Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arbitrage: A Compelling Drama From First Time Director Nicholas Jarecki

What if you had gained all the material things you could ever want, but lost yourself in the process? In writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s involving drama Arbitrage (2012), Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a self made multi-millionaire who’s  about to sell his hedge fund for a huge profit. He’s the man who has everything: the big house, the cars, the loving wife and family, and even ….the younger mistress, who wants him to leave his wife for her. But some troubling choices Miller has made could spell disaster for him. An audit has discovered some problems with his company’s books, which could slow down or forestall the sale. Then he’s involved in a car accident that leaves a passenger dead, and may lead to deeper repercussions for him, his company and his family. That’s the basic setup of this intriguing story.
Are the rich really different from the rest of us? Do they get to be judged by a different standard? Once you’ve gained everything the world has to offer, do you lose your soul in the process? Gere is outstanding as Miller; his performance gives us a clear picture of the man: the smarts, charm and charisma that helped bring him success, and the darker side that thinks he can get away with things that would haunt most of us for the rest of our lives. The supporting cast is superb as well, including Susan Sarandon as Miller’s wife, Tim Roth as a cop investigating the accident that propels the plot and Nate Parker as a young man with ties to Miller’s past and his present. Brit Marling is also effective as the hedge fund magnate’s daughter, who begins to suspect everything isn’t right with the sale of the company, or with her father. And its great to see old pro Stuart Margolin (perhaps best remembered as the con man "Angel"  on TV's The Rockford Files) in a small but pivotal role.
As the story moves forward, and Gere’s well ordered world begins to crumble around him, you still almost root for him, because you have affection for the character, despite his shortcomings. Will Miller own up to his bad choices, or does he assume that he’s “untouchable” because of his wealth & status? First time director Jarecki’s incisive, well-written, script examines the moral questions, but offers no easy answers for the characters or the viewer. While the film isn’t quite a thriller, it’s got aspects of that genre, and you're anxious to see what will happen in the conclusion of the story. In addition to the first rate acting and direction, Yorick Le Saux’s wonderful cinematography makes you feel like New York City is another character in the film; he shows us the cool, sharp look of the buildings & homes that inhabit the financial world & city Miller moves within; it's an excellent piece of work.
Arbitrage is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download. The DVD and Blu-ray features some interesting extras, including some featurettes concerning the making of the film and a commentary by the director. If you’re looking for an arresting drama with a solid story and some great performances, Arbitrage is a good investment. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer;

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nancy Bilyeau's The Crown: A Thrilling 16th Century Mystery

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice, secretly leaves her priory to attend the execution of her cousin, who’s been condemned to death by Henry VIII for crimes against the crown. She wants to offer her support at the hour of her cousin’s death. Both Joanna and her father appear at the execution, but are captured and imprisoned for interfering with the king’s justice. The Bishop of Winchester offers Joanna a choice; if she will find an ancient crown (rumored to have mysterious powers) that is hidden at her priory, the Bishop will release her father, and spare her priory from being closed down by the King's religious reforms. By agreeing to his terms, Joanna is propelled into a mystery that will have far reaching implications for herself, her fellow nuns, and all of England.

Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent debut novel, The Crown, is set against the political & religious intrigues of 16th century England, during the period of The Reformation. Bilyeau clearly knows her subject matter; the novel feels very real; you truly experience this world, and are drawn deeply into the story. Joanna, as well as the supporting characters, are well rounded and interesting. The book has a nice sense of the struggle between the spiritual & the worldly, as Joanna (and other characters) grapple with questions about their faith & their devotion to their principles. While Joanna searches for the relic, she finds that there may be a deeper mystery to solve, and uncovers more questions than answers. Brother Edmund, a young monk who returns to the priory with Joanna, becomes her ally in her quest, but does he have secrets of his own? As the story continues, there's intrigue, deception, mysterious deaths, and surprising revelations.

