Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Detroit Documentarian: A Phone Conversation With Filmmaker Al Profit

By Scott Tre

People are mesmerized by urban decay, treating the unfortunate events that take place in America's more godforsaken areas as some sort of bizarre freak show to be viewed in snippets on cable news channels.  In one of his stand up routines, George Carlin openly admitted to being an entropy fan.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists entropy as being Chaos, Disorder, and randomness (among other definitions).  It's easy to forget that in midst of any chaotic situation there are actual human lives at stake.  For them it's not an abstract, or something to be awed by from afar.  A major city doesn't fall into absolute decay overnight.  It takes an inquisitive and detail orientated individual to venture into ground zero and put together the pieces for posterity.  Preferably an individual who has a personal connection to the area and the events taking place therein.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Billy Corben Catches a "Square Grouper"

By Scott Tre

Filmmaker Billy Corben reveals the seamier side of south Florida with an energy not normally associated with the world of documentary film making.  His Cocaine Cowboys films fly by with the speed of an olympic sprinter on a 5 hour energy dose.  The U was no different, telling the story of the evolution of the Miami University football program into sports dynasty with both enthusiasm and immediacy.  Billy Corben makes documentaries that appeal to those who wouldn't normally watch them, and he does so without sacrificing his artistic or journalistic integrity.  He now turns his eye to a more mellow time in the history of the South Florida drug trade.

The upcoming Square Grouper, offers a change of pace from frantic and blood soaked era of Cocaine Cowboys.  The title refers to the bales of marijuana that were jettisoned from smuggling vessels in danger of boarded by the authorities, only to be retrieved by eager Florida fishermen.  Judging from the footage shown, the tone seems a bit more laid back and jovial, with lots of laughter and smiling faces among the interview subjects.  The men being profiled seem more like inoffensive good old boys when compared to the mass murderers and opportunistic hustlers of the Cocaine Cowboy films.  The folk/country music gives it air of easy familiarity.  These guys seem to be more likely to by you a drink than to put a bullet in your head. 

It will be interesting to see how Billy Corben applies his style and sensibilities to this material, since it is so markedly different from the worlds of high stakes college football and cocaine dealing.  One thing is for sure: regardless of the approach, the the results won't be boring.  Mellow and laid back with a craving for junk food, maybe, but never boring. 

Cool Characters: Nino Brown Is Crowned King of "New Jack City"

By Scott Tre

When the black film Renaissance of the early 1990's was in its infancy, America was still deep in the throws of the crack epidemic.  Much in the same way that Blaxploitation "examined" the societal ills of its day,  Mario Van Peebles was about to deliver a film that would put the rise of the underworld "buppie" culture into perspective.  In the process, he would give the black film resurgence a shot of box office potency as well as controversy.  He would accomplish this on the back of a villain that would come to define the film itself.

It's the dawn of the crack era, and Harlem is a battleground.  Small time dons draped in truck jewelry and sporting fancy track suits are planting flags on street corners and laying siege to housing projects.  Crack cocaine is just beginning to make headway, supplanting smack as the drug of choice.  An enterprising crew known as the "Cash Money Brothers" plan to use this new scourge to stage a come up the likes of which Harlem has never seen.  Headed by ambitious Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his partner G-Money (Allen Payne), the CMB seize control of a building known as the Carter.  After displacing its residents, they turn it into a giant crack house capable of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.  Police Officer Stone(Melvin Van Peebles) puts together a task force that includes the rebellious Scottie Appleton (Ice -T) and Nick Perretti(Judd Nelson).  With the help of reformed crack addict Pookie (Chris Rock), they attempt to bring down the seemingly invincible CMB, whose expanding drug empire challenges the dominance of the La Cosa Nostra bosses that have long sat atop the big apple.

Every crime wave has a kingpin that embodies the characteristics of the vice itself.  Nino Brown and crack cocaine were meant for each other.  Nino has a crackhead's insatiable appetite for money and power.  His ambition and brazenness know no bounds.  His ambition is so high that it soon evolves into full blown greed, superseding every other aspect of his life.  As his empire grows, his worldview shrinks to the point where his range of vision is too narrow to accommodate anyone but himself. Unlike his cinematic idol Tony Montana, his narcissism is not fueled by cocaine but by the rush he gets from living the high life. He also is aroused by his own uncontested power and undisputed rule. His self-image seems even more enhanced than Montana's.

Nino is all about the grandiose statement. He prefers to make an example of you before you oppose him. His interesting negotiation tactics during his takeover of the Carter are a testament to that. He marches the superintendent of the complex through the street stark naked while holding a Spas-12 shotgun to his head. "Get down or lay down" is the official motto of the CMB. Nino also does what his number running forefathers never dared dream. In a moment of outright defiance, he scalps the pony tail of his La Cosa Nostra contact Frankie Needles. He does this while issuing the sorts of racial epithets that blacks are usually at the receiving end of in gangster movies. The message is clear "This is the new Harlem. All of them conk wearing, smack dealing ni**as might have been afraid of you, but I'm not." Nino reinforces this sentiment by sending his minions to perform a drive-by on a crew of Italian mobsters while they dine outdoors.

