Tag Archives: movie

Review – Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Poster


It’s safe to say that supernatural love stories, particularly those about vampires, are something of a dime-a-dozen commodity; between that and the film’s lead characters being called Adam and Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps rather likely to elicit more than a few eye-rolls at first glance. However, to look at this film with nothing more than a first glance is to do it a great disservice. Seemingly without a plot, and with a pace that could charitably be called deliberate, those who will go where Only Lovers Left Alive takes them are in for something that really is pretty special.

It’s not really about much of anything in the sense of a story, there are hints of plot developments that don’t really turn into major points, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Without focusing too much on events, or even the vampire myth in particular detail, Jarmusch can instead, rather ironically, shine a light on his leading duo, Adam and Eve, both of whom are played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As a pair of vampires who have been in love for centuries and married each other several times – Eve mentions that their third wedding was in the 1800’s – their chemistry is undeniable, and although both of their performances are understated, they play off of each other incredibly well, and there is never a dull moment when the pair are on screen together. However, their moments apart at the beginning of the film, when Eve is in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit, are just as important. From the beginning, a connection is formed between the two of them; as Jarmusch cuts between the two of them, it seems as if their distance doesn’t matter and what happens to Adam appears to have some kind of impact on Eve, particularly when we see the two of them imbibe with blood for the first time, with the movement of both their heads and the camera, their connection is established and crucial. The reason Eve decides to go to Detroit is out of fear that Adam is slipping into depression and emotionally decaying.

From that we get the first hint at something that the film could be “about”: decay. But not decay in a personal sense, but a wider, almost societal one. The humans, or “zombies” as Adam so pejoratively dubs them, seem to be doing something wrong if the condescension of this central pair is anything to go by. As they drive through Detroit late at night, it looks dystopian, devoid of life, and also strangely beautiful. That’s one of the things that Only Lovers Left Alive does so well, for all of its melancholy musings, there is a very real beauty at its heart. This owes a lot to the wonderful production design and cinematography, which helps to do what any good love story should do: seduce. With its lingering takes and decaying cities and abandoned apartments that somehow manage to be so enticing, the visual style of the film leads the audience in with a friendly and sensual hand as we enter Adam and Eve’s world.

The chemistry shared between Swinton and Hiddleston has already been mentioned, but it, and their performance should both be singled out for praise. It’s understated and minimal and there’s scarcely a raised voice in any of their lines of dialogue, yet between the minimalist script and poignant pauses they create emotion and a genuine sense that the pair have been together for centuries, with Eve mocking Adam for spending time with Shelly and Byron (who Adam claims was a “pompous ass”) in order to cheat her way into a winning a game of chess. They truly carry the film, which is what’s expected of them given that, at its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it never overflows with saccharine sweet romanticism. As the pair dance together to “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” the film simply lets them, it doesn’t focus visually on some grand romantic movement or image, we are simply allowed to observe the pair together.

On the other end of the spectrum to these two brooding lovers is the mercurial Ava, played to perfection by a scene-stealing Mia Wasikowska. She appears for a few scenes, quite simply, to raise hell, and has a hell of a time doing it, dragging Adam and Eve out to see live music and bringing Ian (the one “zombie” that Adam can stand) back with her for what can only be described as an interesting night. John Hurt does a similar job of dominating the screen as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe – bringing at once a darkly comic and world-weary sensibility that so perfectly encapsulates what the film is about: love and death.

It’s really not a film for everyone. It meanders, picks at plot strands that disappear as quickly as they came and sometimes, perhaps fittingly given the nature of the characters, has what can feel like a cooler-than-thou sensibility that many may immediately denounce as “hipster.” However, if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the film’s wicked charms for two hours, you’ll be treated to a love story that is beguiling, broody, dryly comic – Swinton’s delivery of one-liners like “Adam, it’s been 87 years” and “well that was visual” really are a treat – and, in its minimalism, emotionally affecting in a way that’s rather surprising. The vampiric nature of the characters seems rather fitting when describing Only Lovers Left Alive, it almost feels like the kind of film that one needs to be “turned” to become fully immersed in. I’ll admit that before Swinton and Hiddleston were sharing scenes I was a little wary of what the film was trying to do, but it slowly won me over, and by the time Wasikowska came kicking and screaming into the frame I was truly hooked. Those who will like this film will probably love it, and even for those who are unsure, I urge you to give it a shot and see if it turns you as it did with me.


Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Review – Man of Steel

After Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful Batman trilogy, it’s safe to say that superhero reboots are all the rage, with The Incredible HulkThe Amazing Spider-Man and now Man of Steel following in its wake. The interesting thing here is that DC and Marvel reboots seem to be doing slightly different things (although that’s something to touch on in more detail in another piece), and Man of Steel, even compared to another DC character reboot (Batman Begins), does different things to that, which makes it one of the more interesting (and if other critical reception is anything to go by more polarising) superhero reboots of the last few years.

Before going into anything else about the film though, I feel like special mention needs to be given to the visual effects. While Snyder is known for his… Extravagant visual style, here it’s at its best, and perhaps least detrimental to the story. From the planet of Krypton, to watching its chosen son fly and fight among the stars, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years, and it genuinely took my breath away.

We all know the story of Man of Steel, it’s a Superman origin story, although by not discussing the story at all, that does lead me to mention where it succeeds and fails as a reboot. All reboots are origin stories to an extent, whether it’s simply the first act of the film (as it is in The Amazing Spider-Man) or the entire film is an origin story (as it is with Batman Begins), but what Man of Steel does differently is by ingraining the origin elements – Clark’s discoveries of his powers – into the story via flashbacks. Now, we still see young Kal-El being sent to Earth courtesy of an excellent prologue sequence on a dying Krypton, one of the highlights of the film, both for its stunning design and visual effects, and the deliciously villainous Michael Shannon as General Zod, squaring of against Russell Crowe’s Jor-El (although the gratuitous overuse of Superman’s iconography does begin to grate). Now, these flashbacks are something of a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re prompted by a line of dialogue, so they can be jarring, which almost creates the illusion that they’re bad for the pace (although the film feels faster than it’s two hour plus running time, in spite of an overly extended and problematic third act) of the film, although it’s certainly an interesting attempt to avoid the structure of most reboots/origin stories, and it mostly succeeds.

David S. Goyer, the scribe for Nolan’s Batman films, does a solid job here, particularly in terms of world-building and making this characterisation of the eponymous hero a little edgier and more interesting. In flashbacks we see him conflicted about revealing himself, and the consequences of both his actions, and what happens if he were to do nothing. However, that contrast between explosive grandeur in the fighting set-pieces and the angst-y introspection of some of the films quieter moments, doesn’t always work, and it feels tonally uneven, less cohesive than Goyer’s other reboot script. And the screenplay as a whole isn’t without problems however, given some of the characters are weak (disappointingly, Lois Lane, played well by Amy Adams is among that number. In spite of some strong scenes, in the final act, a character who’s been set up to be strong and independent has all of her attempts to help become blunders that the men around her need to fix), and the third act is riddled with the same problems that superhero films tend to be (The Avengers was particularly guilty of this too), and became a rather indulgent (although in the case of Man of Steel, visually breathtaking) sequence in which the city in which the story takes place is left in the dust in the wake of the protagonist and antagonist finally going toe-to-toe.

It’s a well cast film, Henry Cavil is excellent as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, giving him presence and an edge that allows for the angst-ridden flashbacks to have had a noticeable effect on a fully grown Clark. Small appearances from stalwart actors like Richard Schiff and Laurence Fishburne help to round out the cast. But as I said before, it’s Shannon’s General Zod that runs away with the film, whether it’s through the screaming villainy shown in the prologue or the grand, almost Shakespearian speech he delivers before the climactic battle (this kind of extreme and theatrical villain is what was missing from Thor), he may well have given my favourite performance as a comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s already iconic Joker.

A little uneven and scrappy, perhaps even unsure of itself, at the worst of times, Man of Steel is a noble failure. Ambitious, visually exceptional filmmaking that manages to shake up the reboot/origin story and structure that we’ve all seen ad nauseum by now. But at it’s best, in those moments of synergy between introspection and explosive pomposity, it’s breathtaking, well acted, and with the help of a wonderfully cast villain, stands above the crowd in terms of recent comic book adaptations.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Review – Spring Breakers

When I finally got around to watching Spring Breakers (the first in a reasonably large number of films that I missed in the cinema, and am catching up on and reviewing), my expectations had been in flux for quite a while. In spite of fairly middle of the road ratings on Metacritic and sites of that ilk, I’d constantly seeing it topping lists of the best films of the first sixth months of the year once they’d begun floating around the blogosphere. I suppose, to be blunt, I can see why it’s topping such lists – it’s bitingly satirical, visually dizzying and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I was more than a little bit cynical, both in the lead up to the release of Spring Breakers, and until I’d begun watching. A great deal of the marketing focused on the whole ‘Disney girls gone bad’ kind of thing that was floating around the internet once images of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in the film began circulating around the web (but more on them later). This, and a lot of the marketing for the film seemed to focus almost entirely on the superficial elements of its story, as well as making it look rather like a straightforward crime film, just with a scantily clad cast and a borderline unhinged (and brilliant, it must be said) James Franco. To set the record straight, Spring Breakers is neither superficial, nor straightforward. Lots of reviews of the film have called it a ‘fever dream,’ and while it may seem like I’m hopping onto some sort of bandwagon, there’s really no better way to describe it.

