Capone's Art-House Round-Up with ABACUS, THE HERO, BEATRIZ AT DINNER, and KILL SWITCH!!!
Published at: June 16, 2017, 5:37 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL I liked every documentary I’ve ever seen directed by Steve James, from his epic-length, groundbreaking HOOP DREAMS to his recent Roger Ebert biography, LIFE ITSELF. But not even in his anti-gang violence piece The Interrupters did James ever seem to encourage his audience to feel pure, unfiltered outrage the way he does with his latest work, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, the devastating story of a small, family-run bank in New York’s Chinatown that became the only bank in the nation to face actual criminal charges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. While the Wall Street big shots such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo were deemed “too big to fail” and handed millions of dollars in bailout funds, the Justice Department targeted the Sung family business, Abacus, with deep roots in the community since the 1950s, precisely because they had no D.C. connections or anywhere to hide.
With ready parallels made between company founder Thomas Sung and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE character George Bailey, the Chinese-American lawyer-turned-banker was able to make loans within his community, which had a reputation of being distrustful of financial institutions. By serving the grossly underserved immigrant population, Abacus grew and expanded, making the Sung family a pillar in the community.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the story behind the company’s persecution is that it was sparked when an irregularity was discovered and reported to the proper authorities, by the bank itself. It turned out one of the staff mortgage managers was taking bribes to approve loans, it was discovered by another staff member, but the timing of the incident made them, in many ways, the perfect target for the Justice Department. The film even floats the theory that the Sung’s foreignness made them an even better target, especially if the government could paint the cause of the banking collapse on outside forces. Forced to defend themselves against what turned into a five-year battle, the Sungs risked financial ruin, health issues, and a loss of reputation that they feared would never come back in the wake of a targeted media frenzy.
Without giving too much away, one of the reasons ABACUS is so infuriating as a story is how easy it was for the company’s legal team to eviscerate the government’s case and witnesses by simply using the truth as their defense. The Justice Department also underestimated the support Abacus had in the community, which rose to its support like you will never likely see happen again for a banking institution. Director James and his team are not attempting to blow open the truth about the financial crisis that began in 2008; ABACUS is the story of a scapegoat that refused to lie back and accept that role, even at great cost ($10 million in legal fees).
If there was one area I wish James had dug just a little deeper, it was finding out just who or what was driving the government’s railroading of the Sung family bank and what their motivations might have been for doing so. Even a face-to-face interview with New York County D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr., reveals so little that it’s almost not worth including. Someone in his office clearly thought they had a case, so for them to have fumbled so profoundly, it begs the question, “How did you screw this one up so badly?” Or perhaps the purpose was the headline, the perception that something was being done, someone was answering for this horrible event that almost crippled in the nation. Whatever the reason Abacus became a target, the results are the same: an incident that nearly destroyed a business and ruined a family. ABACUS is another example of James’ exceptional storytelling and his ability to generate (and sometimes manipulate) emotions in this audience with precision.
THE HERO Writer-director Brett Haley (along with his co-writer Marc Basch) make gentle films about a tough subject that a great many films are afraid to tackle—getting older. Their previous collaboration, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, starred Blythe Danner as a woman attempting to find some level of excitement and change late in her life. Their newest work, THE HERO, which made its Chicago debut recently at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, is about an aging actor named Lee Hayden, played by the busier-than-ever Sam Elliott, doing a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I version of himself. Lee is best known for a cowboy character he played decades earlier and is now struggling to find work, settling for voiceover jobs and the occasional degrading audition. His frustration is real and stems from knowing he’s still capable of doing great work.
He spends most days hanging with his old acting buddy Jeremy (Nick Offerman), who is also his pot dealer, and the two talk about the old days and bemoan the present ones. Early in the film, Lee is given a shocking bit of medical news, and it changes his entire outlook on the life he’s led and still had left to lead. Around this time, several things happen: he is invited to attend an event where he will be honored for his work in Westerns; he meets a much younger stand-up comic named Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and they seem to hit it off; and he attempts to make some degree of peace with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, makes a brief appearance as Lee’s even more estranged ex-wife.
