THE FAREWELL

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

I guess there are two things a movie needs these days to be successful, even if it’s only an independent or foreign film. It’s not enough just to be good — it has to be marketed well too. The people over at A24 Films seem to know what they’re doing: last weekend, The Farewell managed the year’s highest per-screen average to date, even higher than Avengers: Endgame. Granted, last weekend The Farewell only played on four theatres. But it’s clearly a strategy that worked: several publications ran stories about it. People on pop culture podcasts talked about it.

I fully expected the 6 p.m. showing I went to at The Egyptian Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill might be sold out. I pre-purchased my ticket last night for that very reason, and arrived twenty minutes early. In the end, the house was not sold out, but it must have been at least 80% full. I found myself wondering if it might have been even fuller if not for the Capitol Hill Block Party going on all of one block away.

The hope, clearly, is that The Farewell can rely on word of mouth, so here I am telling you about it. Honestly, I’m not convinced the film quite lives up to the expectation. I grabbed three napkins on the way in, fully expecting a massive tear jerker. I only wiped away a couple of tears.

But it’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. I’m just a white guy in America whose only window into Chinese culture is precisely movies like these. As the opening title card says, it’s “based on an actual lie” — the typical practice of Chinese families not to tell a terminally ill family member that they are sick. In this version of the story, written and directed by Lulu Wang, it’s the family matriarch, the grandmother they all call “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao, who is wonderful, in her sole acting role). She has cancer and is given three months to live.

Although maybe three quarters of the dialogue is in Chinese, The Farewell is actually an American production, presumably with an eye for both American and Chinese audiences. That bridge comes in the form of the central character, Nai Nai’s granddaughter who has lived in the U.S. since she was little, Billi, played by Awkwafina in a breakout performance. Awkwafina managed to shine as well in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, but those were “cool, fun” supporting parts, often quite funny. Here is a dramatic role which, although very much part of an ensemble cast, is the central character around whom the story revolves. We start and end with Billi, following her from New York City to Changchun, China and back, watching her as a very Americanized young woman struggling with this choice made by her extended family. In one scene, she notes that in America this would be illegal.

The family schedules a wedding for Billi’s one cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese wife, as a means of getting all of the family back together one last time with Nai Nai. Hao Hao lives in Japan because his father long ago moved him there, after all; Billi’s parents have themselves lived in the U.S. for many decades. But this wedding is the one area where Lulu Wang’s storytelling gets a little awkward, as both Hao Hao and his wife are barely utilized — as members of a relatively small extended family, it would have made sense to give them a bit more dimension as characters. Instead, Chen Han as Hao Hao doesn’t even have ab audibly spoken line until what feels like halfway through the movie. Aio Mizuhara, as his wife who only speaks Japanese and does not speak or understand Chinese, never gets any lines at all, but for a brief scene in which she and Hao Hao sing a song together. It’s a little odd, given the extended sequence at a wedding everyone is pretending to be in their honor.

But if some of the supporting parts are not as fleshed out as they could have been, the relationships between Billi and Nai Nai, and also between Billi and her parents (Tzi Ma as the father with a sporadic drinking problem; Diana Lin as the mother who has a strained history with her mother-in-law; both actors are great), are as compelling as you could ask for. Nai Nai also has a sister (Hong Lu, also her only acting credit), who also has few lines even though she’s the one spearheading the secret. The whole scenario is deeply fascinating and poses a valid philosophical question. If this were an option for you, to keep their own terminal illness a secret from your own mother or grandmother, would you do it?

There is a certain difficulty in assessing a film like this for me, being so completely removed from the culture from which its premise comes. It seems entirely possible it would speak to people with Chinese families in a completely different way, and perhaps speaks most directly to American children of Chinese immigrants. The Farewell is genuinely moving, regardless of such nuances. It may not have made my cry as much as I expected it to, but perhaps that just means it makes the refreshing choice of avoiding emotional manipulation.

In fact, by and large this film is rather understated and subtle, which works very much in its favor. It’s quiet and contemplative, aided in large part by Awkwafina’s restrained performance. Its polished cinematography and tight editing conspire to make this a story, full as much heart and humor as there is sadness, easy to fall into.

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

Overall: B+

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM

Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Here I am, writing a review of a movie about a massively well-known, globally respected novelist whose books I have never read. Not a single one of them.

