Can You Dig This


Hosea Smith testifies.

Hosea Smith testifies.

(2015) Documentary (Gathr Films/Gravitas) Ron Finley, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, Kenya Johnson, Quimonie Lewis, Randy Lewis, Hosea Smith. Directed by Delila Vallot

There is something soul-enriching about going into the yard and planting a garden. The serenity that comes from working with the earth, watching seeds sprout into life and grow into plants bearing fruit and vegetables that we take for nourishment; few things are as wonderful and as satisfying as eating something you’ve grown yourself.

In South Central L.A., one of the most dangerous and violent neighborhoods in the country, that isn’t always an easy proposition. Ron Finley, a local resident, was tired of having little more than fast food available to him as a nutrition option and with grocery stores selling mainly prepared or unhealthy items and no alternatives for healthy organic vegetables, he chose to grow his own. His garden, on the verge in front of the house, grew to enormous heights which turned into an oasis of beauty in a neighborhood of vacant lots, barred windows and trash. When he was cited for violating an ordinance preventing residents from planting anything but grass on the city-owned verge, he fought  the ordinance  which attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez’ articles would eventually help turn the tide.

Other residents of the area were also inspired. Ex-convict Hosea Smith, living in a halfway house after being paroled from a thirty year manslaughter sentence, helped himself reintegrate into society by planting his own garden, along with his roommate Henry, also an ex-con. The two men formed a common bond by their love of growing things.

Kenya Johnson, an orphan, and Mychael “Spicey” Evans, a drug dealer, were both affiliated with gangs in South Central which is pretty much infested with them. The two found some relief through the Compton Community Gardens through a youth pastor there. Eventually the two, who had adjoining plots in the garden, became close friends and maybe more.

Quimonie Lewis, a precocious eight-year-old girl, likes planting things and wants to eat healthy things. With the help of her father, the Housing Project President where they live, she puts together a garden of her own, planting things like cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers – all things she likes to eat. Her father, who has a heart condition, insists on eating an unhealthy diet, eventually being stricken with a serious heart attack. Quimonie sees her garden as a means of saving her dad’s life as well as a means of earning extra income for the family.

All of these stories are told through the warm eyes of director Vallot, who has a background as an actress and a dancer. Her camera movements are graceful as you would imagine a dancer’s would be, catching the jet planes that fly over South Central in mid-flight, going places most of the people who live there will never see. The sounds of gunfire, police sirens and jets are the constant soundtrack of South Central.

This is a gentle documentary, one that tells a story that actually can bring the viewer a feeling of inner peace as we watch how these people are directly affected by working with the soil and the sunshine and the water and the seeds, all that is needed to bring about life. As Hosea puts it, we all come from the soil and feel a connection with it.

Finley comes off as the most eloquent advocate. His efforts landed him a speech at a recent TED conference which has millions of YouTube views since it was posted; he isn’t what you’d call polished but the passion is there and so is the wisdom, although it is wisdom gleaned from the streets of South Central.

There’s an inspiring message to be had here; we can change the environment around us by something as simple as planting a garden, but it can go beyond that as well. For those who feel powerless and without any control, these are people who persevered and got something impressive done. Even Spicey, who was without work for more than two years, finds a job.

The editing could have used a little bit of work; some of the stories don’t flow as well as they should and in places we find out background information near the end of the movie that we could have used to put the film in context from the get-go, which makes for frustrating viewing; even the reveals have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I did like the documentary, although I felt it could hav used a little more time in the editing bay. With a defter touch, this could have really been something special but even so, the story is compelling and the film overall is inspiring. Not a bad way to be remembered if you ask me.

REASONS TO GO: Laid back and serene. Finley and Smith are compelling advocates.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Profanity throughout and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers on the film is singer John Legend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Garden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bone Tomahawk

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan