Review – Only Lovers Left Alive

After testing the limits of our patience with the languorous The Limits Of Control, Jim Jarmusch has returned to his ironically idiosyncratic best by unashamedly injecting some arthouse into the well-worn vampire flick.

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome

There really isn’t anyone out there who does what Jarmusch does and for that reason alone his status as life ambassador for effortlessly cool American independent cinema is assured.

There have been some misses, for sure. The Limits Of Control (2009) disappeared up itself and Night On Earth (1991) never quite got going, but set against such fare as his breakout Stranger Than Paradise (1984), the wonderful Dead Man (1995) and hugely atmospheric Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999), Jarmusch’s filmography remains one to be reckoned with.

The effortlessly cool Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Only Lovers Left Alive

The effortlessly cool Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive finds the candy floss-haired writer/director in a rich vein (sorry) of form and leaves you wondering why he hasn’t done a vampire movie before now. As ubiquitous as this sub-genre has become, there is still plenty of room for exploration and Jarmusch casts a melancholic glance at an America that no longer exists.

Instead of chucking in werewolves or getting bogged down in tedious vampiric lore, the film’s central bloodsuckers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have a loving warmth that belies the fact they’ve been effectively ‘dead’ for centuries.

Playwright Christoper Marlowe (John Hurt), looking good for 600 (or so)  in Only Lovers Left Alive

Playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), looking good for 600 (or so) in Only Lovers Left Alive

In spite of being on the planet for so many years, Eve still sees wonder in the world as she walks the streets of Tangier and sources “the good stuff” from her old friend, the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who has been sitting on a secret anti-Shakespeare conspiracy theorists would love.

Adam, meanwhile, is very much a glass half empty vampire and finds his only solace in vintage instruments and sound equipment, which he acquires from the eager-to-please Ian (Anton Yelchin). Adam purchases his O-Negative from Dr Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who refers to his vampire customer as Dr Faust (in a cute nod to Marlowe’s most famous play).

Eve (Tilda Swinton) enjoys a blood lolly in Only Lovers Left Alive

Eve (Tilda Swinton) enjoys a blood lolly in Only Lovers Left Alive

Adam lives in the industrial wastelands of Detroit and, unlike most vampires, steers clear of “zombies” (humans) whom he scolds for allowing the world to go to rack and ruin and infecting their blood with chemicals. A visit from Eve also soon brings with it an unwelcome stopover from Eve’s annoying sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

The relationship between Adam and Eve is beautifully handled by Hiddleston and Swinton (looking amazing for her age; maybe she went method for the role), who exude a otherwordly detachment from the world, whilst the love their characters share is exquisitely human. In spite of having been together for hundreds of years, they can still surprise each other with previously unheard stories and fresh observations (a mutual appreciation of musician Jack White being one of the more amusing ones).

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) acquires another vintage guitar from Ian (Anton Yelchin) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) acquires another vintage guitar from Ian (Anton Yelchin) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Rather than being seen as mere nourishment, the vampires imbibe on the O-Neg as a junkie would their latest fix; falling into a bliss state not dissimilar to that shown in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. It’s not a particularly original approach – Abel Ferrara’s under-appreciated The Addiction explored the same metaphor back in 1995 – but like so much else about Only Lovers Left Alive, its askew view keeps it refreshing.

Yorick Le Saux’s silky cinematography (the camera’s circular motion can be interpreted in several ways) and use of space is particularly striking and lends the film an artful grace, while Jarmusch’s uncompromising script may slip into bouts of self-aware pretension when name-checking the likes of inventor Nikola Tesla and composers Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt (whom we learn Adam gave music to back in the day, apparently), but manages to get away with it.

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome.

Great Films You Need To See – Contact (1997)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 sci-fi classic Contact was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

If they ever considered stopping by our planet, aliens should prepare themselves for a rough welcome if our exhaustive list of films featuring malevolent little green men is anything to go by.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It's a question really of how much you believe

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe

Aliens have been many things in the movies, but peaceful is rarely one of them. Even Steven Spielberg, who waved the flag for benevolent beings from outer space in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), ended up making War Of The Worlds (2005). Needless to say, those guys weren’t interested in making music or phoning home.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 adaptation of cosmologist Carl Sagan’s novel Contact feels like a riposte to the biggest evil green men movie of them all, Independence Day, which had been released the previous year.

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Ostensibly about the mystery that surrounds a signal of possibly alien origin detected by radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact is more concerned with exploring the uneasy relationship that exists between religion, science and politics.

While James Woods’ National Security Advisor Michael Kitz represents the hawkish impulse of authority to control what isn’t fully understood; the push/pull connection shared between Ellie and Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that scientific conviction and religious certainty are two sides of the same coin.

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Indeed, the genius of Contact is in the way its obsessive leading character finds herself acting increasingly on faith the closer she gets to discovering the ultimate truth behind what is, potentially, the greatest scientific breakthrough in human history.

Although she doesn’t believe in the afterlife, a revealing moment early on (following the extraordinary opening shot which pulls back from Earth to follow humanity’s radio broadcasts through the solar system, the Milky Way and beyond) comes when a young Ellie asks her father if they can contact her dead mother via radio. This is reflected later in the film when, following an apparent trip to the other side of the universe, she finds herself in heaven, for all intents and purposes.

The 'alien' machine is  made a reality in Contact

The ‘alien’ machine is made a reality in Contact

Foster is perfectly cast in the role of the dogged and inquisitive Ellie. Not everyone can carry off speeches that contain the words “Einstein Rosen Bridge” (aka wormhole) and Foster imbues her lines with a conviction that could have you fooled into thinking she’s Professor Brian Cox’s mentor.

While not the finished Oscar-winning item he would later become, McConaughey brings his good ol’ Southern charm to the role of Joss, who gets to present the other side of the argument without succumbing to Bible-thumping craziness (that role’s taken by Jake Busey’s wildly exaggerated preacher in one of the film’s only missteps).

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

After incorporating Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon into Forrest Gump (1994), Zemeckis went one better by interweaving footage of sitting US President Bill Clinton’s press conferences into the narrative of Contact.

It’s a gamble that works and adds an extra layer of authenticity to a film that never apologises for wanting to make you think, rather than suggesting you switch off your brain on the way in.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe.