Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

That Awkward Moment


Zac Efron is confident he's the prettiest one of the trio.

Zac Efron is confident he’s the prettiest one of the trio.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, Josh Pais, Evelina Turen, Karen Ludwig, Tina Benko, Joseph Adams, Lola Glaudini, John Rothman, Barbara Garrick, Reif Larsen, Kate Simses, Emily Meade, Alysia Reiner, Julia Morrison. Directed by Tom Gormican

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-3

According to Jason (Efron), a book cover designer and long time player, any sentence uttered by a woman that you are seeing that begins with the word “So…” is an intimation of impending catastrophe. It is the linchpin of any relationship; the moment that a relationship moves from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend.” It is the type of commitment that guys like Jason find to be about as repellent as walking barefoot over a floor covered in broken glass and scorpions.

He works with his buddy Daniel (Teller) who is basically a 16-year-old in a twenty-something’s body. Daniel uses Jason’s friend Chelsea (Davis) as a means of meeting women for one-night stands (Jason needs no help for that). The two have a third musketeer, Mikey (Jordan), a married doctor but Mikey’s just been hit by a bombshell; his wife Vera (Lucas) has been cheating on him with Harold, a lawyer who looks suspiciously like Morris Chestnut.

Mikey is depressed as all get-out and Daniel knows exactly what he needs – a night in a bar drinking and picking up some chick for a night’s entertainment. Mikey makes a connection with a young lady in glasses (Simses) who gives him her number to use “when (you’re) ready” while Jason ends up with a cute blonde named Ellie (Poots) who has an unusually high number of condoms in her apartment and wears hooker boots. Seeing as the New Yorker just printed an article on hookers in the East End dressing like hipsters, the perpetually broke Jason makes a pre-dawn run for it, fearing Ellie will be asking him for payment in the morning.

The three friends decide to make a pact, all of them having had a wonderful time the evening before – all three will remain single for as long as possible to keep the party going. Mikey is still a little hung up on his ex but agrees that he hadn’t had that much fun in quite some time.

It turns out Ellie isn’t a prostitute – she works for a publishing company that Jason’s socially awkward boss Fred (Pais) is courting. D’oh!  As it turns out, Ellie and Jason end up falling hard for each other. Daniel winds up falling hard for Chelsea – and she for him, hard as it is to believe. And as for Mikey, his attempts to reconcile with Vera turn out far better than he expected. Of course, all three of them, not wishing to look bad in the eyes of their friends, hide their relationships from each other. And of course all three of these geniuses end up imperiling their relationships because of their lack of communication. When will they ever learn?

I understand that this was on the Hollywood Black List of best unproduced scripts of 2012 and I have to wonder how on earth it got there, unless substantial revisions were made during filming. The movie is chock full of the same old tired rom-com clichés that have made nearly all of the romantic comedies produced by Hollywood over the past decade nearly identical in nature. It’s a form of chauvinism, thinking women will settle for the same old thing year after year…although considering some of the relationship choices I’ve seen some of my women friend make during that time, perhaps the studio bigwigs are on to something.

I haven’t been a great Zac Efron fan I have to admit but he does make a pretty decent romantic lead. He’s certainly got the looks and the abs for it and while his acting chops are pretty weak, the same thing could be said for both Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the same point in their careers and in both of the above I’ve seen a ton of improvement in that department. I could see Efron becoming a really good actor down the line.

Jordan is an amazing actor but he is hardly utilized here, essentially playing the role of the African-American friend. He has a few decent moments in the film and his banter with Teller and Efron is natural and unforced, something you can’t always say for the other two.

It is the women who fare best here. Poots has done some sterling work in films like A Late Quartet gets the meatiest role and makes the most of it; her expression as she stares at Efron as he goes through his antics is definitely worth a thousand words at least. This British actress has the kind of ability that is possessed by Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams; hopefully she’ll start to get some A-list roles sent her way soon.

While there are some new romantic movies opening up just in time for Valentine’s Day (especially the anticipated Winter’s Tale) as I have not seen them yet I can’t really recommend them much and for my money this is the best romantic movie in theaters at the moment; ladies will swoon over the handsome Efron and guys will appreciate the banter and relationship between the men which is pretty genuine. So fellas, this is a rom-com that you can actually enjoy without feeling you are enduring it for the sake of your woman’s tender attentions after the credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Efron becoming a solid romantic lead. Occasionally very funny. Authentic relationship between the guys.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many rom-com clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of foul language, even more sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally to be released by FilmDistrict but after Focus absorbed that distribution company (their production side remains independent) this became the first FilmDistrict property to be distributed by Focus.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: About Last Night

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

The Words


The Words

Bradley Cooper tries to explain to Zoe Saldana why she can’t be in The Hangover III

(2012) Drama (CBS) Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Ben Barnes, Nora Arnezeder, Ron Rifkin, John Hannah, J.K. Simmons, Michael McKean, James Babson, Brian Klugman, Zeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Stauber. Directed by Brian Klugman and Len Sternthal

 

Writing is near and dear to my heart. I am fascinated by words and like to use a lot of big ones. I don’t apologize for that. Communication is my job and I like to be precise about it. Still, as I’m fond of saying, I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. Those who write for a living will tell you that they didn’t pick their particular career choice; it chose them.

