“Arbitrage” —Power is the Best Alibi


The early scenes of Arbitrage have some of the same high-finance vertigo of Margin Call or Bonfire of the Vanities.  But here we have an overlay of another crime superimposed on financial fraud and wonder what, if any, consequences will follow.

In this implosive thriller Richard Gere plays investment mogul Robert Miller, the suave, arrogant superego, a “master of the universe” in the Gilded Age of arbitrage and hedge funds. He is the icon of the one-percent, a silver fox who charms, cheats, and gloats in his malfeasance. Until he can’t.

Wealth creates the rules and decides who gets to play the game.  And Robert Miller is at the top. Celebrating his 60th birthday with his beautiful and elegant wife (Susan Sarandon in a subtle but magnetic role), their two adult children and grandchildren, Miller has a secret life.  His wife longs for a closer relationship, not so focused on money.  In a digression from the Bernie Madoff model, it is the daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) –not the son– who is the wunderkind and heir-apparent to her father’s hedge-fund empire.  And she must struggle with her father’s legacy.

Living in a temple of luxury, the Miller family’s protective cocoon isolates them from a world outside and from each other.  Just as we’re settling in and squirming, watching the dynamic between financial pillage and spillage into family matters, the film takes another direction. Police become involved: one in particular–Michael Bryer (played impeccably by Tim Roth), an unassuming Columbo.  And the issues of race and class collide:  a trajectory moving precipitously to harm Jimmy Grant, a Harlem youth (the gifted Nate Parker) caught in a web of deceit.  We witness unrelenting evil and an underlying fear of capture, committed in the pursuit of money and glory in which no one is spared.

This is a morality tale–a tale of hell in a financial guise, well told, where morality and selfishness battle, never descending to bland and predictable.  Gere gives us a window into the soul of a man who has lost his way.  Sarandon knows the price she and her children have paid.  I am not a huge Richard Gere fan. But I have to admit that Gere is made to play this slime-ball role.  Think “Internal Affairs” or “The Hoax”.  No one can do it better…or almost no one.  His toxic appeal in “Arbitrage” is unnerving.

A directorial debut by the startlingly restrained Nicholas Jarecki (the son of two commodities traders), Jarecki captures the gleaming seduction of Wall Street.  He knows the territory.  This cinematic thriller is original and delectable to watch, for those of us who love the dark side!

Rarely Seen Contemporary Works on Paper–Art Institute of Chicago Saturday, July 28, 2012–Sunday, January 13, 2013

Devil [portion of work]
Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to enjoy the visual imagery of the special exhibit, “Rarely Seen Contemporary Works on Paper” at the Art Institute of Chicago. What a visceral thrill!  The Art Institute of Chicago is a temple of art.

"Untitled (Months)"

Works on paper are extremely light sensitive, so this exhibit, which filled four rooms of predominantly 20th century and 21st century art, is housed in dark, temperature-controlled vaults.  Some of these works are being offered for the first time. While I was there, professors were leading their classes to individual works to explain techniques that have influenced generations.  Among the most popular works are Romare Bearden’s collages, Tanguy’s masterpieces and of course, Dubuffet and Picasso.

"Garden Drawing #87"

What I found most noteworthy, however, were the relatively obscure works by even the most famous–Picasso comes to mind–partly due to the ephemeral and decomposable materials of paste, cut papers, graphite, and pastel.  A delightful work by Picasso, “Devil (1952)”, is a black inked painting on brown corrugated paper so darkened that the visitor is compelled to press his or her face to the glass to get a close-up look.  What a surprise for a Picasso–and the three-dimensional piece could be turned upside down to see almost the same figure.   Multiple works by Carroll Dunham (“Untitled (Months)”, Matta (“Untitled:  Psychological Morphology, 1939), Brice Marden (“Second Letter –Zen Spring)”, and JuliaFish (“Garden Drawing #87”) are unforgettable masterpieces.  The list goes on and on:  Ed Ruscha’s whimsical “Bugs in Foil” and Susan Hettmansperger’s pieces need to be made accessible to more art lovers–on the Internet, in books, at visiting museum exhibits.  If you are in Chicago before January 13, make sure you have a chance to see this superb panorama of works on paper–one of the very best ever!

"Second Letter (Zen Spring)"
"Untitled (Psychological Morphology)"




“Hope Springs”…Eternal: Senior Sex Anyone?

Don’t be fooled by the trailers that depict this as a rom-com.  A  poignant portrayal of two  seniors who have drifted apart, not only as empty nesters, “Hope Springs” reveals  a hollowed-out existence between an aging husband and wife.

In the opening scenes, we see Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) getting ready to go to bed…in separate rooms.  Their sex life has virtually ended.  Rapidly growing moribund, their thirty-one year-old marriage needs professional help.

Arnold, the clueless accountant who has rigid habits his wife abhors, thinks there isn’t a problem. He uses his sleep apnea and back problem as excuses for no longer having sexual lives. However, Arnold’s co-worker suggests that he wishes he had done something to save his own marriage.  Scared, Arnold succumbs to the pressure and follows Kay begrudgingly to Maine for therapy.  In spite of resistance and dread at the thought of revealing their sexual failings to a stranger, Arnold does want to save his marriage. As he starts feeling his wife’s hurt, he becomes aware of his own.  He’s damaged and scared and you believe in him.

Enter the professional help–Dr. Feld (a surprising role superbly underplayed by Steve Carell). Kay confesses to Dr. Feld in therapy, as he listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally to her restrained pleas,and begins to understand the couple’s unhealed wounds.  We watch this couple from Omaha, Nebraska attempt to rejuvenate their marriage by healing: through intimacy “exercises” suggested by Dr. Feld. 

