Up – Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14348

It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.

Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.

On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.

With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.

The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.

The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14085

A few years ago in Sin City, it was said that Mickey Rourke’s character, Marv, had “the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century,” that he would be right at home “in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” Underneath the makeup and prosthetics, perhaps, it was just as true for Rourke as it was for Marv.

In The Wrestler, the Coliseum has morphed into a squared circle, and Rourke looks perfectly at home on the canvas even as he takes folding chairs to the head. He plays Randy the Ram, an aging ’80s wrestling superstar still clinging to the last, lingering particles of limelight in small, untelevised wrestling shows.

After a heart attack forces him to retire, Randy flounders around aimlessly, unsure of how his life should commence now. He picks up extra work at the supermarket deli counter, the only suitable retirement home for the self-identified “old, broken-down piece of meat,” to fill the time. Sensing his loneliness, a stripper friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), suggests he try bonding with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he barely knows.

Pro wrestling is not an easy subject to take seriously, but director Darren Aronofsky displays it well as a spellbinding muscle ballet, sweaty and bloody, but graceful and addictive all the same. He avoids the ubiquitous camp elements associated with the “sport,” instead focusing on the human elements within the dressing room where these mountains of men are just as fragile and soft as everyone else.

But the rousing comeback of Mickey Rourke is what the film is about, if you listen to common theory. And while that’s mostly true, that conversation unfortunately omits Tomei, who, like Rourke, is rising from the ashes of a career never quite fulfilled after the promise of My Cousin Vinny.

To that point, she gives an absolutely sterling performance here, baring all by night as Cassidy, a stripper at the end of her career, and by day as Pam, the mother of a 9-year-old boy looking for a new life. The dichotomy mandated by her job mirrors the Ram’s in some ways; both are trying to figure out which life is more important. The film gives Tomei some of the heaviest lifting as Randy gradually makes his way through Cassidy’s barrier and into Pam’s life.

Aronofsky, too, had some knocks to recover from after The Fountain. He elevates the film above script level with the small touches of genius that are all but expected of him now, a well that seemed to have run dry.

His usual bag of camera and editing tricks is left backstage, but Aronofsky allows for one soulful flourish: a crushing, one-take Steadicam shot as Randy walks from the back of the supermarket into his new life behind the deli counter. The whirring purrs of refrigerator motors are his only cheers on this new runway, and Randy even fools himself with it for a moment before the reality sinks in that he’s traded the sharp spotlight for flat fluorescents. To complete that sobering splash of cold water, his nametag doesn’t read “The Ram” or even “Randy,” but his given, decidedly unexciting name: “Robin.”

Waltz With Bashir – Ari Folman (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14112

When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.

But then he forgot.

That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.

The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.

But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.

Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.

It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.

Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.

The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.

Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.

The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.

In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14614

It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.

Sunshine Cleaning – Christine Jeffs (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14245

The bored, middle-aged women taking a break from shopping for an after-lunch sneak preview screening had come to see the girl from Enchanted and the girl from The Devil Wears Prada in their new movie. As the gasps and “Oh-mi-god”s filled the theater during the first scene, it became clear that these women may not have been aware of the film’s premise, that the pristine pair would soon be tidying up the incidental mess after their “clients’” murders and suicides – like the one they just bore witness to.

It’s a ballsy way to start a movie that, despite its low-key indie vibe, is a fairly mainstream comedy, one not shy to tout its Little Miss Sunshine pedigree.

Sunshine Cleaning stars Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as Norah and Rose Lorkowski, two sisters in desperate need of money who start a cleaning service catering to post-mortem cleanup. The idea for the business is suggested by Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who was Rose’s high-school sweetheart, but is now married with children. He still sees Rose on the side while Norah thinks she’s at class. Mac’s wife knows the situation, but wears blinders to it out of a suburban fear of loneliness.

Naturally repulsed by the job description upon first hearing about it, they dive into the decay and detritus headfirst when Rose’s son, the rambunctious Oscar (Jason Spevack), is pulled out of an incompetent school and put in the care of their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), until other arrangements can be made.

The delicacy of the blood-and-guts job hits the emotionally fragile Norah hard. When she finds a fanny pack full of pictures of a departed client’s daughter, the guilt of her own family’s tragedy kicks in, the industrial-strength cleaning solvent starts to erode the wall she’s built up between herself and her past, and she cannot help but save them from the incinerator, against the strict rules of the trade, and try to return them to the girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub).

Director Christine Jeffs’ brilliant casting takes everything we thought we knew about the pair’s prim princess and posh career girl personas and turns it right on its head. To see Adams scrubbing blood off a mirror and Blunt vomiting as a (rational) reaction instead of as a weight-loss measure is deliriously funny, but surprisingly not a one-note gag. It’s played for laughs sparingly once we get beneath the girls’ outer layers and dig into their stories.

It’s a concept that most of us can relate to in one way or another – though maybe not in ways as horrifying as cleaning up brain tissue. We’ve all done jobs that went against our personal sense of self because of human need; money is the key to all of our desires as well as our basic survival. Jeffs has crafted a brave, evocative work that fits neatly into the debt-burdened zeitgeist while offering a jarring possible reality, something the down-and-out in this grim economy might actually look into as a possibility. Hey, it beats flippin’ burgers.

