September 30, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive may be a hard sell for some. It is slow-moving, and its two main characters—a pair of centuries-old vampires named Adam and Eve—are a trifle pretentious. (They sit around reminiscing about days past, when they rubbed arms with Shakespeare and hung out with Byron.) Perhaps it would help any uninitiated viewers to go back and watch a couple movies by the director, Jim Jarmusch, as a primer for this one. I despised his somber 1995 Western Dead Man, but I think it prepared me to respond to this film, which isn’t particularly “exciting” as vampire movies go, and yet it’s a truly beautiful movie, one in which the characters are given the time and space to truly inhabit the screen.

Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, the moody, depressed musician who pisses the night away recording music in his creaky Victorian house in Detroit. That music isn’t supposed to reach an audience, and yet Adam has a coterie of hipster music enthusiasts loitering outside his house from time to time. He has a young friend—a musician-type named Ian (played by Anton Yelchin) who runs errands for him (like tracking down rare and expensive guitars), and who tries to coax some music out of Adam from time to time.

As Adam’s wife Eve, Tilda Swinton exudes a pretty groovy fashion sense; she has beautiful white hair that makes her seem ageless; she’s a book lover; and she lives all the way in Tangier, like the tragic author Jane Bowles did during the last 20 years of her life. But Eve seems a lot more even-keeled than the sad-faced Adam, perhaps because she’s just not the brooding, loner type. She passes most of her time either reading or visiting with her old kindred spirit, the poet Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt), who, it turns out, is also a vampire. What’s more, he wrote all those plays for which Shakespeare got the credit.

When Eve packs her bags to leave Tangier and visit Adam, she doesn’t take clothes. She takes books. And as she decides which books, she devours several of them then and there. (It takes her mere seconds to read a page.) They’re dusty volumes of thick yellow husks of paper in various languages, the kind of books that belong in your dream library. (And maybe in the dream someone else can dust them and keep them from deteriorating.) It makes you realize just how wonderful it would be to live hundreds of years if only for the sheer number of books you could read. However, as I pondered the strange and wonderful freedoms these two characters had, I thought: Could vampires travel into deep space? Would they want to? Seeing as such endeavors can take decades or even longer, it stands to reason that immortal beings would be ideal candidates. But then, what if they were gone for 150 years or longer, and came back to a society that had become utterly foreign to them? Perhaps it wouldn’t feel worth it to take such a long break from things, even if they spend their days as outsiders. 

Adam and Eve have of course existed over multiple centuries, but they’ve been present in all of them, not away on some interstellar mission. They’ve been—however marginally—a part of history and culture. We see this in the measured, frustrated contempt they have for the “zombies” (humans) over how much we’ve ruined our own planet and our resources. Their longevity enables them to put the momentary world crises into a pretty awesome perspective. But again, there are moments when these kinds of observations (“Remember the English Civil War?”) feel more than a bit pretentious.
Viewers may wonder about the blood. Yes, these vampires do subsist on blood, only they don’t go prowling the streets for fresh victims. They aren’t killers (generally), and prefer to get pure blood from trustworthy sources like blood banks. There are a lot of amusing jokes about the fears of getting contaminated blood, and the dreadful sicknesses that can befall a vampire if this happens. So they have reliable suppliers of clean blood, and this is made all the easier by the fact that both of them seem to have an endless supply of ready cash.

While there are no vampire movies like Only Lovers Left Alive (one of the reasons it’s such an interesting film), there are two that we might call its distant cousins: Bill Gunn’s strange, lost vampire-art film Ganja and Hess (1973) and George A. Romero’s celebrated yet also overlooked Martin (1978). Gunn’s film, which was barely seen upon release and then wasted away in obscurity for years, looks at vampirism through the lens of addiction in the black community. Martin asks the question "Is any of this supernatural stuff actually real, or is it just in the vampire's mind, and the minds of those that oppose him?"

