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Though The Wire does appeal to that part of me that reviewed a few movies in the John Singleton canon a few years back and generally enjoys that odd subgenre of crime dramas, that of the ‘hood film,’ which isn’t as popular as Mafia movies or as prolific as yakuza/triads-thank-you-no-thank-you-Mr. Miike, it’s also important in this trying time where Dreck Fiction attempts to gratefully slide toward mostly science-fiction discussion, because it has what a lot of science-fiction in film and television lacks: great storytelling. I haven’t lived for very long, but The Wire is by this point the best told story I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it isn’t my favorite story, but its storytelling is so complex, so satisfying, that it warrants analysis on this sci-fi site.

There isn’t much to connect The Wire to the genre of science-fiction, but it could have been anything, so long as it was “the best told story I’ve ever experienced.” Again, I was inclined to like it from the start and feel a compulsion to blabla about it on this blog, but figuring what makes The Wire tick and how it comes together to say something real could benefit the critical eye toward any genre.

Christ, if we had anything close to The Wire in science-fiction… I’d be a pretty happy guy.

Check out this awesome video if you need a quick recap of the series’s events…

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“The hunt is on, and you’re the prey.”

Apparently it’s hip, I suppose edgy, to claim that The Godfather Part II is better than the original, and I feel like the same can be said of Menace II Society and its closest analog, Boyz N the Hood. John Singleton’s debut is hailed as an American classic, praised for its direction, acting, writing, and emotional depth. It was one of the first times such subject matter crossed Hollywood screens, and it sparked years of troubled black poor gangster movies, many taking place in South Central, LA, including at least two more Singleton pictures. The Hughes Brothers’ debut, Menace II Society, seems to be one of these movies, observing the life and dangers of these troubled youth in a world of drugs, guns, and violence. I’m sure I first heard of this movie through Boyz N the Hood, and some people feel that it’s more successful in achieving what Boyz did.

I will say Menace II Society is a good movie. It’s heartfelt and intense, gritty in its portrayal of life and completely unforgiving. Characters are not black-and-white, and there’s the presence of death at every angle. There are also a few familiar faces here, including Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, and Charles Dutton, who I thought was the best part of the movie. However, there are a few few huge problems I had while watching it, even though in the end I did think it was solid. Right off the bat there’s voiceover, and the subject matter made me think of City of God — you know, the whole Goodfellas deal. City of God was more successful, as voiceover is a very, very delicate thing, and it was also more successful at structure.

Both movies have disjointed and ugly plot structures. They’re coming of age stories, but so is Boyz N the Hood, which is paced and scripted incredibly well. Menace II seems to jump around from moment to moment, never focusing on any of the many secondary characters, not even O-Dog, long enough to get a good feel for them, or get invested in. The story is that there is no story, it’s just a slice of life, which is fine, but in this case had massive bearing on where the characters ended up at the credits, and what I felt about it.

The thing is that it’s more of an unfocused narrative — the writer attempted to fit an entire world into 97 minutes, and 97 minutes just isn’t enough. Throughout the whole thing Caine, our main acharacter, seemed aloof as he drifted on; at one point his grandfather asks him if he wants to live or die, in reference to his constant risking of life on the streets. Caine answers, “I don’t know,” and while that’s a pretty heavy moment that carries weight throughout, it also characterizes him the most. He lives fast and does what he wants, while being pulled away by Jada Pinkett’s character and his grandparents, who he lives with (his parents had died).

What’s going on here is the approach the writer and the Hughes Brothers took, to observe Caine and the rest of the cast without judging them conclusively (Caine is a good guy, but he does rob at gunpoint and hang up on a girl he got pregnant). In the opening, Caine watches in horror as O-Dog murders the innocent albeit racist Korean grocers, and can’t stand to see the surveillance footage that the killer proudly totes around. But he’s forced to accept it — this is the life, and there’s no escaping. Indeed, the two characters with an eye to move out are killed by the end, as if some higher power knew, and couldn’t let it happen.

So it’s a movie that’s heavier on theme than it is on the dramatic aspect — we see familiar but compelling things, like “Hey man you have a life to lose, you gotta get out of here” and all that, but because the characters are designed this way, it doesn’t hit as hard as the before mentioned Boyz N the Hood, which balanced theme with emotion to a great end. Tre might just be in every scene; it’s very nearly a third person limited narrative, and yet we have a good idea of who Doughboy, Ricky, and Furious are, so that when their characters are measured in the film’s most heated moments toward the end, it’s overwhelming but organic and logical. Nothing comes as a surprise that shouldn’t, and we care about everything that happens every step of the way.

