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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.

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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.

In celebration of Tupac’s birthday today, let’s take a look at one of his final films, Gridlock’d, directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and starring Tupac Shakur, Tim Roth, and Thandie Newton.

Gridlock’d is the story of a good premise executed competently. In terms of writing and directing, the movie is solid but not particularly interesting, which is odd considering the subject matter and the cast. The highlights here are the performances, and the chemistry between Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur’s characters. They play extremely close friends, where Tim Roth is kind of an aggressive and bumbling idiot, and Tupac is the straight man, a level-headed guy.

They both want to get clean, inspired by the recent hospital trip Thandie Newton’s character had to undergo. This is a drug movie, and it isn’t a glorification. It uses substance abuse as a subject to create a satirical world that these two characters must deal with. It’s easy to get addicted, but as we discover, not so easy to get off. The entire city seems to be against them as they try to kick, from the guys behind the desks at clinics and stations to the blaxploitation-esque badguys roaming the streets spraying bullets and snarky one-liners.

Even though the subject matter is serious, it’s been dealt with in more serious terms elsewhere, for example A Scanner Darkly. Gridlock’d goes for the laughs, and this creates the juxtaposition to the tragic. There’s also the sense that perhaps we should be getting angry, as the sympathetic plight of the heroes makes everyone around them a villain.

The story is okay, and the plot moves along fairly well. It’s an entertaining flick, but not quite what I expected. Still, it’s better than Poetic Justice.

Tim Roth is absolutely hilarious. He’s good in everything, but here he plays this pretty wacked out dude with a temper. One of the most memorable scenes for Podcast Co-Host and I was when he orders lunch at some diner. Tupac as a dramatic actor I think continued to surprise everyone. From what I can gather based on people like Ice Cube, rappers get to be in one good movie, and then they take on some crap. One of the things that Tupac was always concerned about in his music was selling out – he didn’t want to become another Jay-Z, as it were, so the movies he was in were consistently heartfelt and dealt with these urban troubles.

One last thing of note: I believe that there is one of those scenes in this movie where two characters are talking in an unbroken conversation, despite the fact that we don’t follow them for the duration of the conversation, we cut every time they enter or exit a room. There is time lapse between some of these cuts, yet the conversation remains unbroken. This is common in a lot of movies – were they just not talking when the camera was off them? I like to think so.

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.

 

 

 

It’s been awhile here at Dreck Fiction, but there’s been one setback after another, including but not limited to me deleting over 400 documents from my hard drive. I didn’t mean to, but hey, well that’s the way it is.

What a perfectly executed segue into today’s review: John Singleton’s Poetic Justice.

This will more than likely be followed up by a review for Higher Learning. But for now we have the follow up to Singleton’s brilliant debut: Boyz N the Hood. Critical consensus for the sophomore attempt is that it was okay, but lacked what made the first film great.

In general, I’d agree. That word sophomore brings up a point significant to all filmmakers; Robert Rodriguez had this intense paranoia over scrutiny for his follow up to El Mariachi – he mentions several times in his book Rebel Without a Crew how too often people will make one good movie and are scrutinized so heavily on the second that they are never heard from again. He went so far as to plot intricately on his second film, almost as intricately as on the production of the first, where he’d make as many second movies as possible, so nobody would know which was the true second. Looking back it’s true – what did he follow up El Mariachi with? Was it Road Racers, Four Rooms, or From Dusk Till Dawn? IMDb…

Unfortunately John Singleton is a director who falls into this category, just like Kurt “Equilibrium and then Ultraviolet” Wimmer. That was his nickname in college I think.

I’ve only seen two of his movies at this point, but from what I hear, he never really lived up to the promise of Boyz N the Hood. Now he doesn’t even write his own movies, he’s directed 2 Fast 2 Furious and Four Brothers, and is currently directing Abduction, due out in 2011. This is particularly disheartening because the writing is certainly this guy’s strong suit.

There were two strong draws for me to Poetic Justice. Not only did I want to confirm John Singleton’s faltering for myself, as I could not be convinced easily after his talent on show in Boyz, but this movie also has Tupac Shakur in a starring role. He’s alongside Janet Jackson and some other guy and one of the girls from Boyz. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to push this film for me, as it was a romantic drama, a genre of which I don’t necessarily dig.

The movie opens with the text Once upon a time in South Central LA… so it’s clear from the start that the story is either going to be another violent saga in the Hood, or… a fairytale. Well even though there are a few fights and a whole lot of pervasive language, this is very much a ‘fairytale,’ the characters even note this at the end. It’s a lighter tale than the previous, not only in terms of tone, but also thematic meat. And that’s really the bulk of my problem with the movie. It’s just another romance. Whereas Boyz N the Hood was a movie with a profound voice and a very specific message, Poetic Justice is just another venture into the world of understanding and love.

Because I really didn’t care for any of the characters, save Tupac, though that might just be because he was Tupac, I didn’t care where they were going. It was hard to sympathize with them, especially when their motives were just “I want a man/I want a girl.” The secondary characters were also not as interesting or as deeply explored as they could have been, and I didn’t expect what happened to Chicago. I actually felt for that guy.

The movie opens just as Boyz N the Hood closes – people get shot, people drive away in cars going out to shoot people. And then it becomes something else, a narrative progression that didn’t really get me too enthusastic. Herein then is my question: is it fair to allow the influence of a great film to cloud the perception of an only okay film? Standing alone, does Poetic Justice have enough to elevate it? Is it singly held down by Boyz?

I don’t know, but I do know that there is some directorial development on show here. I think Poetic Justice is more technically proficient than Boyz N the Hood, particularly in terms of cinematography. I think the composition has improved, or maybe I was just distracted, as some of the shooting locations were big and landscapey, not just gritty streets. There were some questionable choices in the filmmaking, like going roundtable in inner monologues for the four main characters. It was strange and kind of cheesy.

Strange and kind of cheesy… I guess this would sum up John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, a movie that is better than most, but not Boyz N the Hood.

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