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 

Florence Foster Jenkins

'Florence Foster Jenkins' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nicholas Martin

Directed by: Stephen Frears


This review is dedicated to my mother, who would have absolutely adored this movie.


Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic you just have to see if you were swept up in the William Hung story in 2004. American Idol this is not, but it is a look into the life of one of the worst opera singers to ever live, a woman who many believed had no right being on stage driven by her own confidence and the politeness of those closest to her.

What could have been a painfully awkward, mean-spirited debacle instead matures into an entertaining and dignified exploration of a rather interesting woman. As steady-handed as it is predictable, this is a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Though his film had plenty of opportunity to do so, director Stephen Frears (The Program; Philomena) recognizes that humiliating and degrading his subject is a job best left to the Simon Cowells of the world. After all, this is a movie about the pursuit of a dream, not a game show in which contestants are regularly mocked just for having one.

Meryl Streep takes on the role of the titular New York heiress, officially proving there is no role in which she cannot excel. Arguably that debate has been settled for awhile, but here she gets to embrace an entirely unique challenge — trying to sound like a worse singer than she really is. Ricki and the Flash. Into the Woods. Heartburn. Death Becomes Her. Mamma Mia. Her career is littered with singing roles so the question was never going to be whether she would sound good. Actually it was the opposite. To genuinely sound like a cat slowly dying requires a level of confidence (and conscientiousness) few actors would be able to demonstrate. Jenkins was famous for her “oh-HO-HO-ho!” inflections, and recreating this quirk without descending into parody proves to be a fine line Streep is more than prepared to walk. Once again it’s strong work from the three-time Oscar winner.

The affair remains simple and treads in well worn shoes in its recounting of a period late in Jenkins’ life, when she became obsessed with putting on a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Major characters are introduced one by one, starting with dear husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who has for years been her emotional backbone as she pursues her love of music, regularly helping her host performances at the ritzy music club she owns. There’s a lot of history between these two. Over time a presumably passionate love affair has been reduced to small acts of kindness that seem to be carried out more with obligation and professional courtesy than anything else.  In the early going we see St. Clair sleeping with another, much younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson) in his own apartment where parties are regularly thrown. He believes there are many different types of love and that Florence understands this too. (Here’s the unscrupulous Hugh Grant I never knew existed. Guess I should watch more Hugh Grant movies . . . wait, no. God, what am I saying!)

The film’s only other major player is aspiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg), who finds himself swiftly drafted into the ranks after a brief audition. Unbeknownst to the bright-eyed, chipper youngster, he’ll be backing up a singer so dismal her husband has had to concoct a complex scheme to keep delusions of grandeur alive. For years he has been shielding the singer from nasty critics and gawking crowds, as well as filtering out the negative press from Jenkins’ regular news consumption. With concerns over his career mounting, McMoon tries to decline what he expects will be the Hindenburg of Carnegie Hall appearances. Bayfield, fearing the ramifications of a carefully constructed façade collapsing, insists he stick with it.

Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins is as much about the singer living a dream as it is about the young talent overcoming preconceived notions and discovering fame and success of his own. The pianist never ventured away from his gig with the tone-deaf soprano, despite initial concerns that precisely this would happen. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is experiencing the transformation that happens on the boy’s face: an initial cringe of disgust eventually yields a deep smile conveying genuine satisfaction. It’s the very same thing that happened to me as I watched this lightweight but ultimately wholesome drama unfold. In spite of her wretched singing voice, Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t help but win me over.

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

Recommendation: Florence Foster Jenkins is a study in professional and personal dignity. Meryl Streep is the built-in reason to see it, but this is a great one to watch to get a better understanding of the situation surrounding the singer and the kind of life she lived. It is a tonally well-balanced piece, never reaching too far in one direction or the other. You get glimpses of some nastiness, but I am glad to say FFJ is a way more positive film than I was expecting, and funnier too. Strongly recommended for fans of Stephen Frears’ work as well. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” 

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

The Homesman

homesman-poster

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones; Kieran Fitzgerald; Wesley A. Oliver

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones is once again a man whose greatness knows no bounds as he stars in, directs as well as helps to write and produce this quietly fierce tale about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank).

Who’s that, you ask?

Isn’t that the million dollar question. An unusually strong, independent woman and fearless pioneer who takes it upon herself to transport three psychologically disturbed/physically abused women from various regions of the wild west, back to a proper care facility located somewhere out upon those sprawling Iowan plains — Cuddy is a societal enigma, an individual hardened by the hostility of 1850s midwestern American life and slowly withering in isolation. She is unwed. She’s introduced as someone somewhat desperate to shake the shackles of apparent spinsterhood. No man wants to be with her for her plain looks and, quote, bossiness, repel almost immediately.

Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs is a man with few scruples, and even fewer rules for trying to get along in this rough and tough world these characters perfectly inhabit in 2014. The contemporary release date can be confusing, for surely this is one gorgeously realized (and thus convincing) setting, affecting an instant nostalgia among the John Wayne faithful — or period film/western fans in general. That there’s someone of Jones’ stature (and dare I give it away now. . .okay I will. . .Meryl Streep’s) in supporting roles certainly helps. Streep may be less associated with the genre, but her ability to disappear inside her roles unsurprisingly serves her well here.

