Aesthetics and substance are two entirely different things in cinema. You could have a film that is bracingly inventive in its visual approach but fall flat in its narrative ambitions. Ditto the reverse, a visually flat film with a well-realized narrative. The latter is usually worth a recommendation, but the former can be problematic, even when you have a film as visually accomplished as Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
Talbot is a guy that was celebrated to no ends at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. He is a major talent to watch. You can just tell there is something special in the way he constructs his shots, using pans, twirls, music and slo-mo to tell his story. His visual eye is an absurd abundance of riches, recalling, and influenced, by Spike Lee. But for all of the camera wizardry, his film is thin and uninvolving.
Tracking down the dramatics of Jimmie Fails, a low-rent San Fran loser that would love to reclaim the majestic Victorian house his grandfather built back in the ‘40s, Talbot tackles themes of gentrification, poverty and racism in his film. You see, every week, Jimmie and his friend, Montgomery (breakthrough Jonathan Majors), make the trek to the nicer parts of San Francisco to look at Jimmie’s dream home, which was lost when the neighborhood changed and gentrifying came into fruition. Hell, Jimmie even paints, fixes, the nits and crannies of the house whenever its owners are out and about at work or doing errands. However, Jimmie is tipped off that the house’s current owners have moved out, it has been abandoned via court battles which might take years to be resolved, which prompts Jimmie to move in with Montgomery.
Director/co-writer/composer Talbot’s film is an original beast, but just concentrating on the despair of one man, without giving us the full context, or character development needed, to drive the drama home, is a major problem. The film was inspired by the real-life story of Jimmie Fails, playing a fictionalized version of himself, and its impetus does render it relevant in 2019. Cities have been changing, and Talbot’s love for San Francisco, his film is clearly an ode to it, is ostensibly touching.
The beautiful score from Emile Mosseri, shades of Spike Lee alumn Terrence Blanchard, and Adam Newport-Berra’s immaculate photography elevate a story that truly never really becomes a story. Sure, the friendship at the core of the movie seems to have been enough for critics to go gaga over this film, but the intention to capture the intimacy of these characters, the depth of feeling, is a struggle for Talbot, the film clocks in at 120 minutes when it could have been much more successful with 30 minutes snipped out of its running time in the editing room.
Scenes go on for far too long, shades of first-timer ambitions are all over the feature, but it’s hard not to approve of the existence of such a film and such a talented bunch of artists. Sundance is a festival that is meant for discovery. You expect overreaching from many of the first-timers, the sense of overplaying your cards just to show you are as worthy a filmmaker as the big boys, but “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” isn’t much of a movie really, it’s a chance for these artists to prove their technical chops and, in that regard, they succeed. This is the announcement of a visually talented artist (Talbot), a visionary DP (Newport-Berra), and two incredible actors (Fails and Majors), but a very clunky script. [C+]