Movie Reviews: ‘Southside with You’ Good for Dates, Light on Insight

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Courtesy Miramax/Roadside Attractions

Scene from ‘Southside with You.’

(WOMENSENEWS)— “Southside with You,” which opened on August 26, is a definitive date movie. It is the fictionalized version of the first romantic encounter between Barack Hussein Obama and Michelle La Vaughn Robinson, America’s future president and first lady. During a marathon of an afternoon meander across Chicago’s south side, Barack and Michelle, two smart and ambitious young lawyers, get to know each other while flirting sweetly, telling tales of their past experiences and discussing the future. While Barack makes his romantic intentions clear, Michelle expresses reluctance to make any commitment that might impede her ambitions as an independent black woman. Their banter is unusually clever and engaging and reveals Michelle’s strong and abiding feminism. The fact that these first daters are destined to have such extraordinary impact on our nation and world affairs gives this film some political relevance, but don’t expect insightful takeaways or anything much that you haven’t seen or heard about the Obamas in real life, or seen before in other idealized fan-satisfying glimpses of other successful and celebrated couples

“Complete Unknown” is a drama that takes you to the dark side of a relationship as it evolves during the course of an evening.  Tom (Michael Shannon) and Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), an affluent New York City married couple, are celebrating his birthday with a dinner party. One of Tom’s colleagues arrives with an unexpected guest, a mysterious woman (Rachel Weisz), whose presence throws the whole affair into a turmoil of suspicious tension that progresses along meticulously placed hints and well-timed plot twists. The suspense is heightened by the illuminating performances and stunningly murky cinematography. A very watch-worthy psychological thriller.

“The Intervention,” a delightful first feature from writer-director Clea DuVall, who is also a member of the film’s fine ensemble, is a pre-midlife coming-of-age scenario in which four 30-something couples – all good friends who share a variety pack of relationships — go on a weekend retreat to a posh mansion in the Savannah, Georgia, suburbs. Some have the secret intention of suggesting that the married couple among them get a divorce. During a series of dinner conversations, ball games and self-started group therapy sessions, the cast discover a lot they hadn’t known about each other, and about themselves. The film is a richly rounded dramedy in which the pathos never gets very heavy.  There are swell performances from Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Natasha Lyonne and the entire ensemble. And, kudos to Clea DuVall for her smart script and deft direction.

“White Girl,” writer-director Elizabeth Wood’s first feature, gets tawdry with a privileged college sophomore’s summertime encounters with drugs, sex and a truly disreputable guy from her New York City neighborhood. Leah (Morgan Saylor), an intern at BAD Magazine, is geared for experiencing the wild side of life. She gets involved with a street-corner drug dealer named Blue and gets as hooked on him as she is on the drugs he deals. Unlimited troubles ensue. This version of a story we’ve seen before yields few new insights, delivers few surprises. The film’s rash of explicit and brutally loud scenes reveal more about ambience than character, but they also show the director’s capable hand at expressing a stylized vision. Unfortunately, in this movie, a little of it is enough

“Howards End,” the magnificent 1992 Merchant Ivory cinema rendering of E.M. Forster’s eponymous 1910 novel, is being released anew, and what a welcome treat it is. This lush production captures the intense intrigue of romance and real estate in the realm of affluent English society at the turn of the 20th century, with profound considerations of women’s issues and population of strong female characters fighting for their rights. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay won an Oscar, as did Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Emma Thompson won Best Actress. It’s a classic, and a big screen must see.

This Week’s Documentaries

“Equal Means Equal” is filmmaker Kamala Lopez’s personal advocacy documentary and campaign for guaranteed equal rights for women via adoption the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed by both houses of Congress in 1972, but didn’t receive ratification by the requisite 38 states before the extended deadline of June 30, 1982. To establish the history of the E.R.A. and define its importance, Lopez interviews leading advocates from all walks of life, ranging from an outspoken Patricia Arquette, who has also campaigned to get the film seen, to lawyers and legislators. “Equal Means Equal” isn’t a great film, but it is informative and passionate, utterly convincing and compelling about its important cause. Recommended for all those reasons.

Director Robert Greene classifies his film “Kate Plays Christine” as a documentary, but that claim stretches genre standards by quite a bit. The film chronicles the activities of an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) as she prepares to portray Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, news reporter who shocked the world by killing herself on live television in 1974.  Sheil is supposedly playing Chubbuck in a film that’s being made about the incident, but in fact the film about the incident is pretend, an invention created solely for the purpose of making this “documentary” about her preparing for that one. Hard to follow? Sound intensely convoluted and tricky? Maybe a bit pretentious or self-consciously clever? Yes. Actually to the point of being off putting; despite a few redeeming aspects. There is a credible performance by Kate Lyn Sheil. The film is beautifully crafted. And it takes, by innuendo, a critical look at the effects of media sensationalism. But in the end, Chubbuck and her real story are more interesting than this fictional, overly conceptual, quasi-documentary. Opened August 24.

“Madonna: Truth or Dare,” filmmaker Alek Keshishian’s 1991 documentary about the singer’s controversial Blond Ambition tour, is re-releasing in a restored version. The documentary mixes on stage concert footage with fly on the wall glimpses of backstage activity and ambience and interviews with Madonna and her famous followers. All in all, the entire enterprise is staged hagiography, but it will give the Material Girl’s fans a thrill to see Blond Ambition full on.

Stay tuned for more reviews and movie news.

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