The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to drug abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright A24 2019
“The Last Man in San Francisco” is an exquisitely filmed story about love and loss, beauty and pain. The star of the film is a young black man named Jimmie Fails, played by a writer and actor named Jimmie Fails, and the script is based on a story by Fails and director Joe Talbot, friends since childhood, based on incidents in Fails’ life.

The movie Jimmie has a best friend named Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) who lives with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie has been sleeping on the floor next to Mont’s bed. Every two weeks, they visit the Victorian home Jimmie’s family once lived in. Over the strong objections of the middle-aged white resident couple (she objects more than he does, but she seems to be the one with a real ownership stake), they perform small touch-ups to maintain the trim, fixtures, and garden. The middle-aged white owners see it as intrusive (and possibly as criticism). But for Jimmie, who is determined to live there again some day, it is a chance to care for the house that is a legend in his family, built by his grandfather, and a symbol of an idea of home that seems to be gone for good.

The film creates a poetic, dreamlike mood that almost floats over the story, an astonishingly assured debut that trusts the story and trusts the audience to let us fill in the details and come to our own conclusions, especially refreshing in an era of multi-national financing where specifics are smoothed over and everything has to be explained two or three times to meet the expectations of an international audience.

Instead, here, we have the infinitely expressive faces of Fails and Majors, as eloquent as any performances you will see this year. We first see them waiting for a bus that never comes, as telling a moment as the entire text of “Waiting for Godot.” So they hop on Jimmie’s ever-present skateboard, the perfect freedom of their ride in tandem in sharp contrast to the restrictions they face everywhere else. We get glimpses of what has made the house so important to Jimmie in his encounters with his father and mother, each disconnected and making clear that those relationships are not able to give him any sense of home. We see Jimmie and Mont talking to a group of guys who hang out on the street tossing insults at each other and everyone else, their only way to create a sense of camaraderie and belonging. In one of the film’s highlights, he approaches the group with his own version of the dozens — some directorial notes about the meta-impact of what is quite literally their performances.

The residents have to move out of the house and, like the characters in the film, it falls into a kind of limbo. Jimmie knows this is his moment. He retrieves his family’s furniture from his aunt, who has been storing it, and returns to what he will always think of as his home.

In a film like this, the house itself has to be a character in the story, and this one is, a grand old place with a witch’s hat roof, a library filled with vintage leather-bound classics, an organ and a piano, and all of the original architectural finishings of the era perfectly preserved. We see a Segway tour go by (led by Jello Biafra), and Jimmie correcting him about the history of the house. This is a place for dreams to come true, including Mont’s dream of writing a play. Jimmie tells him the play will be performed in the house, and they invite everyone they know.

But a treasure like this house must go to someone who can afford it, and that is not the only terrible loss in the film. While Jimmie mourns what is gone, Mont mourns with him. The depiction of a deep and tender friendship between two men who are always sad, sometimes lost, seldom angry, and always open to love and beauty, echoes movingly throughout the story and the story-telling in this unquestionable cinematic masterpiece.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, some violence, family tensions and dysfunction, and graphic non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why are Jimmie and Mont friends? How can communities prosper without pushing out lower-income residents? What do we learn from the guys on the street? Where will Jimmie go?

If you like this, try: “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You”

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Late Night

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to deaths of parent and co-worker, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
“Late Night” is a festival favorite written by and starring Mindy Kaling, who created just the right role for herself as an Indian-American woman who gets her dream job as a comedy writer, working for a tyrannical late night talk show host played by Emma Thompson. Kaling, who has often talked about her love for romantic comedies played a character in her television series who imagined herself as the heroine of one (understanding them only on the most superficial and self-involved level), has created what is in essence a rom-com about a work relationship between two women, one hopelessly optimistic, one relentlessly cynical.

Kaling plays Molly, a quality control specialist in a chemical plant who gets a one in a million shot at the job by winning an essay competition. Katherine (Thompson) has just imperiously ordered her long-suffering producer (Denis O’Hare) to add a woman to the all-male, all-white writing staff, so he gives Molly a chance. What the writers do not know is that the new head of the network (Amy Ryan), who likes to talk about “four-quadrant” audiences (males and females over and under 25 years old) and ROI (return on investment), thinks Katherine, despite her multiple Emmys and other awards, has become out of date and out of touch with her audience. Ratings are down, and Katherine is unlikely to boost them as long as she insists on having guests like Senator Diane Feinstein and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Katherine demands “excellence” from everyone around her, and that means total dedication. Her manner is abrupt and imperious and she fires staff like she’s the Queen of Hearts calling “Off with their heads!” She refuses to capitulate to what she considers the dumbing down of the media (and the world). When her producer persuades her to have a viral YouTube star who makes videos of her sniffing her dog’s butt on the show, the withering contempt she cannot hide alienates her shrinking audience further. She is pushed onto social media, but her first joke about Twitter bombs, perhaps because she calls it “Twittah” but also because she has not taken the time to understand what it is.

There are just two things she cares about, her husband (John Lithgow), who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and her show. Both are being taken from her, and she does not have the resources to respond.

