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Films I Neglected To Review: True(ish) Stories
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Banker," "Greed" and "Run This Town."

"The Banker," Apple TV+'s first venture into feature filmmaking, has been dogged by controversy since its high-profile premiere last fall was scuttled at the last second in the wake of sexual abuse allegations leveled against Bernard Garrett Jr., one of its co-producers and the son of one of the two men whose story it is based upon. It tells the true story of Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) and Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie), two African-American men who combined their respective gifts--Morris's bankroll and business sense and Garrett's facility with numbers--to hatch a plan to take on the racist banking establishment of the 1960s by becoming the owners of their own banks. Of course, this isn't that easy and after a false start, they hit upon the genius idea of bringing in a white guy, in this case the eager-to-please Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), who they will train in the various aspects of the field--everything from complex calculations to schmoozing on the golf course--so that he can serve as their front. (To add further assistance if need be, they will also pose as his hired help so that they can be in his meetings without anyone else noticing. This plan works nicely on their first attempt in Southern California but when Garrett goes back to his hometown in Texas and decides that they should take over another bank there, it kicks off a chain of circumstances that eventually find the two men and their front facing inquiries from the federal government.

Directed and co-written by George Nolfi, whose previous efforts included the not-entirely-uninteresting sci-fi thriller "The Adjustments Bureau" and the deeply uninteresting martial arts epic "Birth of the Dragon," "The Banker" is a slickly told tale that manages to keep things humming along at a fairly consistent hum but it never really comes across as being all that interesting. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is too slick for its own good - you never get any real feel for our heroes, either when they are moving on the way up with their ingenious plan or when everything comes crashing down around them thanks to a combination of hubris, bad decisions and straight-up racism. Likewise, the performances are good on a surface level but we never get any real sense of who these people are and what drives them to push on when common sense would dictate otherwise. If you already have Apple TV+, where it will begin streaming in a couple of weeks after its current theatrical run, it is a painless enough way to pass a couple of hours, I suppose. However, considering the promise of the story being told and the level of talent that has come together to bring it to the screen, "The Banker" cannot help but feel like a bit of a disappointment.

Both in terms of the sheer number of projects that he has made (since 1995, he has averaged more than a feature a year) and the wide variety of subjects that he has chosen to bring to the screen, Michael Winterbottom has long established himself as one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. Of course, when one constantly works at that kind of pace, there is bound to be the occasional stumble and that is certainly the case with "Greed," a seemingly sure-fire satirical take on wealth inequality which even those who side with its basic arguments may find to be overly heavy-handed without ever being particularly amusing or insightful. Longtime Winterbottom collaborator Steve Coogan stars as Richard McCreadle, a filthy rich clothing magnate who is specifically based upon Britain's much-loathed Top Shop head Phillip Green but who whose greed and sense of self-satisfaction will seem familiar to non-U.K. audiences. In a desperate bid for good publicity following a recent government investigation into his business practices, McCreadle decides to throw himself a "Gladiator"-themed 60th birthday party (complete with a lion that might as well be named Chekov, considering his ultimate purpose) on a remote island where he will pay celebrities to join him, his family and the people he considers to be his friends. One of the guests is a journalist (David Mitchell), who has been hired to write McCreadle's biography and while he is getting the puff version of his story from the man and his associates, one employee (Dinita Gohil) points him towards the sweatshops of Sri Lanka and opens his eyes as to the realities of exactly what a fortune like McCreadle's is really based upon.

Over the years, Winterbottom has more than proven his bona fides in regards to his social commitments and many of his films have wrestled with the issues of the day in a forthright and direct manner. Throughout "Greed," you can feel his anger at the billionaire class and the carnage left behind in their continued single-minded pursuit of wealth at all costs. The trouble is that he never quite figures out a way to present that anger in either dramatic or satirical terms. He is obviously sincere about the plight of the sweatshop workers in Sri Lanka and Syrian refugees - a group turn up on the island's beach, sending McCreadle into apoplexy as they are ruining his view with their presence--but he never quite manages to engage with those characters or fully explore the issues that they represent. (Winterbottom's usage of them as little more than emotional props doesn't quite hit the level of full exploitation but it comes pretty close at times.) On the other hand, the humor is as broad and unsubtle as the overly gleaming choppers that McCreadle sports and while some of the jokes do hit home at time, the humor is never as cutting as it wants to be. "Greed" is a noble attempt and its heart is clearly in the right place but none of it really works. i pretty much agree with all of the principles that it espouses throughout--I just didn't find it to be very funny.

It was perhaps inevitable that the scandal-ridden administration of Rob Ford, the Toronto mayor who became an international laughing stock due to his well-publicized substance abuse problems (including being filmed smoking crack), would one day become the subject of a feature film. Alas, "Run This Joint" proves to be just as confused and scattershot as Ford himself would get at his worst moments. The film approaches the subject from two different points. In one, would-be journalist Bran Shriver (Ben Platt) is churning out innocuous Top 10 lists for a website while yearning to do a story with slightly more significance than ranking the best burgers in the city. Eventually, one falls into his lap when he answers the phone one day and is offered the chance to buy a video of Mayor Ford smoking crack. In the other, Ford's chief assistant, Kamal (Mena Massoud) tries to keep his boss under control as much as he can. This requires him to simply look away during Ford's most outrageous behavior, including the blatant sexual harassment of a new aide (Nina Dobrev) in a room full of witnesses, and then justify said behavior, at least to himself, as the price to be paid for the good work that Ford is doing for the city. At a certain point, however, Ford begins spiraling even further out of control and it becomes increasingly difficult for Kamal to give him a pass, no matter what his accomplishments might be.

"Run This Town" is a film that sounds so promising in theory that it is mystifying to watch it and see how badly it handles the material. The screenplay by writer-director Ricky Tollman is a real mess that tries to cram together two storylines when one would have more than sufficed and then proceeds to botch both of them. The one focusing on the journalist doesn't work because our hero in those scenes proves to be an unsympathetic and cravenly ambitious twerp whose constant whines about deserving to be on the story get very tiresome very quickly while the one from the aide's point-of-view, while initially promising, falters once it tries to shoehorn the sexual harassment element in and then proceeds to look upon it more as an afterthought than anything else. In both cases, the rat-a-tat dialogue--presumably meant to emulate the patter of old-school newspaper films like "His Girl Friday"--feels like an arch stylistic construct employed to disguise the fact that the characters, like the film itself, are not actually saying much of anything at all. The other big flaw revolves around the depiction of Ford himself. To play him, the film has Damian Lewis encased in a fat suit that a.) never comes across as convincing for a moment and b.) gives him an unfortunate but undeniable resemblance to the Fat Bastard character from the Austin Powers movies. The story of Rob Ford and all the things that it encompasses will no doubt one day form the foundation for some kind of great movie--perhaps a dark comedy or an incisive drama about the compromises we all make in the name of the greater good. One thing is for sure--"Run This Town" is not that movie.

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originally posted: 03/06/20 06:39:17
last updated: 03/06/20 06:43:58
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