There were few better stretches of film in 2001 than the first ten minutes of Ali: a stunningly conceived and edited collage of the title character training, Sam Cooke singing, and the '60s civil-rights era erupting. It was tense, jarring, exhilarating cinema, and it established an impressionistic approach to the biopic genre that director Michael Mann rode for about the movie's first hour. Then the necessities of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking came to bear, and Ali's final 90 minutes became more conventional, running through the subject's troubles with the draft board and public opinion before settling into an extended dramatization of the Ali/Foreman "Rumble In The Jungle"a story better told in the documentary When We Were Kings.
For the new Ali: The Director's Cut (Columbia) DVD, Mann has reportedly excised 20 minutes of the original theatrical version and added about 30 new minutes, but the changes aren't as radical as they sound. It's mostly a matter of different takes and angles, with a few previously unseen scenes and unheard lines. The film still shifts gears from near-avant-garde to flatter docudrama before it hits the halfway point, and it still includes the same tacked-on infidelity subplot. But the new Ali is, on the whole, a stronger Ali. Most of Mann's "fixes" strengthen the film's portrait of '60s politics, and a renewed emphasis on the cultural war between human-rights agitators and jittery establishment types adds meaning to Ali's climax, when the champ fights in Africa and feels fully at home for maybe the first time in his life.
Meanwhile, the movie's best qualities look better than ever: Will Smith's magnificent performance, split keenly between heroic bluster and quiet humanity; the jumpy, artful score, a mix of period R&B and modern trip-hop; and Mann's trademark obsession with detail. The apex of the amazing first hour is the Ali-Liston fight, where Mann takes the time to observe Ali's trainer assembling his cut kit, to show Howard Cosell working a hair oil commercial into his radio broadcast, to splice in shots of mesmerizing footwork, and to catch the way the arena lights hang close to the fighters' heads, trapping them in the moment.
The new DVD adds a dryly promotional half-hour featurette and a sporadically fascinating Mann commentary (which sounds like two sessions spliced together). Mann gets too caught up in giving history lessons, and he talks hardly at all about the variations of the new cut. But he offers a passionate appreciation of Smith's work, and explains a little about his shooting methods, particularly how he used Hi-Def video in some scenes to heighten the naturalism. Best of all, Mann gives an in-depth analysis of the choreography of each fight, showing how Ali's whole story is sketched out in every strategic jab.
Also available: The 1957 Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy Desk Set is an entertaining trifle memorable mainly for its portrait of late '50s office politics, its glorious modernist design, and its early depiction of how computers would change our working lives. But Fox Studio Classics' DVD is worth its budget price for more than just the moviethough Hepburn and Tracy are arguably as adorably, smartly well-matched as they ever were. The disc adds a commentary track shared by earnest historian Neva Patterson and one of the movie's ingénues, Dina Merrill. Like Paula Prentiss's delightful recent commentary on the Where The Boys Are DVD, Merrill's chat touches on the making of the movie and then ranges off into a discussion of the declining studio system of the era and the subsequent career of pretty young girls like herself, off the Hollywood fast track. It's lively and gossipy, with copious praise for directors she loved working with (take a bow, Robert Altman) and curt vitriol for the industry's jerks (roll over in your grave, John Frankenheimer).
♦Simpsons fans divide between those who think the show's third season is the best run of the show and those who favor the fourth. Actually, both are magnificent; and there's much to be said in favor of the second, fifth and sixth as well. (After that it's more an episode-to-episode, scene-to-scene evaluation.) The value of the show's twin peaks varies, depending on whether you favor the sweeter, more down-to-earth Simpsons of the early years or the anarchic, absurdist, continuity-be-damned show it has become. Myself, I miss some of the pathos of seasons two and three, but there's no way I'm going to deny myself the pleasures of The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season (20th Century Fox) DVD set. How could I live without Streetcar!, Mr. Plow, or the Monorail song? Or the introduction of Surly Duff? Or Ralph Wiggum playing George Washington? Or Barney calling Red Hot Chili Peppers come to the stage by chanting, "We want Chilly Willy!"? Or Marge worrying that Bart might grow up to become a male stripper instead of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, prompting Homer to muse, "Can't he do both, like the late Earl Warren?" This is why Philo T. Farnsworth invented television, and why some guy I've never heard of invented DVD players.
♦The kitsch DVD purchase of the month is the 10th-anniversary edition of Reality Bites (Universal)that excruciating piece of '90s grunge-ploitation that reduced an entire generation to dim, catchphrase-spouting libertines embodied by Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Steve Zahn and Janeane Garofolo. Ben Stiller directed and cast himself as the yuppie bad guy who, ironically, attempts to turn these slackers' lives into packaged fluff not unlike Reality Bites itself. (It's also one of the first appearances of Stiller's soon-to-be-ubiquitous "inarticulate, pissy neurotic" character.) Stiller provides a too-reverent commentary track for the DVD and refuses to acknowledge his and the cast's obvious contempt for their movie's shallow, opportunistic hipster-baiting. Further irony: the former twentysomething audience that failed to flock to this movie can now watch it and mock it with the same snide self-satisfaction that the characters in the movie display towards base popular culture. It's a goddamned hall of mirrors.