1. Bank employees get led out in cuffs in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
Only one US bank ended up indicted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that crashed markets and set off a global economic downturn. It wasn’t JPMorgan Chase or Citigroup or another widely recognized name — it was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small institution servicing primarily a Chinese-American clientele. In May 2012, the family-run affair, with its roots in Manhattan’s Chinatown and a mortgage default rate that was a fraction of the national average, drew the attention of the New York County District Attorney’s Office.
The idea of a movie about a bank’s prosecution might not exactly sound riveting, but Abacus: Small Enough to Jail director Steve James (the documentarian responsible for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) manages to present the case like an epic David-and-Goliath struggle. And, in a rare instance these days, it’s not the bank that comes out looking like the villain.
James presents, instead, a multilayered and quietly enraging story about immigrants being treated as easy targets. The film explores how Abacus’s attempts to bridge cultural gaps for a sometimes insular community left it vulnerable to a DA’s office that sensed the potential for (and PR to be found in) a win against a financial institution, if not one of the apparently untouchable major ones.
The most eloquent image it puts onscreen is one that was actually staged for the press: a group of the bank’s employees being paraded in linked handcuffs, hiding their faces from the cameras. It’s a scene that, as interviewee and journalist Matt Taibbi notes, resembles “this almost Stalinist-looking chain gang.” One of the people in handcuffs puts it more simply: “It is a humiliation.”
How to see it: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now in limited release and is making its way to theaters around the country.
2. A train ride turns incredibly tense in The Age of Shadows.
Like last year’s The Handmaiden, The Age of Shadows is a thriller set in an oppressive but gorgeously rendered Japan-occupied Korea in the 1920s-’30s. It’s also packed with twists and tension (while coming up short on the startling explicit sex — sorry); but in its case, all that intrigue is for the sake of the nation.
Most of the characters in The Age of Shadows are resistance fighters plotting against their foreign oppressors by way of a plan to smuggle explosives in from Shanghai, a calling that comes with a high risk of death, torture, or imprisonment. The film’s most fascinating figure, however, isn’t a rebel — he’s an opportunistic police captain named Lee Jung-chool (the great Song Kang-ho) who was once resistance-adjacent but has since turned his loyalty, and his investigative services, over to the Japanese.
Resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) believes that Jung-chool, having been turned once, could be turned again, and their canny, calculated back-and-forths become the film’s backbone. But it’s action that director Kim Jee-woon (of A Bittersweet Life, I Saw The Devil, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand) is renowned for. And that’s exactly what he provides in a series of stunning set pieces that make up for any espionage incomprehensibility, from an opening involving a police chase over rooftops to a chaotic train station shootout. The train ride becomes the film’s highlight, a brilliant sequence in which characters try to hide amid passengers, goods are smuggled, loyalties flip, and everything goes fabulously to hell despite everyone’s best efforts.
How to see it: The Age of Shadows is new to DVD and Blu-ray, and is also available for digital rental and purchase.
3. George Lazenby gets laid on the studio’s dime in Becoming Bond.
The only consolation for losing one James Bond in May is getting such a rollicking tribute to another one, George Lazenby, in the form of Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum’s
Hulu original documentary. Lazenby, an Australian model with no acting experience, was famously chosen to replace Sean Connery in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even more famously, Lazenby would play the iconic spy only once, brashly walking away from a multipicture deal to become an entertainment history punchline.
In Becoming Bond, he walks the audience through all this and more, starting with his working-class upbringing as a mechanic turned salesman, through the loss of his virginity, his romance with an upper-crust woman, and his eventual, incredible finagling of the world’s most coveted role. Greenbaum makes the very smart decision to stage Lazenby’s stories, Drunk History–style, with a cast that includes Josh Lawson as the man himself, as well as appearances from Jane Seymour, Jeff Garlin, and Dana Carvey.
The approach provides some distance from Lazenby’s sometimes unfortunately of-its-era treatment of women, and emphasizes the hilarity of this bluff, oblivious, hard-partying Aussie stumbling into stardom. In the best scene, Jake Johnson shows up at Lazenby’s door with a woman the soon-to-be-Bond cheerily and unquestionably begins banging, only to be informed later that the strange setup was staged by the studio to confirm his sexuality. Lazenby, unfazed by that and by seemingly everything else, shrugs and goes on.
