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February 28, 2013 5:56 pm
Some movies sound good-to-go-to from the moment you hear of them. Richard Gere back on screen in an upscale money-and-manslaughter thriller – for instance – written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, brother of American indie prodigies Andrew and Eugene. (They made, respectively, the superb documentaries Capturing the Friedmans and Why We Fight.) Arbitrage is as good as it sounds: so sleek it would purr if you stroked it and so cool – in the intelligence of its Aeschylean-lite plot about a financier and his dynasty-fissuring downfall – that it could have a long cryogenic life in some Hollywood laboratory as an example, or frozen Holy Grail, to other film-makers.
Gere is matchless in this kind of role. The lacquered crinkle of the smile; the corrugated silk hair; the eyes deep-pouched and glinting like coins in a rich man’s wallet. He is a hedge fund manager in crisis and his red-ink liquidity problems, as he tries to push through his company’s sale to a predator holding out for a hard deal, are aggravated by red liquid of a more damning kind. A blood-spattered death happens on – let’s be vague to avoid plot-spoiling – his watch. Wife Susan Sarandon is an aggrieved powerhouse wearing her swank wardrobe like a battle dress. Blonde Brit Marling, his daughter and heiress, turns up the back burners in Gere’s new hell by finding fraudulent figures in the company’s ledger.
Frenchman Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is stunning, casting its nacreous shadows over wealthy mansions and boardrooms as if prosperity was a sick pearl being nursed through its twilight days. Jaded cinephiles might disparage Arbitrage as another by-the-numbers narrative about Wall Street: the latest meltdown movie, done this time as family microdrama. But it isn’t the genre that matters, it is the joie du cinéma. One moment the screenplay is borderline All About Eve in its fox-furred kitschiness. “The world is cold,” says Gere to a Sarandon gearing to cast him adrift; sasses back she: “Then you’re gonna need a warm coat.” The next it is sneaking sovereigns of character-defining wit into the dialogue’s petty change. “You think money’s gonna fix this?” an adviser asks Gere, who is hoping to buy off trouble. Answers he, with the innocence of the self-damned: “What else is there?”
Chesapeake Bay looks like the place to stay away from this summer, as Martha’s Vineyard, or “Amity Island”, was in 1975. Then it was Jaws; now it is The Bay. Director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) has done everything in his career bar eco-horror; now he ticks that box. Going the “found footage” route to fright creation, Levinson and scenarist Michael Wallach do more than set the usual group of characters running about with camcorders. In a faux-documentary collage of events on July 4 in a Maryland beach resort assailed by mutant sea life – where deformed fish and deadly isopods (engendered by steroid-filled waste from a chicken farm) attack the tourists and townsfolk – all available screen modes are deployed. TV newsbreaks, CCTV street footage, oceanographers’ video diaries and blogs are called into service. All are impeccably recreated for a script that explores, and mischievously exploits, actual alarms in recent years about Chesapeake’s environment.
At 88 minutes long, the movie is uproariously effective. The satire is as lithe as the scares. “I’ve got a town full of dead bodies!” exclaims an official down a line to the federal authorities. “It’s a small town, let’s keep this in proportion,” comes the answer. “Miss Crustacean” is winningly introduced in an early scene – a curvilinear blonde with a shellfish crown – only to become, later, a passing glimpse of hors d’oeuvre on the roadside. Thrice there are fright moments to lift you from your seat. A dozen times, as ignorant media armies clash by day and night, the popular interpretation of events changes. (“Maybe a satanic cult has invaded the town ... ”) The disintegration of the annual crab-eating contest is a scene of grimly comical perfection. I am within a catfish’s whisker of giving this film five stars; best to stop me before I elevate it to the ranks of Vertigo and Citizen Kane.
Rome in turmoil; revolving-door rulers: no change in Italy in 2,000 years. But much change, sadly, in two score years for the Taviani brothers, who once scorched a near-revolutionary path for Italian cinema with Padre Padrone (1977). Caesar Must Die, a year after winning the Berlin Golden Bear, gets a topical release this week. A prison-set docudrama about inmates of Rome’s Rebibbia jail rehearsing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it should chime with the tolling of troubled bells in government-changing Italy. Instead the film proves a dead-on-the-slab Brechtian exercise, earnestly talky, shot largely in black and white, and forcing out its thematic rhymes, as trite as doggerel, between the communities of crime and politics. (Each a brotherhood or Mafia, each a self-serving cabal disguised as a beneficent enterprise; etc, etc.)
It is uncanny how Italy’s film-makers keep failing to nail, or effectively to satirise, their country’s strident political shortcomings. Even Nanni Moretti’s Il Caimano (2006), taking aim at the inviting target of Silvio Berlusconi, failed to maim or graze him. Caesar Must Die has the smug austerity and didacticism we remember from 1960s/70s television political drama. Back then directors felt licensed to treat the screen as a blackboard and the audience as students. Dim pupils got the messages spelt out extra slowly. “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison,” muses a convict in this film, in case we haven’t twigged to the Tavianis’ lesson, repeated over and over, that art can blow at us the enriching breeze of spiritual and intellectual freedom.
Broken City has the razzy, familiar beat of a record you have heard a hundred times before (especially if you are a film critic). Mark Wahlberg, a disgraced ex-cop turned private detective, moseys down another urban mean street. Another corrupt authority figure stands at the end of it. Here it’s Mayor Russell Crowe, presiding over Brooklyn like an overfed tomcat ruling his nocturnal alleys and bossing his yes-moggies.
A thin plot is taken further than it wants to go. Hence the sound of herniated artistic ligaments, as subplots twist first this way, then that, and good supporting actors (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper) are allowed brief sprints before being tackled, constrained or KO’d. There are pleasures even so in Allen Hughes’s styling of set-ups. (He made Menace II Society and From Hell with sibling Albert.) I loved Crowe’s office, an authoritarian’s grandiose playpen, striped with window light like the last, showy rays of some civic-administration Götterdämmerung.
Stoker is a nightmare comeback for Nicole Kidman: art-horror, with oodles of useless style failing to fill the vacuum of its would-be spooky content. Straight-to-download is the deserved fate. Don’t hold it back by buying a ticket.
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