The Laundromat

10 Oct

‘The Laundromat’: We go through a spin cycle while Soderbergh cleans house on bad finance

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Steven Soderbergh’s films have always been stacked with panache and verve. Take the mod hipness of “Out of Sight” (1998) or the “Ocean’s” films, let alone bigger, more serious affairs such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” – both made in 2000 and both striking Oscar gold – in which the filmmaker’s wry, slick sarcasm still manages to work its way up and out. That’s why taking in “The Laundromat” is somewhat disconcerting: It’s got style and sass for sure, but it’s someone else’s pen that Soderbergh’s wielding, most conspicuously that of Adam McKay, who inked quick irreverent, knee-jerk changeups into “The Big Short” (2015), the artfully outrageous dissection of the subprime housing collapse.

“The Laundromat” too is about a financial fissure in America, though it’s a more intimate and less grand affair than “The Big Short” and employs loosely bound segments (Secret 1, 2, 3 and so on) to bring you the not-so-great news. The first segment, “The Meek Are Screwed,” obviously caught my eye. The meek are mentioned relentlessly throughout the film, lemmings we should care deeply about no matter how many go over a cliff at the promise of financial security and greener pastures (the American Dream; nay, scheme). The first meek we meet are a retired couple, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell), who take a pleasure cruise across the placid waters of Lake George. There’s an accident, Joe doesn’t make it and Ellen, who thinks she’s going to buy a condo in the sky, drink mai tais and watch the sun rise, is in for a rude awakening. The insurer of Joe’s policy is a mailbox somewhere in Nevis with funnel after funnel to shell corporations elsewhere. It’s a maddening, endless web of paper that if put into boxing terms might be Ali’s infamous rope-a-dope – you can slug away all you want, but in the end you’re exhausted and primed for a knockout.

Ellen’s a slugger. And over the course of what amounts to a long, drawn-out bout, you begin to really admire her moxie. She starts with that mailbox, which belongs to a somber, cagey gent named Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), whose personal life proves nearly as dubious as his dealings. Ellen may be grasping at straws, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns follow the trail with the same diligence they tracked the source of a lethal pathogen in the pandemic thriller “Contagion” (2011). Along the path we get myriad digressions, be it a corrupt and extremely rich African ex-pat named Charles (Nonso Anozie) philandering poolside with his daughter’s college roommate, two naive Americans slugging tequila in the wrong Mexican cantina or the British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who tries to shake down a Chinese matriarch on her home turf – not a good strategy.  

It turns out all roads lead to Panama (yes, this is the saga of the infamous Panama Papers, that if not for Wikileaks and the subprime debacle might have been more boldly underscored in history books) and there we get the cherry duo of Ramón (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen (Gary Oldman), law partners at a firm that manages nearly 25,000 shell companies who provide the kind of aside insights that Margot Robbie did from a hot tub in “The Big Short.” The pair are dashing, charming, and you’re thrown into a trance every time they rationalize the state of the universe with a shrug and wry smile. Their smugness is intoxicating, but it’s hard to root for the shell gamers as they inflict pain and suffering upon the meek with their “just bending the rules” machinations. The charismatic actors forge devilish chemistry too, twirling around each other like Fred and Ginger; Oldman, who won an Oscar last year for playing Churchill, gets to take a German accent out for a spin. For the most, he handles the curves nicely, but in the pit he lays it on a bit thick.

As things come full cycle, Soderbergh and Burns suddenly seem to be at a loss. Perhaps they should have done more with Sharon Stone’s persnickety real estate agent in a clingy sequin dress, or David Schwimmer’s boat operator, royally screwed by big insurance. But no, as this “Laundromat” closes we get put through the ideological wringer as the fourth wall is kicked down for a dour dose of pedagogy that’s meant to incite. Unfortunately, all the lazy symbolism does is agitate and bleach out what had been a luridly piquant sojourn to Central America and other unsavory ports of global corruption.

