The Last Black Man in San Francisco

If you take the concept “surreal black fable about gentrification in the Bay Area,” then go as far away from Sorry to Bother You as you can get on foot in an afternoon, always keeping If Beale Street Could Talk in your line of sight, you might land in the neighborhood of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I liked this movie quite a bit. It was strange in ways I enjoyed, and strange in others that felt more like the growing pangs of a directorial debut. The first was in some of the details, and the second in the story structure, which I would have pushed them on. The pacing gets too airy in the back half, the focus widening in a way that was intended to bring more into the frame but I felt just made everything a bit fuzzier, and would have made a case that they stay more narrowly focused in favor of stronger clarity. Just stay tight on that house, it’s such an anchor; the set and the stakes and framing all wrapped up in one big old Victorian in the Mission.

But god, is this ever a visually gorgeous film. The opening sequence of Jimmy and Montgomery traveling through the city is breathtaking—luminous light, this grand yet frayed-edged horn score, that one slow motion effect where it’s like you’re moving around someone in a tableau (I looove thaaaat). Honestly, if they’d kept up the sheer glowing artistry of the first 10 or so minutes throughout the whole piece, that might not have even been a good thing! I might have passed out.

The cinematography does maintain a baseline of high beauty throughout though, with a loving Portrait mode focus length, and colors that made the whole city look the way summer days look when I’m wearing my nice polarized sunglasses. And this is good—it is a movie about beauty in many ways. About the longing for a beautiful, physical thing, something whose beauty you can maintain with your own two hands and thus share in it. I think the style was in harmony with the substance there. And not just because I sure did like resting my eyes on the warm color scheme of the two leads’ costumes, which they wear day in day out, like picture book characters.

So yes, The Last Black Man in San Francisco does have some flaws, but it looks good, and it feels good, too. Some of the messaging may have a clumsy delivery, but it’s still sincerely intended and moving, with enough wry humor to give texture to this elegiac love letter to a city passing away, and those it leaves as survivors. It also has a truly fantastic trailer, like this is the kind of trailer that can make you believe in Movies, full stop.

★★★½

The Love Witch

I’m writing this at my table while a summer thunderstorm rolls in over the evening and shakes the trees outside my window, because when ELSE am I going to write about The Love Witch, the astonishingly period-perfect 1960s B-movie pulp pastiche in which, essentially, Lana Del Rey is a psychotic lovesick California witch who, [sighs prettily], just wants a man but they just keep dying on her.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. The thoroughness with which it renders the brightly colored costumes and sculptural 35mm cinematography and terrible, terrible clunky acting of its cheesy occult horror reference points is positively fetishistic. This movie never winks, never even blinks, it is so committed to the bit that it becomes almost narcotic to watch. “What,” I silently mouthed at every set, every line delivery, every pigment of Samantha Robinson’s makeup. This whole thing is so camp you could stick a spoon in it and it wouldn’t fall over, and no I don’t know what I mean by that! That’s what this movie brings me to!

I think the part most lodged in my mind is when Elaine and her latest lover stumble into some sort of Renaissance Fair Sleep No More under the California sunshine that looks like absolutely nothing so much as a Rider-Waite tarot deck brought to life in cheap satin. Like, just incredible, insane aesthetic dedication. I do not think this movie should be two hours long, and I’m sure the bizarre throwback style of it will turn off quite a number of people, at times nearly me, but man, this thing is such an object. I kinda treasure that this was made. Keep making movies, Anna Biller, you are fearless.

★★½

Cléo from 5 to 7

The historic non-profit cinema with the good projection system that’s the place to go for your 70mm screenings of Dunkirk or the only theatrical run of Roma in the city or like, a 35mm print of Xanadu (I love u guys), showed Cléo de 5 à 7 this month to celebrate the work of Agnès Varda (1928-2019), following in the spirit of this year’s Cannes Festival, which had unearthed this gem of a photo for their official poster. Incidentally, my unironic pet fave Rocketman had its premiere at Cannes (out of competition), and would later wind up billed alongside Cléo at the Hollywood that night, filling me with such joy. Black & white Left Bank classics to rainbow Elton John musicals: THIS IS THE MOVIESAnd I love it all. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Wildly enough, their French connection (lol), shared marquee, or the fact that I watched both with a drink (red wine for the Parisian film, naturellement, a tequila & hibiscus situation called The Dread Pirate Roberts for Elton, also naturally)*, were not the last unexpected links between these two films. Turns out there is an extended sequence in Cléo from 5 to 7 where the eponymous Cléo, a glamorous ’60s pop singer, drifts around the piano in her jaw-dropping white apartment (the entire theater gasped when we first saw it) while her lyricist and composer playfully make up songs with her, in an entirely charming and sweet and ultimately quite emotional scene shot with such inventive movement.

So much of Cléo was like that, these extraordinarily likable sequences that feel so fresh despite their nearly 60 years. You can tell that young Agnès Varda, in only her second film (my girl!), knew every second that she was making a Movie, capital M, and was so enamored with all the possibilities. Zero pretension or posturing in her artistry, either, all for the joy and expression and vibrant feeling of it. The movie is technically an hour and a half memento mori, as a young woman waits until 6:30pm when she can call her doctor for the results of a cancer biopsy, and yet it is, beautifully, one of the most alive movies I’ve ever watched. The way Varda depicts the city, its movement and its people, is so present you can almost feel it tingling on your skin. It is like a time capsule of a midcentury summer solstice in Paris, scooped up on film and cut into a gem that will sparkle forever. (The Hollywood Theatre screened it on June 20th—you love to see it.)

There’s a bit of dialogue in this that I’m trying to remember, just this throwaway conversation Varda slipped in for no other discernible reason than texture and curiosity and delight, no other reason than cinema. Cléo is winding through a crowded café with her brandy, and she passes a table where people are discussing art: “The painting’s called ‘Woman’. I see a bull. That proves Miro’s Spanish,” one says. “Picasso’s owl’s look like women,” another responds, “What does that prove?” I nearly collapsed into my wine. And you can too: Agnès Varda’s magnificent Cléo de 5 à 7 is streaming free on Kanopy with a library card.

*it’s not that you can drink at every movie theater in Portland, but, it is a lot of them

★★★★½

 

 

 

 

Dark Phoenix

The thing about Dark Phoenix is that it’s not egregiously incompetent, the execution isn’t really any worse than the worst of any superhero franchise, it’s just so…mystifyingly pointless. It is nothing. It is movie that had no reason to be made, and now that it’s here, has brought nothing to explain itself. I am reminded of that Amber Ruffin bit where she asks, searchingly, “Why did you do this, and what exactly is what you did? What is it for? Fun, nothing, what? Who gets something from it, and, why do they get what they get? And, what is what they get?”

Let’s attempt to answer some of these questions. Why? Fun. Nothing. What else are we doing.

First up, Why did you do this? That one is actually pretty simple to understand: money. They wanted to make money. Did they come up with a product that would achieve what they wanted? They did not—Dark Phoenix is poised to lose perhaps 100 million dollars. Whoopsie daisy.

—and what exactly is what you did? A much more interesting question! What they did is tricky to understand, because how do you understand something that is not anything, but the answer is probably why it is not, in fact, making them any money. Good superhero movies make money, bad superhero movies also make money. Dark Phoenix is making no money, because it didn’t manage to be either of those things. They didn’t make bad choices, which you know because bad choices are at least interesting. They made no choices. This whole movie is no choice at all. They adapted a story that this same studio has already done, that is how few choices they made. As a point of comparison, X-Men: Apocalypse. Apocalypse was a bad movie, because Apocalypse made bad choices, but holy shit were some of those CHOICES. Remember when a bunch of village policemen shot Magneto’s family with bows & arrows because otherwise he could have stopped the bullets? Remember when he tore up Auschwitz??! Remember when Xavier spent half the movie lounging on rocks in a periwinkle sweater and then lost all his hair through magic?? I would have killed for Dark Phoenix to have made choices that bananas.

What is it for? What is any of it for, WHAT IS IT ALL FOR. Listen this is too existential for me to answer.

Who gets something from it, and, why do they get what they get? Does anyone get anything from Dark Phoenix? Jennifer Lawrence, maybe, because she gets OUT of it. But for the rest of us, what we get is small and few. I got, like, three things from it, I think.

What is what they get?
1) The actor playing Jean’s father was Andrew Dussolier from The Young Pope
2) Magneto is reintroduced running a mutant separatist commune on an island, which was the sole area in this movie where they made a design choice and that was “cargo cult”
3) Learning that Emily spent the entire movie thinking Tye Sheridan was Ansel Elgort, and realizing there is honestly no difference

And that’s that then. Well, we’ll always have Paris I guess. Inside jokes for me and the 70 other people who have seen this movie.

Columbus

I was tired and just wanted to watch a nice, quiet movie where people spend most of their time slowly walking among leafy green deciduous trees looking at modern architecture, which is what this movie’s profile in the public [film] consciousness led me to believe I’d be getting. I did, so my feelings toward Columbus are pretty positive, as it was exactly what I wanted to watch when I watched it.

I do not have heaps to say about it, but that’s fine. I don’t think a movie’s success qua movie is contingent on having a bunch of ideas, or even interesting things you want to talk about later. A movie can just be an experience, a thoughtfully composed hour forty of setting and tone, cool and light. A movie can just be a couple nice performances by nice-looking people with approachable energies—Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho, in this case. (I’d only seen Haley Lu Richardson before in Support the Girls, and this performance is equally strong on a totally different emotional register, and now I’m kind of dazzled by her.)

