THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)

October 10, 2019

North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF) 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The meek may inherit the earth, but if this Steven Soderbergh movie based on Jake Bernstein’s book (screenplay by Scott Z Burns) is correct, they aren’t likely to get the money too. To put it more bluntly, the first of the film’s 5 rules of creating and protecting wealth is, “the meek are screwed.” In order to follow this film that is “based on true secrets”, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the Panama Papers … a 2016 anonymous leak of more than 11 million documents exposing how the rich skirt the laws when it comes to protecting their money. Offshore entities had previously been a mainstream punchline, but these documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama, clearly outlined just how widespread the practice had become.

Rather than traditional narrative form, the information is presented through multiple vignettes featuring an impressive roster of well-known actors: Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Melissa Rauch, David Schwimmer, James Cromwell, Matthias Schoenaerts, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, and Rosalind Chao, plus a few others you’ll recognize. In the role of tongue-in-cheek emcees are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, respectively. Their coordinating flamboyant outfits correspond to these caricatures of the real men behind this web of fraudulent activity. They are meant to add humor to the situation, but also tell “their side of the story.”

We are caught off-guard when Meryl Streep’s story and her character are not the main focus. Her slow unraveling of insurance fraud after her husband’s death is but one segment of the lesson that will likely confuse most people. The easy comparison is Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT (2015), which used some of this style in explaining the mortgage backed securities market. Whereas Mr. McKay won an Oscar for his screenplay, that’s highly unlikely for this one. Scott Z Burns is a talented writer, but this was simply too complex of a subject to tackle in 95 minutes. Mr. Soderbergh, as is tendency, not only directs the film, but is also the cinematographer, editor and producer.

This is a Netflix production that I caught at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival, and thanks to the presence of Ms. Streep, will likely have at least a limited theatrical release. Unfortunately, neither big screen nor small will solve the inherent issues here. There are some nuggets such as Delaware, despite its population of less than one million, being king of corporation filings (thanks to its business-friendly tax laws). Understanding shell companies, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities among the world’s ultra-rich requires more than a talented cast, but perhaps there is enough here to motivate some to dig a little deeper with their own research. That is, if the film’s finale – a lecture on reform – doesn’t turn you off completely. Many of us appreciate being informed, but rebel against the preaching.

watch the trailer:


THE ICEMAN (2013)

May 24, 2013

iceman1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatizations are at their best when actual footage of the subject or event doesn’t exist. They can be an effective way to highlight a particularly interesting story or person with details we might not otherwise access. Richard Kuklinski‘s story is fascinating and frightening. He is known as the mob’s most prolific hit-man/contract killer. Writer/director Arial Vromen has adapted Anthony Bruno‘s novel for the screen, and wisely cast Michael Shannon in the lead. It makes a nice companion piece to the chilling 1992 documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.

The movie is dominated by the hulking presence of Shannon as Richard Kuklinski. Shannon is no match for the physical size of Kuklinski, but his movements and the camera angles capture the powerful and imposing monster that he was. If iceman2you are unfamiliar with Kuklinski’s story, he killed somewhere between 100-250 people. His missions were carried forth in cold-blooded, heartless and widely disparate manners. Additionally, he often dismembered his victims and froze bodies and parts to prevent the actual time of death from being established. He was good at his job, though hardly a good guy. But wait! Not so fast …

Kuklinski was also a husband a father of two daughters who made up what appeared to be a lovely, normal family in suburban New Jersey. This guy had an internal switch he flipped from the street to the dining room table. When he was iceman6captured, his wife and daughter claimed they had no clue what he did for a living (he had told them he was in Finance). Sure, they admitted to his having a wild temper and even threatening his wife a few times, but they never once considered that he was a cold-blooded killer by day and neighborly barbecue dad on weekends.  The photo at left is an actual family photo of the real Kuklinski family.

Winona Ryder plays Deborah, Kuklinski’s wife. Before you snicker, you should know that Ryder is exceptional in the role. Her comeback tease in Black Swan gave us hope she had returned to form, and with this turn displays the talent we always knew was there. The always dependable and creepy Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Roy Demeo, the mobster for whom Kuklinski worked. The scenes with Shannon and Liotta together are bone-chillingly frightening. Chris Evans (light years from Captain America) plays fellow hit-man Robert Prongay aka “Mr Freezy”. Kuklinski credits Prongay with valuable insight into poison and disposal of bodies. It’s heart-warming to see that even contract killers have support groups. Other fine acting comes courtesy of David Schwimmer iceman4as smarmy Josh (Demeo’s right hand man), Robert Davi (as Leonard Marks. Demeo’s link to the family head), James Franco (as one of the hits), and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother Joey.

Childhood flashbacks give us the table-setting necessary to understand the balance of nature v nurture in the Kuklinski household. Still, no matter how much abuse or misery one has a child, it’s difficult to comprehend the stoic evil that possessed Kuklinski. And to be clear, Michael Shannon’s performance is his best yet … and that is saying a great deal. He has become one of the most interesting actors – one who can take the lead as he does here and in Take Shelter, or as a scene-stealing supporter in Revolutionary Road, Mud and the upcoming Man of Steel (as General Zod). iceman3He’s not a flashy actor, just an enormously talented one.

Vromen captures the gritty feel of the nearly three decades of “family” life in a manner that reminds of Kill the Irishmen … the Ray Stevenson take on Danny Greene. The atmosphere and inner turmoil are similar, but there is no comparison to the Kuklinski evil. Should you doubt this, I would highly recommend the documentary previously mentioned. Watching the actual dead eyes of the real Richard Kuklinski as he talks about his life is beyond horrifying.

*NOTE: the real Kuklinski claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa.  His story was unable to verified because … you got it … he was very good at his job.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by the power of “family” life and how the members handled problems OR you are familiar with Kuklinski and want a film that captures the essence of the monster and the times (bad clothes and facial hair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: violence, even when based on true stories, is not your cup of tea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aciNNjzyS20