REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“Stoker” – 4 STARS

STOKER POSTERThere are two things that you’ll instantly notice when watching “Stoker”. First, it’s clear that director Park Chan-wook is a true visionary. Second, there is something seriously not right in the Stoker household. “Stoker” is a twisted psychological thriller oozing with Hitchcockian influence and mixed with traces of classic horror. There’s a good reason for that. The script was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from “Prison Break”) who stated that he used Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Shadow of a Doubt” to help frame his story. But this isn’t a mere carbon copy. He takes things in a much darker direction which helps this movie stand on its own two feet.

Chan-wook is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy and for “Oldboy” which is currently being remade by Spike Lee. “Stoker” marks his English-language debut and his fingerprints are all over this film. He takes Miller’s script and instantly incorporates his signature style which works to create a specific mood and tone throughout the picture. And if you’re familiar with his other work you know his films often incorporate uneasiness and brutality. Both are present here as well.

The story centers around young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). Her life is dealt a terrible blow when her father Richard is killed in a tragic car accident on her 18th birthday. India was very close with her father, something that can’t be said about her relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The two have a strained relationship resulting from Evelyn’s emotional instability and her jealousy of India’s affection for her father. After the funeral, both meet Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has been traveling abroad for years. Evelyn takes to him instantly but India doesn’t trust him. He has the charm and good looks but there’s something unnerving about this guy.

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Uncle Charlie volunteers to move in to help the family out. Evelyn is thrilled which does more to strain her relationship with India. The story unfolds and we quickly sense Charlie is up to no good. But there’s a lot more going on than anyone realizes. Most of the film deals with the tension between India and her Uncle. Her suspicions of Charlie are valid but neither she or the audience can figure the guy out. But it’s not as if she’s completely stable. She’s a very dark and brooding recluse. She lives in her own little world which is made clear by a couple of scenes that take place at her high school. The contrast between home and away is profound. Her nature and Charlie’s creepiness make for some good, eerie conversations between the two. But there’s also an undeniable psychosexual tension that permeates each scene. It’s a key part of the movie’s overall weirdness that sometimes has you squirming in your seat.

Wasikowska is an young actress that I’ve always been impressed with. She gives another solid performance here although the material doesn’t require much in terms of range. Throughout the entire film she maintains the same blank expression regardless of what’s happening. It’s nothing that allows her to flex her acting muscle yet it’s strikingly appropriate for this story. I also thought Kidman was really good. She takes on a smaller role, but her strong performance brings more to her character than you might expect. But for me Matthew Goode is the real standout. From his first appearance in the cemetery overlooking his brother’s funeral service, Goode maintains an eerie presence. He slithers around the Stoker’s secluded two-story estate channeling his best Joseph Cotton from “Shadow of a Doubt”. I loved what Goode did with the role and for me he helped give the movie the creepy intensity it was shooting for.

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But I think my favorite thing about “Stoker” was the undeniable style of Park Chan-wook. I loved what he was doing with his camera and I never grew tired of his perspectives. There’s such artistry at work as he uses strategic close ups, moving cameras, and specific framings of shots. Chan-Wook also left indelible images carved into my mind. He gives the film a real horror movie feel with chilling shots of things like a crawling spider, a hair on a bar of soap, or a pencil sharpener. He also gives the movie heightened senses particularly in the area of sound. It may be voices, buzzing house flies, or even the crumbling of a boiled egg’s shell. All of this contributes to letting us know everything’s wrong in their world. I mean even the end credits are backwards and scroll down instead of up.

All of the amazing visuals and strong acting really worked for me. But some will assuredly be turned off by the movie’s bloody and violent final act. In a way I can understand why but not necessary due to the blood. I’m just not sure that the ending works that well storywise. That aside, “Stoker” is a strong film, dark and unsettling but still wickedly entertaining. It’s most certainly not a film for everyone. But it should be seen even if only for Goode’s devilishly good performance and the stylistic visionary direction. Lucky for me, I found there to be more to like than just that.

