With new movies postponed from original release dates and theaters closed, things may be different for a while, but there’s still room for new reviews. Thanks to some films made digitally available either by studios or various streaming services, I have assembled some brief takes on movies either currently available to watch or arriving in the near future. The following features reviews for The Banker, Blow the Man Down, The Climb, and Critical Thinking.
The Banker: 3 out of 5
The Setup: Set in the 1960s, two entrepreneurs become the first black men to own a bank in the United States by hiring a working-class white man to pose as the head of their business empire.
Review: The Banker is a low-key drama that gets by on strong performances from lead Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson as his older partner. Director George Nolfi works with a lower budget to deliver on a story that doesn’t require too much flashiness to pass as an involving feature. Based on a true story, regardless of how accurate the film is in its depiction of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, the film gets by on multiple scenes of good actors working out problems through good dialogue, and enough of a hook to keep things intriguing.
Nicholas Hoult eventually makes up the third piece of a trio, who go out of their way to compensate for the racial bias found in America. They hatch a scheme that fittingly doesn’t actually involve anything illegal beyond misrepresentation to bypass the fact that black people are mistreated by banks and white businessmen. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the caper-like presentation that makes up much of the first half of the film. Not hurting are fine supporting turns from Nia Long and Colm Meaney, among others.
As a character-focused story, part of this will come down to how much a viewer enjoys watching Mackie play on the idea that quick computing in his head is charming, thrilling, and impressive to those who doubt him. Fortunately, as good as he can be, Jackson relishes the chance to play a real person who dresses nice, can outsmart many, and is quick with the quips (the character also enjoys golf, so it truly is an ideal role for the veteran star). If the unassuming nature of the film leaves it a little less impactful outside of a reminder of how evil racism can look at times, along with the typical “text on the screen” ending, at least take comfort in knowing the film’s aspirations only go so far.
The Banker is as accomplished as it needs to be in serving up an old-school movie fit for those looking for an adult-skewing drama, with enough of a message to work for those willing to invest.
Where To Watch: Currently available on Apple TV+
Blow The Man Down: 3 ½ out of 5
The Setup: Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly are sisters in a New England town desperate to cover up the murder of a dangerous man. This means becoming involved in the criminal underbelly of their quaint little town.
Review: Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, while associating Blow the Man Down with Winter’s Bone could make sense, it’s very easy to see the influence of Fargo on a film like this. Though not as comedically bent in that direction (though a layer of dark humor does run throughout), there’s a particular cinematic voice in play as far as capturing a level of quirkiness when it comes to presenting the various townsfolk and the social norms they are all privy to.
Along with the worldbuilding, however, there’s a solid neo-noir story taking place here. Leads Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe as sisters in over their heads, while also dealing with the grief of their recently deceased mother, are well cast as two sides of the same coin. There’s a human element to this film, which is best expressed by these two who have no idea how to tackle all of the dark secrets they soon become embroiled in.
Of course, this film has heavier hitters, and they come in the form of June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, and most especially character actress Margo Martindale, who looms over the film with a subtle menace similarly echoed in season two of FX’s excellent series Justified. Replacing the southern charm with a New England accent and frankness, one could easily see Martindale filling the role of a heavy from a 40s noir, but the modern-day setting means watching a film challenge what one expects in these kinds of stories and delivering on it.
The morals are relatively straightforward, but the right amount of tension and pitch-black comedy (not to mention a literal chorus of ye old sailor songs to give the film some breathing room) make for a good watch.
Where To Watch: Now Available on Amazon Prime
The Climb: 4 out of 5
Review: I was not prepared for the cinematic effort put into what’s ostensibly a comedy. For an indie film, co-star/co-writer/director Michael Angelo Covino had a lot of ambition in mind for a movie about male friendship seen at the best of times and (mostly) the worst of times. The opening sequence places these two in front of the camera, as we watch them biking uphill. Mike (Covino) suddenly breaks the news to Kyle (Kyle Marvin) that he’s been sleeping with his fiancé. As this information is revealed, the camera does not cut away. We watch a lengthy journey with these two on their bikes, while dealing with this new scenario.
That concept is repeated throughout the film. Divided into several segments, The Climb is composed of many long sequences where the camera tracks characters in real-time through lengthy discussions, arguments, and even fights. These are elaborately written, handled, and choreographed, working as a slice of life depicting some of the most awkward parts of life. As the film spans many years, there’s a lot of room to see how these characters grow (or don’t) over time, but the gimmick never feels shallow in its execution.
It helps that The Climb is frequently funny. For all the natural drama that takes place, given the confessions and state of the guys over time, there’s a lot of great dialogue that clues the viewer into why these guys are friends, as well as providing excuses to laugh, even when things are at their most chaotic. Adding this very stylistic component on top of it all only makes the film more of an intriguing watch, especially given sudden turns in the state of characters, as we are pushed forward in time.
A climb to the end, but in no way a struggle, there’s a lot of good work in all regards here, with a level of confidence in the approach that makes this funny feature all the better.
Where To Watch: Initially scheduled for March, now set for release July 17, 2020.
Critical Thinking: 4 out of 5
The Setup: Set in 1998, a group of inner-city teens finds success through the game of chess, and a teacher doing what he can to help some struggling kids not be pushed into the margins. It is inspired by a real-life story.
Review: For decades now, I’ve always found John Leguizamo to be a truly versatile talent. Between his comedy, dramatic work, and one-man plays, he’s found plenty of ways to entertain, and this directorial effort from him is no different. Not unlike a film such as The Great Debaters from Denzel Washington, Leguizamo starring as an inspiring teacher to help struggling kids by enlightening them through a more obscure sport is rather inspiring to watch. What helps the film match up to the better sports film is playing with the formula and approaching certain areas without delving too far into maudlin territory.
This could actually pair well with The Way Back, one of the last films put in wide release, before everything changed for this part of the year. However, while that film took a good look at Ben Affleck’s alcoholic coach character, this film is more about the students Leguizamo’s Mario Martinez is teaching. While he offers wonderful moments of humor, inspiration, and down-to-earth conversations, and arguments (including a standout moment focused on why blacks and Latinos are consistently left out of history books), it is more important to see the struggles of some of the teenagers who play a significant role.
Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Corwin C. Tuggles, Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, and Jeffry Batista all play unique young adults with backgrounds. They show the kind of life they are a part of, how they can excel if given a chance, and how it is they lock into both their environment and their skill with chess. It makes for a compelling study of time, place, and character, made all the better thanks to a script by Dito Montiel, which doesn’t sugarcoat how tough things can get. Similarly, Leguizamo’s teacher, nor the film, has all the answers. Winning big chess matches doesn’t mean everyone’s lives will necessarily get them out of all the trouble in their path. It’s not a messy film in that regard, but it leaves some lingering thoughts that compel the viewer to think about what’s going on here.
Thanks to a committed cast, strong writing, and confident work behind the camera by Leguizamo, Critical Thinking has the advantage of knowing where all the pieces will land, and executing the plan quite well.
Where To Watch: Originally scheduled to have its world premiere at SXSW, there is no current release date.