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Tag: good movie

Under The Sun (2015)

The Father Of Invention

No stranger to hot topics, Vitaliy Manskiy, Under The Sun‘s director, has previously released, among others, Virginity (2008), about three young women using the titular asset to make their way in 21st century Ukrainia, and Pipeline (2013), casting an uflinching look at what the construction of the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline meant to local populations. He found himself in 2015 at the helm of a documentary officialy sanctioned by North Korean authorities, devoted to the one and only possible subject: how and why the last remaining Stalinian State is Paradise on Earth. He therefore dutifully followed the official instructions, only with one caveat: he kept the camera rolling during rehearsals of Pyong Yang’s version of cinéma vérité, most of the times to hilarious effect, but sometimes to a terrifying one.

There is, you see, always someone forgetting lines, or lurking in the corner of the screen, or looking straight in the camera at the wrong time, ruining the painstakingly recreated illusion of happiness and prosperity commissioned by the authorities. By virtue of these minor interferences, the omnipresent propaganda machine modeling the public consciousness in any possible way is proven unable to sustain a exterior gaze, despite, or maybe because, the constant Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il imagery and the delirious architecture crushing people under the weight of a dystopian, Orwellian quotidian.

Some of the scenes elicit giggles that turn to a laughter of delight. North Korea has obviously invented flash-mobs, with crowds of costumed people congregating in empty spaces to sing and dance. Kimchi can cure cancer and restore youth. In a stupendous scene of suspense lasting several minutes, a young girl might or might not fall asleep during the speech of an elderly general sporting more than fourty medals, her fight against boredom and tiredness being filmed in merciless close-up. “What do I say know?” asks the general after an endless tirade about the superiority of the North Korean army over American forces. Oblivious of the answer, he starts all over again.

Some others are painful to watch, like the final training of a very young girl dancing on marching drums. She is first ecstatic, giving the best she has, then as the teaching goes on and on she just looks exhausted and in pain. She breaks into tears. Asked to think of something good to stop crying, she first says “I don’t know what”, then recites the pledge to the Children Union like the good little citizen she is. It’s awful. Another little girl, or is it the same, chosen to embody any child of the Great Socialist Republic, appears in front of a gigantic red curtain to deliver a welcome address to some pageant at the glory of the Great Leader, and she has such a case of stagefright than it plays like the Radiator Lady scene in Eraserhead.

People take turns to have their picture taken in front of the two Great Leaders giant golden statues, looking dead inside. You look at them terrified, then you muse about the parallel architecture of the gigantic square, converging towards the current Great Leader’s grandfather and father, and you wonder: what place is left for him? He’s not on the many frescoes depicting the exploits of his elders, there’s no room left for another bronze colossus. This, maybe better than anything else, expresses the tragic alieness and alienation of a country without a future.

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The Innocents (2016)

12 Minutes A Slave

With a subject deep rooted in the criminal slavery past of Argentinians latifundias (ranches), The Innocents is a bleaker, terser, better Crimson Peak, not that it required a masterpiece to top that particular movie anyway. As a Southern gothic it has all the trimmings and then some: a plantation dominated by a crual master and his pious wife, crually abused slaves, a concupiscent priest, whipping, forced abortion, a witch trial, a curse and the flames of hell, the works. It even starts when Inception ended, which is quite something for a period drama.

Some of it borders on the ludicrous : the camera climbs a lot of trees while a swing is used as a metaphor of freedom; a super duper one-eyed magical black woman delivers a child assisted by ghosts and dialogue goes “Have you seen my scapulary?”, but somehow these distractions do not manage to send the whole thing in camp territory, the reason being that the good offsets the bad.

Starting with a flashback during which a teenage slave boy lives and dies for 12 minutes in order to set the plot in motion, The Innocents is good at pointing how organised religion always found a way to remain in control until very recently, especially at the expense of more ancestral, paganistic antagonists. It is also good at positing the youngest son and his pregnant wife as the two titular innocents, both wearing green, on the mostly red backdrop of the plantation and its master, while what’s left of the servants wears neutral black and white. The filming includes some nice cuts and a keen eye for group scenes, two of them, the hanging and the end of the trial, have Fordian scope in their precise dramaturgy.

