Scorched Earth


Unlike Jesse Ventura, Gina Carano has time to bleed.

(2018) Sci-Fi Action (Cinedigm) Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Luvia Petersen, Patrick Sabongui, Nathan Mitchell, Alisha Newton, Daniel Bacon, Sarah Troyer, Bart Anderson, Kailey Spear. Directed by Peter Howitt

 

I’m all for B-movies, so long as they’re reasonably entertaining and have at least a scrap of originality or at least some imagination to them. Scorched Earth, a post-apocalyptic ecological action western (that’s a mouthful) probably doesn’t qualify for either and if it does only barely but I found myself giving it a fairly mixed review.

Bounty hunter Attica Gage (Carano) wanders the wasteland following a global ecological disaster (take that, climate change deniers!) after an event known as Cloudfall permanently polluted the planet with toxic chemicals leading a need for re-breathing devices that use powdered silver to work properly and tiny chemical pellets that purify the polluted water. In her era it’s a capital crime to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle and she collects bounties on offenders of that law, for instance Chavo (Petersen) who wears a cowboy hat with a couple of aces in the hatband. That’s what passes for eccentricity among the mass murdering set in the future.

Gage is one of those bounty hunters who always gets her man (in that case, woman) but she has a run-in with the sheriff of New Montana (population 24) whose sheriff (Gilmore) has misplaced her bounty until Gage “finds” it for him. Her only friend is Doc (Hannah), the town medic and a former bounty hunter himself until a knee injury did his bounty hunting days in. He tells her of the biggest bounty ever offered for Thomas Jackson (Robbins), the mayor of the town of Defiance – wait, wasn’t that the name of the town in a SyFy post-apocalyptic Western? – and warns her she won’t be able to collect it by herself as Jackson has a crew of ruthless killers. Of course she sets out on her own after him, confident she can impersonate Chavo by wearing her hat. Of course nobody really sees anybody’s face that often due to the re-breathers which are taken off regularly.

Anywho, it turns out that Gage has a personal connection to Jackson as well as his bar chanteuse and occasional plaything Melena (Bennett) who bears a passing resemblance to Gage’s dead sister Beatrice (Newton) who was kidnapped by Jackson years earlier. Jackson and his flunky Lear (Jagger) have plans to work an abandoned silver mine near Defiance but needs manpower to do it; what better way to get manpower than to kidnap slave labor from surrounding towns and caravans passing through? You know all this is going to lead to a reckoning between Gage and Jackson and let the best man – or woman – win.

It’s hard to believe that Howitt also directed the superb Sliding Doors but he did; this is definitely not his finest hour. The script is loaded with elements borrowed from other films and has little originality in that regard. That would be okay if the elements were handled in an original way but they’re not. You’ve seen this movie before kids, even if you haven’t seen it yet.

Carano was at one time thought to be a rising star in the action field in Haywire never really fulfilled the promise she displayed in that movie (which was not as good a movie as most people at the time thought) despite a couple of high-profile roles. Direct to home video seems the next step for her; I can’t imagine that this film will get her decent roles in future films. It’s not that she’s bad, she just has cringe-inducing dialogue to recite and most of her hand-to-hand combat is done with guns which is a failure to utilize her skills properly. At one point she tells Melena “Head to New Montana; it’s a better way of life” which sounds more like a slogan the Montana tourism board might utilize than something an actual human being might say.

For some reason Howitt has chosen to stop everything dead in its tracks by having Melena sing the blues in his saloon every so often. The music isn’t really all that scintillating and the tone is jarring enough that it takes the viewer out of the film. Worse still, the singer – who is obviously not Bennett – doesn’t lip-synch very well to the actress, or vice versa.

 However, Howitt does handle the action sequences with aplomb and they flow nicely. Also the deadly cloud effects with plenty of CGI swirlies and lightning are pretty cool in and of themselves. Those however don’t a great movie make and quite frankly watching Gage get up and walk away after being thrown over a cliff in a coffin that’s been nailed shut is the kind of taking-leave-of-their-senses logic that the screenwriters display all too often in this mildly entertaining but ultimately not really worth seeing film.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are handled pretty nicely. The cloud and storm effects are also pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The musical interludes are jarring and disruptive. This film has a definite case of the indestructible heroes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, adult themes and profanity herein
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gage was initially written as a male character with Sean Bean being considered for the lead; when that fell through, the part was re-written for a female character and Carano was eventually cast for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/18: 13% positive reviews: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Eli
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

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Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


Huddle up.

