only-lovers-left-alive-poster1Only Lovers Left Alive, the long-awaited vampire drama by Jim Jarmusch, has to be one of the better date movies I’ve seen in a long time. There is something beautiful yet romantically slippery about the exquisitely matured bond between the vampire couple at the heart of the film. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) may be the first vampires of time immemorial. With so many centuries behind them, Jarmusch, who also wrote the script, presents this couple as the antithesis to the naive lovers in the Twilight Saga.

Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving/suffering vampires in only the way he can, with brilliant wit and heartfelt respect. Beyond jokes like the characters’ names, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures, both positively and negatively. Eve can speed read Infinite Jest, and thoughtful Adam tends to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics: “Spooky Action At a Distance.” She lives more in the moment, taking up residence in an opium den in Tangiers and in the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who apparently faked his death in 1593 to carry on living as a vampire (he’s still bitter about Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Adam languishes in a big old house in the appropriately ghostly city of Detroit. He surrounds himself with dated electronics and uses rare instruments to compose experimental music on reel-to-reel tape to be released on limited edition 180 gram vinyl with no label. To stay in touch with Adam, Eve uses Facetime on her iPhone while Adam uses a low-resolution webcam attached to a PC tower.

RZ6A6685.CR2

As with any romance movies involving mature individuals, love can get complicated, even with this decidedly progressive couple. Over the ages, Adam and Eve have developed a becalmed relationship. They don’t raise their voices at each other and despite the huge geographic gulf and differing lifestyles, their affection for one another does not waver. Still, a sort of tired undercurrent runs below the surface of their relationship despite a magnetism of shared experiences and an emotional investment that goes back centuries. They don’t just have chemistry, the have a fusion as deep as old bones calcifying to become one. They are tired, old souls incarnate.

Ultimately, Adam’s loneliness becomes palatable to Eve from across the globe, and she books a red-eye to fly to Detroit. He’s gone a tad mad and depressed, turning into a hoarder of sorts. Once at the cluttered mansion, Eve stumbles across a wooden bullet Adam had obtained from his human connection to the black market, Ian (Anton Yelchin). It upsets Eve with a quiet frustration, yet she handles it delicately, recognizing it as a call for attention more than a threat. The real kink comes in the unexpected arrival of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed. She’s the most troublesome of the quartet. While the other vamps prefer anonymity, Ava’s rather reckless. Wasikowska plays her with a wide-eyed precocious smile. She’s like a mischievous elf hiding in the shadows ready to pounce with a prank. Her character adds a colorful bit of comic relief to the mostly dour proceedings.

"only lovers left alive"

Still, all of the film’s characters are a delight, even if the film’s plot is spare and ambling. As it is with most Jarmusch films, it’s all about the dynamics between the characters, and he keeps the narrative focused on the nighttime activities of the vamps. The entire movie appropriately unfolds in the shadows, against a perpetual nocturnal backdrop. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, working with Jarmusch for the first time, delivers varying scenes using diverse degrees of focus and colored filters for different shades of atmosphere.

It’s all about the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, and they are ironically soulful characters. Humanity has somehow lost touch with slowing down and savoring life, unlike these undead culture vultures. Jarmusch places humans in the periphery. Some human characters are only shadows in the distance. "only lovers left alive"They roam the world on a diet of junk food and junk culture to the point that their blood has grown literally unpalatable to the vampires. Adam and Eve don’t dare bite anyone’s neck for fear of contamination by impure blood. Instead, they look for pure Type O-negative on the black market to sip out of sherry glasses. The vampires don’t even refer to mortals as human. Instead, they call them “zombies.”

