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:

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KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

watch the trailer:

 


GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

January 9, 2013

gangster Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, I am one of those who take movies very seriously. Good movies make me happy (even the sad ones), and bad movies make me sulk. Every now and then, one comes along that I find myself enjoying despite the warning buzzers blasting in my film snob brain. Such is the latest from director Ruben Fleisher (who also directed the entertaining Zombieland).

“Inspired by true events” should always be interpreted as a disclaimer that the movie will play fast and loose with history and the details of the story. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a renowned Los Angeles gangster from the late 40’s. Due to widespread police corruption, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) authorized an “off the books” team to take down mob operations (gambling, prostitution, etc). This much was gangster4documented in Paul Lieberman’s book. How this story is presented by Fleisher and screenwriter Will Beall (signed on for the Justice League movie) has more in common with a comic book than actual history.

The movie is extremely beautiful to look at. It’s slick and stylish with a glamorous color palette, and the production design is top notch – capturing the look and feel of a booming Los Angeles. If you are expecting the next L.A. Confidential or even The Untouchables, you will be disappointed. It’s more in line with Dick Tracy, Scarface, and Hoffa. In other words … it looks great and the action, characters and dialogue are all way over the top!

gangster3 The cast is superb, but most are underutilized. Josh Brolin is the tough leader of the squad that features Ryan Gosling (the token cool womanizer), Robert Patrick (the token dead-eye gunslinger), Anthony Mackie (the innercity, knife-wielding token black cop), Giovanni Ribisi (the token geeky electronics expert), and Michael Pena (the rookie and token Hispanic cop). Unfortunately, my crude descriptions are just about as in-depth as the movie goes with any of them. In fact, Yvette Tucker playing Carmen Miranda, gets almost as much screen time as any of these cops as she sings “Chica Chica Boom Chic”.

The violence is cartoonish in its fervor. The aim of these gangsters is among the worst in movie history, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Using Tommy Guns and pistols, my estimate is that one in every 167 shots actually hits an intended target. Many elaborate set pieces are destroyed in the process. The exception is Robert Patrick’s character, who is actually featured in a detective serial. He never misses … even after being wounded. Penn plays Cohen as a ruthless mob boss, unwilling to accept any failure from his crew. And you know what that means. No pink slips here … just ugly death via power drill, burning elevator or classic car tug-of-war.

An interesting note is the presence of three actors from recent cult TV shows. Holt McCallany (Lights Out), Mireille Enos (The Killing) and Troy Garity (Boss) all have key roles in the film, as does Jon Polito, whose face gangster2and voice make him a must-cast in any gangster film.

If you are able to turn off the logical and reasoning part of your brain … just sit back and enjoy Emma Stone smoking a cig while wearing a red evening gown, an understated Ryan Gosling with an odd speech pattern, Sean Penn wearing a prosthetic nose and spewing hilarious bad guy lines, and the creepy feeling that Josh Brolin is just 25 years away from looking and sounding exactly like Nick Nolte … then hopefully you can take this one for what it is – a guilty pleasure.

**NOTE: the closing credits are a work of art … a tribute to the classic postcards from early Los Angeles

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re up for a rollicking good time … bullets flying, tongue firmly planted in cheek

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect historical accuracy and pure drama in your gangster flicks

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRVvEHk7xOs

 


SAFE HOUSE

February 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The action-thriller-spy genre can be quite fun when handled properly. The “Bourne” franchise and Salt come immediately to mind. What we have here is a ho-hum game of cat and mouse between CIA Agents elevated somewhat because they are played by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. It’s ho-hum because of the simplistic and predictable script from writer David Guggenheim.

To offset this formulaic script, director Daniel Espinosa leans heavily on near non-stop, frenzied action sequences. Luckily he has DP Oliver Wood (first two Bourne movies) to bring intensity and variety to the action. Denzel plays the veteran rogue agent who turns himself in to a U.S. Consulate after a decade off the grid. We learn he is a U.S. traitor of the worst degree. Reynolds plays a rookie agent on asignment to a going-nowhere “safe house” in South Africa. To say the action is lacking on his assignment is a bit of an understatement. That is, until Denzel is transferred to his site.

We learn a few things in this movie. First, “Safe house” is evidently CIA verbiage for “all hell breaks loose” in the form of massive gunfire and violent deception. Second, if you are an agent in charge of escorting one of the world’s most dangerous men, you would prefer your bosses not send the two of you into a crowded soccer stadium to pick up a GPS device. Things are likely to go wrong. Third, it’s not wise to walk in on Denzel when he is in a bathroom stall. Fourth, if you are Ryan Reynolds, your on screen girlfriends can be as beautiful as your real life girlfriends, and no one raises an eyebrow.

The film does remind us that it’s always cool to see Sam Shepard and Ruben Blades. Where have you been hiding Mr. Blades (pictured)? The rest of the strong cast includes Brendon Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as dueling Langley operatives, Liam Cunningham as a (surprise!) bad guy, Robert Patrick and Joel Kinnaman (from “The Killing“) as agents, and Nora Arnezeder as Reynolds’ hottie.

Being a fan of this genre, it is quite disappointing to see such an obvious and basic story … even though it has the right look and feel, and a nice match-up of stars. The overload of car crashes, gunfire, and hand to hand combat doesn’t offset the fact that everyone knows early on how this is going to end, and we suffer through quick teases of intrigue regarding the two leads. So even though Denzel makes an enjoyable good guy turned bad, and Reynolds shows he is way above the idiotic Green Lantern, this one just doesn’t offer much more than your average video game.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have a hole that can only be filled with excessive noise, gun fire, car wrecks, blood and frenetic fight scenes.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for something new in the spy thriller genre

watch the trailer: