“Judy” could have been so much more

Judy (Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley) – Judy Garland was nominated for an Academy Award for Judgment at Nuremburg (1962) and A Star is Born (1955) while also winning a special “Juvenile Award” Oscar in 1940 for The Wizard of Oz. She starred in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire; Ziegfeld Girls with Jimmy Stewart; Meet Me in St. Louis; For Me and My Gal with George Murphy and Gene Kelly; A Star is Born with James Mason (with whom she had an affair and who gave a lovely eulogy at her funeral); and starred in several films with Mickey Rooney.  She appeared on virtually every television variety show in the 1950s and ‘60s not to mention her own variety show in 1963.  She also performed on stage and TV with her supremely talented daughter, Liza Mannelli.  She was married five times and had several flings/affairs (according to imdb) with Tyrone Power, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, and James Mason.  She was a woman looking for love in all places.

I tell you all this because you would never know it from watching the film Judy.  Instead, the movie dives deeply into the last period of her life with the occasional flashback to the period in the late 1930s when she was hand-picked by Louis B. Mayer to star in The Wizard of Oz.

For most of her adult life, Judy (born Frances Ethel Gumm) was a drunk, a pill-popper, a chronically tardy, promiscuous, self-destructive lush, much of which is displayed on screen in a script that places the blame of all of it on the way she was handled by Mayer, the studio system, and neglective parents. As portrayed in the film, she was a devoted mother who had squandered a fortune and was forced to leave her two youngest children (Joey and Lorna Luft, who became an actress herself) with one of her estranged husbands, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).

When Judy burned all of her bridges in the U.S. and was left homeless and in debt, she reluctantly went to London, where she was still beloved, and performed in sold-out concerts.  Often unable or unwilling to perform, she was nonetheless revered.  She hooked up with her last husband, disc jockey Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who tried to resurrect her career in the states to no avail.   She died of an overdose of barbiturates while performing in London in 1969.

The movie almost all takes place in this last period.  As a result, it is a very dark portrait of a very sad person who looks 20 years older than she is, beaten down by life and no longer happy even when she does the one thing she loves, perform.

Renee Zellweger is fantastic as this latter-day Judy.  She has the mannerisms and the voice down pat.  She plays this tortured soul both sympathetic and pathetic.  It is quite a performance.  Only occasionally can you hear or see the Renee we have come so well to know.  She almost never breaks character, a tribute to her acting skills.  Plus, she sings all of the songs herself.  And while she is not Judy Garland, she IS Judy Garland.  It’s a bravura, Oscar-worthy performance.

Nonetheless, she can’t save the film.  I asked my 40-year-old son, who was born 10 years after Garland’s death, what he knew about Judy Garland.  He impressed me, knowing not only that she starred in The Wizard of Oz, of course, but that she had degenerated into a drug addict and alcoholic and died from an overdose.  He nailed the movie on the head.  It’s a little about the filming of Oz and a lot about her descent into darkness.

If you intended to see it for a broad look into the life of a cinematic and musical icon, you will be disappointed. If you want to see a great performance and see how Judy Garland died, this is a film for you.

AC/DC? “New” film chronicles the war between Edison & Westinghouse

The Current War: Director’s Cut (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland) – Thomas Edison is widely known as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures and so much more.  He is an American icon, rock star, and historical giant.  George Westinghouse is virtually unknown by the American people.  He isn’t studied in school.  Nicola Tesla is known more for the car named after him than for his incredible insight into the future.

The Current War is a badly named film.  It isn’t about Afghanistan, the current war.  It’s a period piece about the epic battle between Edison and Westinghouse to establish the country’s electrical standard. Set from 1880 through the turn of the 20th century, the movie dramatizes the fierce rivalry between these two giants of industry to decide whether Edison’s direct current (DC) will electrify the nation or whether Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC) will prevail.  Edison may have been the more famous of the two, but it was Westinghouse who ultimately won although both AC and DC continue to exist today.  Some might even argue that DC has made a comeback.