Martin is particularly akin to Jarmusch’s film in that it’s set in a dying factory town (Pittsburgh). There’s something fascinating about this. Why would vampires be attracted to these symbolically rotting cities? Perhaps they can go unnoticed more easily. It certainly aids Adam and Eve when they are forced to dispose of one of Ava’s victims’ bodies. In the dead of night, they drive to an abandoned, unfinished building and dump the body into a pool of acid. They aren’t proud of it, but they’re also not particularly sad either. More likely it's Detroit's music roots that have attracted the loner rock star Adam. 

Only Lovers Left Alive is a lovely night owl of a movie, and the crowning achievement of a director whose films have always been praised/cursed with that word “idiosyncratic.” But what if more directors were able to take something as tried and true as the vampire legend and fashion it into an original work of strange, melancholy genius like this one? It’s rare to find a film that lets you simply enter inside it and walk around. But you have to be open to this kind of viewing to really enjoy it. Otherwise, it will probably tax your patience.

With Mia Wasikowska as Eve's fun-loving vampire sister, who lives in L.A. (and riles the curmudgeonly Adam when she comes unexpectedly for a visit). 

September 29, 2014


Much of the oblique psychological thriller Enemy—starring Jake Gyllenhaal—is beautiful to look at. The film has a bleached, sunlit veneer that feels definitively Californian. It’s actually set (and filmed) in Toronto, but a Toronto that feels very much like Los Angeles. Visually, Enemy appears to have been lifted partly from Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s a subtle paranoia throughout the film, and thematically Enemy is a kind of “body snatchers” riff; and the music (especially in the first half of the movie) has echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score. But unlike either of those films, Enemy amounts to little more than a grimly self-serious curiosity piece. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor named Adam Bell who discovers that he has a doppelganger, an aspiring actor named Anthony St. Claire who has bit parts in several apparently direct-to-video movies. Anthony’s movies are something else, and probably the only clear joke of the film, with titles like Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way and Call Me L8er. They’re more like the bad, functional titles of sitcom episodes. And in each one, Gyllenhaal’s double has a classically clichéd bit part: man in lobby or man in taxi, or something like that.

What’s so hard to take is the sheer, inexplicable dread that each man feels for his double. In a film like Body Snatchers, we knew that behind the duplicates were aliens bent on extinguishing the human race. And in Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s fetishistic obsession was what gave the idea of the double a raw, intense horror. But no ideas of this kind are fleshed out in Enemy. And Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s a good actor and often a charming one on screen, doesn’t reveal anything about why these men are so freaked out about each other. His Adam Bell lives a pretty dismal, routine life as an academic, although he’s not a complete hermit like some scholars, enjoying the frequent visits of his lover (Melanie Laurent). And the actor Anthony St. Claire is living a seemingly charmed existence with his very pregnant wife (Sarah Godon) despite the fact that he hasn’t yet experienced a breakthrough as an actor. (How does he afford his nice apartment?) The movie never makes a case for why these men pose a threat to each other, but their hostility is intense and only increases throughout the film. (I suppose the very idea of a doppelganger is supposed to be seen as threatening enough to defy explanation. And that might be true in some cases, but the film could have just as easily explored the bizarre wonder that a phenomenon like this might inspire in two people, especially if the movie wasn't really going after the horrors of a Vertigo or a Body Snatchers type of story.)

The visuals in Enemy are almost always rich. There's a genuine tension to them. And yet, they fail to really build on each other. The film is visually lazy in a sense, perhaps a parallel form of the same blasé attitude that hinders its story and its logic. Instead, it merely exudes all of the quirky, eccentric qualities of an “indie” film. Case in point: the movie’s opening scene—in which Gyllenhaal (as the actor) attends a risqué backroom striptease act (in which the nude woman crushes a spider with one of her stilettos). That scene isn’t exactly clear, especially because we aren’t yet aware of the whole “double” component (unless we’ve read about the film prior). Then we meet Adam Bell, giving a lecture on the qualities of dictatorships. Why this particular subject? Is the director, Denis Villeneuve, trying to suggest an overarching theme here? Villeneuve doesn’t clarify much for us, although you feel that surely this talk, which is repeated later in a little montage sequence, must be relevant to the movie. 