This idea of a fever dream is achieved by some exceptional below-the-line work, which is very much where Korine’s vision lives and dies. The film is frantically, almost jarringly edited, forcing you around in an aggressive haste, along with almost constantly moving cinematography and production design that captures perhaps the core duality of the film – something that is at once seemingly all-American, but at the same time grimy, and almost repulsive.

Spring Breakers is, on the surface, about a group of girls who rob a bank to pay for their spring break vacation. But that’s really not too important, given the initial robbery is scarcely seen, and if anything, is just a launching pad for the main meat of the film, it’s satire, it’s comments on the excess and apathy of the current generation, this constant yearning to be somewhere else, or just to be something for that matter. Early on, one of the characters talks about how they don’t want to be stuck here like everyone else, sick of being in the same classrooms with the same professors and the same students.
And so, they resolve to do something about it, and once they have, Spring Breakers descends into much more nightmarish territory, calling to mind the dark dreamscapes of David Lynch, but decorated with neon, sun, and a brutal attack on the American Dream. Sometimes though, Korine’s satire doesn’t always quite hit the mark, there are times when it lags a bit, but it’s almost faultless execution, with wonderful derectorial touches and dualities – scenes of excess over letters to one of the character’s grandmother (in which everything we hear from the letter is a lie), is nothing short of inspired.

Now, the casting for Spring Breakers seemed to be the thing that drew the most attention to it during promotion, as I’ve mentioned, the cast are, by and large stepping out of their comfort zones, and that’s putting it lightly. And while it might be almost considered stunt-casting, the actresses chosen are damn excellent, both in terms of their performances and the casting itself, with the previous, family friendly credits that some of the actresses have, coupling that with the material they tackle (with skill and a total lack of awkwardness) is the perfect way of showing the duality of the Dream that these girls are chasing.
However, as good as they are, it’s James Franco that steals the show as the excess driven, and mad as a hatter white rapper – Alien. Alien is the personification of the American Dream for these girls – living a dangerous life, and one littered with superficiality and material wealth. One of the first things he says to them is “look at my shit”, showing them his considerable firearm collection. Alien proclaims that these girls are his “soulmates,” and you know what, I think he’s right.

While my expectations weren’t the highest, and my cynicism was out in force, I must admit I was glad I took the plunge and decided to watch Spring Breakers. It’s visually unique, and the satire that drives it forward is almost always employed and executed to perfection. A surprisingly good principal cast, and a super Franco help to cement this as something that’s likely to be on even more top ten lists by the time the year is up. Oh, and it has perhaps the best use of Brittany Spears in any film. Spring break forever. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Review – Stories We Tell

“Can you tell me the whole story, in your own words, from beginning to end?”
This is the question that serves as the catalyst for the interviews that Sarah Polley asks her own family at the beginning of Stories We Tell. Because, while Stories We Tell is very much framed through Polley’s discovery of her parentage, and the way this impacted her relationship with her father, and the memory she has of her late mother, what it really seems to be about is exactly what the story implies – storytelling. Recollections of Sarah’s mother are almost fractured, coming from different points of view from different family members and friends. It’s this factor that gives Stories We Tell one of its most quietly powerful aspects, it’s feeling of universality. Early on in the film, Sarah is asked by one of her interviewees “who the fuck would want to hear about our family?”. and while of course, as I mentioned, the family is the crux of the film’s narrative, by focusing almost more on the storytellers and their memories than the story itself, the film becomes, rather than what could almost be construed as a vanity project, a unique way in which we remember the past, and how it impacts our feature.

