Arbitrage – Normalizing Depravity


Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Suspense
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★★☆☆


There are really two ways to view Arbitrage and they only partially intersect. One is as the story of a specific individual, hedge fund CEO Robert Miller (Richard Gere) as he attempts to unload a worthless company before the law catches up with him.

And of course, there’s the meta-story. What does the story of Arbitrage say about what’s going on in America?

On a pure craft level, Arbitrage is fairly impressive.

At first glance, CEO Robert Miller is a typical hedge fund scumbag. Shades of Bernie Madoff, Miller has engaged in shady accounting to cover up a huge hole in his hedge fund. He’s trying to unload the company before he gets caught. His attempts are complicated by a one car accident he gets into when he falls asleep at the wheel with his mistress on his shoulder. Normally, this would be no big deal, but if Miller came clean, it would delay the sale of his firm at the very least, which would be disastrous, so Miller walks away from the wreck.

This is a decent setup for a perverse thriller. The conventions of cinema almost guarantee we root for Miller to get away with his crimes. So we are promised the spectacle of watching a moral monster defeat the system.

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki craftily sets up obstacles for Miller to negotiate. He writes interesting characters and directs his performers to full blooded performances. The picture moves well and is handsomely produced.

Purely on a technical level, this is accomplished filmmaking, but there is a problem.

Jarecki has written Miller’s situation so that he didn’t deliberately defraud his customers. Instead, he made a business gamble that went wrong and he’s scrambling, doing illegal things trying to save his family.

Why is this a problem? Well, it certainly makes the character more sympathetic, and it might be true for this specific character in this specific story, but it’s completely wrong for the meta story.

The scumbag bankers who are looting this country are a million times worse than Miller and they are legion. By making Miller more sympathetic, Jarecki falsifies what he represents. Miller has semi-legitimate reasons for what he does. Scumbags like Jamie Dimon do what they do for one reason only — greed. Guys like Miller really are nonredeemable villains and to make them seem otherwise is to normalize depravity. It’s to say in essence that the gangsters raping America and the rest of the world have their reasons, that they are human beings like the rest of us.

No, they are not. They are monsters. To create a fictional monster like Miller and watch him literally get away with murder has a legitimate purpose. It stokes our rage at the injustice of our times. To pretend that Miller is not a monster is violate the victims of men like him all over again.

I’ve got to give Arbitrage a bare recommendation on craft alone, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Erased – Solid Genre Actioner


Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Suspense
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★★½☆


CIA hotshot Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) left the agency six months ago to spend time with his teenage daughter Amy (Liana Liberato). Ben is now working in Brussels, troubleshooting security equipment.

One day, most of his co-workers are killed. Ben suspects that the only reason he and his daughter survived was because they were unexpectedly out of town.

With his daughter in tow, Ben must evade any assassins while he unravels the reason he’s targeted for death.

This is not exactly a new premise (it’s as least as old as Six Days Of The Condor), but it’s a solid basis for a thriller. Fortunately, screenwriter Arash Amel isn’t lazy or incompetent. He’s come up with solid characters and an intriguing story. There are enough twists to keep audience interest and everything Ben does is possible and logical.

Director Philipp Stölzl does his part by providing brisk pacing, crisp visuals, logical blocking for the action sequences, and supporting his actors. There aren’t any substandard performances, the sure mark of a professional director.

So far, this review is reading like a rave, so why the relatively low score?

Well, there is nothing exceptional about Erased. The plot, while logical and intriguing, doesn’t have any huge surprises or reversals. The action, while competent, doesn’t have that extra soupcon of brutality and viciousness to put it over the top. And there is one detail that bothered me a little. At one point, an assassin has Ben in the back of a car, about to be driven to his execution. Would the assassin really leave Ben alone, even for a second, to hand a stray document to the chief villain? At another point, screenwriter Arash Amel gives us a clump of exposition that, while logically presented, forced me to pause the DVD to think it through. It’s better practice to provide exposition in more digestible dribs and drabs.