Huddle up.

(2016) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Devine, Stephen Root, Stephanie Faracy, Sugar Lyn Beard, Sam Richardson, Alice Wetterlund, Lavell Crawford, Mary Holland, Kumail Nanjiani, Jake Johnson, Marc Maron, Erik Griffin, Jake Szymanski, Eugene Cordero, Wendy Williams, Kyle Smigielski, Andrea Micelli, Nancy Micelli, Christina Souza, Olga Kalashnikova. Directed by Jake Szymanski

 

In this modern age, relationships can be a bitch to establish. We’re more likely to meet someone on the Internet than in real life. In many ways, it’s much harder to find someone now than it was just ten years ago.

Mike (Devine) and Dave (Efron) Stangle are two brothers who like to have a good time. However, sometimes their desire to be the life of the party overwhelms what little common sense the brothers possess. There have been so many occasions at family gatherings that their plans have caused havoc and chaos to the point where their Dad (Root) doesn’t want them near any family events.

But he really can’t keep them away from their little sister Jeanie’s (Beard) Hawaiian wedding, so he gives them an ultimatum; they are to bring nice girls to the wedding as dates, or they can’t go at all. The problem is that the boys don’t really know any nice girls.

So Mike, the liquor salesman who employs his younger brother, gets the bright idea of putting an ad on Craigslist. The responses are many and varied and it lands them on the Wendy Williams show. This brings them to the attention of Tatiana (Plaza) and Alice (Kendrick), a couple of party chicks who may be even wilder than the Stangle brothers, but they don’t know that. The two girls want a Hawaiian vacation and Tatiana knows instinctively this is the best way to get one. So she schemes her way into meeting the boys and voila! Instant wedding dates.

Of course, while the girls masquerade as a hedge fund manager (Alice) and a teacher (Tatiana), they have as little common sense as their dates. This leads to an ATV accident, an X-rated massage for the bride and to the boys getting into a huge fight. The problem is that Alice and Dave might have genuine feelings for each other, but when Alice tries to calm Jeanie down with a little ecstasy, it leads to something that may bring the entire marriage to a screeching halt even before it’s begun.

Fans of the comedy that Judd Apatow and those inspired by him have been promulgating for the last decade or so will probably eat this up. It is vulgar, outrageous and occasionally downright mean. That pretty much seems to be the state of comedy 2016 when it comes to the multiplex and there’s something to be said for that kind of humor, but to be frank I’m getting kind of tired of it. I’d like to see some variation in the types of comedies we’ve been seeing; everything seems to be so over-the-top, from the spoofs to the romantic comedies that we’ve lost the art of subtlety when it comes to comedy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some really funny moments; the sensual massage that Jeanie gets from a very limber masseuse (Nanjiani) is hysterical and some of the more slapstick bits are also bound to get more than a polite chuckle. Kendrick and Plaza are two of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood and they both have some truly memorable comic performances in their pockets, but while they do their best here, it’s not enough.

Efron, who isn’t one of my favorite actors, actually comes off extremely likable here and shows that when he relaxes a bit he has all the screen presence he needs to be a star. However Devine simply tries too hard to be funny and ends up looking the buffoon. He’s a bull in a china shop and while that can be useful from time to time, it just ends up being distracting here.

I guess my biggest problem with Mike and Dave is that it all seems recycled to me. As I watch it doesn’t feel original or exciting; in fact, it made me feel tired, like I’ve seen this movie before. And I have, in several other movies. It’s disappointing; I like the cast a lot, particularly the lady leads but there wasn’t enough creativity in the writing to make this worth recommending.