First Love

4 Oct

‘First Love’: Boxer and dame are on the run through cartoonishly blood-slicked streets

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Takashi Miike, the Japanese auteur of such intimate torture ditties as “Audition” (1999) and “Ichi the Killer” (2001) and the Kurosawa-worthy swordplay of “13 Assassins” (2010), returns to his roots with “First Love,” which, while lacking the intimacy of his other works, delivers the anticipated cringe-worthy beatdowns and unfolds in a freer and more conventional fashion. Taking place almost exclusively at night, amid the seedier side of a neon-bathed cityscape, “First Love” borrows some from Tarantino’s gangster dramas as it centers around a taciturn boxer (Masataka Kubota) and a young woman haunted by ghosts and forced into prostitution (Sakurako Konishi), thrown together and sucked into a criminal underbelly of yakuza heavies, drug dealers and one super badass moll.

That boxer, Leo has his own ghosts – abandoned as a child, he’s recently learned he has a brain tumor. Yuri (Konishi), as a means for her handlers to hold her to her trade, is often hopped up on drugs that only expounds her frenetic paranoia; the specter only she can see comes charging at her in nothing but tighty-whities. Yes, “First Love” is that kind of of gonzo good WTF. It’s a deft professional jab by Leo that brings the the two together, but before they can pause to fall in love – because you know they should be together, no matter how hopeless and desperate their futures seem – bigger machinations rise up and engulf then. A midlevel enforcer named Kase (Shôta Sometani), seeking a greater slice of the action, hatches a plan to play his mafioso boss against a rival while mixing in a squad of corrupt cops. It’s a crapshoot that goes wildly astray. There’s little redeeming about Kase, though the fact that he thinks he’s smarter than he is helps make “First Love” such an enjoyable shit show of madness and mayhem.

Kubota, who also starred in Miike’s “13 Assassins,” carries the silent accidental hero part with aplomb as Konishi’s imperiled damsel dances about him, weaving in and out of bouts of hysteria. It’s great cinematic chemistry, but the real scene stealer here is Becky Rabone as Julie, the girlfriend of the gangster henchman who was Yuri’s protector/pimp. She’s pretty good with a blade, and if there’s not one around she’s just as happy to go hand-to-hand with a larger male counterpart, stomping his brains out once she’s got him down. Talk about a take-no-prisoners attitude (though the name Julie just feels wrong for such a luridly alluring incarnation): For most the film, she rolls through the streets sans pants or skirt, just blood-splattered stockings and stiletto heels. There’s one hilariously grim scene in which a gangster has his gun-wielding arm lopped off and tries to pry the the firearm away with his remaining hand, but his dismembered arm is clutching the pistol too tightly. (“Fist Love”?) It’s classic Miike, and sure to be an elating moment for fire-branded fans. “First Love” may be a bit of a changeup, but all the twisted, dark wit is in there and served up with a wry, bloody smile. Also too, not enough can be said about Nobuyasu Kita’s fine cinematography, which captures the rain-slicked, trash-strewn streets in vibrant neon splashes.

Joker

3 Oct

‘Joker’: Phoenix tries to hold it all together, but eventually film lets loose, breaks down

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Throughout Batman’s long history, the Joker’s been played by some pretty mighty performers. Standouts include Jack Nicholson, who pretty much hijacked Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), and Heath Ledger, who won a bittersweet, posthumous Oscar for his deeply felt portrait of derangement in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) – and let’s not forget the comic genius of Cesar Romero during the 1960s TV series. Nolan and Burton felt like the right hands to shepherd a dark superhero/villain origins tale, but Todd Phillips, with such swinging steak comedies as “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” films to his credit? Odd as it may seem, it’s a somewhat logical evolution from drunken vomit awakenings to blood-splattered foyers with a panicked dwarf who can’t reach a chain bolt to escape.

The real reason Phillips’ “Joker” succeeds is simple: Joaquin Phoenix makes the anti-antihero psycho-saga all his own. There’s also the script by Phillips and Scott Silver that plays with the Batman mythology artfully without getting bogged down in the bigger picture – though we do briefly see Bruce Wayne at a young age, when dad and mom are with us – but without Phoenix, I don’t think “Joker” takes flight. It’s a bravura go, and Phoenix should be right up there at year’s end (like Ledger was) with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio when Oscar nods are called out. With maybe the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) it’s hard to find a movie in which Phoenix doesn’t shine with brilliant quirk and dour doses of menace. He delivers all that here and more; it’s a total immersion. For the part of clown turned Gotham icon and sociopathic perp, Phoenix lost a ton of weight, something done with equal austerity by Christian Bale (who took up the bat cowl for Nolan) in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004) or, inversely, when Robert De Niro added 50 pounds as Jack LaMotta in “Raging Bull” – and if as on cue (send in the clowns), the Martin Scorsese-forged actor shows up in “Joker” as beloved late night TV show host Murray Franklin, whom Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s birth name) and his not-quite-all-there mother (Frances Conroy, excellent in the small complicated part) watch religiously. Continue reading

