Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miami Life: A Phone Conversation With Billy Corben

By Scott Tre

For the past 4 years, Billy Corben has played a major role in the way the city of Miami is viewed in popular culture.  His Cocaine Cowboys films exposed the underbelly of Miami's cocaine wars in a way that Scarface and Miami Vice only hinted at.  The U showed how the emergence of Hip-Hop coupled with the racial tensions and harsh economic realities that existed in Miami at the time played a role in reshaping the University of Miami's football program for better or worse.  In fact, that phrase is indicative of Corben's filmography.  It could be titled South Florida: The Good, The Bad & The Indifferent or maybe South Florida: The Crazy, the Wild, and the Outrageous.  The tales told in his films are as outlandish as anything you'd read in a supermarket tabloid.  The major difference is that it's all true.  You're hearing from the horses mouth.

Review: Ben Affleck Robs "The Town" Blind

By Scott Tre

A good cops and robbers movie is one that succeeds in spite of the inherent predictability of the genre.  The "crime doesn't pay" moralizing of generations past is more prevalent in modern times than most of us realize.  We know that no matter how slick or advanced the robbers are, their winning streak cannot last.  We will see them pull off a few jobs with clockwork precision, sexy weaponry, and the most advanced equipment this side of a nanotechnology lab.  Inevitably, there will be that one job that goes awry thanks to a crew member that has a little too much blood lust. From there, it's only a matter of time before the climactic apocalyptic shoot-out with the coppers.  The pieces are all there and we recognize them better than our reflection in the mirror.  Yet, when pulled off with bravura and gusto, they draw us in and cater to that secret desire to see the bad guys get away with it.  It's one of those tried and true formulas that can't fail if done right.

Doug Macray (Ben Affleck) is a professional bank robber in a town teaming with professional bank robbers.  He and his crew hail from the rough and tumble Boston Neighborhood of Charleston, Massachusetts.  Charleston is a veritable breeding ground for characters like Macray and his "brother-from-another-mother" James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner).  They are half of a four man crew who treat local banks as low hanging fruit on a the forbidden tree.  In another life they'd simply be working class Irish Americans raising families, but in this life they are the New England incarnation of the Jesse James Gang.

After knocking off a Cambridge bank and taking bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, the crew figures it would be wise to do some surveillance on her.  Macray takes the assignment, fearing that Jems viciousness might yield unnecessary bloodshed.  Macray gets much more than he bargained for and begins a romantic relationship with her.  He continues with the affair in spite of how it perplexes Jem, who is taken aback by Macray's bad judgment.  All the while, old school "G-man" styled FBI agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm) chases after the gang with the tenacity of a blood hound.  As Macray's loyalty to Jem coupled with his obligations to the old guard of Charlestons gangster traditions conspire to keep him from moving on to a new life with his lady love, Frawley closes in on him.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogans novel Prince of Thieves, but owes an equal or greater debt to Micheal Mann's Heat.  It also references plenty of other modern crime films, Scorcesian and otherwise.  It is a genre piece, not interested in recreating the wheel so much as it is in creating an efficient machine from a well worn blueprint.  Director and Star Ben Affleck has never exactly been the most celebrated actor of his generation, but seems to have found his true calling behind the camera.  He seems to want to create a cinematic identity for Boston similar to the one that Scorcese has created for New York.  While he needs much more time to achieve such a lofty goal, Affleck has shown himself to be a fast learner.

The Town does not seek to distract the viewer with meticulously framed shots that turn everything into a picturesque landscape.  In many ways, the camera work is like the Boston portrayed in the film: suffocatingly ordinary.  The camera merely documents what is in front of it.  That is not to say that the film is without nuance or style.  Quite the contrary: It is a workman like style for a workman like town.  These guys aren't glamorous, and their exploits are not documented as such.  These are average guys who happen to have a larger than life (not to mention illegal) occupation.

The story telling is straight forward.  The screenplay by Ben Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard portrays Charleston not as an urban hell a la Menace II Society, but as a town that sucks the life out of it's inhabitants through it's mundane grind.  Manual labor or civil service are the only happy endings that neighborhood kids can hope for.  The smart alec dialogue is perhaps a bit overdone (much of it sounds like an extension of the more memorable bits from Good Will Hunting) but perhaps this is the point.  These are guys that cover up their lack of education with wise ass remarks and a "too cool for school" attitude that New England residents know all too well.  It is a facade that covers up the deadened souls of guys who gave up on life a long time ago.  It also sets up an interesting dynamic between those that have resigned to their fates, and those who realize that they actually have a choice.

