One of 2014’s best: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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I think it has been a stellar year of cinema so far, and while “Under the Skin” is still safely at the top of my personal best-of-the-year-so-far list, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama “Only Lovers Left Alive” is in the top two or three. Here is my four-star Buffalo News review.

“I’m a survivor, baby.”

So says Eve (Tilda Swinton) to Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive,” opening Friday. The story of a centuries-old couple reunited in present-day Detroit is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh.

It is Jarmusch’s most hypnotic and finest creation since 1995’s “Dead Man,” and is arguably more satisfying than that black-and-white Johnny Depp film. In fact, “Only Lovers Left Alive” might be the director’s strongest film since his trio of 1980s masterpieces, “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law” and “Mystery Train.”

It certainly offers a more straightforward narrative than his last film, the underrated “Limits of Control.” Happily, though, it retains the quirky feel of his best work, while also jettisoning some of Jarmusch’s often forced sense of whimsy to create a compelling, memorable romance.

Swinton and Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, a pair whose epic personal history spans centuries. As the film opens, Eve is in Tangier, strutting the streets in white from head to toe on her way to meet fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe, played by a delightfully wizened John Hurt.

Yes, the very Christopher Marlowe some theorize authored Shakespeare’s greatest works. (More on that later in the film.)

Meanwhile, in a dark, seemingly deserted part of Detroit, Hiddleston’s Adam gracefully slinks around his decaying house in a 100-year-old dressing gown. He is a reclusive musical genius – Adam once gave Schubert a string quartet, you know – whose post-rock “funeral music,” as he calls it, swirls on the soundtrack.

Adam’s only contact with the outside world is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a sweet, dopey hanger-on who aims to please, and Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Watson, whom he visits, in disguise, for clean blood. But his greatest connection is still his Eve, who FaceTimes Adam from Tangier.

Saddened by his declining mental state, Eve crosses the Atlantic for a reunion. The couple’s peculiar domestic bliss is fascinating. Eve asks him to describe his old acquaintance Mary Wollstonecraft (“delicious”), they play chess, they drive around Detroit – at night, of course.

Soon comes conflict, as Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) rockets into the film in a slinky dress and mussed makeup. Ava is a Los Angeles underground rock-club kid – a different kind of vampire – and she maximizes the dark comic vibe of “Lovers.”

Wasikowska is a treat. The actress has never had the opportunity to play a character quite like Ava before, a giggling, unhinged, ever-thirsty mini-diva who excels at detonating almost every situation she finds herself in.

After Ava makes an unsurprising mistake (and exits the film far too quickly), Eve and Adam are forced once more to clean up her mess. From here, “Only Lovers Left Alive” embraces paranoia, leading our couple into desperation and possible danger.

Jarmusch elicits memorable performances from every member of the small cast, especially Swinton, Hiddleston and Wasikowska. The director’s script is endlessly witty, the cinematography from the great Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love”) is lush and mysterious, and the music composed by Jozef van Wissem enhances vistas both urban and exotic.

The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch film, but on a heretofore unreached scale. Here is a film in which the appearance of a vampiric Christopher Marlowe does not feel the least bit incongruous, and one in which the admittedly overused vampire-as-addict motif is handled with winking elegance.

It is appropriate that a film about centuries-old vampires lusting for safe, uncontaminated blood would end on a rather pessimistic note, and indeed, the final half hour of “Only Lovers Left Alive” is downright sad. It is not a hopeless finale, but does see Adam and Eve regressing back into survivor mode, with an unsettled future ahead of them.

The open-endedness of the film’s conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, and again and again. How wonderfully fitting.

 

Cannes 2014, Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, “Peyote,” and more: Weekly Round-Up

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I am continuing to mainly post links here due to an excessively busy schedule. The last week saw some festival previews, a review, and more.:

The day before the 2014 Cannes Film Festival began, The Film Stage posted its 30 most anticipated films, and I contributed entries on three of them: David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars”; Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” starring three heavy-hitters: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz; and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night,” starring one my favorite performers, Marion Cotillard. Hopefully all three will make their way to TIFF 2014.

