Monday, 24 September 2012

Arbitrage, dir/wr. Nicholas Jarecki, st. Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling

Given that when morality comes up against profit, it is seldom profit that loses, what is billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Miller to do when a freak car accident leaves his mistress dead and himself spiralling ever inwardly towards absolute implication? To make matters worse, his company's book-cooking has just been unearthed by its CEO, who also happens to be his daughter Brooke, played by Brit Marling. Much has been made of this being Gere's 'career-best' performance and it's honestly hard to disagree. His dynamic range in this film, bookended by his trademark carte-blanche smile at one end, and narrowing of the eyes and furrowing of the brows at the other, is given something of makeover, and for once, maybe, we believe slightly more than we ever dared we would in a Richard Gere picture. This may be in part due to Jarecki's sinewy snaky Sorkined script that casually toys with issues of familial loyalty versus unscrupulous business acumen, and gives Gere's Miller real cause and distress. Marling too gives Brooke restrained depth and feeling, never overstating beyond-her-years astuteness or understating youthful naivety; when she discovers her Father's dodgy financial manoeuvrings, Miller counters, in a beautiful little scene, with a speech about how her age denies her of true perspective. It's a clever moment that asks us to consider an argument that purports absolute morality can disintegrate with maturity. Marling here is as mesmerisingly watchable as in her previous self-penned projects, the Sundance-acclaimed Another Earth and The Sound Of My Voice. Similarly Sarandon, as Miller's acquiescent wife Ellen, is the closest link we as an audience have to any of the film's characters as she observes and ruminates in the background, all-seeing, cogs turning. There's so much meat on the bones of the nature of corruption, that the investigative story featuring Tim Roth as the detective hot on Miller's back ends up being the least interesting narrative thread on offer, but regardless, Arbitrage makes for solemn, compelling viewing.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Red Lights, dir. Rodrigo Cortés, wr. Rodrigo Cortés, Adrián Guera, st. Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Joely Richardson, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones

There's more than a touch of Louis Cyphre in Robert De Niro's restrained portrayal of psychic Simon Silver, and indeed in the way Red Lights is put together as a whole. Cortés is clearly channeling Alan Parker's disembodied, hallucinatory narrative style put to such effective use in Angel Heart, even if the result is a little more staid than its inspiration. The film has Silver, once an acclaimed showman in ESP, returning from self-exile and once more into the public eye for a series of bow-out shows. Weaver and Murphy play Matheson, a university academic researching the paranormal, and her physics academic Buckley, a sort of Scully and Scully, right down to Buckley's I Want To Understand poster on the wall in his lab, a riff on Mulder's mantra. Together they travel from case to case, debunking as they go, but despite fierce warnings from his mentor, Buckley finds the enigmatic Silver an attractive target for his extra-curricular curiosities. There's a nagging suspicion, and then acceptance, that Red Lights ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and that the ideas within never quite adhere in the way they should. That said, it's also an engaging, eerie and pacy watch. Yes, it's derivative in the way a slew of directors from Lynch, to Argento to Cronenberg are stylistically name-checked, and there's even a distinct evocation of Sidney J. Furie's The Entity in the way the Buckley's university set up experiments on the compliant Silver in order to test his alleged powers. But bar a succinct and low-key voice-over at the film's end that serves as the final emotional, cerebral and existential clarification of the film's thematic threads, there's little in the way of the over-cooked earnestness present in so many films in which a protagonist is undone by spiralling obsession; Buckley is simply a man who refuses to have faith for the sake of it, and is driven to unearth what he sees as obvious subterfuge. There is nothing wrong in films like these playing like extended Fringe, or Twilight Zone episodes, for they're a well-formed, contained, and concise method of cinematic storytelling.