He treats women as disposable ornaments, fetish items to be traded in on a whim. He openly lusts for G-Money's woman while in the presence of his own. When she mounts a tearful protest, Nino responds by berating her family and threatening her not to touch him. Her inability to breed makes her unsuitable for the newly crowned King of New Jack City. Nino is all ego, and the prospect of not being able to sire a royal progeny to carry on his blinged out legacy is too much for him to tolerate. Just like that, his woman is discarded. His lack of loyalty even translates to his crew. While on the come up, he proclaims his love for and his loyalty to the ever pimpish G-Money. After Nino blatantly makes a play for his woman (who is all too receptive to Nino's advances), a rift forms in their friendship. This manifests itself in the eventual downfall of the CMB.

When on trial, Nino exhibits the same sort of cowardice that most kingpins do. He attempts to frame the overly dapper Kareem Akbar as the true leader of the CMB, and goes on grandiose tirade that portrays him as merely a cog in the wheel of the worldwide drug trade. "They don't make Uzi's in Harlem," Nino proclaims. Such proclamations are delivered with an air of self importance and invincibility. Not only is Nino all about himself, but he sees nothing unnatural about being that way. He feels entitled to that level of privilege. New Jack City doesn't simply function under his rule, it revolves around him. It's Nino Brown's world. We Just live in it. Nothing says this better than when Nino uses a little girl to shield himself from assassins' bullets during an ambush that takes place mere moments after a lavish wedding  financed by him. As Davy Kleinfeld once said in Carlito's Way: "Your whole world's this god damned big and there's only one rule; you save your own ass!"

It's all too easy to admire Nino's drive and ambition up until the point when he becomes a "true bad guy" by using a little girl as a cover from machine gun fire. People love to believe that any soul can be redeemed so long as he doesn't cross a point of no return. The truth is that Nino sold his soul long before the opening moments of the film. Which is truly the worse crime: flooding the streets of New York City with poison thereby turning them into a war zone that threatens millions of kids, or threatening the life of single child? If Nino ever had a soul, he pawned it for truck jewels and champagne bottles long before audiences ever got to know him. He is the living embodiment of the modern attitude toward business and success that permeates the post Hip-Hop generation: anything for a buck. The ends justifies the means. No hustle, whether legal or illegal, should ever be knocked. Nobody is putting guns to the heads of dope fiends and forcing them to partake. Why shouldn't someone accommodate that appetite? So what if he wasted G-Money? Money over bitches, everyday in every single way. Always business, never personal. Love never lived here, so don't bother asking.

That such tired platitudes derived from the pimp game and elsewhere are now held sacred by entire generations of misguided youth shows that Nino wasn't simply the demented fiction of some voyeur enamored by black criminality. Real Nino Browns existed in every city in America throughout the eighties and nineties. Their legacy lives on, waiting to corrupt anyone willing to partake. Here's to a hustlers ambition. All hail the king of New Jack City. May his memories of being on top give him much comfort in hell.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Movie Review: "The Expendables" Thankfully Does Not Live Down To Its Title

By Scott Tre

As the age of the heavily muscled super soldier gave way to the era of the scruffy everyman, stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger saw their popularity wane as the struggled to find footing in the shifting marketplace.  Schwarzenegger saw his box office popularity peak in the early 1990's with summer blockbusters like Total Recall, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies.  Eraser and Batman and Robin began a decline from which he would never recover.  Stallone, whose popularity peaked in the Mid 1980's with mega successful entries in the already popular Rocky & Rambo franchises.  By the late 1980's his star began to fade.  In the early 1990's he saw a slight resurgence with mildly successful titles like Cliffhanger and Demolition Man.  His career went dormant again until 2006 when the surprisingly good Rocky Balboa reminded audiences of what made that character iconic in the first place.  Similarly the hyper violent Rambo was possibly the best movie from that franchise since First Blood.  Now, Stallone has staged the ultimate tribute to age of the super soldier with The Expendables.

The Expendables are a group of mercenaries that consist of tough archetypes of all kinds.  There is team leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), SAS soldier Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), diminutive martial arts expert Yin Yang(Jet Li), towering sharpshooter Gunner Jensen(Dolph Lundgren), Muscle Bound Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and cauliflower eared demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture).  The team is commissioned by the ominous Mr. Church to invade the South American nation of Vilena and overthrow its dictatorial leader, General Garza (David Zayas).  Garza's rule is financed and overseen by ex-CIA agent James Monroe (Eric Roberts).  Garza's daughter, Sandra (Gisele Itai), rebels against her father and aids the mercenary team on their mission.