Judy

27 Sep

‘Judy’: She knows there’s no place like home, but can’t get any closer than stage in London

 

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“Judy,” the biopic about stage icon Judy Garland, is just right focusing on her “hot mess” last chapter as an in-residence performer at a London theater club, her better days interspersed through deft editing and seamless narrative framing. It is a tad oversentimental at times, but overall a bittersweet pill that finds its mark effectively, and three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Renée Zellweger knocks it out of the park as the it girl whose star has faded; she’s about as sure a bet to be in Oscar talks as Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

The script, written with purpose and verve by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), sets us up with Judy and her two youngest, Lorna and Joey (played by Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones” and Lewin Lloyd) circa 1969, being evicted from their hotel digs. She’s broke and broken and just wants to be a mother to her children, but there are bills to be paid, no one in the states who will give the unreliable pill-popper a role or a gig and a custody battle brewing with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Before London calls there’s a brief L.A. house party with older daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux – stunning) and an uplifting but ultimately unfortunate encounter with a mod hipster Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her last husband.

The whole saga is sad, with fleeting moments of uplift: Judy is always “on” when on stage or talking to an adoring public, but her own worst enemy sodden with booze and pills after the curtain drops. In flashbacks to her younger days (Darci Shaw crushes it as the young Judy), she’s simultaneously given an avuncular embrace and manipulated malevolently by MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” where studio handlers forbid her food and feed her uppers and downers instead; and men in general attach themselves and milk her throughout her life. About the most love and respect the star gets beyond her progeny comes from her stiff-upper-lip handler in London, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and her young bandleader, Burt (Royce Pierreson). One of the film’s more whimsical and fun moments comes when Mickey comments in a bar about a new, experimental Beatles album – and floats the idea of Judy performing with The Rolling Stones. The crowd is nonplussed, but Judy drinks up hungrily the shot of possibility and confidence.

Director Rupert Goold, who’s mostly orchestrated stage theater, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland stage and frame the performances stunningly, especially in the use of light and closeups, and with engrossing intimacy. Of course, it all hangs on the star who’s on in every take. One telling scene comes during a TV interview, when a journalist tries to dig in on the former starlet about her “unreliability” and messy custody proceedings and gets blowback: “I’m Judy Garland for one hour on stage and then I’m a member of family just like anybody else.” Sadly, that never really became the case, and you can feel that palpably in Zellweger’s performance. 

Fictional films such as “A Star is Born” (Garland starred in the 1954 version with James Mason) and “All that Jazz” tackle the toll of stardom and its perils, but “Judy” lives it, and through it, you live it too. It breaks your heart, not from the usual distance, but deep down inside with the painful desire of someone who just wants to be loved unconditionally.

Downton Abbey

20 Sep

‘Downton Abbey’: King and queen are coming, and it’s a roiling pain upstairs and downstairs

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A quaint, tight little package that should warm the nostalgic hearts of loyalists of the PBS series that shut down four years ago, “Downton Abbey” is more of an apt TV sendoff than, say, the “Sex and the City” films (and it turns out Michael Engler, the director here, helmed episodes of each). For one thing, the plot is focused on closure rather than future opportunities, and it doesn’t play like an extended episode.

The intrinsic charm of “Downton Abbey,” small or big, has always been its focus on those doing the cooking, tidying and fluffing in the bowels of the grand estate. It’s post-World War I, yet the entitlements of the feudal past remain – if just barely, as the modern world and its complicated economics are crashing in to alter the staid landscape. The earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, the countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are decent manse overlords, as manse overloads go; after taking in the series (I’m a dabbler, I must confess) and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001, also written by Julien Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his effort) you wonder if all such passed-on grand estates are so civil and seamlessly run, with dignity between class barriers.

