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Only Lovers Left Alive

April 22, 2014
Only Lovers Left Alive

Vampires, like the eternal youth they represent, are wasted on the young. Historically associated with power and allure, if not explicit sexuality, the defining property of vampires has always been their immortality. But as fun as lust and debauchery might seem to many mere mortals, after centuries they’ve got to get pretty boring. Hell, I’m not even forty and I find a lot of it bemusing already. This is where Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive comes in: a vampire story for grown-ups.

The lovers are a pair of vampires who call each other Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton); it’s not clear whether this is mere allusion, or whether they’re meant to be truly antediluvian. Either way, they’re very old. Eve still lives in Tangier, close friends with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who not only is another vampire, but totally did write all those plays we ascribe to Shakespeare. It’s no wonder she’s close to a writer, since she spends her immortality reading, packing nothing but suitcases full of books to travel.

Adam has moved to the overgrown outskirts of Detroit; his own artistic expression is in music. Back in 1828, he wrote the “sublime” adagio for Schubert’s String Quintet. These days he’s moved into even more experimental work, collecting rare guitars and other instruments through a “zombie” — human — agent (Anton Yelchin), and putting out his unlabeled recordings through the same channel. He also loves science, and has his house wired up to use a dynamo descended from Nikola Tesla’s wildest imagination. And as he pulls further and further away from any interactions at all, he despairs for the world, and starts to contemplate suicide.

Hiddleston and Swinton both present the same wonderfully muted affect. They’ve been around so long that nothing can make them too happy or sad or angry, even when Eve’s bratty little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up and drinks all their supply. Adam and Eve subsist on sips of type O-negative, procured from a hospital through a phlebotomist on the take (Jeffrey Wright), but Ava goes through it like Ke$ha with a bottle of 25-year-old single-malt scotch. Worse: they have to be extremely careful with their source, since much of the human blood supply has been contaminated in some way that’s dangerous or deadly to vampires as well.

The whole thing is delightfully moody, and the tone is only enhanced by the darkly minimalist score supplied by Jozef van Wissem and Jarmusch’s own music project, Sqürl. It’s a slow, melancholy drone, but a relaxing one at the same time. It becomes easy to see how tiring immortality might become. After the party is over, you move on to art, but even art grows old given enough time. The only thing worth keeping on going for is a companion who understands you.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Alan Partridge

April 18, 2014
Alan Partridge

Most Americans, even those who follow British comedy from Monty Python to Blackadder, are unlikely to know much about Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge. You can think of him kind of like Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report character, but without the right-wing political satire; Alan is all glib narcissism and idiocy. He’s also had a more varied career, popping up over the last thirty years in just about every journalistic position from sports reporter to talk-show host, mostly on the radio but also on television. And now he’s coming to the big screen in Alan Partridge — subtitled Alpha Papa in last August’s British release — which I’m sure would please Alan-the-character to no end.

Alan has been a DJ at North Norfolk Digital for some time, but that comfortable position is upended when the radio station is bought out and re-branded for a young audience as “Shape” — “The Way You Want It To Be” — with all the usual chaos of any corporate takeover. He makes a show of principled solidarity with his co-workers as he walks into the boardroom, but walks out after urging them to “Just Sack Pat”, his colleague (Colm Meany).

Pat is indeed sacked; he returns that evening during a kickoff party, shotguns blazing, and takes the whole station hostage. Alan, being outside with his assistant (Felicity Montagu), is spared. And Pat, unaware that his friend Alan is the reason he’s now unemployed, will only negotiate through him. Of course, the situation quickly becomes a media circus, and Alan isn’t about to let the tragedy of others get in the way of his chance to increase his public profile.

