MOVIES: Arbitrage. Missable


imagesIn “Arbitrage”, Richard Gere plays the part he’s played so many times – the immensely wealthy, devious, philandering and cunningly amoral power broker. The story centers around his – Gere’s Robert Miller – increasingly desperate attempts to cover up an affair made potentially visible by a fatal car accident at the same time that he’s also trying to cover up the imminent exposure of massive fraud in his company that’s up for sale. Will he succeed? Will he go to jail? Will good triumph over bad? Do we really care? It’s essentially Pretty Woman gone to the dark side. His foil is Tim Roth as a detective, who represents us – the ordinary man in the street schlub who may have right on their side, but not much else.

Director Nichloas Jarecki (a young up and coming New York director) wants to have it both ways. He wants us to despise Gere while being attracted by his deviousness (Gere is here well chosen for the part) and he wants to ensure that the movie has some sort of moral light to the darkness, which briefly is offered by Tim Roth’s character.

It’s a pleasant enough movie in the same way that junk food is pleasant: empty calories that fills you up and leaves you fatter at the end. For “Arbitrage” isn’t much more than a – nicely, tensely directed – TV drama with A-list stars (Susan Sarandon is Gere’s long-suffering – aren’t they all? – wife). Not a movie that’s really worth all the effort of going down to the cinema for in winter, but a gripping enough drama to kill a few hours if you chance upon it on a flight somewhere (as I did a few days ago).

Movies like this (and – for obvious reasons – there’s an increasing library of these types of stories centered on the cynicism and amorality of this caste of the super rich whose only moral code of conduct is marketplace driven) play to our hissing side. They’re like slickly packaged pantomimes where all the characters are bad guys – all served up to us fully skewered to allow us the vicarious thrill of feeling morally superior.

It’s the cinema of catharsis. We may not have their money, make-up or muscle, but we live happier, more fulfilling, less conniving lives. Aaah, another fantasy foisted on us by Hollywood

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MOVIES: A Good Day to Die Hard


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If there is one thing that Die Hard 5 or, to give it its proper name, “A Good Day to Die Hard” makes clear, is that this franchise has gone well past its sell-by date. This milk has been left far too long in the fridge.

The helmsmen behind this dumb explosion-fest are two Hollywood veterans: Director John Moore, who has racked up such classics as “Max Payne”, “The Omen (2006)” and “Flight of the Phoenix”, along with executive producer Tom Karnowski – another cinematic craftsman who must have narrowly missed Oscar nominations with his sterling offerings: “Season of the Witch” with method actor Nick Cage; “1000 BC”, that historical recreation of ancient times and of course “Driven” with elocution master, Sylvester Stallone.

I can imagine the brief discussion, led by some no doubt svelte, eager studio assistant:

“Hi guys, I’m like Trish from accounting. The bean counters have asked me to, you know, like give you a debrief, well, a sort of guide, a few ideas really on how to really help bring in another blockbuster Die Hard. First of all good news – we got Skip Woods as the writer. You know Skip – he penned “The A Team” and “Hitman”. Loved “Hitman”. Coffee anyone? Scotch? Anyways, like I was saying, here’s ‘the formula’ if you get my drift.

First of all you’ve got to get all that human-interest thing going. Check out Die Hard 4 (“Live Free or Die Hard”): we had Lucy the feisty daughter in danger. Families in danger always go over well – I understand “Taken 3” is in the works. It’s his grandmother who’s kidnapped now. And then there has to be a tearful reunion when they call John McClane ‘dad’. That always, you know, signifies a reunion and love. How about if we introduce a son? That’ll be cool, huh? A sort of ‘like father like son’ sthick.

And the story line has to sound very modern, hip, like we’re on the cutting edge of things. Maybe something to do with stolen nukes in Russia. It’s time to get Russia back as the bad guys. Latest polls show that our audience get confused by all this terrorist stuff; and anyway the Black market, oops, I mean Black audience don’t like us showing too many dark faces as the baddies.