What I can still tell you with authority is that the film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is excellent. Some might even call it perfection. If not perfection, then certainly revelatory. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie before that made me think, Why the fuck have I never read any of her books? We all have cultural blind spots; I won’t exactly feel bad about that. I will still acknowledge this is a big one for me.

Also: reading the work of a brilliant author is one thing. Getting to know her as a uniquely self-actualized person is quite another — so much as can be done in a two-hour run time, anyway. Morrison is a strikingly intelligent woman, clearly as sharp as she’s ever been, at her current age of 88 years. I wonder how much of that is just practice, decades of exercising the muscles of her intellect? She talks about how she is “smartest” in the early morning hours, and has little interest or ability in writing after noon. Keeping that up must be a great exercise.

One need not have read her work to see how, when Toni Morrison leaves this earth, a great void will be left in her wake — and yet, in contrast to many other people for whom the same could be said, that void will be largely mitigated by her body of work, which is widely beloved (no pun intended).

Morrison, having sat down for multiple long interviews for this film, proves to be a dynamic screen presence. She only has to sit and speak, and she commands attention, all confidence, sincerity and warmth in equal measure, someone quick to express joy while at the same time capable of tapping into deep wells of pain. This is a woman who lacks humility only because she doesn’t need it. There is no particular arrogance in her demeanor; she simply sits comfortably in the knowledge of her skill and talent. She even says in an archived interview from the time of her 1993 win for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, “I’m a good writer.” It’s impossible to resent that level of ease of self. Would that more people learned from how she leads by example. The world would be full of happier people.

Watching this movie felt like having my mind cracked open. Admittedly, it did occur to me how naive it could be to allow such grandiose impressions of a person to be made by just one movie, which can easily be edited to make anyone seem in countless ways different than they actually are. Still, it’s easy to trust this impression. The singular energy emitted by Morrison onscreen is not easily faked, and many archival clips reveal it to have been consistent.

As for potential interest in her body of work examined by the film, there is something to be said for the notion of greater specificity evoking greater universality of feeling and empathy. Plenty of widely respected friends and associates are also interviewed (Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and several others), they come from varied backgrounds, and Morrison’s unprecedented narrative focus on black women in fiction moved them all in equal measure.

And it’s not like I had never heard of Tori Morrison, mind you. I can still remember when the movie adaptation of the novel Beloved became Oprah Winfrey’s passion project in the late nineties, more than a decade after the book’s initial publication. I actually did see that movie, and I recall easily imagining how the novel was likely the better medium for such a story. A novel, by all accounts beautifully written, could never have the distraction of an actor far too famous to disappear into any role.

There is no doubt in my mind that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will delight fans of the novelist — who, I learned from this film, spent the years spanning the publication of her first few books also working full time as an editor at a publishing house, promoting the works of other black women (including the autobiography of Angela Davis), while also raising two sons on her own. Based on my personal experience, it’s just as affecting to those who have never read anything by her, and will render them eager to start. All I have left to decide is which of her novels I should begin with.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

Overall: A

HALSTON

Directing: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.

In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.

Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.

These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.

Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.

I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.

Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.

halston.jpg

Overall: B-

WILD ROSE

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Music: A-

When it comes to movies about musicians and their music, you’ll be hard pressed to find any better than Wild Rose. This movie is better than Rocketman, certainly better than Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably even better than A Star Is Born. The travesty is that Wild Rose flies under the radar compared to those films — so far under the radar, in fact, in effect there is no radar at all. And this one is better executed, more deeply emotionally affecting, than all three of those others put together.

And I say this as someone who is not particularly a country music fan, regarding a movie about a young, single mother (Jessie Buckley, fantastic) dreaming of leaving her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland for Nashville, Tennessee to try making it in the country music business. Rose-Lynn is clearly talented (as is Jessie Buckley), but the basic arc of this story, unlike most stories like it, is that she must realize her own naiveté.

Rose-Lynn is just getting out of a year in jail when the movie starts, and we soon learn she is in her twenties and has two children, who have been staying with their grandmother (Julie Walters, always a welcome presence). She remains singularly focused on her Nashville dreams, to the detriment of her relationship with her young children, as well as with her exasperated mother. Rose-Lynn soon finds work as a housekeeper for a relatively well-off woman (Sophie Okonedo), to whom Rose-Lynn lies about having any children, during which they develop a friendship.