Intruders, dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, wr. Nicolás Casariego, Jaime Marques, st. Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Daniel Brühl, Pilar López de Ayala, Ella Purnell

Fresnadillo, director of the notable Intacto in 2001 and the slightly less memorable 28 Weeks Later in 2007, here gives us his take on the Horror Weepie - a deviation from the classic genre which embraces an emotional rather than an explanatory payoff. Just think Alejandro Amenábar's The Others from 2001, or Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage from 2007. The film sets up two storylines that run concurrently. In one, a young boy's creative writings give presence to a physical manifestation of the monsters he has created, whilst many years later, a young girl discovers the very same novella, stashed within a knot in a tree, and the hauntings begin again in earnest. Sadly, a cathartic finale we may be due, but that doesn't stop Fresnadillo treating his film with the same tired conception of the hundreds of other one-word chillers out there (we've had Insidious and Sinister, I'm waiting for Lugubrious). The way the flip-flopping of the dual narratives is orchestrated sets up the promise of a connection far too early on in the film to make the climax that much of an effective reveal, and although the cast perform solidly, the prestige is underwhelming.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Hysteria, dir. Tanya Wexler, wr. Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler, st. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones

Disillusioned at the state of the health service, an archaic institution that blood-lets and butchers, whose general managers prefer to prescribe the latest faddy cure-all tincture rather than heed the call of molecular science and virology, Mortimer Granville (Dancy) procures a job aiding Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a physician successful in the treatment of female 'hysteria', a condition comprising pretty much every human trait imaginable from nervousness to depression.  Before long, Granville's getting RSI from masturbating an increasingly engorged waiting-room of female patients. Pitched somewhere between some play you'd stumble into after  night at the Student Union and and a good ol' Curtisy rom-com, Wexler's story never manages to get to grips with either her characters or the wayward plotting, although the uninhibited double-entendres, Rupert Everett's wry turn as Mortimer's Algernon-like housemate Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, and Gyllenhaal's fiery portrayal of Dr. Robert's altruistic daughter Charlotte, amuse and impress. Flaccid structuring aside, this is light, frothy stuff, a low-calorie, period comedy that successfully explores one of the more wacky idiosyncrasies of Victorian England.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Jesus Camp, dir/wr. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, st. Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio

Apart from a .pdf file on radical Pentecostal children's pastor Becky Fischer's website Kids In Ministry, entitled "What's wrong with Twilight?", there's not a huge amount that rational members of the public will agree with during Ewing and Grady's film, and actively rather a lot that might turn your stomach. The main problem inherent in objectively researching extremism is that by its very nature, extremism doesn't stand up very well to a considered, balanced analysis. Both Fischer and another featured evangelist Ted Haggard have denounced the film as demonising their organisation, with Haggard going on to say, "Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalised Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film." It doesn't help then, that Fischer's whole modus operandi is based around instilling an 'us and them' mentality in the children she preaches to, referring to followers of Islam as "our enemies" and suggesting that Muslim children are being ushered into mosques as we speak, only to be handed grenades and strapped into bomb-belts; there's not much context to be hewn from Fischer encouraging her children to repeatedly shout "This means war!" The film, to its credit, doesn't go so far as to call it what it is, but you'll all be thinking it. That the children featured in the documentary - the home-schooled Levi, and the tract-distributing Rachael - are seen to be intelligent, compassionate and charismatic only serves to further highlight the severe nature of their indoctrination. After spending the majority of the film using a series of manipulative, emotionally-cathartic methodologies, Fischer is seen near the end watching camcorder footage of her sermons, teary-eyed, stating that the kids' intensity and fervour is proof of the good work she's doing. "God hears the cries of children." she says. The difference between watching this and an exposé on other out-there fringe organisations is just that - Evangelicalism is not fringe. The National Survey of Religion and Politics puts them as comprising 26.3% of the total population of the US. With the Republican National Convention currently taking place in Tampa Florida, the rest of us look on in tired amusement as speaker after speaker spin and grin their way through speeches using words like 'God' and 'Family' as crowd-lubricants, and we watch with dropped-jaws their attitudes to issues like abortion but it's in scenes like those in Jesus Camp, in which the children are encouraged to enact a laying of hands on a life-sized cardboard cutout of George Bush whilst speaking in tongues, that one recognises and appreciates the foundations of such militant belief. Harrowing in the extreme.