Friday, September 14, 2012

Reviews In Brief: "Arbitrage" (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012

by James Hansen

Effective in the way that only films with no stakes or logic can be, Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage finds hedge fund executive Robert Miller (serious-faced, yet effective Richard Gere) in a bind after his mistress (who he seemingly makes no effort to hide, giving her major financial support, freely breaking into her house, and flaunting her art events around his office) is killed when he falls asleep at the wheel. With a major financial merger on hold – and the reality that he has committed major fraud to his investors – Robert, desperate to avoid a scandal, calls his dead driver’s son (who he seemingly has no relationship with) to pick him up, take him back to the city, and cover up his lie.

Arbitrage plays this all by the books, as Robert’s daughter Brooke (stoic-faced Brit Marling) and wife Ellen (concerned-faced Susan Sarandon) slowly realize and confront their patriarch about his financial obsessions and how this has “brought down the family,” despite everyone ending up pretty a-ok when all is said and done. Brooke’s naivete contrasts Robert’s assurances, knowing that no matter the outcome he will be on top. Still, Brooke’s brief cover up – “He’s my dad. I have to trust him.” – is so elementary and blandly delivered that any investment in the actions becomes laughable. Not helping matters is the film’s strangest role, the super-invested Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) who apparently has been trying to bring down Miller for years. Or something. How Detective Bryer’s case extends beyond the parameters of an involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of the crime inanity and into a full fledged felony of his own that almost goes without mention is unclear. (A late confrontation with a judge who sternly says, “You have to get him the right way” has to make us wonder if this conversation has anything to do with anything that actually takes place in the film, and, if so, exactly how these characters would be aware of it.) Arbitrage may offer some easily digestible entertainment, but its numbers never add up. 
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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012)

by James Hansen

It isn’t all that surprising that Ole Bornedal’s The Possession is derivative. Exorcism movies all follow the formula set by The Exorcist, which undoubtedly remains the benchmark of the horror subgenre. Nonetheless, several recent films (The Unborn, Orphan) have found ways to blow open the category in relatively interesting, exciting ways. Unfortunately, The Possession is not one of those films – it starts too big, telegraphs nearly all its scares, and never breaks free from its box of horror movie cliches.
The Possession starts strongly enough. A creepy, wooden box sits on a shelf calling to an older woman. Soon, her mouth begins to bleed and, in true PG-13 fashion, she is barely seen being violently thrown around the room by a demonic spirit. (Nevermind why this spirit that feeds on children is attacking an old woman. Spirits have their reasons.) A short while later, a recently divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), buys the box for his youngest daughter (an effective Natasha Calis) who has come with her sister Hannah on a weekend visit. In a new house among a developing neighborhood (although there are no neighbors in sight), Emily cracks open the box. Before long, her eyes become distant, her personality changes, her room fills with a swarm of giant moths, and her inner anger transfer to her father who she stabs in the hand with a fork. 

Blame it on the divorce. The confusing thing here isn’t so much stylistic ineffectiveness – although Bornedal relies too heavily on audio crescendos punctuated by a single, deep, pounding piano key – but rather that this is all too much too soon. While the film spends time establishing the supposedly fraught relationship bewteen Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) – Stephanie remains much too flirtacious and Clyde too attached for this to be heading anywhere other than reconciliation – some of the first things we see Emily do – sitting in the middle of her bed, staring in the distance in a room suddenly filled with angry moths – are far too extreme for the attempts at realism (“She’s acting out because you left us!”) that the script pitches. Instead, the parent’s indecision comes too slowly and becomes laughable, just as Clyde’s Google search discovery of Jewish exorcism and complete embracing of the theory comes too quickly. Similarly, too many moments build to family unrest or Emily seeming upset rather than the brooding violence and terror of her body being overtaken. 

By the film’s third act, it is already out of steam. Despite the hilarious discovery of the spirit through an MRI (finally convincing Stephanie that something is wrong) and a pretty spooky culmination of the exorcism, The Possession never really clicks. Its overemphasis on family issues along with its lack of build and repetitive stylistic techniques have it land with an all to familiar thud. 

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