I gave a D grade to Dan Fogler’s ambitious but awful “Don Peyote” for The Playlist.

And for the Buffalo News I wrote about “Chinatown,” which is showing at Amherst’s Screening Room, as well as a feature on the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival.

As always, more is on the way.

Quick takes on Godzilla, The Double, Fading Gigolo, and more

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While I recently linked to my reviews of Only Lovers Left Alive (4 stars), Neighbors (3 stars), and a few others, and shared opinions on Under the Skin (4 stars) and Enemy (4 stars), I have caught up with some additional films over the past few weeks at home and in the theater. Here are brief thoughts on a few:

  • Godzilla: The buzz that Gareth Edwards’ film was a “stingy” blockbuster is indeed correct, yet it mostly works. Some very interesting actors are stuck with pretty uninteresting roles, but it’s still highly entertaining and very well-made. I must give some credit to a summer tentpole that stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, the lovely and ultra-talented Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche, and features a score by Alexandre Desplat. 3 stars
  • The Double: Wow. I expected to embrace Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to Submarine, but did not expect to be knocked out so strongly. The Double is a darkly comic, unsettling, and visually stunning, with a perfect performance from Jesse Eisenberg. 4 stars
  • Fading Gigolo: John Tuturro’s film is best when Woody Allen is onscreen. When he isn’t … it’s still watchable. But Woody almost makes it great. 3 stars
  • Finding Vivian Maeir: Fascinating, if never more, this is a documentary that succeeds in making the viewer want to learn more about its subject. That’s no small feat. 3 stars
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Good, but not great; I wish the film was as strong as the casting (Redford!). Scarlett Johansson steals every scene she’s in. 3 stars
  • Blood Ties: Great soundtrack (“New York Groove”!), incredible cast (Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Matthias Schoenaerts), but it’s nothing we have not seen before, and better. Still, it is worth sticking with. 2 ½ stars
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: I know I should severely dislike Ben Stiller’s syrupy failed Christmas hit but … I kind of enjoyed it. Well, some of it. 2 ½ stars  
  • Afterschool: Antonio Campos’s debut was as dark and unsettling as his second, Simon Killer. Disturbing, yes, but undoubtedly compelling. 3 stars      
  • The Invisible Woman: Ralph Fiennes’s film came and went quietly come Oscar time, but I found it extremely underrated. He and Felicity Jones deserved to be in the Oscar conversation. 3 ½ stars      
  • Thor: The Dark World: I enjoy the Marvel films, I do. But the first Thor left me cold, and this absurd sequel bored me to tears. 2 stars     
  • Gloria: A wonderful film with a fabulous lead performance from Paulina García, but co-star Sergio Hernández is also worth recognizing. 3 1/2 stars
  • Saving Mr. Banks: A miss, for me. Strong casting (especially Hanks) and a neat concept, but it simply did not work. 2 stars 
  • Fast & Furious 6: More of the same, but don’t tell me it isn’t fun. 2 ½ stars
  • August: Osage County: I feel like this should have been special, but instead was merely watchable and shout-y. 2 ½ stars
  • Out of the Furnace: Ugh. Major disappointment on all levels. 2 stars      
  • Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Also a disappointment, the second chapter in the Ron Burgundy saga still has its share of laughs. 2 ½ stars  
  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: When seeing this biopic in Toronto, a technical glitch caused the first critics’ screening to end after 45 minutes. I did not make it to the rescheduled screening, but I did not miss a great deal. My initial opinion — that Idris Elba and Naomie Harris shined, and the film did not — was dead on. 2 stars

Lovers, Neighbors, and The Dead: An early-May round-up

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The last week-plus has been busy, and I am especially pleased with my 4-star Buffalo News review of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I must admit, I did not expect to embrace the film so strongly, but it was that good.

I also wrote a 3-star Buffalo News review of the funny Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy “Neighbors.”