Edison will forever be revered, and for good reason.  The light bulb revolutionized the world.  And his other inventions proved his amazing foresight.  He changed our lives.  Westinghouse (who was based in my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh), invented the air brake and led the eponymous corporation that eventually was a pioneer in appliances, broadcasting, and manufacturing.  Tesla invented the motor that ran on AC current, translating electricity into practical use beyond just lighting.

The film tells this generally unknown story and gives us insight into these three people.  Edison is portrayed by Brit Benedict Cumberbatch (with an impressive American accent) as an insecure, competitive genius whose quest to control the dispersion of electricity forces him to sacrifice his principles in order to win.  Michael Shannon plays Westinghouse as a principled businessman who wants to turn electricity into a business asset.  Tesla, as played by Nicolas Hoult, is a brilliant, confident thinker who worked for both men but bonded with Westinghouse, who gave him free rein to use his considerable skill.

The acting is exceptional.  The pacing is a bit slow and contrived.  This is a mood film that fails to deliver much emotion.  But its strength rests in the story it is telling, one that few people ever learned yet is so important to the history of our country and the world.

There is a fascinating back-story to this film.  Originally financed by The Weinstein Company, this film was in the editing process in 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit.  Everything stopped.  And after that company declared bankruptcy, this film was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to middling reviews.  Another company bought it, re-cut (re-edited) it, and is about to release it this month, a full two years after it premiered.

Renamed with the Director’s Cut label in the title, it was shortened with some new scenes shot.  It is a very good, if not a great, film.  Look for it in art houses later this month.

“The Goldfinch” survives a terrorist attack. Too bad!

The Goldfinch (Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fedley, Finn Wolfhard, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson) – One of the most highly anticipated film adaptations of the year is The Goldfinch.  Based faithfully on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch is a brooding, long soap opera that loyalists to the book will love.  In other words, if you liked the book, you will like the movie.  But if you didn’t read the 700+-page novel, you will likely be disappointed.  That appeared to be the consensus at the advanced screening I attended.

The basic story is that our protagonist, Theo Decker, survives a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that killed dozens, including his mother.  As he awoke in the ashes of the explosion, he takes the famous Carel Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch, which is presumed destroyed.  Taken in by rich socialites in the wake of his mother’s death, he becomes part of the family, which includes his friend, Andy.  Andy’s repressed mother (played by Nicole Kidman) protects Theo, identifies the child’s trauma, and even gives him prescription sleeping medication.  When Theo’s estranged and derelict father, Larry (Luke Wilson), finally shows up to take his son to a new home in Las Vegas, the boy enters a new life.  In Vegas, we meet a new cast of characters, including Larry’s self-centered, smart-alecky girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and a new schoolmate, Boris (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things).  Both Xandra and Boris are drugheads with Theo becoming a willing addict.  Boris is bold but he is also regularly beaten by his Russian father.  In short, everyone in this film is damaged.

When Theo realizes his father is using him to get to the money left to him by his mother, he flees back to New York.  He shows up at the doorstep of an antique restorer, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), whose niece, Pippa (Ashleigh Cummins), received a head injury in the museum explosion, which also took the life of Hobie’s partner.  Hobie teaches Theo the antiques business where the young man proves to be a brilliant marketer and front man.  But one day, he misrepresents a piece of furniture as an antique to the wrong person, who reveals the fraud and, through amazingly implausible research, reveals that Theo stole The Goldfinch.  It’s here that the movie actually develops some pace.  All this takes about an hour-and-45-minutes.  Up to here, it is all mood, piano music, and lethargic pace.  Suddenly, things happen.

Theo gets engaged to Kitsey (she is Andy’s sister), his soulmate, Pippa, returns from England, and Boris shows up in New York.  Theo’s addiction drives him down; Boris reveals the biggest secret of the movie; Hobie delivers a lecture; and The Goldfinch goes missing. The mood pic becomes a thriller in Act III, and all I can think about is how much better this movie would have been if 30 minutes had been taken out of the first two acts.

Director John Crowley (Brooklyn) stays way too true to the novel to the detriment to the movie. He lingers on the character development in the way a novel might.  All the viewer wants to do is to skip 200-300 pages and get right to the good stuff.

