Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sunglasses at Night: "Only Lovers Left Alive" very laid-back but offbeat fun

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
122 min., rated R.

Lest you think you are about to get yet another saga in the overexposed filmic world of vampires, "Only Lovers Alive" is a bohemian, worldly thinking person's vampire love story from seminal indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (2009's "The Limits of Control"). Certainly, there is no arguing that the film strums its own rhythm, but the success of such a thing will depend on where one stands with Jarmusch's unusual quirks and if you are one of many who already feel vampire fatigue. Short on actual story but undoubtedly intoxicating in its funky, relaxed vibe and tone, the film is one of the cooler, more adventurous variations on vampiric lore. It's stripped-down and languid—too languid at times, perhaps—and not a lot happens, but there is usually always something vibrant to look at and ideas to think about. And who better to play chic, cultured neck-biters than the striking and almost-androgynous Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton? 

Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) are husband and wife vampires who have seen it all and do not think too highly of humans, referred to as "zombies." They are soul mates who cannot live without one another but live far apart, morose 500-year-old musician Adam leading a reclusive life with his rare electric guitars and analog recording equipment in an urban Detroit brownstone and hopeful 3,000-year-old Eve residing peacefully in Tangier, Moracco. He relies on mortal Ian (Anton Yelchin) to be his gofer and bribes Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital for blood supplies. When she's not devouring literature at a quick rate, Eve receives "the good stuff" from playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who warns her not to "let the cat out of the bag" or "drop a hint now and then" about their mysterious way of life. Having requested one wooden .38 caliber bullet for himself from Ian, Adam telecommunicates with his love and worries Eve, convincing her to take a red eye to Detroit and hole herself up with him. All is going well for the lovers' reunion, until Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve's trouble-making train wreck of a younger sister from L.A., announces her eventual arrival in their dreams. 

Writer-director Jarmusch's passion for art, literature, and obscure music shines through, almost edging on preciousness, as if he were merely using Adam and Eve as mouthpieces. Were they not vampires, Adam and Eve may have come off as pretentious, insufferably droning hipster bores, but their literary musings are introspective and witty. Jarmusch finds so much droll, subtle humor in his two undead protagonists' long life span and been-there-done-that attitude. Adam not only listens to Eddie Cochran, but he was actually around when the '50s rockabilly musician was popular (Jack White might be the youngest one they know). He and Eve chat about how they feasted on 18th-century poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and there's a tip of the hat to literary characters like Daisy Buchanan, Dr. Caligari, and Faust. Even the elderly Marlowe denounces Shakespeare, naming himself the true Bard. 

From the opening frame, Jarmusch is in total command of his mise-en-scène. Affonso Gonçalves' ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") editing and Yorick Le Saux's ("I Am Love") cinematography create an artfully dizzying tableau of a spinning vinyl record morphing into a rotating shot down to Adam, with a guitar in his lap, and then Eve, asleep on a stack of old books. With a majority of the film being shot at night in Motown and involving a lot of interiors, Le Saux knows how to make every frame look stylish and atmospheric rather than claustrophobic or dreary. Characters, especially Adam and Eve, are distinctively well-coiffed by costume designer Bina Daigeler, he with his black leather and she with her white gloves and Moroccan robes. The use of underground rock music by composer Jozef van Wissem and Jarmusch's band SQÜRL is hypnotic, and the production design, art direction and set decoration are all superb, particularly that of the leads' lived-in separate dwellings. As black-haired, depressed romantic Adam and white-blonde-haired, intellectual survivor Eve, Hiddleston and Swinton make an inspired pairing. They both completely embody their own characters' attitudes and evoke centuries of love through their sexy and compassionate chemistry. It's actually surprising that Swinton has never played a vampire until now, and so rarely given the chance to be funny, she deadpans perfectly and is so eminently watchable that she nearly wipes everyone else off screen. The magnetic Hiddleston and Swinton are the main course, but Wasikowska is the real wild card, providing a volt of energy and amusing brattiness for the time she's on-screen, and Yelchin, Wright and Hurt all bring something to their fun supporting turns. 

First and foremost, "Only Lovers Left Alive" has Jarmusch putting his own offbeat, melancholy spin on a tired myth that has been draining its creative life. Though a bit dramatically chilly, the film breaks tradition by not dwelling on the hunting of our creatures of the night, who still get their sustenance, and briefly touches on the standard rules (vamps need an invitation to enter). That doesn't mean we don't get O-negative popsicles and shots of sanguine lips and bitten necks, but Jarmusch is more interested in letting his characters talk and think about more than just their hankering for "zombie" blood. Susceptible to the occasional dull stretch, the sleepy pacing is still germane to the ennui and joys of immortal life, and with the stillness of the long takes, it's like the viewer is living the chamber life with Adam and Eve. "Only Lovers Left Alive" certifies that Jarmusch only makes films a certain way that's wildly different from mainstream expectations, and if one doesn't mind his low-energy approach, his eleventh film is quite groovy. 


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