President Bad-Ass back in Air Force One.

There is a story to all this. Set in a science-fiction America where nobody’s ever seen Die Hard, White House Down imagines that, in the name of peace, wise President Jamie Foxx has asked Congress to pull every American troop from the Middle East because he has struck a bargain with the new president of Iran. The opposition party’s speaker of the house objects, for some reason. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum (playing a character whose name I bet he, too, would have to look up) is visiting the White House with his YouTubing scamp of an estranged daughter (Joey King)—a devastating critique of movies’ impossible children.

Tatum, playing a war-hero D.C. cop, interviews for a job with the Secret Service and is told by his old friend Maggie Gyllenhaal that, ick, he’s too working-class to guard the president because he got C’s in college. So, his dreams shot, and his daughter not believing in him, Tatum slumps along with a White House tour, his overcooked plight skewering a common fallacy of Hollywood heroism: Every one of this character’s personal problems are solved by the bad guys’ evil scheming.

Just in time, cue the terrorists, who are actually more than mere rightwing cranks. I won’t spill their leaders’ affiliation, but I will give this hint: It’s with one of the industrial complexes.

From there we get the most sharply observed spoof comedy since Team America. All the conventions of PG-13 suspense films take their well-deserved knocks: The dozens of dead hardly bleed, the word “fuck” is only spat once during the greatest crisis America’s ever faced, children endlessly weep with guns in their faces. (“What monsters would take this material seriously?” the movie seems to be asking.) Eventually, Foxx and Tatum team up, kill some assholes, tenderly treat each other’s wounds, and leave you hoping the producers ponied up for the rights to play “I Will Always Love You.” The shootouts aren’t as clear or funny as the ones in those paintball episodes of Community, but you’ve seen much worse.

My favorite bit: Foxx says, early on, in a bang-on parody of a vapid hopeful speech, that his peace plan will prove the pen is mightier than the sword. Later (spoiler!), in the Oval Office, the chief bad guy quotes that back. Guess what non-weapon object President Foxx then jabs into his neck. Come on—guess!

Often, the hilarity is indisputably intentional. If you think you’ll laugh and clap, try it; if you know you’ll hate it, you’re right. A fun drinking game: Once the dramatic eight-minute countdown clock starts, estimate how long it takes to get near zero. I guess at least 25 minutes.

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DJANGO UNCHANGED

Before Jamie Foxx played a smooth-talking Django fighting for his freedom, Franco Nero was the picture of stoicism. No high horse of morals in sight, the tortured title character of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western Django comes stalking into town on foot and schlepping a casket wherever he goes. Far from, say, a comparatively decent-intentioned John Wayne, purebred on the virtues of intrepid adventure, Nero’s Django was a new kind of western protagonist. A vague revenge plot and entrepreneurial spunk are pretty much all this stony-eyed frontiersman needs to justify massacring the lot. See also Django’s gratuitous three-way mud wrestling match and pre-Lynch, pre-Tarantino severed-ear scene to confirm the film’s ahead-of-its-time status. Get your fill of the sharpshooting bad-assery (and chicken fried steak) when the film screens as part of the “Country Brunchin’” series this morning. Morricone Youth will provide a live pre-show serenade.

Sat., Feb. 2, 11:30 a.m., 2013

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Splinters

Apparently, in the ’80s, some fly-by-night pilot left a surfboard behind on the beach in a small Papuan village, and, this being the unpaved, undeveloped land of cargo cults, the mysterious artifact bloomed into a 21st-century cultural obsession. The best film ever made about competitive surfing in Papua New Guinea (and Best Documentary of the year as per Surfer Magazine), Adam Pesce’s film positively saunters into Vanimo, where it seems the non-elderly inhabitants are all Jamie Foxx–Jada Pinkett beautiful and are all unabashed about opening their guileless lives to the camera. The surfing bug grips the community, as rival surf clubs engage in spurts of grass-hut espionage on their way to a national contest and try to gain recognition from Aussie media. The real challenges, however, are not tubular—Pesce does not shy away from palm-frond gorgeousness, but just when you’re thinking about tropical paradise, the realities of poverty and underdevelopment move in, and it becomes apparent that the sport is viewed by everyone as just a way out. The Papuans smile, but their lives are slowly revealed as subsistence dead ends, with plenty of alcoholism and wife-beating, and the staring out to sea is about more than the waves.

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STRAND OR BUST

OK, so the term “extravaganza” tends to get tossed about by a few questionable contenders—a slightly disturbing Jamie Foxx song, certain furniture-store liquidation sales—but here’s one that actually qualifies: BUST Magazine’s Spoken Word Extravaganza will gather some of poetry’s most loquacious ladies at the Strand for an evening that promises to convert even admitted haters into foot-tapping, finger-snapping slam fans. Hear actress turned writer Amber Tamblyn recite her cheeky verses—”It’s hard to face your problems/When the problem is your face”—alongside other veterans of the stage such as Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Patricia Smith, and Rachel McKibbens. All of the performers will be signing copies of their books, which will be for sale after as part of this National Poetry Month celebration.