But then, a movie doesn’t have to be completely lucid to be enjoyable, even marvelous. Months ago, we saw proof of that with the bonkers but mesmerizing Under the Skin, a movie that offered little in terms of plot or coherence, but was beautiful and captivating. Enemy tries to get that kind of response, but fails to do so, presumably because not even the director or the actors know what is going on in this film. Everyone is either confused or simply stoic, as if that bleached quality of the film had somehow seeped into the performances, the writing, the directing. 

Villeneuve directs as though he is unsure of how to respond to a very interesting premise. Finally one truly remarkable development comes when the men—so incredibly threatened by each other—ostensibly decide to Parent Trap their significant others, as a form of revenge on each other. It’s so weird and creepy that you don’t know exactly what to make of it. Perhaps it's the thrill of tricking one’s spouse, or maybe the curiosity of seeing if one of the girls will find out the truth. (One of them does, and when she asks Bell to stay, it’s all the more strange, and intriguing.) This one may warrant a second viewing after all, but as of now I'd classify it as too much of a missed opportunity.

With Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother. Scripted by Javier Gullón, from the 2002 novel The Double by José Saramago.

September 24, 2014

The Right Stuff

As three-hour-long epics go, The Right Stuff (1983) is a pretty good one, bolstered by the humanized performances of a slew of talented actors portraying the men and women involved in America's race against the Russians to get outer space. The film--which was written and directed by Philip Kaufman and adapted from Tom Wolfe's best-selling book--finds a surprising balance in a story so charged with cultish nationalism. I've never been particularly interested in planes or pilots, and when I lived in Orlando, was always blasé about the goings-on at NASA just forty-five minutes away at Cape Canaveral. When people would talk excitedly about the latest rocket launch, I felt bored. This film shows exactly how exciting and meaningful it was to be a part of the space race.

As a director, Kaufman is one of the best to come out of the 70s, and The Right Stuff should probably have been his piéce de résistance, except that it wasn't successful at the box office, barely breaking even (or not) depending on which budget calculation you go with. (It was made for around 20 million, and grossed around 20 million.) Kaufman had already established himself as a fine director with the impressive 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Right Stuff isn't as canny as that film, but it's certainly as well-made and well-acted, and tries very hard to show us the many perspectives at play during this little chunk of big history. And it has a sense of humor. The grandiosity that Kaufman puts on the screen is always accompanied by a wink.

The film begins in 1947 at a military air base in the California desert, where Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) determines to break the "sound barrier," a phrase that essentially meant doom for an aircraft once it reached a certain altitude. Yeager's accomplishment (spoiler alert: he breaks it) sets in motion the events of the film which take place into the 1960s when the seven "chosen" astronauts make their various orbits into space. One of Kaufman's most adept accomplishments as director is his seamless merging of actual documentary footage of news coverage with fictionalized footage of the actors. In that sense, The Right Stuff often feels like a plucky documentary about the space age. It would have been propaganda in the hands of a less literate filmmaker. 

One of Kaufman's best instincts as director is to consider the point-of-view of the pilot's wives. On one hand, this story is every bit a tale of male achievement in a very traditional power structure, but Kaufman has a sense of realism--not to mention compassion--for the "women behind the men." Is the film accurate in its portrayal of the men and their wives? That isn't for me to say. But as a piece of narrative, The Right Stuff succeeds in multitudinous ways at being both honest and insightful about marital relations in the military and the American obsession with a kind of mythologized machismo. What's so genius is that the film mixes its criticism with its reverence in a way that feels genuine. And yet it's always sure-footed. Kaufman wants to give us a ra-ra American epic, but he wants us to think about it too, and layers his criticisms in subtle ways that allow us to come across them on our own. Otherwise it would be preachy or condescending.