The Goldfinch had a real chance to be a good movie but the award-winning novel doomed its cinematic possibility.  The best acting belongs to the unknown actors, particularly those playing Theo and Boris.  Kidman is better as the repressed mother than the aging widow (she actually ages way too fast).  Wilson and Paulson are both miscast.  Jeffrey Wright is wonderful as Hobie.

Previewed in the past week at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie has garnered generally poor reviews.  This film will not do well at the box office.  However, it is a must-see for people who slogged through the 700 pages of the book because they will generally feel satisfied that Crowley and Company were true to the novel.

Mike Wallace Is Here

Mike Wallace Is Here (Mike Wallace) – This feels like a no-holds-barred documentary about America’s most feared journalist/interviewer.  Wallace, who started out as a pitchman and game-show host, morphed into a disciple of Edward R. Morrow and Don Hewitt as well as a colleague of Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, and the rest of the 60 Minutes team.

 

His direct and occasionally obnoxious interview style cowered world leaders, celebrities, and unwitting victims.  A call from Wallace or his producers stoked fear in some of the most powerful people in the world.  He interviewed most of the world’s most important politicians and exposed despots and scandals.  His reputation was legendary.  His stamp on journalism was undeniable.

 

Behind the scenes, he was a self-admittedly crappy father.  He was married enough times that he avoided the question in interviews.  Where Mike Wallace Is Here showcases the intrepid reporter’s most famous interviews and his early career, it glosses over most of his personal foibles.  Whether you love this documentary or dislike it probably revolves around whether you think it gives Wallace a pass on his personal life.  I don’t think it ruins it at all.

Israeli Director Avi Belkin objectively presents the journalist who Americans know as the beating heart of 60 Minutes through all of its formidable run from 1968 through his death in 2012.  But the film also chronicles the impact of the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962.  It shows interviews of Wallace by Barbara Walters, Morley Safer, Dinah Shore, and Merv Griffin, which expose the real Wallace.  A central theme of the film is that Wallace’s on-air personality was largely constructed – first as an actor, game-show host and product pitchman and later as a hard-nosed, relentless interviewer.

This is a flawed man with a huge ego who eventually suffered depression so deep that he almost killed himself.  He changed the way Americans get the news.  He left a wake and a legacy.

Premiered at Sundance earlier this year, Mike Wallace Is Here is a compelling, penetrating documentary worth finding.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett. Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson) – Cate Blanchett is one of the world’s most versatile actresses.  She has won two Academy Awards (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator), has been nominated for four others, has played in ensembles (Bandits is my favorite, Oceans 8 not so much) and carried films herself (Elizabeth, Carol).  She has worked with many of the best directors and famed actors/actresses.  She is in a handful of the best actresses working today.

As Bernadette Fox, she assumes the role of a reclusive, former world-renowned architect who quit the business after designing two of her dream projects.  She is married to Elgie (Billy Crudup), a highly successful computer engineer whose company was bought by Microsoft, where he works after uprooting the family from L.A. to Seattle.

Bernadette blames her lack of career ambition on the move, spending most of her day putzing around their 9,000-square-foot mess of a mansion.  The inside is a disaster; leaks are everywhere (almost every Seattle scene is rain-soaked); and the outside of the vast property is a tangle of vines and limbs.  Clearly, the Foxes bought the house for Bernadette to re-design but nothing much seems to be happening.

Elgie and Bernadette’s daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson), is a brilliant middle schooler looking forward to going to prep school just like her parents (yes, this is a tale of rich people).  But all is not right at home.  Bernadette is clinically anti-social and she is hated by her neighbors (most notably Audrey, portrayed by Kristen Wiig).  She does impulsive things with implications for others.  She does little for herself, relying instead on an online personal assistant located somewhere in Asia.  The only person she has a meaningful relationship with is her daughter, who adores mom more than her often work-absorbed father.

The movie opens with Bee, having achieved all “A”s in school, reminding her parents that they promised to let her choose her gift for this accomplishment.  Naturally J  she decides the family should go to Antarctica.  And away we go …

The trailer would have you believe that this is a comedy.  It’s not.  Bernadette is zany, unstable, unhinged, bombastic, blunt and loquacious. But she is falling apart.  Her husband seeks psychiatric help for her, which results in an unsuccessful intervention.  Then the plot turns ridiculous (as if it hadn’t already).

