Genre-bending films provide offbeat entertainment

by Leonard G. Heldreth

All of the films this month are offbeat, genre-bending, original examples of the breadth of offerings available in the current cinema.

Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s best independent filmmakers, one who always follows his own artistic muse, even if it means completing only eleven films in thirty years. While not every film is a masterpiece, each film offers scenes that stay forever in the viewer’s mind. Even a minor work likeMystery Train has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a befuddled hotel clerk, the ghost of Elvis, and a group of wide-eyed, lipstick-wearing Japanese tourists, as well as a plot that ends where it began—but not quite. Broken Flowers has Bill Murray pursuing questions he barely knows how to ask,Ghost Dog has Forest Whitaker as a nearly invisible hit man who takes out two bear hunters just for practice before eliminating the main bad guys—oh, and don’t forget the aged Japanese man who unexpectedly executes two well-placed kicks to bring down a thug trying to steal his groceries. And then, after his first film, the groundbreaking Stranger Than Paradise, there’s Dead Man, the black-and-white western with Johnny Depp playing William Blake (maybe he’s that William Blake, maybe not) going deeper into the crazy Wild West, where Robert Mitchum (in his last role) dominates the mining town and shows what acting-over-the-top really means. Although Only Lovers Left Alive has not garnered the accolades of some of the previous films, it took a while for Dead Man to consolidate its place on the list of nearly every critic’s top ten Westerns. In this film, Jarmusch is even playing some of the same games with names he liked in Dead Man.
Only Lovers moves to a new genre for Jarmusch—the vampire genre. (He switches genres like some directors switch leading men). Please don’t groan—I’m as appalled as most viewers by what has been done to this genre in recent films and TV shows—a little blood, a little bite, a little sex, a little grab for immortality by teens whose reach always exceeds their grasp. Throw in a werewolf or two or three, and it’s supposed to be oh-so-exciting-and-erotic. Jarmusch’s vampires are much more interesting. For example, they aren’t constantly falling in and out of love; the film, at its core, is a mellow love story that stretches across the ages.
The lovers are Adam (Tom Hiddleston—Loki in the Thor films) and Eve (Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton), and they are undoubtedly the most beautiful and stylish vampires anyone could hope for, even if they do belabor the Biblical references by comunicating through Eve’s Apple iPhone. As the film opens, Adam lives in a well-hidden apartment house he has converted to a sound studio in a decaying suburb of Detroit. From there, he writes music that is becoming too popular for his own good, collects antique guitars, sends his assistant Ian (Anton Yelchin) on eccentric errands and considers suicide when the ennui overcomes him. Across the world, his lover for a hundred years or so, Eve (Swinton), lives in Tangier (Morocco), in a small apartment cluttered with priceless volumes and tapestries; she speed-reads books, speaks and reads multiple languages and meets with her best friend next to Adam, a vampire playwright named Christopher Marlowe (the always interesting John Hurt). Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the one who wrote Dr. Faustus, and, in this film at least, claims to have written most of Shakespeare’s plays, some of them after his mysterious “death” in the Mermaid Tavern. He’s still sulking because William got credit for his achievements and laments he never met Adam before he wrote Hamlet—Adam exactly fits the part.
Marlowe is not only Eve’s friend, he also supplies her, as well as himself, with blood, purchased from safe hospital supplies. According to Adam, humans, whom he calls zombies, are not only ruining the environment and destroying the cultural legacy, but contaminating the vampires’ source of food. Adam has his own medical connection for the red stuff—Jeffrey Wright, who refers to Adam as Dr. Caligari.
Eve becomes aware Adam is fighting depression, and feels she has to go to him, even though the trip involves booking two night flights and staying out of sight during a daylight layover in London. These vampires burn in sunlight, as we see when a ray from a slightly-open curtain falls across Adam’s hand; fortunately, he heals almost instantaneously.
Eve’s trip proves uneventful, except for when a man in an adjoining seat cuts his finger, and his blood agitates Eve to the extent her fangs descend. Displaying Jarmusch’s usual literary sense of humor, the vampires travel under names like “Stephen Daedalus” or “Daisy Buchanan.” When she joins Adam, they make love (languorous shots of intertwined alabaster limbs), listen to music and share stories. Adam was present at the famous evening at Villa Diodati, and Eve asks him about Polidori, Byron (“an ass”), and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (“she was . . . delicious”). They play chess (she wins), drink blood from crystal glasses or lap it in frozen popsicle form, drive around Detroit at night in Adam’s vintage car and learn of the impending visit of Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava, a petulant spoiled brat of a vampire, brings a crisis into the calm lives of Adam and Eve, and Eve persuades her spouse to return with her to Morocco, where they meet Marlowe. Further complications ensue, but this film is not about plot complications and resolutions—it’s about relationships and what they must do to keep going for another few hundred years. Fortunately, the sets, photography and acting are so fine they make up for what isn’t there—namely, much action.
Hiddleston and Swinton are excellent, despite twenty years difference in their ages. As one reviewer stated, “The damned have never looked so beautiful.” The sets of Adam’s sound studio in Detroit look like those great antique stores, where intriguing items are stacked everywhere, and Eve’s apartment in Tangier is equally fascinating. The dialogue, written by Jarmusch, is full of amusing literary and historical references without being weighed down by them (although one is tempted to ask, was there a deliberate connection between Eve’s traveling under the passport of Daisy Buchanan and the fact that The Great Gatsby opened the Cannes Film Festival in which Only Lovers Left Alive was nominated for the Golden Palm?) Unlike a number of critics, I am not convinced Jarmusch thinks Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays any more than I think he believes in blood-sipping vampires just because he made a movie about them. Only Lovers Left Alive is the best vampire film since Let the Right One In, and one of the best films of the year.