The Expendables plays like an 80's action extravaganza, though not one of the higher end ones.  The presence of Dolph Lundgren is fitting, as The Expendables very much feels like a Rambo knock off that should have been released a year or two after Rambo: First Blood Part II.  It feels small scale, like someone trying to do  large scale story on a medium sized budget.  The trailers made the film look much bigger than it actually is.  It is also less serious and less political  than the Rambo films. While John Rambo clearly is at war with both his past and what he has become, the characters of The Expendables go about the business of killing as though it were the just another job.  This makes some of the small dramatic moments meant to lend the film heart ring hollow, such as the monologue by Mickey Rourke's character about how being a mercenary of war numbs the soul.  By itself the moment is fine, but within the context of the film that surrounds it, it seems at odds with the overall mood.  Similar moments with Jason Statham's character flow a little better and set up a great payoff later on in the film.

Structurally, The Expendables is very uneven.  The film is a bit too aware of what it is supposed to be.  Since it's not a full-on parody, its self awareness seems a bit off.  It's not the tongue in cheek self awareness of the prototypical Stallone/Schwarzenegger actioner from the 1980's, but post "age of irony" self awareness in which the characters seem to know of just how corny and ridiculous it all is, yet still ask to be taken seriously.  This kind of thematic schizophrenia makes it feel as if Stallone had a basic concept for an ensemble action piece but no idea what kind of action film he wanted to do.  The amount of screen time given to Dolph Lundgren is a good example of this.  Lundgren always lacked the charm and, dare I say, acting ability of Stallone or Schwarzenegger or even Van Damme.  Here he plays it mostly straight, but the approach of the film leaves us unsure whether we should be laughing or not.  The only time the film leaves us feeling comfortable enough to laugh is during the many quips and one liners, quite a few of them actually work.  As far as the rest of the performances go, Stallone is Stallone.  this isn't one of his more memorable characters nor one of his worst.  Jason Statham probably gives the most consistent and believable performance.  The ever likable Terry Crews makes you wish Stallone had given him more to do.  Jet Li is criminally underused.  Mickey Rourke is likable enough in a role that he sleepwalks through.

Where The Expendables does excel is in the action department.  Stallone unexpectedly relies on the caffeine addled shooting and editing techniques that seem like the antithesis to the brand of action he is known for.  He barely holds a shot long enough to give a complete or coherent view of whatever actions have taken place.  In hand to hand combat situations, the camera rarely pulls back to allow the audience to take in the choreography.  Thankfully Stallone doesn't overdo this and gives the action a visceral kick by ramping up the violence to cartoonishly brutal levels.  Like Rambo, The Expendables offers a level of violence that likely would have been cut by the MPAA in the Reagan era.  The reliance on CGI blood seems to give the bloodletting a freer feel, since actors likely don't have to do take after take and be reequipped with squibs and other appliances.  The fights themselves have a very WWE feel, with characters being thrown through the air and slammed as though they were in a ring.  Stallone also continues his fascination with the destructive effects of extremely high caliber weapons on the human body.  Craters are left in torsos and limbs are blown off.  This odd mixture of techniques  yields some thrilling results, and makes The Expendables worth watching for the third act alone.

The Expendables is a lumbering, sleeping giant that violently awakes out of hibernation during its final moments.  As it is, it will satisfy 80's action junkies itching for a fix.  It isn't as inspired or focused as either Rocky Balboa or Rambo, which both defied the odds to be superior entries in their respective franchise.  Nevertheless, it is enjoyable and establishes Stallone as a maestro of orchestrating insane graphic violence and elevating the fetishism of weaponry to poetry.  If this truly is the ensemble action extravaganza that Stallone had been waiting his whole career to do, one wishes that he might have thought of something more novel to say at this point in his storied career.


Friday, August 20, 2010

East Meets West: A Phone Conversation With Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan

By Scott Tre

Being the ambassador for a culture and medium that is largely alien to your countrymen can be a lonely task.  Even after pointing out the positive attributes of said culture and medium, the jaded and indifferent masses can be slow to respond.  Thankfully, the more enthusiastic and tireless among us keep fighting the good fight and signing the praises of art they deem worthy of worldwide exposure.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cool Characters: Mark "Gor" Lee Searches For "A Better Tomorrow"

By Scott Tre

Chow Yun Fat is largely known to westerners as the hit-man with a heart of gold in John Woo's The Killer, or perhaps even the love interest in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  While both films are more than notable in Chow's filmography, there is one role in particular that probably had an even bigger impact on film history as a whole.  In 1986, John Woo changed the face of Hong Kong cinema with melodramatic crime film called A Better Tomorrow.  The film set box office records and won awards.  Much of its popularity stemmed from the staggeringly staged gun play.  Eastern and western audiences had not seen anything like it since the heyday of Sam Peckinpah.  However, stylistic flourishes and technical proficiency by themselves rarely create a phenomenon of such magnitude.  At the heart of John Woo's ballistic ballet stood a dashing rogue who would soundly crush the notion that Chinese men had no swagger.

