The Laundromat

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Z. Burns

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

The Laundromat is a new film from Steven Soderbergh that tries to make you mad at the world in a way that will remind you most of Adam McKay’s The Big Short.     Stylistically the two are nearly identical. They both use big casts, sardonic humor and some creative narrative stunts (fourth-wall breaks, eye-popping visualizations) to increase the entertainment value. It’s the subject of the filmmakers’ rage that differs, with Soderbergh shaking his fists not at Wall Street but rather Mossack Fonseca, a massive offshore financial services provider.

Strangely, The Laundromat actually enraged me whereas The Big Short struggled to even engage me. I’m prepared to admit this could well be actor favoritism on my part and nothing to do with the subject matter itself. Because let me tell you, few things in life get me more excited than the prospect of reviewing a movie about tax fraud and evasion . . . excuse me, “avoidance.” So let’s just call it the Meryl Streep Factor — that woman makes everything better, more interesting. Of course she is not the whole deal here but she is a significant piece of this complicated puzzle. She also plays multiple characters, which is fun but perhaps a little on the gimmicky side.

The Laundromat is a pretty hefty undertaking. Writer Scott Z. Burns simplifies by using title cards prefacing the major concepts — chapters that break down into groups of winners and losers, the have’s and the have not’s, or in the language of the movie, “wolves” and “sheep.” To help navigate the viewer through its labyrinthian concepts and relationships the screenplay inserts the unscrupulous lawyers as narrators, with Gary Oldman sporting a sketchy German accent as the founder Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas as his partner, Ramón Fonseca. As they pull you aside to explain how this all works and how they got away with it, they also serve as primary antagonists within the story, interacting with a number of supporting characters and generally playing the anti-Robin Hoods, taking money from the desperate and redirecting it through networks to help the rich become super-rich.

Here’s where Meryl Streep comes in. Her most important (and least gimmicky) role is the meek and mild-mannered Ellen Martin. She’s widowed when a pleasure boat she and her husband take on scenic Lake George capsizes. Ellen, though a fictional creation, is critical because she actually provides a face to the big-picture victims, something The Big Short did not do — at least not explicitly. She attempts to collect damages from the boating company only to discover the reinsurance company they went through no longer exists (technically it’s been bought out by another, bigger company — a trust to a shell owned by Mossack Fonseca). Following the bread crumbs leads Ellen on a wild goose chase to the Caribbean. And those who have answers, like trust manager Malchus Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), go to lengths to physically avoid contact.

The ensuing storylines making up this triptych involve individuals who are harder to sympathize with, yet they, like Ellen, provide flesh-and-blood consequences to a lot of cold-hearted schemery and technical mumbo-jumbo that can become overwhelming and numbing to the layperson. As Soderbergh’s direction expands the seriousness of the situations escalate, the wealth of cash and resources more vast, the real-world treachery more difficult to stomach. All throughout Oldman and Banderas are terrific twisting the knife in each subsequent episode of people getting screwed over.

Simone (Jessica Allain), the daughter of a Nigerian billionaire, faces a moral dilemma when she comes home to her palatial L.A. mansion to find her father having an affair with her roommate and (former) bestie, and is bribed with $20 million to keep quiet. Surprise, surprise: When she visits Mossack in Panama to cash in, the shares in her daddy’s company are worthless. The third vignette is a dramatization of the ill-fated negotiations between English businessman Neil Haywood (here portrayed by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Maywood) and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), a wealthy Chinese businesswoman with connections to the CPC. Maywood learns the hard way what the corrupt will do to keep their secrets safe. It’s a sobering scene, even if it is only tangential to the overriding themes. Oldman sits in a car and outside the story, callously telling us how sometimes it can be our own ambition that screws us over.

The Laundromat is made possible in the advent of the 2016 mass data leak known as the Panama Papers, some 11 million documents that blew the roof open on Mossack Fonseca’s operations. Journalists connected a vast web of fake agencies from all over the globe, implicating the lawyers in dealings with everyone from morally corrupt white-collar criminals to murderous thugs. In one of the many meta-moments Banderas, on behalf of Soderbergh, makes it clear that if they had it their way none of this information would be getting out. Not that it matters all that much; the pair spent a total of three months behind bars. Mossack Fonseca may have been one of the biggest culprits of money laundering on an international scale — they operated on behalf of some 300,000 companies — but they’re not the only ones benefiting from tax havens and hiding behind complicated legalese.