Bernadette escapes from the house, consoles herself with help from the dreaded neighbor, Audrey (really?) and decides to go to Antarctica on her own … without letting anyone in her family know.  Of course, Bee and dad chase after her.  The rest is an unlikely journey into self-reflection that eventually leads to a happy ending (sorry for the spoiler … but not really).

As good as Blanchett is, the movie is actually borderline awful.  Cameos by Laurence Fishbourne, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally can’t save it either.  Five-time Academy Award nominated director Richard Linklater, who also co-wrote the screenplay from the novel by Maria Semple, doesn’t work his magic here at all.  His 130-minute film is well-paced if nothing else.

With mediocre audience and critical reviews, Where’d You Go, Bernadette won’t do very well at the box office.  I promise you won’t hate it though.  It just doesn’t come close to living up to the hype.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

David Crosby: Remember My Name (David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Jackson Brown, Graham Nash) – By all accounts including his own, David Crosby was a jerk – an addicted, loud-mouthed, self-absorbed, obnoxious, talented a**hole.  Now in his late ‘70s, Crosby is sober, repentant, and trying hard to understand why he has survived when so many of his contemporaries haven’t.

He is still making music, having a resurgence as a songwriter and solo performer.  Instead of the great arenas and stadiums of the world where he prospered as an original member of The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, he is now playing small venues across the country.  He has released several new albums that feature his signature voice singing his own folk-tinged songs.

Crosby will always be remembered as an artist firmly planted at the epi-center of the rock ‘n roll universe in the pivotal mid-60s to mid-70s.  He was among the first singer-songwriters to inhabit the legendary Laurel Canyon section of the L.A. hills.  He found Joni Mitchell singing in a coffee house in south Florida and brought her to Laurel Canyon to make music and make love.  He befriended Cass Elliott, Stephen Stills, Jackson Brown, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, and virtually every artist who invented the California music scene.

As this fine documentary reveals, virtually none of those people, if they are still alive, have a good thing to say about the man.  He has pissed off every one of them, including his “brothers”: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, and Roger McGuinn.  As Crosby says in the film “None of them will talk to me today.”

Yet he is a compelling character.  He was a part of the seminal American super-group, the Byrds.  When Mama Cass introduced Crosby and Stills to ex-Hollies lead singer Graham Nash, it took “40 seconds” of singing together to realize they were about to create music history.  And then, Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil Young joined the group … and music was never the same.

The documentary, conceived largely by Cameron Crowe (who interviews Crosby in the film), tells the history of the times, Crosby’s relationships, his musical journey, his many health issues, and his relentless search for the meaning of his life.

For music fans, this is a must-see film, an unabashedly candid “behind the music” look at a complicated man who helped define the counter-culture generation.

Official Secrets

Official Secrets (Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans) – Keira Knightley isn’t just the beautiful angel from Love Actually anymore.  She proved that in Atonement and The Imitation Game and reinforced it here in Official Secrets. She carries a film that feels more political than dramatic.

Set in the run-up to the Iraq War following 9/11, Official Secrets follows Katherine Gun, a translator/analyst for the British equivalent of the NSA.  In her job, she reviews documents and listens to intercepted conversations from other governments, individuals and bad guys.  She then reports what she reads and hears.

One day, she and her colleagues receive a memo indicating that the U.K. and the U.S. have agreed to use surreptitious means and disinformation to convince countries on the U.N. Security Council to support a resolution to endorse a war with Iraq.  Gun, who had been following the fervor for war against Saddam Hussein, clearly believed that the rhetoric used by Tony Blair and George W. Bush was not supported by intelligence facts that she knew.

Faced with knowledge that a covert effort was underway to secure a UN resolution that would provide “cover” for Bush and Blair, she decided to turn over the memo to a friend who was part of the British anti-war effort even though she knew it violated the Official Secrets Act. Clearly naïve, she assumed that the memo could be used to kick-start an investigation by the British news media, which it did.  When journalist Martin Bright at The Observer printed the memo verbatim, however, all hell broke loose within her agency as the search for the leaker began.  She admitted it was her … and her life changed forever.