Mark "Gor" Lee (Chow Yun Fat) and his pal Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) are partners in a counterfeiting ring in Hong Kong.  Ho's idealistic younger brother Sung Tse-Kit (Leslie Cheung) has ambitions to become a policeman and is about to enter the academy.  Their father is knowledgeable of how Ho makes his living and pleads with him not to let Kit find out.  In a sense, the two have conspired to keep the Kit in a state of perpetual stunted growth.  By blinding him to the truth, he has a perception of Ho that is steeped in fantasy.  This preserves the ignorant bliss that is their relationship in the beginning, but the rose colored glasses over  Kit's eyes are soon ripped off in a violent rude awakening.  Their father is killed by Ho's double dealing business associates.  This tragic turn of events reveals Ho's criminal life to Kit, who blames him for what happened.  His lack of forgiveness fuels his time in the academy.  Ho is simultaneously stabbed in the back by his associates and is sent to jail after surviving a failed ambush during a business deal in Taiwan.  Upon his release he is reunited with Ho and his resentful younger sibling.  Ho settles for a meager yet legitimate existence as a Taxi driver.   

The basic story is compelling, and all the principle players turn in strong performances.  It is Chow Yun Fat's charismatic turn as Mark Gor that  solidifies the film's place in cinema history.  Mark is, in a sense, the Manalo to Ho's Tony Montana.  He enjoys being a gangster and all the perks that go with it, but doesn't celebrate it.  It comes as naturally to him as breathing or blinking, so much so that his overall demeanor is smooth yet jovial.  He loves the ladies, and is fiercely loyal to his friend and partner.  He fully gets into the part, sporting a match stick perpetually lodged in the corner of his mouth.  In sunglasses and a trench coat, he is much more dapper and stylish than the cosa nostra ruffians of Scorcese's world.  Mark is a GQ gangster.  He'd rather slice you with a razor than bludgeon you with a bat, better still, he'd rather shoot you from distance.  Why get a nice new suit all sweaty and bloody?

Don't be fooled, it would be a fatal error to mistake his immaculate image for prissy reluctance.  Despite his dapper appearance, messing with his money and/or his partner brings out the worst in him.  When Ho is arrested and imprisoned after being double crossed by Taiwanese associates, Mark Tracks them down at a tea house.  After strategically placing semiautomatic pistols in the potted plants that line a hallway, he enters the room where Ho's betrayers dine without a care in the world.  A door slides open to reveal Mark glaring down on them like an angry storm cloud itching to unleash a torrential downpour.  The tension gets our adrenaline pumping before a single shot is fired.

Then, justice is unleashed.  Just as the group looks up to see the angel of death that has come to collect his due, Mark whips out twin semi automatics and unleashes an orgiastic volley of gunfire.  His enemies twist and contort in mid air as their bodies are perforated by 9mm rounds.  Every moment of their agony is captured in glorious slow motion.  The only image rendered in real time is Mark blazing away.  It can not be understated how powerful a sight this is.  The lobby shootout in The Matrix gained much from this trench coat, sunglasses and leather fetish motif and owes a huge debt to the tea house sequence.  The characters wardrobe proved so popular that Hong Kong youth adopted the style, which became known as "Mark Gor Lau", which translates to "Brother Mark's Coat".  Quentin Tarantino even commented that he dressed like the character for a while after seeing the film.

Mark makes his way into the lobby, dispensing of all the goons that have been alerted by the sounds of gunfire using the weapons he planted.  Just as he seems to be making his exit, one of the wounded crawls out shoots Mark twice in the leg.  We hear an excruciating crunch of shattered bone as Mark's leg is rendered useless.  He retrieves one of his stashed weapons while falling and returns fire, putting down his crippler.  He then limps over to the man in trooper fashion, leaving a trail of blood that cuts through the hallway like a dividing line on a city street.  Without a hint of emotion, Mark finishes him.  Thus ends one of the most influential and riveting shootouts since the cathartic ending bloodbath from The Wild Bunch.

With Ho in Jail and their reign at the top of a counterfeit empire no more, Mark is now reduced to hobbling around on a false leg and washing windows to make a living.  Yet, even in this humble state his pride and ambition have not completely evaporated.  Ho's release from prison awakens something inside of Mark, something more than nostalgia for the old days.  He chooses to reject his diminished place on the criminal food chain.  He has tasted success, and feels he deserves better than to be prematurely crippled in his prime.   He refuses to let his destiny be determined by the winds of fate, as evidenced by this exchange that takes place between Mark and Ho during the third act of the film:

Ho Tse Sung: Do you believe there's a God?

Mark Gor: Yes. I am God. You're one. A god can be human. A god is someone who controls his destiny. Sometimes, there's things you can't control. You win some, you lose some.

Ho has resigned to the lessons that the universe has taught him.  His time in prison, the loss of his father and the resulting estrangement from his younger brother can be seen as a trifecta of plagues that have been visited on his family.   His attempt to live the straight life upon release could be seen as him doing his penance for past sins.  Mark feels no guilt, in fact he has a sense of entitlement for the happy ending that fate tried to deny him.  He wants his better tomorrow and will fight for it.  The fact hat he makes his money through illegal means doesn't even register as an afterthought for him.  Ethically and morally, his one consistent value seems to be loyalty.