The Laundromat ends with a bizarre and theatrical PSA wherein Soderbergh drops the curtains on his own production. The final frames are comparably more stone-faced serious. We can debate the sincerity of this gesture because I’m sure some will feel it is disingenuous to have famous, wealthy actors soliloquizing on the urgent need for tax law reform and the morality of holding shady corporations more accountable. They are, however, very skilled performers who are perfectly in sync with Soderbergh’s brand of stylish, creative storytelling. He has a lot on his agenda with The Laundromat, and given the complexities of his 2000 drug drama Traffic, he feels more suited to this material than the guy most associated with the antics of Will Ferrell. Perhaps it was the director more than it was the cast that kept me engaged throughout.

Mossack and Go-fuck-yaself

Recommendation: The Laundromat is a very complicated, dense film with industry jargon abounding and a lot of characters involved. Fans of Steven Soderbergh are urged to give it a shot. Those who are better qualified than me to talk about factual accuracy, please feel free to weigh in in the comments below. I felt enlightened by this, but I’m sure some things have been lost in translation while trying to provide a reasonable explanation as to why it worked for me while The Big Short did not. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Bad is such a big word for being such a small word . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Knight of Cups

'Knight of Cups' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Terrence Malick

Directed by: Terrence Malick

The cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick continues in his cryptic Knight of Cups, an offering that may well epitomize everything his admirers adore and everything detractors feel scorned by for not ‘getting.’

I know how pretentious that sounds but truth is I land squarely in the middle when it comes to both understanding and appreciating his work.

I don’t know what he was like pre-Tree of Life but admittedly I was more ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ over the visual grandeur rather than being pulled in to deep meditative thought (as I was probably supposed to be). And then To the Wonder came out and the same thing happened: I struggled mightily to relate to the relationship woes and the characters involved but the cinematography once more seduced me.

So when it started happening a third time during Knight of Cups, an experience I’d liken to hypnosis rather than just another trip to the movie theater, I had to wonder: is it enough to think highly of a movie just based on how it looks and how the aesthetics make me feel? (And I ought to differentiate that from how the product as a whole makes me feel.) What does that say about me? What does it say about the film? How can I like something without first understanding it?

It might help to first gain a general understanding of what Malick is basing his latest evocatively-titled production on. The Knight of Cups is one of many tarot cards — played in 15th Century European card games, now more commonly used by mystics to predict outcomes as related to divine intervention — and is considered the “most feminine of all the knight [cards],” representing someone very much attuned to their own emotions and intuition. (Here’s where the comparisons between the two knights Christian Bale has now played abruptly end. Although, interestingly enough, both turn out to be fairly broken men who struggle to relate to or even interact with others.)

In what can only be described as an incredibly introspective performance — most of what little dialogue he has is restricted to ethereal voiceovers while his physical being drifts nomadically between the bright lights of L.A. and the people-free sprawl of Elsewhere, California — Bale’s introduced as a shell of a man searching for love and true contentment in a world where the only thing that matters is what you see on the surface. He plays a screenwriter named Rick, a man so lost within himself no one, including his crazy father (Brian Dennehy), his lonely brother (Wes Bentley) and a slew of beautiful women, can awaken him from his stupor.

In case you’re wondering — no, it’s not as simple as finding the handsome prince (or in this case, the beautiful princess) and having a simple kiss break the spell. Sleeping Beauty this ain’t.

Knight of Cups starts out pretty lethargically but then starts to spite even the most patient viewer’s best efforts to adapt, the deliberately disorienting nonlinearity as Malick-y as it gets. It’s a journey into the psyche of a man who seems to have it all but finds very little comfort in his abundant material possessions. To complicate matters further, we don’t really get any context clues about the genesis of his misery. (As if this was ever going to be an easily relatable character anyway.) Rick’s had a successful career, evidenced by his upscale apartment in the glitzy downtown area. He has access to all the swanky parties, a byproduct of his connection to a superficial industry.

