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 

The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Lucinda Coxon

Directed by: Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl, at least at a glance, looks poised to pull a Dallas Buyers Club and receive recognition, and possibly even win top prizes for both leading categories next February. The field is getting pretty stacked though, and if Leo can just get a word in edgeways . . .

Even though he’s in the lead here, Eddie Redmayne recalls Jared Leto, who last year transformed himself from 30 Seconds to Mars vocalist to Oscar-deserving thespian on the back of his scintillating turn as a transgender prostitute. Even with Leto’s prior roles considered, the story of him becoming Rayon was one of the highlights of 2014. He couldn’t do it alone though as surely he fed off of Matthew McConaughey’s own intensity.

Similarly in The Danish Girl Redmayne is half the picture, entirely dependent upon the chemistry he shares with his Swedish co-star Alicia Vikander, who officially gives Marion Cotillard something to worry about. No longer does the race for first place in the Best Leading Lady poll seem like such a given. Vikander is arguably best in show in a film that will be remembered for heartwarming (and breaking) performances first and story second.

Slight in build but dapper in a suit, Redmayne is introduced as an upstanding but quite shy young man, a talented painter named Einar Wegener whose landscape portraits are fairly highly sought after. He lives in 1920s Copenhagen with his wife of several years, Gerda, herself a painter. The story is very much one that takes place behind closed doors, chronicling Einar’s transition from a man into a woman and becoming one of the earliest recipients of gender reassignment surgery, a journey inspired by Gerda’s insistence her husband stand in temporarily as a model to allow her to finish off a painting. He dons high heels and stockings, pretends to wear a dress and appears altogether comfortable doing so.

The Danish Girl isn’t made with impatient viewers in mind, nor purists who believe biopics have an absolute obligation to recount every single fact as they happened. Over the course of two hours the film massages an ache into a deeply seated pain, transforming a seemingly ordinary, loving marriage into a relationship fraught with doubt and tested to its very limits as Einar begins to more deeply embrace a new identity.

While there is strong focus on the moment, the film isn’t suggesting a simple game of dress-up was the moment the artist first realized something about them was different. Einar simply believes now more than ever he was born a woman and would prefer to identify as such. Gerda, meanwhile, has a difficult time accepting the game is no longer a game. Director Tom Hooper wisely introduces issues that had potentially been ongoing for years, such as the couple’s infertility problems, among other things. Einar adopts the name Lili Elbe to reflect another phase in her own personal evolution.

Lili also experiences chronic physical pain on a monthly basis, prompting her to seek medical advice. Of course, these are more austere times and as far as doctors are concerned, there’s something psychologically wrong with Einar for believing he’s been born a woman. Homosexuality isn’t exactly viewed in a positive light, much less the concept of a man (or a woman for that matter) identifying more strongly as the opposite gender. These circumstances were considered, at best, exotic fantasies generated by feeble or perverted minds. Supporting actors playing doctors may be on the fringe, but they contribute significantly to that sense of intolerance and it can be pretty uncomfortable.

Hooper’s weaving of fact with fiction works very well all things considered — there’s little mention of the couple’s marriage being annulled by Danish courts in light of Wegener’s groundbreaking surgery, and the real Lili underwent four procedures instead of the two the film implies she had. The Danish Girl blends two powerful performances with a keenly observed screenplay that places a premium on dignity and courage. This is an extremely human movie, perhaps presenting more layers to a single person than any other film this year.

The intimacy is palpable, and not just in terms of the performances. Danny Cohen’s camerawork deserves recognition, for he assembles a patchwork of beautiful shots of the natural world, a few the source of inspiration for some of Einar’s work, and life in romantic European cities such as Copenhagen and Paris. The Dresden Municipal Women’s Clinic, where the surgeries were performed, looks like a castle cloaked in thick tree cover. Elegant cinematography expertly parallels the inner beauty the deeply conflicted Girl so desperately seeks.

Indeed, and much like Jean-Marc Vallée’s exploration of the societal stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS, this is a beautiful production in more ways than one, its committed performances so clearly sympathetic toward their subjects. Structurally sound but not particularly inventive, in its pursuit of the depth and complexity of the things that make people what they are The Danish Girl bears significant weight.

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Recommendation: Another showcase for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander (who is arguably better than her male co-star), The Danish Girl is putty in the hands of critics. Moving in the way that you deeply care about the fates of all involved. Dazzlingly shot. Some scenes are highly predictable and formulaic but there is no denying this is a winner. (All the same though, Eddie I’m sorry but my allegiance will still probably lie with Leo come February.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.”