Chow went on to do other films with John Woo that are more widely regarded in the States.  Hollywood never found quite the right vehicle to showcase his super coolness, leaving fans at a loss to explain their fascination with him to the lay person.  In the early passages of A Better Tomorrow, Mark Gor seems to have swaggered out of some alternate universe that is part classic Warner Brothers gangster film and part Blaxploitation.  Everything just seemed to bead up and roll off of him as if he was coated with Teflon.  After his power is snatched away like Samson shorn of his locks, he is not without dignity.  His old self goes into hibernation, waiting to come to life again.  The crippled Mark Gor is a has been who resents  his has been status, and makes one more try for the brass ring.  There is never a moment we are not on his side, criminal or no.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cool Characters: O-Dogg's Bite Is Much Worse Than His Bark

By Scott Tre

This article contains Spoilers

Every great crime film contains a "live wire", a character that is unpredictable in his both his words and actions.  He automatically injects any scene he's in with unbearable tension.  Many times, his capacity for violence is established fairly early on, within a single scene or moment.  These moments often strike like lightening and leave a lasting impression.  The character becomes the embodiment of all that polite society fears: the randomness and unfairness of life represented by a random killing or a stray bullet.  Most people wish to live their lives without coming in contact with such types.  People hate being at the mercy of those who both impulsive and violent.

The Hughes Brothers' inaugural film, Menace II society, came in the midst of two great pop culture phenomenons of the 1990's.  One was the second wave of west coast gangsta rap initiated by The Chronic, which firmly established that sub-genre as the dominant form of mainstream rap music.  The other was the cycle of "Hood" films which dominated black cinema for much of the 1990's.  The music created a world that was sold as being steeped in the harshest of reality, and introduced a mostly middle class fan-base to a side of the African American experience that image conscious blacks would rather stay hidden.  "Hood" films provided a visual companion to the music, pairing the content of gangsta rap with the intoxicating images of cinema.  Boyz N The Hood, while celebrated in its day, was hardly the definitive cinematic embodiment of the sentiments expressed on the albums released by Ice Cube, Compton's Most Wanted, and Spice-1.  'Boyz' actually served as the jab to the death blow that was Menace.

It's 1993.  In the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles, Caine (Tyrin Turner) has just graduated from High School.  What should be a meritorious occasion is regarded with a shrug.  Caine has more important things to attend to.  While some of his classmates will be entering college, the workforce and the military, Caine will continue along his present path: hand to hand crack sales, petty crimes, drinking malt liquor and chasing young ladies.  The murder of his cousin Harold (Saafir) during a car jacking that takes place after they leave a graduation party sends Caine's life spiraling further out of control.  Accompanied by O-Dogg (Larenz Tate) and A-wax (Mc Eiht), he takes vengeance on his cousins killers.  The fact that he feels numb after doing so makes him realize that he is capable of much worse than hand to hand drug sales.   Amidst this misery,  Single mother Ronnie(Jada Pinkett) takes a liking to Caine.  She is hardworking with a bright future, and encourages Caine to change for the better.  Alas, his life choices up until that point have made it impossible for him evolve.

Caine isn't exactly innocent, but he remains highly sympathetic nonetheless.  Much of this is due to the barely containable powder keg that is O-Dogg.  His dress code is the traditional garb of an L.A. gang banger: flannel shirts, wife beaters, sweatshirts, sagging khaki pants and house-shoes.  His forehead is obscured by a curtain of braids.  To say his worldview is myopic would be an understatement.  In an environment where only the wolves survive, O-Dogg is the fiercest of cubs.  Were he to challenge the alpha male for pack dominance, the alpha male would likely cower.  The older generation likens proficiency with fisticuffs as the true test of a man's mettle.  Obviously, no one ever bothered to explain this O-Dog.  He lets bullets fly with the same reckless abandon that kids throw punches in a schoolyard brawl.  For him there is no middle ground.  Any slight, whether real or perceived, is punishable by death.  The solutions to any and all problems are final, and exceedingly brutal.

As the android Ash from Alien might say, O-Dogg has no "delusions of morality".  He dismisses the connection that many black folks have to religion as useless. Why bother worshiping a God that would disregard his beloved creations and leave them to live in squalor on earth?  He also balks at Caine's reluctance to open fire on Harold's assailants in the presence of senior citizens and children.   Avenging the murder of a homie trumps respect for elders or protecting the innocence of children.  O-Dogg is a predator if their ever was one.  He will stalk his prey in front of any audience, young or old.  That they may be scarred by the brutality of his attack is of no importance to him.


O-Dogg is amused by the sight of his own handy work.  In a bravura moment that shocked audiences into uneasy silence, he commits a murder not even 5 minutes into the film.  While stopping to buy 40 ounces of malt liquor from a Korean grocer, O-Dogg and Caine are stalked by an the grocers suspicious wife.  Upon paying for their beer, the grocer makes the mistake of uttering condolences for O-Dogg's mother.  Enraged, O-Dogg pulls a Glock 9mm and blows his head off.  Caine, taking a swig of his 40 with his back turned to the ruckus, is startled by the gunfire and drops the bottle.  O-Dogg, as if falling back on training received in some para-military academy, immediately grabs the grocers screaming wife and rushes her to the back of the store while ordering Caine to clean out the register.  After murdering the the wife and retrieving the security tape, O-Dogg flees the scene with Caine.  Thus ends one of the most shocking opening moments in film history.