REASONS TO GO: Some genuinely funny bits from a talented cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a kind of “you’ve seen it all” vibe here. It may have been dumbed down a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of crude sexual content as well as some graphic nudity, a whole lot of language and some drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual Craigslist ad placed by two real-life brothers named Mike and Dave Stangle. In reality, the ad received more than six thousand responses and netted the boys not only a movie deal but also an appearance on the Today show. The real life Stangle boys cameo here as a pair of guests at the wedding whom cousin Terry offers to be the center of a sandwich for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Front Cover

Proud Citizen


What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

(2014) Drama (Giant Dolphin) Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Natalie E. Cummings, Leif Erickson, Ryan Case, Judy Sanders, Sami Allison, Elliott Moore Haynes, Blakeley Burger. Directed by Thom Southerland

Florida Film Festival 2015

Being alone in a city where you know nobody can be daunting. Sometimes all you can do is play tourist, particularly when you have a lot of time on your hands. While it can be liberating to be alone in a city – you make all the decisions about where to eat, what to do, when to do it and so on – it can also reinforce the loneliness in your own life at home.

Krasi (Stoykova-Klemer) is a Bulgarian poet and playwright who has just taken second place in a theater competition. First place got to see their play produced in New York City. Second place got Lexington, Kentucky. There was no third place.

So she’s left Bulgaria for the bright lights and big city of Lexington but things almost immediately begin to get strange. First of all, Debbie (Cummings), the stage manager who was supposed to meet Krasi at the airport is quite late; she seems flustered as the play is in technical rehearsals and opens just a few days hence. She dumps Krasi at her non-descript hotel and rushes back to the theater, leaving Krasi on her own.

Not knowing anything about the area, Krasi decides to explore downtown Lexington…on foot. It’s a bit of a walk from her hotel but doable, so she puts on a nice dress and heads out, all dressed up and nowhere to go from a literal standpoint. While the downtown area is pleasant enough, there aren’t a lot of people there and those that are aren’t particularly hospitable.

The name of the play that Krasi wrote is Black Coat and is autobiographical. Andy (Erickson), the actor portraying her father seems quite nice; Jeremy (Case), the director is also flustered but friendly at least; Natalie (Burger), the young actress playing Krasi as a teen is a bit withdrawn, spending time practicing on the violin when she’s not texting her friends but is more focused on schoolwork and getting into college than on picking Krasi’s brain for insights which Andy is more prone to doing. Andy takes Krasi to a beautiful urban park in Lexington which she appreciates but his invitation to dinner seem to create a distance between them.

She takes a tour of a local horse farm which is where Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen resides. She appreciates the horse and a pony that she gets to meet very much; there are statues of horses all over downtown Lexington but no actual horses. Lucy (Allison), the tour guide, befriends Krasi and invites her over for dinner where Krasi becomes enchanted with Elliot (Haynes), her 3-year-old son. Krasi eventually spends the night.

The next day is the Fourth of July and Lucy invites Krasi to go downtown and see the festivities. There’s funnel cake and parades, and eventually fireworks but while they are there Lucy meets an ex-boyfriend. She initially doesn’t want to get his attention but Krasi makes sure that he notices her and the two converse. The ex wants to take Lucy out and Krasi insists that Lucy go, promising to take Eliot home and watch over him until she returns.

She’s eventually gone overnight and Krasi goes outside after Elliot goes to sleep to play with sparklers, neglecting to lock the back door when she comes back in. After she falls asleep, Elliot wanders outside. When Lucy does eventually return, she is panicked to find that Elliot isn’t in his bed. She eventually finds him nearby but Krasi is absolutely mortified and leaves, having a lot to do as that evening is opening night for the play in any case and then she’ll be returning home the next day.

There is more but this is more of a slice of life, five days in a different country for Krasi. Southerland, a Kentucky native, shoots this in black and white which gives it a kind of timeless feel that combines Eastern Europe with a bygone era in America. The lovely black-and-white cinematography really sets the tone for the film.

Most of the cast is made up of amateurs, several of them having local stage experience in the Lexington area but that’s it. They do a pretty solid job considering their lack of film experience. Stoykova-Klemer has no acting experience; she is a poet who has a radio show in the Lexington area whose voice caught Southerland’s ear and whose story inspired the character of Stasi. In fact, Black Coats is the name of Stoykova-Klemer’s published book of poetry which in turn inspired the play that bears its name in the movie.

