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Granger at the Movies: ‘Pain and Glory,’ ‘The Laundromat,’ ‘The Current War’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Pedro Almodovar’s bittersweet, thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical dram a “Pain and Glory” revolves around a fictional Spanish filmmaker, Salvador Mello (Antonio Bandaras), who contemplates how much fire he still has in his belly while awaiting the re-release of one of his older films.

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“Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he declares.

Living alone in a tastefully appointed house in Madrid, melancholic Mallo suffers from an assortment of ailments (asthma, sciatica, tinnitus), primarily headaches, stemming from fused vertebrae and coupled with depression.  A multitude of memories appear through a variety of flashbacks.

There’s poverty-plagued young Salvador (Asier Flores) accompanying his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) to the stream, where she and her friends sing as they do laundry in a bucolic scene near the caves of Paterna.

Growing up, Salvador becomes a church choirboy and experiences a sexual awakening watching bricklayer Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) washing his muscled body.

Much later, when she visits him, elderly Jacinta (Jacina Serrano) chides Salvador: “You haven’t been a good son.”

Prompted by an upcoming Spanish Cinematheque celebration, reclusive Salvador tracks down Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor to whom he hasn’t spoken in 30 years. Debauched Alberto introduces Salvador to smoking heroin to ease his pain.

When Alberto discovers one of Salvador’s pieces from the past, he insists on performing it as a monologue in a Madrid theater before an audience that includes Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who had an affair with Salvador many years earlier

That leads to one of the most memorable scenes: a poignant conversation between these two late middle-aged men about their sublimated desires.

Almodovar views this episodic, visually compelling confessional as completing a trilogy that started with “Law of Desire” and continued with “Bad Education.” And Antonio Banderas delivers a magnificent performance as his alter-ego.

In Spanish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pain and Glory” is a structured, sublimely stylized 7, cinematically summarizing Pedro Almodovar’s life and work.

What could be timelier than a whistleblower’s satirical expose of financial corruption? That’s the theme of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” available for viewing on Netflix or in a movie theater.

Introducing the complicated intricacies of money are German investment banker Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Panamanian lawyer Ramon Fonsecca (Antonio Banderas), who founded the Panama City investment firm that bears their names. They serve as our unscrupulous, condescending hosts.

There’s Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who took an ill-fated sightseeing tour on Lake George, N.Y., with her husband (James Cromwell). When their boat capsizes, many drowned. Survivors soon discover that they’re never going to get the insurance payoff to which they are entitled.

Why? Because the boat’s insurance company in Houston was sold to re-insurance firm that was held in trust by a larger banking entity in Nevis. That Caribbean island is notorious for harboring hundreds of ‘shell’ companies,’ abstract businesses without offices or employees that are used for tax evasion, tax avoidance and anonymity.

Bizarrely, this flagrant financial maneuvering is legal, not only there but also in Delaware and several other states, plus many foreign countries.

Meanwhile, the daughter of a corrupt African billionaire (Nonso Anozie) discovers that he is having an affair with her college roommate. To avoid familial discord, he offers her a bribe: ownership of a $20 million corporation, which turns out to be yet another ‘shell’ company.

And a British money launderer (Matthias Schoenaerts) tries to persuade a Chinese client (Rosaline Chao) to negotiate a sleazy ‘deal’ with which she’s obviously uncomfortable.

Based on Jake Bernstein’s non-fiction book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite, it’s adapted by Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) who interweave the various vignettes into a convoluted, international anthology, reminiscent of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015).

FYI: Credited as Peter Andrews, Soderbergh also served as cinematographer and, using the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard, as editor.

On the Granger Gauge, “The Laundromat” is a sardonic 6, preaching: “The meek are screwed.”

In “The Current War,” engineer/ inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) embarked on a race to electrify America in 1880.

Edison utilized direct current (DC), which – while it had distance limitations – was “safer,” but more expensive, while Westinghouse, working with his visionary Serbian partner Nikolai Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), favored alternating current (AC), which had a longer range and was less costly.

While the results of their technological rivalry could be seen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, controversy erupted when death penalty commissioner Southwick Brown solicited Edison to develop the electric chair. Edison refused because of his non-violence principles but both he and Westinghouse surreptitiously suppled generators used in capital punishment.

Previously, experiments were performed on dogs, calves and horses in Edison’s New Jersey laboratory and Columbia University in New York, subjecting the animals to high volts of AC which killed them.

Eventually, AC won this corporate feud, and Edison moved on to other inventions. His Edison Electric became General Electric as America launched its own Industrial Revolution.

Originally scheduled for release by the Weinstein Company, this historical saga was mired in bankruptcy after Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual misconduct. There were delays and revisions, including a print edited by “Harvey Scissorhands” making an unfortunate debut at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival.

“That was incredibly painful,” Gomez-Rejon told “Variety.” “Because you go up on-stage, representing the cast and crew…and you know, deep in your heart, that you haven’t been allowed to give your best.”

Which is why this salvaged version is labelled “Director’s Cut,” crediting Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and editors Justin Krohn and David Trachtenberg.

Unfortunately, Michael Mitnick’s muddled screenplay lacks character delineation and development.  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s pacing is choppy.  Cumberbatch’s Edison is abrasive and arrogant, while Shannon’s Westinghouse is far more sympathetic. Yet they meet face-to-face only briefly.

On the Granger Gauge, “The Current War” is a flaccid 5, lacking tension and energy.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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