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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Hustle & Flow

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Hustle & Flow
2005 (2006) - Paramount Classics (Paramount)

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/B

When the Best Song Oscar was recently awarded to "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" - the signature anthem from writer-director Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow - many uptight viewers were even more outraged than they were when Eminem's "Lose Yourself" (from 8 Mile) became the first rap song to win an Oscar a few years back. Perhaps it was the live performance during the show that irritated them (Eminem stayed home his year and Ann Reinking must've been unavailable), the attitude that "rap ain't music" or an assumption that the film and song was glorifying pimps. Whichever reason overlooked the fact that the song was a wholly appropriate choice - more so than many lame movie songs - for it was integral to the story told in Hustle & Flow, a film which underneath its seamy surface is a quite traditional, even a bit corny, "I want to be a star" tale.

Terrance Howard is DJay, a small-time pimp and drug dealer in Memphis. His trio of hoes - to use the vernacular - include mouthy stripper Lexus (Paula Jai Parker), the hugely-pregnant and thus on the bench Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and microbraided white trash Nola (Taryn Manning). His crib is a shambles, his old car doesn't have working air-conditioning and a mismatched quarter panel (but "baller" rims), and he's wondering at age 35 if this is all life has to offer.

One of his weed customers is bar owner Arnel (Isaac Hayes), who tips him off that local-rapper-made-big Skinny Black (Ludacris) is holding a private party on the Fourth of July at his club, and would be looking for some premium smoke so DJay should consider attending. After DJay runs into an old classmate, Key (Anthony Anderson), who is now working as a recording engineer, he starts to wonder if he could tap into his dormant MC skillz, make a demo and slip it Skinny Black, riding his coat tails to stardom.

What makes Hustle & Flow deeper than, say 8 Mile, is Howard's Oscar-nominated performance. With a slurred molasses-think accent that smears "man" into "mang", DJay isn't the typical crunk juice goblet-toting mack who you'd see rolling with Snoop Dogg; he's a small-timer who is the age at which his daddy died and is afraid that this is all he'll ever be. DJay's balancing of his underlying uncertainty and his smooth pimp charms are a clearly portrayed by Howard. Of course, considering how soft a touch his is in managing his garden tools, it's no wonder that he's not rolling in a Benzo. (My girlfriend called him "the Worst. Pimp. Ever. The new breed of the kinder, gentler pimp" and added "if he'd only smack his hoes around, they wouldn't talk back and he could afford to get some air-conditioning." Please direct complaint letters to her. Thank you.)

The women veer a bit close to caricatures at times: Lexus is the golddigging skeezer; Shug is the baby mama; Nola is the girlish cracker; Key's wife Yevette (Elise Neal) is the uptight buppie; but they all get scenes that dig a bit deeper than they could've been in a lesser script. Ludacris' Skinny Black - was "Rap Guy" unavailable as a handle? - is pretty one-dimensional and anyone surprised at how he treats DJay at the end has lived their whole life oblivious to the concept of clichés. If you've seen Crash, it's a bit of pip to see Howard and Ludacris facing off for the second time in the same year in such different roles.

While the scenes of songwriting are well-done and capture the buzz of creation, some reality gets unnecessarily tossed out the boarded-up window. Shug's conscription into becoming a hook singer comes from nowhere, when it could've easily been set up by showing her singing around the house beforehand. Nola's upset over having to service a music store owner to obtain a microphone is also a little odd considering her day job is turning $20 tricks. (Not to worry; she gets hers in the end. No pun intended.)

Shot on Super 16mm by Amy Vincent, the Cinematography Award winner at the Sundance gets a good transfer for DVD in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Richly saturated primary colors make the heat and sweat palpable, but there is some enhancement of grain that was already amped up by the digital intermediate process. On the audio tip, the hip-hop just don't stop with plenty of junk for yo trunk in kickin' Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. When the bass hits during the scene where they create "Whoop That Trick", prepare to be overcome with the urge to bum-rush the fridge for some F'ed Up Malt Liquor! Dialogue is a little hard to understand due to accents, but is otherwise properly mixed.

While an iced-out chain isn't included in the case - drat! - the feature commentary by Brewer is fast-moving and fact-laden, and the featurettes Behind the Hustle (27:17) and By Any Means Necessary (14:39) are much better than your typical EPK fluff, delving into the challenges of getting the film made - a four-year odyssey that required producer John Singleton to put his house up as collateral to finance production when no one else would cough up the minuscule budget. (That the film would go on to sell for a record sum at Sundance was a just dessert.)

Creatin' Crunk (13:38) discusses the important place in music that Memphis holds, and shows the musicians who played the score, many of whom worked with Isaac Hayes on his seminal Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft albums. In a life-imitates-art detail, local rapper Al Kapone was able to hustle Brewer into giving him a shot at writing a song on spec, only to end up with a pair of tracks in the film, including "Whoop That Trick". The Memphis Premiere (4:53) has red carpet interviews and a half-dozen promotional spots (3:35) that aired on MTV wrap up the extras.

While it's a little held back from greatness by its convention-bound storytelling, Hustle & Flow is a well-acted and old-fashioned entertainment that may not do much for generating sympathy for pimps, but definitely shows that everybody has a dream.

