The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

2020 #133
Joe Talbot | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The opening few minutes of The Last Black Man in San Francisco are some of the most visually extraordinary I remember seeing from a film in a while. Well, it begins with two men waiting at a bus stop, but when the bus doesn’t arrive… cinema happens. If the rest of the film had been terrible, I’d have been ok with watching it just to have seen that.

Those two men at the bus stop are Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, also co-writer, in a role I assume can’t be entirely autobiographical, but who knows) and his best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an artist and writer who always has a pencil behind his ear, who’s always sketching or jotting. Every day, Jimmie and Mont visit the same old house in a gentrified neighbourhood of San Francisco, which Jimmie is obsessed with maintaining and restoring because he doesn’t think the current owners do a good enough job.

Of course, the reason for Jimmie’s monomania is more complicated than “it’s a nice house”, but oh my, is it a nice house. In terms of “significant houses in 2019 movies”, fair few people seemed to be in love with the one from Parasite, but give me this beautiful old mansion-like home any day. It even has a built-in organ! I mean, a built-in organ isn’t exactly high on my list of ‘wants’ in a house, but it’s kinda cool. (To be fair, based on the amount of upkeep Jimmie feels the house needs and that its owners shirk, I doubt I’d be up to the task of looking after such a place. But I’m not going to be buying one anyway, so it’s a nice little fantasy.)

On the outside looking in

But this isn’t property porn, and deep down Jimmie’s really looking for more than just this particular building. Other characters seem similarly at a loss. It’s likely important to note that writer-director Joe Talbot and Fails, who came up with the story together, are native San Franciscans who grow up together and discussed making the movie since they were teenagers. The film is not just about the changing face of San Francisco, but that’s definitely part of the mix. Indeed, I’m sure there are several readings of what Last Black Man is ‘about’. Another, related part of it is the black experience (I mean, there’s a clue in the title), including a street preacher bemoaning a hazardous cleanup operation; an acquaintance who lives in his car; Jimmie’s absentee father (played by the reliably excellent Rob Morgan, who you may recognise from all of Netflix’s Marvel series, and who has another small but key role in the just-released Greyhound); and a group of men who hang around outside Mont’s house, apparently with nothing better to do than argue with each other. The latter, in particular, have a key role to play in where the story ultimately goes.

Another aspect is to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our past isn’t just a series of indisputable facts, but a mix of memories — which themselves are self-selected narratives — and stories we’ve been told by others and assumed into our identities, possibly giving them more significance than was intended. It’s this kind of mythologising that drives Jimmie, and it clashing with reality is part of the catalyst for the film’s resolution. As I said, events involving that group of guys outside Mont’s place (no spoilers!) also have a major part to play, but it agains come round to the way our lives, and others’, are dictated by how we choose to tell our and their stories.

Who tells your story?

How this story is told is one of its strongest aspects. The cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra is extraordinary; not in a glaringly obvious “pretty colours” way, but exhibiting superb depth of field, framing, composition, movement… My knowledge is inadequate to convey the rich quality and wonder of the imagery he creates. It, literally, has to be seen. Several distinctive sequences are carved by his work combined with David Marks’ editing and Emile Mosseri’s score, which includes some well-aimed needle drops and remixes (it’s always great to hear Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, which is here rendered in a strikingly stripped-back form remixed by Mosseri).

If I have one criticism it’s that it felt a little long, with some scenes seemingly superfluous, but I’m fully prepared to accept I may have just missed their point. And even with that, the total effect is enough to overcome any perceived longueurs. My score rounds up, then, because even if it’s not perfect (what is?), it’s very good overall, and several parts are truly exceptional.

5 out of 5

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

After the Thin Man (1936)

2014 #124
W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Zodiac: Director’s Cut (2007/2008)

2011 #16c
David Fincher | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Zodiac: Director's CutHow time flies — I’ve been meaning to re-watch Zodiac ever since I first saw it, but as it turns out it’s taken me 2½ years! It doesn’t seem that long. (Maybe this in some way explains why watching 100 films in a whole year (when at least two blogs have sprung up recently merrily — and, thus far, successfully — attempting it in 100 days) is a challenge to me.)

This time round I’m watching the Director’s Cut version of the film (you may’ve guessed). What’s different? Very little. It’s not just because I haven’t watched it for so long that the changes passed by unnoticed: five minutes of new material comes mostly in 15-second-ish snippets of dialogue. The most significant addition lasts just over two minutes, detailing everything the police have against a key suspect, while the others that contain particularly memorable material are 43 seconds of Avery’s gradual descent into alcoholism and a 59-second extension to the black-screen news montage. As ever, timings and details are courtesy of Movie-Censorship.com. Note that Fincher also deleted a whole four seconds from the theatrical version, plus the end credits are now more complete. Clearly this material wasn’t missed in the theatrical version, but considered in isolation you can see most of it brings something to the film, be that a spot of humour, a character beat or added clarity to the investigation.