The action follows in the tradition of Micheal Mann, and while nothing here reaches the heights of the classic shootout on the streets of L.A. in Heat, Affleck manages to stage some very believable and compelling sequences.  Things happen fast and not a single moment is lingered on for stylistic flourishes.  As the staccato of machine gun fire prattles off and muzzle flashes flare, there is working class sensibility afoot.  It is spectacular to us because none of us are bank-robbers, but for these guys it is simply a job.  They shoot past any obstacle in their way.  While Heat made you hold your breath, The Town never quite reaches that level of tension yet keeps you itching for the next moment regardless.  The action scenes in a movie like this make you instantly realize just how invested you are in the characters.  That the film follows the structure and feel of Heat so closely yet still maintains its own identity is a testament to Affleck as filmmaker.

As Macray, Affleck doesn't set the world on fire but he does create a character that is believably ordinary.  Much of that is because Affleck's demeanor makes it hard to imagine him being "the best" at anything,.  Macray is good at robbing banks, yet the seemingly bloodthirsty Jem seems evn more efficient and disciplined.  Macray is sympathetic, yet Jem by comparison seems more realistic and accepting of the way things are.  That is accomplished through Jeremy Renner's "Ordinariness".  Dare I say that the characters in this film benefit from not seeming all that remarkable as people.  Life is work.  Rent, heat, gas, and food cost money.  You get it how you live.  These characters seem to understand that and not much else.  Dare I also say that this is probably the first film I have ever seen where I sympathize a little more with the crazy "live wire" character than with the "Sympathetic" protagonist.  Both are likable, and both win over the audiences fervor, but Jem is about his business.

Then there is John Hamm. Sporting a hairdo that makes him look like a Treasury officer from the Prohibition era, and sense of morality that is a bit more black and white than the crew from Charleston.  He isn't a pansy though, and Hamm brings a sense of strength and personality to a role that stands in contrast to Kevin Costner's bland turn as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.  Frawley isn't as attractive a character as Jem or Macray, but he is smart and headstrong.  He isn't a square by any means.  He knows and understand the world the robbers operate in, her just happens to be on the other side of the fence.

The Town is a well oiled machine of a genre piece.  Sturdy and strong though not world changing.  It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does add a brand new tire with fresh treads.  It may not reincarnate the heist film, but it keeps it alive. Ben Affleck is one of the pleasant surprises of recent years.  That such a maligned actor is emerging as a solid master of the modern crime film is exciting to see.  Someday, this guy may very well have his Goodfellas.  One can only hope.  

Musical Memory: DFC & MC Eiht Warn Us About What Happens When "Caps Get Peeled"

By Scott Tre

There are great deal of people out there who do not let Billboard charts, commercial radio, or video outlets determine what makes their personal playlist.  This was as true in 1994 as it is now.  While the mighty Death Row was familiarizing suburban kids all over America with West Coast gangsta music, there were a subset of underground heroes that did not have the benefit of "the machine".  They may have had a major label contract, but they weren't given the same push as the more marketable artists of the day.  Many exhibited the independent spirit,  toiling below the radar and depending on word of mouth to spread their gospel.  They may not have achieved gold or platinum success, but they appealed to a constituency that cared more for authenticity then marketing muscle.  They knew what their fans wanted and related to.  They sought not accolades and acclaim from the hip-hop press or the taste makers in the big eastern cities, but sales and approval from the audience that matters most: The Streets.