In the end, it’s a matter of expectations. Go into Menace II Society expecting a gritty look at life on the streets with touches of poigniancy every now and again. Don’t expect, like I did, another Boyz N the Hood, though the two share many elements. And if you can get over the voiceover, which as we discover is more in line with Sunset Boulevard‘s, there’s not much else to complain about, other than the spotty and sometimes over-the-top acting. Charles Dutton’s scene is great though, and the violence was completely unexpected. The Hughes Brothers are really channeling Paul Verhoeven here, but when a gangster gets shot to pieces here, nobody’s laughing.

Four Brothers was a faulty sign of things to come. While Baby Boy (2001) proved to be Singleton’s last filmed screenplay, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Abduction reach into realms I’m not entirely comfortable exploring. This revenge drama, while not his original screenplay, held promise. It tells the story of the titular four brothers, who return home to figure out and deal with those responsible for the shooting death of the kindest old lady on the block, she who took them all in off the streets. With the death scene, I was immediately reminded of a similar revenge movie I saw recently, Death Sentence, which took a lot longer to get to this same moment, the convenience store catalyst. Right away Four Brothers was doing things right, but it what it became wasn’t what I anticipated.

When the credits rolled I thought, “Okay.” I recognized that I had enjoyed it throughout the 100-minute or so run, but the movie limps to a pretty unsatisfying conclusion, much unlike other classic revenge tales like Oldboy or Death Sentence, or Death Wish III, or even the bad ones like The Punisher (2004). The violence level was really off the charts, but in a bad way. Singleton isn’t exactly known for being gratuitous with brutality, but I’d wholeheartedly hoped this would be a good time to try it out. Not a lot of action really happens here, which is a disappointment because not a lot else happens either…

The four brothers go around gathering information, and fighting amongst themselves, and their chemistry is ultimately what sells the movie, because a lot that happens is uneventful. Sofia Vergara raises a fit, Mark Wahlberg and Garret Hedlund sulk around, and every now and again there’ll be a chase scene, or one very dull shootout. Character interactions between these four actors is great, and makes the movie very watchable. I suppose it’d be up to you to decide if that’s a good enough reason to watch this movie, because it might just be the only one. It’s a fun script — a relief, and a great cast.

One of the actors in this movie I’m particularly enamored of is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s played sympathetic villains in two of the best science-fiction movies of the decade, and returns here for quite the opposite. He’s straightforwardly evil, which is fine, but it’s that he’s essentially a blaxploitation villain is maybe a little tonally inconsistent. It’s very nearly Punisher (2004) syndrome, where John Travolta plays a text-book bad villain, but we’re only laughing with Ejiofor, and not at him. Either way, he’s not really filling the role — Garret Hedlund in Death Sentence was more effective, and I guess he’s also pretty good here as well, on the opposite side of the vengeance.

I think I’ve been negative so far about Four Brothers, and that’s wrong, because I did think it was good, and at times, especially toward the beginning, fairly effective. Singleton is not only a great director of actors, but a solid storyteller. He knows how emotions translate through the camera, and he’s got a great, and unpretentious, eye for composition. The prevailing issue to me is that Four Brothers goes in directions in the second act. I sort of like the idea that a lot of unresolved thematic areas happen here, because it gives the movie larger scope than it had, but midway through the movie you figure everything out and think, that’s pretty good, only to have it not be the case later on.

The car chase is what I’m referring to. Marky Mark and Tyrese manage to run their enemies off the road, or the car flips over, and they rush out to go after the suspected killers. Hedlund is told to wait, and the two guys drag the murderers out, start beating on them, and shoot them. Hedlund’s expression here and the camerwork give us the idea that Four Brothers would be a Nietzschean fable akin to Death Sentence, but with that hood film twist. It’d be something about how these thugs were redeemed by this woman, but in attempting to avenge her, they began to return to where they started — you can never get out of the game. I think that’s what Singleton was going for in this scene, but… it was only a scene. The story continued on in its blaxploitation fun n games.

It felt more interested in the involved story, which dealt with a conspiracy of sorts, and organized crime, and even city government. This is fine, but it’s only fine, where Four Brothers could’ve been poigniant and maybe disturbing. Basically if it were injected with Singleton DNA — the same criticism I had for Rosewood — it would’ve taken that necessary step and been great. As it is, Four Brothers is good.

Shifting focus here on the Dreck Fiction. In the beginning, the first real things I ever wrote were about the movies of John Singleton–about as far from speculative fiction as you can imagine. Basically I was just using this blog to talk about things that appealed to me, and that’s pretty much over now because I’ve run out of things. I’m still gonna make movie reviews, but they’ll be slower.

