Reclamation and Resistance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

There are a lot of pretty movies and series about San Francisco, like the recent hit Always Be My Maybe, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City; but there is also a growing concern about the sterilization of neighborhoods once thought to be multicultural, unique and a site of generational preservation. Childhood friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are far too familiar with this gentrification, and they bring the experience to the big screen with The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is a young black man who sees his San Francisco neighborhood changing and disappearing before his eyes. He lives with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). He regularly visits his childhood home, built by his grandfather in 1946, filled with memories of living there as a child. He’s so enamoured of it he goes so far as to provide unsolicited maintenance of the property, like paint the window trim of the majestic Victorian home, to the chagrin of the current white, middle class owners.

When the home owners are locked out of the house due to a family dispute, Jimmie takes the opportunity to purchase the home. Because of the fast rise of gentrification in the San Francisco area, he can’t afford it, but that doesn’t stop him. Instead, he claims squatter’s rights, and with the help of Montgomery, they move his family heirlooms in and create a household of two. Their happiness is short-lived however when the reality of the situation, a family secret, plus the constant heckling of their curbside brotherhood of frenemies and a subsequent tragedy brings everything a fever pitch.

I normally don’t review non-horror films as a rule even though I watch a breadth of genres besides horror, but this film moved me so much, I had to write about it, especially because it inadvertently broaches the topic of Afrofuturism, which is in short, a movement to include blacks, their contributions and innovations in the future.

Fails broke my heart as a displaced man looking for his roots as the world around him changed. For blacks and most people of color who aren’t normally included in the future of cities and their economics, often forced to adapt without any help, the characters of Jimmie and Montgomery are extremely important. They not only insert themselves into a house taken over by white gentrification, but create their own narrative of reclamation which is the essence of what Afrofuturism is all about. They are also unique personalities, and their pseudo-nerdiness is a contrast to their ‘hood homeboys who hide behind their masculinity; an opt out of stereotype. Jimmie refuses to let the black psyche of the house and the neighborhood disintegrate, and fights for his right to be present. This refusal of being erased in itself is an archetype of the black experience.

Montgomery (Majors) and Jimmie (Fails) walk the streets of their neighborhood. Copyright Sundance Institute.

Director Talbot and star/writer Fails, who are born and bred San Franciscans, created this project they started as teenagers. This labour of love took 5 years to make and is also a collaboration of the future: it’s possible to have a white director and a black cast using their own voices instead of a white writer assuming the actions of character of color. There has to be a point where collaborations like this happen organically and speaks to truths, much like Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames; a feminist futuristic collaboration of both queer and POC voices.

Talbot creates a beautiful tableau of the city, with the vibrancy of a whimsical storybook and the grit of true life. Both Talbot and Fails incorporate a quirk reminiscent of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson, but they make it their own, putting a unique spin on this type of storytelling. The entire cast was brilliant, including real residents from their Fillmore District neighborhood and punk legend Jello Biafra in a cameo, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Majors’ performance as Montgomery. This the first time I’ve seen him in a film, and he brings such intensity to the role that I know he’ll be someone I look out for.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an award winner at Sundance, is required viewing for its emotional portrayal gentrification and staying true to oneself, and on a deeper level, for those who has felt invisible, invalidated and a misfit.

Nightmare Cinema Serves Up Schlocky Fun

I’m a huge fan of horror anthologies.  Give me a classic Amicus horror like Dr. Terrors House of Horrors or Asylum; The Monster Club straight from the 80s; or the more recent Tales of Halloween-I’ll watch them all.  I was excited to hear there was a new anthology coming out, helmed by Mick Garris (The Stand, Sleepwalkers) who enlisted horror directors Joe Dante (The Howling), David Slade (30 Days of Night), Alejandro Brugues (Juan of the Dead), and Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) to direct their own unique segments for Nightmare Cinema.

The directors. Back row: Garris, Kitamura, Brugues
Front row: Slade, Dante.
Photos copyright Good Deed Entertainment

Five unsuspecting people end up at the historic Rialto Theatre where they witness a cinematic premonition of their fates on the big screen. The show is presented by the Projectionist (Mickey Rourke), a gnarly looking overseer of the theatre. He is as harsh as he looks, and the visitors must endure their personalized screenings until the bitter end.

The five shorts in the anthology are pretty diverse, so there’ll be something for everyone. Take for example the surrealist “This Way to Egress”, where Helen (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight, The Haunting of Hill House) awaits her doctor’s appointment with her two petulant sons.  Shot in stark black and white, Helen’s unease is clear as her surroundings become strangely apocalyptic and the people around her more distorted.  It’s my favorite of all the segments, giving an old school Twilight Zone feel. Then there’s “Mashit”, a gore-filled splatter fest starring Maurice Bernard of General Hospital fame playing a less-than-perfect priest who heads a catholic school.  The students are being tormented by a demonic force and he must find his courage and faith to battle it.  If you’re looking for a more exploitation, drive-in feel, this is the segment for you. There’s also the plastic surgery nightmare “Mirari”, with 80s veteran actor Richard Chamberlain; the slasher trope with a twist “The Thing in the Woods”; and “Dead”, with Annabeth Gish and a great performance by Faly Rakotohavana, who plays a teen victim of a carjacking dealing with the consequences of a near death experience.

