Tag Archives: The Big Short

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.

Hustlers

13 Sep

 

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “The Big Short” (2015) and “Wall Street” (1987) all capture fast cash and high times in vivid blurs of overindulgence, articulated through mounds of designer drugs, $100 bottles of champagne and long-legged women in G-strings sashaying about for well-fleeced oglers. “Hustlers” takes all that and flips it on its head – kind of.

The time is 2007, pre-“Big Short” or, more accurately, about the same time, since it’s before the market collapse, and the folks raking in gobs of green on Wall Street are also shelling it out to a posse of pole dancers at a semi-swank Manhattan club. This also being pre-#MeToo, bad behavior and Robert Kraft-like expectations are all part of the landscape. The film, based on on a New York Magazine article, begins with fairy tale roots as Destiny (Constance Wu), the byproduct of a bad immigrant story, short on degrees and in need of cash to support her granny, takes up lap dance duty at the club – “Magic Mike” this is not. Stuck in that rut, she winds up being taken being under the wing (and enormous fur jacket) of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s den queen. The pair team up, dance their tassels off, money flows in buckets and life is grand until that market collapse.

It’s there that the film begins to lose its own value, as the pair and their crew – needing to support kids and expensive digs – begin to shake down those still thriving on Wall Street by giving them essentially what amounts to roofies and maxing out their credit cards. It’s not a pretty picture.

It feels right that this tale of quasi-female empowerment be told by a woman, and while Lorene Scafaria shows plenty of game early on, hyping up the glitz and sleazy glamor and capturing the raucous backstage banter and J-Lo crushing it on the pole – her form and physicality are beyond age-defying – the film meanders as the narrative in the later years employs the device of the journalist (Julia Stiles) asking Destiny to rewind the ring’s exploits after a takedown. It becomes “Goodfellas” lite. Scafaria tosses in a few cinematic tricks to keep things interesting, such as the still moving lips of Destiny and the journalist gone silent after Destiny shuts of the recording device, but there’s not enough gonzo quirk as in Adam McKay’s “Big Short” to really merit them. The real pull here is the bond forged onscreen between Wu, Lopez and the others running the operation, but even that gets frayed and lost in the end.

Wu, who’s been trying to break free from the small screen (“Fresh Off the Boat,” primarily) the same way Jennifer Aniston did nearly two decades ago, makes a bigger, bold stride toward center stage following her turn in the hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” but here too, she becomes more of a plot-flow funnel point; the film’s consumed by Lopez every time she’s onscreen – it’s Lopez’s best work since the quirky crime caper-cum-romance “Out of Sight” back in 1998.

Yes Cardi B, is in the mix, and perfectly outlandish. Early century icon Usher shows up as himself to shower the posse on stage with wads of green. Those cameos come early, but as the money and the watering hole dry up and more desperate measures abound, the film loses its fangs, hanging on a broken Destiny wondering about her friend and mentor. Wu is fantastic in those scenes, but by that time something in the bigger picture feels missing, and we feel shorted emotionally as the tale of Ramona and Destiny gets rolled into a lesson of the times.

Vice

27 Dec

‘Vice’: Bale submerges self into role of Cheney for an overall shallow look into the Bush years

 

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For all the gonzo intelligent narrative devices laid down in “The Big Short” (2015) – a film rightfully regarded for its unconventional tact and devilish skewering of Wall Street greed – “Vice,” the latest from “Short” director Adam McKay, takes a stumble into the pool of smug self-indulgence.

First it must be said that Christian Bale, under tons of makeup and with a harsh, whispery intone – almost like his Batman voice – brings the incarnation of former “Vice” President Dick Cheney to life with astonishing credibility. What doesn’t work in this “W”-esque biopic is the singular throttle of Cheney as the Darth Vader of backroom politics. The film is a series of vignettes: The young Dick, an underachiever working on oil rigs, drunken and failing out of Yale, but then the rise in business, the union with wife Lynne (Amy Adams, underused in the thankless role of garnish) and Halliburton raking it in after Desert Storm. The Cheneys are rich and, at 45 minutes in, the credits roll. That’s one of the many McKay-infused shenanigans (like Margot Robbie in a hot tub with a glass of champagne to explain complex investment vehicles in “Short”) that don’t quite aid the satire, but more stoke the flame as things begin to wane.

After the “fake” credits roll, the call from W comes. During a man-to-man backyard barbecue Cheney casts a dark spell over Bush (Sam Rockwell, restrained and spot-on in the small part) growling about special power if he signs on as VP.  From there it’s a mad shell game, pulling strings from behind the curtain, undermining foes with glee and raking it in. That weapons-of-mass-destruction declaration goes ka-ching to Cheney’s ears.

The Scooter Libby scandal and that infamous shotgun blast all make it in via campy digs that feel more vindictive and skewed than they are of validating some truth. The whole film’s narrated too by some kind of Nick Carraway voice, and when you finally find out who it is, you might have a heart attack over the revelation. Kitsch is where the heart is.

The Cheneys’ biggest humanization comes in the defense of their gay daughter at multiple turns, but even there, McKay paints Cheney as an arduous manipulator worming and working for the win-win – giving the conservatives ins on the gay marriage issue while taking his daughter off the table.

If you’re looking for the real Dick Cheney, there’s probably plenty of nuggets here, but the portrait is so lopsided and skewed you’d almost think it was Michael Moore behind the lens. Bale, while totally convincing and immersed, is afforded only the opportunity to do SNL skit impersonations. Besides the bro barbecue with Bush, Cheney’s not much more than a hiss or a head cock from his Vader throne, using his force to manipulate the universe for evil gains.