DFC and MC Eiht exemplified such sentiments.  DFC hailed from Flint Michigan and got their start with the late Great MC Breed, (who's debut single "Ain't No Future In Yo Frontin" achieved Gold status in 1991 and turned him into a cult hero).  The letters in their name stood for "Dope Flint Connection" or "Da Flint crew".  The duo was made up of Al and T-Dub. MC Eiht was the lead rapper of the group Compton's Most Wanted.  CMW never quite managed to achieve the same level of commercial success as others of their hometown, but they produced a raw form of Jazzy gangsta music that appealed to purists.  After MC Eiht's supporting turn in the Hughes Brothers crime film Menace II Society, (as well as his effective contribution to the soundtrack, titled "Streiht Up Menace") Eiht began to garner attention as a solo artist.  Such Bulletproof respect reached all the way to the 5 boroughs of NYC, where Eiht had a sizable following.  The west was emanating a sound and attitude that the whole country could feel, especially those who lived in Midwestern cities where street gangs from both LA and Chicago had been infiltrating throughout the 80's and 90's.  It makes sense then, that DFC and Eiht would have a mutual appreciation for each others style.  That appreciation would culminate in a track that would make little noise in the mainstream, but that had obvious appeal for anyone familiar with the kind of music made by both artists.

The lead single off DFC's second album Things in tha hood was not directed at the radio, but at those who make nightly runs to the liquor store in customized whips.  This was the spring of 1994, the height of the G-Funk era.  MC Eiht and DJ slip were increasingly leaving behind the break beats of their earlier albums.  The Jazzy yet funky bottom heavy synthesizer aesthetic used on "Streiht Up Menace" worked like gangbusters (no pun intended), and CMW planned to explore and refine it to it's very limit.  They provided the musical backing for "Caps Get Peeled": A contemporary R&B/Jazz track with thick bass and coasting strings that create a sinister yet relaxing vibe.  Oddly, it suits the violent subject matter.  The laid back mood adds a sense of normalcy to it all, as opposed to slapping you in the face with all to obvious shock value.  In the enviornment that DFC and Eiht come from, violence is routine. 

The video gives us the standard images associated with the era.  It begins with a disclaimer that  espouses the by then tired mantra of gangsta music "reflecting reality".  This was when video outlets such as MTV began to wilt under pressure from political and parental watch dog groups to edit violent content from music videos.  Up until this point, one could actually spot semi and fully automatic firearms in rap videos.  By 1994, such things were routinely blurred out (along with close ups of 40's being guzzled and blunts being toked).  The video for Caps get Peeled was fairly uneventful, featuring classic cars giving their augmented up hydraulic systems a workout.  DFC and Eiht are shown cruising through the hood on a liquor run while seeing other young black males being searched and frisked by the police.  Hard to believe there was actually a time when artists didn't profess to be hard while blatantly filling their videos with the most extravagant imagery imaginable.  Though the gangsta rappers of the mid-90's were still phony in their own right, they often made music that emanated the mood, feel and tastes of the streets.  Nothing exemplifies that better than this west coast and Midwest collaboration, showing that game truly recognizes game.    

Musical Memory: St. Ides Commercials Went Down Easier Than The Beer Itself

By Scott Tre

I never was much of drinker, mostly because it's hard for me to imbibe something if I can't stand the taste of it.  When I moved to Mount Vernon, NY in the mid 1990's, I fell in with a crowd that frequently indulged in the recreational use of mind altering substances.  At the time, alcohol seemed to be the most benevolent and fashionable of the aforementioned poisons (that, and my aversion to smoking, snorting or injecting anything into my body repulsed me from trying any of the harder stuff).  The preferred lager of choice was malt liquor, which can be found in the cooler of any corner store or bodega.  The crew I hung out with would alternate between Old English 800 and St. Ides Malt liquor.  The more refined among them had graduated to Budweiser.  I chose St. Ides for three very important reasons: the "Crooked I" logo that appeared on the label of the 22oz bottles was reflective on the adhesive side, meaning that it looked cool when viewed through the opaqueness of cheap beer and glass.  The second was that multiple viewings of Boyz N the Hood, Juice, and Menace II Society added a certain chic to carrying around a 40oz glass bottle filled with dark brown, foamy water.  The third is that the commercials for it featured some of my favorite rappers of the time.  I was young and easily influenced.  Sue me.

A bit of background for those who don't know: Malt Liquor is beer with high alcohol content.  More specifically, any alcoholic beverage equal to or exceeding 5% alcohol by volume.  Well, St Ides contained a whopping 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, making it one of the most potent around.  In many ways it was a successor to Old English 800.  During the 1990's, malt liquor companies began to aggressively target the "urban audience" (IE young African Americans).  This was hardly new even back then, as anyone old enough to remember the Colt 45 commercials featuring Billy Dee Williams can tell you.  What made St. Ides stand out was that its advertisements skewed really young, as evidenced by its use of rappers to hock its wares.  Keep in mind that the rap artists used were not of the "pop friendly" or crossover variety.  You wouldn't see Hammer in a St. Ides commercial.  Who you would see were your favorite hardcore rappers of the period.  The kind of guys that made it to gold and platinum success through word of mouth and street acclaim.  This added an air of legitimacy to the brand.

