[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
“Arbitrage” is clearly one of the festival’s attention-seeking celebrity plays. It’s not really a small movie, but just because stars Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon have recognizable names, doesn’t mean the work will have easy access to the marketplace. Any film about moral corruption in New York City’s elite starring two actors over 60 could still use a boost. For the most part, “Arbitrage” deserves one.
Despite tell-tale signs that not all is right with billionaire hedge fund magnet Robert Miller (Gere), “Arbitrage” initially appears to offer little more than a look inside the world of the financially privileged. That is until the film twists into a white-collar legal thriller. Miller is involved in a fatal accident and flees the scene, leaving an opening for a savvy detective (Tim Roth) to track him down and ruin not only his life, but his business.
How much sympathy viewers feel for Miller—part of Occupy Wall Street’s reviled “1%”—isn’t the point. Rather, it’s Miller’s slimy ethics, which serve him well in the business sphere and benefit countless others. Miller’s money supports a lot of people and organizations, from charities to his family (Sarandon is excellent as his underestimated wife and Brit Marling holds her own as their daughter—daddy’s little executive) to the son (Nate Parker) of his longtime driver. So what happens if he goes down?
Much of “Arbitrage” plays like boilerplate “Law & Order,” but the details in first-time director Nicholas Jarecki’s script ultimately elevate the work. It’s a classy, mature, thriller with more on its mind than just procedural drama.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- "The House I Live In": A searing examination of America's drug war, the latest documentary from Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight," "Reagan") is dense, infuriating and emotional. It also gets a bit repetitive in detailing the drug war's toll on black America, the justice system and law enforcement. There's a simple stat early on that the war on drugs has claimed over 45 million arrests and cost over $1 billion, while drug use has remained unchanged. That pretty much says it all, but for those who want more Jarecki has compelling interviews with judges, police officers, prison wardens, convicted dealers and users, family members and interested observers. One of the most eloquent talking heads is "The Wire" creator David Simon, whose years covering the drug war as a reporter give him powerful insights.
There's little question that the ongoing drug war has proved itself both unjust and ineffective, but the depressing reality is that bipartisan political support persists—primarily because no politician wants to be seen as "soft on crime." Watching Jarecki's film you begin to feel significant changes to the system are impossible, and yet every revolution has to start somewhere. "The House I Live In" is as good a place as any.
- "The First Time": A sweet, slick teen romance directed by Jonathan Kasdan ("In the Land of Women") and heavily inspired by John Hughes, Diablo Cody and Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" series. It's the shiniest movie I've seen here, as brightly lit as any tween-targeted TV series with a cast to match. Britt Robertson ("The Secret Circle") and Dylan O'Brien ("Teen Wolf") star as two high school students who meet cute at a party and feel an instant connection, despite the fact she has a boyfriend (James Frecheville of "Animal Kingdom") and he has a serious crush (Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice, in a bid for indie cred).
As required in contemporary rom-coms, the stars mock the clichés of the genre before inevitably succumbing to them in grand fashion. The supporting characters are lame, and the nearly non-stop dialogue largely contrived, but as the leads inch closer to losing their virginity the film remains refreshingly level-headed about sex. At a time when indie films seem to be growing increasingly neurotic and contemptuous of the subject, that's an unexpected relief.
- "Excision": With a cast including Traci Lords, John Waters and Malcolm McDowell it's no surprise this midnight movie is extremely campy. The dark humor, however, peters out too quickly, leaving a middling horror movie with an excess of bloody shocks but too little suspense (or ingenuity). Lead actress AnnaLynne McCord ("90210") is more than game, uglying herself up to play a plain Jane high school student with zero social skills, an obsessive interest in surgery and an endless string of erotic dreams about dead bodies. It's just a shame the material grows tiresome even with a running time under 90 minutes.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries