The Laundromat – review (Netflix)

Brief synopsis: A couple of Panama City lawyers, Júrgen Mossack and Rámon Fonseca, tell the story of how the very rich accumulate and protect their money, legally, from taxation and other financial penalties.

When a boating accident causes the deaths of 21 people, the widowed spouse, Ellen Martin, of one of the victims looks for answers and recompense when the insurance payout is hindered.

Is it any good?: The Laundromat breaks down the somewhat complex and murky world of high finance and tax avoidance and fashions a mostly amusing and straightforward tale of the whys and whats of the high net individuals.

It is necessarily vague in some aspects, which is a little frustrating but tells the story in a compelling enough way to leave the viewer curious, which, in essence, seems to be the goal.

Spoiler territory: Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) are the lead lawyers at a firm bearing their names in Panama City. They smugly address the watching audience, telling us that about the power of money and how credit changed the course of finances.

In Lake George, New York, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell) are getting ready to go on a river cruise. On the lake, the captain, Richard Paris (Robert Patrick), is telling those assembled on the small river-bus about the historic sites along the lake. The captain is surprised by a sudden swell on the lake. The river bus capsizes.

21 people are killed in the accident, including Ellen’s husband. When she goes to see about the insurance, she is told she just needs to fill out a claims form and should receive a seven-figure settlement.

When Captain Paris, who survived the incident, goes to see his partner, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), he is told that the insurance company they got insurance through had been taken over. The company that took over say the insurance amount does not cover the river, or the accident.

In Nevis, West Indies, an accountant, Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffery Wright) is ignoring an incoming call in his office. The call is from an international number. His wife, Vincelle (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who works with him in the office, brings some papers for him to sign. The papers need to faxed to Mossack and Fonseca by the end of the day.

Vincelle also tells him that Christopher Purser, the person who owns the insurance company that took over the company that insured the river-boat, had called about the accident. Irvin listens to his voice message from the international call. The call is from Quirk. Irvin is listed as the company director.

Back in Houston, Quirk tells Paris that Purser is being investigated and their insurance claim is one of many now tied up in legal wranglings. Paris hopes they can settle. Ellen takes her daughter, Melanie (Melissa Rauch) and grandchildren, Thaila (Juliet Donenfeld) and Kaylen (Brock Brenner), to a new condominium in Las Vegas.

Ellen plans to buy the condo because it overlooks an area that holds many memories for her. The realtor, Hannah (Sharon Stone), turns up at the condo. She asks Ellen if she got her voice message. Ellen did not. Hannah speaks to her alone. She cannot buy the condo, she has been outbid by some young wealthy Russians.

Mossack and Fonseca return to explain how the rich create companies in name only, based in locations with favourable taxation laws, to protect and increase their wealth. In New York, the effects of such dealings are being felt by Ellen as she is informed that the insurance company will not be paying out. Her lawyer (Larry Clarke) despairs at the bravado of the insurance company to ignore the responsibilities it inherited.

He mentions the fact that the company is based in Nevis. Ellen gets on a plane to Nevis, following the trail. Quirk speaks to special agent Kilmer (Cristela Alonzo). She tells him that all of the companies that he believes took over his insurance on the bar he owns with Paris and the river-boat, are fictional. Quirk asks how can that be, he was only trying to save some money. She tells him that it is a massive international fraud.

He asks about Boncamper, does he even exist? Kilmer assures him that he does. Boncamper is leaving Nevis to travel to the US. He tells his wife that he has to meet some clients. Ellen lands in Nevis and goes looking for the address. She finds a post office. By chance, she bumps into Boncamper. She asks about the address and Boncamper. He tells her he does not know him.

At Miami international airport, a young girl shouts for her daddy. It is Boncamper. As he comes down the steps he is intercepted by Kilmer and a group of law enforcement officers. Boncamper passes out. His American wife, Edith (Miriam A. Hyman) comes rushing to his aid. Kilmer takes her to one side and shows her that she is actually his second wife and family.