The performance of Logo Cruz as the agressive hobbit of a libidinous father is to be commended. There is so much hate bottled up in this tiny dictator that it’s seething through forced smiles and verbal abuse. He never loses an opportunity to diminish his son, because he has a limp, because he lives in the city, because he needs money to become an entrepreneur… chiefly, though, because he was born to live when his eldest died. Of course he tries to seduce Mercedes, his daughter in law, but it’s too late, as the wheels of a long held revenge has been set in motion so long ago.

The Innocents is an unforgiving movie and it ends on very dark notes, immersed as it is in racial issues, abuse and guilt. If a bit over the top at times, it knows what it has to say and the message, albeit not original in the slightest, is aptly delivered and generate some good scenes. You could chose far worse things to watch, should you feel in a gothic mood.

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Ag-ha-ssi (The Handmaiden – 2016)

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The Year Of The Octopus

Slowly worming its way from periphery to center, Chan-wook Park’s latest opus follows Stoker, his Hollywood debut, and, among others, the films for which he’s most reputed, Old Boy and the two previous volumes of what is commonly called The Vengeance Trilogy, not to forget his perturbed vampire flick, Thirst. Considering he’s a Korean film maker and what his previous work has led us to expect, The Handmaiden is at first puzzling for its restraint.

A period drama set in a vast mansion during the Japanese occupation of the 1920, the plot revolves (several times, as it happens) around the titular handmaiden, not so bright (or is she?) Sookee (Tae-ri Kim), placed by a crook, pretend Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha, great) at the service of wealthy and unhinged Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, Adjaniesque), niece of a wealthy book collector (Jin-woong Jo). Uncle Kouzuki, a Japanese noble at heart, holds society in contempt and plans to marry his niece to consolidate the family fortune after his wife hung herself to a blossoming cherry tree. The Count’s project is, with Sookie’s help as a confidante, to substract Hideko from her uncle’s influence, marry her, steal her money and have her interned in a mental hospital.

Everything goes according to plan in the first third of the movie, following Sookie’s somehow half-hearted attempts to reach the Count’s goal, before the plot brutally twists us back to the beginning for a second version, this time Lady Hideko’s point of view. There was much more to see than what met the eye in the first act, we discover as another layer of deceit is peeled off the plot. And then it happens again during the third act, from the Count’s point of view, interspersed with scenes between the two girls he can not witness, but visualises as a brutal encounter with Uncle Kouzuki seals both their fate.

Positing at its center The Fisher’s Wife, Hokusai’s print of a woman copulating with two octopuses, The Handmaiden has an obvious origin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (remade by Hollywood with Sharon Stone and, weirdly, Isabelle Adjani), so anyone having seen one of these two movies won’t have any major difficulty finding one’s way among the plot intricacies. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, and the way The Handmaiden brings us almost full circle to what we did or didn’t expect is the mark of a superior film maker. The only thing that could be objected to Chan-wook Park is his weird choice of filter for the exterior scenes, although even that must have a meaning in the director’s vision.

The movie is undiluted eye candy, the virtuoso camera glossing over somptuous decor and costumes, but there is more to it than lavishness. The first act is as coy as the second is crude and the third is brutal, each perspective reflecting its pivotal character’s point of view. Abstract humour springs out of the (abundant) woodwork in a hanging scene or another one involving sliding doors and suitcases. Refined erotica is given centerstage during “lectures” given by Uncle Kousaki to a clique of noble Japanese gentlemen, his library/dungeon transforming into a No theater where a poised Lady Hideko performs various fetichistic rituals, on herself or on the guests. “Pain”, she reads, “is a cloth.”.

And then, still progressing from periphery to center, there is “the basement”, first a threat, than a place to be explored and finally a torture chamber where a huge octopus is confined in a small aquarium, and where both the male characters get their comeuppance. In Korea’s macho culture, men die with their dick attached to their body, even though they have been deprived of much anything else in the course of their attempt at owning woman’s beauty. The dialogue insists on statements like “she has a fine bone structure for a Korean woman”, or that Korea is a redneck country. Whatever the cultural gap though, poor and greedy Korea and sickly sophisticated Japan find a way to unite in some form of devious happy ending.

