Wednesday, August 20, 2014


(UK/Germany/Greece/France - 2014)

A moody, melancholy vampire film as only Jim Jarmusch could make, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE has almost no concern with the horror angle or any other genre trends. Jarmusch's centuries-old protagonists--Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston)--have loved one another through time and have been witness to countless historical and cultural touchstones: they knew Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, Adam worked with Nikola Tesla, ghost-composed pieces for Schubert, and was an early supporter of his friend Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They've drifted apart, with Eve living in Tangier and Adam in Detroit. She passes her days devouring great literature and he holes up in his dilapidated Brush Park mansion with his extensive collection of guitars, recording shoegazing garage rock instrumentals. A limitlessly-wealthy shut-in, he gets his necessities from local rock club kid Ian (Anton Yelchin) and procures blood at a local hospital from hematologist Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Bored in Tangier, seemingly destined to live forever, and encouraged by her vampire mentor and blood supplier Marlowe (John Hurt), Eve flies to Detroit to rekindle her romance with Adam, but everything gets thrown in jeopardy with the arrival of her irresponsible, hard-partying sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) from Los Angeles.

Jarmusch tells his tale with a significant amount of dark and deadpan humor that could come across as "cute" in the wrong hands but he plays it perfectly, with everything from Eve and Adam enjoying frozen bloodcicles to Adam sounding not at all like the cultured immortal he is when he expresses his everyman hate for his de-facto sister-in-law and complains that their uninvited, imposing houseguest is "drinking all the O-negative." Jarmusch makes very effective use of Detroit locations, not merely shooting there but incorporating the city's culture, blight, and wasteland-like surroundings into the story. Adam takes Eve on a tour of crumbling and decaying Detroit landmarks like the Packard Plant and the old Michigan Theater, and they serve as metaphors for relics of a long-gone day, much like Adam and Eve themselves.  Unlike the misanthropic, dour Adam, Eve sees beauty in the ruins and its cultural significance ("I love Jack White!" she exclaims as Adam shows her the musician's childhood home in a now-rundown neighborhood). Swinton and Hiddleston are excellent in this very offbeat genre piece that's unlike any vampire film you've seen. Like most Jarmusch films, it's extremely slowly-paced, very much the distinct work of its maker, and mostly quite rewarding in the end. (R, 123 mins)

(US - 2014)

An odd, low-key comedy written, directed by, and starring John Turturro, FADING GIGOLO seems like it's going for goofy and raunchy early on, but it settles into a very quiet and leisurely-paced (almost to a fault) character piece. Turturro's film is set in the kind of Brooklyn you don't see much of in the movies anymore, very nicely shot by Marco Pontecorvo, son of legendary Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) and has a definite Woody Allen influence, which even extends to Allen co-starring in one of the rare occasions over his 50-year career that he's acting in a film he didn't write and/or direct (the last were Douglas McGrath's barely-released COMPANY MAN and Alfonso Arau's even less-seen PICKING UP THE PIECES, both back in 2000). Allen is Murray Schwartz, an aging Brooklyn bookstore owner who's closing up shop and in dire need of money. His bisexual dermatologist (Sharon Stone) happens to tell him that she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are interested in a menage-a-trois, prompting Murray to offer the services of his nice-guy florist pal Fioravante (Turturro). Before long, Fioravante becomes a sought-after Brooklyn gigolo with Murray his unlikely pimp (if this sounds like a nebbishy version of the HBO series HUNG, you're right), but things get complicated when Fioravante develops feelings for a Rabbi's widow (a de-glammed Vanessa Paradis), who's being courted by an angry Hasidic beat cop (Liev Schreiber).