The shocks don't end there.  O-Dog's indifference to human life knows no bounds.  He expresses amusement with his own handiwork, viewing the security tape over and over like the highlight reel of his favorite ball player.  That the tape is hard evidence that links both him and Caine directly to a  robbery/homicide does not stop him from passing it around to be viewed by all.  For O-Dogg, murder is not only an occupational hazard, but a hobby and a form of entertainment.  It's Something to do in the midst of boredom, a fit of anger, or to be a spectator to.  One gets the sense that the make believe violence of movies and television would not be enough to appease his appetite for destruction.

He gleefully corrupts those around him.  He goads Caine into violent revenge, resorting to homosexual derision at the slightest hint of hesitance.  He is willing to offer Ronnie's son a taste of malt liquor in her absence.  He does show a fierce loyalty to Caine, but it ultimately proves futile.  When Caine lies bleeding to death in Stacey's arms in the closing moments of the film, O-Dogg stands over the two of them with his emptied Glock in hand and tears streaming down his face.  His quickness on the trigger and hotheadedness was not enough to save his friend from becoming the casualty of a drive by.  He stands motionless, like a lost little boy  in a crowded department store clutching his favorite toy like a security blanket.  He learns then and there that there are are some problems that his ferocity can't solve.
With Caine we are given very specific reasons for why he has turned out as he has.  this is no the case with O-Dogg.  We don't get a glimpse into his home life or his past.  We know nothing about him other than what we see him do throughout the course of the film,or in the present tense.  That such details of are left unexplored deprive him of any excuses that one would want to make on his behalf.  He just simply is the way he is.  This makes him all the more frightening, as does the fact that he is still a minor.  His hair trigger temper and willingness to use violence give him a hardened exterior that makes it easy to forget just how young he is.       

Larenz Tates performance is not to be undervalued.  His youthful enthusiasm helped him in the role.  There is certain joyous ignorance that O-Dogg exhibits at his most violent.  He takes joy in inflicting pain with childish glee.  He lives like he hasn't a care in the world.  It's that quality that makes his character, and by extension the entire film, a bit more challenging than it's sometimes preachy exterior would have you believe.  Is O-Dogg truly a sociopath that needs to be locked away, or worse, put out of his misery?  Is he such a black hole of humanity that he deserves death?  Or is he, like Caine, a product of miserable existence?  Is society to blame?  Menace offers no easy answers save for one:  the normally nihilistic Caine chooses life when faced with death.  Alas, he makes this choice all too late.  Out of this terrible twosome, O-Dogg is the last man standing, his ultimate fate revealed in a strobe like montage of brief images.  He is being stuffed in the back of a squad car, hand-cuffed and on the verge of tears.  So end the ambitions of a Ridah.


*Special thanks to the imfbd for all of the great screen caps.    

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Blackstar Warrior": The Long Lost Tale of The Baddest Mofo in The Galaxy!

By Scott Tre

The blaxploitation genre was defunct by the dawn of the summer blockbuster era.  Though its flame had burned out, remnants of it would turn up in Hollywood's next phase.  The capes and perms on display at the players ball soon turned up in a galaxy far, far away.  While Billy Dee Williams' portrayal of Lando Calrissian in the The Empire Strikes Back made him seem like a more suave and mannered yet darker skinned equivalent of Han Solo, a deeper look reveals something a bit more subversive and perhaps not wholly unintended.

The mayor of Bespins Cloud City sported a fresh perm and a James Brown styled cape.  Though he didn't speak with the broken English of a player or hustler, he was every bit the rogue.  Though he didn't pimp hoes or deal dope, Lando was every bit the descendant of Blaxploitation characters like Superfly's Preist or The Mack's Goldie.  One only has to look at how he spits game at Princess Leia as she lands she exits the Millennium Falcon arm in arm with Han Solo to see how he gets down.  Star Wars appealed to black kids every bit as much as it did white, and Lando gave African American Star Wars fans someone to relate to.

While the pimpish cinematic lineage of Lando was always evident, it has always gone largely unnoticed.  It is has now become the focus of an intriguing and hilarious hoax.  Outsider productions has produced a trilogy of faux mini-docs and a trailer for a Star Wars film that never existed.  According to the fabricated history laid out in  the documentary, black businessman Frederick Jackson Junior had begun filming a Black Exploitation picture set in the Star Wars Universe.

Entitled Blackstar Warrior, The film was never completed.  It featured an African American protagonist  by the name of Lando, the very same Lando that would later appear as a supporting Character in The Empire Strikes Back.  All of this is played completely straight faced, as though it is a matter of historical fact.  The documentaries show the sequence of events that supposedly lead to the creation of the film.  The "Trailer" for Blackstar Warrior is supposedly made up of the only usable footage that remained from the abandoned production.