At 145′ the movie might seem like a challenge for the unacustomed viewer. Take the first act with patience, as what you see is far from being what you get in the end. It is exquisite cinema, in the perversion of its writing as in the beauty of its filming. Viewing advised.

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I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016)

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The Figure In The Carpet

Braving the awkward title of Oz Perkins’ second movie is rewarding in a slow burn, delicate way reminiscent of Henry James’ ghost stories, meaning that gore hounds will be vastly disapointed: evil and dread are not conveyed by blood splatter here (are they ever?), but by mold and rot, two phenomena that take time to set and crawl up on anything, first and foremost the human soul.

The patient viewer will also have to brave a gorgeous opening, more Venice Biennale video installation then title sequence, featuring a girl in period dress slowly walking backwards, her face unstable and her shadow reluctant to follow her. She’s evidently a ghost and she will show up a few times during the course of the movie, scaring the main character to death in its climax, even though it is far from being its spookiest scene. This walking backwards is actually chilling, and reminded one of a line in James’ The Wings Of A Dove when the heroin “turns her face to the wall” and decides to let herself die. There is no moving forwards for ghosts: they stay stuck where they die and, says the voice-over, “you never buy or rent a house when there was a death, you borrow it from the ghost” rotting there somewhere dark, more hiding place than shallow grave.

Following the opening there is a curious scene that could have been lifted from a pinhole photography version of Paranormal Activity, then we get to meet our heroin, Lily (Ruth Wilson, excellent in a role very different from her serial killer turn in the Luther TV series, her broad forehead and crual mouth somehow reminiscent of Nicole Kidman). She’s a hospice nurse and is hired to take care of Iris Blum, an ailing crime writer (Paula Prentiss, spooky as hell in a role initially written for Debbie Harry) who wishes to die in the Shaker house in which she wrote all her books, including her most successful one, The Lady In The Walls. Lily is “an easily scared girl” and only takes a peek to the first pages of the book before putting it down, but ‘that it’s curiosity that kills the cat, and even this innocent foray into a book sold at train stations and airports seals her doom. If it doesn’t seem very suspenseful to you, you are mistaking: what Oz Perkins achieves with some noise, a mold stain on a wall, a phone cord and the corner of a carpet is amazingly disquieting.

When Lily arrives she’s obviously devoted to her job and willing to blend in as much as possible, to the point she’s actually color-coordinated to the window dressing. The Grateful Dead (natch) t-shirt she wears at night however betrays her as an intruder. Soon enough Miss Blum calls her Polly and chastises her not to have visited for much too long. In the lone scene she actually talks to her nurse, what she has to say is both discomfiting and dreadful: “It’s a terrible thing to look at oneself and all the while see nothing”. The ghost story author is the ghost of herself, missing the ghostly companion who inspired her best work.

Old crooner songs float across the spotless interior of the house (including one sung by Anthony Perkins, Oz’s father), alternating with Harold Budd-like piano music. A fuzzy TV screen become a witch’s black mirror. Meticulously composed images unnervingly frame a chair hung to the kitchen wall or a door, painted black, from which a non-agressive version of Evil corrodes the core of Lily’s existence. She founds musty old letters and once again curiosity gets the best of her. All the while, an oppressive sound design nurtures apprehension, all dripping water, buzzing meat flies or white noise atmospherics. When Lily concludes her voice-over, her voice cracks like an old record. She’s still the pretty thing in the house, even though she doesn’t quite lives there anymore, not as we humanly understand it. Viewing advised.

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Jason Bourne (2016)

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The Bourne Paternity

Whatever bias had the prophets of decline who wrote bad reviews of this movie, or whatever movie they might have seen instead, they were wrong. When had been a quadrilogy that consistently good? The Bourne Identity reinvented a genre, The Bourne Supremacy relegated James Bond in the English Heritage theme park hé so deservingly belongs to, The Bourne Ultimatum cemented the Bourne action franchise as the best and most earnest ever. Jason Bourne completes the cycle but is a different movie altogether: there is nothing to prove anymore, yet the character unflinchingly, unsmilingly played by Matt Damon is missing a crucial part of his own existence. He got the How, the When and the Who. What he has left to do is to understand the Why. Would this Why only be a filial quest, it would be a run-of-the-mill American story. But this time around, the backdrop of Jason Bourne’s formidable action scenes is societal. Chaotic. And this chaos is impeccably filmed by Paul Greengrass.