How to see it: Becoming Bond is streaming on Hulu.
4. A traveler realizes she’s trapped in Berlin Syndrome.
The most painful scene in the abduction drama Berlin Syndrome isn’t the one in which Australian backpacker Clare (Teresa Palmer) first finds herself locked in the isolated apartment belonging to her fling Andi (Max Riemelt). That first day she plays off as an accident, the man she went home with forgetting to leave her a key after he heads off to work. It’s the second day in which she understands that it’s intentional — that the handsome German she met on the street and ended up postponing her trip to be with is dangerous. She doesn’t want to believe it, which is what makes the realization so slow and sickening — she keeps up a charade of everything being fine for as long as possible, until the urgency of her situation can no longer be ignored.
Berlin Syndrome is the rare abduction drama directed by a woman — filmmaker Cate Shortland, of Somersault and Lore. And that’s something you can feel in all of its choices, including the way it keeps Clare at its heart even when it follows Andi into the outside world he’s denied her. The film never turns Clare’s fear or suffering into spectacle — it’s about her experiences, about how she rebels against and then tries to manipulate Andi’s obsession and desire for a simulacrum of a normal relationship to her advantage. The result is an effective but never exploitative play on what plagues every solo female traveler — that you want to be open, to meet strangers and experience new places, but that that same trusting approach to exploring can also leave you horribly exposed.
How to see it: Berlin Syndrome is available for digital rental and purchase.
5. Tracy Letts sings in The Lovers.
The Lovers starts like a French adultery farce that’s been dropped into the most unromantic of suburban California settings. The cars are sensible, the couches are dumpy, the jobs involve seas of cubicles — and yet the orchestral score swoons when Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), two halves of a long-wed couple, meet up with their respective lovers. Mary is seeing Robert (Aidan Gillen), a writer, while Michael is dallying with Lucy (Melora Walters), a hot-tempered ballet instructor. Both Michael and Mary insist, separately, that their marriage is over and that they’re ready to leave, to commit to their new partners — until an unexpected evening spent together results in the two rediscovering a sexual spark.
If this all sounds high-concept — a marital affair in the midst of two extramarital ones — well, The Lovers does play as a little schematic as first. But Azazel Jacobs’ movie is worth sticking with as it builds into something more bitter and complex about the nature of love, about how it can abide in ways that have nothing to do with the ebb and flow of passion or of even being able to stand one another. The Lovers features impressively frank lovemaking between characters of an age at which they’re usually consigned to onscreen sexlessness. But its rawest scene actually involves a song, performed by Letts after a visit from the couple’s son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula) has brought all sorts of long-simmering anger and disappointment to light. It’s a familiar tune that’s transformed into something heartbreaking, carrying the weight of years — or just the weight of a decades-long relationship.
How to see it: The Lovers is now in theaters in limited release.
6. Survivors cry about wanting to go home in Seoul Station.
Before South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho made the 2016 zombies-on-a-train thriller Train to Busan, he was known for his work in animation. So it’s not so odd that his prequel to that breakout hit, Seoul Station, is animated. But what is startling is that it’s even darker than the live-action film it precedes, in terms of both its ravenous undead action and its pointed social commentary.
The movie takes place in a Seoul teetering unknowingly on the verge of apocalypse, and it centers on characters who’ve been relegated to society’s outskirts — in particular, on a teenage runaway who’s forced into sex work, the father and ne’er-do-well boyfriend looking for her, and a group of homeless men living in the train station.
Maybe it’s the abstraction of animation that allows Seoul Station to get away with being so bracingly harsh — either way, it works from the beginning. In the dark suspense of the opening sequence, a homeless man with a developmental disorder tries and fails, repeatedly, to get help for his bitten friend. Even when that friend lurches back to life with alarming appetites, the city’s residents remain skeptical about claims of an infection, finding it easier to look away or to blame the aberrance on homelessness rather than believe something has gone terribly wrong.
By the time the body count picks up, it’s too late to do anything but run, or cry about wanting to go home, which is exactly what two characters do in the movie’s most relatable moment. It’s a plaintive, hopeless desire that gets turned into a very grim joke in the film’s final setting, achieving the kind of ending that makes you think, Hey, maybe it’s the zombies we should be rooting for.
How to see it: Seoul Station is available for rental or purchase on iTunes.