“LAWLESS” – 4 STARS

Just seeing the list of great names attached to “Lawless” easily made it one of my most anticipated films of 2012. I’m a huge fan of Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman. The thoughts of them in a Prohibition-era action flick had me giddy with excitement. But I also had one serious concern about the movie and that was Shia LaBeouf in the lead role. I’ve never been impressed with his acting and I couldn’t help but wonder if he could hold his own in the company of such great talent. While LaBeouf was certainly better than I expected, he was swallowed up by some really strong performances around him. But thankfully that wasn’t enough to keep “Lawless” from being a highly entertaining piece of American pulp.

Australian John Hillcoat, also known for “The Road” and “The Proposition”, directs the film with fellow Aussie Nick Cave handling the screenplay. Their story is set in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia and follows the Bondurant boys – three brothers who make their living bootlegging moonshine during the Prohibition years. Forrest (Hardy) is the tough, hard-nosed leader of the bunch. Howard (Jason Clarke) works alongside Forrest. Then there’s Jack (LaBeouf) who at one time is described as “the runt of the litter”. The brothers get by alright with their own system of running moonshine, at least until a vicious Special Agent Rakes (Pearce) is sent in to clean up the hills. Rakes immediately clashes with Forrest and before long the hills erupt into violence.

Of the brothers’ stories, its Forrest’s that’s considerably more entertaining even though Jack’s takes up more of the movie. Forrest is a tough-as-nails brute but he also knows how to handle their business. Hardy chews up every scene he’s in with his grunts and mutterings as well as his intimidating stares and low-key dialogue. He’s also not afraid to use brutality with his brass knuckles or razors. But even he is tamed a bit by Maggie (Chastain), a former dancer who moves to the community to escape the troubles of the big city. Boy did she pick the wrong place. I enjoyed the romance that developed between the two. Chastain gives a great performance and she matches Hardy scene for scene and line for line.

The same can’t be said for LaBeouf and his Jack character. As I alluded to, LaBeouf is better than I expected and, to be fair, he’s at times quite good. But he just can’t hold his own especially when alongside Hardy. He is helped by the story which doesn’t build his toughness beyond the bounds of believability. It fact it’s his weakness and desire to prove himself to his brothers that turns out to be the most compelling part of his character. He’s attracted to a local minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and the two eventually fall for each other. But overall their romance feels inconsequential and adds little to the story. On the other hand, I did enjoy his scenes with his friend Cricket (wonderfully played by Dane DeHaan of “Chronicle” from earlier this year). And he also encounters a powerful mobster named Floyd Banner played by Gary Oldman. Oldman is really good even though he’s given almost nothing to do.

But the biggest delight is Guy Pearce. He’s sensational as the creepy and psychotic special agent who abuses his power and who will stop at nothing to take out those who cross him. Pearce’s high hairline with its accentuated part down the middle, shaved eye brows, and prim and proper wardrobe gives him a distinct eccentric look. But it’s also Pearce’s mannerisms, unhinged chuckles, and the way he carries himself the gives the character a sinister presence. He has some of the film’s best scenes, none better than the tension-filled first meeting between Rakes and Forrest. Pearce is simply fantastic and this is an Oscar worthy supporting performance.

Another huge plus for “Lawless” is the incredible production design. The movie features such a realistic and atmospheric recreation of the hilly, poverty-stricken, 1930’s moonshine territory. Every scene is soaked with period details and the lush, vibrant locations make everything feel authentic. Hillcoat’s unfiltered Franklin County is rusty, dirty, and dangerous. From the opening credits I found myself completely drawn in by the period look. The wardrobes, the automobiles, the rundown shacks – everything contributes to the pitch-perfect aesthetic.

“Lawless” is a tough, bloody, and violent action picture that’s very honest in what it’s trying to be. The story is simple and nothing will catch you by surprise. But it’s also compelling and the characters are easy to invest in. The movie does hit a little lull in the middle and we actually get a skip ahead montage to set up the simply ok ending. But the film still packs plenty of pop and there are some tremendous performances that will stick with you, particularly from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce who may have given us the best villain in the movies this year. “Lawless” is both poetic and visceral and even though it just misses being a real classic, it’s still a true Southern Gothic treat.

