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Reviews for March 6th, 2020

Documentary Round-Up

      The Booksellers is a mildly engaging documentary about rare book sellers and collectors in New York City. It charts the history of book-selling and how it has changed throughout the years. The number of bookstores in NYC have been dwindling for the past few decades. The name Barnes & Nobles makes booksellers cringe because it's responsible for putting many independent bookstores out of business. Every year, the Park Avenue Armory hosts the Antiquarian Book Fair where rare books are displayed and can be bought for thousands of dollars in some cases. Director D.W. Young includes interviews with some of the remaining book store owners, i.e. Judith, Naomi and Adina Lowry who own The Argosy. There's some discussion about the golden age of rare books when 4th Avenue was populated with book stores known as Book Row. Times have changed, and more people are using Kindle to purchase and read books.

      The Booksellers deserves credit for tackling a subject matter that hasn't been explored before in a theatrical documentary and for introducing audiences to the book lovers who are trying to keep their passion for rare books alive. Many of the book sellers and collectors are grey-haired, but there are younger generations who are beginning to join them, so there's hope for the future. If you're not very passionate about books or, more precisely, rare books, this doc won't do much to provide much in terms of inspiration. Interviews with the wise, pithy and witty Fran Lebowitz briefly invigorate the film with some much-needed comic relief and wit. The doc's editing, though, rearranges the footage so that it jumps around from topic to topic without thematic cohesion thereby making the film feel scattershot and disorganized. What about the rare book culture in other cities other than New York? Without a portrait of the large picture of the book culture around the country or around the world, it remains somewhat limited in scope. The Booksellers opens via Greenwich Entertainment at Quad Cinema.


Directed by Dan Scanlon

      Teresa (Barbara Colen) returns to Bacurau, her Brazilian hometown, to attend the funeral of her grandmother. Strange events happen upon her arrival. Someone spots a UFO, cell phone service goes out, the water supply gets cut off, and the town disappears from any GPS tracking devices. Domingas (Sonia Braga) works as the town doctor who's pitted against Michael (Udo Kier), the leader of group of fighters whom the government hires to kill the townspeople of Bacurau. The town's corrupt mayor, Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), can't help his own people. Lunga (Silvero Pereira) joins Domingas in the battle against the Bacurau's invaders.

      Bacurau has an intriguing and suspenseful first hour before turning into a shallow and tedious blend of Mad Max and The Hunger Games. The screenplay by co-writers/directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendon?a Filho takes a while to set up its exposition and to tease the audience with all of the bizarre events that transpire in Bacurau leading up to the invasion. Terasa has a former lover, ?Pacote (Thomas Aquino), in town, but that's a subplot that seems tacked-on and lacks any depth. None of the characters come to life so by the time their life becomes at stake, it's hard to care about whether or not they survive. The filmmakers start with an interesting idea, but don't know where to take those ideas to. Instead, they opt for a second half that's excessively violent, pointless and that feels like a video game while treating its characters like pawns. There's very little that's imaginative nor fun or exciting once the action kicks in unless you find gore and violence alone to be fun.

      If Bacurau didn't take its plot so seriously and had some campiness or at least a modicum of comic relief, it would've been a guilty pleasure and had the potential to turn into a cult classic. Without any witty lines, memorable characters or anything that stands out, it's just going through the motions like dull B-movie. Sonia Braga, a fine actress, deserves much better material than this which seems like it's beneath her. Her character in The Jesus Rolls was much more compelling than the one she plays in Bacurau. The cinematography provides for some nice scenic views, but comes with diminishing returns after a while. Perhaps Bacurau would've been more palatable as a lean, 90-minute movie. At an unnecessarily long 2 hours and 12 minutes, it's almost as awful as Mad Max and The Hunger Games, but just as unimaginative, vapid and monotonous.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Banker

Directed by George Nolfi

      In 1954, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) a savvy businessman, moves with his wife, Eunice (Nia Long), to Los Angeles. He hopes to desegregate the city's housing by purchasing apartment buildings and letting African Americans rent apartments there. Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a club owner/entrepreneur, Irish businessman Patrick Barker, (Colm Meaney) and Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a white man he trains to represent them during business meetings, help him with his quest to get a loan from a bank.

      The Banker is based on a true story, but the contrived, paint-by-numbers screenplay by writer/director George Nolfi, Stan Younger, Niceole R. Levy and David Lewis Smith doesn't make audiences think that while watching it unfold. The premise alone gives the film a lot of potential to be a moving, gripping and provocative tale. Unfortunately, it's executed in a way that's bland and pedestrian while being afraid to cut deeper. The main flaw, though, is that the screenplay doesn't provide enough of a window into the heart, mind and soul of its protagonist, Bernard Garrett. He's a math genius and a good businessman with a kind heart, but beyond that he's not given much of a personality that humanizes him. Joe Morris has more of a personality, but his character remains under-explored. The same can be said about the relationship between Bernard and Eunice as husband and wife. It's as though the filmmakers were so much in a hurry to tell the story of Garrett that they rushed through the major plot points while forgetting to breathe with much-needed humanism and to include smaller, nuanced moments. There's no subtlety in the film at all, so it feels much like a Hollywood movie that looks authentic, but the authenticity wanes once the characters begin to talk with on-the-nose dialogue. The filmmakers also don't trust the audience's emotions, patience, intelligence nor their imagination enough because they leave nothing for interpretation and prefer to spoon-feed the audience with exposition. Moreover, Garrett's final speech sounds long-winded and too preachy.

