Tag: jonathan majors

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.

Captive State


Captive State (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Social commentary-heavy “Captive State,” based on the screenplay by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt, is an interesting lo-fi science-fiction picture on paper. Instead of engaging in ostentatious display of special and visual effects through action sequences or focusing on elegant character development, a detached approach is employed as the story follows a group of insurrectionists who wish to destroy a Chicago-based “Closed Zone,” a location where aliens known as Legislators reside (aptly named because they have made and enacted laws ever since humanity’s surrender nine years prior.) It is expected the attack would inspire everyone else around the world to rebel against and usurp the aforementioned extraterrestrial invaders from stealing Earth’s natural resources. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, however.

On the surface, there is tension: we have no attachment to the various insurgents, only their main mission. As a result, we get the feeling that any one of them can drop dead at any second. The camera follows them—a medical student, a mechanic, a father, a soldier, among others—being courageous, afraid, and desperate with little regard to their histories or who they leave at home. A sense of realism is created, from information written on a piece of paper being passed around to the hi-tech bomb capable of camouflage that must be activated and placed at an exact location at the right time. This is when the film is at its best.

However, when the material turns its attention on the three “main” characters—in quotations because we spend a little bit more time with them than the others—the pacing screeches to the halt. In the opening scene we see two brothers whose parents perish in the hands of the invaders. Years later, the elder brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is presumed to be a deceased terrorist, and the younger brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), works in an assembly line where electronics are analyzed for information that could be used against the creatures. Although Majors and Sanders have the versatility to communicate a range of emotions, the screenplay fails to get us to care about them as brothers and as individuals with different end goals.

Not even the great John Goodman, playing a commander in charge of capturing rebels, is able to save the material. He is wonderful in communicating with words but his face tells a completely different story. There is subtlety is how Mulligan carries his power and how he exercises it. But I think the writers’ intention is to create a character who is a master chess player. To me, there is not a shred of mystery on what it is he wishes to attain ultimately. Even I was able to stay one step ahead in regards to the details of his job and the reasons behind his manipulations.

I enjoyed the way it is photographed. “Captive State” offers a near-hopeless future where gray and neutrality is in everyone’s hearts and minds. Bright colors are nowhere to be seen. Garbage is not collected and so they pile up in the neighborhood. The sun always appears to be hidden behind clouds. When we hear music, it is quite depressing and never longer than ten seconds. When it is silent, we hear violence from a distance. Sometimes it is of screaming from horror or pain. Even the spacecrafts look lived-in, decaying.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Captive State” might have benefited from further revisions because some elements are already strong. While an impersonal approach is ambitious, I felt as though the age of drones, lack of privacy, and our every movement being tracked is already here. It is true that we do not have to care deeply for the characters. However, emotions or ideas must be amplified somewhere else. For instance, the screenplay might have attempted to create outrage from communities being forced to live in a police state, the way they are starved to keep them weak physically and mentally, and the brainwashing that occurs to create a semblance of peace.