Jason Bourne is the genie nobody can force back into the bottle, whatever charm or violence is used against him, not before he understand what’s going on. He’s “pulled out of retirement” by Niki Parsons (Julia Stiles, aging gracefully), that is, if taking part in a fight club on the Armenian/Greek border is your idea of retirement. Bourne needs violence, he is violence, bubbling under Matt Damon’s preppy charm. Anyone behaving like that has a death wish, and this fourth opus is by far the darkest and meanest of the franchise. The action scene in Athens starts during a protest against the IMF and Greece’s creditors on Syntagma Square and after twenty breathless minutes it ends on affliction. Bourne’s death wish once again turns against what he holds dearest: deflecting death is a reflex for him, or rather to the killing machine the CIA has trained him to be.

A brief sequence reunites Bourne and Berlin (one could almost see the “Welcome Back Jason” banners) on the Alexanderplatz, during another protest, before he’s off to London for another gripping action scene. Four parallel courses of action take place simultaneously, and following them is effortless. Spatial logic is respected, instant decisions are made for better or worse and one can relate to each of them. The sequence is a model of suspense and clarity. It includes another chassé-croisé with the new girl on the CIA block (Alicia Vikander, icy), on whom her boss (Tommy Lee Jones, what else to say?) is pulling rank. Tommy Lee Jones is the only one who smiles during the movie, and this smile is of the professional courtesy kind. It’s scary and rather horrid.

By that point in the movie one was struck how much the language of espionnage emulates the dialect of finance. There are assets, insurance policies, accounts to be closed. Jason Bourne is the human factor, the spanner in the works of a monstrous machine churning profitability at the global scope. Jason Bourne is that good old Schumpeter, creatively destroying everything on his way. He gets back to the USA, where the final showdown has to take place. You know what they say, “what happens in Vegas remains in Vegas”? Well, there was no better place to end this franchise. Gambling, mad money, secrecy, with the contemporary seasoning of an IT mogul being treated like a rock star during a business convention turned assassination attempt. Jason Bourne has an idea or two behind its phenomenal action, not far of those treated in Money Monster, as bitter as it is relentless (weirdly, both movies have Icelandic hackers).

The mandatory car chase is mayhem on The Strip, a massive car pile-up ending in the desecration of the Riviera casino. The brutality of the scene exceeds its vicious Moscow companion piece in The Bourne Supremacy. By understanding the Why, Bourne has gotten rid of his death wish, but he’s still a merciless instrument of retribution and death. A last, ill-advised attempt is made to bring the elite killer back into the CIA’s lap. But he’s no longer that, he’s just him by then.

One saw some positive reviews modulating their praise by “Please, no more!”. Of course there won’t be more Bourne. The man has ridden alone in the sunset like the lonesome cowboy he is. But please, pretty please, more of that stuff, for this is the right one.

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Bastille Day (2016)

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B-Day

Yes, it’s formulaic, an odd couple of underdogs facing a vast conspiracy, the lonely American saving France. Yes its marketing in this country was severely hampered by the mad truck terrorist attack in Nice on July the 14th, which in ricochet delayed screening in some other countries. It should have been a hit in UK, considering the portrait it paints of contemporary Paris, a city only a few inches above Baghdad in terms of safety, riddled as it is by larceny, fundamentalism, riots and corruption. Oh, and naked women in the streets. Bastille Day nevertheless achieves quite a good deal in the packed, dense, urban thriller genre.

The setup goes like follows: a terrorist group intends to plunge Paris into chaos by manipulating traditional and electronic media. Their first strike is to have a mule dropping a bomb at the headquarters of the “French Nationalist Party”, but the girl gets cold feet when the building is not empty as expected. Her bag with the bomb inside is stolen by a pickpocket (Richard Madden), who discards it in a trash can, killing four people and making him the prime suspect in the process. As the pickpocket is a US citizen, the Paris branch of the CIA tasks free electron Sean Briar (Idriss Elba) to find him before the French Police does, in an increasingly tense situation as the terrorists follow up with their plan, triggering a city-wide state of unrest.

