*Note: Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorical prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque film about the First Couple’s early relationship.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic “Obama: Origins” story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

For his part, Parker Sawyers is an effortlessly convincing young-B.O., slipping skillfully into 44’s mannerisms without resorting to gross caricature. The same can’t be said for Tika Sumpter (also one of the film’s producers) who is stilted as Michelle Obama and who relies on sullenness as a substitute for the future first lady’s principled strength.

“Southside With You” bets every chip it has on the allure of young POTUS and FLOTUS. But imagine for a moment not knowing who Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson grow up to be, and what’s left is an overly presumptive film about an otherwise generic meet cute, in which the budding romance between its protagonists is too short on chemistry to be convincing.

Grade: B-

*Southside With You opens in Salt Lake City and select theaters nationwide on Friday, August 26.

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After the aggressively awful Batman v Superman and the frustratingly mediocre Man of Steel, it is no exaggeration to say that the DC cinematic universe is in *desperate* need of a hit.

The traditional marque superheroes have failed, and so the executives at Warner Brothers, like the D.C. bureaucrats in Suicide Squad, have placed their remaining hope for salvation in a ragtag group of quirky villains.

It’s a novel plan, full of cinematic possibilities. But while Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and their criminal pals are able to save the day in fiction, in real life their efforts fall with a resounding thud.

Suicide Squad starts with a pseudo spoiler for those of you who didn’t see but still might care about the plot of BvS. Superman is Dead (don’t worry, he won’t be for long), but the potential threat of otherworldly and/or superhuman threats against mankind remains. So the U.S. Government, at the behest of Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, greenlights a project called Task Force X, a team of beyond-maximum-security convicted criminals compelled to fight for good in exchange for 1) having time cut from their sentences and 2) not having their heads blown off by small explosives injected into their spine.

That team is introduced in a clunky and overly-long sequence of flashbacks that comprises Squad’s first act. We see the capture of sniper-for-hire Deadshot and psychiatrist-turned-cuckoo-bird Harley Quinn by Batman, the creation of The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) courtesy of a spelunking trip gone awry and a cameo Flash (Ezra Miller, borrowed from the upcoming Justice League film) who zips in to apprehend Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) a baddie who likes boomerangs.

Oh and there’s a crocodile man, an unrecognizable Jay Hernandez shooting fire from his hands and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is the lone “good” guy on the team and mostly gives googly eyes at Delevingne between scowling sessions.

If you’ve seen the trailers, which are far better than the full film, then you know and have seen all this. But once those machinations are out of the way, Suicide Squad finds itself all dressed up with nowhere to go. Luckily writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) isn’t beyond dumping a metric ton of plot contrivances to move things along. No sooner has the squad been formed before the Enchantress goes rogue, resurrecting her discount-Sauron brother, launching some sort of doomsday machine and creating an army of generic, blob-soldiers to provide bloodless, PG-13 approved fodder for Deadshot’s bullets, Quinn’s baseball bat and Boomerang’s boomerangs.

Many superhero films struggle in the villain department — think Malekith from Thor 2 or Doomsday from the aforementioned garbage pit that was BvS — but the Enchantress is given particularly little to work with. Beyond the blob army, which have all the menace of a walking pile of mud, her villainy is largely confined to waving her arms in front of a wall of green screen phantasmagoria that is wreaking havoc around the world, largely offscreen.

But this movie is still 2+ hours long, which means that once assembled, our plucky antiheroes have a good 90 minutes to wander around a decimated city, occasionally punching things and making futile attempts at edgy humor while the incoherent plot barrels through superfluous beats and a veritable slew of flashbacks that do little more than set the stage for movies still to come. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Suicide Squad is more occupied with the ghosts of other stories than the immediate tasks at hand.

But isn’t the Joker in this? Not really. Jared Leto, as promised, delivers an original take on the clown prince of Gotham but his sub-plot is entirely peripheral. The clown has, maybe, 30 seconds of screen time not shown in the promotional materials, which is spent trying to reconnect with his lady-love Quinn.

For her part, Robbie is the only main character who got the memo to have a little fun. She’s a rare spot of energy in the dour proceedings, but is still cobbled by wooden dialogue and an absence of anything resembling character development.

In each minute, you can feel Ayer straining to break free and lean into the madness of Suicide Squad, only to be crushed by the market demands for a “safe” superhero film. Give the movie a better villain, 30 fewer minutes of screen time and a the go-ahead for R Rated content that would actually jive with how wicked these characters are supposed to be and you might have something worth seeing.

Instead, we have yet another DC hodgepodge of competing interests, and a director tasked with handling too many irons in a fire. It entertains in a shallow, innocuous way that avoids the discomfort of the Zach Snyder flagship films, but the worst offense is who completely it squanders what could have been, and was promised to be, something fresh and original.