Clearly Elliott has had a much more diverse career than Lee, but it doesn’t require you to squint very much to see the similarities in their lives. For many years, Elliott was only doing Westerns, and he grew to resent it for a time. Lee can’t afford to resent the very thing that even gets people to take his calls, so when he decides to attend the lifetime achievement award, he brings his new lady friend, if only to allow her to see how much his fans adore him. I’ll admit, it’s strange seeing Elliott use a cellphone, and even more bizarre to watch him beg for work or a chance to work. The film has a lot of humor in it, but more often than not, it’s filled with awkward and tragic moments in the life of a struggling older actor.
Lee is worried about his legacy and his time left on this earth, and just when he’s about to give up, a strange occurrence at the awards ceremony goes viral, and casting agents begin to call again. There’s a sequence where Elliott and Offerman are running lines the day before a big audition for Lee, and it’s pure magic. Elliott brings to life some of the worst dialogue you will ever here, and you get a sense what these two were like as co-stars in their glory days. The moment is juxtaposed with the actual audition, which doesn’t go nearly as well, and we get as much of a sense of Elliott’s value and talent as an actor as we do Lee talent. It’s that perfect moment when an actor holds a mirror up to see himself and refuses to blink until the other guy blinks first. THE HERO is perfectly ragged around the edges, but rugged and elegant at its core, like many of our heroes. Seek this one out, partner.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER This is a film about escalation, about small moments becoming larger ones, about pleasant conversation becoming hostile, and in a not insignificant way, it’s about the powerless overtaking the powerful, if only for a moment. With an electric and taut screenplay by Mike White (CHCUK & BUCK, THE GOOD GIRL) BEATRIZ AT DINNER could have easily been staged as a play since it mostly takes place at the opulent home of Kathy and Grant (Connie Britton and David Warshofsky), who are staging a dinner party to celebrate the closing of a big real estate deal on behalf of hotel tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who attends along with his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker). Also among the guests is Alex (Jay Duplass), a young hotshot who was instrumental in cutting a few corners and making the deal happen quickly, and his wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny).
The odd person out is Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a spiritual and holistic healer who works for Kathy and Grant, and helped their daughter (now in college) through a difficult recovery from cancer treatment. They say they think of Beatriz as family, and to a degree that may be true, and when her car breaks down and she is stranded at the home after giving Kathy her regular massage session, they invite her to stay, assuming she’ll be a silent (or at least soft-spoken) guest at their gathering.
It’s strange and incredible to see Hayek play a character so meek and undervalued by those around her. Beatriz is the type of person that pours all of her energy into the care of others, without a thought to her own well being. Her lifestyle has taken its toll on her sense of self worth, but it’s also empowered her principles and values when it comes to living creatures of all shapes and sizes. And not surprisingly, she reacts badly when Doug begins to show his true colors when it comes to “lesser” people, the environment, animals he hunts for sport on safaris, and a general callous attitude toward those who aren’t on the path toward accumulating wealth in the same way he has.
Director Miguel Arteta (YOUTH IN REVOLT, CEDAR RAPIDS) does a masterful job keeping things moving, tensions mounting, and emotions bristling as Beatriz continues to inject herself into the evening’s various conversations. It’s clear the guests are only being polite to her because she seems so close to Kathy, but little by little, the polite facade begins to fall away. When Beatriz tells Doug her story of first coming to America from Mexico, he immediately asks her if she entered the country legally, as if this has become the most important question of the night and everything else she might say would be tainted if she gave the wrong answer. It’s one of many stomach-tightening moments in which Beatriz is increasingly disrespected or outright spoken down to.
