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:


ODE TO JOY (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. You might be familiar with the disease “narcolepsy”, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with “cataplexy” – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie (played by Martin Freeman, THE HOBBIT), the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie listens to Wagner’s “Funeral March” on his commute to a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen in life, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a spirited woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most every way … making the attraction even stronger. At a first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a brilliantly funny Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a segment on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”. It’s a delightful (if you can get over the use of a genetic disease as comedy fodder) little gem that I caught at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and hopefully it will find an audience.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2019 Day 5

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Day 5 means we are now past the halfway mark for this year’s festival. Originally I had 4 films scheduled for today, but I opted out of the late movie since it would have required more than a 90 minute wait after the end of the third movie. It’s that kind of situation that makes festival scheduling a bit frustrating. Despite that, all 3 movies were worth the time: a documentary profile of an Italian model, a low budget quirky comedy, and a masterclass from two veteran screen actors.

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 5 films:

 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MY MOTHER (doc)

 Caution is usually the best policy when choosing a biographical documentary shot by the subject’s family member. Often objectivity is sacrificed in the pursuit of a worthy tribute film. Oddly enough, it’s the mother-son relationship that provides the necessary spark as cinematographer Beniamino Barrese turns the lense on his mother Benedetta Barzini, a fashion model icon in the 1960’s and feminist spokesperson in the 1970’s.

We see photographs and flashbacks that prove what a stunning beauty Benedetta Barzini was at the peak of her modeling days. We also see clips of her appearances as a feminist spokesperson, and it’s in these that we see the fiery personality that is so prevalent in the current day exchanges with her director-son as he coaxes her through the process. There are also segments where she is mentoring younger girls and a return to the catwalk during Fashion Week.

She’s now in her 70’s, and remains physically striking with a lithe body that defies her age. But it’s the words coming out of her mouth – many pushing this to an “R” rating – that define the woman of today. The title of the movie refers to her preference to ‘disappear’ rather than ‘appear’ in the images of photos, film or social media.  When discussing the obsession society has with youth, she explains that Youth equates to Life, while Old age is associated with Death. That philosophy is a bit of a downer, but is an example of the insight she brings. In describing today’s marketing, she says women are usually associated with nature, while men represent thought and reason. The outspoken and wise feminist lives on.

Home clips from 1999 and a visit with long-time friend Lauren Hutton offer up more bits of what makes the woman tick, as does her listening to Leonard Cohen and smoking cigs and vaping at an alarming rate. In her mid-70’s, whether she likes it or not, her smile still lights up the screen and any room she is in. Still, we understand she has earned her own liberation from the camera, even as she puts a cap on it. Fin.

 

ODE TO JOY

 You might be familiar with the disease narcolepsy, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with cataplexy – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie, the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie works a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a lively woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most ways … making the attraction even stronger. A first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a wonderful Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a story on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”, and it’s a nice little gem that hopefully will find distribution.

 

THE TOMORROW MAN

 Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting script. On top of that, he cast two top-notch veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life does. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. As a bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.


THE BRONZE (2016)

March 18, 2016

bronze Greetings again from the darkness. Leave it to the Duplass brothers (Executive Producers here) to turn the traditional sports movie genre upside down. Of course, this is about as much of a sports movie as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, but it does use the backdrop of the Olympics to make a point about fading fame. Mostly though, it’s an excuse to crack wise, spew profanities and spoil anything and anyone remotely innocent.

Melissa Rauch (Bernadette on “The Big Bang Theory”) stars as Hope, a former bronze medalist in Women’s gymnastics, who captured the hearts of Americans when she battled through an Achilles injury to perform her final event. The movie picks up a decade after Hope’s Olympic heroics and we first see her enjoying a clip of her big moment. And by enjoying, I mean … well, never mind. It turns out Hope never was able to compete again, and instead continues to milk her celebrity status around small town Amherst, Ohio. When her dad (Gary Cole) gently nudges her to take a coaching job, she shouts “I’m a star, not a coach!” Hope is a selfish brat whose egoism has her clinging to former glory and preventing her from joining society.

Hope gets tricked into coaching Maggie, the town’s up-and-coming gymnastics prodigy. Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) idolizes Hope and is her polar opposite in every possible personality trait – a very welcome upbeat and perky addition to the movie. Instead of embracing the opportunity, Hope goes out of her way to sabotage naïve Maggie’s dream. Along the way, she also mistreats the gym owner who somehow fancies her – despite Hope’s hopelessness. Twitchy Ben (Thomas Middleditch) is a sweet guy who sees the good in Hope and does his best to pull her from the dark side.

A twist of fate places Hope at odds with her old flame and former Olympic gold medalist, Lance (Sebastian Stan), who is now a leader in the world of women’s gymnastics. These two banter like siblings who dislike each other, and also execute one of the wackiest ever on-screen comedic sex scenes – for all of you who have fantasized about frolicking with a gymnast.

Director Bryan Buckley is best known for his 50-plus TV commercials that have aired during Super Bowls, but here he lets Melissa Rauch do her thing (she also co-wrote the script with her husband Winston Rauch). There is some commentary on fame and celebrity (and cameos from Olga Korbut, Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceanu), and some insight into narcissism; but mostly it’s a chance for Ms. Rauch to flaunt her foul motor-mouth with some extremely crass and raunchy lines. It’s kind of cute in an absurdly profane way, and some might agree it beats watching real gymnastics.

Note: Including a Doris Day song on this film’s soundtrack may be the funniest, or at least most ironic moment.

watch the trailer: