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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.

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Review – Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is a man who is knowing for making a very particular type of film; films about middle-aged men in crisis, and as a result of this there’s something of a worry that any new film he makes could be doing nothing more than retreading old ground. Fortunately, in the case of his latest effort, Nebraska, such qualms are resoundingly dispelled, and he’s crafted what is, in my opinion, the best film in his canon.

It tells the rather simply story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), trying to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect $1 million he believes he’s won, and roping his reluctant son, David (Will Forte), along for the ride. There is of course much more to the film than this alone, it explores the fractured dynamics of the Grant family, the deteriorating health of Woody, his uneasy relationship with his wife (June Squibb) and sons (Forte and Bob Odenkirk) as well as the very nature of being on the road.

There is something almost metaphorical about the treatment of the road and travel in Nebraska, they are not just covering distance and going to Lincoln but instead, in a way that is perhaps cliche of road movies and road novels (it brings to mind the Kerouacian sense of self discovery in works like On the Road), they also discover themselves, as well as each other along the way. When Woody and David set off together, their relationship is uneasy to say the least, they scarcely speak a word to each other – although that can be said of Woody throughout the film – and David’s resentment is not masked, but perhaps the reason for this is that the two men seem to know nothing about one another, and, more importantly, neither do the audience. To begin with, Woody is unlikeable, he is distant and cold towards his family and gaining any attachment to him is almost impossible given he never seems entirely present. But as the film goes on and David – and by extension the audience – discover more about him and this cold man is peeled away to reveal, in his place, someone almost tragic, a point truly brought home when David says to someone else (in reference to Woody) “he just believes what people tell him,” and the power behind that simple statement is that it’s true, for better or worse, Woody believes what he hears.

Dern’s performance as Woody is nothing short of masterful, if just because he can do so much with so little. Woody is a man who is clearly in the early stages of something like dementia, and by seemingly doing nothing; looking off into the distance, standing away from everyone else, Dern effortlessly embodies a man who is clearly not entirely there, both physically and mentally. His dialogue is sparse throughout the film, more often than not he simply “yes,” “no,” or “what?” and the testament to the strength of his performance is that he can say so much with so little. When Woody, David, Ross and Kate (Woody’s wife) are back in the town where Woody grew up, they visit the house he lived in as a child, and in there, his past is brought to light in a way that is so calm that it becomes more powerful. When he is in the room he and his young brother slept in, he is asked if he was there when his brother died (he died very young). Woody simply says “I was there.” In his parent’s old bedroom, he says “this was my parent’s room. I’d get whipped if I was caught in here. Guess there’s no-one to whip me now.” These few lines create such a strong emotional response, as well as a connection with Woody’s character, that they show just how good Dern’s performance is, it’s understated and restrained nature in no way weakens it’s power. The same can be said for Forte as David; although he has more dialogue and is generally more animated than his father, it is the quieter moments, those in between vitriolic lines of dialogue, that highlight how good Forte is in the role. Squibb is generally more eccentric than the two men, more outspoken and chiefly the most comical of the major characters; her performance is full of moments that lighten the film and inject it with an almost infectious energy.

Infectious is also the best way to describe Woody’s resolve to get to Lincoln. Even though the audience are more than aware that there will not be $1 million waiting for him, it’s impossible not to will him on to his final destination. Besides, the money isn’t even the most important reason for Woody’s travelling to Lincoln. Once again, this comes back to the seemingly metaphorical treatment of travel in the film; the more distance between Woody and his house, or the town he grew up in, the more alive he seems to become; travelling for Woody isn’t just about the prize, it’s about finding something to hold on to, some energy to inject his life with. As he says “I ain’t got long left,” and it seems he’ll be damned before he spends it sitting around in the same house day after day.

It’s not a perfect film by any means; there are issues with the pacing. This isn’t to say that the film takes a long time to get going, it moves deftly and at almost two hours in length, sails by. Instead, it takes a while to truly ‘click,’ or at least it did with me; it wasn’t until Woody’s return to his hometown that I began to love the film; it’s early scenes almost have a detachment to them that, while seemingly done by design, could make it difficult for an attachment to be formed to characters later on, when it’s needed the most.

Perhaps the most effective dramatic device in Nebraska is the way that it balances humour and pathos, both in its writing and characters (Squibb’s animated comedy works as an excellent counterpoint to the dry, stoic elements on the surface of Dern’s performance). What’s most effective about the humour in Nebraska is that it’s used, in that age old way, as a defence mechanism. Early on in their travels, Woody and David go to a bar and have a beer together. The conversation is awkward, and stilted, and instead of being serious, the two men tell jokes, but it is when the laughter stops that the reality of their respective situations set in. David reveals to his father that his girlfriend of two years left him, as well as speaking up about Woody’s alcoholism. Woody of course, gives as good as he gets, before leaving and spitting out to his son “you can’t tell me what to do, cocksucker.”

