Archive for August, 2016

*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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