Ashes of Time (Redux) – Wong Kar Wai (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14203

It took 14 years, but Wong Kar-wai’s limp and enigmatic Ashes of Time finally has some life to it.

The new version of the 1994 film, now called Ashes of Time Redux (available this week on DVD), is a luscious visual poem set to the masterful images of Christopher Doyle, the graceful fight choreography of Sammo Hung and the unequaled cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a newly recorded score. The story, however, still falls flat.

Wong tells the tale of two swordsmen, Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who will later (in Louis Cha’s 1957 novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes) become bitter enemies, but for now are friends in love with the same woman (Maggie Cheung), whom neither can have.

Feng is estranged from his home and family when the woman he loves marries his brother. He’s set up shop in the middle of the desert, acting as a middleman for passing bounty hunters and killers, and those in need of such services. Yao-shi is just one of his many visitors, arriving once a year like clockwork to catch up, tell stories and, of course, share his bottle of magic wine.

In the jungle of a city, Wong can pull off this kind of small, intimate story of emotionally blocked characters trying to be set free with his eyes closed, but in the desert he’s lost. Weight and depth are sacrificed amid the jumbled story and those long, lingering shots of clouds passing. Wong meditates on every frame in order to extract every droplet of beauty, but it’s akin to grabbing our attention with a shiny object while the plot sneaks out the back door. It sure is pretty, though.

Redux clocks in at a slightly shorter running time than any of the previous versions Wong has offered. The tighter edit is a better fit, but ultimately, it’s not enough.

Paris 36 – Christophe Barratier (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14281

French films that end up with general theatrical release in this country tend to exist as contented Oscar bait: beautifully shot, sentimental period pieces that are supposed to be uplifting and touching, but aren’t willing to take chances artistically to get there. What results are films that try to please everyone while failing to truly stimulate anyone.

Paris 36 is no exception in that regard. It tells an interesting story about an interesting time in history and does so in an interesting way, but it takes absolutely no chances. The film delves heavily into the push-pull interplay between Communism and Fascism and how the spirit of the times sucked even political atheists into the web in 1930s France, but the production comes off like an unseasoned steak: It’s good on its own, but a little salt and pepper would make all the difference.

The film follows roughly nine years in the life of a small Paris neighborhood, but concentrates mostly on one year, the titular 1936. It concerns the fates of the stagehands and performers of the Chansonia, a small vaudeville-style music hall that is struggling financially. When the owner falls behind on his payments to the local loan shark, he has to hand the hall over as forfeit; he ends up checking himself out of this life at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, while everyone else is downstairs celebrating.

The loan shark, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a politically corrupt Fascist who runs a violent team of strikebreakers, promptly closes the music hall and puts everyone out of a job, including Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a brash young Red constantly at odds with Galapiat and his strikebreakers, and Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the head stagehand, who turns to the bottle while his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin), an accordion prodigy, busks around Paris for money.

Meanwhile, the stagehands – led by Jacky Jouquet (Kad Merad) – attempt to occupy and reopen the music hall. That’s when Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful, blossoming singer, walks into their lives and changes everything.

Director Christophe Barratier has not crafted a film for the ages here, but it’s a workable, fun piece about family and friendship, full of wonderful songs and musical numbers performed on the Chansonia stage. Because Barratier refuses to play with the politics he presents, however, Paris 36 is more a slice of life than an important film. The in medias res opening tells us the plot culminates with a murder; in an hourlong TV drama, that would work just fine, but here the disclosure sucks every ounce of tension from the preceding events we’re about to see. We wait in suspense for the big shoe to drop (a letdown, naturally), thus rendering the smaller moments practically invisible. And a film like Paris 36 is nothing without its small moments.

The Girlfriend Experience – Steven Soderbergh (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14320

The Girlfriend Experience is a film that never could have been made in the star system of Old Hollywood. The Hays Office would have forbidden it, first of all, but it never would have arrived on their desk for condemnation anyway. There was a line between Hollywood sex and real sex that you didn’t dare cross. It was a line that director Steven Soderbergh helped erode in his Palme D’Or winner, 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, and a line that was officially buried and forgotten with Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film 9 Songs and John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 Shortbus.

Now, thanks to Soderbergh, we have a porn actress starring in a mainstream film from a bona fide award-winning, A-list director. That sound is Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman spinning in their graves.

With respect to adult thespians, the role is not a terrible stretch for Sasha Grey. She plays Chelsea, a $2,000-an-hour hooker who is looking for more from life. Not in the existential sense, of course. No, she wants to be better paid for her time and body, and to find a better relationship than she has with her $125-an-hour personal trainer boyfriend. At least she isn’t another hooker with a heart of gold.

The film’s jumbled timeline runs against the backdrop of the 2008 election and economic collapse, lingering on the business types who can afford her services freaking out at the thought of not being able to afford her services, while musing randomly on McCain, Obama and why gold is a better commodity than diamonds.