Sorry, I digress. Most everybody at the Abbey is on fine terms and happy at the onset, except maybe Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who frets about the mounting financial pressures of the infringing modern era and relentless upkeep of the manor. Then a neat but stressful gem gets dropped in their lap: King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire for a visit and will take up digs at the Abbey. “Oh happy days” is the immediate reaction, but faces dim when it’s announced the Abbey’s staff will be replaced top to bottom by the king’s staff, who carry very little respect or empathy for the Granthamers (“I am not a butler, I am the King’s Page of the Backstairs,” one brassy prick retorts) and that is where the heat for the film begins to build and ultimately the tinder gets lit – when the Abbey lot decide they’re not going to take it. It’s good stiff-upper-lip oneupmanship three tiers down, while above, Maggie Smith’s persnickety grand dame Lady Violet has it in for Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), who bestows too much public fondness for her maid.

More harrowing is the ferreting out of a possible assassination attempt and Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the onetime footman promoted to butler, diving into Yorkshire’s gay underground and the absurdly Draconian (and sad) reaction by authorities during a bust. It’s the film’s most biting (and practically lone) barb of social commentary.

Where fans of the series might feel shorted is that there’s too much packed in to too little. Character and conflict are pushed by plot, and screen time feels meted by slivers of the clock and not significance. What’s up there feels like it could go another hour (it’s right at two) or have a Part II. Also, mind you, Engler is no Altman, who with “Short Cuts”(1993), “Nashville” (1975) and “Gosford Park” to prove the point, was a master of the hydra-headed narrative. Engler does a fine enough job, and to be fair “Gosford” was built from the bottom up (in collaboration with Altman actor/writer Bob Balaban), whereas this “Abbey” is a retrofit for the faithful. It’s not grand, but it does do what it does with dignity and grace.

Ad Astra

19 Sep

 

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The title of James Gray’s latest epic odyssey as translated from Latin simply means, “to the stars.” It’s a pretty highfalutin term for a film that’s fairly slack on the sci side of this sci-fi quest that takes us to the moon, the red planet and beyond. Its biggest boost is its star, Brad Pitt, coming in reentry-hot after an Oscar-worthy turn as a bum-around stuntman in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He’s solid here as Major Roy McBride, a man with a low resting heartbeat and few emotional attachments. He’s distant from his wife (Liv Tyler) and has no kids, so he’s cool, calm and able to MacGyver his way out of any hairy situation no matter how impossible or far out in space.

The film begins with a bravura sequence (worthy of “First Man” comparisons) where, in the not too distant future, Roy is working on an antenna projecting up and out of earth’s atmosphere that gets struck by a rogue energy wave. The massive spire implodes, collapsing back to earth in a long, slow chain of events that call eerily to mind the 9/11 attacks. Roy, with some cool thinking, survives, but more than 40,000 people are killed by the surge from somewhere out in the galaxy.

The purpose of the tower, we’re told, is to communicate with other intelligent life, because humans cannot survive much longer on their own – the implications being that we’ve messed up the planet and are looking for someone to bail us out, though that’s never really articulated. If you’re thinking the Tower of Babel or “Contact” (1997) you’d be correct, but with the death toll from the wave and more on the way, phoning ET gets dropped as the surge and its source become job numero uno. Naturally the brass at Space Command (a branch of the military) pick Roy (can anyone ever pass over Brad Pitt?) for the need-to-know mission, and also, what’s that? Those in the know think the shockwaves are coming from Neptune, where some years earlier Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) led a mission and may still be alive.

Yup, daddy issues run deep, but not with much emotional effect. The journey to Neptune is a damn fine amusement ride, beginning with the running of a gantlet of pirates on the dark side of the moon to the abandoned spaceship where a lab experiment has gone wildly amok and the penultimate stop, Mars, run by an effete with a mini-man bun and myriad agendas. But it’s there on Heinlein’s precious planet and beyond that the film begins to drift. The mission and the stunts lose their importance, the sense of urgency and peril get nipped, and all we’re left with is something of a stripped-down existential quest, a diet lite posturing of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Interstellar” (2014) without a credible force (or fully baked cause) to reckon with (i.e., Brando’s Kurtz or Matt Damon’s rogue astronaut). All of a sudden, the slog to the outer limits feels all for naught. Also challenging to logic and scientific principal, these guys hop planets like catching the noon Greyhound to Penn Station. There’s no warp speed, wormhole or stasis sleep – in short, the sense of time and space feels distorted, if not ignored.