But these are niggles. Erased is a solid piece of genre entertainment, exactly the kind of mid-priced action flick that’s hardly made anymore. It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half.

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The Double – Family Is Everything


Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Action
Director: Michael Brandt
Year: 2011

Rating: ★★½☆☆


At first glance, The Double seems overly simplistic and even a little insulting. Minutes into the film, we realize that retired CIA hotshot Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is actually hotshot Soviet assassin Cassius. When Cassius kills again after a 20 year hiatus, Shepherdson is brought in to assist young FBI technocrat Ben Geary (Topher Grace) in the search for Cassius. As Shepherdson never tires of telling Geary, hunting Cassius is no job for a family man.

But for some reason, even as Geary, in his bumbling way, comes ever closer to realizing Shepherdson is actually Cassius, Shepherdson cannot bring himself to kill this wet behind the ears numbskull.

Eventually, we find out the reasons, and they make a kind of literal sense, but the revelations aren’t all that interesting. Aside from that, they fly in the face of common sense and what any fool knows about spycraft. I can’t tell you why without a major spoiler, but let me just ask a rhetorical question. If you were a spy, would it be more conspicuous to be a lone wolf without community connections or to be a well respected family man?

Still, in a mindless, surface-y kind of way, I have to admit that The Double provides roughly 90 minutes of time killing entertainment. It’s just not very good. You won’t be moved and you won’t be challenged in any significant way. In other words, The Double isn’t as good as an average episode of The Wire, The Shield, Treme, or Justified.

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The Numbers Station – I Feel Like A Number

Numbers Station

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Action
Director: Kasper Barfoed
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★★☆☆


Watching The Numbers Station, you get set up for low expectations pretty quickly. Emerson (John Cusack) and his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham) are sitting in a car, waiting for something. Grey regales Emerson with a anecdote that reeks of thematic relevance. With that, Emerson enters a bar and kills everyone without the slightest hesitation or compunction. You see, he’s a hitman for an unnamed intelligence organization.

Shortly thereafter, Emerson cannot bring himself to kill someone who is completely innocent, but who happens to witness him in action. The situation is resolved, but now Emerson is one step away from being terminated himself.

Any viewer with more awareness that an amoeba will have figured out by now that the big question of the movie is “Will Emerson be able to recover from the numbing of his soul?” We also recognize that the movie is addressing the utter immorality of the post 911 world, where drone strikes on wedding parties are a common occurrence, and collateral damage is taken for granted without blinking. This is pretty on the nose stuff.

Anyway, back to our movie.

As a way of proving that he’s “gotten his mind right,” Emerson is assigned as a minder to a coder in a numbers station.

This requires a little explanation. In the conceit of the movie, operatives in sensitive situations receive their instructions in the form of numbers, which are decoded on the spot using a specific key used for that one situation and consequently destroyed. A numbers station is the place from which these numbers are transmitted and a coder is the person who transmits the numbers.

The screenwriter of The Numbers Station, F. Scott Frazier, takes a cheap shot at the character of the coder Katherine (Malin Akerman), who imagines she’s “doing something for her country” but isn’t willing to take a cold hard look at the results of her actions. Obviously, she’s a stand-in for the technocrats who operate drones from a continent away and imagine that they don’t have blood on their hands.

Now, all that is well and good, and I don’t disagree with the writer’s point of view, but such points are better made obliquely in a genre film. Otherwise, it’s a bit insulting.

Anyway, the numbers station is attacked, predictably enough, and Emerson is forced to make hard choices that test his character.

How rote can you get, right?

And yet, The Numbers Station, while being pretty much by the numbers in some ways, is also professionally done. All of the acting is competent, the action is crisply shot and choreographed, the pace doesn’t drag, and there are lots of twists and turns to occupy the attention.

I found the ending altogether too hopeful, and not particularly believable, but then again, I’ve gotten awfully cynical.

The Numbers Station is not going to sway anyone’s political convictions. It’s too clumsy for that. The drama is too canned to be truly moving. But you know what? It’s a passable thriller, on the strength of professionalism alone.

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