Knightley plays Gun as a super-serious, principled zealot who felt compelled to break the law in the hopes she could save lives by trying to stop a war.  But the film comes off as politically motivated, not nuanced. We all know now that the rationale for war – that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaida – was either a product of bad intelligence or deliberate deception.  The film clearly endorses the latter, which reduces its impact.

Directed by Gavin Hood, who also helmed Eye in the Sky, another political film about the use of satellites and drones in war, Official Secrets is an almost good thriller.  It feels like he couldn’t decide if he wanted this to be a journalism film like All the President’s Men or a courtroom drama like Denial about a professor who faces a court battle against a Holocaust denier.

Knightley makes Official Secrets watchable but, because Gun’s actions did nothing to stop the war, less than compelling.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie) – Every Quentin Tarantino film evokes powerful reactions from moviegoers.  Love him or hate him, Tarantino always pushes the boundaries.  His films are always creative, beautifully photographed, impeccably researched, and violent.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a period piece but, more than that, it’s nostalgic.  If American Graffiti transported you back to your high school years, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood drops you right back into 1969, one of the most pivotal years in modern history.

Set in this backdrop is the buddy story of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stand-in Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was the star of action movies and then a TV show in the ‘50s who now guest stars as “the heavy” on all of the most popular TV shows of today.  We get to see clips of shows like Mannix and The FBI and hear music from Neil Diamond to hard rock.  Plus, we get to go to the Playboy Mansion and meet some of the biggest stars of the day, like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis in a totally unrecognizable cameo) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Rick’s career is fading; Cliff is basically his go-for, chauffer and companion.  As the parts dry up, Rick reconciles himself to go overseas to star in Italian “Spaghetti” westerns, a gig his manager/agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) tells him is his last chance at stardom.

Meanwhile, Cliff picks up a stray hippie girl who hangs out at the site of the old Spahn Ranch, which often served as a movie set in the good-old days.  It is here that he has an uncomfortable reunion with George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the guy who owns the ranch, and ends up fighting with one of the few dudes at the ranch.

This seeming diversion in the buddy film sets up the climax of the movie.  Rick returns to his home in the Hollywood hills from Italy with a wife in tow, tells Cliff that their days as partners are ostensibly over, and the calendar turns to August 9, 1969, the date that Charles Manson’s gang killed Tate and others.  But this is a Hollywood fairy tale, not history.  The final scenes are fun, violent, and vintage Tarantino.

To those who skip Tarantino films because of the violence, don’t worry.  This isn’t violent until the end and, by then, it is almost comical.  For those who skip his movies because they are weird, go anyway because this one is so nostalgic that it is totally absorbing.  At two-hours-and-40-minutes, it’s long but not boring.

Leo and Brad are exceptional right up to the “cookie” during the credits.  Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood had the biggest opening weekend ever for a Tarantino film, and it deserves it.  While I try to convince my wife to see it, make sure you head to the theater soon to re-live 1969.

Blinded by the Light

 

Blinded by the Light (Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghi, Meera Ganatra, Aaron Phagura) – Bruce Springsteen fans: Mark August 14, 2019, down for the opening day for Blinded by the Light, titled for the Springsteen song that appeared on The Boss’ first album and which became a #1 hit by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1976.

Blinded by the Light, the movie, is a slice-of-life film set in Britain in 1987.  Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; the economy was in recession; and anti-migrant sentiments were running high.

Javed (Viveik Kaira) is a normal high school student with an interest in writing and a desire to sample all the tastes of life a teenager craves: a girl, friendship, parties, and self-satisfaction.  But Javed is Pakistani, and he feels different than other kids.  He looks different; has a domineering father; dodges racial slurs and physical threats; and lacks confidence.

By chance, he bumps into Roops (Aaron Phagura), an Indian high schooler who tells him that his life would be immeasurably enhanced by listening to two Bruce Springsteen albums/cassettes. Just as things become unbearable at home, he puts on Springsteen, which permanently changes his life.  As his life evolves, we hear and see (on the screen) Springsteen’s lyrics, which seem a perfect match for Javed.  As he embraces The Boss, he gains self-confidence.  He finds his first girlfriend.  Encouraged by a nurturing English teacher, he submits his first piece to the high school paper.  He proposes a Springsteen-only radio show to the program director of the high school radio station.  His writing improves.  And his teacher submits an essay of his to a national contest.