5 PHENOMENAL ACTRESSES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Movies have always been blessed with an assortment of wonderful actresses and it’s no different now. Amazing acting talents are springing up and making names for themselves. I thought it would be fun to consider 5 Phenomenal actresses that you should keep your eye on. These ladies aren’t exactly “seasoned” in the traditional sense but they have enough on their resume to prove that they are remarkable performers. Now I didn’t want this to be an up-and-coming list. Instead I’m wanting to give props to five ladies who I think have huge careers ahead of them. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 actresses to watch out for are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – MIA WASIKOWSKA

At only 22 years of age, Mia Wasikowska has already tackled a variety of great roles. She’s shared the screen with big names such as Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, and Daniel Craig and she’s more than held her own. She’s made some great film choices and the future looks promising. She’s already lined up to be in “Lawless”, a film where she will co-star with big names such as Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.  Wasikowska is never overpowered by the material and her ability to handle challenging roles at such a young age is very impressive. Expect to see a lot from this phenomenal young talent.

#4 – EMILY BLUNT

Emily Blunt as an example of a very talented actress who is still looking for that one big role. She starred in several films that I’ve enjoyed and several that I haven’t but yet she’s always delivered a strong and steady performance. She’s clearly comfortable with comedy or drama and her assortment of films show that to be true. She was in several smaller but entertaining films before really drawing attention for her work in “Young Victoria”. From there she has starred in everything from family films, quirky British comedies, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic comedies. Through them all she has shown an amazing range and an ability to handle any material she has given. She’s a magnetic actress who will be around for a long time.

#3 – SAOIRSE RONAN

An even younger but equally talented actress is Saoirse Ronan. At 18 years of age she has steered clear of some of the movie traps that many young performers fall into. She first gained major attention for her wonderful work in “Atonement”, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13. She was also very good in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, a film that doesn’t hold up well despite her fantastic performance. I was really impressed with her work in “The Way Back”, a very underappreciated film. And in 2011 she showed what kind of range she has by playing a trained assassin in “Hanna”. Ronan has a wonderful screen presence and has grown with each performance. She’s certainly one to watch.

#2- JENNIFER LAWRENCE

While her resume may not be as plump as the other actresses on this list, Jennifer Lawrence has blown me away by her work so far. Lawrence has never been to acting school or taken an acting class yet she has what seems to be a natural ability. It was her starring role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” that immediately caught the attention of the movie world. She gives a tough and gritty performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It was a performance that still amazes me today. She had a great role in “The Beaver” and she was also very good in “X-Men: First Class”. Most recently she’s been seen starring in a little movie you may have heard of, “The Hunger Games”. The movie has catapulted her into the more mainstream spotlight. And while the film isn’t perfect, there’s no denying that Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role. She has several projects in the works and, of course, more Hunger Games sequels. Expect to hear Jennifer Lawrence’s name for a while.

#1 – JESSICA CHASTAIN

2011 can officially be called a break-out year for Jessica Chastain. After a small career in television, Chastain made her feature film debut in 2008. But it was last year that she truly made her mark on the film industry with some amazing work. She was really good in “The Help” and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. But that wasn’t even her best work of the year. She was mesmerizing in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. She was even better alongside Michael Shannon in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter” and it’s there that she gives what I felt was the best supporting work of the year. She was also fantastic with Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus” and this year she will be in the above mentioned “Lawless”. Chastain has a grounded and almost natural grace about her and it translates so well on screen. With all of the attention she’s getting for her recent work, you can count on good director’s wanting to work with her even more.

And there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you know of someone I missed? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

“DEFIANCE” – 4 STARS

Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War 2 movie “Defiance” is an intriguing look at the Nazi’s invasion and ultimate occupation of Belarus. As with every other German occupation, the brutality was rampant and the death tolls were high. The Nazi’s stormed through the countryside, destroying villages, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and shipping hundreds of thousands more to forced labor camps. As expected the Jewish population was hit particularly hard. This is the harsh and troubled setting for Zwick’s film.

“Defiance” is based on the true story of the four Bielski brothers. After their parents are murdered by Nazi sympathizers, the brothers flee to the forest to avoid the German atrocities which are spreading from village to village. While there, they come across fellow Jews who are also seeking refuge. While hesitant at first, the brothers agree to help protect them. In order to survive, they begin making trips into occupied villages where they swipe food and supplies and are assisted by a few sympathetic farmers. The Bielskis also see their numbers grow as more and more Jews came to be under their protection. In a span of over two difficult years, it’s said that over 1,200 Jews were saved by the Bielski’s efforts.