Everybody needs their niche, and there isn’t one between talking about science-fiction and non science-fiction movies. I mean, there’s the Genrebusters, a web site you should visit frequently, though the updates are sporadic, and they balance all sorts of genre cinema, but in terms of Dreck Fiction, there’s nothing linking Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix to a movie like Poetic Justice. Itty blogs like this really oughtta specialize, because they aren’t an investment for the reader.

Blog 101 stuff–I know. I’m like a hormone-addled teenager, figuring himself out. There’s gonna be a new review, and then I’m gonna talk about Ghost in the Shell ad infinitum before concentrating on a recent preoccupation of mine.

See you later.

We’ve talked about the movie’s thematic structure, how Rick Deckard becomes a robot over the course of the movie, having started out not far removed, and how Roy Batty is humanized as he accelerates toward his engineered death. The only weak link in the narrative extends from this point – the tears in rain monologue was of course very telling of Roy Batty’s character as human, but it was meant to reflect on Rick Deckard as a replicant. One of the endings of Blade Runner (never filmed) was Deckard taking Rachel up north and shooting her in the back, which would have worked perfectly after the monologue scene, where our hero must embrace the robot he’s become.

Of course, what we have in the Director’s Cut, which in my opinion is the most best Cut (I hate that I even have to make the distinction) is the taste that lingers – ambiguity, as some see it. I see it as a clever bookend and a confirmation on what we’ve observed earlier, that Deckard is in some sense a replicant, and the preface to a truncated denoument.

Of course, had Blade Runner shown Deckard shooting Rachel, which we may or may not infer happens after the credits, it may have suffered Boyz N the Hood syndrome: we didn’t have to be shown (or told, rather blandly) that Doughboy dies young, it’s been implied internally in the narrative. Not only that, but it seems to be pounding the sadness of the South Central situation on to near excess. So maybe we don’t need to see the guy shoot the girl, because it is in some way implied – as an extension of Deckard as dehumanized robot – but I see too many pros over cons to the scene.

Running with this thematic thing, the hypothetical shooting of Rachel serves only the plot, a payoff to the various discussions of “No [I wouldn’t come after you]. But somebody would,” but an actual displayed shooting of Rachel would have a grave tragedy to it because of the visceral nature of the act itself – its power lies in its existence, which sounds stupid, so in other words we need to see it in order for it to work. This is film, after all.

Rachel walks out into a clearing and Deckard is there behind her (I believe while snow is falling) mulling it over with that stoic and shadowed face, and then shoots her and walks off. He doesn’t like it, but he’s not human anymore, and this is the demonstration of that fact. That would solidify the themes whereas now what we’re sort of stuck with is endless ambiguity. Will Deckard and Rachel live a happy life together? (I guess that’s explored in the sequel novels – Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human through Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon) Is Deckard a replicant? Will Gaff ever find true love?

So basically Blade Runner‘s ending should be like what Jin-Roh has. Kill the girl, embrace the wolf.

It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again – who does?
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50’s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.

It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.

They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.

But that’s not important now. Merely musing…

We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.

After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.

And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.

The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.

This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?

The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.

It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.

That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.

Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.

 

 

 

I don’t want to keep talking about Chan-Wook Park, I’ve done it so much. But I recently happened across a French movie called La Haine. Haven’t seen it yet, but it seems interesting, kind of a Boyz N the Hood but with Vincent Cassel, which is fine by me. I looked up the director, and it seems that the latest movie he did was Babylon AD, AKA shitty Children of Men. This is a pretty common thing, and I don’t know why, but you see it all the time: foreign filmmakers coming to America and destroying their careers. Only John Woo made it back. And it’s usually like horror remakes they do – there was a time where if you saw a trailer for some PG-13 horror remake about ghosts, it’d have some Asianguy name attached to it as director.

Chan-Wook Park was offered to remake The Evil Dead in the United States – that surely would’ve ruined him just like America did Ryuhei Kitamura and all them. And that sucks because America already has a bad reputation when it comes to foreign movies. There’s a video on YouTube called something like Akira: the American version. It’s a funny video in execution, but deadly serious in premise. All the comments below fight the good fight the video does in it’s anti-American movie cause. It’s crazy how narrow-minded people can be; I recall one of the more egregious comments being something like “I hate it when people make a movie but don’t understand the source material.” How the hell do you know that nobody understands the source material? I haven’t read the manga, but the movie isn’t deeper than every American movie ever. Goddamn.