      When it comes to the cinematography, set design and costume design, The Banker is quite impressive, although the editing feels choppy at times and the pace moves too quickly. The musical score hits the audience over the head occasionally while trying to tell you how to feel, but it ends up being intrusive instead. The performances, especially by Mackie and Jackson, are solid, although they're undermined by the screenplay that fails to scratch beneath the characters' surfaces. The few moments of warmth and poignancy come from the performances, not from the cold screenplay. At a running time of 2 hours, The Banker is well-acted with fine production values, but too pedestrian, cold and contrived to be truly engrossing, potent and provocative. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Apple TV+.
Opens at Landmark at 57 West and iPic Fulton Market.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi

      James Figueras (Claes Bang), an art critic, falls for the seductive Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), an American touring Europe. Berenice accompanies him to the home of Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), a wealthy art collector. He wants James to steal a painting from the mysterious artist, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who's shacked up in a guest house on his property.

      The Burnt Orange Heresy has an intriguing plot with interesting characters, but the screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on the novel by Charles Willeford, takes too get to the meat of its story and to build suspense. During the first 15 minutes, it's hard to figure out what the movie will even be about until James reaches the home of Joseph.  The preceding scenes when James meets Berenice and has sex with her at a hotel serve as exposition, but they're more like padding that could've been easily trimmed.  James and Berenice have very little chemistry together to boot. Smith does a poor job of introducing Jerome because the dialogue when James first meet him by the pool sounds very stilted, awkward and almost cringe-inducing. He seems more like a caricature of a reclusive artist than a living, breathing human being. .

      In case you're wondering where the film's title comes from, it's the name of one of Jerome's paintings and there's a scene that explains its precise meaning which is yet another example of poor exposition. The same can be said about the metaphor of house flies which is not only over-explained, but also hits you over the head over and over with too many scenes involving those flies including a heavy-handed one when a fly goes up James' nose. Why not treat the audience like adults and trust their intelligence more? When the plot finally goes into darker territory turning it into a crime thriller, it's done in a way that's clunky and lacks plausibility, especially the way that Berenice behaves after a twist that won't be spoiled here. Unfortunately, after that point, the screenplay doesn't know what to do with the crime thriller element and takes a nose dive while it veers into lethargy and suffers from an abrupt, rushed and anti-climactic ending that leaves too many questions unanswered.  

      Director Giuseppe Capotondi trusts the audience's patience a little too much as the pace moves too slowly for the most part until it speeds up too much toward the end. The use of music is fine, though, without anything that sounds intrusive, and the settings in Italy look picturesque. Aesthetically, the film has exquisite cinematography, but style can only go so far without enough substance that rises to the surface. Both Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki exude plenty of palpable charisma onscreen, and Mick Jagger, in his brief scenes, is quite funny in an offbeat and almost campy, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. More scenes with him would've helped to enliven the film, so it's too bad that the filmmakers sideline the character of Jerome. Perhaps that's a problem that stems from the source material, to be fair. At a running time of 98 minutes, The Burnt Orange Heresy is a slick and stylish slow-burning thriller that lacks suspense and leaves audiences feeling underwhelmed.  

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and Landmark at 57 West.


Directed by Dan Scanlon

      Ian (Tom Holland), an elf, lives in New Mushroomton with his older brother, Barley (voice of Chris Pratt), and mom, Laurel (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus). For his 16th birthday, his mom gives him a magical staff that could bring his dead father back for an entire day. He manages to resurrect his father from the waist down, but he needs another Phoenix Gem to resurrect the rest of his body. Barley takes Ian in his car on a quest to find the hidden Phoenix Gem while using his knowledge of the video game known as Quests of Yore.

      Onward tries to be both a moving coming-of-age story and thrilling action adventure/fantasy, but succeeds much more when it comes to the latter rather than the former. However, when it comes to generating pathos for any of the characters themselves, especially Ian, the screenplay by writer/director Dan Scanion and co-writers Jason Headley and Keith Bunin leaves a lot to be desired. Ian goes through an emotional journey throughout the film, but his character arc from an awkward teenager to a confident that his classmates admire one feels contrived and even a bit shallow. The filmmakers' decision to have half of Ian's dad tag along with Ian and Barley on their quest is creepy at times and reminiscent of the slapstick and silly humor of Weekend at Bernie's.

      There's one funny scene that works because it involves comedy of error when Ian uses a spell to transform himself to Officer Colt Bronco (voice of Mel Rodriguez) to avoid getting arrested when officers pull him and Barley. Ian has a notepad with a list of things that he wishes he could accomplish that would make him happier. That list seems like a tacked-on, lazy and preachy way to add inspirational messages to the film without letting the audience take away those messages on their own. Kids might appreciate to be spoon-fed those messages, though, but the same can't be said for the adult members of the audience. At least the glue that keeps the film together, for the most part, is the relationship between Ian and Barley as siblings. Their bond and interactions feel real which helps to keep the journey in Onward feel grounded and allow for you to care about the journey's outcome.

      The CGI animation looks impressive and provides eye candy. There's enough action adventure sequences that enliven the film, i.e. when Ian to uses the power of a spell to walk on the air from one cliff to another without falling down into a canyon. The way that Barley shows his brotherly love by helping Ian to overcome his fear of heights is heartwarming. More scenes like that would've added more depth the the film. Admittedly, the pacing feels a bit uneven at times and the running time of 114 minutes does feel overlong, especially for an animated film. A truly great Disney/Pixar film, like Ratatouille and Toy Story, has a great story, memorable characters, humor for both adults and children, wit, pathos, palpable chemistry between the leads, exhilarating thrills and a non-preachy message or two. Onward at least has two of those elements: exhilarating thrills and palpable chemistry between Ian and Burley. If only it were as brilliant as the films from the Golden Age of Pixar Animation were instead of settling for mediocrity.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Opens nationwide.