Bastille Day‘s screenplay is not bad, including three twists that can hardly considered as novel but serve a logical progression of the intrigue. The third twist actually resonates in our time and age; it is the third time in a row that street protest is connected to mad finance, as was the case in Money Monster and Jason Bourne, even though in this case the latter is not the cause of the former. The three main characters (including José Garcia as the Head of French Intelligence) are competently written and well acted. But what Bastille Day has that places him a notch above other thrillers in the same vein is the force of nature also known at Idriss Elba.

A wrecking ball with a golden heart, Elba bludgeons into the story like the unstoppable force he so convincingly embodies. In a Vertigo-inspired, vertigo-inducing roof top chase as in more intimate scenes in which he conveys credible menace as well as the occasional sparkle of humour, he’s impossible to doubt, impossible to resist. He even manages to fool French policemen into thinking he’s one of them by piping “Oui, je arrive”. So cute. He’s also very affable to ordinary people he come across during his investigation, most of them African French in suburbs or the Barbès area. The fact that Elba is black himself allows him a connection which cleverly bridges the cultural gap his American origin could entail (he tells the fable he’s a refugee from Belize, only to tersely state later on that he was born in Connecticut). But it is his sweetness which gets him through his investigation pitfalls, that and of course and the brute force he’s able to summon at will. “Pinky pumps?” offers the pickpocket when they close a deal, and Elba’s reaction makes that extraordinary desirable, even though you’re quite sure he would tear up your little finger without blinking.

Yes there are some “This is Paris, vin rouge, Louis Vuitton” dialogue, no the prime suspect never shaves his beard even though his picture is on every screen, yes the final confrontation is a bit of a letdown. But for his Anonymous, typically contemporary sacrifice during the National Reserve bravura scene, and some delectable use of the French vernacular (“Abrutis de merde!” being a personal favourite), Bastille Day is quite good. The lingering question, however, remains why make this kind of fiction in the first place if a brush with crude reality makes you chicken out of its release? How long will politically correct circumnavigate violence, when it had so abrasively eroded race, sex, work and ethics? The answer to that question, if there is one, certainly doesn’t lie with Bastille Day, but one is grateful to the movie to ask it, even involuntarily.

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Showgirls (1995)

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Snow White Does Las Vegas

The fact that Showgirls is back in theaters speaks volumes about reevaluation, and as far as prep talks go it says a lot about media hype and the burning of idols, too. That movie would be a cautionary tale if anything of the sort still existed; as such, it nevertheless takes part in a conversation about Short Attention Span Disorder that no one is able to follow, and that’s the irony of it.

Irony is not exactly foreign to Paul Verhoeven, as demonstrated by Robocop, Starship Troopers (is it the best bad movie ever, or is it the worst good movie, the jury will ever be out) or even Basic Instinct. The man is one of the few European directors to have left his mark on Hollywood at the end of the 20th century, directing big budgets blockbusters which were hot topics at the time, mainly for their violence but also for their sexuality (remember that particular piece of the True Crotch?) But, but, violence is good, violence is fun, and sex is not. Sex is evil, well, women sex is. The female sex in general. Whores and witches, all of’em, ya know.

By switching focus from violence to sex, Verhoeven spoke the unspeakable and committed a cardinal sin. Backlash was swift, the same ones who enjoyed Total Recall (Violence + Comedy) and Basic Instinct (Violence + Sex) rejecting with puritan horror Showgirls (Sex + Comedy). What the hell was he thinking, desecrating Las Vegas, the Wedding Meccah? Focussing on strip clubs and tacky shows, when there is so much to gamble about, what Ocean’s Eleven, a perfectly apt American movie made by a less controversial European director, made six years later?

But what about the movie itself, you think? Well, think of it as an adult version of Snow White and fuggettabout the Seven Dwarves. If you can’t, you have a fetish and you are very much welcome, but you have a problem, too. So: Snow White, the Evil Queen, and Prince Charming. Las Vegas is the mirror on the wall, the bad guy who says to the Queen (Gina Gershon, one of the most carnivorous actresses who ever were) that there is a fairer of them all. Snow White (Elisabeth Berkeley, not a great thespian by any mean but the quintessence of bimbo, and as such an inspired casting) does what Zach Snyder’s limp dicked Sucker Punch was unable to show: she dances like hell, thank you very much, and when she does it is impossible not to watch (the impossibility of the male gaze not to stare at beauty being our fetish of the week).