It is through this, perhaps unnoticeable thematic element that the almost deceptive complexity of Stories We Tell can be seen, something reflected in the way its constructed. It uses three different elements to convey its story: the interviews, filmed footage made to look like super-8 home movies, and narration from Michael Polley’s memoir. The layers of the film’s construction, and the way they are intertwined perfectly complements the thematic elements of the film, as well as allowing for refreshing visual touches (particularly the integration of the filmed footage) that stop it from becoming stale.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never been the biggest fan of documentary cinema. I’m not even sure why I haven’t, I kinda struggle to get invested and drawn in by it, it feels like there’s an element of the unknown that’s missing from fiction films. I was worried that, while I was watching Stories We Tell that I’d, for want of more subtle phrasing, get bored. And while I did find that, as the narrative was shown more, that earlier elements were almost redundant, I was still intrigued as to exactly how it would unfold. These almost redundant elements did irritate me at times though, leading to what were almost pacing issues. Not that it’s a particularly long film (just shy of an hour fifty), but in exploring in detail only the elements of the story that were shown in the latter half of the film, parts of the first half become almost irrelevant. But the more I’ve thought about the film, and, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this review, it occurred to me that the story itself is only about 50% of what Stories We Tell is about. In fact, the more I’ve thought about the film, the more it’s hit me that the storytelling is more important than the story itself. The medium of film itself is foregrounded throughout (it’s almost constructivist in it’s approach) – we see Sarah filming things that are shown later, we see Michael in the recording studio as he records the voiceover used throughout the film. The way the story is told may have some issues, but that almost feels like the point.

One of the only documentaries I’ve seen in a movie theatre, there’s a lot to say about Stories We Tell. A fractured, contradictory narrative is used as a springboard to consider broader themes – memory, family, and the art of telling stories. With a unique visual style and foregrounding of the cinematic medium, it is a film of subtlety, nuance and complexity. A small marvel, and the first great film I’ve seen all year.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Review – Rock of Ages

The thing with Rock of Ages is, first of all, it’s a musical. Yes, it’s an obvious thing to start off with, but as with all musicals, that means if you don’t like the music, avoid this film. The music in question is 80’s rock ‘n’ roll, hair metal and the like, with standards from the likes of Bon Jovi, Journey and Poison all making appearances.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the film.

Rock of Ages, based on the audience favourite stage musicals playing in New York and London (which I can confirm is excellent, having scene it twice, once in each location), is a story of rock, love and fame. The story of the film diverts from the stage show, which works in some places, but less so in others. The focus of the story becomes that of Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta) and their romance as they pursue Hollywood fame in the music business. Alongside these two are a star studded groups of supporting players, from Alec Baldwin and a surprisingly tolerable Russell Brand as club owners Denis and Lonnie, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the fanatically religious Patricia Whitmore, and the cast highlight, Tom Cruise, as the burnt out, drug addled rock star Stacee Jaxx.

Cruise really brings his all to this performance, giving one of my favourites of his more recent turns, with energy, amusing melancholy, and a surprisingly good voice to the table. You can’t help but be reminded of Frank T. J. Mackey from Magnolia when you see him in this. He manages to upstage everyone around him, with all audience memebers focusing entirely on him whenever he’s on stage, particularly when he’s giving rousing renditions of Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ and Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’.

Of course, not all of the renditions work on film as well as they do on stage, particularly when you consider the predilection the film has of Hough walking down LA Streets singing power ballads (some of which work, others not so much). This leads on to one of the flaws of the film – the two leads. They’re not bad by any means, but their acting talent and chemistry is called into question when you compare them to some of the people around them. Boneta in particular, while fairly well cast physically and having a solid voice, seems very flat in his acting, and this really weakens his chemistry with Hough, who, while admittedly having one of the strongest voices in the company, does begin to grate on occasion.

The music, for me at least, was of course of the highlight of the film. While not being of my era, it is music that I love, and so many of the choices that aren’t in the stage show work so well, particularly the medley of ‘We Built This City’ and ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, filled with energy, a surprisingly vocally competent Brand, and Zeta-Jones, who is a vocal powerhouse, also knocking ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ (complete with church/gospel style opening), right out of the park.

The issue of altering the focus of the story so much, is that the subplots that worked so well on stage seem a bit out of place here. While Zeta-Jones’ plot works well, that of her characters husband, Mayor Whitmore (played well by an underused Bryan Cranston) seems irrelevant. And of course, the pacing is something of an issue. No, the film is by no means too long, at just over two hours, and, let’s face it, musicals tend to run for at least a couple of hours. The issue is, the dialogue lacks the energy that so many of the musical numbers have, and it can’t help but make the film lag. The script is by no means weak, it has some excellent laughs, some of which are achieved through musical numbers, particularly ‘I Can’t Fight This Felling’.

The film’s best asset is that it’s simply entertaining. Some of the performances are over the top, particularly Zeta-Jones, but in this film, they work perfectly, whereas in others they’d be slammed. It’s by no means for everyone, and those who haven’t seen the stage show may not ‘get it’, but it’s two hours of fun.

Flawed, and with underwhelming leads, it could be easy to write off Rock of Ages as a missfire, especially given some of the other reviews that weren’t as fond of it as I. But, if you like the music, give it a chance. It’s an enjoyable rock and roll romp with some excellent supporting performances and musical numbers you’ll have to restrain yourself from singing along to. 


Filed under Reviews