Nine Lives

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Nine Lives
2005 (2006) - Magnolia Pictures (Sony)

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/C+

While the concept and execution of Nine Lives - nine short stories about nine women, each one filmed with a single unbroken Steadicam shot - sounds like something Brian DePalma may try to do after a freak accident eradicated all the testosterone from his body, the end result is an uneven but sporadically compelling women's-short-film-festival-on-a-DVD.

Within each roughly quarter-hour segment - each titled with the character's name - we drop in on the subjects at particularly dramatic moments of their lives. (As opposed to the 15 minutes spent watching TV or doing the crossword puzzle.) Greatly pregnant Diana (Robin Wright Penn) encounters a former lover in the supermarket; Sonia (Holly Hunter) and her boyfriend visit friends only to have a harsh revelation made about her; Lorna (Amy Brenneman) attends the funeral of her ex-husband's wife and is clearly not welcome by everyone but the widower; Maggie (Glenn Close) visits a cemetery accompanied by Maria (the "Jodie Foster 2.0" robot that works under the name of Dakota Fanning).

As each subsequent story comes along, characters from previous chapters start re-appearing and adding to the tapestry effect of the stories. It's not as clumsily handled as it was in Crash (2005), but reinforces the impression that all these people are living in the same world, albeit a world not quite like ours. Some of the reappearances are little shocking when contrasted against their earlier portrayals and I've deliberately left out any hints about a couple of them.

Since the stories aren't shown in chronological order - we see the prisoner from the first chapter being arrested in the background of the seventh chapter - it reminded me of the non-linear storytelling of 21 Grams, without a complete picture being assembled in the end. Despite several obvious references in the dialogue about connections and pieces of a puzzle that would lead you to believe that these scenes are going to coalesce into a cohesive statement or group portrait, in the end it never pulls together and the overall effect is muddle. While 21 Grams had me confused for the first half-hour until it provided the Rosetta stone for its characters and it all made sense, lacking only in the particulars, Nine Lives tantalizes with the hint of similar rewards only to not deliver.

With a cast that also features Kathy Baker, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Molly Parker, Mary Kay Place, Aidan Quinn and Sissy Spacek - yes, I copied the IMDB's alphabetical cast list - some solid thespian ability is to be expected to be on display and, for the most part, the cast delivers the goods. While it may seem novel for an actor to be scrutinized for such a length of time on film, it's only a fraction of what stage actors are required to do, though they don't need to worry as much about the technical needs of filming.

There's a saying here in Michigan that "if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes, it'll change" and that's the best way to approach Nine Lives. If you find yourself actively disliking a character or situation, you aren't too far from a change of scenery and if you feel compelled to hit the chapter skip/eject button, you won't be ruining the overall effect. While the segments with Close, Brenneman, Penn, Baker and Spacek are the better ones, the others meander and in the case of the third piece, Holly, the grating unhinged character played by Lisa Gay Hamilton is such a pill that when she finally reaches the easy-to-predict denouement, I wished that she'd done that before her segment had even started. If pressed to award a blue ribbon for a performance, I'd go with Penn's, for she manages to make her conflicted and contradictory character devastating to watch in the short time she has on screen.

Writer-director Rodrigo García has constructed something that plays more like austere mini-plays, with a few characters briefly being consumed by angst, and if it weren't for the deft Steadicam work by the tag team of Henry Tirl and Dan Neece, it wouldn't really enter the realm of cinema. At their best, the segments make us forget the artifice of the single shot gimmick and by the time we reach the end of the line, we hardly recall where it started; not because it was forgettable, but because we've been taken for a ride. There is no score except when people have to traverse distances long enough that an audience could start to drift away in the interim. However, the lack of an overarching story or theme just makes this a compilation of tone poems.

The DVD's specified 1.78:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and the naturalistic, desaturated palette of the image led me to believe that this was a digital production typical of this budget range, but it turns out that it was shot on Super 16mm. There is some minor grain and edge-enhancement, but detail is good and the pseudo-documentary look is appropriate to the style. The only audio track is English Dolby Digital 5.1 (with subtitles in English, Spanish or French) and it's an example of how "5.1" can be more a marketing term than an accurate description of a soundtrack. There is very little back channel or LFE activity - understandable for a low-budget talkfest - and some environmental noise actually makes the dialogue difficult to hear in a few spots.

There is no commentary track, but the passel of extras begin with a Q&A at Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, a 74-minute chat in three segments with several of the cast members. It's a loose panel with the usual expounding about the roles, but the audio could've been better recorded and as a result, it feels like a cable access production. More traditional features are The Women of Nine Lives (6:49) featuring the actresses talking about their roles (big surprise); Sonia: Blocking a Scene (7:31) which shows the Holly Hunter segment being talked over by the director and DP in split-screen with the finished film; and Working with One Continuous Take (8:43) and Maggie: A Day at the Cemetery (4:36) which combine to discuss the challenges for the actors and camera operators lugging 85 pounds of gear to execute Garcia's vision. Ten trailers round out the extras.

As a collection mini-actress showcases, Nine Lives is consistent, but as a cohesive story that adds up to more than a mélange of mopey meditations on upper-middle class, it's a few lives short of a load. If you like good acting, it's worth a rental; just don't expect the secrets of life to be found here.

Peter Schorn
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