Other // Unrated // $19.95 // October 23, 2018
Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 3, 2018
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Gravel Road Pictures and Indiepix have teamed up for the Retro Afrika collection, consisting of nearly 50 films that have been found and restored from Apartheid-era South Africa. With movies from the 1970s through to the 1990s, this unearthed treasure trove of true independent international cinema has been compiled for digital release, on Indiepix's Amazon Prime channel, as well as a select few that are also being offered as Amazon MOD DVD-R releases. Umbango is the third of the movies I've watched, following Gone Crazy and Fishy Stones, and the best has been saved for last, with this final film, a western, featuring the most successful filmmaking of the trio.

KK and Jake have just rolled into a small town and declared themselves the new leaders of it, staking their claim to land that once belonged to KK's brother. KK's brother died in some sort of altercation with local gunman Jack and his buddy Owen. The town sheriff wants to try and keep things civil, as do the local bartender and his piano player, and even Jack's would-be girlfriend Molly would like Jack to stay in one piece, but KK is clearly thirsty for revenge. With Jake running around antagonizing Jack and the tension rising to a boil, there's no getting out of a showdown between the two rivals.

Of the three Retro Afrika films offered on DVD-R, this is the only one that is a period piece, and the results are pretty impressive. While the other films seemed to make do with costumes that consisted of the cast wearing their own clothes and an extremely minimal amount of cheap props, this one is consistent, featuring an old-timey saloon set or two, some nice western-looking homes, horseback riding, carriages, and full-blown costumes. The movie also greatly benefits from the largest special effects budget of them all, featuring some actual gunfire, with some of the action even filmed in stylish slow-motion. The limitations that the filmmakers on all three movies were working with is understandable, and it'd be unfair to make it sound like the spectacle is all that matters, but all three are explicitly designed as popcorn entertainment, and it's less about the elements being present and more about them being pulled off with impressive skill.

Umbango also benefits from the most interesting screenplay of them all. Although there are still some moments that feel like padding (the movie devotes quite a bit of time to the bartender and his piano player devising their own security plan, and in one scene, KK and Jake spend an extended amount of time laughing at Jack), the movie develops an unexpected B-story in the form of Jack's relationship with Molly. Molly does not like Jack's gunfighting, and Jack loves Molly, so he tries his best to put it down, but KK and Jake are clearly out to antagonize him. The sincerity of the romance and Jake's desire to hang up his revolver are relatively fresh little touches that make the movie's drama more compelling.

In addition to being the most stylish of the movies,Umbango also arguably features the best performances. Sadly, all three of the Retro Afrika DVDs I've seen seem to be at the mercy of whatever on-screen credits are provided, so the names of the performers aren't matched to character names, but both KK and Jack and Jake and Owen have good chemistry together, the former with the dynamic of a big boss and his eager henchman, and the latter more brotherly, with Owen offering moral support as Jake struggles with what to do. The character of Molly is arguably the most fleshed-out role for a woman in any of these movies, and her pushback against the violence actually gives her some real character meat to work with.

Umbango has pretty nice artwork, featuring an image of Jack practically reduced to a silhouette in front of the glowing sun. Although I think the image is Photoshop, it has an illustrated quality, at a glance. The one-disc DVD-R comes in a cheap Amaray case, and there is an insert inside the case promoting Indiepix's lineup of films on Amazon Prime, and an offer for a free movie on the other.

The Video and Audio
Of the three Retro Afrika offerings released to DVD, Umbango looks the worst, although the 1.33:1 full frame and Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation on the disc is still more than servicable. The quality of the source print for Umbango seems as if it was farther removed from the original source than the other two, offering a noticeably softer and flatter image. Colors are distinctly sepia-toned, although that could of course be an intentional effect to help add to the film's western flavor. Some minor print damage is noticeable, and there seems to be a digital video error early one with green blocks briefly appearing on screen near the begining. Sound is adequate, with the same faint muffle/fuzz to the original audio track as the other two, but no other significant issues. English subtitles are provided.

The Extras
None, other than a newly-created trailer.

Umbango is the best of Indiepix's Retro Afrika DVD-Rs. This one is lightly recommended, even if sampling the entire range of the series on Prime might be more effective than purchasing any of the movies on disc.

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