Enemy
The concept of the “doppelganger” or “double” has appeared in a number of literary and cinematic works. The “other who goes with” a character, usually his alter-ego, extends back quite a few years in literature, appearing in Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” some of the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, and, the clearest example, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its use in film demands more technical expertise than in literature, because both sides of the personality need to be shown, often using the same actor. Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for his role as Jekyll/Hyde, but other double variations, literal or imaginary, have been equally interesting. Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers used the concept of twin brothers played by Jeremy Irons, Hitchcock’s Vertigo used Kim Novak playing two totally different women, and, perhaps most daring cinematically, Fincher’s Fight Club shows the hero, played by Edward Norton, literally wrestling with an invisible protagonist—himself. On a more symbolic level are the many variations on Victor Frankenstein’s relation to his monster or the split personality between a ventriloquist and his dummy (Eric von Stroheim in The Great Gabbo, Michael Rennie in Dead of Night and Anthony Hopkins in Magic).
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s recent Prisoners was reviewed in these pages and also starred Gyllenhaal. In Enemy, he starts with a fairly basic version of the double—a man meets someone who looks and sounds exactly like him—and dresses it up with spiders and sexy horror elements, some of which work and some of which don’t. The film’s script is based on the 2002 novelThe Double by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago. The first half of this duo is Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor who leads a quiet, ordered, fairly dull existence teaching at a university in an unnamed Canadian city, apparently Toronto. His classes, days, lectures and even students repeat themselves (a kind of doubling), and his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) visits occasionally for some routine sex. One evening, while watching a sitcom, Adam is startled to see in the background a bit player who looks exactly like him. Intrigued, he uses the Internet to identify his double, an actor named Anthony Clair (Gyllenhaal) who lives in the same city in a high-rise apartment with his quite pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon). Anthony favors leather jackets, sunglasses and motorcycles, while Adam looks and acts like a typical nondescript professor. Gyllenhaal manages to differentiate between the two well enough that the viewer seldom doubts which half is being seen.
Adam identifies Anthony’s residence and visits him, mostly out of curiosity. Both men are amazed and unnerved at their resemblances, which extend even to a scar on their stomachs. Anthony tells Adam to leave or he’ll call the police, but then follows Adam to his apartment and sees their resemblance as an opportunity for a wild weekend with Adam’s girlfriend. Adam is coerced into agreeing. Mary goes off with Anthony, finding him to be a much more exciting lover than she had realized, and Adam visits Helen, who also finds her new lover to be more interesting, gentler and more concerned about her well-being than he was before. How the couples and situations sort themselves out is made somewhat clearer in the rest of the movie, but don’t expect all the loose ends to be tied up.
Now, for the additions to the novel—in particular, the spiders. The film opens with scenes at a local sex club where women in white dresses and high heels carry around covered platters with huge tarantulas, or at least big spiders, on them, sometimes crushing the spiders under stiletto heels. Apparently, the male voyeurs get off on this, as well as whatever else the club offers, and Anthony has a special key which enables him to attend functions. The club seems to be similar to the organizations in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The elevator man, who takes Adam up to Anthony’s apartment and opens the door for him, is eager to attend another session at the club and urges Adam, whom he thinks is Anthony, to get him a key. In the meantime, a few shots of enormous long-legged spiders are shown striding, apparently symbolically, across the cityscape. All of this to prepare the audience for the film’s last scene. Whatever it may mean, and this viewer hasn’t a clue, it’s totally unexpected and certainly different.
The acting throughout the film is excellent, especially Gyllenhaal’s double role, and the women also are fine. Isabella Rossellini plays the mother of Adam, but she may also be the mother of Anthony (she criticizes what seems to be Adam for being a second-rate actor). The doubling ambiguity gets pretty heavy at times. The Canadian city has a bleak, unattractive quality which fits the story, and the spiders, whatever they may mean, certainly are repellent. If you just focus on the middle of the film and ignore the opening and closing scenes, it’s really quite interesting.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints shows influences from Terrence Malick, especially his 1973 classic Badlands, but also owes debts to Bonnie and Clyde and virtually every other crime saga about star-crossed lovers. Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck—Ben’s younger brother) are the couple separated by prison when a robbery goes wrong, and although she fired the shot wounding a state trooper, he takes the blame and the jail time. Their daughter, Sylvie, is born after the father goes to jail, and it takes him six tries over four years to break out and head back to the Texas town of Meridian. In the meantime, Sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the man Ruth wounded in the robbery, looks in on Ruth and Sylvie on a regular basis—obviously interested in taking Bob’s place if he doesn’t come back from prison, or maybe he’s just waiting to arrest him when he shows up. Bob’s friend Skerritt (Keith Carradine), runs the general store, and most of the rest of the town. He attempts to cover for Bob when three bounty hunters show up. Daniel Hart’s string-heavy score (with handclaps) complements Bradford Young’s mellow, gorgeous photography. The title, lifted from a made-up folk song, is one of the film’s weakest points, but ignore it and enjoy one of the more interesting genre variations to debut at Sundance.