Gish and Rakotohavana – Dead
Photo by Michael Moriatis
Photos copyright Good Deed Entertainment

This latest edition to the anthology genre is a lot of fun, and it feels like the directors enjoyed doing their segments too. I matched up only two directors with the correct segments because the style of each one is really out of character for them, so I suggest trying to avoid spoilers of who directed what for a challenge. Along with Rakotohavana, Reaser was riveting as a woman hanging on to her last hope, and Mickey Rourke was his usual intense self which is what any fan of his would want.

If you’re looking for variety, I’d definitely check out Nightmare Cinema.  It’s got schlock, scares and scads of fun for all the anthology enthusiasts out there.

Child’s Play 2019 is a Decent Romp

Stephen Hawking, the late world-renowned scientist, warned us about artificial intelligence. He basically said we should be careful because artificially intelligent machines could eventually become sentient beings, putting humans in peril. I’m not a fan of all the A.I. platforms myself, and cringe at the thought of a disembodied voice greeting me or selecting my favourite playlists on command. The new Child’s Play, directed by Lars Klevberg, bases its horror around the concept of an autonomous automaton, modernizing the lore of Chucky and his voodoo origins.

Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a lonely kid. Moving into a new apartment with his young mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza), he is more concerned with his smartphone than making friends. He’s hearing-impaired and self-conscious about it, and his mother desperately wants him to be more social. Her job at the local Zed Mart is tedious with customer returns and complaints, and she is surrounded by the latest toy, Buddi, an interactive doll. Hooked up to the Kaslan Industries multifaceted smart system, it can connect with virtually any appliance and anticipate its owner’s needs and emotions. When someone returns a Buddi doll because it’s faulty, Karen takes it home to Andy in the hopes of cheering him up. Andy is dubious of the doll at first, but soon he finds it charming with its mimicry and seeming intelligence. It names itself Chucky and they soon become inseparable until sinister events lead Andy to believe there is more to Chucky than just a computer chip.

Bateman as the lonely Andy.

Was a reboot to this iconic 80s franchise necessary? Probably not, but we can’t stop the reboot railroad. And if we can’t stop it, then I hope we get reboots like this one. It’s clever, draws on the first original Child’s Play film and has an updated story that works for the most part. It’s clever with its tongue in cheek self-awareness and speaks to the crutch of technology that’s slowly but surely taking over our lives. The film also calls attention to exploited workers in the global electronics market. Reports of overworked, underpaid and dehumanized worker bees assembling our modern electronics has been numerous, making a larger social commentary within a darkly comedic horror film.

Bateman was really, really good as the angst-ridden Andy, and coupled with his gang of fellow world-weary, latchkey kids, gave us some fun moments. I also have to mention Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, If Beale Street Could Talk) who plays Detective Mike, Andy’s neighbour. His banter with his mother Doreen (Carlease Burke) was pretty adorable. Chucky himself was something else all together. I love me some Brad Dourif, but you have to admire Mark Hamill’s vocal talent as the murderous doll. He was every bit as creepy as that hideous reimagining, and hats off to the FX team for creating that horrifying doll face.

Chucky 2019 at his finest.

Plaza reined in her usual quirky style to for a decent performance considering what she was given to work with. Karen was one dimensional and somewhat predictable, reinforcing the desperate single mom trope. It’s understandable that there is some reality to the character being a young, unprepared mother, but the script didn’t do her character any justice by making her a wishy-washy caricature. Add a less-than-desirable boyfriend played by Canadian fixture Adam Lewis, and Karen just becomes sad. There’s also an unnecessary animal death, so be forewarned those who are sensitive.

Overall, this Child’s Play reboot is a fun update to the slasher doll who won’t quit. See it for Hamill’s doll gone mad performance, creepy janitors, nods to classic horror and a surprising comment on our obsession with artificial intelligence and consumerism.

Men In Black International Keeps Things Safe

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were the first to make Men in Black a fun, alien-filled comedy with gags galore.  As a franchise, the stories in subsequent films gave us more of the secret agency ready to protect the universe as we know it from invading extraterrestrials vying for galaxies to intergalactic doo-dads filled to the brim with power. The fourth installment, Men in Black International, crosses the pond to London and Paris where new agents fight a new alien threat.