I like that the central relationship isn’t a romance—pro tip for anyone who may have been avoiding it because they thought it was another love story. This is going to sound preposterous but in all honesty much of their odd platonic courtship of each other is sublimated through architecture, and perhaps most preposterous of all, I think it’s kinda nice. My favorite cuts in the whole thing are this bit where they sneak into her old school, the construction of that sequence and also just the shot of them creeping down a hallway together. I came for clean lines against the trees, but that’s the note I carried out.

★★

Rocketman

Hey so, hey, listen, this isn’t exactly good, but it’s MAGNIFICENT. The Elton John movie, as you might expect—nay, desire—is just wall-to-wall cheese, aaallll for the snacking. Rocketman is dazzlingly stupid and so stupidly charming. It’s big and bright and gay and sappy and really, so very dumb, I cannot emphasize enough how dumb this movie is, but at the same time, they made really smart choices? Or scratch that, no: they made the ~*Galaxy Brain*~ choices. For starters, they didn’t make a musician biopic, they made a musical about a musician. That’s immediately so much better!! I’m not sure the cast sings any more than one song at the actual chronological point in which it was written, but I am pretty sure that Taron Egerton is wearing a different pair of glasses in Every. Single. Scene. And these are the kind of choices I want from my Elton John musical.

Incidentally, Taron Egerton in this? A delight. I just had so much goodwill towards him. He manages this magic trick of committing 110% at every single moment, while never crossing over into feeling like he’s trying too hard. There’s this happy comfortableness to his performance that’s really endearing—I saw one critic call him “casually adorable”—while you’re simultaneously so impressed at his rigorous commitment to just leaping up there and belting his heart out while covered in sequins. And he can actually belt pretty well! He’s a good little singer doing a very savvy impression of a very famous voice. Honestly, I might even have enough goodwill toward him to carry me all the way through his year-long Best Actor campaign without even starting to resent him. Let’s try!

The rest of the cast is also really going for it, which is of course the only right way to do an ebullient musical fantasia. Much to-do has been made of Egerton’s romantic scenes with Richard Madden, playing Elton’s lover slash manager slash enemy (an Arc), and I will just say: this is a real horny movie! It’s not like anything’s that explicit, but it is energetically GAY, and yay. Personally I’ve always found Richard Madden curiously non-hot, but the fellas all seem to love him, and this one’s for them. Enjoy, fellas! Beauty-wise I was most struck by this very cute eyebrow boy playing one of Elton’s early managers, about whom another character once snips “Being lovely isn’t a job” in response to Elton protesting that isn’t he though? At one emotional point for me Young Sir Eyebrows drunkenly held up a pair of car keys and I quietly wailed into my friend’s shoulder “Nooo you’re too pretty to die!” Don’t worry he doesn’t, this is adamantly not that kind of movie.

In fact, after the age-old story of a pop star’s rise to fame & subsequent battle with addiction, what this movie may be most is a touching platonic love story. Somewhere around the time I watched Moulin Rouge!, if I recall, I learned that ‘Your Song’ was written right after baby Elton met baby Bernie Taupin, who would be his lifelong lyricist and best friend, and was lost in wonder at how staggeringly sweet that is. ‘Your Song’ is genuinely one of the most darling songs in the world, and if you only have a handful of scene’s worth of time to depict the kind of person who would write that song, you could do a lot worse than cast Jamie Bell to play him. He just radiates kindness and loyalty and love — SO many times in this movie Bernie openly tells Elton he loves him, it is so dear. Anyway that’s the scene I cried at. Of course, as surely the John/Taupin song with the most charmingly straightforward lyrics, these are some of the only words sung in this movie that really feel emotionally and literally rooted in the part of the story that they’re occurring in. So, had extra oomph going on there. But I’m not like, trying to justify my weepery, I will fully own it: I cried watching Rocketman.

It’s absurd that Rocketman is shaping up to be my longest review so far this year, so let me just try to blow through the last things knocking around in my head: 1. During the first act I was fully ready to fight the entirety of Penner, England, to protect my camp bespectacled piano son Reggie Dwight. Shades of the beginning of Velvet Goldmine, by the way, in this section. And of course later as well, in the surreal zany glamour. 2. The screenwriter is the guy who wrote Billy Elliot and oh my god yes, yes of course you did. 3. Big shout out to Elton & Bernie out here de-heteroing their own song for the film and swapping “wife” for “life” in the titular number. 4. They even turned the only Elton John song I dislike (‘Bennie & the Jetts’) into a REMIX VERSION before it could get to the part that annoys me! This is the perfect Elton John musical!!!

★★★★