Gray, who cut his teeth with gritty crime thrillers such as “Little Odessa” (1994) and “We Own the Night” (2007), last turned in “The Lost City of Z” (2017), an account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to find signs of early civilization in the Amazon. That film, another journey into the vast unknown, feels like boilerplate for “Ad Astra.” It’d be fair to call it a Z-peat, but in the real-life account, Fawcett always seemed one fateful decision away from ruin. Here, Pitt’s Roy, while steeped in palpable, reflective soulfulness, is so can-do capable that Kryptonite has no shot of buckling a knee. Pitt, for better or for worse, has become something of an icon and a brand, like Tom Cruise (impossible to separate the celebrity from the performer) – and while that worked to everyone’s advantage (shirtless scene and all) in Tarantino’s Tinseltown fable, Gray never imbues his hero with enough vulnerability, or even a hint of it. “Ad Astra” is like a 5 Hour Energy drink: a sharp, pure blast of wow, until you come down and it leaves you empty and wanting.

The Goldfinch

14 Sep

‘The Goldfinch’: Tartt adaptation never soars, but tale’s also not as bad as it’s been painted

 

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With waves of discontent rolling out of the Toronto Film Festival, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” seems poised to join “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as one of the great miscues of transposing popular contemporary literature to the big screen. Having seen it for myself, I’m not so sure that’s the case; it’s got its share of flaws, but that’s mostly because it tries to pack in too much (the 800-page novel is a lot to bite off) and Tartt’s central theme about the lingering burn of grief gets lost, as does a sense of character and character motivation.

The most rocked in Crowley’s sea of emotional turbulence is its dour anti-hero, Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”), who gets hit with a lot of bad shit but mostly caroms passively from one frying pan to the next, his fate and actions shaped by that of others. The film moves in a series of times shifts that transition seamlessly and are most effective in their early stagings around the young Theo (Oakes Fegley, of “Pete’s Dragon,” excellent here) seeking security and a sense of home after his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at The Met. Dad (Luke Wilson) happens to be missing (abandoned the family, whereabouts unknown) so Theo moves in with the family of a fellow New York City prep school friend (Ryan Foust), where the family matriarch (a staid and elegant Nicole Kidman) comes regularly to Theo offering kind and compassionate coos.

Given the heft and span of Tartt’s work, there’s a lot of moving pieces – perhaps too many. Theo’s stay in the in Barbours’ flush Manhattan doesn’t last long; dad reappears; and then there’s Carel Fabritius’ painting of the title that looms over every frame and drives the plot with celerity as it nears conclusion.

Fans of the novel may have greater cause for disappointment, but the film’s never boring. Though long, it’s also riddled with enough bad-situation-gone-worse scenarios and compelling, human-touch moments to hold the audience’s attention, not to mention that it’s shot by Roger Deakins, a 13-time Academy Award nominee and once winner (“Blade Runner 2049”); to say it looks good would be an understatement. The acting also really anchors Crowley’s uneven interpretation. Elgort, given the least to work with, has enough natural charisma – like Kidman – to push the role further than the script by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) dares, and one’s coming-of-age heartstrings get tugged by the chemistry Fegley’s young Theo has with Foust’s chum, as well as a feral young Russian immigrant (Finn Wolfhard, alluring with a moppish head of hair and porcelain skin) whom Theo meets in the Vegas desert. The whole New York side of the story (then and now) get a warm avuncular embrace by the presence of Jeffrey Wright as an antiques dealer who mentors Theo. His reflective compassion and Kidman’s grace against indignity buoy each scene they’re in. Like the chained bird in Fabritius’ painting, Crowley’s screen adaptation is hindered from taking flight – by its ambition, scope and eddies of emotional indifference. The pieces are there, but they don’t cohere, resulting in more of a warble than a melodious song of grief.