The novel deftly mixes genres: there are aspects of thrillers, mysteries, and historical fiction; there’s even a hint of romance. Even though the story is set in the past, the characters, and their feelings & emotions are very relatable; you truly become invested in these people, and what happens to them. By the end of the book you’re quickly turning pages to see what fate awaits Sister Joanna, and to learn the true secret of the crown. In a genre that can often be overcrowded by inferior & hastily assembled works, Bilyeau has crafted an intelligent, exciting and enjoyable book. The Crown is now available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions. The second novel in the series, The Chalice, will be published in early March. I'm anxiously waiting to see what further adventures are in store for Joanna Stafford.

Full disclosure: I worked with Nancy during her tenure at Good Housekeeping magazine, and I’m thrilled for her success. You definitely should seek out this wonderful novel. Here's a link to her official website, which has more info about Nancy and her work:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Time Travel, "Bourne" Action & The History of Bond...James Bond

Here's some brief thoughts on three films I've viewed recently:

Looper (2012) - Time travel stories are always a tricky prospect; do you construct an elaborate puzzle box where all the pieces fit, or do you throw caution to the winds, and just tell a fun and exciting story? Director Rian Johnson's clever thriller falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. In the future, time travel is real, but has been outlawed by the authorities. The criminal element uses it to eliminate their enemies. They send a victim 30 years into the past, where a "looper" kills them and disposes of the body. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one of these assassins, who comes face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis. The plot hinges on Willis' very personal reasons for traveling to the past, and what he hopes to accomplish there. Can he affect a future he believes should be changed? Gordon-Levitt (in some amazing makeup) and Willis are both excellent, and Emily Blunt is very effective in an atypical role. A neat touch here is that the future world is really well-designed, and feels like a realistic extension of our current time. Looper is an engrossing thriller, and you don't start asking questions about the plot discrepancies until after the credits roll. It's a well-directed, intelligent sci-fi film that's worth checking out. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download & streaming. The Blu-ray and DVD have some interesting extras, including deleted scenes and interviews with the cast & crew about the making of the film.

The Bourne Legacy (2012) - Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Avengers) takes up the mantle in this action-packed "sidequel" to the Matt Damon series. This film takes place during the events of the last film in the series, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. Renner stars as Aaron Cross,  the product of a super-soldier project similar to the one that created Jason Bourne. When the government decides to eliminate all the products of the experiment, Cross goes on the run with a scientist played by Rachel Weisz. In an icy, effective performance, Ed Norton plays the leader of the government forces hot on their trail. There are some good action sequences, and Renner makes a convincing hero, but it feels a little too similar to the first Bourne film...and ends just when it really gets going. The film is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and for digital download & streaming. Entertaining, and worth a rental, but it doesn't quite reach the heights of the recent Bond film Skyfall (2012) and speaking of Agent 007....

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (2012) - This interesting documentary (originally shown on the EPIX cable channel) takes a look at the history of the James Bond phenomenon, beginning with a brief look at Ian Fleming's creation of the character, and his efforts to get a film version of 007 off the ground. The main focus is on partners Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, and how they brought all the right elements together to create the longest running franchise in movie history. There's some great archival footage and current interviews with the producers' children, as well as many of the cast & crew members associated with the Bond films. All of the actors who played 007 are featured (though Sean Connery is only seen & heard in previously recorded footage) and it's interesting to see what former Bonds like Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore think of the character, and their time in the role. Dalton actually comes off very well, and discusses his idea of going back to Fleming's conception of Bond, long before the series took that direction in the current Daniel Craig era. Despite an overuse of clips from the films to illustrate some of the narrative, and a tendency to gloss over some of the low points of the series (this is an "official" documentary after all), this is essential viewing for Bond fans, and a nice tribute to the series' 50th anniversary. It's now available for streaming on Netflix and other services.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mario Bava’s Chilling Tales of Terror

Horror is one of the most subjective of film genres; a movie beloved by one fan may not be another’s cup of tea. But it’s always good to have a healthy discussion about the merits or drawbacks of a particular title. As you can probably tell from sampling previous posts on this blog, I have great affection for science-fiction, fantasy & horror, and am always happy to discover a new treasure, and share it with like-minded fans. I recently viewed Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), from the influential Italian writer-director Mario Bava, who’s best known (along with fellow countryman Dario Argento) for revolutionizing the look & feel of the horror film in the 60s & 70s.