Kilmer takes Boncamper away. In Panama City, Mossack is informed by his secretary (Veronica Osorio) that Boncamper has been arrested. Mossack asks who he is. She tells him that he is the listed director of forty-six of their companies. Mossack thinks about falsifying records to have someone else as the director.

Ellen keeps on investigating and finds out that the company is part of a trust. The trust is under the signed directorship of Mia Beltran (Brenda Zamora). In Panama, Brenda is given multiple documents by Mossack to sign. One of the company’s she is a director for has purchased property in Las Vegas.

Ellen goes to a local news outlet, hoping to shed some light on the shady dealings she has come across. The editor tells her they prefer to focus on stories that are closer to home. Back in Panama, Brenda is killed in an unfortunate, freak accident. She was the signed director of some two thousand, five hundred companies.

They decide to promote another woman in the office, Elena (Meryl Streep). She becomes the new director of all of the companies. Mossack and Fonseca tell us how they met after studying law and formed a company. Elena comes to Mossack telling him that the Costa Rican government want to seize a house of one of their clients. The client is a drug lord.

Mossack and Fonseca tell us that most of their clients are good people just trying to help their families and futures. They talk about Charles (Nonso Anozie), who just wants to provide for his daughter, Simone (Jessica Allain). Charles gets home and goes to his mansion. In the pool is Astrid (Miracle Washington), Simone’s best friend.

Charles is having an affair with Astrid. Simone returns from university early, wanting to settle in before her graduation celebration. She catches her father and best friend together. Charles tells her that he will give her one of his companies, worth twenty million dollars, as long as she does not tell her mother.

Her mother, Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird), returns from he travels for the graduation celebrations. She calls Astrid, insisting on her coming to the celebration. Simone attacks her when she turns up at the party and Astrid apologises to Miranda, mistakenly thinking she knows about the affair.

When Simone goes to find out the value of companies her father signed over to her, she finds that they are practically worthless, the twenty million dollar valuation now down to thirty-seven dollars in the time that it took her parents to separate.

In China, Mr Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts), is going to see Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao). He helped finance her husband’s, Bo Xilai, political campaign. He wants to invest again as the deal was very beneficial to him. Gu does not want to get involved with the dubious dealings again. Maywood threatens to derail her husband’s campaign by exposing their dealings if she does not agree to another venture.

Gu, feeling threatened, kills him with rat poison. Gu goes to the chief-of-police, Wang Lijun (Ming Lo), telling him that she had to kill Maywood because he had kidnapped her son and threatened to expose her. Lijun records the conversation. He takes a team and arrests both Gu and her husband at his political rally.

Mossack and Fonseca are telling us once again about tax avoidance as opposed to the illegal practice of tax evasion. Ellen is at church praying for a solution, a resolution. She comes up with a plan.

Mossack and Fonseca get exposed in the press, the whole tax avoidance scheme becoming public knowledge. Their data was given to the press by an anonymous source known only as John Doe.

They both get arrested. They go to jail for a mere three months. John Doe says that the system is mired in legalese and protects those who do not really need protecting whilst hurting those who do. He asks that the financial systems be reformed. The end.

The Laundromat is an interesting film that, if you took any passable interest in the news a few years back, will sound vaguely familiar. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a book by Jake Bernstein and a script by Scott Z. Burns, it takes a, truth be told, boring subject and makes it entertaining.

High finance and the ways in which high net worth individuals protect their money is a difficult subject to make entertaining. In truth, it lends itself more to documentary making rather than popcorn entertainment.

A vast amount of people find numbers boring and a little daunting. Coupled with legal practices, numbers and impenetrable legal jargon is the perfect way to hide vast amounts of money.

The issue that anyone tackling this subject has is making anyone care. Because many of the people who benefit from such schemes are faceless, it difficult to care beyond mild indignation about what they are doing.

Here in the UK, the press have, without much success, tried to whip up some negative press towards Amazon and their taxation practices. Unfortunately, for most of us, the numbers are so unfathomable and the impact only felt as some intangible unfairness, that one struggles to be angry about it.

That is the same problem The Laundromat suffers from. We know this sort of thing is going on, but we have no power to affect it. Soderbergh, a well-regarded director, recruits many big names for this project, so everyone on show puts in a great performance.