Daniel Craig plays Tuvia, the oldest brother who finds himself the leader of their forest community. At first his perspective is controlled by his desire for revenge. But over time as he connects more with the people under his care, he begins to see things differently. His tough, burly brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a different approach which at times causes friction between the two. Craig is an excellent actor and he is very good here. I’ve always liked Liev Schreiber and have felt that due to some of his past roles he is often time underappreciated. He’s also really good here and shares some fantastic scenes with Craig. I also enjoyed Jaime Bell as their younger brother Asael and Mia Wasikowska as young Jewish girl he becomes involved with. The movie also features strong supporting work from Alexa Davalos, Mark Feuerstein, and Allan Corduner.

“Defiance” is a pretty by-the-books production that plays it pretty safe. But that’s not to say its a bad film. In fact, I really liked the movie despite it’s formulaic approach. At it’s core it’s a truly extraordinary and inspiring story with roots in reality that gives it even more punch. Zwick makes it easy to care about his characters and their plight but he also shows some of the Bielski’s more questionable actions. The complexity of their situation goes beyond mere survival in the forest. For example we see the impact of the Soviet Partisans on everything from the Bielski’s forest camp to the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. As the camp population grows, internal fighting and power struggles pop up as supplies begin to run short. There are several other interesting dynamics that Zwick explores well.

Some have argued that the movie’s desire for a broader audience resulted in the inclusion of content that just didn’t belong. In some countries, people took issue with the film’s portrayal of the brothers. They felt they were made to look more heroic than they were and their shady dealings were underplayed. Some accused it of rewriting history while others griped about its use of other languages instead of Belarusian. It’s hard for me take issue with the movie for any of these issues. As with many historical movies, things were added for dramatic effect. Also, I never felt that it was dealing with the material in an irresponsible or half-hearted way. There may be some issues with the overall narrative, but as a whole the movie really worked for me.

“Defiance” is an underappreciated and often times overlooked World War 2 picture. It doesn’t take many risks and it never strays too far from the more conventional survival movie path. But it’s a very well made film that captures the look and tone of the period. It tells a story that many may be unfamiliar with and even with the historical objections of some, I found it to be a testament to the will to live possessed by this group of Jewish refugees. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber are fantastic and their performances drive the film. “Defiance” is an underrated film that may not be the best World War 2 movie but it’s certainly worth a watch.

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (APRIL 27th)

Perhaps my favorite bit of movie news this week came with the release of the first trailer for John Hillcoat’s “Lawless”. “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 looks like a tough and gritty Prohibition period action flick. Anyone who has read my Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 post already knows that this film, (previously named “The Wettest County”), is one I can’t wait for. The movie features a cast of some of my favorite performers including Tom Hardy, the underappreciated Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska. And then there’s Shia LaBeouf, an actor I simply don’t care for. I’m hoping he doesn’t drag the movie down and by the looks of the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 there’s a lot more that overshadows him. Everything about the trailer looks GREAT particularly Hardy and Pearce and I am really amped up for this picture. Just click the links to watch the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1. The movie is set to be released on August 31st.

The ad campaign for “The Dark Knight Rises” is really starting to take off. Each week brings new news and information to what is hands-down my most anticipated movie of 2012. Everyone may recall that director Christopher Nolan shot several scenes of “The Dark Knight” for IMAX. Well it was released that over one hour of “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed for IMAX. That may not sound like a big deal, but as someone who watched “The Dark Knight” on both IMAX and the regular screen, the difference is well worth the extra ticket cost.

But in even bigger Dark Knight news, it was announced that a brand new full trailer will debut in front of next weekend’s “The Avengers” movie. As if I needed any more incentive to see “The Avengers”, now I have a new “The Dark Knight Rises” trailer to look forward to. The trailer is said to show a new and clearer audio for Bane as well as several scenes of brand new footage. I’m getting giddy just thinking about it!

NEW IN THEATERS (APRIL 27th)

  • “SAFE” (R) – Action/Shoot ’em up
  • “THE RAVEN” (R) – Horror/Thriller
  • “THE PIRATES” (PG) – Animated