Foreign filmmakers aren’t the only ones who can fall victim to the biggest film industry in the world – so too can our homegrown. Give them too much money, and fans will note to the end of time how they got too much money. For the most part it seems to be true, at least, that’s how it’s percieved. David Twohy did Pitch Black, and then he did The Chronicles of Riddick. Kurt Wimmer did Equilibrium, and then he did Ultraviolet. I haven’t seen Ultraviolet, but critical consensus has steered me clear. James Cameron to a lesser extent also seems to get worse with increased budget, but that’s more complicated. Terminator 2 was totally sweet, but Avatar… not so much.

One of the more tragic examples is Alex Proyas. This is one frustrating filmmaker, not only because he’s so damn picky with scripts he seemingly barely makes movies, but because he’s had a visible downward spiral. I haven’t seen The Crow but was told recently it was pretty meh. I haven’t seen Knowing either but I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. I tend not to believe that because anything with Nicolas Cage is both a hater-magnet and the greatest thing ever. The thing is – Dark City was really good, and I, Robot, while good for what it was, is a startling step downward in quality and step up in budget. All of the visual opulence from Dark City was there, though I am a dead sucker for cyberpunk anything, but the attention to detail, the lack of cliche, the script – it was all gone.

When studios give writer/directors these big budgets, they tend to flounder and seemingly forget whatever style they had used before. Why did John Singleton stop making personal movies about South Central? I’m not saying that that’s the only thing he’d be good at, but I don’t care for 2 Fast 2 Furious, aside from the obviously great title.

I watched a trailer for Insomnia, a movie by Christopher Nolan, and it looked very similar to Memento – a briskly paced, possibly clever psychological thriller. When the studios handed the job down to Nolan to do Batman, I’m sure there was someone who feared a ‘dumbing down’ of his style. But rather than do as others before him had, he made the Batman movies very much in the fashion of the smaller budgeted Memento rather than just making the Batman movies like the Burtons and Schumakers had before him.

Inception, another big budget movie, cements Nolan as someone who hasn’t lost the touch, hasn’t forgotten his roots. When the roots are good, we hope that these guys don’t forget them, but unfortunately Nolan is rare. And certainly the Batman movies aren’t as deep as Memento, but that’s not really important – I believe that the two movies were a test, and that he arrived on the other side unchanged is a major victory for everyone.

Major spoilers for Baby Boy

 

Just as the greatest lessons are often taught outside the classroom, as Higher Learning tells us, some things in life are not meant to be taught, but understood. The opening monologue and first image of the film explain that the young African American male has been conditioned to be a ‘baby.’ When the family unit in South Central is impeded upon by a ‘baby boy,’ a full grown young child, there is destruction, but this destruction is followed by rebirth. John Singleton’s Baby Boy is the second spiritual successor to Boyz N the Hood, once again taking place in the South Central LA of Boyz and Poetic Justice. It’s a movie similar to the famous debut, but one larger in scope. Boyz N the Hood was about surviving the problems created by troubled black youth in the hood, and Baby Boy is about preventing them.

Baby Boy was a script Singleton had for awhile, shortly after the success of Boyz N the Hood, but he decided to shelve it when rapper/actor Tupac passed away. The writer/director believed that the rapper was the only one with enough soul to play the part of Jody, the main character. When Tyrese Gibson sat down with Singleton and said basically that this script was his life, that he could relate to it, a new Jody was soon to be born. More on Tupac later…

Tyrese Gibson was a model and a singer, and Singleton sure loves to use ‘fresh’ actors: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc. This was his first movie, and it’s quite the daunting task. Not only is he in every scene, but he has to display a breadth of emotion. The character Jody is probably Singleton’s most complex to date, and an example I’ll use to illustrate this I learned about listening to the director’s commentary — Gibson’s smile, an example of broad acting. Physical acting, showing and not telling, was something picked up from studying Kurosawa. Jody gives a smile every once in a while, but it’ll fade away just as fast as it comes: happiness is fleeting, and there’s a lot on his mind.

Tyrese Gibson was a model and a singer, and Singleton sure loves to use ‘fresh’ actors: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc. This was his first movie, and it’s quite the daunting task. Not only is he in every scene, but he has to display a breadth of emotion. The character Jody is probably Singleton’s most complex to date, and an example I’ll use to illustrate this I learned about listening to the director’s commentary — Gibson’s smile, an example of broad acting. Physical acting, showing and not telling, was something picked up from studying Kurosawa. Jody gives a smile every once in a while, but it’ll fade away just as fast as it comes: happiness is fleeting, and there’s a lot on his mind.

