In Michael Mann's splendid portrait of Muhammad Ali, the first twenty or so minutes are some of the boldest, most invigorating images of his long career. They bolt back and forth in time, jumbling a lifetime of training, moods, faces, hands, and sound into a swell. While I hesitate to compare Mann to filmmaker Baz Luhrman, the latter does something similar with his impressionistic look at another iconic 20th century figure in "Elvis", dropping the usual A to B schematic in favor of a music video aesthetic. From the musical cues that inspired him as a young boy to his nervy first stage appearance, Luhrman compresses time into a barrage of images that aren't overbearing, but pace the rest of the film with his glossy style. To my surprise, it works well because the last thing we needed was a serious deep dive into the artist, and instead Luhrman infuses his tale (approved by the family of course) with all the hip swinging, eye batting ludicrousness that launched Elvis into the cultural stratosphere in the first place. Austin Butler, as Elvis, ably embodies the superstar with not much beyond his looks and affectation but "Elvis" maintains a good time and succeeds in wrapping the singer's life and untimely death in a polished bit of wild glitz and glamour that's just as fitting as his gaudy lifestyle towards the end.
My appreciation for intricately plotted World War II spy thrillers from Euro masters isn't a secret. Last year's criminally neglected "Wife of a Spy" by master Kiyoshi Kuroswa deserved better. And this year, the criminally underrated masterpiece is Lou Ye's "Saturday Fiction". Shown at a scattering of film festivals in 2019 and then unceremoniously released in a few theaters earlier this year, Le is a filmmaker I've long admired- check out "Purple Butterfly" (2003) or "Summer Palace" (2006)- and "Saturday Fiction" is yet another bold stroke in the career of this Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker. Filmed in Le's typical nervous, handheld style (but this time in beautiful black and white), the film tells the bifurcated tale of a movie star Jean (Gong Li) returning to occupied Shanghai in December of 1941 to act in a stage play by Mark Chao. Is the play a memory of their past together? Le constantly shifts perspective from the play to real life, causing a meta-curious comment on the film's events. But outside of her acting duties, Jean also seems to be acting as a spy. Opposing forces are all around. Who is exactly spying on who? "Saturday Fiction" resides in this cloistered atmosphere where political paranoia and personal attractions are never too far removed. In one brilliant scene that illuminates how invisible this line is, a member of the acting troupe gets drunk and accidentally falls against the door of their hotel suite, which opens slowly into the room of a group of Japanese soldiers. The tensions that rise are spectacular and Le charges "Saturday Fiction" with a beautiful blend of action thriller aesthetic and moody art-house plot mechanics. Part Jean Pierre Melville and part Wong Kar Wai, Le has crafted a terrific effort that (knowing the importance of its December 1941 setting) ticks down and reveals the ominous wreckage of secrets told and kept.