Showgirls is a great movie, but it’s the Versace in a row of Prada. It’s tacky, expensive and camp, yet smart as a whip and, at the end of the day, surprisingly human for all the caricature involved. Its backstage scenes are as superiorly filmed as its show scenes are flatly vulgar, all organised confusion and petty revenge when no natural empathy is involved. And a lot of empathy is at work here. For all its bare breasts, implied sex and titillation, Showgirls is at its core a feminine movie, its men helpless or unable to touch (Kyle McLachlan, miscast but not as Prince Charming). It’s Grrrl power two years before Spice World. It’s a shame to the Razzie Awards, which Verhoeven was the first director to attend to collect his. Irony, see, is a tightrope, but if you get to the other side the same ones who derided you will clap, given time. And balance.

Also, writer Joe Eszterhaz was at its best with this one. “They wanna fuck Hope. This is a classy joint”. This is screwball for the millenium. A perfect companion to Wall Street (1987), except that one got an Oscar even though it is much inferior, Showgirls is like its “Goddess” heroin, ambitious as hell and how fuck does it know the moves to get there (this one pool sex scene with Prince Charming a cyborg terror one). But when a drag queen becomes the closest she has to a mother, Nomi is genuinely happy to see her again. “Full of shit”, the fat lady sings. Irony, yes?

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Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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One O’Clock, Two O’Clock, White House Rock

In December 1970, the most popular rock n’roller on the planet decided that the American way of life was going down the drain and blamed the Beatles, drugs and the Black Panthers. He hand-delivered to the White House a letter to the President of the United States, asking to be sworn a Federal Agent at Large to help fight this trifecta undercover and it promptly happened thanks to a quick call to the FBI director. If for you this elevator pitch is pushing the envelope too far, think twice: it actually happened and there are pictures to prove it, which actually are the most requested documents for consultation in the whole US National Archives. The head of FBI was J. Edgar Hoover. The President was Richard Nixon. The third man was the King, Elvis Presley, and he had a super power: the Autograph.

One doesn’t need to scrap one’s head for too long to figure out what interested the writers (Joey, himself an Elvis impersonator, and Hanala Segal) in such a subject. An odd couple so incongruous that they could as well come from different planets, the comedy of fame clashing with the comedy of politics, the utter ridiculousness of both sides’ agenda (gaining in appeal and humanity while “not giving a fuck about the youth vote” for one, “infiltrating the Rolling Stones or maybe The Grateful Dead” for the other), all make for a meaty subject matter which could have, in less capable hands, be all sting and sarcasm. But they are fond of their characters and chose to tap their humanity instead of their delusions of grandeur, and humour, omnipresent in their movie, is always sympathetic, if loaded with a healthy dose of irony. The poster offers “the meeting of two of the greatest recording artists in history”, which is quite succulent.

The first third of the movie deals with the impossibility of the meeting, the second with its difficulty and the third with the meeting itself. Meeting the Commander in Chief is no given even for Presley: “We do not expect any royalty today”, answers Nixon’s advisor when informed the King is at the door. A couple of autographs to the right kids and the promise of a photo shoot later, he’s in. What was supposed to be a five minutes meet and greet lasts much more as the two men discover themselves closer than they thought. Ingenuously, what brings them together after a first round of pissing contest is childhood and self-doubt.

Presley (Michael Shannon, not even close to the rockabilly cherub Elvis still was in 70, but impressively conveying his charisma and his innate sadness) is an icon, maybe the most loved man in America. His feral years are well behind him though, and he has lost touch with who he is, or was, enshrined as he is in clothes, jewelry and adoration. He only trusts his two oldest friends, Jerry and Sonny (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville, good at playing the rock and the roll, respectively). The two scenes where his vulnerability shows are great; without them Elvis would be some kind of Yoda, imbued with so much self-confidence and poise that it would be difficult to respond to him in any other way than worship. When he meets Nixon and finds a level ground with him, he’s a kid for a while, then regain his composure and departs quite curtly. It is a perilous exercise of tightrope and it works.