And by the way guys – and I now you all know this from your previous hits. The story doesn’t have to make too much sense. All that ‘sense’ stuff is waaaay overrated. Just slows things down.

And, duh, the craziest explosions, car smashes, big guns, chases on roofs, stunts. Do I need to say more? My boss told me to tell you the word ‘stunts’ in capital letters. Not sure how to do that, but you get what he’s talking about. STUNTS. just makes you feel, like wow, how did they manage to live through all this. But don’t get too much blood and stuff – hey, this ain’t a Tarantino movie you know.

We’ve got to really hate the baddie. But not too much. Research has shown that sometimes really bad baddies can draw attention away from the goodie. Hannibal Lecter! Need I say more? Who remembers poor Clarice?

And of course, guys, you’ve got the man himself – Mr. Badass – Bruce Willis. Don’t get him to do too much acting. Leave that to Wes Anderson. Just get him to smirk a lot so that we really see how tough he is, you know, smirking in the face of danger. Cool? OK cool?

Did you say coffee?

MOVIES: Pre Bafta, Pre Oscar reviews


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2012 WASN’T BY any means a stellar year for the movies. The usual suspects dominated: big budget, overly operatic action-movie excesses, (“The Dark Knight Rises”) the usual (thankfully dwindling) crop of Rom-coms, blood splattered gore-fests (and nowadays I see they’ve combined them to lead to ZomRomComs – or zombie romances) and imitative, dull animations (“Pirates”) headlined the offering. Thankfully the Twilight Saga has slipped into the twilight; alas not so much so for Tom Cruise. But there were a few specks of silver to line some of the clouds.

Here is my list of the good, the bad and the ugly (and with apologies for not having seen either “Silver Linings Playbook” or “Amour” … yet).

 

The Definers:

Those movies that helped define cinematic art for 2012. These are my bests (the movies I’d see again in a heart-beat):

“Lincoln”. Spielberg’s Saving Private Abe. It’s his serious, but not ponderous take on the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency. The movie makes us really care about Lincoln’s Hobson’s choices without ever slipping into melodrama or Spielbergian sappiness. Tony Kushner has done a wonderful job of converting political wrangling into gripping drama and Daniel Day Lewis is a shoo-in for Best Actor – he manages to be both iconic and human at the same time.

“Argo”. Ben Affleck, fresh from his successes of “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” is emerging as this generation’s Clint Eastwood – a gifted actor turned brilliant director. (Fortunately he isn’t a right-wing loonie like Clint). “Argo” carefully balances absurdist humor with nail-biting tension and a cast of characters who make you actually feel for them and shiver at the terror they faced (Kathryn Bigelow should take notes)

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The newcomer Benh Zeitlin plunges us into the strange world of a decrepit bayou community teetering on the brink of a civilization destroyed by floods and melting ice caps. It’s a moving, tender movie which manages not to get bogged down by its menagerie of metaphors and symbol-laden sub-text. The impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis well deserves her Oscar nomination. As do others for just learning how to pronounce her name

“Django Unchained”. This is the very best of Tarantino – so much more than a piece of pulp fiction, this is a wildly entertaining, often hilariously funny, vulgar, yet deeply serious meditation on racism in America. As you’d expect, it’s deliciously well-written by someone who has the best ear for dialogue in modern screen-writing. Christopher Waltz as the travelling bounty-hunter, Dr.King Schultz and Samuel L Jackson as the Uncle Tom, Stephen are worth the price of admission…and should have been there in the Oscar lists.

“Life of Pi”. Ang Li’s incandescent look at the oft-told (i.e. clichéd) clash between reality and legend, is an engagingly lovely adventure story. Newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi gives us an unselfconscious and convincing portrayal of a man lost at sea…lost in a fantasy. The real stars of the show are David Gropman and his production designers who gave the whole thing a richness of texture that lifted it above mere fancy cinematography. And then there’s the tiger. This wondrous piece of CGI work makes the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park seem like Ray Harryhausen’s creatures.