Kay and Arnold practice touching, kissing, and acting out their sexual fantasies.  What could be hilarious as well as comic relief–the banana-eating scene, for example, –is timidly glossed over. But there are some remarkable scenes that pinch the heart. “Hope Springs” floats over the understandable awkwardness of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially when discussing sex, hidden desires and raw emotions.

There are laughs too. Streep’s and Jones’ wonderfully uneasy and highly fumbling “love” scenes make their discomfort absolutely charming. Senior sex is bravely filmed without slapstick (there are a few cheap gags) or demeaning vulgularity. This in itself is a pioneering cinematic maneuver in a world where any parental sex, let alone senior sex, is a horrifying “eww” factor.  Like all good comedy, this movie goes for truth more often than laughs and makes you feel the pain that sets the laugh in motion.

In the hands of less stellar actors, “Hope Springs” could have been a  major cornball of a movie, but thankfully Streep and Jones tap into  something genuine, complex, and endearing in their characters’ quirks. The filmmakers vacillate between trusting their audience with this unusual theme and playing down to them.  When they are bravely exploring the theme of mature sexual issues and aging, this movie is elevated to a substantial and worthwhile film–to defining a moment for a demographic mostly ignored by the film industry.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”–“Everyone loses the thing that made them.”

This indie film is a critics-darling (both 2012 Sundance and Cannes awards).  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a unique perspective on the “other” America, the forgotten down-and-out who lives outside the American Dream, whose survival is so precarious that there is only magic, no dream. This is an America that few viewers know about, and a type of poverty within our borders that has seldom been depicted in cinema. The sobering combination of magic and poverty in “Beast of the Southern Wild” suggests “The Fall”(see August 16, 2011 review)  meets “A Winter’s Bone” ( see my December 2010 review at womensmemoirs.com.) Hushpuppy, a beautiful and winsome six-year-old black girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a group of shacks along the Louisiana bayou (post-Hurricane Katrina). Hushpuppy’s mama swam away one morning, leaving father and daughter to fear the time when the little girl would have no one in the world to protect her.  “Everyone loses the thing that made them”, Hushpuppy tells her father matter-of-factly.

Magical realism interlaces with dialogue: icecaps melt; prehistoric creatures, which look like wild boars, start appearing without warning. The child’s fear is foreshadowed by both the imaginary and the real probability that grownups will leave her to fend for herself. On the brink of orphanhood, Hushpuppy faces epic catastrophe with strength and optimism, resilience and imagination.

What saves this film is the extraordinary six-year-old actress, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Quvenzhané Wallis, whose face registers emotion without dialogue.  And, for this film, that is crucial to not rejecting the film outright. I wanted to love this film, but I can only recommend it to those few who love cinema so much that they want to see the experimental and bizarre, in spite of narrative flaws and editing deficiencies.

My review may be the only “mixed”- let alone negative- one out there. The narrative is weak.  The symbolism of the magical wild boars (actually, aurochs found in cave paintings) is not rendered clearly, so that when they appear on screen, the viewer doesn’t quite know what to make of them.  Certainly a sequence of visual cues and dialog are needed to guide the audience to understand the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes: a haunting world, without easily defined boundaries between the imagined and real.

If you have the patience to see a movie that lacks deft editing and where the narrative virtually stops, but also have the curiosity to see a poverty that resembles Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer without the romanticization–a raft made of auto body parts floating towards the levee, for example, –you may want to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.


“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”: A Day of Carnage

Nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award this year “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” is also a powerful narrative as vibrant as any dramatic cinema, an extraordinary, mesmerizing tribute to the resilience of human nature.  More than an epitaph of mourning and loss, this film interviews ordinary residents whose philosophical attitudes toward the day of carnage are not easily dismissed.  Their amazing faces humanize this catastrophe of nature.

The ten-minutes of home-video taken from a hill overlooking the explosive black waves surging towards the coastline of Sendai will render you speechless.  No other photography matches what you will see here! The scale and imagery are overwhelming.

An elegy to both the victims and the healing of the survivors who carry their memories, the cherry blossom, an iconic symbol of Japanese culture and philosophy, resonates with healing their wounds.  Cherry blossom season begins in early spring.  Representing rebirth and renewal, these delicate flowers stand in for the transience of beauty and the fragility of life itself. However, the cinematic sonnet to the quiet beauty and power of nature is much more subtle and refined. The cherry blossom tree is imbued with power, dignity and courage:  Shinto values of nature’s spirit.  In interviews with the filmmaker, each Japanese survivor explains how the beautiful trees, although almost drowned in salt water, inspire the Sendai residents to survive and bloom again.

One man, consumed with grief for the death of his best friend, describes the unbearable experience of watching him die, saying that items can be replaced, but life cannot. Another elderly man, a cherry orchard master whose ancestors had supervised the orchards for over 300 years, explains that a nursery of cherry trees is “like raising children.   You think about them all the time, but you have to let them do what they want. As they get older (in a few hundred years) a spirit will inhabit them and they will develop their own identity.” The background soundtrack is a muted sacramental hymn, not unlike Gregorian chant, underscoring the spiritual attitude of the cherry orchard master for his botanical children.

“Nature has a terrible destructive power.  And nature also has a creative power.  Beauty and terror always exist in nature, but we forget the terror.”   Reiterating Shinto’s belief that all living things acquire a spirit, the philosophy  fascinates.

This superb film reveals healing wounds and healing people, even in times of disaster. Look for it on HBO since it is not yet available through Netflix.