It’s clear that when Beatriz finally loses her cool with Doug and the other guests, it happens almost unexpectedly and uncontrollably. Alone with Kathy, she apologizes (and even offers a lovely Mexican song to soothe tensions), but is enraged again by the callous attitudes that prevail in the house. The film builds to an unexpected climax that isn’t the end of the story, but it’s a moment that rattles Beatriz to such a degree that she takes her leave as a different, much sadder person.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER features one of the most interesting and layered performances Hayek has ever accomplished, and the sentiments she’d expressing and defending seem to acutely aware of the times we’re living in that it feels the film were made yesterday. This immediacy reminds us of the feeling live theater gives us, both in terms of the energy and the discomfort when things turn ugly among the guests. The film is deliberately provocative, as if it’s daring you to look away. I wouldn’t if I were you.
KILL SWITCH I’ll give actor Dan Stevens credit: after leaving the comfort of “Downton Abbey,” he’s done everything in his power to not only shake the image of simply being the safe, handsome leading man, but also to explore roles in films that those playing it safe might stay far away from. Even his turn in what will likely be the most financially successful film of the year, Beauty and the Beast, is done hidden behind a CG animal head that makes him unrecognizable. This year alone, he’s popped up in films like NORMAN, COLOSSAL, and THE TICKET, while playing the lead in the surreal and wonderful FX series “Legion,” and he’s set to be in three more films before 2017 is done, including this week’s sci-fi adventure KILL SWITCH.
Stevens plays Will Porter, a retired pilot who also happens to be a physicist, but has given most of that up to take care of his sister (Charity Wakefield) and her young son Donny (Kasper van Groesen), who is dealing with some sort of unspecified mental issue related to a recent emotional trauma (Why waste time on the details?). As the film opens, Alterplex, the company Porter has agreed to work for, is launching a device that will provide an endless supply of energy by essentially draining a parallel version of earth that is said to be uninhabited. And if there’s one thing you can trust to be truthful about not harming people, it’s a big energy company. Things seem to be going smoothly until they aren’t, and Will is called into work to help fix what has gone wrong, which is apparently ripping apart both versions of earth as a result.
KILL SWITCH moves between timelines, each of which focus on a different aspect of Will’s recent life. We see him in the “present,” where he has cleared traveled to the other version of earth to find out what has gone wrong in the hopes of fixing it (for most of this segment, we see the world through Will’s eyes, like a first-person video game; he’s also shown being recruited into Alterplex by Abigail Vos (Bérénice Marlohe), who convinces him the work is safe and exciting, and that the clean energy they’re tapping into will save the planet; finally, we see him somewhere in between the other two timelines, working for the company and figuring out exactly the nature of this new energy source.
KILL SWITCH comes courtesy of first-time director Tim Smit (a veteran visual effect supervisor) and writers Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, and the first thing you notice about it is how impressive the effects are (also courtesy of Smit) for a movie that likely didn’t cost very much. The problems surface pretty readily when we try to decipher the story. Especially in the more current timeline, we get a lot of jargon and theory thrown at us that doesn’t add up to much of anything. Part of the first-person visuals include a display screen that alerts Will when he’s injured or in danger, and trying to keep your eyes on that further distracts from whatever plot is being foisted on us. It also doesn’t help that in those sequences, we can’t actually see Stevens’ face; we just hear his voice screaming at whomever is nearby.
The film fares slightly better when things are quieter. I actually liked the moments when he’s attempting to figure out the big mysteries of the tower where he works and serves as the focal point for the energy harnessing. There’s actual tension and mystery at work that plays out successfully. The more emotional moments with his family are good as dramatic exercises, but they seem like afterthoughts to the main action and threads are left dangling for no reason other than the writers couldn’t figure out how to make them satisfying as plot points.
KILL SWITCH ends up becoming a doomsday story that ultimately doesn’t contain a necessary sense of dread. Stevens and the other actors are quite good, but the film doesn’t quite match their abilities. That being said, I’m genuinely curious what Smith does next as a director. I think he has a solid eye for visual effects, and when he gets a great script to couple with his technical abilities, he’ll make a hell of a movie.