The first time Rose-Lynn cleans Susannah’s house, and Susannah pops out for a while and leaves Rose-Lynn alone, we see Rose-Lynn immediately snooping around the rooms, even stealing a glass of some of her liquor. In most other movies, this would be a bit of “Chekhov’s gun” forecasting: surely this will come back to her, and she’ll get caught somehow. But in this case, it’s the first of many examples of the story not quite going in the direction you expect.

Rose-Lynn finds support for her career in unexpected places, most of them home-grown when she’s far too obsessed with visiting Nashville — where, as Wild Rose soon enough makes perfectly clear, trying to launch a career from obscurity is about as easy as a nobody moving to Los Angeles to become a movie star.

And indeed, given her circumstances, Rose-Lynn spends much of the movie being pretty selfish. So much so that I actually began to wonder about it: Will there come a point where I am comfortable rooting for her? Especially to Jessie Buckley’s credit, Rose-Lynn is compelling as a character from the start. And, her story arc is not just satisfying, but is peppered with pretty fantastic country music along the way, including a few original compositions.

Wild Rose is the rare film about a musician trying to make it, with as much concern for well-rounded characters as it has for great music. Most other films that might otherwise be compared to it have a much more singular focus on a rise and fall, and in some cases redemptive rise again, of some tortured artist. In this case, Rose-Lynn rarely makes the obvious choice, and the film is all the better for it. It has its own kind of triumph in the end, but it’s very much on its own terms. Besides, how often do you get a Scottish film about country music? Just this once, as far as we know — and director Tom Harper, and especially Jessie Buckley, knock it out of the park.

Jessie Buckley shines.

Jessie Buckley shines.

Overall: A-

YESTERDAY

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

A movie whose premise hinges on the entire back catalog of The Beatles should really be more clever than this. What we have instead is something written by the writer of Love, Actually (Richard Curtis) and directed by the director of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), to create a product of combined influences that is shockingly tepid for something featuring such historically vital material.

The strangest rub is, in nearly every aspect except the story, Yesterday has ample charms. It’s clearly made by competent people, very well shot, and the acting almost elevates the spoken material. Almost. Himesh Patel, as Jack Malik, evidently the only person in the world who remembers The Beates from an alternate reality apparently lost during a 14-second global blackout, gives a winning performance. He’s a talented singer and he plays The Beatles songs well. And the songs, the music — of course, those are always a blast to hear. The movie is really only particularly fun when Jack is playing Beatles songs.

That’s of no fault of Lily James, who is also lovely as Ellie, Jack’s longtime local manager and subject of unrequited love. It’s just that their backstory isn’t that interesting. Before the aforementioned blackout, Jack is a struggling musician who writes his own songs, and his songs are entirely forgettable. The result of being introduced to them as such characters is that, until Jack starts singing “Yesterday” and discovers no one has ever heard of it, their story is entirely forgettable too.

Honestly, even the use of Beatles songs is a hugely missed opportunity. There is so much contextualizing, and investigating of how the meaning of these songs of unparalleled influence might be changed by their never having existed until 2019. Instead, Yesterday keeps it’s focus on how they are widely regarded as the best songs ever written, and on that basis alone, even in 2019 it results in Jack becoming an overnight superstar. I have my doubts as to whether it would really play out that way, and particularly so quickly.

I don’t suppose that matters, for some. If the movie is fun then it’s fun, right? And surely, casual fans of The Beatles will find this movie fun, people who don’t think much about the history and import behind them. But I would consider myself a casual fan of the Beatles, but also a pretty hardcore fan of movies, and I prefer movies make some sort of sense. I don’t require and explanation for every little thing; this movie provides no information whatsoever as to how or why this global, 14-second blackout happens, and I’m fine with that. But I am also aware of the broader history of pop culture and the place The Beatles have in it, and therefore have a desire for an alternate universe in which it doesn’t exist to interrogate more than just how that music brings fame and fortune. That seems to be the only thing about The Beatles that this movie is interested in.