Katherine literally does not know the names of her writers, many of whom have never even met her. She has no interest in learning their names, and when she finally sits down in the writers’ room, she assigns them all numbers.

Kaling, who was both writer and actress on the US version of “The Office,” has a good feeling for the “He Man Women Haters”-Our Gang-style dynamics of the all-male writer’s room. They are so used to having no women around that they use the ladies’ room. And her being there doesn’t stop them. At first, she brings her quality control perspective, analyzing what’s missing from the show, until one of the writers gives her some good advice: write something.

Kaling has said that (until “Wrinkle in Time”) every part she has had is one she has had to create for herself. Her strength as a writer is giving us characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, and smart. Both Molly and Katherine filter Kaling’s experiences and perspective in writing for television, the relentlessness of sifting through jokes to put together a polished monologue of perfectly crafted comedy only to have to start over again the next day, the treacherous balancing act between giving enough of yourself to connect with the audience while keeping enough private to keep your sanity and sustain relationships, the even more treacherous challenge of staying on top while people who are every bit as ambitious try to topple you.

She shortchanges Molly a bit here, particularly when she lets herself get hurt by someone her character would be instantly wary of. We get the sense that it is the Katherine character who interests her more, and it gives Thompson one of her all-time best roles. In the first half, she effortlessly tosses off Katherine’s most devastating take-downs, a woman who insists on excellence in a world that does not seem to want it. But in the second half, when Katherine has to be unsure and vulnerable, Thompson gives a performance of exquisite depth and precision. “I hope I have earned the privilege of your time,” Katherine tells her audience. Kaling and Thompson make the privilege ours.

Parents should know that this film includes substantial strong language, sexual references, some potty humor, smoking, and infidelity.

Family discussion: Would you have hired Molly? Why didn’t Katherine change sooner? What was Katherine’s funniest joke?

If you like this, try: “Dancing in September” and “The Mindy Project” and “Larry Sanders Show” television series

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A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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Tolkien

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of WWI battles with disturbing images, characters injured and killed, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

If I had a time machine and an invisibility cloak, I would love to listen in on the conversations between two members of Oxford’s Inklings literary society, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as they discussed the importance of myth and fantasy and shared the beginnings of their great tales of adventure, darling, and the fight against evil, set in enchanted worlds: the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories. These stories, which prompted a revival of fantasy in literature and other media, are so timeless it seems as if we have always known them. And yet, they are very much 20th century books, written by authors whose own lives are fascinating stories as well. We have already had two very good feature films about Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, both called “Shadowlands.” And now we have “Tolkien,” the story of the early life of the man who would create not just the characters and settings of Middle Earth but also the languages and even the poetry of the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and dragons.

The film mostly evades the usual “how I wrote” biopic boobytraps. We only briefly see the author in the midst of creation, his pen just starting the first line on a blank page. And it does not try to excite the devoted fans by throwing in a lot of clues to various details in the books. The focus of this story is on Tolkien’s life, which is a worthy story itself, especially in the way it explores how even the greatest losses are made sense of through love, through friendship, through service, and through stories that provide context and meaning.

The film moves back and forth in time between Tolkien’s youth, adolescence, college years, and wartime, with one brief “many years later” section of him married and a father, as a member of the faculty at Oxford.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (called Ronald by those close to him) is played sensitively as a teenager and adult by Nicholas Hoult. Orphaned very young, Tolkien and his brother are sent to live in a boarding house by their guardian, a priest (Colm Meany). The cold, institutional setting of their British private school is very far from the lessons they had with their devoted, imaginative mother (Laura Donnelly). But Tolkien is a gifted student and a natural at studies and rugby, and he is soon befriended by three boys who form a club with him, devoted to having tea, to, yes, fellowship, and to dreams of changing the world through art, in spite of parental efforts toward more conventional careers. One loves poetry, one loves painting, one loves music. And Tolkien loved languages. He began creating whole languages, complete with verb forms and adjectives, when he was still a child.

The other orphan at the boarding house is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a gifted pianist who works as a companion to the lady who runs the boarding house to earn her keep. She and Tolkien are friends, then confidantes, and then, as they are becoming romantically involved, the priest tells Tolkien he must stop seeing her and go to Oxford.  He agrees.

Hoult and Collins made the Ronald/Edith relationship vital and romantic, as they spar over the sound and meaning of words or come up with a makeshift way to enjoy a performance of Wagner.  They bring life to what might otherwise might be a stodgy costume drama and to the idea of stories as a source of healing, meaning, and connection.

Parents should know that this film includes WWI battle scenes with disturbing images, including piles of bodies, sad deaths of a parent and friends, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: If your friend formed a club, what would you call it? How can art change the world? Why was it so important to Tolkien to publish his friend’s poems? How did Tolkien’s experiences inspire his books?

If you like this, try: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and books

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Breakthrough

Posted on April 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content including peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Diversity Issues: Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 15, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?

The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.

Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.

And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.

John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.

Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.

We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.

Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?

If you like this, try: “Miracles from Heaven”

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