But at home, things are getting worse.  His father loses his job; his mother is forced to sew until after midnight to meet the household bills; and Javed must work to contribute to the family’s finances.  As his father becomes depressed over losing his job, he tightens the reins on his rebellious son.

The rest of the story is actually quite familiar except for the way Javed’s direction evolves through Bruce’s lyrics.  Is Javed Born to Run? Does he have a Hungry Heart? Or is he Blinded by the Light? You’ll need to see the movie to find out.

With no recognizable stars, this witty, clever movie was inspired by a true story.  Gurinda Chadha, who also directed Bend It Like Beckham among other films and documentaries, helmed the film and co-wrote it with her husband, Paul Mayeda Burges.

Though very predictable, Blinded by the Light will thrill Springsteen fans while taking the audience through a fun ride through adolescence.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover) – Some films defy categorization.  The Last Black Man in San Francisco qualifies.  It’s lyrical, idealistic, breezy, amusing, surrealistic, and hopeful.  It’s also sad, revealing, intense, and dreamlike.

At its heart, TLBMISF is a buddy pic set in the city by the Bay.  Jimmie Fails plays Jimmie Fails, a young, intelligent black man living with his would-be playwright friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), and Mont’s elderly, blind father (Danny Glover in what amounts to a cameo).

Like many great films, TLBMISF peels back the plot in layers.  We’re well into the film before we understand why Jimmy and Mont travel regularly to a stately house on Golden Gate Street where Jimmie performs outdoor clean-up, painting, and other chores when no one else is around.  Mont goes along, sketching the home and the people who enter his life while supposedly composing a play.

The house is within site of the Golden Gate Bridge in a well-kept neighborhood far from the hood where the guys live, a sidewalk preacher rants, and a quintet of brothers hang.  In fact, the five guys appear rooted to their spot on the block across from where Jimmy and Mont wait for the bus to take them to Golden Gate.  These guys are friends with Jimmy and Mont but not exactly.  Jimmy and Mont are different because they have jobs, they have purpose, they have hope.

As the plot becomes clearer, we find out that Jimmy used to live in the house on Golden Gate with his parents.  His grandfather, “the first black many in San Francisco,” built the house after returning from World War II, and Jimmy is committed to keep it pristine, perhaps hoping to one day move back in.  The current occupants catch Jimmy in the act of sprucing up the place and just want him gone.

The plot turns when the current occupants are forced to leave the house in a prolonged family dispute.  Jimmie moves in, becoming a squatter and doing all he can to ensure he gets to stay there.  He fills the home with furniture that his aunt took with her when the family was forced to sell it years before.  He dreams of spreading out on the couch and reading the paper while occupying a home he finds out is now worth in the vicinity of $5 million.

Before long, Jimmie has returned to the happiest time of his life; a time when his parents lived together, his father wasn’t a hustler and his mom wasn’t living down in East L.A. with a different guy.  The memory of his grandfather singlehandedly building the best-looking house on Golden Gate gives Jimmie purpose and hope in a city that seems to have passed him, his friends, and his family by.

I’ll leave the storytelling here.  I termed this film lyrical earlier, largely because it moves in a very lilting fashion to the inevitable crescendo when one of the owners returns, a real estate agent takes over the listing, and Mon finally finishes his play (called The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and presents it in the make-shift theater Jimmy builds in the house. Then comes the plot twist and the uncertain ending.

The film is totally unique.  The characters are far from stereotypical and even seem out of place.  The photography is a bit fantasy-like more than gritty.  The camera angles are surprising and creative.  The music is unexpected – not hip-hop and gritty yet not soulful and R&B. Everything about this movie feels ethereal.

Fails stars and co-wrote the autobiographical film with Director Joe Talbot, his longtime friend and collaborator.  It won the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award as well as a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration.  The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of those films everyone should see but one you may not love the way I did.  It isn’t showing in a lot of theaters so you’ll have to look hard to find it.