Sure, it has its cute moments. Ed Sheeran plays a significant supporting role as himself, the guy who discovers Jack’s “talent” and helps launch him into fame. Kate McKinnon is an easy satire of money-hungry Hollywood agents. Jack keeps discovering random other things this no longer existing in this alternate reality: Coca-Cola, cigarettes. And to be fair, for many viewers it will be easy to appreciate what this movie is, as opposed to what it should or could have been. I still wouldn’t tell even those people it needs to be seen in a theatre — you can enjoy it just as easily on your streaming service of choice in a couple of months. But I fall firmly in the camp that can only see this movie’s unrealized potential. In a better writer’s hands, it could have been something great, something actually worthy of the buzz it generated when the trailer first started appearing.

You might wonder why that buzz never lasted. Those of us who have seen the movie can easily see why. It’s because even though Yesterday is fine, no movie based on the hits of The Beatles should ever be just fine. They deserve better.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Otherwise wonderful Lily James and Hamish Patel cannot be saved by The Beatles in an alternate reality.

Overall: B-

MIDSOMMAR

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

Here is a truly unusual movie, a story bathed in light, smothered in flowers, packed with imagery associated with the joyous rebirth of spring — and filled with horrors. That alone makes Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary (which I did not see, because I did not want to be terrified), stand apart.

And although there is a shockingly gruesome sequence about halfway through, Midsommar is not especially terrifying. I know that going in, which was why I was open to seeing it — I generally avoid horror movies. I don’t particularly like being scared. Deeply disturbed? Well, I guess that’s another story! In the case of this particular movie, it’s just . . . unsettling. The horrors on display in the bright, long, early summer days of Sweden are a bit part of that.

In a relatively transparent narrative device, Midsommar starts in the dead of dark winter in the U.S., a fairly long pre-credits sequence revealing the source of massive grief for the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh). To say it’s a tragic loss for Dani in a seriously fucked up way would be an understatement.

Curiously, understatement seems to be Ari Aster’s M.O. This story unfolds at a uniquely leisurely pace, as though taking to heart the idea of relaxing in the summer sun in a hilly meadow. But this is a meadow concealing something unnervingly sinister. All Dani and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) know, however, is that they are tagging along with several other friends as guests of their friend Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) to his native Swedish town to witness a Pagan ritual they are told only occurs every ninety years.

Aster quite effectively gets his audience to let their guard down, particularly through humor, of which Midsommar has more than you might expect. This is especially the case with the most endearingly clueless-American of the group, Mark (Will Poulter), who spends a lot of time oblivious to his own cultural insensitivities.

This is one of many ways Midsommar effectively walks a fine line: it could easily become a commentary on the typical cluelessness of American culture. But for Ari Aster, it seems that would just be too obvious. When individuals of the visiting groups — including another couple from Britain — begin to disappear one by one, it’s tempting to read it as potential retribution. Josh (William Jackson Harper), for instance, defies the Swedish group’s wishes by returning to a ritual room in the middle of the night.

But any thoughts of moral standing of specific incidents are only a distraction. Something far deeper is going on here, with increasing levels of complexity. The group is given hallucinogenics the moment they arrive — it’s why Mark immediately freaks out a little when he learns it’s 9 p.m. even though the sky is still blue. Most of them remain under the influence of one thing or another for the rest of the film.

And then, horrific spins of varying degree are given to several Pagan rituals associated with the summer solstice or things like May Day, such as a maypole dance competition. One scene containing equal parts horror and hilarity involves a sex ritual. Indeed, these rituals run the gamut, from death to birth.

In a way, Midsommar is also a mystery movie, albeit one in which the mystery getting solved is not a relief to anyone. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance between the ample beauty of choreography and the darkness of the sentiments ultimately revealed to be behind them. It’s almost as though Ari Aster set out to prove that it doesn’t have to be cold and dark for truly frightening things to be happening.

And he does it with the help of Pawel Pogorzelski’s fantastic cinematography, and Andea Flesch’s incredible costume design. I’m not sure I will ever forget the indelible image of Dani, weighed down by both a massive dress of flowers and her own grief, lurching to nowhere through the fields with a burning barn behind her. I tried in vain to find a still shot of that stunning flower dress online. Perhaps it’s by design that, at least for now, it can’t be seen unless you watch the movie.

I hesitate to say I “enjoyed” Midsommar — although certainly some elements (like the humor) were enjoyable. Conversely, I certainly don’t regret seeing it. There’s really something to be said for a genuinely unique vision in film in 2019. That is this film’s true achievement, making it an unusually memorable experience, and for that reason alone I would recommend it.