Still, even with the big names in attendance all putting in great performances, the somewhat piecemeal nature of the storytelling makes it difficult to really emote with what is happening.

That being said, anyone who is interested in high finance or just in money movement, might well enjoy this film. The end, a statement taken from the John Doe documents, are meant as something of a call to arms but, as I mentioned earlier, most are too apathetic to care.

At ninety-five minutes long, The Laundromat is possibly worth a watch for the curiosity value alone.

Quiet Suppression – We’ll Take That

Back in the mid eighties I and many of my friends, in our mid to late teens, listened to the same music. This was around the time I started going to clubs and meeting people who would become life long friends. One of the commonalities among us was music.

Being black and having attended a predominantly black school, musical leanings were divided between two types; you were either a reggae person – most of the black people, children, I grew up around hailed from Jamaica, pretty much the birthplace of reggae – or you were a soul person. I was a soul person. Michael Jackson, on the brink of superstardom with Off The Wall, Luther Vandross in his fat phase, Stevie Wonder before the lazy, comedic impressions. I had a perm, I danced like I was about to fit and I loved music.

Music was – and still is – a great leveller for a black person growing up. We may not of had much in social status, or many role models, there were no faces to relate to on a regular basis on television – Sir Trevor was a lone, regular, face – and in my part of the world, urban south London, there was no mass expectation of going to ‘uni’ or getting a job that became a progressive career.

This was pre-internet, MTV was in its infancy, phone boxes still existed and vinyl was still the dominant musical format. Music mattered to us. It gave us identity; reggae was and will always be associated with Jamaica, but soul music was black. it embraced all of us, regardless of island origin, we could come together under the umbrella soul of music.

As ever, a lot of black cultural references come from our Stateside cousins. Film, music, fashion, even role models, have ever had blacks enviously looking across the pond. Of course we do not envy their everyday fear of being shot or living in some shitty hovel. We never had to – or our parents – face segregation or sitting at the back of a bus. No, we had any of that to contend with. We were lucky in that regard. Though there is something.

I was listening to Kiss 100 this morning, a commercial radio station that is not dissimilar from any other countrywide, 18-25 demographic driven station. In 1990 I was, as were many of my clubbing friends, at the Kiss fm launch party. The reason we were at the launch party was because we had been supporters of the station and knew many of the deejays that would populate its roster. Kiss was one of the pirate radio station that had helped to promote black music, the music we clubbed to and embraced. We felt like, in some part, it was our station. Fast forward fifteen years and any notion of it being a ‘black’ music station has all but disappeared. It is largely indistinguishable from any other popular music station, pumping largely white produced dance music. So what happened and what does this have to do with anything? The answer to that question is twofold and a little controversial.

Anything that is seen as black and popular, whites have tried to take it away and make it their own. In the States, with such a vocal section of blacks and with their natural inclination as a people, Americans, to highlight an issue, such a thing is not easy to do. Also, such is the number of blacks in America, they can influence at a level that matters; financially. In the UK that is not the case. Anything that is thought as being ‘black’ is not generally viewed as sellable or desirable. Unless it is repackaged as white. This is not a new thing, in fifties and sixties America the excitement initially generated by Elvis Presley was the notion of a white man who could sing ‘black’. Here in the UK the likes of UB40 and Culture Club in the eighties made a fortune singing reggae and ‘black’ music respectively. Jamiroquai also made his fortune adopting a black sound, yet black artist in this country have always struggled to make an impact. As recently as last year, Sam Smith, a soul singing depressive, white kid, garnered award upon award in black music categories, his beautiful ‘soul’ sound embraced by the masses.

Growing up, an insult that would sting any would be clubber was ‘you dance like a white person’. They really could not dance. Not to soul and funk and boogie anyway. Waltzes? Absolutely, but not stuff with a beat.  But as the decades went on and increasing amounts of whites got into soul music, mixed with blacks, clubbed with blacks, they got the beat. Now every talent show features a funky, all white, dance troupe.