Alan is not just Coogan’s creation, but also that of Armando Iannucci, the comedy writer behind The Thick of It, its movie spinoff In the Loop, and the similar HBO series Veep. Alan Partridge has a similar feel: the humor of discomfort more than that of absurdity. Or, on the other hand, it’s the focus on the discomforting side of the absurdities of life. Like most of Iannucci’s characters, Alan is a magnified and distilled version of some of the less attractive slices of human nature that we might prefer to gloss over. Put this sort of character into a magnified situation — an international political crisis, or an armed hostage scenario — and all the everyday slights and foibles get bigger and more garish; they make us cringe all the harder.

Coogan is even more willing than most to go to these uncomfortable, ugly places; Alan Partridge can be a more abrasive, off-putting character than Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker or Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer. It’s not the style of comedy we’re used to getting on the big screen, even from British films, and it’s not an easy one to pull off smoothly, but if anyone can do it, it’s Steve Coogan.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Railway Man

April 18, 2014
The Railway Man

There are few World War II movies as acclaimed and memorable as The Bridge on the River Kwai, and few so galling to the men who lived through the events it describes. The Thailand-Burma railway was aptly named the “Death Railway” by the prisoners of war who worked on it, including British signals officer Eric Lomax. A portion of the harrowing ordeal he put down in his autobiography is now put on film in The Railway Man, which should help right that cinematic wrong.

We begin decades after the end of the war, when Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) on a train, and to her surprise she’s more interested in her itinerary than anything else. Lomax was a railway enthusiast — he quickly denies being a trainspotter — from a very young age, always interested in the engineering and development of rail systems. A few months later, they’re married.

But Lomax also suffers from what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He wakes up screaming at night, and lapses into flashbacks during the day. Patti knows he was taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942, but Lomax won’t say anything after that. His old comrade-at-arms, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), fills in some details, though.

The British had considered a rail route from Thailand to Burma in the colonial days, but had decided against building it. Under the best of conditions, railway construction was miserable work undertaken by the poorest immigrant labor. To cross the Indochinese jungles and mountains would require an army of slaves, which the occupying Japanese had with their POWs. The young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) had it worse: in order to buoy the men’s spirits, he constructs a radio to hear Allied news broadcasts. When it is found, he is taken by the Kempetai and tortured by one of their interrogators, Nagase (Ishida Tanroh).

Obviously, he survived the war, but was horribly scarred by his ordeal, as were so many other soldiers. But Lomax is offered a chance few ever got: an older Nagase (Sanada Hiroyuki) is still alive, and leading tours of the old POW camp. After some prodding, Lomax returns to Thailand to confront his torturer.

Firth does an excellent job portraying Lomax in the present, immersing himself in this shell of a man. Irvine may have the harder task, matching Firth’s mannerisms even under some incredible duress. But it’s the dyad between Firth and Sanada that brings the story’s meaning into focus.

Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson wisely limit discussion to Lomax’ interrogation, and omit his his trial and incarceration. Not that the later experiences were any less traumatic or important, but the immediacy of the film — director Jonathan Teplitzky pulls no punches in depicting the torture — makes it harder to endure than reading the same material printed on the pages of Lomax’ memoirs.

Unfortunately, most victims of post-traumatic stress, whether combat-related or not, will never get the opportunity for closure Lomax did. Patti Lomax was surely supportive of her husband, and that may have itself made some difference in his recovery. It’s a shame that we see precious little of this dynamic, though, and that Kidman is reduced to a mere audience surrogate to lead us into this story. While inspiring, the part of Eric Lomax’ story we get to see is less than representative of the problems our own returning veterans face today.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Transcendence

April 18, 2014
Transcendence

If you’ve spent any time in the geekier regions of the internet, you’ve heard of the Singularity. This is, roughly, the point at which ever-cheaper processing power reaches some critical threshold sufficient to support a “strong artificial intelligence”. That is, not just an expert system that’s good at translating natural language, or recognizing faces in pictures, or playing Jeopardy, but one that’s self-aware the same way humans — at least some of us — are. Singulatarians generally believe that once past this tipping point the AI will grow more powerful at an exponential rate, with various possible consequences.