The film’s score and musical sequences deserve highlighting, beginning with the sumptuously absorbing score by lute player Jozef van Wissem backed by Jarmusch’s very own band SQÜRL. The opening scene introducing us to the vampires is a brilliant montage featuring a perpetually rotating camera, turning the image around the screen at what seems to be 33 rpm— the speed of a record player. The detailed art design, augmented with beguiling costumes, all twirling ’round can feel dizzying. The sensation is heightened further with the growling vocals of Cults’ Madeline Follin and the super-delayed echoing of a blues-infused electric guitar weaving around a stomping, slow beat, which is occasionally accented with a single ringing chime. It’s a bit of sensory overload, but it captivates all the same. It could work brilliantly as a music video.

It’s not the only time music takes over for narrative of Only Lovers Left Alive in enchanting ways. When the vampires satisfy their thirsts, they act as if they are slipping away into an opiate high. RZ6A7363.JPGThe shallow focus of the scene allows their faces to drift away into blurs, fangs exposed, maws bloody and half-agape. The scene is scored with Wissem lazily dragging a melody across his multi-stringed instrument, varying each refrain with a high note and a low note. Below, a guitar squeals a low, wash of feedback. It’s an enthralling moment, which thankfully recurs once more during the course of the film.

The film is filled with many delightful scenes, as it strides along at a relaxed pace that never tries the audience’s patience, despite its two-hour-plus duration. Clearly, Jarmusch has spent a lot of time thinking about his version of the vampire. Even when they are troubled, like Adam, or deviant, like Ava, they remain interesting and even endearing. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has created a rich world that also provides a witty jab to the immature, pop-culture obsessed consumer who does not seem to know how to stop and savor the more complex arts. Yet, Jarmusch is not above offering a bit of self-deprecating critique back at his over-seriousness as channeled by these vampires. Despite its quirks, Only Lovers stands as one of his greatest and still entertaining personal statements in a long time.

Hans Morgenstern

Only Lovers Left Alive runs 123 minutes and is Rated R (there’s blood and gore, as can be expected in a vampire movie. They also talk dirty). A shorter version of this review appeared in my recap of the 31st Miami International Film Festival, which invited me to a screening during my coverage of the festival. It opens in South Florida this Friday, May 9, at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Cinemark Palace
Regal Shadowood

It could already be playing near you or be on the way. Visit the film’s website for more dates and locations.

Update 2: More South Florida art houses have announced dates for Only Lovers Left Alive: It opens Friday, June 27 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale (get tickets)and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (get tickets). On July 11, it arrives at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (get tickets).

Earlier Update: In Miami, the indie art house O Cinema has now booked Only Lovers Left Alive. It starts Friday, May 23. Buy tickets here.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

luss-enterprise-si-schianta-sulla-terraLens flares, zooms, explosions, 3-D, space ships, aliens! Ugh, that was exhausting. Still, I cannot knock Star Trek Into Darkness. It takes a crafty, passionate hand to do a film like this right. Often science fiction action films stumble over the edge into camp or tread lightly in two safe zones: talking down to children or challenging the adult intellect. The Star Trek franchise has long suffered all of these states except for a handful of transcendent moments on television or in the movies. Director J.J. Abrams, however. seems to have the ideal formula locked down.

A fourth theatrical film into his career, and there’s no doubt Abrams has an innate talent for the science fiction action genre. Super 8 was the fifth greatest film I saw in 2011 (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 10 – 1]). Before that, I appreciated his previous Star Trek film enough to purchase the Blu-ray, and I only buy about three to four new releases for my library per year. I have not seen Mission Impossible III, but I may correct that. But, most importantly, three sci-fi action films in, and I have no trouble calling him a better director than George Lucas. The more I learn about what happened behind the scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope, the more I feel its success came from serendipitous good fortune for Lucas. However, Abrams is the super-evolved spawn who grew up with Star Wars through the rose-colored glasses of 1970s youth. It seeped into his consciousness as a consumer, and he idealized it in a manner as most adults beguiled with nostalgic memories of the film’s release in 1977. The trick is he turned his passion into a talent for writing efficient scripts and later directing similar films. That’s what makes him the ideal choice to direct the seventh Star Wars movie.