Loneliness is a central theme here; most of the main characters suffer from it in one form or another. Horses are also a main element which seems pretty understandable as they are a major part of the world that is Lexington. Most of the time Krasi handles the loneliness with a smile, but she has at least one moment of self-pity during the movie which is also understandable. It’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself when you’re alone as nobody is there to do it for you.

A good deal of the movie was improvised by the actors, making the conversation sound real and unforced. The story gets a little disjointed though; although it all makes sense by the end, it meanders a bit during the five day period which is I suppose the way our own stories in real life tend to be told.

This isn’t a movie for everybody. Those who are impatient, require their movies to be loud and kinetic will find this to be boring, which it most assuredly is not. This is a reflection of life and of an outsider looking at America through an outsider’s prism. We have a tendency to take things for granted over here, the kind of things that are hard to come by in lands less blessed by freedom and plenty than we are. We sometimes fail to realize how enviable our lives can be but then again, it is as human as it gets to want more than what we already have…or at least something different.

REASONS TO GO: Amateur cast comes through. Surprisingly conversational. Slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too low-key for some. A little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucy’s 3-year-old son is her 3-year-old son in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in America
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy

Winter in the Blood


Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

Chaske Spencer gazes out over the infinite prairie.

(2013) Drama (Ranchwater) Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer, Julia Jones, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lily Gladstone, Richard Ray Whitman, David Cale, Casey Camp-Horinek, Alex Escaravega, Joseph Grady, Saginaw Grant, Yancey Hawley, Kendra Mylnechuk, Michael Spears, William Otis Wheeler-Nicholson, Ken White. Directed by Alex and Andrew Smith

Florida Film Festival 2014

When it comes to the Native population, America has a lot to answer for. In attempting to obliterate their culture and drive them into squalid reservations, we have demoralized and demonized an entire people, yet they have endured. It hasn’t always been easy.

In the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Virgil First Raise (Spencer) awakens from a drunken stupor to find out that his wife Agnes (Jones) has left him and taken his prized rifle, one of the last remaining gifts from his late father (Whitman) who died when Virgil was a boy, passed out in a ditch in the freezing cold.

That and the death of his older brother Mose (Hawley) have haunted Virgil throughout his life. As he goes to town to retrieve not his wife so much but his beloved rifle, he encounters the Airplane Man (Morse), a manic Canadian con artist who may or may not be real. He is being chased by a couple of men in suits who don’t seem particularly interested in arresting him so much as trapping him.

Virgil seeks to stem the pain through alcohol and random sexual encounters. His mother (Camp-Horinek) is getting hitched to Lame Bull (Farmer) which Virgil isn’t too thrilled by. He doesn’t think too highly of Lame Bull although his potential stepfather seems to be a decent sort. Still, Virgil has his own demons to wrestle with and at present, they are handily beating him. Can he overcome his past and come to grips with his present?

Based on the novel by native writer James Welch, this is a sobering and unflinching look at the results of our native American policies and how they have turned a proud people into a group without hope. The northern Montana landscape (where the novel is set and where this was filmed) is sometimes bleak but has a beauty all its own.

Spencer, best known as Sam Uley the leader of the werewolf gang in the Twilight franchise, is crazy good here. Virgil is basically a decent sort who wants to get his life together but just can’t get past the pains and traumas of his past. His mother and an elderly friend to his father named Yellow Calf (Grant) that he visits from time to time both understand him more than he understands himself, and there are those who would give him surcease but at this point in his life he just wants numbness. It’s a heart-rending and incendiary performance.

The rest of the cast also does well including a nearly unrecognizable David Morse but this is Spencer’s show. Because much of the movie takes place in a kind of surreal manner (Welch is well-known for having mystical elements in his stories), there is a sense of unreality to the proceedings. While that isn’t a bad thing of itself, the lines are often blurred and the movie comes off in places like a lost episode of Twin Peaks which also isn’t a bad thing of itself. However, some filmgoers might find that unsettling. Personally I wish the movie were a little more seamless in that regard.