As John Glenn, Ed Harris--plucked from cameo roles and TV by George Romero in the 1981 knights-on-motorcycles indie film Knightriders--shows what he's made of as an actor here. Harris is the kind of all-American actor who's very easy to root for, and his performance as Glenn paints him as a thoughtful man who took very seriously his unexpected new role as a public figure. The equally fine supporting cast includes: Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen, Barbara Hershey, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Charles Frank (as Scott Carpenter), David Clennon, and Donald Moffat (as Lyndon Johnson).

September 16, 2014

The Drop

It would be impossible to talk about The Drop without revealing some spoilers, so I'm warning you. I'm not going to ruin the ending, necessarily, but I am going to discuss the characters in revealing ways. For those of you who don't want anything spoiled, hear this: The Drop is really worth seeing. Now you can go.

At first, The Drop has a kind of On the Waterfront vibe to it. The main character, a bartender named Bob Saginowski (played by the scruffy, intense-looking Tom Hardy) has echoes of Terry Malloy, the unintellectual but valiant hero of On the Waterfront played by Marlon Brando. In The Drop, Bob Saginowski works at his older cousin Marv's bar. (Marv is played by James Gandolfini, in his final film appearance.) Bob is aware that Marv's place is a front for some Chechen mobsters: it's a frequent money drop-off point. But Bob doesn't question the illegal activities that he passively participates in. He stays focused on keeping his customers' glasses full.

But then two seemingly unconnected events converge upon Bob: the bar is robbed by two masked men (stealing $5000 belonging to the Chechens); and Bob happens upon a puppy (a darling pit bull whose whimper elicited an embarrassing amount of sympathy from me) that's been beaten and tossed into Noomi Rapace's trash can. Bob doesn't know how to take care of a puppy, let alone treat one that has been attacked, but thankfully, Noomi Rapace is there to help clean up the dog's wounds. With her strong yet soft features and nymph-like quality, Rapace is adept at playing the spurned woman who's somehow managed to pull herself out of a hellish situation.

It would be easy to overly--or underly--praise James Gandolfini's performance in this movie. It's sad to think that such an immensely talented actor will no longer grace the screen. And yet, this character is surely not that different from the one he played in The Sopranos. Regardless, he's very good, somehow making a sad, greedy man equally likable and sympathetic. Maybe it's because the last time I saw Gandolfini he was romancing Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, but I had good feelings about him right up to the end of the movie, despite some of the very bad things he does.

Likewise, it would be easy not to have much to say about Tom Hardy's performance because of the character he plays: a tough, taciturn man who doesn't have much insight about life. And yet, despite the fact that he's no deep thinker, he possesses an innate sense about human behavior. He also possesses a remarkable cool that comes in handy more than once in the course of the film. As seemingly inexpressive as Bob is, Hardy adds so much to him, and a real human being emerges out of his performance.

Here's where I do actually spoil some things. This movie may be somewhat manipulative in that it doesn't stop you from trying to put the dog and the theft together. It turns out that their connection is tenuous at best. It's really not a narrative but a moral connection, or maybe it would be more accurate to say a human connection, between them. From the very beginning we're led to believe that Bob Saginowski is the good guy, the slightly befuddled but morally incorruptible hero who will take down the mob at the end. It's not for nothing that the movie tacitly conjures up that Terry Malloy-On the Waterfront connection. Bob, it turns out, is quite capable of mindless killing, and what's most troubling about him is the fact that he's able to keep that side of himself mentally locked up. In his mind, he's not like the other guys who go around killing people, beating women, beating dogs, abusing the system. We find in Bob a new strain of morally confused protagonists. (And there were moments were I felt just as conflicted about him.)

That's the worst part of it: By the time we learn about Bob's true capabilities, we're already in his corner. The Drop masterfully pulls the rug out from under us (not in a bad way, though) and sets Bob apart from the other evil men in the movie, perhaps most notably his cousin Marv. At first, Marv too seems like a good-natured if slightly crooked man. We soon learn that the robbery was an inside job masterminded by Marv himself, and slowly the evil that lurks inside this man emerges in increasingly chilling detail, until that scene in the car... I won't give it away, but it's a shocker.

