THE LAND is a movie that played Sundance last year, that I watched because its writer-director, Steven Caple, Jr., was just announced as the director of CREED 2. And I hate to start out a review this way, but it’s fucking 2017, so… I need to say that I’m not sure where we’re at on Sylvester Stallone. Horrible allegations were published, but not in one of these exhaustively researched and backed up pieces that have taken down Harvey Weinstein and others – this was in the tabloid the Daily Mail. The only additional reporting I’ve seen was on TMZ, in a post where Stallone’s ex-wife Brigitte Nielsen swears it could never have happened, and a person said in the Mail story to have introduced Stallone to a fan denies that he ever did or would have done anything like that. More significantly, TMZ says that Vegas police do not have a record of the police report that was the entire basis of the Daily Mail story. But they offer no further details and I have seen no followups from any serious journalists.
Stallone’s work means so much to me that obviously I would prefer to live in the world where he’s officially cleared of being a piece of shit. But if the unidentified accuser in the Mail story really exists, I don’t want any part in debating what she says happened. So I don’t know what to do on this one.
In the happy world where everything is fine, the CREED sequel is my most anticipated movie. So forgive me if this is wrong, but I have allowed myself to have some excitement for it. The other day it was announced that Michael B. Jordan and Stallone had chosen Caple Jr. to direct on the strength of his debut THE LAND. Obviously I was curious, so I rented it.
The title is the only thing I didn’t like about the movie. About a half an hour in I was trying to decipher it when I realized “oh, duh, it’s short for Cleveland.” I don’t think they ever mention that’s where they are, but it has a powerful sense of place – a different place than the ones we see over and over again in movies, and with its own personality. Caple is from Cleveland, and he and director of photography Steven Holleran get all up in that city, detailing a full catalog of urban textures – trash-and-graffiti-strewn abandoned buildings, a cramped diner, apartments (both ratty and plush), rooftops with a view of the skyline, homeless encampments under bridges – lit by sunbeams, sunset, street lights, the lights of the ferris wheel at the Latino Festival. There’s always a sense of being surrounded – you hear voices, or traffic, or a tinny radio, or a dog barking somewhere on the periphery or in the distance.
The lead characters can cut through the landscape quickly, because they’re skateboarders. A group of high school seniors with one parent or guardian and no job prospects they’re happy with, their dream is to find a sponsorship so they can just worry about skating. But it costs a bunch of money just to get into the thing where the people see you skate and might decide to give you a bunch of money.
In many ways they’re good kids. They’re mostly nice to their parental figures, except during understandable disagreements. Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., BRIGSBY BEAR) is the worst off. He lives above the small diner owned by Uncle Steve (Kim Coates, THE LAST BOY SCOUT), an ex-addict boyfriend or friend of his deceased mother. Cisco has a mattress on the floor in Steve’s bedroom, and he often has to abandon it because Turquoise (Erykah Badu) brings johns in there. Steve makes genuine attempts to connect with Cisco, but the kid blames him for his mother’s overdose, and is not very interested in standing on the sidewalk spinning signs advertising hot dogs.
He and his friends have a more dangerous way to make money: they jack cars for Hassan (Christopher Amitrano). They don’t feel great about it and it’s not paying as well as they’d like, but then one day they steal one that has a giant bag of Molly pills in the trunk, and Cisco decides to start selling them.
It’s a tried-and-true crime story. The kids experiment and find out different ways to sell the drugs, they get better, they get bigger, they buy stuff, they get cocky, they have disagreements, they give money to people they care about, lying about where it’s coming from, things get more and more dangerous, they feel more and more cornered, what the fuck are they gonna do. They have a reckless youthful attitude about it, deluding themselves that as long as they don’t get busted by the cops they’re fine. But of course those pills belonged to somebody, and they are gonna want them back.
The driver of the car, Chino (Michael Ray Escamilla) is on the hunt for them, but also a more formidable guy (Robert Hunter) who has a record of getting too violent and is trying to find them first to advance in the organization. The most colorfully not-what-you-expected character is their boss, Momma (Linda Emond, OLD BOY, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE). I mean, she absolutely fits into this world. She’s cold and calculating, not broad and obnoxious like Shelly Winters’ similarly named queenpin in CLEOPATRA JONES. She’s a scary bitch like Mags Bennett on Justified. But you still don’t expect this white lady to be running this whole thing, and then we find out she spends her days selling fruit in some Whole Foods type store where the customers love her and she knows their kids’ names and stuff. I don’t know if she really needs a cover job or if this is just how she prefers to spend her days. Maybe the drug empire funds the fruit stand.
The young cast (who seem to do their own skateboarding) are uniformly captivating, and we’ll probly see most of them in lots of other stuff. Since debuting here, Lendeborg Jr. had a part in SPIDER-MAN : HOMECOMING and will be in ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL and BUMBLEBEE. The most memorable though is the sort of comic relief character Junior. I couldn’t place where I knew Moises Arias from, but it was a bunch of things: the remake of BEN-HUR, the pilot of Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and most specifically THE KINGS OF SUMMER, where he played the enigmatic weirdo friend Biaggio. He’s very short, with a big nose and ratty Zack De La Rocha dreadlocks, and compensates with a sort of cocky obnoxiousness that makes him kinda charming.
I was also very impressed by Coates, who manages to embody well-meaning-innocent in his eyes and sweaty-dirtbag with everything else. He’s a mess and a fuck-up and in some ways clueless, and also seems like he’s really trying to improve his life and be a better guardian. I both really liked him and understood why Cisco couldn’t.
Badu’s part is pretty small, like a Macy Gray role. But as someone who loves her music I got kind of a kick out of seeing her be so gross. There’s one scene where she shows excellent comic timing, but I guess we already knew she could tell a joke from the classic song “Tyrone.”
Watching this with CREED 2 in mind it makes complete sense that Caple got the job, and he’s a great choice. Like CREED it’s a story about very sympathetic, troubled young people who feel very natural and real. It’s matter-of-factly multi-cultural, it finds the beauty in worn down locations, it loves visual details that represent the specific region and subculture. It even has poetic slow motion shots of kids doing wheelies on dirt bikes. As a bonus, it’s cool that they’re giving a shot to another promising young black director of an indie drama. Coogler, of course, pitched CREED when he only had the Sundance hit FRUITVALE STATION under his belt.
But I don’t mean to speak of THE LAND just as a calling card. It’s a good movie, the type that immerses you so deeply in its world that you still feel the residue days later. Nobody rides off into the sunset; a Cisco that has experienced tragedy and compromise skates down a rain-slicked road, alone. But it feels to me like he’s still out there.
p.s. I wanted to include a few screengrabs to show you how nice it looks.