FS, Contributing Writer
Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” (wide release) pretends to be an exposé of the Wall Street wheeling and dealing that led to the 2008 crash of the American economy. But in reality it’s just a slick soap opera that happens to center on a hedge-fund guru whose personal life is collapsing along with his professional prospects.
Richard Gere, certainly looking like a million bucks, plays the mogul who’s in the final stage of selling his investment firm to a bigger outfit. What he’s not telling the buyer is that the company has a mountain of debt, which he’s concealed by an infusion of cash that he must quickly repay to the lender. When the chicanery is discovered by the chief accountant – his own daughter – it causes a terrible rift between them.
But of even greater moment is the fact that his mistress has died in a car crash that he caused. In trying to conceal his involvement, he enlists the son of his old chauffeur to speed him away from the scene. But a crusty detective who’s tired of rich people getting away with their crimes aims to nail him by any means necessary.
The question posed by the movie is simply whether the guy can walk away from his failing business with a pile of money, escape punishment for vehicular homicide and still keep his family intact. And the answer is…
Of course that won’t be disclosed here.
“Arbitrage” isn’t really a good movie, but it holds your interest, though without providing much intellectual profit.
Far more powerful is “Elena” (Angelika), a spare, compelling Russian drama about the wife of a rich man who must make a choice when her husband suffers a heart attack and abruptly announces his intention to make his estranged daughter by a previous marriage his chief beneficiary. The problem for the woman is that she needs his money in order to help her struggling, unemployed son, along with a grandson who would be drafted unless he can come up with university tuition.
There’s a bleak tone to the picture, which brilliantly uses this domestic tale as a microcosm of a society mired in materialism and lack of moral compass.
“Elena” demands patience, but in focusing on a small group of troubled people it depicts a world of pain and corruption.
“Chicken With Plums”
Far more endearing is “Chicken With Plums” (Angelika), the second film by Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”). This time, however, the bittersweet love letter to her native land is told in live-action rather than animation.
But it’s hardly naturalistic, opting to tell the darkly whimsical tale of an unhappily married musician (Mathieu Amalric) who simply decides to let himself die through the devices of magic realism, including an appearance by the Angel of Death himself.
The cause of the man’s determination to end it all is a chance encounter with the only woman he’d ever truly loved – who fails to remember him at all. And her name just happens to be Iran.
There’s a degree of preciousness to “Chicken With Plums” not unlike that of the stylistically similar French film “Amélie.” But it’s a mostly delicious cinematic dish.
“The Cold Light of Day”
Despite the presence of Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver in the cast, “The Cold Light of Day” (wide release) is a perfunctory chase movie, set in Spain, about a young man (Henry Cavill) who’s pursued by police and CIA agents as he tries to save his family from a gang of kidnappers. They’ve been snatched because his father, a deep-cover Agency man himself, has a briefcase full of secret documents the kidnappers want back.
The movie tries for a Hitchcockian “wrong man” vibe but fails miserably. It’s a long slog to nowhere.
But if you want to see something really atrocious, check out “Branded” (wide release), a completely wacky Russian production, shot in English, that’s either a serious assault on commercialism and advertising or an attempted satire of them. It’s so bad it’s hard to tell which.
It’s about a campaign to persuade people that fat is beautiful in order to sell more fast food. It’s also about a fellow who can literally see the desires created in people by merchandising in the form of bulbous plastic appendages protruding from their bodies – but only after he’s ritualistically sacrificed a red cow.
And the whole thing is narrated by an animated bovine that appears out of a constellation of stars.
The venerable Max von Sydow appears in “Branded.” It’s easily the worst movie he’s ever made. But then it’s one of the worst movies ever made, period.
If you want to experience how “Plan 9 from Outer Space” must have struck the few people who saw it back in 1959, here’s your chance. Ed Wood would be envious.