This drew the ire of many who saw such marketing as dangerously irresponsible, as a good deal of the fan base for these artists were not of legal drinking age.  Many saw the marketing of malt liquor to minorities as tantamount to cultural genocide.  Rumors of certain brands causing sterility and violent behavior in black men ran rampant through the hood.  Ice Cube remained the brands most consistent and visible spokesman in spite of the black nationalist stance he took on albums such as Death Certificate.  When the company used Public Enemy front man Chuck D's voice in an advertisement without his permission, the self proclaimed "rhyme animal" went ballistic and sued the Mckenzie River Brewing Company.


It is important to remember that this was long before rappers became enamored with expensive alcohol.  They saw more honor in swigging mouthfuls of malted barley on the stoops, porches, and street corners of America.  Whether you lived in a high rise project in Brooklyn or in the lower income areas of the south or the midwest, rest assured there were gaggles of true blue brothers tipping bottles in tribute to fallen comrades on a corner near you.  At the time, I too saw them as being more "authentic" than me.  The great thing about youth is how it affords one a number of excuses for stupidity.    

My new found relationship with malt liquor was a short lived joke in very poor taste (both figuratively and literally), though my need to feel "down" prevented me from seeing that.  The permeating, putrid taste of "Crooked I" brew gave me such a hard time that once I numbed my palette with an entire roll of Certs before guzzling a bottle.  The fruit flavored variation of St. Ides, called Special Brew, wasn't much better.  You can add fruit flavors to refined urine, but at the end of the day you're still drinking piss.  I used to laugh at the reactions of more seasoned and knowledgeable drinkers as they tasted Special Brew for the first time, and they used to laugh at my guttural taste in beer.  By the late 90's I was back on the wagon for the long haul.  In fact, I was driving it.  Good riddance.  Kool-Aid and fruit juices have always been more my speed.

The one thing I will always savor as a gift from the malt liquor Gods in corporate America are those glorious commercials and posters.  As a fanatical Ice Cube fan during the early 90's, there was only so many ways you could be exposed to him.  It was exciting to see him in a commercial selling something while portraying the same character I had gotten to know on Amerikkka's Most Wanted and Death Certificate.  Plus, he was always rapping, not simply reading an endorsement slogan off of a cue card. Rappers did actual songs for these commercials, and they were dope!  The advertisements done by Cube, The Notorious B.I.G, Snoop, 2Pac, The Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, MC Eiht, Eric B & Rakim, King-T and The Wu-Tang Clan could just as well have been excerpts from a mixtape.  None of these songs were ever "officially" released on albums or as singles.  The only way you could hear them was by  the commercials or catching the radio spots.  That's right, St. Ides was hooking up fans with exclusive content!

St. Ides understood what mixtape DJ's always had, that fans want that new shit.  In the spring of 1995, B.I.G rapped over what would end up being the instrumental of the Dogg Pounds infamous New York, New York.  The commercial aired months before the November 17th release date of New York, New York as a single, or the Halloween release of the Dogg Pound's debut Dogg Food.  Wu-tang performed a spot that ended up being ambient noise in a skit on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.  Even commercials featuring lesser known artists had something to offer.  Peep the emotional violin sample that Threat rhymes over on his spot.  Just crazy!

These days, rappers of all kinds can be found endorsing all manner of products.  40's have long since become the exclusive province of broke ni**as, as drinking expensive liquor, prescription cough syrup and popping pills are seen as much more attractive vices.  In the end, I never really developed a taste for liquor, though I have been known to enjoy a Rum and Coke and fruity "light weight" drinks on occasion (Man Law: Never be seen in public holding a glass with an umbrella sticking out of it).  Parrish Smith may "crack a forty-O" and go for his, but I'd rather do so with some sweet tea or lemonade.  What I will always savor is that great music, as I continue to ponder how one of the greatest rappers ever managed to sling "bean pies and St. Ides in the same sentence".