THE LAUNDROMAT – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns, Jake Bernstein, from Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World”
Cast: Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/10/19
Opened: September 27, 2019. October 18, 2019 streaming.

The Laundromat Movie Poster

You may think that the revelations of the Panama Papers in 2015 are ancient history, that they have little bearing on the world of 2019, but in the film’s conclusion—a manifesto by Meryl Streep who is in the principal role—Soderbergh is indicting the current administration on Capitol Hill and in the White House. He makes clear to those who are following politics today that the working class people who voted for Trump and support him to this day are being screwed over. They may think it’s great that Trump talks like ordinary people in our country, but that’s just a distraction. The government makes it possible for the rich to become richer, enabling them to avoid paying taxes (some billionaire corporations today pay no tax at all), and handing big business a major tax break that is increasing the deficit by $300 billion in just the past three years.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Panama Papers to understand this movie, though it helps..maybe. There are so many stories, such a load of subplots in the film that marks Steven Soderbegh’s coming out of retirement to direct once again, that you might be better off streaming it from Netflix when it becomes available October 18. In that way you can stop the proceedings, re-wind, and re-wind again. However because of the terrific editing job done by the director, the jumble of subplots congeal by the conclusion.
As stated in Wikipedia, The Panama Papers are 11.5 million leaked documents that detail financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The documents, some dating back to the 1970s, were created by, and taken from, Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, and were leaked in 2015 by an anonymous source. The documents contain personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials that had previously been kept private. While offshore business entities are legal, some of the Mossack Fonseca shell corporations were used for illegal purposes, including fraud, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions.

Director Soderbergh, whose “The Informant!” shows the U.S. going after agro-business for price fixing, is surely following the political scene closely. Now he uses Meryl Streep in the key role of Ellen Martin, an elderly, biddie-ish woman caught in a tragic boating accident in New York State, suffering the loss of her husband Joseph David Martin (James Cromwell). Expecting to get a settlement from the boat company’s insurance, she learns of skullduggery involving the sale of the insurance company to a shell group, which is to say that the company exists only as a piece of paper and a mailbox somewhere outside of the U.S.

Avoiding broad comedy but instead relying on arch humor, Soderbergh piles on the tales of corruption. Ellen is cheated out of the Las Vegas condo that she wanted: it faced the area in which she had met her husband. Serving as a Greek chorus, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, meet us on screen in an array of bespoke suits, representing the law firm catering to the upper one percent, giving these corporations advice on laundering money (hence the picture’s title) avoiding taxes thereby. In the most interesting subplot, a rich, imposing gent originally from Africa cheats on his wife, his daughter threatening to tell her mother that dad has a whole separate married family. She is offered a $20 million company to keep quiet. Did she really get that amount, or is the company worth more like $100? A Chinese official poisons a British businessman, the Chongking police chief “in” on the situation, involved in the bribery. A character in a West Indian country is arrested at airport, fainting when he is confronted by the police.

Soderbergh brings together a group of people more interesting than we in the audience have ever met, all scalawags who evoke our smiles until we realize that each of us is too meek to do anything about it. Meryl Streep provides the picture’s greatest plot twist, waiting until the final minutes to cause us to gasp. For a better understanding of the bribery, tax evasion and money laundering, spend $12.64 at Amazon to get Jake Bernstein’s “Secrecy World,” drawing from millions of leaked documents, explaining how criminals are enabled by authorities who look the other way.

96 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

ACTIVE MEASURES – movie review


Super Ltd
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jack Bryan
Screenwriter: Jack Bryan, Marley Clements
Cast: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Michael McFaul, Sheldon Whitehouse, Steven Hall, Michael Isikoff, John Podesta, Jeremy Bash, James Woolsey, Evan McMullin
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 8/9/18
Opens: August 31, 2018


In the concluding scene of Spike Lee’s terrific new movie “BLACKkKLANSMAN,” the director shows an extended close-up of the American flag, upside down, the sign of distress. Anyone who doesn’t get all the news from Sean Hannity must realize, just as Spike Lee does, that the U.S. is underdoing serious problems: forget about the temporary successes like full employment (largely with crap wages) and a booming stock market (why not tax corporations 0%, and then watch a real boom)! Jack Bryan, whose previous ventures includes “Life After Dark: The Story of Siberia Bar,” about the demise of New York’s most dangerous bar and not about Siberia at all, this time targets both our own President and the man who rules Siberia, among other areas of that country, Vladimir Putin. Bryan, whose final scene is a large, simple sign stating “Resist,” is not calling upon moviegoers to resist the tactics of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and former Russian ambassador Michael McFaul, but rather to push back against the corruption in our present administration, which has already seen a record of number of high level government employees fired or turning in their resignations. If the head of Human Resources in any major corporation hired people who left their jobs by the hundreds, that department leader would be gone soon enough.

