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While the mainstream has wound down to its summer speed of one blockbuster per week, the alternative cinema has been spewing out counterprogramming aplenty, some of it by big fish.

The Limits of Control is Jim Jarmusch, Mr. Absurd. In form a thriller, it feels more like an endurance test. A stone-faced and tight-mouthed mercenary (Isaach De Bankolé) receives last-minute instructions, in Spanish through an English interpreter, at the airport for a hugger-mugger mission in Spain: “Use your imagination and your skills. Everything is subjective” and “The universe has no center and no edges. Reality is arbitrary.” In a repetitive series of prearranged encounters — a telltale order of two espressos in separate cups, an icebreaking watchword of “You don’t speak Spanish, right?,” an exchange of matching matchbooks, a chewing and swallowing of a slip of paper inscribed with indecipherable letters and numbers — he moves from Madrid to Seville to the hinterland, changes suits from metallic blue to brown to gray, receives further instructions along the way: “Wait three days until you see the bread. The guitar will find you.” Something so far-fetched, so encoded, so self-indulgent, is not apt to stir much curiosity or hope of satisfaction. The approaching end, if we keep in mind the promised appearance of Bill Murray, is apt to stir despair. Yet even though the course of action is far from riveting or involving, it’s still followable and watchable, largely because Jarmusch (working with Wong Kar-wai’s cameraman, Christopher Doyle) demonstrates an eye for line and plane, and intermittently because of the phantom nude with a gun and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses (“Do you like my ass?”), made-to-order for the cover of a paperback potboiler. Aiming not for forward propulsion but for circumstantial fill-in, the film could teach a lesson or two to conventional thrillers, lessons in noticing the surroundings, soaking them up, settling into them. (“Sometimes,” observes one of the protagonist’s mysterious contacts, a white-wigged, cowboy-hatted Tilda Swinton, “I like in films when people just sit there, not saying anything.” Words to the wise.) Then again it could, conversely, take a lesson or two from conventional thrillers. When the ultimate target of the mission wonders along with the viewer how the hired gun penetrated the fortifications and attained the inner sanctum, it won’t do for him to say, “I used my imagination.”

The Song of Sparrows is Majid Majidi. The Iranian director of Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise and others, a card-carrying animist, needs no lessons in attentiveness to, aliveness to, the surrounding world. The opening shots of domestic ostriches from the neck up, the pursuit of an escaped ostrich by ten men on foot, a solitary pursuer patrolling the hills in a homemade costume as an ostrich decoy — all of that, besides being fresh material on screen, amounts to a master course. The scene soon shifts to the big city, Tehran, where the Little Man protagonist, shopping for a new hearing aid for his daughter, falls into a new line of work as a motorbike cabbie, with a new set of sights to take in. (E.g., the assorted salvage strapped onto the back of his bike to be carted home at the end of a day: an antenna, a window frame, a mini-fridge.) The film, an oppressive depiction of hand-to-mouth existence, gets within arm’s reach of the sentimentality of De Sica-style humanism, but the unlovableness of the driven, desperate, humorless, high-handed patriarchal hero repels a full embrace.

The Girlfriend Experience is Steven Soderbergh, the second or third film of his so far this year, depending on whether you count the two-part Che as one film or two. The title describes the services offered by a high-end Manhattan escort played by a sleepy porn star, Sasha Grey, in her aboveground debut. (Never heard of her, myself.) Those subterranean credentials should not lead you to expect any special degree of explicitness in the sexual activity, of which there is next to none. There is, meanwhile, a parade of clients and business associates and, for purposes of some superficial first-person narration, a recurring journalistic interviewer; and there’s a good deal of talk of economic angst against a backdrop of the 2008 presidential election; and there’s a bit of discord in the relationship with a nonpaying boyfriend, a pretty-boy personal trainer at a workout gym. It’s all quite banal and clinical, a potentially interesting and challenging choice that fails to reach or approach its potential. The sum is a digital doodle an hour and a quarter in length, gleamingly photographed, vapidly improvised, pointlessly nonlinear, parsimoniously informative.

The blockbuster de la semaine breaks the summer streak of prequel, prequel. It could easily have kept it going. Although the Dan Brown novel of Angels and Demons was indeed written before The Da Vinci Code, the screen adaptation of it (directed again by Ron Howard) takes care to situate itself afterwards with a reference or two to the returning hero’s “recent involvement with, shall we say, Church mysteries” and his consequent strained relations with the Vatican. Which one came first scarcely matters. It’s just another day in the life of a Harvard symbologist (Tom Hanks again, with a hair trim), spearheading, by virtue of his scholarly tome on the secret society of the Illuminati, a beat-the-clock investigation into the kidnap of four cardinals in line for the vacant papacy, the one-by-one, hour-by-hour murder of them in spectacular fashion in far-flung corners of Rome, and, for the pièce de résistance, the scheduled midnight demolition of Vatican City. Sportingly, the mastermind behind this diabolical plan has thought to provide cryptic clues to the Path of Illumination, leading from murder site to murder site to bomb site. In one madcap evening of running around the Eternal City, with the erudite hero dispensing little lectures on art and history on the fly, there is perforce no time for leisurely sightseeing in the Jarmusch manner, soaking up, settling in, despite the obvious lures of several three-star Michelin tourist destinations. Perhaps the built-in benefit of its earlier position in the bibliography of Dan Brown is that the plot can’t top The Da Vinci Code in nonsensicality and grandiosity. To cancel that, it does try. And try and try.

