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.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.
★★ / ★★★★
Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Hereafter” followed three strangers from different areas of the world and how they’ve been touched by the afterlife in some way. Marie (Cécile De France), a successful French television reporter, survived a tsunami while on vacation with a co-worker who happened to be married man (Thierry Neuvic). Since she got back, Marie became obsessed over meeting with scientists who studied life after death for some explanation about what she saw when she lost consciousness. San Franciscan George (Matt Damon) had the ability to communicate with the dead. He used to do it for money. He wanted to stop altogether and lead a normal life but his brother (Jay Mohr) kept sending him clients. When George met a girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) in his cooking class, it seemed as though the life he wanted was within reach. Lastly, in London, Marcus and Jason (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren), were inseparable twins. But when Jason passed away and his mother checked into a rehabilitation center to attempt to recover from heroin addiction, Marcus was placed in foster care. The film was promising because of the way it set up the characters’ unique circumstances. The tsunami scene was heart-pounding, the reluctant psychic’s situation had a whiff of comedy to it, and the twins’ relationship was genuinely moving. However, as it went on, I couldn’t help but feel like it was afraid to tackle the difficult questions. It was plagued with scenes that led nowhere, especially the middle portion, and it became repetitive. I wanted several of my questions answered but the picture never got around to it. In regards to Marie, was she able to step outside of herself and notice a change from being a fact-driven woman to a woman so willing to embrace what’s outside the realm of possibility? She seemed to be a very smart person and for her completely believe everything she saw right away didn’t seem like the material showed loyalty to her character. As for George, he claimed he wanted to stop using his gift but was there a part of him that enjoyed giving other people closure? In some circumstances, if he didn’t hear anything from the spirit or if the connection wasn’t strong enough, was he forced to lie in order to give someone a chance to move on? His craving for a so-called normal life felt superficial. What I found most moving was Marcus’ harrowing quest in dealing with his older brother’s untimely death and the abandonment he felt when his mother had to leave. The character was the “quiet twin” and it worked especially the heartbreaking scenes when Marcus met with people who knowingly and falsely claimed to have a connection with spirits. He didn’t need to speak or scream or yell in order for us to understand what he might be going through. His actions (or inaction) were enough to reflect his sadness and possible state of depression. “Hereafter” need not offer me any definite answers because I have my own view of the afterlife. But what it needed was to fearlessly confront the characters’ own beliefs about the unknown, challenge them, and show us how they’ve changed, or if there even was a change.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” explored Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) poem of the same name in three fronts: the public reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, the courtroom scenes in which a prosecutor (David Strathairn) wished to censor the poetry in question because of its obscene language, and an interview with Ginsberg in his home after his work had been published and gotten critical acclaim. Three of the strands were highlighted by freewheeling dream-like animation with excerpts of Ginsberg’s words heard in the background. I don’t have much passion for poetry but I found myself completely fascinated with this film because it bravely took the biopic formula upside down, inside out, and shuffled the familiar variables as if it was a deck of cards. The risks it took had great rewards because I thought it was refreshing without sacrificing insight and relevance to modern publications and aspiring writers. To be perfectly honest, if the film didn’t provide clues as to what Ginsberg could possibly be talking about or referencing to in his poem, I would have been at a loss as to how to nagivate myself through the barrage of images and words. But since the picture had elegantly constructed a bridge on how to possibly interpret the poem, I eventually found myself focusing on the rhythm and flow of Franco’s words, Franco’s odd but magnetic mannerisms, and the understated themes among the three strands. The poetry, like life, was about all things. It traced Ginsberg’s trauma of his mother being sent to a mental hospital and getting electroconvulsive therapy to no avail, the men he fell in love with, New York’s gargantuan buildings, its putrid scents and shrill sounds, as well as the homeless faceless faces as a source of his inspiration. He loved to talk about sexual acts and the more sensitive meanings behind giving a crucial part of oneself to another and how sometimes it could be a difficult and painful thing to do. I found “Howl” to be fully engrossing because it felt personal but was unafraid to embrace its experimental roots. The sudden color shifts felt exactly right because there was a big question, particularly in the courtroom scene, whether or not Ginsberg’s work would stand the test of time. The supporting actors’ performances, which included Jon Hamm (who gave an excellent delivery of the closing statement from the famous trial), Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, gave the material depth and meat that audiences could sink their teeth into. “Howl” was successful in asking and answering why counterculture is a necessary weapon against those who want to take away our rights. It made me want to learn more about its fascinating subject.
La Mission (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Bratt, “La mission” told the story of the way a hypermasculine ex-convict (Benjamin Bratt) dealt with reality when he found out that his son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) was gay and had been going out with another guy (Max Rosenak). I liked that the movie managed to capture how painful it was to reluctantly come out of the closet but the movie took it one step further and begged the question of whether love really was unconditional. I easily identified with the intense scene when the son was trapped in a corner and he had no choice but to admit to his father about his lifestyle, all the while completely aware that his father would not take the news lightly. Something similar happened to me not that long ago and watching that scene made me tear up and I found myself feeling the need to pause the movie and walk around the house a bit. I thought the picture had an elegance in the way it handled the scenes where the father took his son back into their home but the father did whatever it took to avoid dealing with the situation. Since he had a violent past and a history with alcoholism, which still haunted him, I rarely agreed with his style of parenting. However, it was almost always clear to me that he cared about his son. He just did not know any other way to deal with his problems. Bratt’s acting was key because he then had to maneuver between holding onto his past and trying to deal with his son’s sexuality. I thought he did an excellent job because I managed to empathize with him despite his many unquestionably bad decisions. Instead of watching the movie through the eyes of the person coming out of the closet, we had a chance to see it through the person dealing with the news. I thought it was a refreshing perspective but it was sometimes difficult to sit through because I experienced his hatred as if that hatred was directed to me. I also liked the romance that developed between the father and the neighbor (Erika Alexander) who worked at a women’s shelter. I liked that she, too, was tough when she needed to, but she had control over her toughness which was completely unlike the man who was interested in her. But just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, the movie surprised me once again and reminded me that there wasn’t such a thing as someone changing over night. It requires effort and sometimes slipping back into one’s habits when things looked very dim. “La mission” had many elements going for it but the most that stood out to me was its honesty. It was honest with its characters and their complex psychologies, the neighborhood in San Francisco where the story took place and, most importantly, it was honest with its audiences. Despite its difficult and sometimes painful subject matter, it treated us with intelligence.
Dirty Harry (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
A San Francisco cop with a reputation in the streets as Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) because of his willingness to not play by the rules tried to hunt down a serial killer named Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) who claimed that he would kidnap or kill people if the city failed to give him whatever he desired. Directed by Don Siegel, “Dirty Harry” became an iconic film. Naturally, my expectations were very high. I thought it was a bit dated but it was very efficient with its time, a great homage yet reinvented detective pictures, and the acting was very strong, especially by Eastwood. But what I loved most about the film was its simplicity. It was essentially about a cop who wanted to capture a bad guy. Certain twists such as the cop’s tendency to spy on people he was meant to protect, penchant for grand speeches and glorification of violence when he was fully aware there were other means of extracting information made the story very modern and quite bold. My opinion of the lead character always evolved and that X-factor made me emotionally and intellectually invested in the material despite its typical premise. The moral questions it brought up about power, choosing the lesser evil, ethics and inner demons were insightful and at times revealing, particularly toward the end when Eastwood’s character became almost obsessive in capturing the murderer. Even though I did not agree with much of his methods, I rooted for him to succeed because no one else was willing to take as many risks as he did. He was willing to put his career on the line which meant so much to him despite scenes that depicted him volunteering to give up his badge. The way I saw it was that the badge meant nothing to him but he was very passionate about being a cop and catching (or killing) those who did wrong. I did notice a plethora of political right-wing undercurrents but I don’t believe it hindered the picture in any way. What I thought it could have improved on was allowing the audiences to enter the lead character’s heart and mind more often. We did get to see his humanity toward the end of the movie so I felt like I understood him more. However, during the first half, I thought he was more of a vigilante in which killing was his addiction. At times I’m torn (and still torn) because I loved the way my perception of Harry Callahan changed toward the end. I also would have liked to have seen Harry interact with his new partner (Reni Santoni), a typical good guy, for more contrasting views in the ethical dilemmas involving law enforcement. “Dirty Harry” is a strong film. The action scenes were particularly gripping because there was no soundtrack. Everything was stripped down and, although the movie was released in the early ’70s, it is still refreshing to watch.
American Teen (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The true rating I would give this film is three-and-a-half out of four stars (if I did half-stars), but I decided to round up because watching it made me feel like I was back in high school: the drama and the emptiness, the highs and the lows. I found bits of myself with all of the subjects (some more than others) and it made me reflect on who I was in high school and who I am now. The person I could identify with the most is Hannah Bailey (the rebel) not just because she’s into movies but also the fact that she considers herself to be an “in-between” pertaining to the high school spectrum that ranges from ubergeekdom to uberpopulardom. Whenever she’s on camera she truly shines because she offers something refreshing: while the rest of the subjects, more or less, are most concerned about getting into a specific college or feeling peer pressure of belonging in a group, Hannah wants to get out of Indiana as soon as possible and move to San Francisco because she’s so suffocated by both where she lives and who she’s surrounded by (and their ideals). Jake Tusing (the geek/loner) is interesting for me to watch because he’s so socially awkward (that table scene cracked me up so much!) and I feel bad whenever he puts himself down. It irks me whenever someone says a mean comment directed at him (joking or otherwise) but he just brushes it off by agreeing with them. He needs to learn that he can still be a great person while at the same time not letting certain people get away with certain things. As for Colin Clemens (the jock), even though I didn’t participate in competitive sports, I can relate with him because he wants to go to college but his family do not have enough income to pay off the tuition (not to mention I can get really competitive and I know how it’s like to lose once in a while). He needs a basketball scholarship to pursue an education or else he has no choice but to go to military school. I found it very easy to identify with him because I hate seeing people who want to spread their wings but unable to do so because of pecuniary matters. As for Megan Krizmanich (the queen bee), she has her uberbitch moments but she’s far from a monster. I consider her a textbook definition of a traumatized individual hiding behind a false strong front. She reminded me of myself back in high school when I would easily get angry over the silliest things, when in reality, it was more about my own self-esteem rather than people’s behavior that I don’t agree with. Last but not least, Mitch Reinholt (the heartthrob) is another basketball jock and best friends with Colin. He’s a genuinely good person but he succumbs so easily to peer pressure. I wanted to shake him so badly and tell him that in order for him to be truly happy, he should do whatever he feels is right and ignore what everyone else says. Ultimately, the five subjects are admirable and flawed in their own ways. Nanette Burstein, writer and director, paints her audiences a fairly accurate portrait of how it’s like to be a high schooler in America. If the middle portion of the film had been more daring and focused instead of simply exploring what’s on the outside, this would’ve been a stronger. (It did explore what’s underneath at some points but it didn’t do it enough.) Even though one may not agree with stereotypes, it’s undeniable that these people do exist and it’s important for one to look beyond what’s on the surface.