Zodiac researchAs the changes have little impact on the film’s fundamental quality, the points in my original review still stand (if you do read it, just skip the first paragraph — it’s waffly and unrelated). That was quite short, though, so a few extra points I’d like to make after watching it again follow.

The film is incredibly well researched and consequently very fact-based, almost more like a documentary rather than a drama in places. Some might say it’s dry, but the case is so enthralling that it needs to do little more in my opinion — it had me thoroughly glued to my seat, both times. However much I love long movies, there are few that can keep me completely engrossed throughout every minute, but Zodiac is such a film. Besides which, there are little touches of humanity and character peppered throughout, mainly about Graysmith — his kids, meeting his second wife, the eventual breakdown of their relationship — but also for the likes of Avery, showing his slide from popular hot-shot who became part of the story to a forgotten alcohol-soaked has-been.

It’s also an unusual serial killer film narrative. Partly because the killer is never officially caught — that’s just the truth; and anyway, by the end there seems little doubt about who did it. Questions still hang over the conclusion — handwriting samples, a 2003 DNA test, etc. — Averybut the sheer weight of evidence the other way seems to leave little room for doubt. More so, then, is that the murders are done with before the halfway mark. That’s because it’s still following the story of the investigation, true, but a lesser filmmaker could have weighted it differently, rushing through Graysmith’s later enquiries in a speedy third act. Instead, Fincher’s focus throughout is on the people looking into the crime, and it’s as much the tale of their obsession — and what it takes to break their obsession, be it weariness or pushing through ’til the final answer — as it is the tale of a serial killer.

Despite this atypicality, there are still some properly chilling scenes. Best — by which, all things considered, I mean “worst”; or, rather, “most scary” — of all is Graysmith’s visit to the house of a suspect’s friend, Bob Vaughn, at which point a series of revelations question who exactly should be under suspicion. Knowing that what we see actually happened too… why, it’s the kind of scene to haunt your nightmares. Another review describes it as “one of the single most chilling scenes ever committed to film” and I’m inclined to agree.

Another triumph of direction comes in how effectively Fincher conveys the time periods the film crosses using relatively subtle means: popular music, appearing in snatches in the background rather than blaring out at us; the actual passage of time with time-lapse shots of a skyscraper being constructed or an audio montage of the major news in a skipped period; Chillingand place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Despite the minimal number of changes, the Director’s Cut of Zodiac is certainly the superior version. Not by a lot, obviously, but if you had to choose between the two, everything else being equal, then it’s the Director’s Cut to go with. And it’s still an exceptional film, one of the very best I’ve seen in this blog’s lifetime.

5 out of 5

I watched the Zodiac: Director’s Cut as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Zodiac (2007)

2008 #64
David Fincher | 151 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Context time: I’m a David Fincher fan. Se7en and Fight Club number among my favourite films of all time; I’ve always found The Game to be an immensely enjoyable thriller; much the same can be said of Panic Room, especially the famous slow motion sequence, which is one of my favourite action scenes ever; and I love The Hire series of short films, which Fincher produced but (sadly) never directed. I’ve never seen Alien³ (or Aliens, or any other entry in that series bar Ridley Scott’s first for that matter), but considering its troubled production history one might say it barely counts. All this considered, why’s it taken me so long to see Zodiac? Well, laziness, to be honest, but I’m here now. And unlike another recently-viewed highly-anticipated film (namely, Southland Tales), this was more than worth the wait.

As other reviews have pointed out, Zodiac is really a film about obsession, and it makes for as engrossing a tale as the case was for those investigating it. In following the story the film chooses to eschew normal structural niceties for fact-following, yet structure is never a problem. Yes, it jumps from character to character, and if you step back and analyse it that’s odd, but while watching it doesn’t matter one jot — this is more like real life than some shallow crime thriller dependent on a twist ending. That level of realism is key throughout, be it the period detail or the exemplary performances — both are excellent and accurate without being showy. Much like Fincher’s direction, in fact, which is appropriately more restrained than usual, though he can still display a suitable level of flair when warranted.

Some have called it slow, even dull, but I was totally engrossed throughout and never overwhelmed by the number of facts being thrown around — and I was watching it in the middle of the night when I should have been asleep. At 5AM, when it finally ended, I was even wishing there was more. (It seems a shame that the recently-released (in the UK) director’s cut adds barely five minutes.) It does exactly what it aims to: it’s not about the killer’s mind and it’s not a whodunnit; it’s about procedure, obsession, and how one deals with an unsolved mystery. The fact it isn’t definitively solved — and yet, for all the characters, there’s a way out or a solution that satisfies them — is possibly the most telling part of the whole film.

After the disappointment of the long-awaited Southland Tales, it’s especially pleasing that the long-awaited Zodiac is such a triumph. It’s easily up there with Fight Club and Se7en, and perhaps even surpasses them both. My most unreserved full marks since Dark City.

5 out of 5

Zodiac placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

My more thorough review of the Zodiac: Director’s Cut can now be read here.