The Last Black Man in San Francisco(6/15/2019)
Indie comedies of the Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach variety are often described as being “unbearably white,” an insult that seems to have less to do with the number of Caucasians in the cast (they aren’t any less diverse than any number of movies) and more to do with how their quirky sensibilities display a sort of privileged point of view that is generally associated with whiteness. Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco in some ways feels like an attempt to apply a similar sort of indie quirkiness to a movie that is decidedly “black” and about people who are rather specifically not privileged. It tells the story of Jimmie Fails, which is the name of both the character and the actor that potrays him, who is obsessed with this large San Francisco house that his father once owned and which is now in the possession of two old white people. From the film’s provocative title (which is not literal) I had expected it to be something of a Spike Lee style polemic about gentrification but the actual movie is a bit more relaxed than that. The movie take great pains not to blame those new white owners (who seem like perfectly nice and reasonable people) or really any other individuals for the sense of loss that Fails is feeling. That’s a nicely mature and nuanced take on the subject, which I certainly like in theory but there is a fine line between making a nuanced argument and just sort of not bothering to make an argument at all. In some ways I think the film’s avoidance of standard exposition (another trait I should like in theory) undermines it a little. It took a while to fully get what Fails’ story really comes down to and I think some flashbacks to “the good times” might have given a better idea of why he’s so angry about the present because as someone who’s never been to San Francisco and who’s generally indifferent to it I’m not very connected to what he’s mourning. This is ultimately a movie I respect more than I like. I can kind of see what it’s going for and can admire aspects of its execution, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.
**1/2 out of Five
The Fall of the American Empire(6/16/2019)
Titling Denys Arcand’s latest film The Fall of the American Empire, thus implying that it is another sequel to The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, was probably a savy commercial move as it got my attention and got me to go out to see one of Arcand’s movies for the first time since 2003. However, this movie actually has no direct connection to those earlier movies and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because what it actually is is kind of neat. The film concerns an underemployed intellectual who finds himself witnessing a robbery through sheer coincidence and after the burglars all kill each other he realizes he can pick up the loot himself and run off with it. From there he finds himself sitting on millions of dollars in cash with no idea how to launder it. From there it becomes a story that somewhat represents “Breaking Bad” in that it’s about a nerdy intellectual taking part in the minutia of the criminal underworld, but it never gets as dark as that show. The protagonist is in legitimate danger and there is some violenct in the movie, but the slightly contrived situation allows him to be engaging in a more or less victimless crime and he remains likable throughout. Arcand is not much of a visual stylist, which is a bit more of a problem here given the genre elements. There are also elements of the film that don’t ring particularly true like the love interest that emerges midway through the movie but the core of the movie, which is a deeply cynical look at the inner workings of capitalism, does come through and the film’s comedic elements make it a rather enjoyable watch throughout.
**** out of Five
As streaming has emerged as a major force in cinema I’ve been very supportive of streaming services like Amazon that respect the theatrical window and let their films play on the big screen before coming to the internet. I feel this way because I sternly believe the theater is the ideal place for most movies to be enjoyed regardless of budget and that at times even the smallest of movie are the ones that most benefit from a distraction free environment or from a larger format. That having been said, Amazon probably could have sent Late Night straight to streaming and it would have been fine. In fact Late Night seems like a pretty textbook example of a movie that seems impressive at Sundance but proves to be a lot less interesting to the general public. The film, a story about a struggling late night comedy show fronted by a middle aged lady played by Emma Thompson which gets a needed boost after adding a lady played by Mindy Kaling to its all white and male writing staff. I can definitely see why a group of people who spend a lot of time talking about representation in comedy on Twitter, but to general audiences the whole thing might be a bit inside baseball. What it certainly isn’t is particularly funny. This is a movie that’s literally set in a comedy show’s writers room, which should be an environment filled with ribald banter, but instead it feels like little more than the most mildly of amusing workplace comedies. This is a problem considering that this is a movie that spends a lot of time chastising its own characters for settling for mediocrity rather than really stretching the boundaries of their form and that feels kind of hypocritical given that this is a movie that feels pretty comfortable being mediocre.
** out of Five