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.

The Jaja Ding Dong (Ding Dong!) Monthly Review of June 2020

My love for you is wide and long, dear readers, and so (one of) the breakout hit(s) from Netflix’s Eurovision movie seemed the only appropriate title for this month’s review.

Also, I didn’t have any better ideas. I mean, I could’ve called it “halfway”, because we are halfway through the year and I’m going to talk about that… but it’s not as fun, is it?


#128 The Children Act (2017)
#129 Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
#130 Shadowlands (1993)
#131 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
#132 The Gay Divorcee (1934)
#133 The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
#134 The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
#135 Split Second (1992)
#136 Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
#137 The Old Dark House (1932)
#138 The Rhythm Section (2020)
#139 The Vast of Night (2019)
#140 The Armour of God (1986), aka Lung hing foo dai
#141 Gemini Man (2019)
#142 Cairo Station (1958), aka Bab el hadid
#143 Tomb Raider 3D (2018)
#144 7500 (2019)
#145 Do the Right Thing (1989)
#146 Shazam! 3D (2019)
#147 Crawl (2019)
#148 Chicken Run (2000)
#149 Man on Wire (2008)
#150 Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
#151 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
#152 Polytechnique (2009)
#153 Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)
#154 The Invisible Man (2020)
#155 Without a Clue (1988)
Paris When It Sizzles

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The Old Dark House

The Invisible Man

.


  • I watched 28 new feature films in June.
  • It’s my joint-3rd best month of 2020 (tied with March), which is right in the middle when you remember there have only been six months… but 2020 is clearly an exceptional year, because it’s also in the top 5% of months all-time.
  • It’s also my best June ever, beating the 21 of June 2018.
  • Naturally, that means it stomps all over the June average (previously 10.0, now 11.4).
  • It also sails past the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 15.3, now 17.3), and also pips the average for 2020 so far (previously 25.4, now 25.8).
  • Reaching #155 means I’ve already passed my final total from last year, making 2020 already my fifth highest totalling year ever.

Now, some observations on the actual films I watched…

  • They included my 2,000th film for this blog. I wrote about that here.
  • I was also particularly glad to get a chance to see Cairo Station, one of the five films I flagged from The Story of Film: An Odyssey (my 1,000th film) back in August 2015. In the almost-five-years since that post, I’ve seen two of those films. Of the other three, I’ve owned one on Blu-ray for several years; another was released on Blu-ray in the UK last November; and the fifth recently came out on Blu-ray in the US. So, I could/should be completing them by now…
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which is exceptionally pertinent right now — which, considering it’s now over 30 years old, is rather depressing. A great film, though.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Crawl, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The Rhythm Section, and The Vast of Night.

Finally, returning to statistics: the end of June marks the halfway point of the year, of course, and at #155 it’s the furthest I’ve ever reached by this point (beating #145 in 2018). So, to mark the occasion, I’ve gone back over previous years to see what I can learn about the first half of the year as a predictor for the second.

  • Logic might suggest the second half would be double the first, but that’s never been the case.
  • Of the previous 13 years, five saw the second half more than double the first, with the other eight showing a decrease (obviously).
  • The biggest discrepancy came last year, 2019, when I did 64.9% of my film viewing in the first half of the year, leaving just 35.1% in the second.
  • The biggest swing the other way was in 2009, when I watched 40.4% in the first half of the year and 59.6% in the second.
  • On average, the second half of the year accounts for 48.3% of my viewing; though if we look at just the last five years, that drops to 44.8%.
  • So, as a predictor for 2020, if I follow the all-time average I should end the year on #305 — holy moly! A feat that never seemed possible, considering I’ve only passed #200 twice.
  • If I take the average of just the last five years, I only reach #283 — which would still be my highest year ever by over 20 films.
  • And, compared to the two extremes detailed above, anything below #239 would be a new second-half low (in percentage terms), while a new high would see me watch over 383 films! The latter would mean a monthly average of 38.1 for the rest of the year — higher than I’ve ever reached in a single month. I really don’t see that happening.
  • Leaving percentages behind, the average number of films I’ve watched in July-to-December is 69, which this year would put my final total at 224.
  • Lest all this sound like plain sailing to a number definitively above 200, my weakest-ever July-to-December was 33 in 2011, which, if repeated, would see 2020 end on 188. Never say never…



The 61st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Lots of stuff I liked a great deal this month, and as usual it’s hard to compare such wildly different films. For surprise value, I’m drawn towards Paris When It Sizzles — it doesn’t seem to be well-rated on the whole, but it’s a lot of fun as a kind of “insider’s view” Hollywood spoof that feels ahead of its time.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
No outright bad movies this month, in my estimation, but there were more than a couple that didn’t live up to my expectations. Perhaps the worst of these was Crawl, purely because it was doing so much better early on than it was by the end.

Song That Most Stands a Chance at the Oscars of the Month
God only knows what’s going to be going on at the Oscars next year, but they should be more amenable to streaming movies than ever, and that might open the door for a song from The Story of Fire Saga to get in — if there’s one thing most people who’ve watched it can agree on, it’s that the original songs are rather catchy (in a Eurovision-y way). Heck, why just one? In the past, multiple songs from the same film have made it, so never rule that out (I have no idea how the rules for the song category work). But if only one song makes it then… no, it won’t be Jaja Ding Dong (well, you never know). It might be Volcano Man, just because that had several weeks of advance play due to being released as a kind of teaser trailer. But judged as an actual song, the big emotive climactic number Husavik surely deserves a shot.

