ARBITRAGE



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Shortly into the movie Arbitrage, the new 1% thriller written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, I began to wonder whether I stumbled into the wrong theater.  According to the previews; reports from friends; reviews; etc., I was expecting a story about a semi-sociopathic financier, a Bernie Madoff type, who would do anything and betray anyone to survive (including his virtuous and untainted daughter), and who was about to pull off a deal that would destroy everyone but himself, but who is temporarily derailed when he causes a Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick type accident that results in the death of his mistress via manslaughter.  He is then pursued by two righteous police officers and a D.A. who are tired of the wealthy getting away with murder.
That is not the movie I saw.
Instead, I saw a film about a financier noble in heart, though weak in action, who desperately, and by, yes, illegal methods, is trying to save his company before it goes belly up, costing him not just everything he has, but also the savings and money of all his investors and the jobs of all those who work for him (including his daughter).  After a horrifying accident not caused by manslaughter (unless I’m simply unaware of the intricate parsings of said term—and I very well might be), but by the character falling asleep at the wheel, his greatest crime is leaving the scene of an accident.  He is then pursued by a sociopathic officer who seems to have some sort of personal vendetta against the wealthy man (though none is every revealed), to such an extent that he willfully manufactures evidence and gets the DA to lie to a grand jury in order to convict the financier for something he didn’t to (our taxpayer dollars at work, I guess).
Okay, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  But you can see where I’m coming from.
In the end, though, even looking at the movie from my point of view, Arbitrage is not much more than an entertaining enough thriller that gets the job done.  It’s not quite a roller coaster ride, but it’s not boring.  Just a bit of a let down.
The cast is headed by Richard Gere as Robert Miller, the non Bernie Madoff/non-Ted Kennedy, Bernie Madoff/Ted Kennedy role.  Gere’s charming, though I think he’s been better in recent years.  But he has one great scene where his character finally traps the illusive Mayfield, the businessman who keeps putting of buying Miller’s business, and Miller shows the brass balls that made him what he is.  He out bluffs said Mayfield and finally gets a deal that saves anyone and everyone. 
There are some nice faces in the supporting roles, like Stuart Margolis as Syd Felder, Miller’s lawyer who gives Miller (what seems to be to me) questionable legal advice; and Chris Eigeman as Miller’s almost Zen like business manager.  Both are welcome sights.  
As for the rest, Tim Roth plays his “righteous” officer role rather broadly, in the way that actors often do if they don’t find their characters inherently interesting (probably a good choice here since his role isn’t particularly interesting).  Susan Sarandon is around to pick up a paycheck.   And the extras are filled out with some of the tallest Amazonian secretaries I’ve ever seen, which may suggest something about Jarecki and/or the casting director that I’d rather not know.
Perhaps the two characters that are written the most puzzling are Brooke, Miller’s daughter (played by Brit Marling) and his surprisingly dowdy mistress Reina (played by Monica Raymund).  Both are just a bit too incredibly naïve for me to have any empathy for.
Brooke is suppose to be this alpha female financier, but in all the years she’s been in the business, has yet to grasp the concept of imperfection in her parents.  She’s shocked, shocked (in the best Captain Renault manner) that her father is involved in some shady dealings.  Really? I mean…Really?  When Sarandon talks about it, she acts like Brooke just lost her virginity when her daughter’s at least thirty years old, for God’s sake.  (It reminded me of the reaction from all these men about what happened between Monica Lewinsky and Clinton—an “how dare you with my daughter” type response that only made me think: “you do realize she is over twenty one, right?  Just how long were you planning on protecting her virginity, anyway?”)
Reina, meanwhile, spends most of her time pouting because she’s not the center of her patron’s universe and is just now realizing that her lover is not going to leave his wife.  Again, really?  I mean…Really?  She also seems incredibly ungrateful that Miller pays for her luxurious apartment that no artist could ever hope to afford in New York; arranges shows for her; and buys her paintings.  At one point, Miller tells his daughter, “You’re not my partner, you’re my employee.”  I felt that this line would be much more appropriately delivered to Reina.