Still, despite the plethora of talking heads to afford us layer after layer or information about our current dangerous administration, Bryan focuses on one issue to avoid diluting his screed against President Trump. And that is his belief (and that of any thinking person) that Trump is Putin’s poodle. People who go to this film will already have a good idea of what “Active Measures” covers from watching the un-Fox news channels, especially CNN and MSNBC (with a special gold star for the Rachel Maddow Show), but here we have archival films showing Putin to be a dangerous man and, by extension, any person in thrall to the former Soviet KGB officer must be a threat to our country a well.

Putin is a fellow who, like many of his countrymen, is furious about the break-up of the Soviet Empire, the surrounding of his country by former satellite nations like Ukraine who are NATO members. He desires to restore the bad old days of Soviet imperialism. Letting nothing get in his way of the dream of empire, he has already invaded Georgia, Ukraine, and annexed Crimea to his land. He is suspected of ordering assassinations of his chief critics whether in Russia or outside. And here is the key point: he has been manipulating American elections not only since the Trump campaign of 2016 but of our internal matters for decades earlier, with hundreds of spies still living in our great republic, some right in Manhattan’s Trump Tower. This brazen attempt to influence our politics is what the Russians call “active measures.”

With a script that Bryan wrote along with Marley Clements (in the latter’s freshman entry into the script-writing pool), we get the impression that outside of Trump himself, the baddest guy is Paul Manafort, now on trial for tax evasion and money laundering, while giving air time to a number of Russian oligarchs, principally the people who took advantage of the restoration of public business to the private sector and who came out millionaires from bargain prices. Putin used social media, Facebook in particular and, like Trump. also Twitter, to spread false stories to politically naïve and less informed Americans, with such fake news as the absurdity that Hillary was connected to a child pornography ring out of a pizzeria. We don’t know whether the Russian interference put Trump over the top, although not in popular votes, but it didn’t hurt. Nor should a sovereign nation like ours tolerate interference in what should be a sacred annual rite of going to the polls. And we certainly should not have to put with a president who disrespects Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while glorifying Vladimir Putin.

Bryan’s most powerful point is this: what is our chief executive doing sucking up to an adversarial country’s leader, suggesting, as many of us have heard, that Putin has something big against Trump which he is using for blackmail? The film is well researched, the most comprehensive look to date at Putin-gate compressed into just 112 minutes, with an impressive array of not only major political figures but also the scenic backgrounds of important meetings like the G20. If Trump is really committing high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of impeachment and removal, why is he still in office when Nixon was chased out, even by fellow Republicans, for doing not even one-quarter of these activities?

Unrated. 112 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

AMERICAN MADE – movie review


    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Doug Liman
    Written by: Gary Spinelli
    Cast:  Tom Cruise, Domhnail Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke
    Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 9/25/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017
    click for larger (if applicable)
    In one scene Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is relaxing with a copy of Al Capone’s biography, which he presumably is using as a model for his own actions.  It’s the late seventies, so Seal could not be privy to the seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” but that series of dramas deals with the failed experiment of prohibition in America, and while its star, Steve Buscemi, is no Tom Cruise, many of the TV episodes can run circles around “American Made,” quality-wise.  Of course in those seasons, the characters, including Al Capone, have much more time to define themselves, but in Doug Liman’s new picture, they are given two hours to bring a story to life.  Expect lots to be crammed into “American Made,” so much coming at you from the screen that you have little time to catch your breath or analyze the ways that the “based on a true story” is loaded with hype.

    Barry Seal has a regular job, a beautiful wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), a well-appointed house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  But he’s become bored with his job on a TWA domestic route  where for kicks he fakes air turbulence to scare his passengers.  He’s willing to take a chance, giving up his salary and benefits for an opportunity to feel more alive. He gets that chance when Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him to do something for his country, namely to fly missions for the CIA when traveling over countries south of the border.  He is so good at the job that he is promoted: now he is assigned to meet with General Noriega in Panama serving as courier, but on the way the Medellín Cartel in Colombia offers him a job with more money than he could have imagined, flying drugs from Colombia to various drops, making deliveries by dumping huge bags of cocaine to middlemen along the way.  Best of all he transports a staggering array of guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, who are fighting the rebel Sandinistas for control of the Nicaraguan government.

    Much of the action takes place in the air, as he barely misses losing his life on a runway that’s too short even for his plane, which pushes aside trees and barely misses the mountains that are so prominent all over western South America.  He loves the money as well, though his way of laundering appears too simple in that he deposits all his gain in a small bank in Mena, Arkansas, where he and his family are forced to relocate.

    Feeling alive, getting a rush, and swimming in money: what more can a guy want?  Too bad the U.S. is supporting the wrong side in Nicaragua, despite what you hear from clips of Ronald Reagan and Nancy.  But why worry about politics when you’re just a delivery-boy?

    The film is reasonably entertaining, not as much as director Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” and “Jumper,” but there is ample comedy provided by Seal’s discussions with the fun people he deals with in South America (in one scene they say “Shoot the gringo,” but that’s all in jest).  The hand-held cameras keep the pace dizzying and the editing is top-notch.  Call this another star vehicle for Tom Cruise who looks years younger than his 55 years.

    Rated R.  114 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?