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 . . .”

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

Money Monster

'Money Monster' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jamie Linden; Alan DiFiore; Jim Kouf

Directed by: Jodie Foster

In Jodie Foster’s latest, good old George is forced to strap explosives to his chest on live television and admit to everyone — everyone in Manhattan anyway — that he, the arrogant host of a colorful, high-octane financial talk show, is nothing but a crook. With a gun also pointed at him and his crew, and the assailant with a finger on the detonator, he has no choice but to play along.

In the interest of solidarity, so must we. That, and it’s just more fun going with the flow rather than trying to figure out solutions to the many questions Money Monster raises.

Clooney plays Lee Gates, the centerpiece of a whacky platform you might equate to real shows like American Greed or Mad Money, the latter to which this owes more with its in-your-face delivery and egomaniacal host. Clooney, one of those last vestiges of bona fide movie stardom, convinces as something slightly more than just a pretty face in front of a camera. His geeky enthusiasm over crunching numbers is actually sort of infectious, though  his sense of superiority and ego stroking could be obnoxious to those who don’t keep their eyes on Wall Street. Either way, job well done.

Behind the scenes, director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) juggles producers, camera crew, schedules and the unwieldy task of making sure Gates actually sticks to the day’s script. Mere seconds into just another broadcast she spots a figure lurking in the background, a man carrying some boxes who soon exposes himself as an armed and emotionally unstable investor named Kyle (Jack O’Connell) who has lost a lot of money thanks to a “glitch” in the system, resulting in the company he has sunk $60k into losing $800 million literally overnight. He demands answers from the ones responsible, and has decided Gates is one such individual. The other is Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West), who has conveniently gone incommunicado since the event.

What begins as a frightening confrontation turns into a nightmarish battle between protecting the interests of the bureaucracy and a need for total corporate transparency.   Police negotiations break down and other options are proving limited as well, particularly when NYPD brings Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) on to the scene, hoping she can talk some sense into him. The plan backfires horrifically as Molly, rather than trying to calm him down, lays into him (again, on live television) with a barrage of insults and increasingly vicious barbs that get more personal by the second, leading to one of the most shocking and shockingly effective moments of the entire picture. It’s not exactly the cutesy, unnecessary detour into tender romance we’ve been trained to anticipate.

Money Monster proves to be quite the entertaining little potboiler. It’s distressing stuff but Foster also manages to find the funny in certain moments. One could argue the tonal disconnect between an act of terrorism and comedy, and yet the injection of some quips and the odd running joke about a producer obsessed with balls turns out to be one of the film’s greatest weapons, moreso than the overly familiar stench of disdain and dissidence as a poorly planned hostage stunt yields a much more complex discussion about class structure and the corruption of the American financial system.

There is a more ambitious film buried somewhere in this ‘leave no stone unturned’ approach to getting to the heart of corruption, but like Adam McKay with his own personal vendetta The Big Short, Foster sets the vacuity of morality and human decency as a dramatic backdrop in this world of high finance and “risk-taking.” Even if Kyle’s embodiment of the brokenness of the American dream isn’t something we’re experiencing for the first time, neither his bleeding heart nor the director’s obvious frustration is easy to ignore.

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Recommendation: Far from the perfect crime movie but Money Monster offers up a lot of food for thought with its combination of terrific acting, pulse-pounding action and a relatively complex but hardly labyrinthian narrative that makes it easy to buy into the plight of its characters, on all sides of the argument. Once you get over the incredibly strange opening act, Money Monster really opens up into something worth investing your time (and money!) in. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What, is this a union thing?”

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

TBT: Casino Royale (2006)

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. . .as if it was going to be anything else! Or maybe the choice isn’t as obvious as I think it is. Despite the fact that 2006 doesn’t seem like much of a ‘throwback,’ per se, and that I just sent in a Guest List for the 007 Best Moments in this very film to The Cinema Monster, this still feels like one of the ultimate James Bond films.  . . a natural and perfect way to cap off a month of James Bond Throwbacks. Disagree? Well then you can do what the Puritans did: get the eff out! 😀 😀

In the spirit of getting out, indeed that is what happens today: out with the old and in with the new; a brand-spanking new style and tone to a franchise long since in decay with the advent of simply over-the-top technological devices and crummier and crummier stories. Much as I don’t want to call Brosnan one of the worst, he certainly had the unfortunate luck of being surrounded by some of the poorest material to date. 