THE EYE OF THE STORM and KEEP THE LIGHTS ON



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The Eye of the Storm, the new period film written by Judy Morris and directed by Fred Schepisi, employs the Merchant/Ivory recipe for making a film, along with the same results.  Take a classic novel (here one written by Nobel Prize winning Australian Author Patrick White); add a lot of money, time and energy on the technical aspects of the film (cinematography, costumes, sets, etc.); then fold in a roster of well respected actors (Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis, Geoffrey Rush).  Let it all simmer together until voila: a meal that is sumptuous, but more than a bit dull.
The story revolves around Elizabeth, an aging matriarch nearing death, played by Rampling with a courageous lack of vanity (i.e., make up) that even surpasses Bette Davis’ performance in Mr. Skeffington (okay, okay, a little too inside a reference there, I admit it, but you go with what you got).   Elizabeth’s two children (Rush and Davis) don’t love her (and it’s not long before you figure out why), but they dutifully gather to wait for the inevitable: the reading of the will. 
Schepisi, who has made some wonderful films in the past (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Devil’s Playground to name a few) can never quite get the tone right here.  It’s all a bit much and off center (is it a comedy, a drama, a tragicomedy; is it a breath mint, a candy mint).  And Morris can’t quite find a focused enough through line to hook the story to (it’s almost unclear why Rush’s character is even in the movie, he really has so little to do with it all but mine it for an autobiographical play he writes in the epilog). 
Everyone and everything is filmed for maximum decadence and decay.  And in case you don’t get it, there are shots of worms eating their way out of pears; flies caught in mason jars of preserved fruits; and gardens overflowing with earthworms.  But perhaps the most bizarre bits are Helen Morse as the appropriately named Lotte, Elizabeth’s companion and housekeeper, performing cabaret numbers in 1920’s drag, singing as if the Nazi’s were nipping at her rear end and she were a cast member of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (though I doubt it would have helped if her act had been modeled on Bob Fosse).  
Everyone tries hard and the movie reeks with sincerity.  But in the end, what everyone is trying to do here is all a bit too vague.  To return to the opening metaphor, it’s a soufflé that just refuses to rise.
I’ll just make this next one short and sweet.  Weekend was a movie about two gay men who somehow convinced themselves (and the audience) that a three day, one night stand had more romantic meaning than it did.  The characters weren’t very interesting and it was like watching paint dry.  Keep the Lights On is about ten years in the life of two gay men and the difficulty of maintaining their relationship since one is a drug addict.  The characters are marginally more interesting and the paint dries a little faster, but that’s about it.

LAWLESS



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There is an absolutely lovely and thrilling moment in Lawless, the new based on a true story film written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat about a trio of bootlegging brothers deep in the hills of Virginia.  When Jack, the youngest of the clan, decides to court the preacher’s daughter by swigging a full mason jar of white lightning and attending Sunday service, he enters a white clapboard building where long-bearded men in dark coats and women in crisp bonnets and starched dresses sing a hymn by shape noting, an almost feral and mesmerizing way of making music. 
When the congregation ends the hymn, they proceed to the tradition of washing one another’s feet.  When the preacher’s daughter takes Jack’s foot in her hand, it is way too much for him and he runs outside, leaving a shoe behind ala Cinderella, getting sick along the way.  This look at a religious service, an offshoot of Quakers and Mennonites, felt like entering new and unexplored territory, the sort of breathtaking scene one goes to movies to experience.  And Hillcoat gives it its due.  Unfortunately, once it’s over, we’re back to the more than familiar standard tale of bootlegging and moonshining.  But it was nice while it lasted.
Lawless is lovely to look at with ravishing and picturesque frames of the hills of Virginia in full, fall foliage and stark ones of lonely bridges in wintertime.  The costuming and sets give the story an intense period feel.  But in the end, Lawless feels like a movie in search of a story.
The plot is a bit general.  Some corrupt lawmen from Chicago come to town to take over.  But the Bondruant brothers, being the alpha male Ayn Randians that they are, refuse to buckle.  The story sort of lumbers along after this, making its way through a series of episodes that don’t feel like they’re really leading anywhere and with no satisfactory explanation as to why the Chicago gangsters take so long to try to wipe out the Boudrants.  And it all ends with one of those shoot outs that made me ask the friend I was with, “Just how close do you actually have to be to someone in this movie before you can hit them?”
Because of this lack of a clear and strong through line, the screenplay tries to hang the story around Jack’s neck and make his coming of age character arc the linchpin that holds it all together, to mix a metaphor or two.  But since Jack’s character is so annoying; because he’s such an idiot that you want to hit him up alongside his head; and since his journey isn’t all that intriguing or interesting, this probably wasn’t the best idea.  He does have a journey and he does get somewhere.  He reaches manhood the moment he can get himself to finally kill someone.  Of course, a lot of people had to die first so he could learn this, but as they say, you got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.  But still, the lesson got learned and I guess that’s all that matters.
The cast does the best they can.  Jason Clarke, as Howard the middle brother, who has a very expressive face and eyes, and Mia Wasikowska, as the mature for her age preacher’s daughter, probably give the best performances.  Tom Hardy mumbles through his lines, an approach that worked for Marlon Brando, but doesn’t quite have the same effect here.  Shia LaBeouf plays Jack and whether you think he’s any good or not will probably depend on how much you like his awkward, semi-nerdy, insecure becoming a child-man schtick.  For my money, I think he acquits himself quite admirably, and it’s not really his fault that his character isn’t that interesting.  But a special note must be made of Guy Pearce who plays Charlie Rakes, the Chicago germaphobe and sociopath with a messianic complex.  A preposterous performance in a preposterous role, it almost has to be seen to be believed.  One can’t tell if he’s terrible or he’s playing it exactly the way it was written, or both. 