Stunningly shot in black and white, Nebraska is very much an exercise in restraint, less being more. With Dern’s faultless performance at the center, the film is about so much more than just Woody’s mythical million; it is about fathers and sons, the past as a prison, the allure of the road and a straightforward refusal to let go. Quietly tragic and triumphant, with superb performances from the ensemble (Bob Odenkirk continues to impress as an actor beyond simply being Saul in Breaking Bad), Nebraska is the best film Alexander Payne has made yet, and one of the strongest of the year.

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LFF Review – Enough Said

Enough Said is a film that will be released in the wake of tragic circumstances – the death of James Gandolfini – and as a result, it may not always get judged by its merits alone, which is a shame, because it’s great and is more than capable of standing on its own two feet.

It tells the story of Eva and Albert (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini), both middle-aged and divorced, who meet at a party, and in the wake of saying neither is attracted to anyone there, begin a tentative relationship, with both of them slightly surprised at the type of person that they’re with. From the off it’s clear that Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have superb chemistry (and Gandolfini proves to be an accomplished comic actor), and simply watching them meet and awkwardly make small talk is a joy in itself. While at the party, Eva also meets Marianne who, she later discovers, is Albert’s ex-wife. This dynamic is what propels most of the drama in the film, but the problem is, it’s not as interesting as it could be and occasionally feels like a distraction from the best part of the film; the relationship between Eva and Albert.

From their first date onwards – and with the help of an excellent script – there is not a single moment that rings false, all of the humour feels genuine; both things that are said, and the awkward pauses in the conversations, and none of the drama is forced. The dramatic aspects of the film, particularly the turmoil on Eva and Albert’s relationship after he discovers Eva’s friendship with his ex-wife, are among its best moments, and seeing Louis-Dreyfus perform something more serious than comic is a rare pleasure.

Enough Said isn’t exactly groundbreaking however, it follows a similar structure to most romantic comedies, as well as a sub-plot about Eva’s daughter going to college, but fortunately it never feels like its retreading old ground, its excellent execution of standard ideas mean it always feels like a breath of fresh air. Its helped by a strong supporting cast, including Toni Collette as a friend of Eva’s (even if her accent does jump around a bit) and Ben Falcone as Collette’s husband, who steals scenes constantly and provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. It also never feels empty, no plots or characters are wasted and, even if it’s telling us things we already know about second chances and people moving on in their lives, watching these characters in particular navigate it is what makes it so good.

Refreshing, witty, and with moments of understated and effective drama, Enough Said may be forever marred by tragedy, but should instead be a reminder to the singular talent of James Gandolfini. It’s a damn great film, and I can only hope the circumstances surrounding its release won’t change that.

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LFF Review – All Is Lost

Some films, no matter who’s involved in creating them, will be a tough sell to an audience. All Is Lost, an essentially wordless tale of a man lost at sea (played by Robert Redford, and simply called Our Man), is one such film. And while it may be a tough sell, it’s certainly a worthwhile one, with Redford giving one of the strongest performances so far this year, and the film itself being created to a painstakingly high standard.

Writer/director J. C. Chandor is of course known for his excellent Margin Call, and to see him move from something like that – very dialogue heavy, with a large scope – to this, an intimate study of one man trying to stay alive, is fascinating. While of course none of his ability as a writer of dialogue is present, his ability as a director has only developed; everything is done with purpose, nothing is wasted here, which seems fitting given the situation Our Man is in. Between this and the high calibre filmmaking – the cinematography is stunning and the visual effects are strong – the fight for survival that Our Man endures becomes visceral and gripping in a way that seems almost unexpected given the quiet intimacy that defines a great deal of the film.

Sometimes as good as a film is as a whole, there is a single piece – normally a performance – that stands above the sum of the individual parts. Like with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Redford does this for All Is Lost. Although his performance is almost entirely reactionary to the things around him, it is an incredible piece of work, something subtle and nuanced, where every single moment can mean life or death, his building desperation is truly something else to behold, Redford’s performance is a towering achievement.

All Is Lost is unfortunately not without problems; it’s pacing – particularly a final act that feels longer than it should – can’t help but make the whole thing feel a bit too Kafkaesque. And of course, while it’s intimate with Our Man, everything else feels vague and abstract. There’s a lot to be read into by audiences, it’s about survival, survival of the American Hero and there are a host of metaphorical things to explore. Unfortunately, All Is Lost doesn’t do that. There’s plenty to be said, but Chandor remains quiet.

It might be too long at times, and even put its own hopes at realism and pragmatism – something mirrored superbly in Chandor’s direction – in danger by indulging with its length, but at its best, All Is Lost is an intimate and gripping tale of survival, and Redford is nothing short of incredible. It might be a tough sell, but if nothing else, it should be seen for his performance.