Sometimes you’re just along for the ride until you realize you can’t get off.

Sometimes you’re just along for the ride until you realize you can’t get off.

Overall: B+

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

The Last Man In San Francisco is about so many things, I hardly know where to begin — except, perhaps, the subtext that pervades every part of it, which is the gentrification of San Francisco, particularly to its exclusion of low-income, nonwhite people.

It’s a bit of a cliche now to call the city where a film is set “is also a character,” but San Francisco definitely qualifies here. It’s a somewhat curious experience to see this movie while still in the middle of the current season of Tales of the City on Netflix, which very much tries to do the same thing with San Francisco — only in the series’ case, it’s through a queer lens. In this movie’s case, it’s through a black lens.

There is a scene in the first episode of the current Tales of the City in which a cab driver is keeping his pet turtle in the passenger seat. I found myself feeling very skeptical about it: could San Francisco, with all its homogenized gentrification, really still be that commonly weird? Well, there’s a scene in The Last Man in San Francisco where the protagonist, Jimmie Fails (played by . . . Jimmie Fails), is sitting in a bus stop. This older white man, stark naked, meanders into frame, sets down a tissue on the bench, and sits on the other side of the bus shelter, apparently also just waiting for the bus. A cable car full of frat bro partiers pulls up next to them for a minute, and once it pulls away again, the naked man says, “This city, man!” Totally unfazed by the white guy’s nakedness, Jimmie just replies, with a wistful look in his eyes, “Tell me about it, bro!”

In both of these examples, the sentiment is basically the same: “This city, man!” — people exasperated by the changes wrought upon the city they love. There is some irony, too, in the sentiment being expressed by the very people who are clearly keeping the city plenty weird.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is directed, incidentally, by Joe Talbot — a white man, offering his feature directorial debut. Still, its direction is unusually confident and assured for a debut. Also, he and Jimmie Fails grew up together in San Francisco, and receive co-credit for writing the story. Fails plays a fairly aimless as well as obsessive young man who stays in the house of his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover). Montgomery is an accessory to Jimmi’s truly eccentric crimes, all of which are tired to his obsession with the Victorian house he lived in for a time as a child. The house’s current occupants, an upper-middle-aged white couple, are bemused by Jimmie’s insistence on coming by when they’re not around to do upkeep on the house, such as gardening or painting the trim.

This truly gorgeous house is as much a character in its own right as San Francisco is. A huge portion of the story takes place inside or around it, as when the house is unexpectedly vacated, Jimmie and Montgomery move all of Jimmie’s belongings in, and basically become squatters.

The lore behind this house is a big part of the story, with Jimmie often repeating that it was actually built by his grandfather in the forties, having been regarded by locals at the time as “The first black man in San Francisco.” Jimmie’s family is complicated, and I do wish more details about them were revealed. His father sells knockoff DVDs. His mother, seen only once when Jimmy happens to run into her on a city bus, seems relatively affluent in her own right, but there is the sense she hasn’t even seen him since well before he became an adult. Why? We never find out. His aunt (Tichina Arnold, really maximizing what few scenes she’s in), lives outside of town now, in a place she can afford.

There is much more at play going on, and every part of The Last Man of San Francisco, gorgeously shot by Adam Newport-Berra in a way that makes the film more art than drama, is dense with layers of meaning. It is both totally absorbing, and feels like something that could be studied in college film courses. It contains multitudes of fascinating narrative choices, not least of which is the heavy focus on the intimate friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery, to the exclusion of any apparent romance in either of their lives. The closest we get to romance, in fact, is a couple of slightly comic looks of lust on Auntie Wanda’s face as she watches her husband skateboarding in the street.

This is a film that pulls off the trick of universal themes via ultra-specific viewpoints. The gentrification subtext is a familiar one to me; I feel like a lot of the people I know could make a similar movie called The Last Gay Man in Seattle. Except the dispersal of queer people from Seattle is nowhere near as dire as people like to characterize it, and I could not trust anyone I know to make a film of this quality. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a less hardened, much more wistful and contemplative companion piece to last year’s excellent Blindspotting, its own subtext largely being the gentrification of the city across the Bay, Oakland. Those two movies would perhaps make a great double feature.