I continue to contribute a number of blog posts to BuffaloNews.com, including, a look at the final film of the Buffalo Film Seminars’ spring semester, John Huston’s “The Dead.” And I wrote about the Coen Bros.’ series at Rochester’s Dryden Theatre.

As usual, more is on its way, including reviews of “Wolf Creek 2” and “Don Peyote” for The Playlist, previews of a couple Cannes entries for The Film Stage, and more …

Catching up on recent work: Office killers, gods, monsters, Hot Docs, and more

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It has been a very, very busy few weeks of freelance activity for me, so I thought I would put together some links here.

First, I reviewed the strong Georgian drama “In Bloom” for the Buffalo News. I gave it 3 ½ stars.

I contributed a number of blog posts to BuffaloNews.com, and more are coming:

I wrote a review of the Hot Docs entry “Ukraine is Not a Brothel” for The Playlist. I gave the film a B+. (The still here is from the film, which looks at the feminist organization called FEMEN.)

Lastly, I wrote a roundup of recent film-related books for The Film Stage.

Plenty more is on its way, friends … Thanks for reading.

FilmSwoon.com celebrates its first anniversary, and a preview of what’s ahead

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It recently occurred to me that it has been almost one year since I started this site — my first post dropped on May 12, 2013. Admittedly, my output has, well, declined since then. For the first several months, I posted something new every day of the week. But I could not keep up that schedule, and soon it fell to three.

I find myself now at an interesting place. My interest in the site has not waned a bit, but time-wise, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the time to post as much as I would like. In addition to my day job in a law firm marketing department, I am a frequent film (and sometimes book and bar) reviewer for the Buffalo News, with more to come soon; I still contribute to my former employer, Buffalo Spree magazine; and whenever I can, I contribute to The Playlist and The Film Stage.

Honestly, I love it all, and part of what I love most about having FilmSwoon.com is that I do not necessarily have to voice my opinions here. Instead, I can do it on Twitter, or even Facebook.

I will certainly still be active here, but as I increase my contributions to the Buffalo News’ Gusto online, there will be some weeks I only manage to post once, or not at all. We shall see. Thanks for reading and visiting over the past year — more fun is certainly ahead.

Review: “112 Weddings” is a funny and moving Hot Docs entry

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My friend and colleague Chris Gallant, Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Communication at Hilbert College in Hamburg, reviewed the Hot Docs entry “112 Weddings,” and I am honored to share his thoughts.

Admittedly, watching a documentary film based on wedding videos wasn’t exactly at the top of my bucket list, but as “112 Weddings” director Doug Block states, “it’s hard to resist getting swept up in it all.” That is true of Block’s film, in which he revisits the lives of former wedding video clients sees where there marriages have gone.

Statistically, 50 percent of marriages won’t last and this is reflected in the various stories in this film, though years later most of the marriages covered in this film are still intact. As any married couple knows, however, there are numerous issues for these couples to deal with. As a married person and a father of one I’m already well acquainted with the realities of married life, but I think the film would be a good primer for any newly engaged couple.

It is no exaggeration to say I literally laughed and cried. One couple tells the story of how they struggled through and survived their child’s cancer diagnosis. Alternately in the film there is a couple that is “delighted” the way their marriage and children have turned out. Such is life, and “112 Weddings” gives us a hefty slice of that experience. Block is always a filmmaker, even while disguising himself as a wedding videographer.

An insightful Rabbi’s commentary is interjected at points in the film. He states, “Happy weddings are a dime a dozen — happy marriages are much more rare and therefore much more precious in the world.” That truth is plainly evident during the film. While a majority of the film’s couples remain married, the audience is often left questioning why, exactly, they remain together. Of course this film isn’t a complete story, instead serving as just a sample of the journey of marriage. Who knows where the marriages will go from here? Even though “112 Weddings” shows all the imperfections of the institution, the film doesn’t reduce marriage. Rather, it and all its mysteries are revealed to be worthy of our consideration.