He’s a complicated character, but like the Boyz and like Lucky and Malik, he’s a product of his environment. He’s on the precipice of becoming a victim. His actions are driven by a fear of dying. He, and by extension the audience, listens to Tupac music (a song from his final album) and there’s a big Tupac face poster above his bed. Tupac Shakur rose to the public limelight and where the late rapper and his music are a real-world and constant reminder that the young black male, no matter how famous, can be victimized by the streets. Life always hangs in the balance in the ghetto, and Singleton believes that the actions of these young black males are influenced by that fear of death: the “I don’t give a fuck” attitude favored by Tupac indicates that they live fast and die whenever.

It’s possible that Jody wouldn’t care about any of this. I mean he’s a terrible womanizer and con man (successful con man, I should say, though it’s more like straight up criminal), but there’s a problem. He lost his brother when his mama’s then-boyfriend moved in and had him kicked out. He died in the streets, and now Jody’s mom is afraid to let Jody go. But he’s a twenty-year old with a family, and a pain in the ass. Not to mention Ving Rhames, the new boyfriend, is moving in. Things are going to change.

The order of which I explained him – motives and then actions – are revealed reversely in the film. He’s a pain in the ass to his girlfriend (“I’m tired of you messin’ around on me, Jody”) and his mom (“When are you gonna surprise me and move out?”) and then we find out why. If only we give people the chance to explain, perhaps then we can hope to sympathize with them.

Just like Ricky in Boyz N the Hood, young Jody has a son. He also has a daughter, played by Cleopatra Singleton, by his other ‘Baby’s Mama.’ The one who owns his heart, Yvette, has the son. In one scene, Jody explains that he has the kid because he wants to leave behind a part of him, essentially create a legacy. Singleton is reminding us that not only does Jody fear death, but he’s expecting it soon.

There is a heavy emphasis on cycles in this movie. In the director’s commentary, Singleton notes that even Jody’s mom was a baby when she had Jody – there’s this problem of babies having babies. The issue stemming from this is the resultant troubled black youth seen in this film and in Boyz N the Hood, which is always at odds with what Ving Rhames’ character Melvin represents. The cycles come at the audience in a few different ways, whether in the dream sequences where we see a juxtaposition of life and death imagery, or just in the everyday life of Jody, spending each day going around visiting different women and feeling pretty content about it. One scene in particular is a study of the cycle of violence, where Jody, after picking up some liquor, is jumped by the ‘young cats,’ of which Singleton believes to be the most dangerous among people in the ghetto.

Jody struggles, riding his bike, to reach his buddy Sweetpea. They go out and find the guys, and rough them up, kind of. Even though their vengeance isn’t as harsh as what Jody got, what’s going on here is these elder ‘gangstas’ maintaining the cycle. Singleton thinks that the younger cats are the most dangerous because they have the most to prove; a lot of what’s seen the movie is posturing. I think too that they’re dangerous because when a young person is violent, that’s just the beginning of a new chapter that says the cycle will remain unbroken.

The last image of the film was initially going to be where the titles “Written, Produced, and Directed by John Singleton” apprear over – Jody and Yvette are on the couch with Jojo (the son) on the floor watching TV in Yvette’s apartment. But the credit sequence continues over a few more scenes, where we see the cycle broken. This is of course after Jody’s realized what he must do, and we now see that the seemingly endless squabbles between Yvette and Jody are over. Because we need to get confirmation on this idea, this becomes a sensible way to end the film, more sensible than the “So yeah Doughboy gets killed,” ending in Boyz N the Hood (more on that later).

The character Melvin represents the type of ‘cat’ that has weathered a storm or two; he is a killer but don’t push him. He might have that whole wise-man/tough-guy thing going on (note the scene where he is waiting for Jody’s mom for a date, and Jody sees him, looks him up and down, studying him. Melvin is just like ‘whatever’ because he’s already studied Jody) but he’s pretty insecure, and this is understandable. He’s survived the streets and prison and just wants to settle down with a woman. He took his life into his own hands and became something greater than what he once was. Now he’s gotta deal with Jody, who is his opposite.

There is a scene toward the end of the film that sees a bit of a reversal of the “Give me the motherfucking gun Tre” scene from Boyz N the Hood. After Jody has assisted in the killing of Rodney, he comes back home and fears that he’s gone to a place he won’t return from. In the murder sequence, Jody sees himself on the ground, his image alternating with Rodney’s, who’s lying there yelling at him, legs shot out. Sweetpea has to pull the trigger, at which Jody is surprised and regretful, at least immediately.