Today’s food for thought: Casino Royale

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Status Active: November 17, 2006

[Theater]

Mission Briefing: Fresh off an assignment in which he must eliminate two targets in order to achieve double-0 status, Bond is now faced with the prospect of tracking down Le Chiffre, a cunning and merciless terrorist financier whose grip on the black market grows more powerful with each passing second. A high-stakes poker game set up in Montenegro will be Bond’s best chance of outwitting the dangerous man.

Mission Support: 

  • Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) — fiercely intelligent and every bit as poetically disdainful as the young, trigger-happy 007; represents the British treasury and keeps a watchful eye over Bond in the poker game; a close friend of 007 but whose true identity may not be entirely trusted
  • René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) — 007’s Montenegro contact and a shady fellow, also not to be entirely trusted; approach with caution
  • Solange (Caterina Murino) — girlfriend of Le Chiffre henchman Alex Dimitrios; possible distraction who could be in possession of some useful information; interrogate using any means necessary
  • Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) — American agent on behalf of the CIA
  • Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) — sinister second-tier threat to operations leaders, but is a known associate of Le Chiffre; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) — financier to several of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and a mathematical genius who likes to prove it playing his hand at cards; cold and emotionless, he is an excellent calculator of human behavior and persistent at getting what he wants; must be stopped at all costs
  • Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) — liaison for third-party organization whose identity is not yet identified; at this time MI6 holds Le Chiffre in higher priority than Mr. White, but he is nonetheless a figure of significance; approach with extreme prejudice

Q Branch: [ERROR – file missing]

Performance Evaluation: As if to give the Bond of old a mercy kill with this necessary re-booting of Britain’s most dangerous spy, director Martin Campbell set his sights on recapturing the cold steely pain of James Bond, bastard child and loyal protector of England. His selection of Daniel Craig and decision to dispense with much of the cheese that was beginning to bog the films down, were key in distinguishing Casino Royale as a truly compelling recounting of how Bond was born.

Not only does he wear the single-breasted Brioni dinner jacket — as noted by a certain perceptive British treasurer — with a level of disdain we aren’t used to witnessing before, but Craig’s willingness to sacrifice his body effects determination and aggression more in line with what readers of the beloved novels have consistently expected and even more consistently been denied. Not to mention, screenwriters smartly take advantage of contemporary issues such as post-September 11 paranoias and use them to champion relevance and gravitas that’s more convincing than Bond’s previous scuffles with the Soviets.

As Bond takes it upon himself to insert himself into the Bahamas and other exotic locales in an effort to track down MI6’s latest target, the man known as Le Chiffre, a brilliant and determined banker who earns his riches by funding global terrorism. Because he’s fresh on the job, M (played by Judi Dench in one of the film’s more frustrating yet ultimately understandable moves) finds herself with her hands full as she attempts to keep tabs on her fledgling 00 agent. Packed with spectacular action sequences — the opening parkour scene is particularly memorable — perhaps never more exotic locations, and possessing a refreshing level of vitality for both the character and the franchise, Casino Royale has managed to overcome the wave of skepticism initially facing it by delivering one of the sexiest and most thrilling installments yet.

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5-0Recommendation: It’s funny thinking back on the controversy surrounding the casting of Daniel Craig now, as he has continued to make the role his own ever since, following up this solid performance with equally convincing turns in Quantum of Solace and of course, most recently in Skyfall. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea; he’s certainly more callous than Brosnan and more physical and possibly more brutal than Connery, but it’s difficult to imagine the series persisting had it not been for Craig’s introduction. This first outing for him finds the spy at his most vulnerable. Anyone a fan of the books is sure to find great enjoyment in watching him develop here. Not to mention, this film suits fans of solid action films. They don’t get much better than this.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted:  “All right. . .by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since your first thought about me ran to orphan, that’s what I’d say you are. Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know. . .former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.”

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