There is no field, profession or area where black people are embraced, as leading, within the UK. After over five hundred years of immigration, integration and population, how is that possible? A quiet suppression. The powers that be say: Thank you, I’ll take that!

Incarcerated By Lies

The invitations are plentiful. As are the suggestions. Invitations? That’s not right. Temptations; offers of a kind. Buy this, come here, experience this, you have to do this! Modern life.
Apparently, your peer group can pull you up or pull you down. Given the choice, you would pick a peer group that pulls you up. You pick a peer group that lifts you up.
In the city, In these modern times, these times of relentless information and social media overload, the have-everything-now, spendthrift consumerism is not something that is frowned upon. It is encouraged.
We’re all middle class now. Perhaps your parents were not. They were job for life people, the scope of their youthful ambition never known to you. When they were growing up, there was no internet. A Mercedes was not a common sight, home ownership was not the norm. It was admirable, but not striven for in the same way as it is now. People use to buy a home to live in, raise a family in. Not as a potential investment.
Not now. Not now that we’re all middle class. It is a life of reaching and thinking of not only where to live for the best possible return on your investment, but, if you have a young family, where to live so as to get into the best schools. Maybe some idyll, away from the urban sprawl. Country living appeals to a lot of aspiring middle classes; bring up the children in beautiful, rural surroundings. So they move out. Not too far, money’s in the city after all. Everybody has the same idea, moving to the outskirts, expanding the city, looking for space but too afraid to be the one to break away from the bright lights, the action. All their neighbours are from the city. The competition – and it is a competition – continues. Nice house, nice car, nice holidays. The offers are made without the expectation that it may be beyond your means. Why would it be?
Friday night out? Drop a couple hundred drinking. Dinner? Not going to go to Nandos! Someone knows a place. Only about fifty a head, that’s good isn’t it? Yes. Of course it is. Put it on a card.
But you’re an adult. You would just say if it was all getting a bit out of hand, a little expensive? Right? Just like you know to say when you’ve had enough to drink on a night out. No?
There is the fear. There always is. The platitudes on Facebook and wise words of strangers that are liked infinitum, do not matter a jot when confronted with the realities of life. No one wants to hear you cannot afford it. Of course it okay occasionally to use that excuse. Not as a standard. Not every damn time. What are you doing with your money?! The offers, the excitement, the baubles, these are the things of your peers. Your peers. Perhaps you’re in the wrong…..stratosphere? Air is a little thin up here as it is, cannot have a wannabe sucking what precious little availability of it we have up here away! Need to keep up. Keep up and shut up. No one wants to know you’re struggling. We’re all struggling! Keep fucking smiling and stop making a fool of yourself. Do you think we’re all sitting on a pot of gold out here? There are a few, yes granted, but most of us are like ducks. Calm above the waters and feet going frantically below. Is it all a lie?
A lie? Of course not. A lie is deception and you cannot really deceive yourself, can you now? Or can you?

Before I Die: 101 thing to do – part four

Back to the list…

22.) Drive a supercar
I am not really a petrol head. A motor vehicle is for the purposes of transportation. I do, however, love a fast car! Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, doesn’t matter as long as it is stupidly fast. Zoom.

23.) Attend a major sporting event
Six nations, Olympics, World Cup, even the World Series and I don’t even understand baseball! I just love a big event atmosphere. The London Olympics were magnificent. It is both inclusive and tribal. Everyone should experience it.

24.) Go in a spaceship
So space travel is not really a thing yet. It will be. When it is – and I expect it to happen in my lifetime – I want on that ride. Imagine actually seeing the planet from space! The planet! Would be so awesome.

25.) Float on an updraft
Like sky diving with out the need to jump out of a plane. Also, it is only a few feet off the ground. Genius.

26.) See a north London derby
Of all games in football – soccer, not the random American game played using one’s hands – the derby is the game that most fans look forward to. There is no game that carries more passion or intensity, than that of a contest against your local rivals. Being an Arsenal fan, the thought of my team putting Tottenham to the sword….! That I want to see.