Kevin Spacey is wonderful as Nixon. It’s almost scary, a short while after watching him as President Underwood in House of Cards, to see him inhabiting the Oval Office in such a completely different fashion. The two men have nothing in common, Nixon’s cynicism being routed in his hate for what the “genetic lottery” has attributed him. “I’m not looking like a Kennedy”, he says in a moment which is both acerbic and surprisingly fragile. Never Underwood would have these thoughts, or those mimics, including this infectious jubilation when Presley calls him “a cool cat”, much to the dismay of his two advisers, Chapin (Evan Peters, too juvenile for the role) and Krogh (Colin Hanks, perfect). The fact that the screenplay takes the trouble of building fully fleshed characters in both camps is highly commendable.

One has some reservations about the film but they are of the minor kind. The karate scene (which Shannon judged “in poor taste”) might be ill advised, even though Spacey suddenly unleashes an animosity that is both scary and poignant. The Watergate foreshadowing of the parking meeting is a bit on your face. Budget limitations show at times. But in any scene Elvis is in, there is always a reaction from passers-by, and those “Oh my God!” moments are not only fun to watch but the mark of attention to detail. And for our devoted followers, there’s even a “What’s in the box” moment. What’s not to like?

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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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Abs Fabs

This summer’s best superhero movie this side of Deadpool, The Legend of Tarzan (hereafter: Tarzan) carries on the torch of a legend in the first of the only two ways possible: dead-on seriousness or camp revisiting. Not that camp doesn’t work, mind you, but the writers of the movie have a collective brain severely missing from our other movie of the week, Suicide Squad, and are therefore able to choose their side instead of desperatly aiming at the middle of the road. Yes, Tarzan aspires to tragedy, an ambition somehow undermined by the fact that its villain is King Leopold II of Belgium, an unlikely foe if there was ever one, but it takes these aspirations seriously and delivers the goods in a dreamy, campy, obsolete way. It’s a superhero movie with a conscience, albeit an easy one, it being Mother Nature herself. But she takes a dire toll on who’s going against Her.

So. starting like King Kong with Congolese ninjas making a fool of the Belgian army, Tarzan establishes Djimon Honsoon as the Leopard King who holds a grudge again Tarzan, and that way an unholy alliance is forged with evil Christopher Waltz (when will he stop to cash it in as a Raider of the Lost Ark evil nazi?), since King Leopold II’s coffers are empty and he needs the Opar diamonds the Leopard tribe happens to detain. The fact that the tribe is readily letting go of a immense treasure to allow the tribe chief to revenge his son before most certainly being either massacred or enslaved is glossed over with the help of some noble words and the fact that Djimon Honsoun looks fantastic in leopard skin and a loin cloth.

Tarzan is bored in England, desultorily visiting the Prime Minister in the company of his black sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson, who else?). Better get used to Tarzan getting bored, or looking mildly annoyed: those are the two expressions Alexander Skarsgård allows his character to sport, letting his spectacular eight-pack do the acting. One would be forgiven to muse on the fact that Lord Greystoke being some kind of a UN ambassador and a diplomatic/black ops weapon of sorts, his stomach muscles shouldn’t be his only set of skills, but the movie, in the best tradition of the action genre, recognise that with great abs come great responsabilities, so Tarzan is back to the jungle to fight the Belgian colonial Empire, slavery and the cowardly assassination of African fauna. And he brings Jane along, since she’s pregnant and a strong spirit.

The jungle, see, “consumes everything but never the strong”, or, in that particular instance, the well connected. Tarzan and Jane are on their best William & Kate behaviour when back to Congo, copious flashbacks exposing their back story, sniffing meet-cute included, and his dysfunctional relationship with his Mangani brother (“Mangani” being the 21st politically correct for “ape” or “gorilla”). It becomes pretty obvious on the course of the movie than Tarzan is quite lousy at fighting, since he loses against lost tribes, gorillas, and even Belgians. But the thing with Tarzan is he has powerful friends, as demonstrated in the final showdown which is all that one wanna see is such an adventure flick: a tea party interrupted by herds of gnous, an elephant stampede and some African finest including lions and crocodiles. For the effectiveness and the elegance of this scene alone, the movie is worth seeing: man is hopeless and not to be trusted, it’s Nature who saves the day rebelling, a lesson learned through hardship and repeated abuse.