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LFF Review: Late At Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness

When I hear the phrase “ordinary madness,” I think of Charles Bukowski, who had a tendency to write about people that society considered to be a little downtrodden, who struggled to make ends meet and weren’t all shining examples of, in the case of Bukowski, the American Dream. Much like Bukowski, in Late at Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness, Xiaolu Guo looks at (mostly) the working class in the east end of London as they live in their own corners of the sprawling metropolis.

The first noticeable thing about Voices of Ordinary Madness is the objectivity and non-judgemental gaze through which the people in it are considered. While that’s expected in documentaries, it’s difficult not to think that most people would raise an eyebrow when they’re told that a man strangled their psychiatrist. These are exactly the kinds of things that are hear almost as horror stories in places like London, but Guo looks at these people as if they are no different from anyone else, that their madness is indeed ordinary. That’s when the film is at its strongest, when the kaleidoscope of people interviewed – immigrants, fishmongers, men with criminal pasts – all divulge how their world functions, and even though they are disconnected from one and other, a portrait of a place is shown with intimacy and honesty.

While this, the backbone of the film is consistently effective, as each chapter in the lives of these people is revealed, the film cuts away to a Warhol-esque newsreader; anywhere between one and screens of the same person reading the same news story (all of the stories are real), which range from the utterly trivial – the announcement that a celebrity couple have had a child – to the harrowing – a woman who is asking for the death penalty to be reinstated – with a philosophical or political quote superimposed across the screen, with the sources ranging from Orwell to James Joyce to Emmanuel Kant. The question I asked myself whenever this happened, was “why?” Occasionally it works as a counterpoint to these people – whose lives are often considered by the media to be full of problems, and even in need of saving – and the gradually increasing horrors of what are shown by the media; none of which seem to impact the lives or location of the people interviewed. However, it often seems that Voices of Ordinary Madness seems to have political or philosophical delusions of grandeur; the weaving together of these people is effective enough that the film doesn’t need to frame it in this grander scope. In terms of the film’s visual style, these sequences are effective, there’s a kind of grittiness to them (helped greatly by the music used in the background of these news sequences) that adds to the realism of the film, it just feels as if it’s grasping at thematic straws every now and then.

Voices of Ordinary Madness is a very strong documentary, it looks at people that are often left in the cold, doing so with empathy and honest, the dark sides of their lives are never deliberately demonised, and perhaps the more tragic side – a cafe that is essentially out of business, which then implicitly hints at the destitution of those that work there – is never made forcefully emotive. It doesn’t always succeed in delivering its message; it’s philosophy sometimes feels shoehorned in, but at its best, it offers an earnest look at a group of people who’s stories go unheard too often.

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Review – Now You See Me

Death, The Lover, The Hermit and The High Priestess are all waiting for a stranger to let them inside a dingy New York apartment. Sounds like the set-up to a very niche joke, but it’s actually the ending of the prologue to the magic oriented thriller Now You See Me. The prologue wastes no time in establishing its principle characters – four talented magicians – amidst a flurry of fascinating illusions, before they’re all brought together. And that’s when the action really begins.

On face value, the best thing about Now You See Me is, without a doubt, the magic tricks; partly because they’re brilliantly realised from a visual point of view, and partly because the show what the film’s strongest asset really is. Now You See Me unfolds like a magic trick. It may not used the three-act magic trick structure that’s dissected in detail in Christopher Nolan’s magician thriller The Prestige, but instead, what it does is establish it’s own views on magic. According to Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) magic is “controlled deception, designed for entertainment”, and this is how the magic of the film unfolds. It challenges you to try and deconstruct the tricks, and figure out the next step in the grand illusion that the Four Horsemen (the stage name of the four magician once they’re working together) are planning.

The Four Horsemen themselves are played by Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, and fortunately, their chemistry together, both when they’re performing magic and when they’re performing illusions on stage and when they’re not, is excellent. They deliver dialogue at pace, never missing a beat, and while none of the performances are exactly exemplary, they all seem to bring out a nice element of each other as performers. Harrelson steals scenes, as he always does, and Fisher has screen presence in spades (her chemistry with Eisenberg is particular highlight, and their exchanges are always great). Unfortunately, the Four Horsemen are just the tip of the iceberg in an ensemble that features a few more principle characters, which is what presents the first major fault in Now You See Me; it often feels a little muddled and unsure of itself. We’re presented with an FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, who slurs a lot of his dialogue for no real reason) who’s on the trail of the Horsemen and the crimes they commit during their shows (but going into them now would be a major spoiler), but the film never really seems to want us to side with anyone. It’s heroes and villains seem to get confused amidst the razzle dazzle of the film. Between that and the way Rhodes becomes the audience, in that the magic tricks are revealed to him, both for the benefit of the investigation, and for the audience as well, it seems like Now You See Me just doesn’t know how to treat its audience, falling into exposition-heavy pitfalls that plague summer blockbusters as they try and coast by on special effects and more style than substance.

