Tag: finn wittrock

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” brings to mind the great filmmaker and photographer Agnès Varda because of the way it focuses, studies, and falls in love with regular faces. Black faces specifically—of varying age, skin color, and personality—are front and center in this beautiful and pensive picture, so filled with small surprises and big emotions without feeling the need to cultivate and deliver a plot driven story where things happen just because it is expected. A case can be made that the fact that things don’t happen, at least in ways we thought they would—is what makes the work special. The film is freedom translated to moving images and I hope that aspiring filmmakers would look at this movie and follow its example. It is an original.

The vibrant screenplay is written by Joe Talbot (who directs), Robert Richert, and Jimmie Fails; it is apparent they grew up and love San Francisco because every breath the movie takes is not a negative space or moment like so many generic films tend to offer. Observe that in between “action” are shots that communicate culture: an old building, a sunset, the night sky, a famous bridge, a strange mode of transport, an antique, people briskly walking to their destinations, an unkempt street corner, the traffic downtown, a mom and pop store. No wasted image.

When characters are engaged in conversation, whether it be outdoors or indoors, there are details that prove not one scene is shot in a studio. Some events are unplanned; the performers go along with them. At times magic is created from happenstances. Look closely enough and notice regular folks—who may not be aware there is a movie being filmed—making direct eye contact to camera. Every second is alive, a risk, a joyous celebration of making a movie, and it feels like being in a specific place at a specific time. At its best, it feels like a documentary. Accidents or mistakes are turned into strengths. There is overwhelming positivity and so we are inspired to embrace imperfections.

The plot—for those who need it—revolves around Jimmie (Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends who decide to squat in a Victorian home after the owners leave due to a death and resulting family drama. Jimmie lived in this particular house when he was a boy and he feels the need reclaim it, especially since it is said that his grandfather built it in the 1940s. There is a four-million-dollar asking price for the house. (Finn Wittrock plays the real estate agent.) There is convincing drama because we know that Jimmie is fighting against the impossible. Time is against him. So is the system. He is not rich. He is black man in a mostly white neighborhood. Just because you want it badly enough does not mean you get to have it.

Homelessness lies in the center of this thoughtful piece. There is the physical definition that every one of us is aware of. After all, people tend to equate San Francisco with its growing homeless population. But then there is the spiritual definition which the film so beautifully explores. Jimmie is so driven, so obsessed, to live in this house he does not own that his identity becomes tethered to his imaginary ownership. When his need is threatened, trauma is revealed not in predictable ways. There is a reason why we meet his father (Robert Morgan), aunt (Tichina Arnold—a very welcome warm presence), and mother (LaShay Starks). We look away from the homeless; Jimmie yearns to be seen.


Unbroken (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

While out on a rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean, the engines of the plane that Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete, and his fellow crewmen are on start to fail which meant a certain plunge toward an endless stretch of water. Louis manages to survive, along with Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), but it is a long way till the forty-seventh day until they are to be rescued by the Japanese—with only a box of chocolate and a small container of fresh water.

Based on a true story, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is a straight-forward dramatic film about a survivor of World War II. It can be critiqued from the angle of not surprising the audiences enough, whether it be in terms of tone, pacing, or how the story unfolds, but it can be given credit for giving us exactly what we expect. I belong in the latter camp; it is not the most exciting movie from a technical point of view, but I was interested enough in the trials that Zamperini had been through.

O’Connell plays the protagonist with stoicism and dignity. And because he portrays the character in this manner, the moments in which Zamperini breaks down command all the more power. O’Connell has always been ace at playing young men who are a little rough around the edges. What he does differently here is that the performance is a bit more controlled instead of a manic hyperbole. He plays the character tough on the outside but with something to prove on the inside.

The picture is beautifully photographed, whether it be the scenes taking place in the middle of the ocean—hungry sharks and all—or the Japanese detention camps, bathed either in yellow or blue. The flashbacks showing Zamperini’s childhood has a sense of timelessness about them. Each event is important enough to be etched into the boy’s memory and to be remembered during early adulthood.

Less involving are the supporting characters Zamperini meets along the way. None of the American soldiers are especially memorable, from physicality to performance. In fact, a lot of them look so much alike that at times I found myself unable to discern whether a captured soldier in a particular scene is the same one who had a conversation with the protagonist about half an hour ago. Supporting characters need personality especially if the subject is not exactly very expressive. The villain, a cruel Japanese sergeant named Watanabe (played quite nicely by Takamasa Ishihara), stands out but the script does not provide depth in terms of his intentions and actions.

Although I was satiated, “Unbroken” leaves a lot untouched. How is his family like? Other than being encouraging, why does Louis have so much respect for his elder brother? What role does Zamperini’s newfound spirituality play during the horrors that unfold in the detention camps? These are important questions that must be answered because they provide a good amount of substance to the story. Otherwise, one gets the impression that this person’s story is worth telling only because of the things that he had been through.