All of this culminates with the trailer for Blackstar Warrior.  The hilarious clip is reminiscent of the early trailers for Black Dynamite in that silliness of the idea does not undermine its inherent coolness.  Darth Vader is featured as a hand ringing villain in the tradition of "The Man" or just about any other interchangeable evil white man from black exploitation films.  Lando's past as a gambler and ladies man is played up much more prominently than it ever was in the original trilogy.  He also doesn't play second fiddle to Han Solo.  The totally inept Chewbacca costume is laugh out loud hilarious, and the aesthetic fidelity to the original Star Wars is impressive.  While it doesn't achieve the same uncanny level of authenticity as Black Dynamite, it manages to be lots of fun in its own right.

With the amount of Star Wars spoofs and parodies that have been done over the years, it's quite amazing that no one had considered this angle yet.  The original Star Wars, while timeless, is also undeniably a product of the 70's.  The hairstyles, costumes and even some of the philosophical elements mark as being a product of that decade without dating it in bad way.  A Blaxploitation adventure set in that universe makes perfect sense.  Only the most humorless and/or overly reverent Star Wars fans could possibly miss the inherent entertainment value in this idea.

For more info and updates go to Lando Is The Man.

Kanye West Contemplates The Plight of Those in "Power"

By Scott Tre

The temperamental nature of gifted artists usually tests the patience of his public.  His most outstanding flaws can be forgiven as long as he continues to produce great works that curry favor with his audience.  An artist that is perhaps too self aware will sometimes push the envelope and end up overplaying his hand.  He then puts himself in the unenviable position of having to work his way back in the public's good graces.

Kanye West has emerged as one of, if not the most important rap artist of the last decade.  His ascent to the top, and his ability to maintain that position represented the beginning of a tonal shift in the genre.  This was cemented by his victory over 50 Cent in 2007 when Graduation outsold Curtis by a sizable margin during their first week of sales.  That event ended up being a flash point for the diminished importance of street credibility in modern hip-hop.  However, his blatant materialism and narcissistic tendencies have shown that the egocentric side of Hip-Hop remains a constant.  His penchant for attention whoring reached an apex last year with his inexcusable antics during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards.  The instantaneous overreaction of both his music industry peers and the entertainment news media showed that his brand of spoiled sport narcissism had finally run its course. Seemingly humbled and embarrassed, Kan-yezee went into self-imposed exile.

Chris Brown's warmly received tearful rendition of Micheal Jackson's "Man In the Mirror" shows that even the most seemingly unforgivable transgressions can be forgotten about.  The passage of time, coupled with the fickle and forgetful nature of the American public as well as the exhilaration of seeing a tremendous talent at the height of his powers can heal all wounds.  That is the purest definition of star power.  Kanye, while not interested in begging and groveling for our forgiveness, understands this.  His new single, fittingly titled "Power", is an effort by Kanye to remind us of just why we tolerate his foolishness.

Performed at the very same BET Award ceremony as Chris Brown's MJ Tribute, "Power" is typical post Late Registration Kanye West.  Sonically it casts a much wider net than the RZA/Primo inspired crate digging aesthetic found on his first two albums.  The hand claps and half-time sports arena stomp of the drums announce "Power" as a non dance oriented pop song.  The tribal choral singing gives it a subconsciously defiant feel.  The mournful Rock guitar gives it an air of privileged rich kid angst.  Kanye brilliantly interpolates a phrase that may be a reference to a line of dialogue uttered by Peter Boyle in Spike Lees epic biopic Malcolm X: "No one man should have this much Power".  As the track devolves in a flurry of synths towards the end, it may as well play under the closing credits of a modern day sports film.  It's not suited to my particular tastes, but it is undeniably effective. 

The video that accompanies the clip is much more to my liking.  It begins with an iconic image of Kanye glaring/glowering into the camera and wearing a Horus chain that is easily the coolest piece of truck jewelry I've seen in quite some time.  It makes Kanye look like a cross between a rapper and an Egyptian pharaoh.  He is standing in the midst of a heavenly background, amongst clouds and in the middle of two rows of Roman styled pillars that stretch into infinity.  The color scheme gives it a Zack Snyder, 300 sort of vibe.  The camera pulls back slowly.  Kanye is flanked by what appear to be two robed and horned albino beauties. A scantily clad angel is seated in front of him.  More is revealed as the camera pulls back even further.  An illuminated sword that appears to be descending from the heavens hovers ominously above Kanye's head.  More scantily clad, statuesque beautiful figures creep in from underneath the boundaries of the frame.  Two women in the upper left and right hand corners hang upside down and douse themselves with water.  As the clip comes to a close, the camera is liberated from its slow and steady trajectory and begins to map different sections of the frame.  Two warriors leap through the air from the left and right.  They are both wielding swords and seem poised to cleave Kanye, or perhaps each other, in half.  Kanye remains stoically in position, his glare intact.

The clip plays more like a brief commercial for Kanye's upcoming album Dark Twisted Fantasy than a music video (then again, aren't music videos essentially extended commercials?).  Almost any single frame could serve as the cover.  It was directed by artist Marco Brambila, who helped Sylvester Stallone stage an early 90's comeback with Demolition Man.  He has brought his knowledge of art to the table, as the sword hovering over Kanye's head is actually the sword of Damocles, from the classical Greek anecdote about the plight of those in power.  This is fitting as the picture has the feeling of a Renaissance painting come to life.  Remember the scene from Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate, where the human forms in the sculpture hanging on the wall of John Milton's (Al Pacino) lavish office become restlessly animated?  It has that same quality.  