I found myself completely immersed in the film, with a splendid soundtrack framing the action nicely and a timeless quality (I was surprised to find out the movie was set nearly 40 years ago after I had already seen it – look carefully and you’ll notice the truth of it) that made me feel that things have not changed so much for the Native American so much as plateaued. This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but it is a movie well worth the effort to go see it.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performance by Spencer. Outstanding cinematography. Nice soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed in places. Hunter S. Thompson-surreal atmosphere might be off-putting for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, some sexuality, a little violence and some depiction of drunken behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was provided by the Austin-based country blues-rock band the Heartless Bastards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A River Runs Through It

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Chef

Blood Creek (Town Creek)


Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Henry Cavill, Dominic Purcell, Michael Fassbender, Emma Booth, Rainer Winkelvoss, Laszlo Matray, Joy McBrinn, Shea Whigham, Tony Barger, Douglas Roger, Michael Ntumba, Razvan Oprea, Ana Popescu, Florin Piersic Jr., Gerald McSorley, Vlad Voda, Albert Gherasim, Wentworth Miller, Lynn Collins.  Directed by Joel Schumacher

Some horror movies one must admire for their ambition but criticize for their execution. Some are just the opposite. Most fall in between.

In West Virginia circa 1936 a family of German émigrés working on a farm receive a letter asking them to host a German occultist doing research on a Viking runestone that they found in their barn. As they are barely making ends meet in the Depression-era rural South, the $150 a month they would receive for hosting the professor would be a Godsend.

At first Dr, Richard Wirth (Fassbender) seems like a harmless academic but soon it becomes clear that Dr. Wirth has a far more sinister motive in mind. The family is forced to set a spell trapping Wirth in their barn and the family is also caught up in the spell, not becoming immortal as Wirth did but certainly not aging normally.

Cut to modern times. Farmer Evan Marshall (Cavill) receives a visit one night from his brother Victor (Purcell). This wouldn’t ordinarily arouse comment except that Victor has been missing for months and when he shows up he is hideously scarred and looks like a cross between one of the Deliverance hillbillies and Frankenstein’s monster. He ropes Evan into taking him back to the farm where he had been held captive and getting his revenge on the family that kept him there.

You can guess which farm and which family he’s talking about. What you couldn’t guess – or maybe you could if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies – is that Wirth has mutated into a kind of Nazi vampire zombie master with terrifying powers. Although the comely farmer’s daughter Liese (Booth) tries to persuade Evan that they’re actually the good guys keeping the monster at Bay for well over three quarters of a century, Victor is having none of it with predictable consequences.

Lionsgate had at one time in the studio’s history released a glut of horror movies onto the market and in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century began to be a little pickier about what they put their distribution behind. Therefore nifty little movies like this and Midnight Meat Train got microscopic releases, in Blood Creek‘s case a mere 25 theaters nationwide, mostly of the dollar variety.

I think this deserved better. Certainly it’s flawed but there are some pretty nifty elements that I’d certainly recommend. For one thing Fassbender, on the eve of his breakthrough as an actor, makes a thoroughly compelling and hissable villain. Cavill and Purcell both did competent jobs as the heroic leads and while Booth wasn’t given a whole lot to do is at least easy to look at.

There is an awful lot of hand-held camera work in the movie to its own detriment. At times it’s really difficult to make out what’s going on and some important plot elements become confusing and for those of us who are sensitive to shaky cam, the movie can be painful at times. While the movie builds up to its conclusion well, the actual ending is a bit of a letdown.

But then again as much as I would have liked more spectacle, you (and I as well) have to realize that this is a pretty low-budget affair – how tight a budget do you have to have when West Virginia is too expensive a location to shoot in? For the record, Romania stands in for West Virginia which makes perfect sense and quite frankly, it looks a lot of the West Virginia I’ve seen on the Internet.

Anyway, as low budget horror movies go this isn’t half bad. There are some genuine scares, plenty of gore and some nifty ideas. There are also some lapses in logic which is often a bugaboo in horror movies. If you like a good scare and want to try something out you haven’t seen before, you could certainly do worse than this. Not a hidden gem so much as a surprisingly good but flawed grindhouse flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Really nice concept. Fassbender rocks the villain. Smartly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of hand-held “shaky” cams. Ending lacked punch.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore as well as some pretty crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse Metcalf was originally set to star but had to drop out of the production for undisclosed reasons. Cavill was brought in to take the lead role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Snow

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart