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Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Steve James’s film is a rallying cry, and its weaknesses as art might bolster its strength as reformatory theater.

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Photo: PBS Distribution

In Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James follows the Sung family, who founded and operate Abacus Federal Savings Bank of Chinatown, New York. This six-branch institution has the distinction of being the only bank actually indicted for involvement in the kind of mortgage scams that crippled the American economy in 2008, draining the country of trillions of dollars. The film’s subtitle is a play on the phrase “too big to fail,” which rationalizes the bailing out of corrupt institutions like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as a means of keeping the economy from collapsing (in a direct refutation of the “survival of the fittest” ideology that capitalism espouses). The New York district attorney, however, can make a pretense of compensating for this national hypocrisy by making an example out of small fish like Abacus.

James is an intensely humanist director, best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, which attached specific faces to sprawling examinations of the cruelty and waste beget by massive bureaucracies. Abacus presents the documentarian with a challenge, as the bank is undeniably guilty of several of the crimes that the D.A. brings to court. A few of Abacus’s employees scammed customers out of cash and cooked mortgage applications, though the Sungs caught and fired them and reported the issue to a compliance committee. But there’s reason to examine Abacus’s potentially larger culpability in the crimes, and this is before we learn of another scandal that racked the bank in 2003, when an employee embezzled over a million dollars, initiating a panic within Chinatown that lead to lines of customers seeking to withdraw their money. James takes the Sungs at face value, positioning their court case as a symbol of the inequalities gripping American society.

James’s unquestioning embrace of the Sungs occasionally depends on a willed authorial naïveté, as the family insists that they never knew of the crimes being committed under their umbrella, which fosters a fascinating irony that the filmmaker doesn’t examine: that big banks who got off scot-free from their involvement in the 2008 crisis made similar claims. The Sungs even justify themselves with a modified version of the “too big to fail” mentality, correctly claiming that Abacus serves a necessary infrastructural purpose in Chinatown, which is inhabited by immigrants who live as street vendors, earning wages that are often composed entirely of cash, which can lead to subjective paperwork when the time comes to file for a housing loan. Abacus deals with low-income, non-white people who Caucasian banks won’t deign to help, enabling the flow of illegitimate and untaxed money for the greater microcosmic good. James is essentially saying that the figurative little guy has to break the rules, which are rigged to favor those who follow no rules anyway.

This isn’t to say that the filmmaker should’ve simply distrusted and villainized the Sungs, who’re captured in a series of vivid and poignant clashes that succinctly illustrate their individual roles within the family, but rather to suggest that James has found material that begs for a vast and nuanced examination along the lines of his prior epics. The filmmaker shapes this narrative into an 88-minute courtroom thriller that elides paradox and ambiguity for propulsive pacing and visceral emotional pathos. James cleverly and persuasively restages portions of the trial with courtroom sketches and vocal recordings, revealing the prosecution to depend on witnesses who’re caught lying with nearly comic openness. But such developments invite other questions: Why are so many sketchy individuals involved with Abacus? Is this a sign of something larger or merely the unavoidable textures of the banking business? These unplumbed mysteries haunt the film.

If James turns a calculated blind eye to these ironies, he’s acutely aware of the perils of racism and classism that are endemic to justice systems. A bullet point is announced by Thomas Sung, the family patriarch, with enraged precision: that their defense cost an estimated $10 million to mount. Regardless of how one feels about the Sungs’ involvement in Abacus’s crimes, they deserve their day in court, which is denied of countless people and smaller businesses. Interlocked with this unjustness is the double standards applied to the Sungs for being Chinese-American, particularly when the D.A. shackles the defendants like a chain gang for their arraignment hearing, for no other ostensible purpose than humiliation.

Investigative journalist David Lindorf suggests in the film that black defendants would never be treated this way, as the justice department understands the public relations nightmare that such action would provoke. That claim is debatable when one considers the despicable treatment of African-Americans that’s described in the news on a daily basis, but it indicates an important distinction: Asian-American cultures must emulate the social organization of other minority factions that have fought hard for progress. Lindorf’s interview, along with the footage of a Chinese-American communal assembly near the end of the film, clarifies James’s aesthetically disappointing but socially important sentimentality. The filmmaker is clearly positioning Abacus as a rallying cry, and its weaknesses as art might bolster its strength as reformatory theater.

Cast: Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Jill Sung, Heather Sung, Chanterelle Sung, Hwei Lin Sung, Neil Barofsky, Ti-Hua Chang, Jiayang Fan, Polly Greenberg, Cyrus Vance Jr., Don Lee, Linda Hall Director: Steve James Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2016 Buy: Video

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Myth and Reality Are Smartly Tangled in The Kid Who Would Be King

Joe Cornish’s film is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn.

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The Kid Who Would Be King
Photo: 20th Century Fox

In modern-day London, 12-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is thrust into combating forces both global and intensely personal. Following an animated prologue that briefly recaps the legend of King Arthur, the opening shot of Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King pans over a series of newspapers, each with headlines preaching doom and gloom while overlying audio from various news programs informs us of the widespread rise of authoritarian strong men. This is the only direct glimpse we’re given of the current chaos of our political climate, but it looms large over the film’s events as the focus shifts to young Alex, who finds himself with more immediate problems to confront.

At his new school, Alex and his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a goofy but sweet pushover, are quickly targeted by the most notorious bully in the yard, Lance (Tom Taylor), and his loyal minion, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Acutely aware of his status as one of the most “insignificant” and “powerless” kids at school, Alex fights back against his tormentors, tackling Lance from behind, only to later be scolded by the school principal (Noma Dumezweni): “The world is not going to change. It’s you who has to change.”

It’s meant as a condemnation of Alex’s violent reaction to aggression, but the woman’s
empty platitude also serves as a motto for the scarcely effective adult leadership in Alex’s life. Indeed, the boy’s principal is incompetent, his father abandoned him as a child, and his mother (Denise Gough), caring as she may be, seems incapable of truly listening to him. Adults have let the world turn to shit and Alex is quickly learning that they’re not particularly well-equipped to protect him or fix the very problems they’ve allowed to fester and multiply.

When Alex soon discovers a sword stuck in concrete, The Kid Who Would Be King shifts gears into a full-on adventure fantasy akin, though never beholden, to ‘80s kids’ adventure films like The Goonies and The Neverending Story. Cornish layers familiar forms with new meanings, amending an age-old tale to directly address the perilous and uncertain future that today’s youth must face. In doing so, the director’s postmodern re-imagining of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retains a refreshing earnestness in both its unwavering sincerity and commitment to lending its characters an affecting emotional vulnerability.

The film’s humor doesn’t stem from ironically mocking stodgy, centuries-old mythology, but from richly rewarding character details mined from children grappling with an increasingly terrifying world. Cornish retains the framework of Arthurian legend while connecting its themes to the struggle of the disenfranchised to forge bonds with their equally oppressed enemies. In The Kid Who Would Be King, the myth of King Arthur becomes entangled with reality—and a catalyst for self-actualization. Here, adventure empowers Alex and his friends to apply lessons from the past to the challenges that await them moving forward.

As Alex and Bedders discover the responsibilities they must shoulder as a result of Alex pulling Excalibur from the stone, the two convince their former foes, Lance and Kaye, to help them take on the fiery skeletons on horseback that arise from the underworld under the command of the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Along with the extremely verbose and awkward Merlin (played by the hysterically precocious Angus Imrie in his 16-year-old form and by Patrick Stewart whenever the magician is in his dotage), the group sets out across England to find the portal that will take them to Morgana. But even as the group battles Morgana’s demons along the way, they continue to struggle with the ever-present fears and insecurities of adolescence.

In one of many inventive grace notes, Cornish has all of London’s adults vanish at night whenever Morgana’s army arises, leaving the kids to literally fend for themselves as they adapt to their newfound roles as both protectors and shapers of the future. And despite its relatively bleak view of the present, The Kid Who Would Be King is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn. Cornish’s film meets a world full of bullies, thieves, and malevolence with a warmth and pureness of heart that’s evident in everything from the inclusivity of its casting and its offbeat sense of humor to its thrilling, galvanizing finale, which sees Alex’s entire school takes up arms in an epic battle against Morgana.

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough Director: Joe Cornish Screenwriter: Joe Cornish Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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