A rare insight comes at the very beginning, where we’re informed via a deeply-voiced, god-like narrator that Rick has recently suffered something of a fall from grace, some internal pain that has created a numbness to not only the life he leads but to the world in general. Of course, Malick prefers the metaphorical (I can appreciate that about him): we’re actually told the knight has fallen from his horse and lost his cup. That he no longer acts as though he realizes he is a Prince, and that his privileges are vast but constantly fleeting.

We watch as he tries desperately to reconnect with the world that is simultaneously at his feet and in constant motion, either away from or around him. Well, it’s more like we watch the revolving door of women interact, or attempt to interact, with a distant Rick as they come and go in a series of vignettes that simultaneously bemuse and bewitch. Delia (Imogen Poots), the first girl we sort of get to know, is a playful, adventurous ball of energy who disappears as quickly as she appears in Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving frame. We later meet the quieter, gentler Isabel (Isabel Lucas) and later still a fun-loving stripper played by Teresa Palmer. Of all the women we see him with it’s his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to leave the most lasting impression. That is until we meet Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a girl who comes in to the story later but with whom he’s been earlier in his life and whom he has apparently wronged egregiously.

It’s his many escapades with women, be they in his apartment or on sun-kissed beaches, that save Knight of Cups from being totally devoid of structure, and thus from being totally free-form and inaccessible (not unlike this unfocused review). It’s divided into eight chapters, all of which bear the names of other tarot cards, minus the closing chapter — ‘Freedom’ — and a prologue. While the titles seem to make sense, the material contained within each set vary from slightly random to downright inexplicable: watching a kaleidoscopic frame of a girl doused in black paint means little to me even if it looks really cool. Then, the repetition begins to set in. Dare I say it, a sense of fatigue. Even if Lubezki’s serene camerawork creates the kind of imagery you can only dream in, there’s little hiding the fact Malick is dealing in a narrative that’s no denser than a piece of paper.

Because the objective — I think — is to coax the audience into the same head space the protagonist is damned to, Malick has the unenviable task of emphasizing the psychological process of internalizing thoughts and feelings we generate in response to daily interactions with the world. In other words, he has to rely heavily on highly abstract concepts to do much of the steering. Things like longing for a way to mend the wounds his brother and his father share after the death of another family member, or a way to make himself feel love rather than being motivated by the idea of love. Very little of that translates to something that viewers can consume on a visual or aural level. Hence my spending large chunks of the film somewhat detached, mesmerized almost exclusively by Chivo’s consistency behind the lens.

Seriously. It’s like the guy didn’t just recently win his third consecutive Academy Award.

Malick might be a genius. Paired with the record-breaking Chivo, he’s a force to be reckoned with even though the man needs perhaps more help than any working director today in bringing his unusually high-concept visions to life. But he also might be crazy. Many say the two are inextricably linked — the gap between creativity and sanity seemingly widening the higher up the ladder of creativity you climb. I’m more comfortable describing Knight of Cups as a crazy leap of faith taken on his part, requiring so much of his audience while giving them so little to work with on any sort of practical level.

So in the end . . . was it third time’s a charm with Knight of Cups? For me it certainly wasn’t. This is perhaps the most alienated I’ve felt by his directorial approach but I also left the theater lost in thought about the world outside of that very building. I was accounting for my physical presence for a much longer time than was really necessary. I might have been talking to myself. I can’t decide if what happened to me in the aftermath made any sense or if that just makes me sound crazy but I do know it is such a rare thing to come out of a movie and keep thinking about it long after you’re back home. Even if those thoughts ultimately leave you exasperated.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.51.50 PM

Recommendation: One of the infamously strange Terrence Malick’s strangest and least satisfying efforts, Knight of Cups is a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the name. In fact it’s been a pretty tough sell to anyone, even those Malick fanatics. (Are there many of those?) Consider yourself a fan of abstract filmmaking? Signing up for this wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do but word on the street is there’s another Malick offering coming right down the pipe this year so it might be best to wait for something even MORE new and even MORE shiny.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The 33

'The 33' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 13, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Mikko Alanne; Craig Borten; Michael Thomas; Jose Rivera

Directed by: Patricia Riggen

Patricia Riggen’s optimistic, spiritual account of the 2010 San José mining accident in which 33 miners were trapped 2,300 feet below ground for nearly three months collapses under the weight of a feebly written and executed script.

