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Thursday 2 October 2014

Sucker story sates appetite

Published 21/02/2014 | 14:30

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Only Lovers Left Alive
Stalingrad

Jim Jarmusch has managed to find something new to say on the subject of vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive.

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Only lovers left alive (15A, general release, 123 minutes)

Director: Jim Jarmusch. Stars: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska.

4 stars

As a general rule I'd rather eat my own foot than sit through yet another film about vampires, and the fact that this two-hour Jim Jarmusch yarn concerns a love affair between bloodsuckers was not encouraging. However, somehow the old indie warhorse has found something new to say on the subject, and Only Lovers Left Alive is full of mordant wit, and charm.

Tom Hiddleston, complete with rock 'n' roll fright wig, plays Adam, a reclusive musician who hides out in a rambling house in a derelict Detroit neighbourhood. He's famous, but avoids his fans like the plague, and his only contact with the outside world is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a scruffy fixer who finds Adam everything from vintage guitars to antique weapons. But there's one thing Adam needs that Ian can't source, and that's blood. Because Adam's a vampire.

He makes do with buying blood from a corrupt medic at the local hospital, which he sips carefully from a sherry glass, but he's pretty sick of his interminable existence, and frequently toys with suicide. His one joy is his lanky, cultured wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), who flies in from Tangier when she becomes worried about Adam's suicidal thoughts. And Eve is just succeeding in cheering Adam up when her devious younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up to throw a spanner in the works.

Jarmusch's film is slow-moving but very stylish, and full of playful cultural references and erudite jokes. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfectly cast as the jaded outsiders, and John Hurt turns up as Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe.

In a sense Only Lovers Left Alive is a kind of antidote to those dumb vampire romance movies we've been persecuted with of late, a ravaged Detroit provides an evocative backdrop, and this being a Jim Jarmusch film, there's a great soundtrack, too.

Sentimental war flick ignores big picture

Stalingrad (15A, general release, 131 minutes)

Director: Fedor Bondarchuk. Stars: Pyotr Fyodorov, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Aleksey Barabash.

2 stars

These days it's accepted by pretty much everyone that Adolf Hitler lost the Second World War at Stalingrad. After that monumental winter battle, the Nazi regime never quite recovered its swagger, and the Third Reich faced the nightmare of war on two fronts. Little wonder that the battle is still revered in Russia, and perhaps that's the reason why this Fedor Bondarchuk war film has broken box office records in its home country. To be honest, I can't think of any other.

It's estimated that more than a million lives were lost during the four months that the Battle of Stalingrad raged, and Bondarchuk's film examines the conflict from the point of view of a group of Soviet reconnaissance troops taking part in a decisive Russian assault. Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) leads a small group of soldiers who get stranded in a ramshackle apartment block after crossing the Volga and sneaking behind German lines. There they find a vulnerable young local girl called Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) who becomes a symbol of what they're fighting for in that blasted shell of a town.

Stalingrad is not without its moments, and certainly succeeds in vividly recreating the desperate hand-to-hand street-fighting that was such a feature of the battle. But it gives absolutely no overview of the conflict, is both gratuitously jingoistic and absurdly sentimental, and offers no insights into how Stalingrad played out tactically. Sometimes, Russian heroism stretches one's patience: for instance, soldiers on fire, even Soviet ones, probably didn't run away from the river and towards the Germans.

Mr Bondarchuk's slow-motion fight scenes seem out of place, and almost disrespectful given his subject matter. And the casual viewer comes away from Fedor Bondarchuk's noisy epic none the wiser about how the great battle was won and lost.

Tale of lust with a heart of darkness

Stranger by the Lake (No cert, IFI, 100 minutes) Director: Alain Guiraudie.

Stars: Pierre de Ladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumcao.

4 STARS

There's a beguiling rhythm to Alain Guiraudie's slow and cold-eyed thriller that makes its underlying darkness seem all the more disturbing. By a beautiful lake, surrounded by hills and forests, men consort daily through a long, hot summer, preening and sunning themselves and eyeing up the competition.

Though the men talk vaguely of the 'hetero' beach on the other side of the lake, this is most definitely the 'homo' side, and no women ever appear to spoil the party.

Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) is a regular, handsome, toned and mildly narcissistic young man who comes to the lake to swim and pick up casual lovers. One day he notices a sad-looking, middle-aged man loitering near the beach on the rocks and goes to talk to him.

Though Henri (the excellent Patrick d'Assumcao) is apparently heterosexual, he passes no judgement on Franck's lifestyle and the two become friends. Then Franck meets a dashing, arrogant swimmer called Michel (Christophe Paou), with whom he begins a passionate affair.

Scenes both graphic and oddly emotionless leave us in no doubt as to their sexual chemistry, but one night as Franck is leaving the lake he sees Michel deliberately drown his jealous ex-partner. Franck becomes torn between his desire for Michel and the horror of what he has seen.

Stranger by the Lake explores the nature of lust and the difficulties most of us encounter in trying to control it. Although Alain Guiraudie's film includes a lot of graphic love scenes and full-frontal nudity, the sex it depicts is anatomical rather than erotic, and the fact that the sex is exclusively gay is neither here nor there.

Lust is lust, whoever's feeling it, and Stranger by the Lake stylishly and carefully explores the consequences of attraction and the difference between love and friendship.

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