Sweetwater
Consider Sweetwater to be a completely offbeat, but not a revisionist, Western. It has its over-the-top villain, Josiah (Jason Isaacs), a Mormon-style prophet and literal shepherd who runs Holy Land, the biggest ranch in the valley. His performance is splattered wih punishment, prophecies, and religious self-delusions; he sees all women as potential wives. Opposing Josiah’s grandiose plans, while sporting a bright blue frock coat and plaid pants, is hired lawman, Jackson (Ed Harris), who thinks nothing of whacking his predecessor aside the head with a pistol and booting him out of the Sheriff’s office. In another scene, he delivers two of Josiah’s men, after killing them, to the preacher’s house and sets them up at the dining room table with a glass of wine to greet their boss. His funniest scene (and Harris has a ball with this entire role) is when he goes spinning and dancing across the main street of the town, while five or six townspeople stand in the middle of the dusty street playing the Blue Danube waltz.
The third wild card in this hand is Sarah (January Jones), whose husband Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) is gunned down by Josiah’s men. She puts on her fancy blue dress, straps on her guns, and starts clearing the decks. She blows away corrupt banker Hugh (Stephen Root), pokes a long-barreled gun up the posterior of the general store’s proprietor as he spies on women trying on dresses and uses her feminine wiles to lure Josiah’s men into a vulnerable position before gunning them down. She and Jackson then head for Josiah’s house to finish the job.
Funny, socially satirical, bitter and brutal, Sweetwater is not your average Western, and it gets a little trashy at times; but for viewers amused by something a little different, it can be a hoot. Just take care not to be chewed up with some of the scenery as the actors slam into their marks and overdo their roles.
— Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can be found at marquettemonthly.org

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