The Homesman is quite the traditional western. Except for the fact that it’s not. We have Indians who fiercely claim their territory, a harsh winter that lays spoil to many a homestead — William Fichtner’s Vester Belknap laments the disappearance of his corn crops and subsequently must deal with his rapidly ailing wife (who indeed becomes one of the three needing to be relocated) — and a script that heeds the reserved mannerisms, quaint colloquialisms and customs of the day.

But this is also a film set in the heart of America (as opposed to the literal ‘western’ territory) — Nebraska and Iowa primarily — and whose overtones, a mixture of darkly comic and comically bleak, tend to betray those of standard western romps. Slapstick violence doesn’t exist, though the heart-wrenching kind does. Death is a friend to many on these plains, while there is nothing quite like seeing TLJ in his pre-industrial jockstraps being smoked out of “his” home by a bunch of spurned settlers. He’ll soon be lynched on horseback (sounds confusing, I know) for jumping on another man’s land, so that smile won’t last. A valid argument could be made for The Homesman‘s tonal bipolarity. One minute it’s deadly serious; the next it moves the viewer to fits of giggles.

With Jones in the director’s chair, however, all is most certainly not lost. Hardly a thing is. Save for logic towards the end. The Homesman ends on a very, very strange note. And while I will maintain my promise to not ruin things here, I must comment on Jones’ decision-making at this juncture. (Like, what the hell man?!) Or, translated professionally: there are some baffling choices made at the 11th hour. Are they enough to abandon The Homesman in unfamiliar territory? Not quite. Are they apparent enough to cause a directorially-illiterate viewer (a.k.a. me) to notice? You bet your buffalo hide.

This latest effort from director TLJ finds the craftsman working respectfully — dutifully reminding us that while modern living is no breeze, we might just have it a little easier than those growing up on the frontier.

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3-5Recommendation: Packed with reliably sturdy performances and fascinating characters — I think the trio of sick women are going to be criminally overlooked here — The Homesman finds strength in being not quite like the others. Fans of the cast and steadily absorbing narratives need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “Are you an angel?”

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

Hope Springs

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Release: Wednesday, August 8, 2012

[Theater]

You’d think after 30-some years of marriage that everything, right down to the very second of each day, is calculated, controlled…..in a word, routine. There’s a certain comfort in routines. Arnold Soames (Tommy Lee Jones) is a firm believer in that, and it reflects in the way he carries himself as a CPA, one with a penchant for falling asleep while watching golf tips on ESPN. That’s not the way his wife views her life, though. When the camera cuts to a shot of Kay (Maryl Streep) glancing idly at her deflated husband in the recliner, her eyes tell a whole story. They reveal this plot, actually.

What she needs is a rekindling with the man she fell in love with all those years ago. She’s fed up of the increasing distance she feels from her husband — whether or not that’s his fault or theirs collectively kind of guides the script in a general direction. Emphasis on ‘general,’ as it takes awhile for us to figure out what’s dysfunctional here. The couple sleeps in separate rooms, don’t speak much throughout the day, and have fully-grown children.

Finally, enough’s enough. One day she suggests to Arnold that they seek marriage counseling up in Great Hope Springs, Maine. There’s a well-known therapist who can help rekindle the flame. And it’s a last-ditch effort for Kay, too. These days it seems like a chore having to put food on a table for a man who won’t say a word and who barely has time to kiss her on the cheek on his way out to work. The real question hanging in the balance, though, is whether or not she ever had lived the romantic life that she had imagined years ago.

Enter matured Steve Carell. As Dr. Feld, his job is to either mend marriages or end them. From the very first moment they’re chatting with the doc, it’s clear that Kay is on Feld’s cooperative list and Arnold, quite the opposite. Though not intentionally archetypal, the character of Arnold is something of a model for men who are retreating into their latter years with most of their dignity in tact. The last thing he needs is for some random guy with a degree in sex counseling to diminish it. As can be predicted from the male’s perspective, he walls off most of the questions and keeps to himself.

As the therapy continues, that approach is hardly sufficient, and actually incites Kay to react poorly to her husband, in a variety of situations. Dr. Feld makes it clear that intimacy has to be obtained by working together, and by starting slowly. When applied to the pace of the movie, that is great therapy. The film slips further into comedy and away from the serious examination of mature relationships. But that’s alright — all we want is to see Meryl Streep happy! It takes us awhile to get to that but it’s well worth the fight and hey, even MIB would be happy to hear that Mr. Jones got in touch with his sensitive side.

As slight a cast as Hope Springs requires, it is an extremely stacked one. Jones and Streep need no introduction or qualification, but Carell has definitely stepped up his game. Or put on his Poker face. Whichever metaphor suits — it’s good for him, because we listen intently to what he has to offer, and leaving the theater we hope that, should that time come, we have a therapist as open and caring as Dr. Feld.

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3-5Recommendation: This one’s targeted at a slightly older demographic, to be sure. In that way, it possesses great wisdom and experience. It reveals some of the more troubling secrets about marriage; some things that I give credit to Streep and Jones for demonstrating together. It’s sweet, earnest and above all it’s a refreshing dramedy that finds its appeal in unexpected places.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

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