In any case, The Last Man in San Francisco is a unique experience, even as it is a treatise on a lot of well-trod cultural conversations. It’s not to be missed.

An American Dream unravels.

An American Dream unravels.

Overall: B+

TOY STORY 4

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A

My love of the Toy Story franchise cannot be overstated, especially since Toy Story 3 became not only my favorite in the series, but my favorite movie of 2010. When the first Toy Story was released in 1995, it established Pixar Animation Studios as the industry standard for CG animated features, for visual impressiveness and storytelling power in equal measure; with Toy Story 2 in 1999, Pixar’s first-ever sequel proved that they were capable of sequels equal to their predecessor. But, a second sequel, eleven years after the last installment? Which was more emotionally affecting even than the previous to put together? The achievements of Toy Story 3 astonish me to this day.

So, I had mixed expectations for Toy Story 4 — and, in the end, somewhat mixed feelings about it after the fact. Could the lightning in a bottle they managed with a third film in a series, which still woks perfectly as the final installment of a trilogy, be repeated with a fourth installment? In short: no. But, it’s more complicated than that. Toy Story 4 feels like a revisit to a world we all love, and it is undeniably fun and emotionally affecting in its own right. But it also doesn’t not particularly innovate the story in any way, doesn’t move these characters’ universe any further forward than they had gone the last time around.

With eleven years between 2 and 3, and nine years between 3 and 4, there has been an average of ten years between the release of every Toy Story sequel. Entirely new generations of kids exist with the release of each new installment. It seems kind of fitting that much of this new one takes place inside an antique store. Granted, these toy characters have been talking about their conditions as antiques since the second film, but 4 contains a fully contained environment housing relics collecting dust. It feels like a vague allusion to this franchise itself, were they to continue making them.

Sadly, the truth is, of all four of these movies, Toy Story 4 is the least vital. Unlike the first three movies, this one doesn’t even have Andy as part of the narrative thread that connects them all — only the memory of him, which Woody (voiced, as everyone should know by now, by Tom Hanks) can’t learn to let go of. And strangely, even though Toy Story 3 aged its characters close to the amount of time passed between the Toy Story 2 and 3, Toy Story 4 starts with a flashback to “nine years ago” that would actually place it closer to the time of Toy Story 2. In the narrative of 4, Bonnie, the little girl Andy gifted all his toys to at the end of 3 as he headed off to college, is still the same little girl. It has a slightly discombobulating effect, a decade between movie releases but time passing that much in the story with one but not at all with the next.

But. But, but, but! I freely admit I am being nitpicky here. I can nitpick even more: if Bo Peep has been living such a wild outdoor life all this time at a carniva (Annie Potts, who voices the character, did not appear in Toy Story 3), how the hell does her porcelain face and clothes remain so clean and spotless? Pixar is usually better at attention to detail than this. But I’m digressing again! Because: seriously, so what? Toy Story 4 not being the truly great movie I wanted it to be certainly doesn’t change the quality entertainment it offers in its own right and on its own terms.

The new toy characters alone make this movie worth seeing. “Forky” (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes made by little Bonnie at kindergarten orientation, is a delightfully weird addition to the gang. Keanu Reeves voices Duke Caboom, a Canadian toy daredevil motorcycle rider with a hilarious amount of pride in himself. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as the voices of insanely cute and also unruly plush carnival prizes, a bird and a bunny, with overactive imaginations. An antique doll with a pull string but a malfunctioning motor that makes her borderline villainous in her desire for the working motor in Woody’s back, is voiced by Christian Hendricks.

And yes, of course, Tim Allen also returns as Buzz Lightyear, with an amusing running joke about considering his button-press recorded sayings his “inner voice.” Pretty much all the rest of the regular toys return as well, particularly Bo Peep, here basically getting a co-lead part in the story.

Thus, as you might imagine, a whole lot is going on in this movie. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, and it zips along so quickly it feels much shorter than that. And, I must also admit, the more I think about it after the fact, the greater my appreciation for it becomes. That doesn’t make it any more vital as an addition to the series, but it does illustrate that not a single moment of time is wasted watching it either. As with its predecessors, I will no doubt by happy to go see it again.