Now he’s in his room, gun in hand. Melvin comes in and takes the gun away. When Furious does this for Tre in Boyz, it’s an attempt to stop his son’s involvement in local warfare. When Melvin does it, they have a type of connection over the street violence. This scene represents Jody coming to grips with Melvin, who’s been established as something to with redemption. This man takes away the gun, takes away street violence, and ensures that he won’t let Jody slip down that slippery slope. They’re a family now, and Melvin’s not gonna lose him to no bullshit, you hear?

Speaking in terms of the conveying of theme, I think Singleton has matched or possibly surpassed his debut. The composition in this film is excellent; the blocking and the shots chosen all accentuate the themes. There are two shots that mirror each other in the movie: Melvin first meets Jody in the garden, and Melvin leans over to talk with Jody’s mom. We see in the background Jody, standing there, physically between the two. This shot is paralleled a sign of high tension, where Jody and his mom are arguing, and Melvin appears in a doorway to chuckle at Jody’s “spoiled ass.” Now it’s him coming between. At the very start of the movie, Yvette, after coming home from the clinic, sucks on her thumb in bed, reminding us that she’s still so young. They’re all babies, and they’re having more babies. This is a more subtle example of getting ideas across without saying them.

The script of course is just as great as expected. If John Singleton continues down this road of directing only, we’ll be missing out on a lot. From what I got of the commentary on this movie, he’s got a lot more ideas that could be set in South Central LA. Baby Boy and Boyz N the Hood were both financial successes; I don’t know what’s stopping him.

There is only one issue I had with the movie, and, thinking about it, it’s a strange complaint to have. I don’t get why Rodney did not actually rape Yvette. He hits her and forces her on the bed — his intentions are made clear. He’s an evil, despicable man, but he’s stopped. I understand the practical considerations behind it – there was a very young child actor in the scene (trying to stop Rodney) and Singleton didn’t want him to see certain things. However, the character Rodney would’ve been a lot more evil had he done it, and Jody would’ve had a more legitimate reason to kill him – making his choices later on that much more difficult. As it is, the character is evil – up to a point.

I understand if the intention was to just create realistic characters with consciences and layers, but in a movie like this, where the narrative is of the utmost import, I don’t think that complications are necessary. The character is meant to fill a certain role, and in a movie that’s all about the hero Jody, he needs to exist in terms of Jody. If he’s fleshed out, that’s good. If he goes against what is most important thematically, that feels almost like a compromise. Of course, I don’t want to see rape, so it’s a tough one. It could’ve been implied, but instead Rodney just eases off.

This is the last film that John Singleton had directed and written. Our journey here has only two more steps: Four Brothers, and Boyz N the Hood. This movie represents something very important in his filmography – it’s a deeply personal film (the character is inspired by his cousin and Tupac, and a lot of what happens is from his life, just like Boyz) and it’s the last of the written/directed bys. Even though that sucks, it’s a great note for a writer to go out on.

  
The day after watching Singleton’s fourth film, Rosewood, I found myself at a point culmination of long reflection: I didn’t want to write about this movie. It’s a movie that should be seen, but you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s certainly not a pleasant experience, and in this sense it’s a far cry from Boyz N the Hood and Higher Learning. Even if the movie wasn’t based on history, the movie would be tough to sit through – the imagery, the violence, the subject matter – it’s a rough one, kind of a downer. But I did want to chime in on Rosewood for the third entry in the John Singleton journey because I had one major issue with it.
As mentioned earlier, this is John Singleton’s fourth film after Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning. It’s the first film he did not write, and this is very noticeable. I think the filmmaker’s strongest suit, despite showing a strong eye for visual detail with Higher Learning, is his writing. His penchant for having powerful human stories inside these reflections of the ghetto makes me think that he could’ve had equal success in novel-writing, and even though the subject matter couldn’t be farther apart, I’d liken some of his movies to the Kate Chopin book The Awakening.

 

I read that book a couple of months ago for high school and it was certainly an exercise in theme, and how the author interweaves that theme through the narrative. Boyz was a coming-of-age tale with a message that was told with the surface of gangland violence in South Central LA. Higher Learning was similar. Rosewood was a retelling of the Rosewood massacre, which saw the destruction of a black-dominated town in Florida by the hands of angry white people. The dual-narrative was there – we see Ving Rhames and a family try to escape the violence – but this story lacks the thematic punch of the previous movies.