27.) Join a soup run
Not everyone in the city is living the high life. Some, whether it be life circumstances or their own poor choices, live a hard life in the city. I have had many a Xmas when I’ve thought – usually after stuffing too much! – I should do a soup kitchen. So it’s on the list.

28.) Pay off my mother’s mortgage.
Doesn’t everybody want to do that?

That’s seven more. Hmm, even I’m curious about the next seven!

Exceptional Mediocrity: Rose Tinted Living

I read an article this morning by Mike Rowe, talking about following one’s passion and how it was poor advice. You can check it out here
There are plans, dreams, plans of dreams and dreams of plans. Growing up, most had dreams. Generally, before the over saturation of ‘talent’ shows and the world of unexplainable job titles, beside the normal wishing to be famous, people would dream of getting a high paying job, being a manager of some description.
That was different time. A time before one could find out at the press of a button what your peers earned, how they lived, where they holidayed. Such envy inducing information required more than foggy dreaming. It required a plan. Thus the uni generation came into existence.
What, you may ask, is the uni generation? As a child of the urban city, born in the late sixties and schooled at a local comprehensive and secondary, my peers also occupying the same, working-class strata, had a particular outlook on life. Only the super-intelligent had any expectation of going to university. The rest of us, living in the era of high unemployment and depressing prospects that was the eighties, just wanted to gain a paying job that would afford some life luxuries. The expectation, education wise, was sixth form or college at best. It was also a time of winners and losers; a discernible separation between the rulers and the workers, the affluent, leaders of society and the common masses.
Less than a generation later the expectation of going to university is normal. Every young person, smart or dumb, has been, or expects to go, to university. Get their degree, ready to take on the world. No longer the small dream of just getting a job. Now it had become a step to something, some amazing career path, filling out an impressive cv, whilst increasing the bank balance and changing the status on your LinkedIn account.
With the move away from manual, trade based, working, everyone pursued an artistic or office based, computer related career. Dressing nicely and preening to work. Handsomely remunerated, the uni grad hides in plain sight, a ‘success’.
Does the work they do matter? No doubt some, yes. Are they, as they hustle to work, mobile offices denoting their import, changing the world? Maybe a few. The vast majority have been sucked into a race to the middle. Flat screen televisions, latest mobile phones, best post codes, organic produce, all things that denote a visible, lifestyle magazine matching, polite, blasé, isn’t-everybody’s-life-like-this, lunchtime conversation, middling comfort. Everybody wants the best, but the same. Same phones (form an orderly queue), frequent the same clubs and bars, same cars, same post codes. When they check the mirror of their peers, they pretty much see the same stuff. They’ve arrived.
Is it a bad way to live? No, not at all. Nice things; good food, wine, travel, items and trinkets, it is not a failing to want these things. Living for the accumulation of stuff, the pursuit of oneupmanship, that is perhaps, a goal not worthy of chasing. After all, as amazing as one’s life can look, someone else’s will always look rosier.

Seppuku: A Lesson In Shame

In Feudal Japan, a warrior – samurai – would, if captured by his enemy or in order to prevent falling into enemy hands, having brought dishonour on his clan, commit ritual suicide rather than live in shame or be tortured.
In modern day Japan, suicide is still seen as a way to end one’s life if one feels a sense of shame for being unable to support the family or unable to attain the high standards in life expected of them.
In times past, a politician or person of high social standing, a film or television personality could, overnight, see their career reduce to ruins. The sense of possible disgrace, public ridicule and personal embarrassment was self policing and helped to maintain a semblance of decency in society.
With the explosion of social media, reality television and the all encompassing World Wide Web, this seems to have got lost. There is an almost insatiable need to be entertained and humoured. When seen first time on film, a train coming into a station scared and fascinated people, but quickly became mundane when people realised it was harmless entertainment; a new medium. So has been the way with media and entertaining.
Things that used to shock became everyday and, like everything, if it happens in the media it filters down to the general populace. Sexual promiscuity is fine. I saw it on a reality show. Having no sense of embarrassment, along with no discernible talent is fine. I saw that on a ‘talent’ show. It is not just television. The get-ahead-at-any-cost mentally is reflected in the relentless pursuit of technology and upgrades to that technology, usually mere months after the last iteration.
Banks ripped us off? Oops, we will reduce our bonuses, sorry. No jobs lost; no grovelling apology. Politicians taking advantage of age old home allowance laws? Plenty of exposure, not one resignation or moment of contrition from an avaricious, cheating seat holder. It has got so that even those accused of actual punishable crimes, show no sense of shame, no covering up as cameras thrust toward them on their walk to or from the courtroom.
The things that offend are no longer a collective agreement; where one may argue that public nudity is inappropriate, another would as strongly argue that the human body is natural thing and was never meant to be clothed! Freedom of speech, of expression, the liberal belief of everyone has a right to be, is a beautiful and laudable thing. What happens when, as it seems has happened, we affluent, over fed, consumer crazed, must-have-it-now society of the West, get that? It is, nobody is seeing it, the absolute power.
Shame, self pride, was the unseen guardian of society. If it’s power has waned to such an extent, that the only people truly vilified are rapist and pedophiles, what is going to stop anarchy?

