For Your Consideration: Aug. 22, 2014

Almost ten years after Robert Rodriguez first took us into the hyper-stylized ultra-violent world of Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” the long-gestating sequel has finally appeared. The comic book/graphic novel writer has seen his work mainstreamed through the popularity of “300,” the influence of The Dark Knight Returns on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and, um, the super-hyped fiasco that was his solo directorial debut (“The Spirit”). But for some reason the noir-tinged psychopaths of Basin City still seem to hold a special fascination; though perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering the very real attraction of the original Sin City. Avarice, danger, sex, glitz: you can get it all in Las Vegas (at least in the movies). This week we’re recommending three films from the world’s center for adult entertainment.

– Ethan

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Mike Figgis’ acclaimed indie was not responsible for the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, nor the depressed alcoholic; but it’s hard to see these stock roles in any modern film and not see the echoes of Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Though it embraces the bleak, self-destructive side of Vegas’ flurry of temptation and obsession, “Leaving Las Vegas” still finds some positive energy amidst the desperation and disappointment. It’s not that either character is beyond redemption, which makes it all the more strangely, tragically pitiful that Cage’s struggling screenwriter obstinately chooses to continue down his path toward implosion; did he go to Vegas to drink himself to death, or did he drink himself to death because he was in Vegas?

– Ethan

“The Cooler” (2003)

Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, to rent on disc from Netflix

A twisty neo-noir with a few (slightly gimmicky) flashes of Scorsese-in-“Casino”/dice-fetishist style, “The Cooler” stands out not so much for its story – unlucky Bernie Lootz’s transition from professional jinx to can’t-miss-lover isn’t exactly shocking – but for the exceptional cast, making the most of a traditional setup. Baldwin got the Oscar nod, and deservedly so, for his rough, jaded Vegas old-timer resisting the city’s efforts to scrub away its dirty history; but William H. Macy plays the sad sack titular role with a kind of pathetic, schlubby dignity (Paul Giamatti would be proud), and Maria Bello makes for a pretty believable good luck charm.

– Ethan

“Fright Night” (2011)

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Toni Collette, Dave Franco

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix; you can also check out the original streaming on Netflix or Hulu

Forget Transylvania; Las Vegas is the place to be if you’re one of the undead. Everyone stays up all night, there’s plenty of new blood coming into town, and no one stays in town long enough to figure out what you’re up to. That’s what brings Jerry the Vampire (Colin Farrell) to town, moving in next door to high school student Charley (Anton Yelchin) in this remake of a 1985 cult classic. The very fact that our vampire is named Jerry should tell you what kind of movie this is, exuding that special charm of movies aware of their own campiness. Farrell is surprisingly convincing as Jerry, alternately sexy and scary, charming and menacing. To top it all off, David Tennant makes a delightful appearance as Peter Vincent, a sniveling, leather-clad Van Helsing who headlines a Vegas show but is too afraid to actually hunt vampires. Next time you’re packing for Vegas, better bring some garlic.

– Elaine

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton languish in their immortality in Jim Jarmusch’s brooding, art-house take on the vampire craze.

For Adam and Eve, time does not pass, but lingers. With their pale faces and long, slender limbs draped in voluminous robes made from dark, heavy cloths, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) present a perversely beautiful twist on their biblical namesakes. This is a movie about vampires, but it has nothing to do with the vampires that have come to dominate pop culture in the last decade. Instead, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the latest from eccentric director Jim Jarmusch, aims to capture a moment and a mood, a world of heavy curtains, yellow light, and enduring night.

Adam and Eve are vampires who have passed the long years of their existence befriending, inspiring, and in some cases, creating for history’s greatest artists. From Shakespeare to Schubert to Tesla, the litany of names mentioned is like a parade through the annals of western civilization. Though they cannot live without each other, they live apart. Adam makes his home on the outskirts of an abandoned Detroit, composing music and feeding off blood supplied by a doctor happy to take money without asking questions. Eve, on the other hand, resides in Tangier, where she spends her nights reading books of all languages and chatting with Christopher Marlowe, a member of the undead still smarting over Shakespeare’s plagiarism. 

Disgusted with the human race, Adam contemplates suicide, leading Eve to come visit and cheer him up.  Reunited, the happy couple play chess, eat popsicles, and go for long drives at night—the picture of blissful domesticity—until Eve’s sister, the reckless Ava (Mia Wasikowska) suddenly appears. This all makes the film sound much more dramatic than it feels, however, and while there is plenty of action to drive the story forward, Jarmusch is not interested in the plot so much as in his vision—the characters, the artistic sensibility they espouse, the timelessness they exude, and the striking images they present.

“Only Lovers” could easily have been a collection of striking, atmospheric images peppered with literary references and connected by a flimsy story—were it not for the performances of its two lead actors. Jarmusch (or his casting directors) deserve a prize just for choosing Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (can we please call them Tiddleston?) to be vampire lovers. As strange as the pairing seems on paper, it is perfect for this movie. Graceful and ethereal, Swinton and Hiddleston seem hewn from the same form. They lean upon each other with the comfort and ease honed by centuries of companionship, and yet they maintain a strange chemistry. Swinton remains one of the most enigmatic actors working in movies today, and as Eve she seems to carry the wisdom of the world in her eyes. Hiddleston proves to be her equal, and manages to bring levity and wit to a character who primarily broods and sulks. For large stretches of the movie, it’s enough to just watch Adam and Eve be.

While much has been made of Jarmusch’s attitudes towards art—Adam spends much of his time lamenting the “zombie” state of the human race—what was striking in this movie about immortals was the proximity of death. It is only natural that one extreme evokes the other, but the hint of death hangs over the entire movie. Adam contemplates suicide, he and Eve are not opposed to taking lives when no other feeding options present themselves, and they themselves can be poisoned by the blood they feed upon.

In one scene, Adam and Eve toss a corpse into a pool of acid and watch it dissolve. The body disappears into the water, but for a moment the skull bobs stubbornly up and down. Even if the movie hadn’t mentioned Shakespeare multiple times already—including identifying Adam as a prototype for Hamlet—the Prince of Denmark would still have come to mind. As Eve pauses to gaze at the portraits hung on Adam’s wall, the gallery of literati they’ve known through the years, the overwhelming sense is that they have all gone while Adam and Eve remain. They are indeed the only lovers left alive.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars