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.