Thu., April 29, 7 p.m., 2010

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Downey and Foxx’s Disciplined Performances Almost Save The Soloist

An old-fashioned tale for a new-fangled world, Joe Wright’s overwrought drama turns on a series of columns begun in 2005 by Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, an old-school vox populi whose writing about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, schizophrenic homeless black man on the city’s Skid Row, drew an outpouring of reader sympathy. Wright, who brought us the ghosts of upper-crust England past with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, seems an odd choice to direct a movie set in the Other Los Angeles, and he vulgarizes Lopez’s intelligent populism. Using local non-pro actors, he pumps up Lopez’s laconically described Skid Row into a Ken Russell hellhole of social outcasts, a florid backdrop for Lopez’s steep learning curve about the man he wants to save from himself. Screenwriter Susannah Grant has turned the happily married Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) into a barely socialized basketcase divorced from his wife and boss (Catherine Keener). Stalwartly resisting the overkill, Downey delivers his lines in a flat mumble that’s astutely complemented by Jamie Foxx, whose beautifully modulated performance as Nathaniel catches the way people with psychotic illnesses slip in and out of rationality. Foxx and Downey’s disciplined duet come close to redeeming The Soloist from its visual excesses, but Wright leaves us with a parting shot of the dancing homeless that shamelessly exploits the very people he means to champion.

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Fight Them Over There

Concluding a month that brought the sixth commemoration of 9/11, a video missive from Osama bin Laden, and a surge endorsement by General David Petraeus, The Kingdom is a timely—if tepid—fantasy of American vengeance on the Qutbian extremists of Saudi Arabia.

Directed by Peter Berg from Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay, The Kingdom opens by analogizing the attack on the World Trade Center. A gang of Saudi terrorists orchestrate a Sunday-afternoon assault on an American compound in Riyadh— complete with stormed checkpoint, suicide bombers, and a massive, strategically delayed explosion. The grounds are littered with civilians, but the key casualty is a visiting FBI agent.

Cut to D.C., where the incensed FBI would gladly invade Saudi Arabia were it not for the timidity of craven bureaucrats—mainly the U.S. attorney general. (In this alternate universe, the attorney general panders to the Senate, not the president.) The most gung-ho of FBI agents is Jamie Foxx, a volatile woof-machine who intimidates a stray Saudi prince into signing off on an FBI mission to solve the crime. Actually, Foxx is the movie’s surrogate president; in his softer moments, he comforts fatherless boys and effects twangy New Age reconciliation.

Leading the mission to Mars (the locations mix Arizona and Abu Dhabi), Foxx is accompanied by a demographically provocative trio. There’s a hard-bodied, no-nonsense chick (Jennifer Garner), a wise-guy Jew (Jason Bateman), and a good- natured good ol’ boy (Chris Cooper). Can you guess which of the three will be abducted and made the subject of a throat-slit video? And here’s another puzzler: Are there any good Saudis—and, if so, who are they? By their appealing looks and appreciation of Foxx’s street cred shall we know them: “America is not perfect, but we are good at this. Let us help you,” Foxx pleads with the local chief of police (the Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom, who played a suicide bomber in Paradise Now).

Should terrorism, as John Kerry suggested, be handled as a crime? Halfway through the movie, the FBI agents go Marine. United in vengeance, the combined American and Saudi forces eventually eschew dull procedure for thrilling car-chase action, ending with a firefight in a very bad neighborhood. (Call it “Black Hawk downtown.”) A hand-to-hand slamming-gouging-stabbing denouement got a mild rise out of the preview audience at the Loews 83rd Street, but the movie’s main satisfaction is the utopian spectacle of wounded Americans heading home, mission accomplished.

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Freaknik Goes Conscious, But Not Overly So

Pretty much the only reason to sit through Jaime Foxx’s “Unpredictable” is to hear Ludacris’s eight bars. He’s dropped lots of consistently clever raps over the past six years—and not just on other people’s songs. But now, at 28 and on his fifth LP, it seems Luda actually has something to say. He hasn’t gone Poor Righteous Teachers on us by any means (we do need this album to sell, after all), but he’s stretching himself, moving beyond his comedic persona so a sober, wiser, more intelligent Buddha-Luda can emerge. Humbling himself on Release Therapy enough to become a mouthpiece for the average black man whose “paychecks are coming up shorter than February” on “Mouths to Feed,” he raises consciousness about child abuse on “Runway Love” and declares, “The justice system’s fucked up” on “Do Your Time,” continuing, “I dreamed that I could tell Martin Luther that we’ve made it/But half of my black brothas is still incarcerated.” And though Therapy could be a tad more original on the production side—with its hackneyed basslines and yet more Biggie Smalls soundbites—the Billy Paul sample in “War With God” is a nice change from all the Lenny Williams of late. And there’s real talk about the “fake-ass” industry on “Tell It Like It Is,” wherein Ludacris sets the record straight: “We never took no money from Chingy/Thought I was cool with him/I wish his ass well/But I don’t want nothin’ to do with him.”

Alas, despite dipping into conscious rap territory, Luda’s freaknik is still in full effect. “Girls Gone Wild” is self-explanatory. “Woozy,” featuring R. (need I say more?) Kelly, is Gerald Albright–cheesy (except for the line “Like D’Angelo/How does it feel baby?”). “Money Maker,” though, isn’t just your typical strip-joint joint, thanks to its congas and vertiginous James Bond horns with tiny hits of growling cornet—man, those Neptunes are smooth. Of course Pharrell hogs too much face time in the video. Think we can see the Asian dude mack for a change?