Nothing sells a product faster than packaging it in stunning, eye catching imagery.  Rap videos have never been known for stylistic or thematic innovation, usually becoming a showcase for arm movements that seem to be some form of sign language meant to be seen by NASA satellites.  Marco Brambilla not only gives us a pretty picture to look at, but invites rap fan to do two things that are rarely asked on them: think and interpret.  Message boards are already abuzz with talk of the illumanati and masonic imagery.  Arm chair conspiracy theorists seem to forget that rappers love to play around with such images in abstract ways.  If Kanye really was part of some ancient pagan cult set on taking over the world, I doubt he would drop clues to such affiliations in this fashion, or perhaps he and Marco are having fun with such theories.  Either way, it gives us something to talk about, as well as an album to anticipate.  Diva or not, Kanye continues to push the boundaries of how rappers are allowed to present and express themselves. 

"The Color Ruckus" Probs The Origins of One Man's Self Hatred

By Scott Tre

Uncle Ruckus's incessant self hatred has been an endless source of humor for The Boondocks over the years.  Some of it truly insightful and hilarious, some of it repetitive and pointless.  In all three seasons, we have seen it taken to ever more ridiculous lengths via Ruckus' increasingly outrageous commentary and even more outrageous antics.  With "The Story Of Jimmy Rebel" it seemed as though the joke had finally worn thin and Aaron Mcgruder and his creative team resorted to the most obvious brand shock humor.  It seemed as though The Boondocks would end without us getting any real insight as to the engine that drives Ruckus' disdain for his own race.  The best humor usually contains a grain of truth, or something that causes us to look inward and examine our own thoughts and experiences.  It had been a good long while since the exploits of Ruckus had provided either.  He had become a mascot, a side show character.

At long last, Ruckus is given a bit of back-story in "The Color Ruckus".  His abusive and burdensome grandmother has crashed his home, looking for a comfortable place to die.  Ruckus's parents and brothers follow her in anticipation of her demise.  Ruckus's father, Mister (D.C. Curry), is every bit as insensitive and hateful as his mother and openly wishes for her to croak.  He routinely berates his wife and kids, with Ruckus often being the focal point of his blistering verbal abuse.  Flashbacks reveal that his treatment of Ruckus as a child was in fact so horrible that his wife had to invent a fairy tale world for Ruckus to retreat to.  She told him that he was actually abandoned by a white family, and that his dark skin and negroid features are symptoms of an imaginary disease called re-vitiligo, which has the exact opposite effect of vitiligo.  Though she meant to give him some much needed self-esteem, it actually caused to him to disassociate himself from black people completely.  The combination of his father's abuse and his mothers well intentioned lies resulted in the abomination that is Uncle Ruckus.

The Title "The Color Ruckus" is a play on Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple, itself based on Alice Walker's novel.  Ruckus's father "Mister" is meant to parallel the character of the same name in both the novel and the film.  Ruckus's fabricated origin story is a play on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  The Ruckus clan is a parody of a dysfunctional family unit the likes of which the world has never seen.  Even the most offensively stereotypical contemporary chitlin' circuit play has probably never had characters quite like this.  In fact, "The Color Ruckus" plays like one of the many black family dramas/comedies that are centered around family reunions and funerals.  Mister never misses a chance to remind his family of their worthlessness and how they contributed to his broken dreams.  It sheds light on how black men trying to raise families during the days of Jim Crow often took their frustration out on their loved ones.  The episode makes no justification for this, but rather displays it plainly and finds much dark humor in it.  It also examines the old adage of how hateful parents raise hateful children.  Perhaps, Ruckus had no choice but to become the man that he is given the circumstances.

At last, the cycle of Uncle Ruckus is complete.  "The Color Ruckus" is the first time in a long time where the shock humor associated with the character hits its mark every time.  It even manages to muster up pathos for the insufferable old bastard.  Even the most unbearable curmudgeon has a story; to ignore that story is to not acknowledge his existence as a human being.  After enduring shallow episodes that played his corrosive mindset for the crudest and cheapest laughs imaginable, The Boondocks resident self hating negro finally gets fleshed out.  He truly is his father's child.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Guerrilla Hustling 101: A Phone Conversation With Cavario H., Author Of "Raised By Wolves"

By Scott Tre

Tradition is essential for maintaining cultural stability.  It forms the foundation of our most vital institutions.  The inability to pass on knowledge to the younger generation sows the seeds of destruction deep into the fertile but fragile soil of civilization.  Instead of providing nourishment, the weeds that spring forth will poison and pollute the cultural ecosystem, resulting in eventual collapse.  Those who inherit the mantle must be taught the importance of that station and the responsibilities it entails.  They should also be tested to see if they are capable of living up to those responsibilities.