Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Beatriz at Dinner, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, The Exception, My Cousin Rachel, Handsome Devil, Band Aid, Dean, Past Life, I Love You Both, The Hero

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Beatriz at Dinner

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back

The Exception

My Cousin Rachel

Handsome Devil

Band Aid


Past Life

I Love You Both

The Hero

Quick capsules on a mediocre-at-best June to date:

Best of this dozen is acclaimed documentarian Steve James' "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," about the only bank charged in the 2008 financial crisis, the six-branch, family-run NYC bank Abacus, which introduced Chinatown immigrants to American banking and lent them the money they needed to start businesses and provide homes for their families. The case involved forged and falsified Fannie Mae applications, with the prosecution arguing the corruption was so pervasive that the highest levels "must have known" what was happening. Given that the Sungs informed Fannie Mae immediately upon discovering evidence of wrongdoing, however, the case seemed misguided from the start, and the unusually humiliating "perp walks" through which they were led, chain-gang style, added to the community's resentment. A day later, "Abacus" is no more memorable than a "Dateline" on the same material would be, but while watching we're certainly rooting for the little guy… To my delighted surprise, Miguel Arteta's "Beatriz at Dinner" (from a script by Mike White) is my second favorite of this crop. Surprise because the trailers - including an on-the-nose critic's quote labeling it "the first great film of the Trump era" - made it look like an exercise in stacked-deck virtue-signaling, with Salma Hayek's masseuse/healer stridently lecturing real estate tycoon (and Trump stand-in) John Lithgow on the evils of capitalism. There is some of that, to be sure, but there's also more universally funny social satire than I'd hoped, much of it involving Lithgow's wife (Connie Britton) and the other couples (Amy Landecker and David Warshovsky, ChloĆ« Sevigny and Jay Duplass) attending the fireworks-filled dinner party. The ending stinks, but endings are hard… Mild recs also for documentaries "Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan," about the last year of the star ballerina's 30-year tenure with New York City Ballet and the inevitable question of what comes next when you can no longer perform the activity that's defined your existence; and "Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back," about the bad boy of conceptual art, famous for his sculpture of Pope John Paul felled by a meteorite and crippling shyness that led him to hire a doppelganger for press interviews. The film builds to Cattelan's career retrospective at the Guggenheim, a marvel of structural engineering...  Finally, an itsy-bitsy thumbs up for "The Exception," an unusually darkly lit Third Reich soaper with Christopher Plummer and Janet McTeer typically enjoyable as exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Hermine, who dares to dream that Himmler's visit to their Dutch estate portends Wilhelm's re-ascension to the throne. Australian hunk Jay Courtney, the German soldier sent to protect the Kaiser, begins a clandestine affair with housemaid Lily James, who has a secret of her own (yup, you guessed it). "The Exception" is already available on VOD and if you've got a couple hours to kill, it's perfectly passable.

Just on the discommend side of the scale land "My Cousin Rachel," a dozy and largely schematic retelling of the Daphne Du Maurier novel about an orphan (Sam Claflin) who inherits his beloved late cousin's estate and wealth, then falls under the spell of the widow (Rachel Weisz) who may or may not have hastened the cousin's demise; and "Handsome Devil," an Irish boarding-school film about Ned, an introverted intellectual (ginger Fionn O'Shea), and his new roommate, Conor, the star kicker on the rugby team (Nicholas Galitzine), who has a secret of his own (yup, you guessed it). Given that Ned's similarly inclined and catches Conor at a lad bar where their English teacher (Andrew Scott) PDA's with his boyfriend, I was reminded of Joan Cusack's great line from "In & Out": "Is EVERYBODY gay?!" "Handsome Devil" starts out "Sing Street" strong (with elements of 1989's great "The Rachel Papers"), but gets more pat and less interesting as it goes.

Now, the no's: writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones' mumblecore "Band Aid" (which claims to be the first feature with an all-female production crew), in which she co-stars with Adam Pally as a gig-economy couple who turn their fights into songs for their band, contains a few laughs and a moment or two of truth. But lots of falsity, too (in the opening scene, their therapist ends a session with, "Our time is up, and by the way I'm moving to Canada"); Fred Armisen as their sex-addict neighbor and the band's drummer teleports in from a different comedy altogether; and Susie Essman, as Lister-Jones' mom, comes in at the end to expound the movie's themes directly, like Clarissa explaining it all… Writer-director Demetri Martin's "Dean" is a Woody Allen wannabe (it's got the moroseness but not the laughs) about a floundering New York illustrator whose mother has recently passed away and who decamps for L.A. and a job interview with an ad agency (a cringingly false sequence). Gillian Jacobs makes an impression as Nicky, Dean's new maybe-girlfriend, but the presences of Kevin Kline (as Dean's widowed dad) and Mary Steenburgen (as Kline's realtor and potential ricochet romance) only leave one to wonder what connections Martin drew on to get this picture made… Regular readers know how I feel about self-serious Holocaust movies: they'd better be damned good, with a fresh angle, to justify the subject matter. Writer-director Avi Nesher's "Past Life," about two Israeli sisters who in 1977 explore the mystery of their father's life in Poland during WWII, fails the test. With its stilted English dialogue, the ponderous wait for the contrived plot to kick in, and an especially ham-fisted metaphor in the form of one sister's illness, it's basically Auschwitz meets "I've Got a Secret"… A low 1.5 stars for writer-director Doug Archibald's nothing-happens "I Love You Both," in which both he (as Donny) and his sister and co-writer Kristin (as Donny's equally floundering sister Krystal) date the same sweet but dim guy (Lucas Neff). Mucho phoniness, a couple chuckles, and nada in the way of prurient interest… Writer-director Brett Haley's "I'll See You in my Dreams," with its showcase role for the great Blythe Danner, was one of the movie joys of 2015. Now he's made "The Hero" as a showpiece for the great Sam Elliott (Danner's love interest in "Dreams"), but he hasn't put anywhere near the same work into this one. Elliott is Lee Hayden, a Western movie icon reduced to commercial voice work and given a worst-case cancer diagnosis. Elliott always makes pleasant company, but the discovery here is Laura Prepon as Lee's new, much younger girlfriend. When Sam Elliott's on the screen and I'm watching someone else, you know they're commanding, and she is. Unfortunately, Haley seems to have stopped at the casting stage. The lifetime achievement award ceremony at which Lee's speech supposedly "goes viral" is cringingly false, and the movie is both a bummer and a bore.

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