As a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) witnessed MIB agents neuralyze her parents after a pesky little alien invades her home. With the knowledge that there is life beyond the stars, she grows up to become a brilliant young woman with the goal to become a MIB agent. She soon learns she has to get creative to get into the top-secret headquarters, only to be discovered by Agent O (Emma Thompson). Her one-mindedness gets her a crack at being an agent in London governed by the stoic Agent High T (Liam Neeson), and her quick thinking gets her teamed up with the legendary Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a once revered agent who has become careless.  When the double threat of powerful amorphous alien twins (Les Twins dancing duo Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) try to assassinate alien royalty, Agent H and M must figure out the who, when, and whys before there is irreparable damage done to the universe.

Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent M (Thompson) on the job.

This colorful world of aliens has endless potential for high stakes and adventure. In this newest chapter, there seems to be a tried and true approach where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Director F. Gary Gray who directed 90s classic Set It Off, the acclaimed Straight Outta Compton and the hit Fate of the Furious, kept the same feel to the MIB universe with a touch of slickness, making the film a safe bet for a family night out at the movies.  

Thompson and Hemsworth will fill seats due to their superhero Thor: Ragnarok past together; and there’s quite a bit of fun to be had, including a tiny alien called Pawny voiced by The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani who gets most of the laughs. It was also exciting to see Les Twins, with their hugely successful dancing career leading them to a big budget movie. The film falls short however, with the formulaic and predictable galaxy in danger storyline, especially when there are two great talents as headliners who could give much more.  Thompson, who can play a superhero, artsy girlfriend and sultry executive, is charming if a bit over the top as the determined and ambitious Molly or Agent M, but more importantly, kids see a woman of color excelling at S.T.E.M.  She’s a role-model for little girls who also have their heads in the stars.  It’s also nice to note that the character Molly comes from a two-parent family in a nice home in Brooklyn. Not an unfathomable thing and an important representation of people of color in a big budget film.

Take the kids to see Men In Black International for a bit of fun, but they haven’t reinvented the galactic wheel with this one.  

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Fights For Some Balance

I’m always down for a good monster movie, and Godzilla is one of my favorites.  After seeing the 2014 Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the anticipation for the next chapter was excruciating. It’s been a long wait, but director Michael Dougherty has brought the radioactive kaiju back to us with some of his closest frenemies in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Animal behaviorist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) has thrown himself back into his work after his family was shattered with the loss of his son during Godzilla’s epic San Francisco battle in 2014.  He is a former employee of The Monarch Agency, a cryptozoology outfit researching Godzilla and other animals they call massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) or titans, hibernating beneath the earth’s surface for millions of years. His estranged wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) still works for them and is devising a machine to communicate with the titans. An eco-terrorist group has different ideas for the device and kidnap Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) to use the device to awaken the beasts so they can take back the world from the most destructive force on the planet: humans. Mark is enlisted to find his estranged wife and daughter and save the world.

Madison (Brown) and Emma (Farmiga) captured by the eco-terrorists.

I can’t say I enjoyed the story of Godzilla: King of the Monsters much.  With such a heavy-handed script, there wasn’t much to like. We have to remember Godzilla’s origins through his many iterations – to simplify, he is a creation of the post-nuclear attack fears of the Japanese. To make him and his nemesis monsters a global concern is of course important as nuclear threats have no borders, but I felt the fabulous Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa needed more Japanese backup, so-to-speak.  As far as diversity though, I was happy to see some familiar faces front and center like Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Elizabeth Ludlow, and Ziyi Zhang.

The theme of wanting to help rid the earth of us pesky humans was a concept I could get down with but it was conveyed in such a pedantic way it became tiresome, and the family melodrama seemed like saccharine filler. Director Michael Dougherty, the man behind Trick r’ Treat and Krampus, gave us plenty of eye-popping visuals but none of the substance of his previous films because there was too much talking and not enough monster time. Too much exposition, “‘splaining”, emoting and platitude after platitude; along with some aggressively comedic moments hammed up by Bradley Whitford of Get Out and West Wing fame. In fact, there was so much talking, some weirdo came into our cinema off the street and shouted at the screen.

Godzilla and Ghidorah battling for the earth.

Godzilla himself was simply glorious. The fights, animation and sound design created an immersive experience on the IMAX screen. The scoring by Bear McCreary payed homage to Godzilla’s epic theme originally written by Akira Ifukube, and Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan all had their time in the spotlight. Godzilla’s concept design was true to his historically cranky “Hey, you kids just woke me up from my nap and I’m gonna whup your asses” look. With radioactive blue beams and his signature giant stomping foot, it was worth enduring all the human hot air to see him rise and fight his monster enemies.

There’s not much else to say except see Godzilla King of the Monsters for, well, the monsters. Pay the extra to see it in 3D and IMAX so you’ll at least appreciate the top-notch visuals amidst all the jibber-jabber, but don’t expect much more. Here’s hoping the next chapter has a better story and script when Godzilla meets Kong.