The message of “we really need to understand each other” I think is implicit – it is the lesson that must be learned by the event itself. The point behind Boyz N the Hood was the impact of a father on a son, how being a responsible father can save a life in this environment. That came out of the personal story that was unique to Singleton’s script, not the premise of the world. I can empathize with the creators of the movie; it’s a powerful enough premise to reach at least the standard of a great film. I just don’t think it reached the John Singleton standard.

There were moments in the movie that really could have been expanded upon, interesting ideas that were almost fully realized. For example, we find out that Jon Voigt and Ving Rhames served in the navy and army, repectively. Like Michael Rooker’s sheriff character, they are bound to action by a sense of duty. The two are here in Rosewood fighting a second war – allies in this crisis. But on another level, they would be seen as enemies in this time period, based on the colors of their skin. The fact that they are brought together here as soldiers says a lot of things, but ultimately the movie itself has this element act as almost an afterthought. It’s treated like parts of the characterizations, which of course it is, but it could’ve been more.

 The Singleton-esque moments of payoff that did exist in the movie worked, like the resolution of the racist father and young son, but the point of the movie overall was a retelling of a story that got buried. The plotline they created to run parallel to the historical events was also pretty good, though I’ve heard the ending chase sequence described as “to Hollywood,” or some junk like that. The ending action was very well-executed, but I think the pain and suffering shown on screen that led up to the rather exciting climax (Ving Rhames + shotgun = people falling off of horses = totally sweet) undercuts it somewhat. It was hard to get back from where I was led, and I think the effectiveness of the last scene (not very effective…) is a testament to the effectiveness of all that led up to it. I was not spiritually with it by that point (if that’s not too stupid for me to say) because the bodies in the pit and the hangings in the swamp sequences were just too hard-hitting.

I recommend Rosewood, but at the same time, I don’t. It doesn’t reflect on the strengths of our director as something like Higher Learning does, and it sure as hell isn’t a popcorn, have-a-buddy-over flick. It’s a sombre, powerful, depressing picture that is a product of a sombre, powerful, depressing time.

 

 

Major Spoilers for Higher Learning

I think what John Singleton demonstrates with Higher Learning is his ability to get a message across in a Hollywood film, using a variety of methods – allegory, stereotypes, and even plain old good writing. If Strange Days is James Cameron’s best script, Avatar is probably his worst. Compare the latter with this movie: Avatar uses a plastic-transparent metaphor to tell us that we should get along with people who are different, or maybe it’s telling us that we should have when we invaded America, and nobody, not anybody, not even me, thought it was a good idea: that story was terrible. Even though Higher Learning says essentially the same thing, that we should all get along and junk, it goes about it in a fashion that is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

Now, intellectually of course is a touchy word to throw around. This is not to say that Higher Learning is pretentious or that it is like the smartest thing ever, man. It’s not an Oshii film (pretentious). It is however, a movie about racism and hatred. It is more comparable to something like Do the Right Thing than to American History X, to give a frame of reference. There is no rigid plotline, but characters and events that eventually come together.

The movie is centered around a college, a place of higher learning, if you will. This is sort of a mechanic that Singleton uses to explore areas of hatred, fear, confusion, and most of all education. You go to school to learn about stuff, and then you enter society. It’s a stepping stone. According to this movie, high school would be for science, history, math, and language, but college would be for learning how to be a person, learning about yourself and your place relative to everyone else. The students in this school, Columbus University, learn by means of traditional educators, and perhaps just as importantly, each other. Not only do students pass around flyers for clubs and engage in discussions, they also struggle to come to grips with each other.

When the three main characters – Remmy, girl, and the main guy whose name I can’t spell or remember – go to college, are outsiders initially. They experience this new world their own ways, this world where, as Ice Cube points out early on, people are undoubtedly defined by their race or gender or sexual preference or mentality. Some fit in readily, some learn hard, and some are slow to be accepted.

The last of which is Remmy, played by Michael Rappaport. He’s probably the most interesting character, as he embodies most readily the idea of people as victims of their environments. He’s an outsider, from a town nobody else is, and he can’t seem to fit in with anyone. He moves out of his dorm because he’s at odds with Ice Cube, and he almost gets into a fight with one of the white people on the other side, over there. He’s a softspoken guy who uses the word “man” as a form of punctuation – he’s hard to hear, and he’s kind of irritating to listen to.

Cole Hauser sees fit to take advantage of this. Hauser, who I only ever see as the guy from Pitch Black, channels Remmy’s frustration and out-of-placeness into hatred by both feeding him skinhead agendas and creating both a target (other races) and a victim (white people by reverse discrimination). Remmy isn’t a bad guy, but he sure as hell becomes one. By the end, even after a gun is in his hands, he’s still just confused and frustrated, but we can add manipulated to that list. The development of his frustration into anger (that we don’t believe he is 100% consciously into) manifests itself as the neo-Nazis around him. These are his educators.