COMPLIANCE



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What would you do for a Klondike Bar?  What would you do if a police officer called you in the middle of a busy night as manager of a fast food restaurant and claimed they had a witness who saw one of the employees steal and the officer needs you to help him carry out the investigation, even to the extent of performing a strip search?  This is basically what happens (well, worse, actually) in Compliance, the controversial new film written (extremely well) and directed (in standard poverty row, digital chic) by Craig Zobel. 
Inspired by true events, in which a sociopath would call unsuspecting locations and claim to be with local law enforcement, Compliance begins as a very effective character study as to how gullible people are and how easy it is for us to obey authority, even if the authority is spurious.   It’s not an easy premise for Zobel to pull off.  No one in the audience is going to admit that if put in the same situation they would do the same thing (no matter that the epilog mentions that something similar happened 70 times in the U.S.).  
In fact, the audience is immediately going to go for the holier than thou attitude, looking down on the poor wretches who fell for the ruse saying to themselves that “of course they fell for it, they work in fast food”.   And there’s one very effective scene at the end in which the restaurant manager is interviewed by a TV reporter with the best attitude that a Pharisee can buy that perhaps earns the character more empathy than even Zobel might have intended.
But Zobel does sell his premise and he does it very effectively.  First through a very solid and believable screenplay with dialog that is well thought out, all delivered in a very realistic and natural vernacular and cadence.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, through a series of strong performances by all involved.  No matter how much you might question that such a thing could happen, the actors make you believe it.    The triumvirate that holds the film together, Dreama Walker as Becky, the victim; Ann Dowd as Sandra, the manager; and Pat Healy as “Officer Daniels”, the villain, are first rate.  Healy especially excels in his role as a salesman who can sell ice to the Eskimos with a delivery so oily and decadent he puts Hannibal Lector to shame.
Zobel also does one very interesting thing with the role of Becky by making her somewhat unsympathetic when she first appears on the screen, giving her the personality of a princess who thinks she’s too good for the job and superior to her manager.  At first one actually enjoys her discomfort, until what happens really starts to sink in.
But Zobel only sells it for about half way until something so awful happens that one slowly begins to have second thoughts about whether this could really happen.  At this point, it no longer becomes a study as to how far some stranger can con people, but becomes a study as to how far some screenwriter and director can con a theater audience, which isn’t the same thing.  I’m not saying that this awful thing didn’t happen in real life; maybe it did (it’s never stated one way or the other).  And I don’t want to dismiss so cavalierly something so awful happening to someone.  But even if it did happen, all I can think of is Mark Twain’s comment: The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.  Because of this, the movie fails somewhat as a study of human nature, but still remains as a very effective horror movie.