“Southside With You” is a sweet and maddening movie about the Obamas before they were the Obamas. Written and directed by Richard Tanne, it dramatizes the POTUS and FLOTUS’ first date in 1989, which saw law associate Barack (Parker Sawyers) escorting his adviser Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumter) on an afternoon outing that sprawled into the night and famously included a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago and a screening of “Do the Right Thing.”
Barack and Michelle were, it’s safe to assume, regular people at this time, and a better film would have treated him like de-romanticized humans and not sentimental signposts in the arc of history. As Tanne tells it, theirs was the most consequential first date in the nation’s history, where the prospective spouses would not only discuss “Good Times” and their favorite Stevie Wonder albums but would wade deeply into personal, philosophical, spiritual, racial, historical, familial and (of course) political matters. At a community meeting in his church, Barack addresses a group of his fellow Southsiders with just the mix of inspirational oratory and academic pragmatism that would catapult him into the national stage; except that in the film’s gauzy context, complete with orchestral cues, it sounds facile.
Like everything else in the film, it’s scripted with the benefit of hindsight, with Tanne unable to resist glib references to Obama’s verbiage and perception as president. He tells Michelle he is “still evolving” in his religious beliefs, and Michelle tempers her enthusiasm for Barack, mid-date, by calling him “professorial,” an adjective that’s routinely leveled at Obama by critics and admirers alike. “It’s not easy to get things done,” he tells the fuming congregants of his church, who feel hopeless after their city council has rejected their plans for a community center. Even at 28, the film implies, this sagely figure knew all about the realities of political intransigence and a divided body politic. (If that’s the case, he forgot it by his first year in office.)
Its status as an effective hatchet job aside, Oliver Stone’s “W” more accurately presented the young George W. Bush as a drunken misfit, stumbling home from a bender to his father’s wrath, in a moment that exuded authenticity. “Southside With You,” by contrast, is absurdly reverential when it’s not being artificially expository, striving to fill as much biography into the film’s 83 minutes as Obama himself did in Dreams From My Father.
Only when the characters stop talking—and this is a talky picture—does some truth seem to emerge, and the future Most Powerful Couple in the Land are allowed to just be. Barack smokes compulsively. Michelle eyes with apprehension the rusted jalopy in which he picks her up. They tour the parts of Chicago most politicians wouldn’t visit, parts filled with graffiti, neglect, anger, joy, love and community.
It’s a carefully established milieu that deserves a more honest story flowing around it, with less arch dialogue and more documentary naturalism. Even Obama’s staunchest detractors may like him a little bit by the movie’s end; then again, it’s all too easy to fall in love with these young people’s romantic charms when they’re enacting a hagiographic fantasy.
“Southside With You” opens today at Muvico Parisian 20 in West Palm Beach and Regal Pompano Beach 18.
If you’re a band of thieves looking to turn an easy profit, it’s best not to burgle a house run by a psychopath with military weapons training and a bloodthirsty Rottweiler protecting his home. Best, perhaps, to punt on this one and find another victim.
Such logic rarely applies to the avaricious teenage hedonists of American horror films, who have never encountered a fatalistic dare worth rejecting or an obvious omen worth ignoring. And so it is with the three foolish miscreants at the heart of the Sam Raimi-produced “Don’t Breathe,” a stylish homage to vintage grindhouse flicks.
It’s set in Detroit, where Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their meek accomplice Alex (Dylan Minnette) steal valuables from wealthy suburban homes that happen to protected by Alex’s father’s private security company.
Money steals because it’s his vocation; Rocky pilfers to earn enough cash to escape, with her younger sister, from her broken home and life of hardship; Alex just wants to be wherever Rocky is. We’re supposed to commiserate with Rocky’s noble motivations, but they’re hardly convincing; character dimensionality is not a strong suit of writer-director Fede Alvarez. These kids are as thin as wax paper, so it’s a good thing their weak backstories are limited to the first 15 minutes.
Most of the picture takes place in the neglected house of the aforementioned ex-military psycho (Stephen Lang), who recently made local news after being awarded a six-figure settlement following the death of his daughter. Our three little vandals want this money, and they see the man’s bounty as an easy target: After all, this old codger is blind, so how much of a threat can he be?
Famous last words. What they find instead is an intricate mousetrap of terror that spans from the basement to the air vent, in which, in a reversal of genre formula, the home invaders are the ones playing defense, not vice versa. Alvarez, a Raimi acolyte who directed the “Evil Dead” remake, bakes his movie in a thick batter of relentless tension, in which every creaking floorboard and cellphone vibration, every discarded object and scent trail triggers the blind homeowner’s heightened four senses. Watching this high-wire tinderbox, the title applies to the audience as much as the breath-stifling delinquents.
When blood is finally shed (and other bodily fluids—don’t get us started), the result is magisterial brutality on a level with Sam Peckinpah. The difference is that Peckinpah’s movies had an elegiac emotional core, whereas Alvarez fails to create distinct characters worth caring about. It’s hard to compare this trio to the scrappy punks of 2016’s other grindhouse standout, “Green Room,” who helped turn that genre exercise into a rich and mournful horror show, in which each loss of life was deeply felt.
“Don’t Breathe,” meanwhile, is an increasingly ludicrous folly that plays on our insatiable desire to watch people get what’s coming to them, whether it’s the morally corroded burglars or the morally corroded victim. But once it casts its spell, you won’t even notice; you’ll just enjoy the deadly, ridiculously entertaining ride.
“Don’t Breathe” opens today in most area theaters.