Clay Hammond (Quaid) is reading from his latest best seller. A comely grad student named Daniella (Wilde) approaches him from the audience and asks him for more detail about his story than he had given during the reading. Clay, who is separated from his wife, is a little tipsy and responds to the flirting. He starts to tell her about it.

Rory Jansen (Cooper) has dreams of being a writer. He works for three years on a novel, pouring out his heart. It’s good, he’s told but not great. He, like many struggling writers, begins to collect rejection slips like Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. His girlfriend Dora (Saldana) is supportive; his dad (Simmons) not so much, although there is clearly affection between them. It’s just that dear old dad wants his son to grow up and take responsibility, understanding that not every dream is achievable.

Rory and Dora (which sounds a bit like a preschoolers cartoon – couldn’t you have come up with better names than that?) eventually get married and wind up honeymooning in Paris (which is a bit pricey for struggling young newlyweds but let’s assume they got it as a gift) and while antique hunting Dora finds a beautiful old valise which she buys for Rory to use at his new job in the mailroom at a literary agency.

Still, Rory is depressed about his stalled career and wonders if he has the talent to be somebody. His depression begins to create a gulf between him and his friends and even between him and Dora. Then Rory finds a manuscript in the valise, one that has been sitting there for a long while. He begins reading it. He can’t put it down. It’s almost like a slap in the face; here is the novel he’s always wanted to write and someone else has written it. He becomes obsessed with it. He wants to know what it would be like to write something like that, so he takes the typewritten manuscript and types it, word for word including the misspelled words, into his laptop. He leaves it there and forgets about it.

But Dora finds it. She insists that he take it to an agent so he does. The agent (Ivanek) loves it. It gets published. The little book becomes a sensation. At first Rory feels guilty over plagiarizing the work but reasons that it was a means to an end; the novels he couldn’t get published now have deals and all due to this forgotten manuscript. He wins awards and becomes rich. His relationship with Dora becomes stronger.

One day while reading on a bench in Central Park, an old man (Irons) sidles up and sits nearby. The old man recognizes him and gets his copy of the book autographed. Then the old man tells him a story; the story of a young man (Barnes) in Paris after World War II. The young man becomes smitten with Celia (Arnezeder), a waitress in a sidewalk cafe. She falls in love with him. They marry but after a tragedy they separate. He becomes disconsolate without her. He writes a book, one he pours all his heart and soul into. The words flow out like a river. It is finished in two weeks.

He sends it to her and she reads it. She’s amazed and agrees to come home. Unfortunately, the valise she put the novel in got left aboard a train. It disappears – and it’s absence comes between the young man and Celia just as surely as a brick wall would.

The line between fiction and fact blurs a little in The Words. It isn’t about writing so much, although the demon in Rory that compels him to write, that compels him to be adored for it, is one I know all too well. But this is a story about guilt and how it gets into a relationship insidiously destroying it from within. It destroys people as well.

The three stories are all interrelated, but which ones are true and which ones are fantasy are pretty much left up to the interpretation of the audience (my take? All three). It is a story inside of a story within a story which while not an original means of telling a story is nonetheless not an easy one and takes a deft hand to pull off, which it is here.

It helps to have some strong performances from the male leads, and the filmmakers get them. Irons is one of those actors who looks and sounds great even when uttering banal lines. He’s memorable when onscreen and his scenes with Cooper are among the best in the movie. Quaid also has some fine moments although he is little more than a framing device. Still, there’s some thought and depth to his character.

The women don’t fare as well – Saldana gets the most screen time among them but for the most part the women in the movie aren’t developed quite as well as the men are. They are entirely reactive and serve either as ornaments or as plot devices. It’s not a commentary on them as actresses; more of a commentary on the writing.

It is meant to be literate and there is a bit of the hoity toity “writers are special” attitude that movies about writers sometimes get. And, as a movie about words, there are a lot of them. Much of the action moves through dialogue and there are voiceovers throughout. And while you may not see everything coming (to their credit the filmmakers refuse to spell things out although you can pretty much figure things out) the story isn’t what you’d call ground-breaking.

Still this is a smart movie that also appeals to the heart. The Old Man is a figure you will have a great deal of sympathy for, even though much of his dilemma is of his own making. I have to say I was inspired to go and do some writing after seeing this, even though that’s something I do every day. Writing movie reviews is one thing. Writing something that counts, something that means something to somebody and gives them insight to life or at least their own soul – that’s an entirely different thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful and literate. Inspires me to write. Fine performances by Irons, Quaid and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly talky. Story is a bit been-there done-that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rough language in certain places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosamund Pike was considered for the role of Daniella but it eventually went to Olivia Wilde.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are horrible.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LOVERS: The book that inspires the Young Man to writing is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Jackal