Most Desirable House of the Month
I can see why Jimmie Fails obsesses over restoring, maintaining, and (re)acquiring that house in The Last Black Man in San Francisco — it’s gorgeous. Until it gets that makeover at the end, anyway (um, spoilers? I dunno).

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Maybe it’s because there’s nothing new in cinemas. Maybe it’s because Eurovision remains popular in many places, as does Will Ferrell. Whatever the cause, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga has generated a lot of chatter since its release last Friday, and so it’s of little surprise that my release-day review has attracted a fair few visitors. It easily tops this month’s chart (both new and all-time posts), and has overtaken another Netflix original, Extraction, to be my most-viewed film review of 2020 so far.



This month, my Rewatchathon movies forward at give-or-take its intended pace — which, after last month’s bumper crop, means I’m still over a month ahead of schedule.

#27 The Scarlet Claw (1944)
#28 Gambit (1966)
#29 The Pearl of Death (1944)
#30 The House of Fear (1945)

Three of those continue my rewatch of the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. My original reviews are linked above; the following links are to new thoughts on Letterboxd. In summary, I think The Scarlet Claw remains my overall favourite from the series, but I enjoyed both The Pearl of Death and, in particular, The House of Fear a lot more this time — together, the trio are definitely among the series’ best.

As for Gambit, it made my yearly top ten back in 2011, but if anything I enjoyed it even more on this second watch. I’d remembered the famous first-act trick, of course, but forgotten the substance of all the twists at the end, which kept it exciting. It’s so much fun in between too, and moves like a rocket without ever feeling rushed.


Cinemas remain closed, but that hasn’t put a stop to new releases, with the likes of Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York and Simon Bird’s Days of the Bagnold Summer heading direct to rental. Plus, there was an even more high-profile new release in Spike Lee’s acclaimed movie for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods.

Other titles new to the preeminent streamer that caught my eye include action movie VFW; last year’s animated revival of The Addams Family; documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story; and almost a dozen movies directed by Youssef Chahine — I watched the most noteworthy one, Cairo Station, but I’ve seen several others recommended. I also noticed Line of Duty pop up, but only because it was released theatrically here as In the Line of Duty, presumably to avoid conflict with the popular TV series, but Netflix have reverted to its original title. I don’t remember it being well reviewed, so I won’t be rushing to catch up with it.

Meanwhile, Amazon Prime Video offered the new Shaun the Sheep movie, Farmageddon, which I’ve been looking forward to getting round to. Also a couple of documentaries, one titled Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, which kind of sums up its topic, and the other about a pioneering early female filmmaker, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (which still hasn’t been picked up by the site I use to track additions to Amazon, so it may’ve been there a while for all I know). Also standing out from the pack was the brilliantly titled Django and Sartana Are Coming, It’s the End (the titles seem to be the best thing about any of the movies starring Sartana) and a steampunk adaptation of The Secret Garden. Um, what? Colour me curious.

Once again, Sky Movies / Now TV suffered by comparison. Mr. Jones sounds interesting, but has the kind of grim subject matter that’s going to make me keep putting it off; I didn’t mind the first one, which hardly pushes Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to the top of my must-see list (I didn’t even bother to put it on last year’s ’50 unseen’ list); and I’m not sure I’ve seen enough Kevin Smith films to really ‘get’ Jay & Silent Bob Reboot… but, hey, I guess it is a reboot, right?

Oh, and lest you think I’d curbed my spending this month, oh dear me, no. Recent films finally hitting disc here included The Lighthouse and Pixar’s Onward (in 3D, natch), while new releases of catalogue titles included 88 Films’ latest Jackie Chan release, Armour of God II: Operation Condor (hence why I watched the first one this month); Eureka adding film noir Criss Cross to their Masters of Cinema line; and BFI issuing a restored Tokyo Story, a film I’ve been meaning to rewatch for a very long time. And offer pricing was once again the siren to my wallet’s sailor: from the BFI, The Crying Game, doco Mifune: The Last Samurai, and their Early Women Filmmakers box set (with seven features and 15 shorts, including several by the aforementioned Alice Guy-Blaché); from a Masters of Cinema twofer, Faust and Witness for the Prosecution; and from the recent UK Criterion offer, Fail Safe, Holiday, Kiss Me Deadly, and Solaris. I think I would’ve caved to more in the latter, but I’m trying to hold some money back for the Barnes & Noble Criterion offer that should be starting in a couple of weeks. I can never have enough set aside for that…


UK cinemas are set to reopen… but how long will that last? Will anyone go? The major films scheduled for July have already been pushed (again) to August, leaving only re-releases and some small-scale new releases with nothing to lose by testing the waters. Hardly an enticing slate, especially when the safety measures on offer are dubious (personally, I’m almost entirely put off by the lack of reserved seating at Odeon). Some people would like to pretend this is all over, but anything could still change any day…

Well, at least we’ll definitely have Hamilton on Disney+.