As always, I must mention the animation. It is as impressive as ever, and here easily the most impressive part of the film — pretty on-brand for Pixar. Because Bonnie’s family has chosen to take a road trip in the interim between kindergarten orientation and the official start of the school year, the majority of the story takes place first on the road, and then at the aforementioned carnival — only a fraction of it takes place in Bonnie’s bedroom. And this carnival allows for some spectacular visual backdrops, the lights, the colors, the spinning rides, the occasional fireworks. This could easily have been a sensory overload, but the animators here present it with a unique beauty, often as deliberately blurred background for the action of the story. It’s animation that looks remarkably like a location shoot.

I suppose these flourishes are increasingly necessary, lest the repetition of the conceit, that toys get misplaced and must find their way back to their kids, get stale. It’s true that these stories are really just variations on the same basic concepts — but then, aren’t all stories? The joy is in the details, and this is a film with plenty such joy to offer.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

Overall: B+

LATE NIGHT

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Late Night starts off a little pat and corny, as it rushes a bit through the introduction of its characters, late night talk show host Katherine Newbury delivering a monologue on her show to an audience laughing plenty, even though the monologue jokes aren’t actually all that funny. Within about five minutes, however, we find Katherine in her writers’ room exclusively full of white guys who treats with either dismissiveness or contempt, and then things get genuinely funny, and remain fairly consistently so through the rest of the movie.

The jokes in Late Night are always best when part of the banter between the show staff, the actual writing they do that we see Katherine perform never quite as good. Thankfully this movie takes place mostly behind the scenes, in a fantasy world where Katherine Newbury is a female contemporary to late night talk show titans like Jay Leno or David Letterman — neither of whom are ever named; we just know that Katherine has been doing the show since 1991, and has won a ton of Emmys for it.

One neat trick, among many, of Mindy Kaling’s script is that it presents a world in which a woman star talk show host is believable, even though no such thing has ever actually happened. If it did, though, it’s easy to see it looking like this, with a white English woman filling the role as a casually cruel perfectionist who doesn’t even realize how little she herself cares for other women.

Emma Thompson is perfectly cast in this role, giving it unique nuance that makes it difficult to imagine anyone else doing it. Pairing her with Kaling, who also stars, doesn’t seem like the most intuitive choice at first, but they have real chemistry together. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Kaling herself has charisma to spare.

Her script, though, is what truly drives Late Night’s undeniably winning sensibility, because Kaling’s Molly Patel so clearly loves television, and that is a clear extension of Kaling herself. Late Night somehow manages to be the least offensive movie to anyone while also acheiving everything it aspires to, which is simply to be a light, entertaining story that touches on industry issues — lack of diversity, sexism — without ever coming even close to being judgmental of the people working in it. In this universe, anyone benefiting from systemic problems is doing so unwittingly.

It’s a smart move from the standpoint of a light comedy, as it acknowledges industry (and cultural) challenges without ever getting mired in it. There’s a certain unbridled joy to Mindy Kaling in particular, which she infuses into all her work. They way she writes her characters — and the way Nisha Ganatra directs the actors playing them — you can’t help but find ways to root for them all, privileged background or not.

There are moments where the amount of detail thrown into the story does feel a little overdone, and certain moments are almost distracting in their oversimplifications. There is no real romantic element to this story, although it gits hinted at in a way that feels it would be better either fleshed out more or done away with altogether. The overall charm of the story, and especially the performances of Kaling and Thompson (who has never been better), more than make up for it.

I wish more could have been done with John Lithgow as Katherine’s ailing but supportive husband, and even Amy Ryan as the network president planning to cancel the show, both of whom do great with what little they’re given. You can’t have everything. The ensemble supporting cast is large enough just with the guys in the writers’ room, which includes Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and John Early, not to mention Ike Barinholtz as the boorish comedian presented as Katherine’s potential replacement. There’s some irony to a movie so much about female voices rounding out its cast with so many white men, but even more satisfaction to the two leads being women who get a combined majority of the lines and screen time.

Far more importantly, and as always with comedies, this movie made me laugh — and if a movie is being sold as a comedy, that’s what it should do. Mindy Kaling has a unique comic sensibility, and Emma Thompson a unique comic voice. Late Night didn’t just make me chuckle consistently, as is far more common with most “comedies.” It genuinely made me laugh at a pretty consistent clip, with clever and sophisticated humor that could easily fall flat in lesser hands. It’s just plain a lot of fun, with a large cast of characters who are all enjoyable to be around. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie.