Disaster films aren’t known for their star-making performances nor their Oscar-baiting screenplays, and The 33 is perfectly okay with continuing that trend, rendering everyone whose name isn’t Antonio Banderas cardboard cut-outs of characters. Because disaster films aren’t known for their acting pedigree, it might seem odd that my major complaint with this picture is the abysmal acting on display. And yet, this thing is painful to sit through folks, even despite an outcome that is quite uplifting because, you know . . . it really happened.

Riggen finds herself combatting the odds with a roster the size of two Marvel films put together. There are at least 33 main characters, and those are just the miners trapped beneath the earth — more specifically, under a rock that apparently weighed twice as much as the Empire State Building. Collectively, I suppose, you could consider them one singular character, only one that’s not very exciting to watch. On the surface, both literally and figuratively, we deal with Chilean government officials, concerned more with public image than the safety of those involved and the grieving family members whose desperate requests are often stymied by bureaucratic bullshit.

Speaking of, there’s Bob Gunton as President Piñera, a far cry from his Warden Norton and Rodrigo Santoro as Chilean engineer Laurence Golborne, whose handsome exterior makes him the perfect candidate as a pseudo-public relations manager, a character so ill-defined I don’t think I’m making that title up. He’s meant to be an engineer, although he’s reminded several times by Gabriel Byrne‘s Actual Engineer character that he should start thinking like one. Duh. Isn’t it obvious? People’s lives are in danger, get it together man!

Gunton and Santoro are rendered as puppets, wooden and largely void of charisma in their Suits, the kind you expect to see in films dealing with real lives hanging in the balance, lives dependent upon their political clout to ironically save them. Even more nebulous are the aforementioned family members, though one in particular stands out because she’s played by Juliette Binoche (for some reason). She’s sister to the alcoholic Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba); the pair have more issues communicating than Hellen Keller. Apparently they’ve suffered some sort of trauma in the past.

Clearly, something was going to have to be sacrificed given the extensive roster. But Riggen, along with a quartet of writers, sacrifices the wrong thing, reducing virtually every miner and their corresponding family members to a few lines at most. It’s nigh on impossible to root for these people when we already know the outcome and when we can’t tell Adam from Eve. Fans of The Office will get some mileage out of Oscar Nuñez as Yonni Barrios, one of the miners who is experiencing marital woes and who apparently farts in his sleep. If I weren’t such a fan of his character in that show I’d label this characterization as annoyingly juvenile. Actually, it still is just juvenile, but at least there’s an attempt to shove some humor down into these dank caves.

There are a few positive takeaways, however. What saves this largely uncharismatic cast is the level of diversity in the casting itself. Chilean, Brazilian, Filipino, Mexican, Cuban and Colombian actors congregate to play their Chilean parts, and once again it’s apparent how much Banderas believes in this material. His Mario Sepúlveda is one of an elite few with energy and passion. And quite frankly I was prepared for the religious overtones to be off-putting. Instead this adds weight to proceedings. It’s also one of a few elements that signify the passage of time, lending gravity to the collective despair.

Unfortunately these elements are not enough to qualify The 33 as a natural disaster/biopic worth digging into.

Antonio Banderas inspiring his mining brothers to keep the good faith in 'The 33'

Recommendation: The 33 represents a cinematic treatment of a fairly recent and highly unlikely rescue mission that garnered global attention and support. The optimism is a welcomed attribute, but weak writing and poor acting do a lot of damage here. If you’re looking for basic coverage of the event in cinematic form, I think this is currently your only option (unless there’s a documentary out there somewhere). Inspired by the book ‘Deep Down Dark,’ written by Hector Tobar.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not a rock, that’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com