Only Lovers Left Alive

April 29, 2014 at 10:38 am | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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In our current YA obsessed movie industry, it is so refreshing to get a thoroughly grown-up take on a classic trope.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” is the anti-“Twilight” and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Ghost Dog,” “Night on Earth,” “Broken Flowers”) has an eye for the odd, vulnerable, sensitive and broken person and knows how to draw those performances from his actors. Here, his favorite recent muse, Tilda Swinton (“Orlando,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) is perfectly cast as an ancient vampire living in Tangiers.  Her otherworldly beauty and serene expressions fit the character perfectly. She’s forced to rush to Detroit to be with her husband (Tom Hiddleston of “Thor” and “Avengers” fame) who is once again contemplating suicide. Living for eternity does eventually get boring. The film delves deep into ennui, depression and lethargy, using the vampires as a metaphor for much of our modern experience. Together they discuss the zombies (that would be us: mindless, living mortals) and the ways we are self-destructing. The film is pervaded by a bleak, listless mood that is beautifully matched by the desolate streets of Detroit.  One of Jarmusch’s most brilliant moves was to compare dead, vacant Detroit to lively, teaming Tangiers, making subtle commentary about the young and old, the present and the past.  The ruins of Detroit make a stunning and haunting backdrop for this dreamy film with it’s post-apocalyptic vibe.  More so than any other Jarmusch film I can think of (except maybe the gorgeous black and white of “Coffee and Cigarettes”), this movie is imbued with such deep mood through it’s lighting.  Long shadows and strips of pale color imbue every scene: some are pale blue or pink or light yellow or burnt orange but all add to the mood of desolation and emptiness.  These are isolated people and every bit of the scenery (from lighting to color to backdrop) add to the sense of loneliness.  Add to this a stunning soundtrack, written by Jarmusch himself (that sounds part requiem, part German techno, part North African with a dash of Joy Division), and the mood is complete.  From beginning to end, this was a lush, clever, wry and biting (sorry, couldn’t help it) antidote to the cynical sanitizing of the modern vampire story.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

April 21, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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One of the various movie insiders interviewed for this documentary about the failed film, described it as, “the most important movie never made.”  Based on what I saw, I think it would be hard to argue with that statement.  Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to make a film version of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel in the early 70s.  Until then, the Mexican director had only been known for his very very indie flicks, “El Topo” and “The Mountain.”  They were as weird as early 70s cinema gets, which is to say, a far sight weirder than anything made today (perhaps, Matthew Barney excluded).  His vision for Dune was phantasmagorical: a sprawling, art epic full of mythology, religious implications and outlandish characters who, had they been realized like the set drawings, would have looked something like clown drag-queens.  To play these characters, he had already hired Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and others.   In true 70s art-house form, he did not intend to tell the story that was in the book (he assumed you could read the book for that) but rather, he intended to take that core story and make his own metaphor, complete with a radically different (and bizarre) ending.  In the same way that Michelangelo and Donatello might choose to interpret the Bible’s story of David in their own ways, he did not feel tied to the original text  in the fanatic way that modern directors do.  Had he succeeded in making this Sci-Fi epic 2 years before “Star Wars,” our entire view of blockbuster cinema might now be radically different.  As it was, never completed, never having shot a single scene or built a single set, the film has arguably gone on to influence “Alien,” “Blade Runner,”  “Total Recall,” “The Matrix” and a host of other films.  Though the documentary was a bit dry in parts, I cannot help but wish the film would be made today, exactly as intended, just to realize a fascinating and radically different vision for science fiction cinema.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

April 12, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Superheroes are the new Sci-Fi.  They are now the summer blockbusters upon which studios are made, much as the “Star Wars,” “Aliens,” “Terminator” films were for my generation. And, just like with Sci-Fi, some of these films are “Bladerunner”s and some have Jar Jar Binks. The first “Captain America,” while clearly not the debacle that was “The Green Lantern” or the “Fantastic Four” movies, was only marginally better than either “Thor” film. This one, though, ranks alongside “Iron Man” as being fairly decent fun. Marvel appears to be perfecting a formula: plenty of action (but not Michael Bay levels of action), a fair amount of humor (particularly of the tongue-in-cheek and inside joke variety), actual character development (we love our ambivalent or flawed heroes) and some inner party conflict (we also love to see the good guys not always getting along until they pull it together to save the world). As I’ve said in previous reviews, DC is banking on making their heroes grittier, darker and less superhero-y (see “The Dark Knight” trilogy, the new “Superman,” and the tv series “Arrow” as recent examples). Marvel is taking a different approach, trying to find ways to stay as true as possible to the larger-than-life cartoon nature of the characters while still making them relatable and not silly. Lately, they have been getting closer and closer to this goal and “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is another recent success in this category. The plot line is absolutely ridiculous and overly convoluted; why do comic villains always find the most complicated and drawn-out ways to do evil?  And, why does bringing them down always have to cause the deaths of soooo many innocent civilians?  But, don’t go to a comic book movie if that sort of nonsense drives you crazy. This is a genre with built in absurdities and, given how wrong it can go, this movie goes pretty right most of the time.

The Missing Picture

April 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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One can expect any documentary about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge to be a grisly and exhausting affair. Pol Pot’s regime managed to kill almost a quarter of the country’s population (around 3 million people) in just 4 years.  It’s difficult to imagine any film about that time period being anything but a struggle to get through.  Especially, given how personal this story is.  Yet, Rithy Panh manages to tell the story of his survival, from ages 13 to 17, with a degree of poetry and beauty that was unexpected.  That is not to say this film isn’t difficult.  Panh lost his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters during the genocide.  His experience was a heart-wrenching one but his courage and determination to recapture and own his past is deeply touching.  While I might have expected this film to remind me of last year’s “The Act of Killing” about a similar genocide in Indonesia, it actually has far more in common with the 2012 documentary “Marwencol” about a man who deals with trauma by creating an imaginary town occupied by dolls and action figures.  Panh’s struggle for a sense of peace is made worse because there are no images (pictures, videos) of his experience.  So, to deal with this, he has created the entire story of his experience using hand carved clay figures and beautiful sets.  Through a lyrical voice-over (in French with subtitles), we are told his story while we watch the figures being made and placed in their various backgrounds.  These scenes are not gratuitously bloody or violent (though they could have been); that is not Panh’s purpose.  He is just trying to document his world, to give it form, make it more real and to own it.  His process of healing is what makes the film so touching.  In that sense, it is also more like “Marwencol.”  “The Act of Killing” left me with a sense of shock and wonder and with interesting, unanswerable questions.  “The Missing Picture” left me with awe at the tenacity of human beings to survive and heal.  It is sad and disturbing but also beautiful and touching.

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