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The Burnt Orange Heresy

Three pretty different and pretty strange films at TIFF day 8

A pulp fiction adaptation, a Chinese street vendor/anarchist doc and a rare look at organized crime middle management.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Very tall and very photogenic stars are the main driving force behind The Burnt Orange Heresy, an otherwise rather banal adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel. Though the source material comes from one of the absolute titans of pulp fiction, there’s a stilted quality to The Burnt Orange Heresy’s screenplay that keeps it firmly in the adequate zone.

Claes Bang stars as James Figueras, an up-and-coming art critic whose biggest money gig is giving lectures to tourists that are based around subterfuge and misleading statements. It’s during one of these lectures that he meets Berenice Hollis (Elisabeth Debicki), an American tourist with a mysterious past who becomes his lover. James invites Berenice along to a weekend in the country to visit a wealthy art dealer (Mick Jagger) who immediately blackmails James into “obtaining” a painting from a reclusive painter (Donald Sutherland) currently living on his property.

The Burnt Orange Heresy (the title refers to the desired painting in question) is full of flowery and self-consciously retro dialogue (Debicki often refers to Bang as “boss” in a flat, mid-Atlantic accent à la Katherine Hepburn) that sounds leaden and awkward coming from actors affecting accents that aren’t theirs. (The dialogue is clunky enough that it’s hard to imagine anyone currently alive that would be capable of pulling it off.) The actors are pretty good and have a palpable chemistry (and are so ridiculously tall and good-looking that they make Jagger look like a malevolent CGI imp) but the film too often feels like an artificial put-on to truly convince. It’s entertaining in the way that movies about gorgeous people getting in bad situations used to be a significant percentage of all cinematic output, but this is more Shannon Tweed than Sharon Stone.

The Burnt Orange Heresy does not yet have a release date.

City Dream

“Uncle” Wang Tiancheng is a 70-year-old street vendor in Wuhan, China. He makes the majority of his income selling fruit and clothes from a sidewalk booth on a busy street. Uncle Wang is the number one headache that the Urban Management Bureau of Wuhan have to deal with on a regular basis; their agents are tasked with keeping up various urban regulations, all of which Wang contravenes with his booth. Wang, on the other hand, is not really up for peaceful debate: whenever the Bureau rolls around, he takes his shirt off and slaps the officers, ranting and raving and running into traffic if necessary. It’s more of a show than a sign of mental illness — he seems very cognizant that making a scene is just going to entirely fuck up the modes of Chinese bureaucracy and buy him more time.

Though it seems like an extremely dry subject to make a movie about, the issues at the heart of City Dream are fascinating and far-ranging: gentrification, Chinese customs, poverty, urban planning and even notions of civil disobedience are explored in a film that spends most of its running time not taking sides. Of course, you may suspect that the municipality of Wuhan would not take too kindly to two hours of their employees getting slapped in the face and staring powerlessly as all their paperwork is ripped up by a shirtless old man chucking watermelons at the sidewalk, so the film works itself into a redemptive narrative arc that feels at the very least like compromise.

Still, Uncle Wang is up there with Billy Mitchell, Mark Borchardt and the Beales as a true eccentric revelation of documentary filmmaking. He’s an absolute weirdo and, in his own way, a punk icon, willing to put up a stink (an endless amount of stinks, in fact) to fight for what he believes in. City Dream is definitely a Chinese documentary about zoning laws, which 100 per cent sounds like a movie I’d make up to make fun of the programming at the FFM, but hey — whatever works.

City Dream does not yet have a release date.

The Moneychanger

It takes a while before you figure out what Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj is driving at with The Moneychanger. Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) works as a “moneychanger” in Montevideo in the ’60s and ’70s, essentially using the tiny country’s wonky financial structure to set up offshore accounts for the rich and powerful. Brause’s entire income comes from getting a cut of the interest, and thus he exists mainly as an anonymous middleman in most people’s lives. He has a wife that he clearly hates and children that he never sees, and yet from an early age he becomes obsessed with the idea of amassing filthy lucre — something that he does reasonably well, but hardly with the kind of runaway success that would warrant a movie being made about him.

That’s, of course, the whole point. The Moneychanger is a deliberate attempt to make a movie about a guy you might see once or twice in something like The Wolf of Wall Street — like making an entire movie about the fence in a heist movie. Brause is rich from shady dealings, but he’s far enough down the ladder that he rarely if ever gets involved in criminal activities in a meaningful way, and yet his entire livelihood hangs in the balance of not getting caught doing something illegal. It’s about middle management in organized crime, which is both an extremely interesting concept and one that’s severely hampered by the limits it sets for itself.

It’s not very funny, for one. It sets up a comic tone early on but doesn’t really back itself up with jokes, sometimes devolving into out-of-left-field scatological humour (I mean, I’m not not going to laugh at a guy shitting himself out of fear, but then I will question whether it was earned or not) or into stilted comic setpieces that don’t really work. On the other hand, Hendler is perfectly cast as a thoroughly mediocre and awkward dude who is never once rendered remotely cool by the ostensible “cool” actions that he poses. The Moneychanger is not the kind of movie that could be mistaken for applauding what its main character does — but it could definitely benefit from those movies’ sense of pizzazz. 

The Moneychanger does not yet have a release date.

See our previous reports from TIFF 2019 here.