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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Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
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 including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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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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The Sun is Also a Star

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 6:15 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Accident with pedestrian injuries, family scuffle
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers Studios
A pair of teenagers who happen to meet on a day of great pressure for both of them are riding on a New York City subway train that gets stuck. The engineer comes on the speaker to tell them a story reminiscent of the Taoist parable about the farmer, the son, and the horse. Sometimes the very thing that you think is an insurmountable obstacle to what you are urgently trying to achieve turns out to lead you to something you could not have imagined, or even to save your life.

That is a theme in “The Sun is Also a Star,” along with the divide and sometimes conflict between poetry and science, the left brain and the right, what we feel and what we can prove, and the needs and dreams of the individual versus what is best for the family or the group — and who gets to decide what “best” means. And at the center of it is the thrum of issues of immigration and assimilation. It might be easy to lose sight of the love story under the weight of all of this, but the star power of lead actors Yara Shahidi (“Black-Ish” and “Grown-Ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale,” “Glee”) and the deeply romantic direction of Ry Russo-Young, the romance is in every way the heart of the film.

Natasha (Shahidi) is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who are being deported following an ICE raid of the restaurant where he father works. The family moved to New York when she and her brother were young children, meaning that they are not American citizens in the family on which to base an appeal. As her parents pack up, Natasha goes to ICE to see if she can appeal their decision.

A compassionate case officer says it is too late for him to re-open the case but he gives her the card of a lawyer who might be able to help. Because he cannot see her until noon, later postponed to 4:30, she is stuck downtown, not enough time to go home, but, perhaps enough time to fall in love?

Natasha does not believe in love, or so she says. She dismisses it as romantic hogwash, just a distractingly poetic way to describe hormones. She is interested in data and science. If love cannot be measured and studied according to the strictures of the scientific method, she says, it cannot be true.

The person she says it to is Daniel (Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, who glimpses Natasha at Grand Central Station when he is on his way to a very important alumni interview for Dartmouth. He grabs her away from a careening car that has already knocked down one pedestrian and she accepts his invitation to go for coffee. He is a poet, a romantic, a believer in signs and omens. Natasha’s jacket has the same ancient Greek phrase that he had jotted down in his notebook that morning: deus ex machina. Literally, it translates to “god from the machine,” referring to the mechanical device used in Greek theater to bring the deity characters on stage. But it is a literary term meaning some extraordinary, sometimes supernatural or god-like force that suddenly changes the trajectory of a story, usually resolving it for the better.

Daniel tells Natasha he can make her believe in love. He begins with the famous 36 questions followed by a silent stare into each other’s eyes. She insists that it cannot possibly work, but as the day goes on, she cannot help but be drawn to him. As they watch a show at the Planetarium (perhaps a nod to “Rebel Without a Cause”), she reaches for his hand.

Their walk-and-talk courtship involves visits to each other’s families and some surprising, one might even say cosmic connections. Melton and Shahidi make a graceful transition from television to the big screen, with charisma and chemistry to spare. Their chemistry is almost tactile, with a deep sweetness. With all of their differences in outlook and situation, their shared bond as the children of immigrants, struggling with what they owe to the past and what they dream of for the future is so real to us that by the end we are holding our breath hoping for the magic to go on.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and crude sexual references, a car hitting a pedestrian, and a scuffle between brothers, as well as some issues of family conflict and the prospect of deportation.

Family discussion: Daniel’s father says that Daniel should do what is best for the community. What do you think is best for the community in that context? Can you fall in love by asking each other questions? Was there a time where what you thought was something going wrong turned out to be right? Can tragedy be funny?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Everything Everything”

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The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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