Grade: C

*Suicide Squad opens nationwide on Friday, August 5.

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Bryan Cranston proved in Breaking Bad that he can comfortably play both sides of the Man is Good/Man is Evil duality. But while Bad called on the actor to convey a slow and steady devolution into darkness, drug-war thriller The Infiltrator maintains Cranston’s hand on the chain as he flips back and forth between real-life federal agent Robert Mazur and his alter ego Bob Musella, a money-laundering simpatico to the Medellin Cartel and other shadowy interests.

Set at the height of the Reagan-era drug paranoia, an aging and retirement-eligible Mazur launches an undercover operation to go straight at Columbian cocaine lord Pablo Escobar through his wallet, rather than working his way slowly up the food chain through lower-level busts.

The plan works well, and before long Mazur is reeling in high-level targets like Roberto “The Jeweler” Alcaino  (a pitch-perfect and sinister Benjamin Bratt) and the C-level honchos of a major international bank, while also dodging bullets and suspicious as the noose tightens.

Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) takes a slick, no-frills approach to the heady subject material. Much like  2014’s Kill The Messenger, the true story behind Infiltrator already contains the twists and turns of a feature film, and Furman wisely steers clear of excesses to craft a satisfying and sophisticated drama that captures a lesser-known but noteworthy moment in America’s criminal history.

With Cranston at its center, and heavy assists by John Leguizamo and a well-utilized Diane Kruger, Infiltrator is a well-executed, grown-up drama that informs while it entertains.

*The Infiltrator opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 13.

Grade: B+

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Spotlight (2015)

If you still haven’t seen last year’s Best Picture winner, then you have no excuse now. Spotlight has arrived on Netflix, so it’s the perfect time for a first, second, or hundredth viewing of the film, which focuses on the dogged work of a team of reporters at The Boston Globe that exposed the widespread cover-up of child abuse  by Catholic priests. It’s heavy stuff, but not without its moments of levity, all of which are performed exquisitely by the talented cast (led by Michael Keaton). And as a fellow journalist, the newsroom scenes are on point.

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The Big Short (2015)

Another of last year’s Best Picture nominees, The Big Short is one of the two best movies ever made about the subprime mortgage crisis (the other being Margin Call, which unfortunately is not streaming on Netflix right now). The economy took a nosedive in 2008, taking  a lot of regular people down with it. A few Wall Street watchers saw the crash coming and bet against the markets, but the hard thing about foresight is being proved right. Watch this movie, and prepare to get angry.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Do you have kids? Do you ever worry that they might grow up to be mass-murdering sociopaths? Don’t worry, they won’t.

Unless they do…

Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who struggles to bond with her son and, over time, is increasingly suspicious of his actions. The film squeezes a suffocating amount of tension out of the inevitability of Kevin’s evolution, and Ezra Miller (the future Flash) stars in a  breakout role that toes too many emotional lines to even describe.

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An Honest Liar (2014)

This biographical documentary looks at the life of  James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and escape artist who retired from performing and devoted his life to debunking psychics and mystics as charlatans and frauds. He excelled in both careers, going from guest appearances in Happy Days as “The Amazing Randi” to exposing televangelist Peter Popoff, who relied on a hidden earpiece to receive diving inspiration about his flock.

The dual-track of Randi’s legacy is affectionately captured in An Honest Liar, as is the charm and charisma of Randi himself. He is, as they say, a character, and this documentary does him justice.

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Experimenter (2015)

Did you ever hear about that study where people were told to shock a man for giving wrong word-association answers? And they did, for the most part, despite the man’s pleas to stop?

Or perhaps you’ve heard about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone can be connected through a chain of six people?

They both are the work of Stanley Milgram, a controversial social psychologist with a penchant for devising thought-provoking experimentation on human behavior. His work gets the biopic treatment in Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and a brief appearance by the late Anton Yelchin, who died last month.

 

 

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In 2013, two dude-bro brothers named Mike and Dave posted an ad on Craigslist looking for dates to accompany them to a wedding. You likely heard the story, as the stunt quickly gained the viral ubiquity of our fleeting national attention.

And like clockwork, here we are three years later with an irreverent comedy based on Mike and Dave’s antics (an eventuality overtly prophesied in the Craiglist post in question). As the down-to-business title suggests, this is a movie about Mike and Dave, played by Zac Efron and Adam Devine, who need wedding dates, which they find in Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza through the miracle of the internet and daytime talk show television.

Both men are well-intentioned and affable manboys whose life-of-the-party aspirations are inevitably undone by flying too close to the sun. This premise is introduced in probably the only coherent and comedically consistent vignette of the film, as Mike and Dave’s family visits with a slide-show montage of their past destruction and a mandate to arrive to their sister’s upcoming nuptials with plus-ones in tow as a protective measure against their accidentally destructive nature.