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Comments

Josh Board May 21, 2009 @ 4:35 p.m.

I can't believe Limits of Control got two stars. This is the worst movie I've seen in the last five years. By "worst" I mean that as a movie I was most disappointed with. When you have a cast that includes Gael Garcia Bernal, John Hurt, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Hiam Abbass (The Visitor), and the hot Paz de la Huerta naked, and the stone face Isaach de Bankole as the perfect killer...well, I want more than was here.

One critic said this movie was like "watching paint dry." Duncan said it was like an "endurance test." So, why doesn't it just get a black dot?

Also, Duncan mentions the repetitive series of events. Those got old quickly. They were somewhat interesting, in the fact that each person he meets has a take on something. An Asian woman talking about molecules. John Hurt talking about classical music and bohemians/hippies.

And, Isaach swallowing the instructions from the matchbook would've been a cool move. He leaves no evidence anywhere, after memorizing. But we see these notes, and they are such indecipherable numbers and letters, that that really isn't necessary. If we couldn't figure them out, I doubt the cops or anyone else would, if he just ripped it in half and threw them away with the packet of sugar in his espresso.

Jim Jarmusch can now go down as the most overrated filmmaker working. Ghost World was his only great film. Even the critically praised Mystery Train was lame.

I enjoy the slow pacing he uses. Sometimes. It worked well in Lost in Translation (an okay movie that critics loved). Here it doesn't. The premise is interesting...although it worked better in Reservoir Dogs. We see all the planning of the crime, but never the actual crime (Jim also borrows from Tarantino with the line Duncan mentions about "people in movies always have to say things and can never sit there in silence," although...that got an unintentional laugh in the theatre I was in because the viewer thought the following five seconds of silence between the two actors was the punchline to that. I don't think it was...but, who knows.

The film has its moments, but it felt four hours long. Those moments could've worked in a 30 minute story!

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murmston May 22, 2009 @ 5:15 a.m.

um... assuming you meant Ghost Dog and not Ghost World?

I would like to say that Jarmusch is a quality filmmaker even if he is sometimes hit and miss. Down By Law was certainly a really good film as was Broken Flowers although both in completely different ways.

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Josh Board May 22, 2009 @ 9:46 a.m.

Wait a second...you're right. In my mind, I always thought Jim did "Ghost World," which is a film I loved. I never saw Ghost Dog, because it got horrible reviews (Forrest Whitaker as a samuri? Yikes!).

I never saw Down by Law, but Broken Flowers was a good film, but it had a lot of problems that to me, could've easily been fixed.

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shizzyfinn May 22, 2009 @ 12:46 p.m.

Josh, have you seen Terminator 4 yet? Wow, does it suck. Several moments of intense cheesiness. Several instances where the film relies on unrealistic expository dialog to fill viewers in on what's going on. Plot holes big enough for Arnold to drive a semi through. Yet another soul-less sequel designed to separate fans from their money. Ugh.

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Josh Board May 24, 2009 @ 11:39 a.m.

I was going to see Terminator, if for any reason, the fact that it would be fun to do the Christian Bale rant when I hear someone talking or their cell phone goes off. I'd stand up and say "Oh...look at you, just talking away on your cell phone! La di da! We're trying to watch a picture here, and you're just fing around on your cell phone! What is it with you? You're probably a real nice guy, but that s doesn't fly here, man! We're trying to watch a movie!"

But seriously, I liked the first two Terminators, but only saw them once in the theatres. I can't remember the third, but I'm guessing I saw it. Is that where the chick had the shaved head? Oh wait...that was Alien 3. I get them all confused. And, when so much time comes before pre-quels or sequels, like with Star Wars, I don't bother to go back and watch the originals, although I should.

Anyway...I thought this Terminator would be good, but it's getting bad reviews, so I'm probably going to pass on it. Although, most time travel type movies have plot holes, I thought Terminator always did a good job of covering those bases. Sorry to hear this one didn't.

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Josh Board May 26, 2009 @ 12:48 a.m.

The above review by Duncan on The Girlfriend Experience nails it (so to speak).

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