Five words: “Tilda Swinton plays a vampire.”

For a good number of people, I could convince them to see a movie with a review one sentence long: “Tilda Swinton plays a vampire.”

Though she’s been starring in films for nearly three decades – her first role was in Derek Jarman’s queer masterpiece Caravaggio in 1986 – it has only been since she was perfectly cast as the White Witch in Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 2005 and then won an Oscar two years later for Michael Clayton that she became truly famous. She is strikingly tall, archly beautiful, and she has an acting talent as nuanced and mannered at Cate Blanchett’s. But she has a taste for much weirder roles, as the title character in Sally Potter’s transgender classic Orlando, the 83-year-old Madame D. in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or as both David Bowie’s wife and as David Bowie himself in David Bowie’s video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” And then there was her art project in 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; she slept in a glass box as museumgoers watched. She has developed such a cult following as an icon of artful oddness that the utterings of the parody Twitter account @NotTildaSwinton seem believable: “A mission for you. Go outside, hold an animal to your breast. That is real warmth, not the glow of your screen. I typed this on a rabbit.”

In Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton plays Eve, an achingly-sweet, centuries-old aesthete who happens to be a vampire. Her similarly afflicted husband Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston (who is Loki in the Thor films and The Avengers), is a glum musical genius who hides from the world, composing from afar, talking to no one but a clueless hired hand (Anton Yelchin) and his wife, but to her only over Skype. She lives in Tangiers, along with her friend Kit Marlowe (yes, that one, played by John Hurt), and Adam lives in a particularly dilapidated section of Detroit. She decides to come to him after he expresses more suicidally depressive thoughts about the weight of the world. During her visit, as they discuss history and art and their love, Eve’s crass and silly sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, and she creates situations that force this short story in the lives of Adam and Eve to climax in hunger and, of course, blood.

Unlike most vampire films, which tend to have outrageously high stakes involving the end of the world or at least the ends of the main characters, Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow, thoughtful, often hilarious character study. Jim Jarmusch has been making such films since the early 1980s, and he has been able to bring in talents similarly idiosyncratic to Swinton’s, with Tom Waits in Down by Law, Johnny Depp in Dead Man, and Bill Murray in Broken Flowers. Hiddleston is wonderful in the movie, bitterly funny and in awe of his wife, but Swinton is loving, beating, glorious heart of the film. She is heroically generous, kind, and wise. And as someone who once dreamt of being an aesthete himself, I fell in love with her Eve as she packed dozens of aging, yellowing books for her trip to Detroit.

Detroit itself is an uncredited member of the cast. Adam has sequestered himself in a crumbling mansion in a barely lit part of America’s most embarrassing failure, and he takes Eve for long drives through the deserted streets, guiding the tour with achingly sad stories about the once epically beautiful buildings that are now car parks and ruins. It is a symbol for Adam’s sadness about the world and what the zombies – his terms for humans – have done to it. Or, Adam and Eve’s relationship and Eve’s desire to keep living and loving forever is a metaphor for the hope for Detroit’s (America’s?) future. Or it’s both. Jarmusch, who grew up in the similarly sad Akron, has made a movie about the undead that it actually about living.

Only Left Lovers Left Alive

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska
Rated R
Opens at Landmark Hillcrest on April 25

A dirty shame

Yet again, I am in the distinct minority on a movie. My review of Shame can be found, of course, on the website for San Diego LGBT Weekly, and I’ve pasted the whole thing below.

Shame, Steve McQueen’s dystopian tale of compulsion and sibling conflict, is the most sexually explicit movie I’ve seen since John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus but it is not nearly as interesting, inventive or sexy as Mitchell’s movie. In fact, Shame is about as sexy as taking a cold shower, clothed, while your grandmother sits on the toilet seat and tells you about her dentures. To be fair, Shame is not meant to be sexy, or at least I don’t think it is. In theory, watching the chiseled, intense Michael Fassbender get blown in a gay sex club and have a ménage à trois with two burlesque dancers should be hot, or at least really titillating. But by the point in the film when these scenes arrive, Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan has shown himself to be so cold, angry and self-hating that McQueen could have sent him running through a field of daisies singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” and I would have still been depressed.

Brandon works in finance and has a white, spare apartment in a fancy building in the middle of Manhattan. He has sex with every vaguely beautiful woman he meets, and he masturbates all of the time, even at work. His life resembles that of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, except that Brandon feels – wait for it – shame. When his computer at work is taken in for repairs, he immediately fears what will be found on the hard drive, and when he gets caught masturbating by his sister, he becomes enraged. When he tries to have sex with a woman he actually likes and can’t get it up, he’s mortified. I’ve seen articles about Shame that state that Brandon is a sex addict, but this seems like a misreading. He has sex compulsively and with strangers, but when he doesn’t have sex, he doesn’t go through withdrawal. He seems to have sex in order to punish himself; he shows no pleasure in it, not in the hunt, nor in the kill. If he’s addicted to anything, it’s repression.

What Brandon is punishing himself for is never clear, though it has something to do with his younger sister, Sissy, played with ecstatic rawness by Carey Mulligan. The film opens with Brandon playing and deleting Sissy’s answering machine messages, and when she lets herself in and invites herself to stay while she’s in town singing at a couple clubs, he is greatly irritated. She is impulsive and flighty and needy and her arms are covered in scars from cutting herself, but when she sings “New York, New York” slowly, almost as a lament, it’s clear that Sissy is much more in touch with her emotions that Brandon is. Brandon is so unhinged by Sissy because of something from their past, but aside from the reference that they “came from a bad place,” this past event is left to our imagination.

That McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan refuse to provide us with the big reveal is probably a rejection of the clichéd plot structures of most psychodramas. This seems ironic to me, because Sissy’s character, Brandon’s self-flagellation and making gay and group sex akin to an addict’s rock bottom are as clichéd as the phrase “done to death.” As beautiful as McQueen’s visuals are and as well as he directed the cast, the film just isn’t as profound and moving as Brandon’s final breakdown indicates it is supposed to be.

That said, when Fassbender commits to an emotion, he is mesmerizing; he’s a third Lawrence Olivier, a third Al Pacino, a third Christian Bale. Even if Brandon is the least attractive character he’s played this year (I’d take his Rochester in Jane Eyre, thank you very much), it is the most striking and the bravest performance. He has been widely tapped to receive his first Oscar nomination for Shame, and it will be deserved.

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale
Rated NC-17
At Landmark Hillcrest