‘Southside’ debuts along with abundance of special screenings
The nine — count ’em,
— modestly budgeted new movies that open today in Memphis theaters — a horror thriller (“Don’t Breathe”), a second-tier action sequel (“Mechanic: Resurrection”), a “faith” film (“Remember the Goal”), and so on — pretty much indicate the so-called summer movie season has staggered to a close.
The alternative movie scene, however, is thriving. The next week includes numerous interesting special screenings, including the inaugural event of the “Pandemonium Cinema Showcase” at the Cossitt Library (see story on Page 12) and the return of the “Soul Cinema” series at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (see story at gomemphis.com).
Here’s a preview of just a few of next week’s film events (plus a closer look at “Southside with You,” a commercial film of unusual origin).
‘Southside with You’
While the super-villain saga “Suicide Squad” continues to terrorize the box office, “Southside with You” offers moviegoers a very different type of origin story. The debut feature from writer-director Richard Tanne re-creates the chaste, sometimes tense and ultimately historic first date of the future First Couple, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers).
Perhaps taking Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” as a model, the film — which opens Friday at multiple theaters — presents an abbreviated chronicle of the several hours shared by the wary and formal Robinson and the more confident, shirt-sleeved and slightly scheming Obama during what Michelle repeatedly insists is not a date. (“I’m more inclined to describe this as a hostage situation,” she says, when she discovers her junior law office co-worker, Barack, has picked her up several hours before the community meeting that was supposed to be their destination.) The setting is Chicago’s South Side, and the year is 1989, which justifies the use of Janet Jackson on the soundtrack and a fascinating scene in which Michelle and Barack attend a controversial new film, “Do the Right Thing”; Spike Lee’s provocative movie mirrors, in expressionistic, dramatic fashion, the hourslong debate over racial identity, social responsibility and “Afrocentric” art that runs through Barack and Michelle’s day together. (“Black” art is important to the couple: Over the course of the evening, they debate the discography of Stevie Wonder and the value of “Good Times,” and recite, in tandem, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.”)
In some ways, “Southside with You” is very traditional: It’s another movie romance about what happens when a prim if attractive woman (Michelle is introduced in black bra and bath towel) who needs a man to loosen her up meets a restless man who needs a good woman to smooth his rough edges. Initially derided by the skeptical Robinson as “just another smooth-talking brother,” Obama smokes cigarettes, drives a Nissan Sentra with a hole in its floor, shouts “Dyn-o-mite!” in imitation of J.J. Evans at an art gallery, and admits he wasted much of his youth in a “cloudy haze” of marijuana smoke. Robinson chides Obama for not respecting her “boundaries,” yet she is charmed by his calculated, mild-mannered roguishness, which is balanced by his political practicality. (“You definitely have a knack for making speeches,” Michelle tells Barack, after he energizes a group of community activists by telling them “it’s up to us, all of us” to keep the “different states” of America — “states of land, states of mind, states of people” — united.)
In other ways, “Southside” is very unusual. A convincing period piece on a modest budget, the movie is as sincere as its lead characters seem to be. Its depiction of a normal dayin-the-life of a black man and black woman — a day without conventional movie “action” or “violence” — is almost unprecedented, at least in the type of movies that find distribution in commercial cinemas.
Also of interest, locally: The ideally cast Parker Sawyers, who plays Obama, is the brother of Elizabeth Hart, 36, public information officer for the Shelby County Health Department. The siblings grew up in Indianapolis; Sawyers now lives with his wife and two children in London, while Hart came to Memphis four years ago. Hart said she recently attended premieres of “Southside with You” in Washington and Chicago; her brother has yet to visit Memphis, “but he wants to.” She added: “I think this movie is going to be very popular here.”
‘MY Life in China’
In an unusual event for the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, director Kenneth Eng and writer Ehren Parks host a free screening of their 2014 documentary about Chinese immigrants at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the library’s Meeting Room C.
Inspired by the remarkable “survival story” of Eng’s father, who fled China in the 1960s, the movie examines the question of what it means to be Chinese in America while also chronicling the family’s return visit to China. Eng and Parks will answer questions after the screening, and meet-and-greet viewers in a public reception. Refreshments will be served.
Perhaps stung by the commercial rejection of his previous feature, the 2012 psychedelic witchtrip “The Lords of Salem,” rock star turned horror auteur Rob Zombie eschews traditional distribution to debut his new movie as a one-night-only screening hosted by Fathom Events, a company that also brings concert films and other “special events” to theaters.
This time, the director of “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” concocts a story about sadistic clowns who stalk kidnapped carnival workers through a hellish compound in the real-life equivalent of a violent video game. As usual for Zombie, the cast includes his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, and such figures of cult veneration as Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”), Meg Foster (“They Live”), porn star Ginger Lynn and Judy Geeson (“To Sir, with Love”). The event includes a taped Zombie Qand-a and the premiere of some new music videos, including “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Dedicated Gore Whore.”
The film screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Malco Paradiso. Tickets are $16 each, available in advance at malco.com.
As if to disprove the conventional wisdom that you can’t polish a, um, you know, Indie Memphis hosts another screening of writer-director-producerpock-backed-star Tommy Wiseaus’ so-bad-it’s-stillbad 2003 cult abomination, but this time in a glorious 35mm print. The movie screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Studio on the Square, and tickets are $10.
Gone with the wind
The Orpheum “Summer Movie Series” concludes with the no-longer-universally beloved sensation of 1939, a masterpiece of studio film craft that arguably romanticizes the Confederacy. The movie screens at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $8 (adults) and $6 (12 and under).
Michelle robinson (tika sumper) and Barack obama (Parker sawyers) have a somewhat tense first date in “southside with you,” which opens friday.