I, personally, don’t put much stock in the more wild-eyed predictions, but there are some fascinating questions raised by the prospect of strong AI, especially in a massively-connected digital world like ours. Unfortunately, Transcendence connects meaningfully with none of these, preferring a doomsday scenario marrying those two most hated tropes by tech-illiterate Hollywood filmmakers: “computers are magic” and “computers are evil”.

We start on the cusp of a breakthrough in AI research. The most advanced expert system is the work of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), both former students of Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). They appear, along with Will’s colleague Max (Paul Bettany) at a TED-like talk, just before the neo-Luddite terrorist group RIFT executes a cluster of synchronized attacks strike AI labs across the country, and an attacker makes an attempt on Will’s life before turning the gun on himself.

Will is merely grazed, but it turns out the bullet was laced with polonium, giving Will a month or so to live. Like most Singularity true-believers, Evelyn is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of death, and she tries to upload the pattern of Will’s brain into a computer. A RIFT cell leader (Kate Mara) tries to stop them, but “Will” gets online and magically infiltrates everywhere in the internet at once, making a fortune in high-frequency trading and starting to build a new physical data center in the desert southwest.

Max is less sanguine than Evelyn, and unsure that the AI “Will” is “really” the Will Caster that they knew. This is a deep and subtle point, which Jack Paglen’s script ignores in large part and mangles in the rest. Instead we get magical-evil-computer scaremongering, compounded with a low-grade nanotechnology “grey goo”/zombie scenario. Nanites didn’t work when they tried to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still, and they don’t work any better now.

Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister takes his first spin in the director’s chair, and I admit the pictures look as great as a Nolan film ever has. But he’s working from a deeply silly, technobabbly screenplay, and he’s not really a convincing storyteller.

On top of the ridiculous sci-fi tropes, the philosophical basis for RIFT’s opposition — you know, the side we’re supposed to agree with — shows a profound failure to grasp even the most basic ideas in AI research, points which were already clear in 1979 when Douglas Hofstadter published Gödel, Escher, Bach. Any AI, we’re told, is inherently cold and logical, and cannot possibly empathize with human intelligence. This stunningly flawed reading entirely undercuts the whole premise of the film’s neural-networks approach to AI: that small, deterministic and logical units like our neurons can assemble into patterns that give rise to all of our illogical, emotional personalities. The result may sound plausible to Hollywood technophobes, and maybe even to many in the audience, but anyone who’s ever thought much about AI and the Singularity will be sorely disappointed in this film that understands none of it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Under the Skin

April 14, 2014
Under the Skin

There are few film actors in recent years as impressive as Scarlett Johansson. Her imitation of Janet Leigh in Hitchcock matched Hopkins’ own performance; she went head-to-head with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon; she was masterful in Her without ever appearing on screen. Just a couple weeks ago, The Winter Soldier reminded us how good she is in mainstream action fare. And now we get Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, featuring possibly her boldest and most powerful role yet.

Johansson’s unnamed character is a mysterious woman driving around the cities of Scotland in an unmarked van, stopping men passing by and asking for directions. She offers them a ride, makes small talk, and if they’re alone, with nobody who will miss them too soon, she asks if they want to go back to her place. It seems plenty of men are willing to go home with a strange woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson.

Her exact nature is obscure throughout the film, though it’s more fleshed-out in Faber’s novel. Suffice to say she’s an alien, abducting men for some unspecified purpose. When driving around alone she is affectless, but she turns on a friendly smile and patter when she opens a window to her mark. The thick — and un-subtitled — Scots accents help reinforce the sense of alienation; we are, along with her, strangers in this place.