There are a few more laughs to be had, but not many. The movie plays as if SNL devoted an entire episode to a single sketch: it’s largely improvised and occasionally funny, but most of the jokes fail to land and everything would be better with a few more celebrity cameos. To their credit, Efron, Devine, Kendrick and Plaza are committed to their bits, working overtime to squeeze a few more drops of comedy blood out of the stone that is the film’s outline of a script. But their performances are also grating, particularly Plaza, who is forced to relinquish her otherwise capable comedy timing in favor of a barely two-dimensional caricature of a “bad” girl playing nice.

At every turn “Mike and Dave” seems desperate to position itself as a spiritual extension of Wedding Crashers, going so far as to name-drop the earlier film in a particularly on-the-nose scene. But while leads Efron and Devine exhibit some of that Wilson/Vaughan chemistry, the surrounding film is severely lacking in the showmanship and ingenuity of better comedies.

It’s a failed attempt that barely entertains for its shorter-than-it-feels running time.

Grade: C+

*Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates opens nationwide on Friday, July 8.

*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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On paper, the story of “Swiss Army Man” is full of promise: like the deranged blend of “Weekend at Bernies” and “MacGyver”. A shipwrecked and desperate man (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide when he spots a dead body (Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. The body’s utility becomes essential for survival, and he strikes up a friendship with the corpse as he searches for a way home.

But it becomes apparent, very quickly, that directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert and only interested in using their film as a delivery mechanism for 90 minutes of juvenile body humor. This is a film in which most of the critical plot developments hinge on flatulence and erections.

The Daniels seem to be actively fighting against letting their movie become inadvertently good, making sure to throw in some gross-out gags every few minutes to interrupt what could have otherwise be a beautifully-shot, musically-inventive, psychologically-ambiguous piece of surrealist pop.

What makes “Swiss Army Man” truly offensive is that there’s the bones of a very different, and very interesting film under the layers of asinine filth. Instead, a considerable amount of indie talent is squandered.

Grade: D

*Swiss Army Man opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 1.

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The horror genre so often relies on quick scares over storytelling that its films are typically disposable: a bundle of jumpy reveals with immediately diminished returns.

That’s why, when a horror movie comes along that both frightens and entertains it can feel like a singular emotional event, playing ping-pong with the senses as the audience trades shrieks of terror with nervous, relieving laughter.

After what felt like an eternity of the genre being dominated by shallow torture-porn, it’s heartening to see horror in the midst of a quality renaissance. Your mileage may vary, but look no further than indies The Babadook and It Follows, as well as the more mainstream Conjuring franchise for evidence of what an innovative and thoughtful horror director can do.

The latest in the latter series is The Conjuring 2, a continuation of the haunted house investigations of true life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film picks up with the couple at the tail end of their most famous case, the Amityville massacre and subsequent haunting of the Lutz family, before skipping across the pond for a dramatization of the Enfield Poltergeist, which saw a family of Londoners tormented by bumps in the night.

Part of what makes the Conjuring films work is the savvy use of the Warrens as protagonists, played by Patrick Wilson and Bates Motel’s Vera Farmiga. Like its predecessor, the film splits its time between a ghost-weary family and their spiritual exterminators, who themselves are increasingly weary of the toil their work takes on them.

Farmiga, in particular, shines in Conjuring 2. Her Lorraine Warren is equal parts exhausted by and leery of her visions, which have turned increasingly dire of late as she sees repeated manifestations of a demon that appears to have her husband in its crosshairs. She’s prodded to assist in the London case by an insistent Ed and her own nagging sense of responsibility, but her uncertainty underscores the fear that this time, maybe things don’t work out so well.

Better still is the clever, almost sleight-of-hand directing of James Wan, who ironically birthed the Saw franchise that came to represent both the highs and gratuitous lows of the genre. In Conjuring 2 he is considerably more subdued, and the film is better for it, as the camera slowly and fluidly tip-toes down hallways and around corners, forcing the eye to dance along the edge of the screen anticipating the slightest manifestation of otherworldly menace. He’s also unafraid to stage one of his most effective sequences in daylight, the calling card of a confident and disciplined horror director.

The case itself packs less of a punch than the Salem-adjacent goings on of the original film. And Conjuring 2 breaks its winning streak of practical effects for a few instances of unconvincing and ineffective CGI. But for fans of the genre, and casual moviegoers looking for a fun scare, you’d be hard pressed to find a better offering in theaters this year.

Grade: B+

*The Conjuring 2 opens nationwide on Friday, June 10.

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