Malik, the student I could not earlier name, is just the reverse of this, ‘reverse’ being defined only by race. His teachers are Ice Cube and his crazy buddy. They are always yelling at the cops, and they’re usually right about things. Cops inadvertendly jump to certain conclusions (telling the black crowd to ‘break it up’ but not the white crowd) and Ice Cube is left angry. He sees this freshman who has to run on the track team in order to pay for school, and he sees inequality.

Tyra Banks, yes, she’s in this movie, disagrees. She tells Malik, played by Omar Epps, that many would die to be in the position he is. He’s actually in college. But she gets through to him only too late. “Getting through” are probably key words. The effectiveness of education is measured in real-world decisions: after Tyra Banks is shot by Remmy, instead of running to get help, as Laurence Fishburne wants him to, Malik runs after the shooter. This scene works twofold in terms of ‘the message.’ Not only is it affecting emotionally, but it is subtely allegorical. More subtle than when Remmy takes off his hat in the middle of science class, revealing his newly shaved head. He is flanked on all sides by people of different races, and makes his statement. The lack of dialogue in the scene draws the audience to the significance of the character’s actions – Singleton comes closest here to bashing us over the head, but at least it serves a point for the character, and is followed and preceded by more subtle examples.

Education for young people indicates the future. In this sense, Higher Learning is all about time. The age-old conflicts between races have deep ramifications that extend to the modern-day; Ice Cube notes that black people have been victims for centuries and stuff, and he compares the college to slavery in some way, implying that he and the African American slaves are one in the same to some level, I thought to myself: that’s the classic mindset that people who are racist have. They think that because people hated each other back in the day, that it should continue. Why does “white man’s guilt” exist today? What did my good buddy Podcast co-host ever do to a black person?

But this was intentional by the writer. A neo-Nazi fights with a supporter of the Black Panthers – they never experienced slavery or Affirmative Action, but they’re angry nonetheless. If you put people who are different together, there will be conflict. We just gave a name to it, racism, and thus created a problem that can’t be solved. If the past didn’t exist, these people would still be in conflict some degree. The words “gook,” “towelhead,” and of course, “nigger,” are used because once again, these students are victims, and they are in need of proper education. They feel they have certain claims, certain rights, that they can tap into the past and use it as a weapon in the present. The conflicts of the past were so heinous that the anger and hatred of yesterday is still felt today.

Higher Learning opens and closes on a shot of a large American flag. The country is like Babylon 5, the pilot of which I watched today. It was alright I guess. Better than BSG. It’s a cultural melting pot, and people even today enter here illegally because of the promise of a better tomorrow. That tomorrow means “I want to be an engineer,” not I want this country to be 100% not racist. People are looking out for their own, and this is what needs to be “unlearned,” which is what ends the film over the image of the flag, much like INCREASE THE PEACE was at the end of Boyz N the Hood.

This is more development for John Singleton. This is sort of an evolution from Boyz N the Hood – the problems at home are brought into school, which is a place that seeks to shape growing young adults. I’d say that Higher Learning is more complex than Boyz N the Hood, and this could also signal creative artistic development.

Character growth is defined by education. Around about the middle of the film, Ice Cube throws Malik out of his room because he’s reading up on Frederick Douglass for class, not for growing his own brain. At first he thought he was a smart guy, but no, he’s just doing it for class. Near the very end of the movie, Laurence Fishburne, the teacher character, leaves Malik on a note of wisdom – “without struggle there is no progress.” Malik responds with “Frederick Douglass,” and Fishburne is impressed; he hasn’t yet taught that. This scene is a payoff, and we find that Malik has grown because he has learned, and he has done it independently of the “system.”

In conclude, what’s the deal with Jennifer Connelly getting top billing in this movie? That’s an unfair misnomer; I’m a big fan of Jennifer Connelly, but she wasn’t in the movie all that much. For that matter, neither was Ice Cube.

One last note: there is a scene where the girl character speaks in front of a large crowd, talking about rape and sexism (I neglected to mention that portion of the film). People in the crowd hold up signs about anti-rape, but one of the signs, very visible to the audience, says “rape is a crime.” How is that sign material? That’s not clever, that’s common knowledge. If you’re reminding me of the fact, sign-writer, you have to keep in mind the audience, which is I guess the girl character, who not only got raped, but probably is aware that it is indeed a crime.

“This is college.”
“I don’t know about that no more.”

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