She starts out aloof, as interested in an ant as in a person. As her mission begins, she accepts her role as a lure: an attractive target to please men’s eyes, although repurposed here to do them harm. But as she spends time wearing a woman’s appearance, she begins to identify with these people among whom she drives. But it’s when she meets one profoundly lonely young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, that she breaks with her mission. No longer content as merely a figure to be admired by men, she begins to explore herself as a woman. And in doing so, she begins to court the wrath of men who might be horrified to discover something more than they expect, quite literally under the skin.

Glazer manages to shoot much of the film from hidden cameras, mounted all around the area where he’s planned out the actions. Many of the men are actually random passers-by giving directions or engaging in small-talk before the movie is explained to some few of them who might need to do more. For this achievement alone, the film is remarkable, but of course there’s more to it than mere technical merit.

Johansson’s arc is exquisitely crafted from her initial distance to her growing self-awareness. She deserves praise for taking on a role that exposes her to this extent and handling it with such honesty and maturity. The danger of prurient comments is very real; many serious critics seem to have gone for the cheaper take, declaring the film “erotic” as if praising it, when there’s nothing erotic about it.

Yes, there is a naked female body, but when it is most thoroughly explored, it is removed from any sexual context as she watches herself in the mirror. To declare this erotic is to project one’s own adolescent mindset, viewing a woman’s body as valuable only to the extent that it can incite lust. She does not look at herself with lust, but to see herself as the person she wants to become. She is escaping the narrow strictures of sex — just as many young women push to in our own society — and those who call her nudity automatically erotic are those who would push her back down and objectify her.

Scarlett Johansson herself is just one of the millions — indeed if not billions — of women who struggles to become more than just her pretty face in a culture and an industry that is designed to reward her for little else. She is beautiful and alluring, but she like all the others is more than that. She showed, in Her, that she doesn’t even need a body at all to be charming and funny and witty and human, and the powers that be declared her performance unworthy because we didn’t get to ogle her. What a shame to value her only for her outward appearance — her skin — and to ignore or revile everything that lies beneath it.

Worth It: yes.

Oculus

April 11, 2014
Oculus

Horror fans celebrate: There is a new film out from the good side of Blumhouse Productions. You know, the side that doesn’t just put out an endless series of Paranormal Activity sequels where nothing ever happens. No, this is the side that produced Insidious, Sinister, and Dark Skies, and now Oculus. Co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, based on his earlier short film, Oculus brings a wonderfully creepy atmosphere with some smart, inventive techniques that more than make up for a thin story.

The hook is simple: an antique mirror is haunted, or possessed, or something, it’s never made completely clear, and it doesn’t need to be. All the information we get about its history comes from Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), who recounts a litany of murders and suicides she ascribes to the workings of the mirror. She’s interested because the last names on the list are her parents, Marie and Alan (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), the latter at the hands of her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites).

It’s ten years since that horrible night; Kaylie has managed to track down the mirror through her fiancé’s job at an auction house just in time for Tim to be released from the mental hospital. Back then, they promised never to forget what happened, and to destroy the mirror when they got the chance. Tonight she means to carry through with that threat.

How is the mirror responsible for all this death? It seems to be able to control the perceptions of people around it. Did you get up and move to the next room, or are you still sitting in your seat? Did you pick up an apple or a lightbulb before biting into it? Did the mirror trick you into picking up the lightbulb by making you think it was the apple, or did it want to scare you into thinking you’d just shredded your mouth on the broken glass? And how long have you been there anyway?

Kaylie has come prepared with alarms to remind her and Tim when to eat and drink, and her fiancé will call every hour. She wants not only to destroy the mirror — more difficult than it might seem — but to provide documentary evidence for what it does. Tim is less certain; he’s just gotten well, and wants to move forward with his life rather than stay mired in this fantasy of an evil mirror.

But as the story plays out, it’s clear that Kaylie’s been right all along. Weird things start happening around them. They remember the last days before their parents died, and how their younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) survived. And then the film starts to change. The flashbacks start out as memories displayed to the audience, but the mirror starts using them to entrap Kaylie and Tim themselves in a nightmare landscape populated by the mirror-eyed apparitions of those who have been consumed.

