On Movies: 'Put a buy on Arbitrage'; 'Sugar Man' worth the search
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept 13, 2012 - The fraudulent financial games of recent years have resulted in stomach-wrenching market plunges and a lot of movies, including at least two very good ones: the 2010 documentary "Inside Job" and the 2011 Wall Street drama "Margin Call."
"Arbitrage," about a hedge-fund magnate (Richard Gere) trying to claw his way out of a hole hundreds of millions of dollars deep, is not quite as dramatically and intellectually satisfying as those films, but it is a good movie that succeeds as both an engaging narrative and an intriguing character study.
Gere plays Robert Miller, a Manhattan (of course) investment guru who sank way too much of his investors' money in a Russian copper mine that could potentially produce billions -- if he could just get the copper out of Russia. He is bleeding gushers of money, and his solution is to falsify his books and sell his rapidly dwindling company to an investment bank for upwards of $500 million. He needs to make the deal fast, before his tame accountant's fabric of lies comes unraveled.
But the potential buyer keeps stalling, which is making Miller crazy.
So is his French mistress (the model Laetitia Costa), an aspiring art dealer who seems to believe Miller when he says he is going to leave his wife (Susan Sarandon) and run off with her. Young director Nicholas Jarecki does a fine job of placing the main characters in a world of golden light and burnished dark wood, of vast penthouses and Midtown mansions and glittering high-rise office buildings.
Jarecki also wrote the script, and he doesn't try to make us like Miller. But, as the story develops, he reveals Miller to be a complex character worth understanding. It helps that Gere has become an accomplished actor, and he is totally convincing as a man used to relying on his looks and charm as well as his quick wit to help him succeed. If he has a heart, greed wrestles with love of family within it, and wins two out of three falls.
Miller seems to be making it all work -- the wife, the daughter, the mistress, the scam -- and then there is a horrible accident, Miller is rightly suspected of a crime, and he tries everything he can think of to escape from the tenacious pursuit of a deceptively slick police detective (Tim Roth, in a bravura performance). The detective is sick and tired of rich men getting away with murder, figuratively and literally, and he goes after Miller like a pit bull.
Miller calls on the son of a former employee to help him out, putting the young black man in danger of a long prison sentence, and he asks his daughter (Brit Marling), his company's chief financial officer, to risk her career by lying about the falsified books. The question becomes, How far will Miller go to avoid facing up to his sins? And how far will the people around him go to protect him?
The movie forces the characters into difficult decisions, making them choose between loyalty and ethics, or, in the case of the police, between ethics and justice. Only the daughter and the young black man seem free of corruption. But are they really? Is it all just a matter of money?
"Arbitrage" retains its suspense right up until the ending, which is rich with irony, if a little too pat.
Opens Friday Sept. 14
‘Searching for Sugar Man’
Much of the enjoyment of this documentary, about an obscure urban folk musician known as Rodriguez, comes from the surprises it unveils in the course of telling its tangled tale.
Rodriguez cut an obscure record called “Cold Fact" in 1969, followed it up with an even more obscure record, and then seemingly disappeared. The young barroom performer showed real talent at evoking the cold, dicey streets of his native Detroit, but his recordings went nowhere, and he slid into limbo as far as the American recording industry was concerned.
But, for reasons that remain, in part, obscure, "Cold Fact" became a hit in South Africa in the early '70s. Its gritty, rebellious songs were anthems to young whites who were resisting Apartheid. Rodriguez was unaware of his popularity in South Africa, and, as "Searching for Sugar Man" points out, he never saw any of the royalties from overseas record sales. Exactly what happened to the money remains in part a mystery, although in the documentary Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul strongly suggests a couple of places it might have ended up.
As a singer and songwriter, Rodriguez has been called "Dylanesque," and for once that ubiquitous comparison is apt -- I think of a more citified version of Bob Dylan, an almost derelict young man roaming the mean streets of Detroit. There is a good deal of his music in '"Searching for Sugar Man," but that's just one of the reasons for seeing the documentary. At times, it seems to be wandering down paths that lead nowhere, but then the filmmaker will find something to surprise and delight us. The final scenes are exhilarating.
Opens Friday Sept. 14