In all, The Drop captures your interest with its decidedly grown-up story. It doesn't cater to anybody's idea of what a good or bad hero should be. Some people might feel annoyed by the film's deliberate evasiveness, but for a movie like this, it comes off as refreshingly novel. There are so many movies about once-bad-now-legit guys being forced to complete "one last job" for some inane reason or other. The one-last-job movies have worn out their welcome, and what we need more of are this kind of surprising, intricately woven, well-developed character study. There will never be another On the Waterfront or another Godfather, but a movie like The Drop gives you a marvelously satisfying good time.

With Matthias Schoenaerts (in one of the film's most conflicting--and memorable--performances), John Ortiz, Michael Aronov, and James Frecheville. Directed by Michael Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane from his novel, Animal Rescue.

September 15, 2014

They Came Together

A throwback to the insipidly silly gags of the Naked Gun movies and Airplane (written by the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker trio), They Came Together is a cheeky, "meta" spoof of romantic comedies, although, it's not exactly a pure spoof. It's more like watching a group of smart-ass comic writers give a tongue-in-cheek presentation on the tropes of the romantic comedy genre. Watching They Came Together, I was plagued with a nagging question: If this movie contained the enjoyable but dumb kind of humor of a Naked Gun movie (which I appreciate sometimes) as well as the presence of a slew of funny actors I love (including the great Amy Poehler as the romantic lead), why did I just want this movie to end?

The answer is quite simple. In the process of picking apart and laughing at the clichés of romantic comedies, They Come Together feels not different or clever, merely familiar. It falls into the bad-spoof trap of failing to tell an original story of its own. Indeed, They Came Together isn't much better than those wretched Scary Movie installments, all of which merely ape scenes and lines from the latest horror franchises. They don't actually try and tell an amusing story into which the parodies and references can be mixed.

The movie opens with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd sitting across from another couple at a dimly lit restaurant. They're about to tell them (and us) how they met, and we're informed that their story is just like a corny romantic comedy. When the flashback starts, we see all the right notes being hit: Poehler's a klutz, but exaggerated to the point of absurdity. And she owns a too-adorable-not-to-like candy store that is about to be pounced on by the giant candy conglomerate for which Rudd works. That's when they meet and an unlikely romance begins. The detail about Poehler's character owning a candy store is priceless, one of the truly inspired jokes of this movie.

They Came Together is laugh-out-loud funny for about twenty minutes, until it goes completely stale and you start to feel that through some ingenious maneuvering of space and time you've been teleported to the Hallmark Channel. I grew restless. I perused my email. I sighed. I checked the remaining running time over and over. And it's mercilessly short at 83 minutes, but those minutes couldn't have gone by fast enough. What's so depressing about this movie is the sheer waste of talent. It would have been far better for them to have put the full power of their energy, intelligence, and comic wit and spontaneity into making a legitimate romantic comedy that was equal parts original and intelligent and funny. Instead, it's a forgettable pastiche that feels lazily contrived with nothing but a smarmy distaste for a popular genre, one that is an especially easy target.

With Cobie Smulders, Max Greenfield, Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, Ed Helms, Michael Ian Black, plus cameos by, among others, Norah Jones, Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, Adam Scott, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Michael Shannon, and Judge Judy. Directed by David Wain. Written by Wain and Michael Showalter.

