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.

 

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 …

Wilder, Bogdanovich, Jarmusch, and … Luhrmann? It must be Buffalo Film Seminars time

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The onset of fall means back to school, and back to the Market Arcade for the Buffalo Film Seminars. The Bruce Jackson- and Diane Christian-hosted series is a Western New York tradition, a screening and discussion of perennial classics (“8 ½”) new greats (“Oldboy,” “Chunking Express”), well-regarded blockbusters (“The Dark Knight”), and some left-field picks (“A Fish Called Wanda”).

Last spring, for example, saw a screening of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”; as I wrote in Buffalo Spree, “the filmmaker’s follow-up to ‘The Deer Hunter’ [is] the notoriously earth-shattering financial flop that helped sink United Artists. But in the years since, the story of the battle between European immigrants and greedy land barons in nineteenth century Wyoming has undergone something of a critical reevaluation. While some still scoff, for many seasoned viewers, it is now seen as a sumptuous, stunningly ambitious epic. Its status as undervalued masterpiece was confirmed in late 2012 with the Criterion Collection’s remastered release of the film on Blu-ray and DVD. Buffalo Film Seminars’ screening offers an opportunity to look past the years of controversy, and with hosts Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, view it with fresh eyes.”

Well said, me. I love the idea of Jackson and Christian selecting a film with a mixed reputation.

This fall’s lineup, which kicks off tomorrow with Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer,” is typically eclectic. There are the obvious cinematic masterpieces (“The Grand Illusion,” “Double Indemnity”), some ’70s favorites (“Network,” “The Last Picture Show”), an offbeat bit of ’90s indie-cool (Jarmusch’s Johnny Depp-starring “Dead Man”), and even Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.”

It also includes Jackson and Christian’s acclaimed 1979 documentary “Death Row,” and it should lead to an insightful discussion.

Here is the fall schedule in its entirety:

  • August 27 — Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer,” 1927
  • September 3 — Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night,” 1934
  • September 10 — Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion,” 1937
  • September 17 — Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” 1944
  • September 24 — Delmer Daves’s “3:10 to Yuma,” 1957
  • October 1 — Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain,” 1959
  • October 8 — Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” 1971
  • October 15 — Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” 1976
  • October 22 — Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian’s “Death Row,” 1979
  • October 29 — Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” 1995
  • November 5 — Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her,” 2002
  • November 12 — Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” 2008
  • November 19 — Wim Wenders’s “Pina,” 2011
  • November 26 — Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” 2013

Note that the BFS website features a history of the seminars, “goldenrod handouts,” and a list of all the films that have screened. Films are screened 7 p.m. on Tuesdays at the Market Arcade Film and ArtsCenter; 639 Main St.; see buffalofilmseminars.com for more info.

Photo from “Dead Man”