The Last Black Man in San Francisco

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: R for profanity, nudity and drug use.

Theater: Uptown.

This is a movie about real estate, gentrification cycles and what it means to rage against and embrace the place you call home. Although obviously set in San Francisco, it applies to every city intent on breaking half of its citizens' hearts with each new generation in the housing market.

Jimmie (Jimmie Falls, who co-wrote the script) has been crashing with his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors). Jimmie's family used to own a grand Victorian house in a historically black neighborhood that has been taken over by wealthy white homeowners. It's Jimmie's defining family story: In 1946, as he has been told all his life, Jimmie's grandfather built the house himself, and for a time Jimmie grew up there, playing its pipe organ, scampering through its many gorgeous hallways.

Now the house is owned by an older white couple, haggling over its ownership with family members. But Jimmie visits the house daily, touching up the paint trim on the exterior, not caring if the owners think he's nuts.

And then, as if in a dream, Jimmie and Montgomery repossess the place and move in. From there, the film asks questions of ownership and familial and cultural legacy recalling such meat-and-potatoes stage works as August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." The questions might be common, but they also are enormous: Where do I belong? And must every neighborhood change for the worse for so many?

The movie's narrative engine is small and quiet. It takes some time to get the hang of it, and it's sometimes more pictorially impressive than cinematically alive. The feature debut of director/co-writer Joe Talbot, it has a peculiar, sometimes perplexing, often wondrous tone.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune


⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Not rated

Theater: Lagoon.

Sometimes a documentary doesn't know when to leave well enough alone. It's got access to all of the important people, who come through as their most maximal selves. It's got a good story to tell and a life to unpack and tons of old photographs and miles of archival footage to delight, intrigue and astound. If you've got all of that and your documentary is telling the tale of fashion icon Roy Halston Frowick, you don't need anything else.

Alas, director Frédéric Tcheng didn't get the message. He feels compelled to be smart, or maybe just ponderously playful about it. He tries to turn a juicy business-culture story into film noir. Which is surprising for Tcheng, who's directed good fashion films about Diana Vreeland and Christian Dior. But he's reaching here.

The film details power struggles, ego trips and culture clashes. The pictures, footage, biography, news and gossip are the opposite of a Halston dress — unruly, busy, fussed over. But they come at you with an energy that feels substantial. And the folks gathered to do the enumerating — his assistants, his pals, one of his boyfriends, the models, the executives, his niece — paint such a vivid picture of the atmosphere around Halston, the man and the industry, that you almost don't mind the film's misguided approach.

Wesley Morris, New York Times

American Woman

⋆⋆⋆ out of our stars

Rated: R for profanity, sexual content and brief drug use.

Theater: Lagoon.

In this drama, Sienna Miller delivers a subtly evolving portrait of a woman who, over the course of several years, finds herself. Although it's not an especially profound story, it is a movingly rendered one carried by an actress whose elastic performance bookends the film with two very different people. Perhaps it should be called "American Women."

Directed by Jake Scott ("Welcome to the Rileys") and written by Brad Ingelsby ("Run All Night"), the film opens with Miller's Deb working as a 32-year-old grocery store clerk. She's a single mother of a teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), and grandmother to Bridget's infant son. That dynamic tells us most of what we need to know about Deb. She had a kid when she was still a kid herself, and she hasn't managed to prevent Bridget from repeating her mistakes.

Her growth as a character is precipitated by tragedy. Bridget disappears, and Deb becomes, overnight, her grandson's primary caregiver. This is not a missing-person mystery, except to the degree that Deb herself has been AWOL. The arc of Deb's maternal transformation involves stepping into the role of mother that she once resisted becoming.

Over that skeleton of a story, Miller fleshes out a character that, in the hands of a lesser actress, might have seemed melodramatic at best, or sexist at worst. Miller's Deb grows on you — strong, capable, grounded yet ready to take flight — as she emerges from the chrysalis of grief, a butterfly.

Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post