To borrow a line, this movie is “a splash of color on the gray canvass” that is all comedy currently in cinema.

To borrow a line, this movie is “a splash of color on the gray canvass” that is all comedy currently in cinema.

Overall: B+

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Directing: C-
Acting: C+
Writing: D+
Cinematography: C-
Editing: C
Special Effects: C

When I saw Godzilla back in 2014, I had high hopes for director Gareth Edwards, who had in 2010 made a name for himself with the indie alien mystery Monsters. That film revealed a director with real potential, which made Godzilla all the more disappointing. That movie spent its first half being static and lifeless before turning into an even worse disaster movie than 2012.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now, overcompensates for that previous lifelessness by jumping right into the action — although I use “action” loosely here, as it would be more accurate to call this film a “mess of chaos.”

Why did I even bother seeing this movie, you might wonder? I’m wondering the same thing. I literally went to it thinking to myself, These movies are never very good, I don’t know why I keep coming back. My only defense is that I held on to the idea that I knew full well it would be dumb, but the spectacle might me fun on its own terms. Some blockbuster special effects extravaganzas do work that way.

Well, not this one. This movie has not one redeeming quality. The closest it gets is that some parts of it are merely average — the acting, for instance — rather than terrible.

Otherwise, I hardly know where to begin. I found myself thinking, Why the hell would that happen? so many times, I can’t think of any specific examples. Maybe when Godzilla bites off one of the heads of the three-headed rival “alpha predator” that was reawakened in Antarctica, then that head literally grows right back in a matter of seconds, and this is explained away by somehow figuring out that it’s the one monster that is an alien, whereas all the others are actually native to Earth? That ridiculousness is just the tip of the iceberg here.

If I were Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., or David Strathairn, I would be embarrassed to be in this movie, but apparently none of them are. I guess they’re all happy to act proud of this mess since they got a nice paycheck? Presumably they got paid up front: King of the Monsters made half in its opening weekend what the previous Godzilla did. And trust me, no word of mouth is going to save this one: you might think that earning $80 million so far is nothing to shake a stick at, except it cost $170 million to make!

What a colossal waste of money. The special effects are subpar, the lighting is almost always too dark to get a visual handle on what the hell is going on, the editing makes it impossible to get any real sense of continuity, and this is in action set piece after action set piece that make up about 80% of the movie. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) never takes things down a notch long enough to allow any time for the story to breathe. On the few occasions things do slow down, it’s apparently just to insult our intelligence.

At the beginning of our “story,” such as it is, it’s been five years ago since “the attacks” on San Francisco, and for reasons no one can explain, Godzilla has been in hiding all this time. We find Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell off somewhere studying wolves — which evidently involves taking pictures of a pack feeding on a carcass, using a long lens from behind a nearby log otherwise exposed in a massive field. This is the “foundation” for which we learn about “apex predator” behaviors later applied to Godzilla, and the three-headed monster, and how all the other long-dormant monsters frozen in time suddenly wake up and answer their calls in one way or another.

Vera Formiga’s Dr. Emma Russell has devised an audio contraption that apes these so-called apex predator commands and somehow can render them docile — if used correctly and in the right hands. All sorts of wrong hands come into play, the one exception being Mark and Emma’s daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who of course has more brains and logic than any of the adults around her, which in this movie isn’t saying much.

We do get brief shots of other “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” (MUTOs, they actually call them that), by the way, with three or four very quick shots and/or references to “Kong.” This is a transparent attempt at laying the foundation for the next film in this “cinematic universe,” Godzilla vs. Kong, also co-written by Dougherty and already in post-production. I’m exhausted already. At this rate, no one is going to care what Kong or Godzilla are doing by next year. I already don’t.

I’d be tempted to say that at least this time around you get to see Boston get destroyed, but . . . honestly, it hardly matters. You can barely see the city at any given time. And it’s just the same shit in a different movie, with no characters you feel any need to get emotionally invested in. This movie is supposed to be a thrill ride but I lost my patience with it within fifteen minutes and soon after became so numb to the onslaught of nonsensical carnage that it literally made me drowsy. Maybe that’s this movie’s best defense: Godzilla: King of the Monsters works if you have insomnia!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Overall: C-