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Delights:

Those Happy Surprises that may not be ‘art’ but certainly are the filmmaking craft at a very high level:

“Skyfall”. Whew, after the mess of “Quantum of Solace” it’s so great to find 007 in fine form once again and not mooching around shaken and stirred for lost love (although in “Skyfall” he loses his real love, M). Sam Mendes gives us a lesson in how to deliver heart-stopping action sequences, especially in an opening chase that isn’t quite a brilliant as the opening chase of “Casino Royale”, but will make the all star list of great chases. The cast he assembled – especially Javier Bardem as the creepy, Hannibal Lecter-ish Silva, and Ralph Fiennes as the steely no-nonsense M – add a level of clout and gravitas to help make this the best Bond, James Bond ever. I just wish he hadn’t backed away from the sex. After all, this isn’t Jason Bourne, it’s Bond.

“End of Watch”. This opened and closed in London in the blink of an eye. Pity, it’s a great cop movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two decent cops suddenly thrust into a deadly drug war. Director David Ayer overworks the cine verite/documentary style format, but, despite that, he really forces the viewer away from the comfort of watching two well know actors performing their craft, to immerse him or her in their story (with brilliant, genuine sounding dialogue) and into the action.

“A Royal Affair”. Who says Denmark was only Vikings? From the country that brought us “Borgen” and “The Killing” comes this (true) tale of infidelity and love. Mads Mikkesen (Le Chiffre of “Casino Royale”) is Dr. Johann Streunsee who helped bring the Elightenment of Rousseau and Voltaire to the Danish Court. He also brought hot sex (well, Danish hot sex anyway, which always seems brooding and introspective) to King Christian VII’s English queen, Caroline Mathilde. Mikkesen is an interesting actor, who can turn from good looking charm to nasty in a twitch. Watch for him in the future.

“Amazing Spiderman”. I was very dubious whether we really needed another Spiderman so soon after the last one. Would this simply be a web of a different actor? But the team of director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and Englishman Andrew Garfield successfully reinvented the sheer boyish joy of Spiderman’s discovery of his super-powers. Fortunately the transformation from Peter Parker to Spiderman occupies much of the movie, which helps it feel character-rich and genuinely angst ridden. Once he – Spiderman – sets out to do battle with evil nemesis Rhys Ifans (as the Lizard), it’s business as usual.

“Flight”. A better than expected Denzil outing. As usual he plays a flawed man coming to grips with and overcoming his flaws. Here he’s an addict whose moment of unmatchable heroism is overshadowed by his drug and drink addictions. It’s a story of a man at war with himself that director Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”) serves up in user-friendly portions sugar coated with the grippingly told drama of Denzel Washington’s watchably dashing captain’s fall from grace

Hunger

Disappointments

Movies I really looked forward to and left the cinema with a shrug and a question – “really?”

“Hunger Games”. Director Gary Ross took a thrilling book about kids trained to kill each other and defanged it.  I think he thought he was still making “Seabiscuit”, his last feel-good outing. Even the usually compelling Jennifer Lawrence was less than convincing. She couldn’t outwit or outfight anyone if her life depended on it…as it were. Maybe the sequel will be better…in better hands

“Killing Them Softly”. What a great combination this offered: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins… all enforcers from the Mob. You’d expect tension, excitement, the idea of men living on the edge as some sort of metaphor for LIFE. But all you got was a dull, method acted wet blanket of a movie, with as many thrills as shopping at The Gap.

“The Master”. Here again were some of the finest actors around, going head to head at each other: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. This was a movie reviewed with praise so glowing, it often bordered on adulation, for director Paul Thomas Anderson. Added to this was the potential roman a clef intrigue that it was based on the life of Scientology founder, L Ron Hubbard. Instead what emerged was an excess of artiness that left one with the overwhelming question, “does anyone really give a shit?”

“Moonrise Kingdom”. I keep trying with Wes Anderson, the auteur darling of Hollywood, but the only thing his movies have offered me is boredom. Look at the list: “Fantastic Mr Fox”, George Clooney’s worst movie (and that includes his Batman), “Hotel Chevalier” (or huh?), “The Darjeeling Ltd” (white people rediscover India). I could go on, but why worry. I’m just not his type.

