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Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2014)

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright

Written and Directed By: Jim Jarmusch

The Short Version

Behold one of the most intriguing vampire tales ever filmed.

Don’t think that description explains everything; this picture makes its own rules.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston deliver breathtaking performances.

The visuals and the music make this a shadowed feast for the senses.

Only Lovers Left Alive is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, and worth owning when the time comes.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

Flavorful, delicious, and sharp as it is smooth.


Pairs Well With...

VAMPIRE VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR.

Flavorful, delicious, and sharp as it is smooth.

“Is that the really good stuff?”


There are a million wonderful things that can be said about Only Lovers Left Alive.  Because I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, I will try to limit myself.  Indeed, before I get to the wonderful things that I do intend to mention, I’ll start with the sad elephant in the theatre.

A lot of people aren’t going to get this movie, or want to. 

Much like, of all things, the much-maligned Miami Vice film from Michael Mann, Only Lovers Left Alive is a stylistic piece that does not follow the standard narrative convention requiring a definitive beginning, middle, and ending.  It is, instead, a chapter from the story of a life – or in this case, a pair of lives – that picks up with a large amount of story already written but invisible to the viewer and that finishes with only a small arc’s conclusion (if that), very clearly leaving a large amount of story untold.  Subplots come and go from the main narrative like ships passing by in the night; some are resolved, but most are not.  For the common blockbuster audience, there could very easily be a feeling of “yeah, and?” once the closing credits start to roll.

Unlike Miami Vice, this film provides no moments of high action to hold a casual viewer’s attention.  Indeed, when studio suits complained to writer/director Jim Jarmusch that Only Lovers Left Alive didn’t have enough action scenes, he responded by taking the few action sequences that had existed out, so that the movie as made contains no “action” at all.  It’s just the characters and the places they go and the music that surrounds them, and that’s it.

And so, like I said, a lot of people aren’t going to get this movie, or want to. 

I feel sorry for them, because this is one of the best pictures that I’ve seen in a while.  Indeed, Only Lovers Left Alive now stands as the best movie I’ve seen in a theatre all year.

Why?  As suggested above, there are a million answers to that, but I will limit myself to this small list of highlights:

 

“That certainly was visual.”  From the very first, Only Lovers Left Alive captures the eye.  Stars spin behind the opening credits, slowly at first, then just fast enough to play with the viewer’s perceptions, and then faster again until the points blur into lines… and the lines seamlessly fade into the grooves of a spinning 45 rpm record.  I knew in that instant that I was going to love the look of this movie, and I was never disappointed.  Neither the camera nor the editor ever makes a mistake, and every frame is rich with detail, even though the entire picture takes place in night and shadow.  From the beautifully calculated messes that are the homes of our two heroes – one stuffed to the bricks with recording equipment and musical instruments, the other strewn with books – to the desolation of Detroit to the ancient wonder of Tangier, the sets and locations are wonderfully crafted and chosen.  Costumes and make-up are fantastic.  Even if there were nothing else going for Only Lovers Left Alive, it would be worthwhile simply as a fest for the eyes.

“That’s your music.”  And then there is that spinning record, and that recording studio, and that little hole in the wall in Tangier that allows audiences to hear the voice of a rising star largely unknown to Euro/America because she happens to sing in Arabic.  Only Lovers Left Alive is just as much a fest for the ears as it is for the eyes, with a soundtrack that always manages to strike the right note for what’s going on, even in the middle of a dingy Detroit bar.  Vintage sounds are mixed in with the original soundtrack and the aforementioned window to the modern Middle East, making this a film just as much for music lovers as it is for cinephiles.  And then, of course, there is the music of lead actors’ voices.  No, they don’t sing, but their speech is quite enough…

I'm gonna get you that present. Give me all your money, baby.  Realistically, I could have started and ended this review with the top of the marquee: “starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.”  To call their performances “breathtaking” is an understatement… literally, because the two make an art of being magnificent and reserved and exciting and subdued and arresting and never over the top all at once.  Though their characters are built from stereotypes – an angsty, depressed musical genius and a bookish, philosophical intellectual named Adam and Eve, no less – they never feel like stereotypes, because from the very first moment the actors fill them up and make them their own.  For those who have only seen Hiddleston as Marvel’s Loki, Only Lovers Left Alive will be a revelation, and Swinton’s own magnetic performance stands in the company of Orlando as one of her finest.  Beyond the leads, Anton Yelchin and Mia Wasikowska are brilliant on the second line, and when one is content to have the likes of John Hurt and Jeffrey Wright on the third string… well, that should tell savvy viewers a lot about the talent at hand here.

It's probably blood poisoning.  Why, yes: this is a vampire story.  It is, in fact, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and part of the reason why is that it takes the concept of vampirism as a given and then weaves it into very realistic (if highly extended) lives.  The fact of who and what these characters are is always there, of course, and informs everything they do, but it always comes back to personal relationships, desires, and conflicts: in a word, character.  In the world of Only Lovers Left Alive, vampirism is a condition, not a gimmick, and that makes the details – and absences of detail – regarding “la vida vampire” much more interesting.  Our vampires don’t, as a matter of both modern decorum and simple safety, prefer to drain blood “straight from the tap;” instead, they get it on the sly from doctors and hospitals, then to take it down in dessert wine glasses or frozen as popsicles.  It seems that modern humans – whom the vampires refer to as “zombies” – have poisoned their own blood supply, meaning that our heroes must be extra careful to avoid tainted meals which could, in turn, kill them.  And why “zombies,” you ask?  Because humans are so busy killing themselves and their world that, to these centuries-old beings, they’ve forgotten to appreciate life, leaving our two leads as – though this is never said outright – the only lovers left alive.  Neat, that.  As is the idea that their best friend is really Christopher Marlowe, who, in this world, really did give a certain Bard all of his material…

“Look what she did to my Gibson.”  And then there are all of the little details beyond the lives that these vampires have led or touched or masqueraded.  Only Lovers Left Alive is rich with them, from the portrait of Adam and Eve’s third wedding (circa the 1860s) to aliases Adam uses when picking up his blood supply.  Eve’s ability to instantly tell the age of any object she touches is all the more fascinating for the fact that it is never explained, and the details she reads from Adam’s vast collection of musical instruments are wonderful.  Eve uses a brand new iPhone, whereas Adam has cobbled together a contraption made from an ancient cordless phone, a tube television, and strings of wires rigged through an old remote control to duplicate the modern smartphone’s FaceTime functionality.  Audiences also learn in brilliantly understated fashion that Adam powers his car (a Jaguar, which might make some commercial watchers chuckle) and his home with generators that draw electricity directly from the atmosphere; a design which he apparently learned from Nikola Tesla himself.  There are so very many intricate and fascinating details to discover in this film that it’s impossible to catch them all in one sitting, and each new discovery is a fresh reward.

 

Given a chapter so richly filled with all of the above, I don’t need to have the entire metaphorical novel set in front of me to love the story.  It doesn’t matter that, like the rest of the audience, I can only guess at all of the amazing things that happened before the events that show up on the screen, and at what might have occurred in the seconds and centuries hidden behind the closing credits.  Indeed, not being told is part of the joy of this story, and reinforces the privilege of having been made privy to what the audience is allowed to watch.  Only Lovers Left Alive is an exquisite extended moment put to film, and for those open to truly appreciating its gifts, it is an experience to be savored.

Bottom line, Only Lovers Left Alive is an outstanding movie, and the best I’ve seen so far this year.  If you can handle a picture without gaudy action sequences that doesn’t feel compelled to adhere to normal narrative construction, this is one that is definitely worth checking out, and, when the time comes, worth owning.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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