September 07, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Somebody from The Village Voice once said--it might have been Alan Scherstuhl--that there wasn't a single movie that wasn't improved by featuring a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. As I sat in the theater watching A Most Wanted Man, I felt like a scout, looking for those moments in Hoffman's performance when something distinctly him emerged. For a while, I was worried, because the film is so subdued and so deliberately paced, I felt it might unintentionally blanch the normally colorful acting of this great, sadly now deceased performer. But, Hoffman "showed up" as it were, injecting little pieces of his big, unpredictable, yet somehow always structured, acting persona into a character that is mostly calm, organized, quiet, cautious.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachman, a German intelligence agent relegated to a super-secret and decidedly small sub-organization that was created to bypass German laws in searching for terrorist operatives. Bachman lives with the grim guilt of failing to prevent 9/11 from happening (it was planned partly in his city, Hamburg). So now he's more focused than ever on nabbing potential terrorists. When a man (a suspected terrorist) named Isa Karpov flees Chechnya seeking asylum in Hamburg, it becomes a race between Bachman's group and the mainstream German intelligence to catch him: At first, their mission appears to be in sync, but soon Karpov's guilt is called into question. He seeks aid from a compassionate German lawyer named Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams) who works for a non-profit organization that aids people like him. She believes in his innocence, but Bachman isn't so sure, and both German and American intelligence agents are sharpening their knives and waiting to go in for the kill.

Like 2011's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this latest adaptation of a John Le Carré spy novel is slowly paced but in a way that thoroughly pulls you in. The world of this film is quite fascinating, and the movie lets us savor it, think inside it. Even though there are many entertaining James Bond-esque movies (most recently, Skyfall), you don't always get a sense of the environment or of the characters and how they are affected by their work. (Although Skyfall is certainly an exception.) Both kinds of films have their place. However, the second kind, the deliberately slower kind, is in decidedly shorter supply. But perhaps this makes those of us who like these slower spy movies more grateful, possibly even less demanding of the films when they do appear. And yet, I was prepared to pronounce A Most Wanted Man boring and confusing for about the first 20 minutes. But soon after, I was hooked, and felt invested in everything that was going on. And there's nary an explosion to be seen in the entire film. What a refreshing thing it is to have another adult movie about spies. The ending is shattering, the characters all too human, and the film highly worth watching. 

With Willem Defoe, Daniel Bruhl, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. Written by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Anton Corbijn.

September 02, 2014

Top Hat

As Top Hat (1935) opens, we're face to face with the entrance of some upper-crust men's club where an imposing sign reads, "SILENCE must be observed in the club rooms." The camera zooms in on this sign, not because it thinks we're not paying attention, but because the camera itself in Top Hat is playing a kind of joke and inviting us to partake. Cut to Fred Astaire, noisily reading the paper and disrupting the well-worn quiet of the otherwise aging gentlemen occupying a very large room full of tall upholstered chairs and warm, cozy fireplaces. A butler treads noiselessly over the carpet with a tray of drinks, but again, Fred Astaire keeps making a mockery of their reverentially quiet room by sneezing, coughing, and turning the pages of his newspaper. Somehow, this irreverent spirit feels completely and delightfully fresh, as though Top Hat had been released yesterday, and even when the movie slips into the occasional poky scenes, there's a vibrant spirit to the comedy and the music numbers that still works. (The film ends up in Venice, but the Venetian set resembles the Small World ride at Disney World more closely, as my friend put it.)

When Fred Astaire makes love to Ginger Rogers, she only half-heartedly turns him away. She doesn't really want him to stop, and it's a lovely kind of movie-going pleasure to see her grin appear, only a little at first, as he sings ridiculous love songs to her and tap dances all around her. The mistaken identity plot--which may feel somewhat weather-worn simply because it's been done so many times since--still amuses, especially with the aid of Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. Broderick may be one of the most liberated women you'll ever see in a movie, although there were lots of them in the 1930s. It's only in the last 20 or 30 years that we've put women in the movies back in prisons. Top Hat is also a lot smarter and more sophisticated than the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies that it spawned. They too used to mistake each other for someone else, and although those sudsy love comedies are certainly fun and charming in their own way, Top Hat works on a different level: it's blithely conscious of the fact that it's only a movie. Directed by Mark Sandrich from a script by Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, and Ralph Spence. The songs are of course by Irving Berlin. With Erik Rhodes, and Eric Blore, and Lucille Ball who has a bit part as a flower shop clerk.