“Les Miserables”. Director Tom Hooper’s takes the stage musical to the big screen and makes it look, well, like a second rate version of the stage version.

Prometheus

Dreadfuls

These were the ones that really stunk… including some big names who should have known better

“Haywire” Steve Soderberg somnambulates through this failed ‘kick-up’ slug-fest featuring newcomer (who you won’t see again), real-life Karate/kick-boxing champion Gina Carano. Not just over the top, but out of the ring.

“Pirates. Band of Misfits” Directed by Wallace and Grommit’s Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt. A clay-bound Claymation catastrophe

“Rust and Bone”. Jacques Audiard’s excruciating and largely incoherent story of a crippled Marion Cotillard. Like her, this movie doesn’t have the legs.

“Prometheus” Ridley Scott’s decision to make aliens a ponderous and pretentious manifestation of his bizarre creationism philosophy

“Total Recall” with Colin Farrell. Makes you recall with fondness, Schwarzenegger. Now that’s an achievement

MOVIE: Zero Dark Thirty


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KATHRYN BIGELOW’S “ZERO Dark Thirty” is certainly a well-made, grippingly exciting movie. It tells the story of the search for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, dramatized through the doggedness of CIA operative Maya (a convincingly good Jessica Chastain).

Bigelow is a master of detail. I have no idea what a rendition site looks like, or for that matter the Islamabad Marriott Hotel or Abbottabad and various other cities in Pakistan. But Ms. Bigelow certainly creates enough ‘texture’ to place us there (as she did so admirably well in “The Hurt Locker”), in the dust and the crowds and the danger. She does away with any kind of back-story to her central (and pretty much only) character, Maya. We are with Maya as she battles through bureaucracy, gets shot at and blown up and steels herself to waterboarding and various forms of torture, all in the drive to ‘get her man’.

This is essentially a well-told detective story. Starting with a nugget of information gleaned through torture, Maya follows the trail of one Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier. It is a trail that leads them to a fortress-like compound, where she deduces -without any tangible evidence- that UBL (as he’s referred to in the story) lives. And then, in almost real time, Bigelow makes us a part of the Seal team that storms the compound. It is heart-stopping film-making that’s as good as it gets.

What a pity then that this is such a profoundly amoral film.

Bigelow, in various interviews, has sought to create the fiction that her movie was a dispassionate dramatization of reality, unshaded by any political agenda. The actual movie does not support this assertion.

The assassination of UBL is essentially very dodgy business, and one that the West has nodded affirmatively to in a feeling of mass catharsis and the presumed belief that by killing him, we were all buying a measure of safety for ourselves. It’s this narrative that has allowed us to ignore the inconvenient fact that, yet again, we invaded another country and, the means being justified by the ends, murdered someone.

“Zero Dark Thirty” begins with the lie that torture actually produced the scrap of information that helped find UBL. Throughout we see the CIA Agents fretting about new congressional oversight that, post Abu Graib, now frowns on torture…simply making it more difficult to do their jobs. The movie does not editorialize on this; it simply presents it as a reality.

As the assault on UBL’s house is taking place, throngs of curious neighbours begin to walk toward the compound – they’re ordered to stay back or be shot, as no doubt they would have been, had they continued…just so much collateral damage. At least they’d have been shot by ‘real’ people and not drones.

So you wonder, where is the artistic conscience in all this? If art is to have any value, it is to serve as some sort of conscience, provide some sort of moral true north in a world of unprincipled, essentially corrupt governance.  It’s simply not good enough for artists of the stature – and talent – of Bigelow to opt for the cop out of being merely an observing eye.

At no time does the film – Bigelow – stand back and question the morality of what’s happening.

At no time does it occur to anyone that the UBL’s of the world aren’t the cause of potential danger to the West, it’s this kind of contemptuous amorality toward torture as an instrument of war, the bland acceptance of collateral damage and this indifference to sovereign territory, that perhaps, maybe, be a catalyst to this on-going Jihad.