A few of these creeps offer to help Chelsea, but do nothing but inflict damage once they’ve gotten what they want. Case in point: A user-generated sex-website review of the Chelsea experience rips her by stating, “With her flat affect, lack of culture and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest Fucking Gump.” It’s a damaging review for Chelsea, but the problem is that it’s true about Grey herself, even more so than Chelsea. Grey is less convincing as her character than most porn stars are at faking orgasm.

While The Girlfriend Experience is not a good film by any stretch, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as being, at the very least, worth the time to watch it. Clocking in at a paltry 77 minutes, it gets lost somewhere in the cracks between terrible and bearable. There is something undeniably compelling about watching Grey flounder around onscreen next to this host of creepy user-men in her attempt to reach the next plateau of her business while still trying to find real love at the same time.

It’s impossible to root for her, because her desires would be an absurd largesse bestowed on an undeserving person if she won them. (It’s akin to hoping Spitzer’s girl, Ashley Dupré, lands that record deal she’s always wanted.) Yet it is also impossible to wish failure upon her, since she only wants to succeed at her job. It’s all anyone wants, really.

Sin Nombre – Carey Fukunaga (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14321

Immigration dramas tend to be a crap shoot. Often they are too concerned with the social, political and economic injustices of the places in Central and South America that one needs to emigrate from at any cost. They are more about the whole than the part, neglecting deep characters for stereotypes and microcosms.

The problem is that these morality films are usually boring as hell. And that’s where Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga has a winner. He spends as little time dwelling on the whole as possible, instead opting for a classic road-trip story of the parts: the people who are emigrating and the gang members trying to kill one of them. It’s a leap of faith in character before culture that earned the Japanese-Swedish–American the dramatic directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sin Nombre follows the fortunes of Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gang member on the run from his own crew, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teen newly reunited with her father and uncle. The family is trying to cross the border illegally to get to relatives in New Jersey. While attempting to rob the train’s illegal riders, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang leader, tries to rape Sayra. Casper, boiling with murderous rage after Mago tried the same on his girlfriend, puts a stop to it … with his machete. Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), the gang’s newest (and youngest) initiate, begs to be given the chance to track down Casper and avenge Mago’s murder to prove he is worthy of the gang’s coveted tattoo.

Casper’s is a life of quiet desperation. Fed up with the lifestyle, he goes about gang business halfheartedly. His only refuge is the short moments he gets – at the expense of his duties – with a girlfriend that he keeps hidden from the gang. She believes his reluctance to tell his gangmates about her stems from embarrassment about their relationship, but he’s actually protecting her from a lifestyle that she is not suited to.

Sayra is only reluctantly trying to cross the border to be with her father’s new family, which she doesn’t feel a part of. He left when she was a child, but was recently deported and is trying to get back. She is as lonely a soul as Casper. Gaitan plays her with aplomb, perfectly capturing the wistful soul of a girl caught between two worlds, neither of them her own, neither of them worth the risk she’s taken to be there.

In a country that is steadily fed the idea that we need to build a fence to keep these people out of our country, we need this kind of film to keep a modicum of sanity alive in the conversation. After all, at some point in our lineage, almost all of us are immigrants.

The Limits of Control – Jim Jarmush (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14365

Jim Jarmusch is not a prolific filmmaker by any means, but when he does make a film it makes noise – divisive noise – thanks to his oddball-arthouse style and the challenging questions he poses to the audience. His fans are used to his style by now, over 20 years into his career, but it’s a harder one to grasp for the influx of new fans Broken Flowers, his last film, and its star, Bill Murray, might have brought in.

For the uninitiated, Jarmusch films unspool in languid labyrinths of subtleties and reversals, where what you are being presented is only a piece of the puzzle, and the puzzle you see may not even be the real picture. His plots are an existential cryptex.

In The Limits of Control, however, Jarmusch has forgotten to give us the codeword. African actor and Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé plays a nameless man on an unknown mission. He has arrived in Spain, where has a clandestine meeting in the airport via translator. The two seedy, Bond-villain-by-way-of-Abbott-&-Costello types he meets pass him a matchbox with a code inside and send him on his way to the next in a long line of such meetings.

The incongruity of “art film” and “big budget” (judging by the rich luxury on the screen) doesn’t gel together. Jarmusch stocks his film with lavish sets, beautiful old apartments, ritzy locations (and even a helicopter) following the nameless man all over Spain, but there is very little substance to back it up.

Instead, we are treated to vignettes of movie stars – Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray – musing about the mysteries of life, while Paz de la Huerta roams through the film in the nude. It’s a pretty film, and for more reasons than de la Huerta. Shot by the ultra-talented Christopher Doyle, the varied old-world and modern beauty of Spain is taken advantage of, from the cosmopolitan Madrid to the breathtaking seaside villages.

There are jokes within the awkwardness of the exchanges, but they are too few and far between, if you are even awake to hear them. Every time something seems to be happening, Jarmusch tips us gently back into sleep mode. It’s enough to make you long for a sip of one of the countless espressos the nameless man enjoys.