The premise starts out like an R-rated sitcom and has some funny moments from Allen, coming up with would-be intimidating pimp names for himself, such as "Iceberg," and "Bookmaster Moe." But once Fioravante starts pining for the widow, the laughs get dialed down quite a bit and a somber Turturro frequently comes off like a black hole in the center of his own movie, almost like he knew Allen would steal all the scenes, so he's not even going to try. But even some of Allen's scenes don't work all that well, particularly a dreadful sequence where he's hauled off to some Hasidic kangaroo court with his lawyer (Bob Balaban). Fioravante's transformation from shy homebody to sexual dynamo seems forced, as does Turturro casting himself as someone that Brooklyn's sexiest, richest wives can't resist. FADING GIGOLO is a strange film that never settles on a tone and never really comes together, but Allen seems to be enjoying himself, even if this is just a minor footnote to his long and storied career. Allen's onscreen appearances, even in his own films, are a rarity these days and maybe if this was called FADING PIMP and focused on him, it would've been a bit more successful. This ended up being a small arthouse sleeper hit for Cannon cover band Millennium over the spring and summer of 2014, almost breaking into wide release like the company's BERNIE after landing in the top 15 on just 356 screens. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

Ti West got a lot of attention in the cult horror scene with his impressive THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), a very creepy and very methodically-paced '80s throwback that seems to have spawned a "slow-burn" movement in the genre:  films where long periods of time pass with very little happening. An assured director uses this to ramp up the tension, and while it worked with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it failed with West's follow-up THE INNKEEPERS (2012), an inexplicably acclaimed horror film that was all slow-burn and nothing else. West, in many ways the Wes Anderson of horror, is so revered and coddled so gingerly with kid gloves by both critics and cult horror hipsters that it often seems like his career was granted by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. On the basis of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, I want to like Ti West's films (he also directed and disowned the long-shelved CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER), but I just can't get on the bandwagon. Something's just not working for me when it comes to his films and I don't know if it's the films themselves or that everyone seems to be seeing some kind of magic that's eluding me.

Boasting the opening credit "Eli Roth Presents," which is probably the point where the target audience had seen enough to conclude that it was a new masterpiece of modern horror and the Academy should bestow its first Participation Oscar to its maker, West's latest, THE SACRAMENT, may be the most pointless film of the year. And in using the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in Guyana as the story template, I can't imagine a more dead-on metaphor for the Kool-Aid guzzling, fanboy adoration of West's work. Here we have a film specifically engineered for the uninformed or those younger genre fans who are blithely unaware of anything that happened prior to their lifetime. If you've been waiting patiently for Jonestown recreated as a found footage/faux-doc--and if you have, then you're not quite ready to run with the grownups--then THE SACRAMENT is for you. Sure, it's set in the present day and has two Vice staffers (AJ Bowen and the inevitable Joe Swanberg) tagging along to make a doc with a colleague (Kentucker Audley) whose recovering drug addict sister (Amy Seimetz) has run off with the cult. And yes, it changes the name of the cult's compound from Jonestown to Eden Parish and the messianic leader is known simply as "Father," but he's Jim Jones, right down to the folksy drawl, the black hair, and the dark glasses. Gene Jones (best known as the gas station clerk in the "friendo" coin toss scene in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) is OK in the role, but he doesn't do anything that Powers Boothe didn't already do in the then-topical 1980 TV-movie GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES or, for that matter, Stuart Whitman as "Jim Johnson" in the spectacularly trashy GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (also 1980). But everything you know about Jonestown, right down to the cult members being held captive, the brainwashing, the Kool-Aid, the sex, and the drugs, is all here. There's nothing surprising. If you know the story of Jonestown, then you know what's exactly what's going to happen in THE SACRAMENT. So who is this movie for? Why does it exist? Why retell this story now, in this fashion? If West thinks the faux-doc angle with obligatory CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST/BLAIR WITCH PROJECT dropped-camera shots justifies a rudimentary, connect-the-dots, Wikipedia retelling of the story--and even the would-be doc stuff is handled erratically and inconsistently--then I'm calling bullshit on the entire Ti West mythos. In fact, I may even take it one step further and go full ROOM 237 and say THE SACRAMENT is West's confession that he's all smoke and mirrors, that he's been punking us all along, and that there really is nothing there. (R, 99 mins)

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