I’ve seen (and enjoyed) some of Bava’s other movies, including the classic Black Sunday (1960), starring Barbara Steele; the dreamlike, eerie Lisa & The Devil (1972), and the three part anthology Black Sabbath (1963), featuring Boris Karloff. His atmospheric, creepy, mist-shrouded tales have inspired many others working in the genre, and he has a host of famous fans, including Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Kill, Baby, Kill! (a terrible US release title; it’s known in Italy as Operazione Paura, or Operation Fear) is a story of terror, hauntings and the supernatural in a small town. At the turn of the century, a police investigator and a coroner arrive in a small Carpathian village to look into a series of mysterious deaths. The residents aren’t very helpful; they're openly fearful of the cause behind these killings, and some even block their efforts, including the local burgomaster.

The coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), discovers a gold coin embedded in the heart of one of the victims. He learns that a local witch (Fabienne Dali) is placing the coins there, in order to ward off the vengeful spirit of a little girl who died years before under mysterious circumstances. In a neat twist on a horror film cliche, the witch is one of the heroes. The dead girl’s mother, the eccentric Baroness Graps, lives alone in a decaying villa, and may know more than she’s telling about the killings. As Dr. Eswai’s investigation continues, he’s forced to consider that there may not be a rational explanation for these terrible occurrences. Strange events continue to escalate, and a feeling of terror & evil permeates the area. This rational man of science may have to admit he can’t explain away all the dark events that are occurring.

Bava effectively used images, color, music and mood to enhance a scene, and create tension. He was truly a master of the cinema of dread; his early films are spiritual cousins to the understated tales produced by Val Lewton for RKO in the 1940s, such as Cat People, The Leopard Man & Isle of The Dead.  For example, there’s a great scene in Kill, Baby, Kill! as Dr. Eswai moves through the Baroness’ villa, and appears to continually enter & exit the same room over and over; the slow build up of his fear and disorientation is highly effective. The ghostly girl’s sudden appearances at windows, in rooms, and her (seemingly) innocent laughter & tossing of a ball, presage scary moments in films like The Shining and the Canadian-made ghost story The Changeling, both released in 1980.

The movie is extremely well made, though its power may be somewhat diluted by the many similar themed films that have been produced in the years since its release. It’s also hampered a bit by weak dubbing, which often hurt the imported genre films of this period. The movie could actually be seen as sort of precursor to the Japanese produced “J-horror” genre of films like Ringu (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), which often feature horrifying child spirits out for revenge. Kill, Baby, Kill! is recommended for those horror fans who may have heard of Mario Bava, but haven’t had a chance to check out any of his work. I’d also recommend the above mentioned Black Sunday, Black Sabbath & Lisa & The Devil as good starting points for your Bava film festival. But don't stop there....there's more terror to be found in tales like Blood & Black Lace (1965)Planet of the Vampires (1964), Baron Blood (1972)....and many more.

I’ve barely touched upon his genius and artistry here; I could write several columns about Bava, his stylish films, and their overall influence on the genre. Kill, Baby, Kill! and many of Bava's other efforts are available on DVD and Blu-ray, for digital download and on streaming on services like Netflix. If you’re really interested in his life and work, I’d suggest seeking out Tim Lucas’ excellent (and definitive) book on Bava, Mario Bava: All The Colors of the Dark. You may know Tim’s work from the excellent genre magazine Video Watchdog. This highly acclaimed, exhaustive study of Bava, as well as Tim's wonderful magazine devoted to fantastic films, are truly worth seeking out. Here’s a link to the trailers for Kill! Baby Kill!  and Black Sunday