Tarzan, as the title indicates, is a legend, an abstraction, an article of faith. Far from defeating the evil Belgian regime he acts as a catalyst from a rejection deep rooted in abuse, crime and callousness. The movie manages not to trip on itself denouncing the exploitation of the Mother Continent by greedy foreign powers, and he does so using the traditional elements of this kind of epic quest: there is a boat and a train that have to be stopped along highlights of the Gabonese rain forest (standing for Congo). There is a “civilised” diner scene establishing the power dynamics between the bad guy and the kind woman, each standing for conflicting ideals. There is a Houdini number, group jumps into the abyss, and a bondage party turned genocide. All that and more. One suspects that should one have seen this movie at 10 years old, it would have become an instant favourite; quite some years down the line, it nevertheless looks great and feels decent, two crucial qualities that most recent super hero train wrecks would be unable to reclaim for themselves. Viewing advised.

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La Migliore Offerta (The Best Offer – 2014)

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True Fake

The best this movie has to offer is Geoffrey Rush, giving a subtly layered performance and elevating an otherwise classic (and classy) heist material to the heights of tragedy – and redemption. At the beginning, Virgil Oldman is seen as a cold fish, an auctioneer at the peak of his worldwide reputation. His refined eye can’t be fooled as he scrutinises works of art he manipulates with gloved hands, gloves of which he has dozens of pairs meticulously aligned in a special cabinet. He does not even take them off when he dines at his favourite restaurant, where he has his table and his monogrammed tableware. He is, at his core, disgusted by other people and refuses to touch them or their possessions.

But Virgil has a secret: for years, he has been under-evaluating arcane paintings of great value, expertising them as forgeries on which his partner in crime and failed painter Billy (Donald Sutherland, succulent as usual) successfully bids at auctions. Billy gets a cut of the profit and Virgil hangs his loots in his secret vault, where he can gaze at them in solitude. From the size of the vault and the number of paintings, one can say that this stunt has been lasting for quite some years.

Claire Ibbetson, a mysterious woman (isn’t there always one?) calls Virgil and ask him for an evaluation of a big collection of furniture and paintings. Reluctant at first, he finally agrees to meet her but she misses their first appointment, then another. He finally gets to see the collection but not its owner whom, her servant informs him, nobody has seen for twelve years as she suffers from agoraphobia and only leaves her panic room when everyone else has left the villa. She seems to be quite the bipolar recluse, with violent mood swings which only amplify his curiosity.

Said curiosity is heightened again when he finds a piece of machinery in the villa’s basement. After being expertised by a genius mechanics with whom he’s in regular contact, the fragment reveals to be part of a 18th century automaton built by Vaucanson (he of the mechanical duck fame), which value if completed would be inestimable. A game of cat and mouse starts between the auctioneer and the potential seller, to whom he hides his discovery. He spies on her and finally see her 50′ after the film started, and talk to her only well into the second hour.

Time and again he returns to the villa, grabbing here and there pieces of the automaton, which builds in parallel with the tension between the elusive Claire and himself. His initial mistrust is mollified by  her constant yo-yoing between fear and attraction. They quarrel like lovers well before becoming so. Anything and its contrary, under a constant suspicion of treachery and betrayal. Scopophilia plays an important role in their relationship; he buys her couture dresses and jewels, in the hope she will get better and can get rid of her phobia and join him for a trip abroad.

One won’t be so cruel as to spoil the ending of a movie, which is predictable but elegantly put together, with the help of a paralysed midget gifted with eidetic memory. Virgil loses some, wins some and, at the time of the majestic last scene in a Prague restaurant, is a changed man. Meticulously filmed, well played by all involved and benefiting from an Ennio Morricone score, The Best Offer is a quiet thriller, almost perfect but for a few inconsistencies, fortunately appearing early enough in the picture not to impair the final momentum. There is always something authentic in a forgery, and everything can be faked but what one is feeling towards oneself. Whatever the distance self-inflicted between one and the rest of the world, one remains part of it, for better or for worse. A brilliant machine with a telltale heart, The Best Offer deserves its title.

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