The genius of the film is how it’s edited — again by Flanagan — to blur these lines between memories and projections and realities. Trying to hold on to a notion of “what’s really happening”, you quickly become lost, just as those under the influence of the mirror lose track of their own minds, and the creepy score by the Newton Brothers doesn’t help matters. It can be maddening to an audience set on believing in some objective movie-reality, even if that reality may contain paranormal elements. When we get deep into this film, there is no point in trying to find any solid ground; it just doesn’t exist here.

It’s easy to dismiss this as “cheating” on the part of the filmmakers, but only if you insist that there must be some discernible “real story”. This is not a ghost story, but a waking nightmare, and Flanagan does a fantastic job of bringing the whole audience into it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s close at times, but I’m going to say it fails.

Draft Day

April 11, 2014
Draft Day

Along with Moneyball, Kevin Costner’s new film Draft Day points to an odd trend of late: sports movies that have almost nothing to do with playing sports. Some of them, like 42 and Trouble With the Curve manage to be sports-adjacent, but Moneyball and Draft Day seem to push a none-too-subtle message: the really interesting stories in pro sports have nothing to do with athletes themselves; all the real action is with the white-collar — not to mention lily-white — management behind the scenes.

This time the sport is football, leading up to the NFL draft which, according to the movie, is some big event including a raucous crowd of fans at Madison Square Garden. I don’t know; I don’t really follow football very much. I do know that the first picks in the draft go to the worst teams of the previous season, and this year that goes to the Cleveland Browns. And just this morning their general manager, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), traded that first-round first-pick to the Seattle Seahawks.

Of course, this is an unpopular move. The new ringbanging head coach (Denis Leary) is outraged that he moved all the way to Cleveland and doesn’t get to dictate the roster of his team. The jetsetting owner (Frank Langella) had big press plans, and if he doesn’t get headlines by drafting the swaggering, Heisman-winning quarterback (Josh Pence) he’ll get them by firing Sonny. But the trade isn’t the only complication for the first-round pick: one former Browns star (Terry Crews) wanted his son to get that slot, Sonny’s indicated that he’s going to pull in the charming, down-to-earth Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), and the current quarterback (Tom Welling) dreads being relegated to second-string. And of course the fans are calling for Sonny’s head.

This is already pretty complicated, so of course we need to ladle on an office romance with the woman in charge of staying under the payroll cap (Jennifer Garner). It’s completely extraneous and artificially dramatic; there’s no good reason that Sonny needs to keep this relationship a secret, and there’s no real chemistry between Costner and Garner anyway.

But as many moving parts as there are, Draft Day works pretty smoothly for the most part. Like I said, I’m not a big football fan, so I wasn’t hooked on the story from the get-go. But writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman build up all these components — except the unnecessary romance — to a fine climactic sequence of negotiations as delicately balanced as any swiss-watch caper film, and watching all the pieces falling into place was delightful.

There’s little I can pick out as major problems here, especially if you ignore the romantic subplot. There’s a lot of visual clutter with multilayered visual wipes and split-screens that I imagine are meant to recall the heavy use of dynamic graphics on televised football coverage, but after a while it just feels like director Ivan Reitman got a new toy for Christmas and is eager to try out all the settings. But as distracting as it can get in the aggregate, each separate composition can be pretty fun, so I’m even willing to let this slide.

You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy Draft Day if you get dragged along to a screening, but if you’re not already a fan this isn’t going to make you one, and there are probably better things to do with your time. And in part that’s because this football movie is only barely about football at all. At best, you could make a case that it’s about fantasy football — it may then be the first movie based on a role-playing game to not be awful — but it’s really about management pushing employees around their own game board made of money. And even a non-fan like me knows that the inherent drama and conflict of a football game is more viscerally engaging than that.

Worth It: not unless you’re already into inside-football.

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