Now, while Now You See Me has style in abundance, from its magic tricks to its fast paced (if at times irritatingly kinetic) camerawork, that’s not to say there isn’t more going on beneath the surface. It’s unsure treatment of its audience aside, it’s actively engaging in a unique way, as you try and stay a step ahead of what’s on screen, but remember “the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you.”

I feel I almost need to applaud the ambition of this film; as I’ve mention a couple of times, it’s actively engaging in a way that most summer blockbusters aren’t, and even if it’s reach exceeds its grasp at times, with an exposition heavy final act that seems to bring twists and turns out of nowhere (even though most of them have more than satisfactory explanations), the narrative is told at a breakneck pace – not a second is wasted, and almost everything on screen is important in some way – and doesn’t have any point sub-plots or filler characters. It’s only real problem is muddled points of view; from the grand robberies that take place on stage, it feels like the Four Horsemen could be a group of Robin Hood’s for the Occupy generation, but instead their motivations seem muddled and arbitrary.

It’s bold and filled with flash, but the most pleasantly surprising thing about Now You See Me is, for all of that, and the twists and turns that are thrown out with reckless abandon, there’s some substance there, as four totally different characters are brought together by something. What that something is might not be too important after all, especially after the man behind the curtain is revealed, but there’s genuine character development. If it didn’t get so lost in its own tricks now and then, it’d be pretty tough to fault, but the four magicians perform with gusto and sell the whole thing well. Now You See Me is a refreshing and engaging blockbuster that’s a much needed breath of fresh air.

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Review – We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

In my review of Stories We Tell, I mentioned that one of my issues with documentary cinema is that sometimes it simply can’t quite grip in the way that a fiction film can. We Steal Secrets has no such issue, it is a complex and engaging tapestry of the controversial website, the enigmatic man behind it, and the ramifications it had on both Assange himself, and the world in general.

One of the main issues with all documentaries is the issue of balance, and the need to take one side and fight for it with all you’re worth (look no further than the films of Michael Moore to see how this is done, with varying degrees of success). We Steal Secrets manages to (for the most part) create a genuine balance, asking people from all different sides of the Wikileaks story for their opinions, which is perhaps enhanced by the fact that, with Assange as political refugee at the time of filming, that he could not be asked. It seems strangely fitting that, even now, Assange is perhaps the man behind the curtain once again.

We Steal Secrets is more than just, as the title suggests ‘the story of Wikileaks’. It looks at Assange, his colleagues, and, perhaps most interestingly, the story of Bradley Manning. Manning was a whistleblower, who leaked military secrets to Assange, and following on from both the leaking of secrets, and Manning’s own personal demons (which are touched on throughout), he was arrested and tortured (his trial is now nearing its conclusion). Across its two hours plus running time, We Steal Secrets deftly balances several elements of the same story, leading them all – Assange, Wikileaks and Manning – to their almost inevitable convergence.

Assange as a man quickly becomes the focus of the film, as we see his collaborations with The Guardian and The New York Times when Wikileaks was at the height of its fame (or perhaps infamy). From young hacker in Melbourne to public figure and the face of Wikileaks (and later a folk devil, deemed a terrorist by the American government), the journey, and indeed transformation of Assange is fascinating in its own right, and could have a film of its own (Assange is seemingly hot property in the film industry, with the trailer for the biopic The Fifth Estate being released today).

The one balance issue in We Steal Secrets is shown when the film touches on the sexual assault charges levelled against Assange (and perhaps becomes a bit too preoccupied with them during its final act), bringing on one of the woman who alleges that Assange sexually assaulted her. I understand the need to cover all elements of Assange’s story for the film, with the sexual assault charges playing quite a large part in that, but after keeping such a clear balance and impartiality, doing this just felt unnecessary and, quite frankly, cheap.

The film also contains some interesting visual touches, from showing IM text to illustrate the conversations Bradley Manning had with hackers, and later Assange himself, as well as melding archive footage and talking footage in order to explore all facets of the narrative. This largely works well, but sometimes, especially with some of the other visual flairs (which are a bit harder to explain on paper) it feels out of place, given it doesn’t serve much of a purpose. In fact, beyond the single balance issue, my only real gripe with We Steal Secrets was another move that felt cheap, the music that plays over the film’s final moments.

Gripping and intriguing, We Steal Secrets is a kaleidoscopic examination of secrets, their keepers and their thieves. Capturing the Zeitgeist almost uncomfortably well the impending end of Bradley Manning’s trial, Alex Gibney’s documentary, an almost perfectly balanced examination of Wikileaks, and the seemingly decaying values of its founder, is necessary viewing for all.  

 

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