Archive | October, 2019

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