A bit of a trickle…..

So the campaign is up and running (check it out here) and the initial enthusiasm has faltered. Not for the project, that remains as resolute as ever, but for the whole crowdfunding kerfuffle. I want to make films. I like making films; the writing, the casting, pulling the crew together, directing actors, working out scenes, this is what I want to do. What I don’t like is asking people for money. I am not even that comfortable asking people for money when it is for a service I am providing! So crowdfunding and its concept is way outside of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, though I may know a few people who are quite well off, none of them are relatives or people with whom I am comfortable enough to ask for an indefinite loan. Hence the crowdfunding. Back to the enthusiasm.
Putting together a crowdfunding campaign is not as painful as I am making it sound. Truth is, it involves many of the elements of filmmaking and in itself is quite enjoyable. The aspect that is not enjoyable is the launch. In the run up to creating and launching your campaign, the support for it will be overwhelming; that’s a good idea, yeah you should try that, you should absolutely do it! All very positive. Once the campaign is launched however….crickets. Even getting people to endorse your campaign becomes a battle. You see, launching the campaign is the easy bit. Maintaining the momentum – even if it is only in your own head – is the work. In effect – especially with film – you are selling a product that 1.) is unlikely to result in a financial return and 2.) not even made yet. You are asking people to take a leap of faith and back your enthusiasm, vision, apparent talent, in the hope that they will get a feelgood at the end of the process. It is a big ask.
Of course, before the launch, I believed, hoped, there would be an absolute stampede to my page. Do not ask me what I am basing this notion on. It is not as though I get thousands of hits on my FB pages, blogs or twitter feed! Still, one always hopes and expects. I must admit, it has taken the breeze out of my sails a little. The Brit in me remains firmly against bothering people and promoting myself. Foolish I know, after all there are a billion talented individuals on the inter-web, fighting for their fifteen minutes, who like myself, mistakenly believe that having a modicum of talent will get you noticed by the ‘right’ people. What the practical, pragmatic, world wise side of my brain is telling me is that I have to keep pushing on. Moving forward, being a bit of a nuisance and fighting for attention. After all who else is going to do for me?

The dream continues.

My next film is planned for Jan/Feb 2015. It had been slated for the end of November 2014, but an impending knee operation put paid to that. With a free fortnight to fill whilst I got over the op, I took the time to put together a funding project. Up until now I had financed all of my projects with my own hard earned cash, which is to be expected. Now I’ve got to a stage – fourth film, not exactly a massive body of work, but enough when all who have helped, have worked for the love of the craft and meals! Goodwill will only get you so far – so this time around, not only do I want to improve the quality and scope of the project, I would also like to thank my wonderful crew with cash money. I’ve decided to use a crowd funding platform – Indiegogo – to try and raise finance. I’ve fashioned a promo film and created some perks to encourage people to get on-board. Obviously running it over the Xmas period is not exactly a genius manoeuvre, but heh-ho, sometimes needs must! I will put the link up as soon as it goes live. Crossing my fingers….and toes!