stid2

Abrams’ talent unfurls in full blossom on the 3-D screen with Star Trek Into Darkness. His signature use of blue lens flares cut bright highlights into many shots. As much as he loves setting technology in motion, he also relishes in the way characters and nature react to it, adding a heft and presence beyond gravity. From puffs of steam from a levitating freight vehicle barreling down an invisible aerial road to the spaceship Enterprise wobbling through hyperspace, all these animated props are granted a deeper dimension. Abrams loves the zoom effect. From a classic use jolting the audience’s eyes to a closer look at a distant skirmish to melding wide exterior shots of floating spaceships to intimate close-ups of its crew, he keeps it feeling fresh and engaging.

The symphony of sonic overload during the violent scenes perpetrated by a mysterious character (A brooding and blistering performance by Benedict Cumberbatch) star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatchwho comes out of nowhere to disrupt the peaceful mission of exploration by Starfleet is presented with balance against the mere mortals struggling with the ethics of deep space exploration and their own human (and sometimes alien) foibles. Abrams even indulges in some quiet moments. He set up one particularly frightful scene of violence by first presenting a couple fretting over a sickly daughter using barely a word of dialogue.

The actors dive full force into their characters, and no one over stays their welcome on the screen. One could say the film heightens their distinctions, from Dr. Leonard McCoy’s (Karl Urban) sardonic skepticism to Chekov’s (Anton Yelchin) humble desire to live up to a new task after Scotty (Simon Pegg) butts heads with the captain over the subtleties of the engine room on the Enterprise. The same can be said of the leads, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine playing cocky with ebullient charm) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto delighting in Spock’s limited range of stoic and befuddled). star-trek-movieIt’s also a delight to have Uhura (an assuredly poised Zoe Saldana) raised to a high level of relevance from the original TV show to Spock’s love interest, as established in the previous film. To top it off, the passage of time since the last film reveals a witty layer of friction threatening the bond of Uhura and Spock in a manner that should distinguish a love affair between a human and a half human/half Vulcan. But the most fascinating actor to watch is Cumberbatch. As the slippery central nemesis of the film, he plays a sort of creature confident in his position above the beings around him. His presence in various scenarios takes the challenge of this character to all sorts of interesting levels, as one amusing kink in the plot piles on top of the other.

If there are any gripes about Star Trek Into Darkness, they are nitpicky ones. Maybe a syrupy exchange between a couple of characters in a life-and-death situation could have been cut with a few more drops of vinegar. The sexism heaped upon the women may be innate in the “Star Trek” world of the original television series from the ‘60s, but Abrams’ early work as creator of both the “Felicity” (with Matt Reeves) and “Alias” television serials proves he can do women fairer justice. But everything else works so clean and clear in Star Trek Into Darkness, these complaints only take up a few seconds of the film’s run time and hardly resonate through the rest of the movie.

With this brilliant Star Trek sequel, Abrams proves he knows how to create an atmosphere that engages movie audiences instead of pandering to them. As Star Trek Into Darkness breezes along the director always maintains an element of surprise and mystery to keep the drama moving forward. timthumbHe peppers in moments of wit throughout featuring dialog provided by a team of three capable writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) whose combined sci-fi/action credits speak for themselves. Yet Abrams never indulges in the script for exposition. Instead, he uses it as part of a mood that serves the roller-coaster experience of the film. He knows there’s no room in sci-fi action for indulgent introspection. Sure Tarkovsky does fabulous intellectual sci-fi but leave that to him if you are not going to go dive into that sort of movie whole-hog. Though this reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise is slated to carry on with Abrams in a producer role, what he has proven exciting about his work with stale sci-fi franchises is that he can breathe vibrant life back into them. It bodes well for the upcoming series of Star Wars movies.

Hans Morgenstern

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and runs 132 (breezy) minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now, including 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Paramount pictures invited me to a 3-D screening Wednesday night for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)