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 Drop

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Release: Friday, September 12, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Fairly unsurprisingly, The Drop is a compelling modern entry into the gangster/crime genre.

Tom Hardy. James Gandolfini. There’s something foregone-conclusion-y about pairing those names together and sticking them in a mobster flick. It’s likely to be damn good. Of course you’d be forgiven for not being taken with the relatively bland title. But for dismissing lonely old Bob Saginowski (Hardy) who carries around a pit bull pup for most of the movie? Totally inexcusable.

That’s a side of Bane you won’t see too often. Even less from Charles Bronson. And doubtful there were many times in Tommy Conlon’s life where he felt so sensitive.

As striking a visual as Hardy nursing an abused and abandoned puppy can be there’s something more poignant in the reincarnation of Tony Soprano as “Cousin Marv.” The duo are indeed cousins who run a dive bar in Brooklyn, with the latter having proudly owned the operations for decades now and the former merely tending bar. If only life were actually that simple, though. Targeted as a ‘drop’ location by a dangerous Chechen criminal syndicate, this particularly dingy cave suddenly magnetizes all sorts of dirty money flowing in from various unsavory individuals.

When two dim-witted thugs hold the bar up one evening, Saginowski and his cousin find themselves in hot water with Chovka (Michael Aronov), a mob leader not even Tony Soprano would want to cross on a good day. The pair are left scrounging for the missing $5,000 before they too find themselves disappearing in a windowless conversion van parked in the shadows of some nondescript alleyway.

Hardy — if you can believe it — puts on a stellar performance as a sheltered, fumbling everyman whose social ineptitude symbolizes that part of the iceberg we can see peeking above the surface. Sooner or later we’ll get to know how deep it goes into the water. Before we do, there are several layers to Cousin Marv we need to peel away before coming into the frightening realization of how truly shady this whole operation is. This place is rotten from the inside out, and the last thing we are ultimately concerned with are the drops themselves.

The Drop blends sharp social commentary with an indomitable devotion to creating atmospheric tension. An unnerving turn from Matthias Shoenaerts as Eric Deeds, a renegade criminal with a keen interest in the dog Bob discovered in a neighbor, the broken but beautiful Nadia (Noomi Rapace)’s trash can one night on his way home from the bar, adds to that greatly. Seemingly channelling his inner Joker in his unrepentant disregard for logic or reason, Shoenaerts casts a shadow that puts the dreaded Chechen gang in perspective. Clearly there are degrees of evil here that we ought to be aware of. Therein lies the genius in having the omniscient perspective: we eventually learn no one is clean but as the story develops our willingness to take the lesser of two evils is directly proportional to how much we’re shocked by the developments.

Rapace isn’t the focus of attention here but her fragile state’s still worthy of mention as she offers up a vulnerability not found in the male characters. And her performance proves yet again how kaleidoscopic the Swedish actress’ image truly is. For Bob Saginowski Nadia represents a chance to outgrow his circumstances and become something more, all while still wrestling with a dark past of her own.

Perhaps owed to the effectiveness of the transfer of book to film at the hands of writer Dennis Lehane (responsible for both versions), you will likely not come across a more atmospheric and capably-acted crime drama this fall.

Or, maybe you will.

But it won’t have James Gandolfini in it, who in this case doesn’t even need to raise his voice to remind us of the ease with which he could command the screen. Additional credit must be given to the strong direction of Michaël R. Roskam, who’s only had one previous film released (and to similar critical success, as a matter of fact), for never allowing the sobering reality of Gandolfini’s absence hang too heavy over the proceedings. Marv is chameleonic, blending seamlessly with the decay of his surrounds. As the big man once again does with his favorite material.

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4-0Recommendation: Reiterating, the appeal is pretty clear here. The box office draw comes twofold in a dreamlike pairing of Hardy and Gandolfini in a thoroughly well-written and well-crafted reflection of a much harder life in America. Despite there being a substantial amount of commentary on the subject already, The Drop offers a clear-eyed view of some very, very, very gray areas indeed. Aside from a few limited moments of bloodshed, the lack of substantial gore might be one immediate way you can distinguish this effective thriller. It relies on studying and assessing character motives and relationships, and if that’s your sort of thing, you should be buying yourself a ticket right now rather than reading this blog. (But seriously, thank you for reading this blog.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Are you doing something desperate? Something we can’t clean up this time?”

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