Southern Comforts, Northern Songs


John Singleton’s Baby Boy is pretty much a mess, but it also has a couple of long stretches that are extremely daring in that they reveal black family dynamics we’ve never seen on screen before. Singleton has returned to South Central L.A., the scene of his first film, Boyz N the Hood (still his most cohesive and affecting work), and also to the subject of that film: troubled relationships between fathers and sons.

The film’s “baby boy” is Jody (Tyrese Gibson), an unemployed 20-year-old who still lives with his mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), although he’s fathered two children with two women, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass). He’s closer to Yvette, who wants him to marry her, but she’s hesitant about giving him an ultimatum since Jody is clearly satisfied to go on living rent-free in the crib where he was born. When his mother’s new boyfriend, reformed gangster Melvin (Ving Rhames), moves in, Jody’s feckless days of pretending he’s a macho man while evading adult responsibilities are over. Everywhere he looks, there’s Melvin, flaunting his authority and banging Juanita.

If this sounds like a sitcom, Singleton never plays it that way. Nor is it melodrama. The film shifts between two radically different perspectives. On the one hand, Singleton approaches the material as if he were an urban ethnographer, non-judgmentally collecting the details of familial and hierarchical relationships within an insular society. On the other, the film often seems to be a projection of Jody’s psyche. Baby Boy opens with a dream image of Jody underwater, naked and curled up in the fetal position on a pink shell. The dream quickly turns into a nightmare: Jody sees himself getting married and then shot to death in the street. Not only is the dream repeated throughout, but its heightened New Age-y imagery leaks into the film, albeit without any narrative consistency.

While Singleton’s refusal to play within the rules of any one genre or style is ambitious, it leaves most of his actors floundering. With the exception of Rhames, whose character is both larger-than-life and altogether human, the cast seems like a collection of windup toys. (The women are at a particular disadvantage since their characters are all dick-obsessed motormouths.) Singleton wrote Baby Boy with the late Tupac Shakur in mind, and the film would have benefited from his mercurial, passionate acting. Gibson is such a bland presence that not even Singleton’s Caravaggio-like framing and lighting can turn him into a three-dimensional person. Without a convincing Jody, Singleton’s thesis about a son’s absolute need for a father figure is never played out. Rhames gives Singleton the dad of his dreams. It’s his baby boy who’s curiously missing.

A Roger Corman-style drag-racing movie injected with nitrous oxide (the 21st-century fuel additive), Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious delivers enough 140 mph thrills to become this summer’s bible for custom-car worshipers. But even those who’ve never heard of “rice rockets” (Japanese imports souped up with computerized hydraulics and customized engines) might be charmed by the film’s blend of kineticism, car-culture rituals, and hilariously flat-footed dialogue.

The plot revolves around an undercover cop (Paul Walker) who infiltrates an L.A. street-racing crew by rescuing its leader (Vin Diesel) from a too-close encounter with a rival (Rick Yune). The cop is on the trail of a gang of truck hijackers who, in the opening sequence, chase down a big rig, surround it, and rope it in. You’ve seen the action in hundreds of westerns, but here, the prairie is the freeway and the horses are race cars. Cohen’s sophisticated sense of pace relies on low-angle camera work and punchy close-ups. His comic-book style doesn’t pretend to realism but gets its resonance—and its laughs—from snapshot-like cutaways to absurdly clichéd or flamboyantly outrageous images of SoCal lifestyle (from chicken popping grease on a backyard barbecue to Asian teenage girls in white cotton thigh-high stockings emerging from a low rider).

With his Mack-truck torso, Diesel couldn’t be more in his element, and as his love interest and a crack driver in her own right, Michelle Rodriguez is in every way his equal. “You look a bit tired,” she says to him, just when things start spinning out of control. “I think you should go upstairs and give me a massage.”

A time capsule twice over, Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, made in 1979 (the year that the Sex Pistols crashed and burned) but set in 1965 (when the war between the Mods and the Rockers was front-page news for British tabloids), is being re-released in a suitably faded but still smashing 35mm print. It remains one of the most wrenching films about adolescent angst, thanks largely to the performance of Phil Daniels as Jimmy, a lower-middle-class 19-year-old whose identity as a mod is his only defense against a dead-end future. The “blues” (the pre-‘ludes tranquilizer of choice) he gulps down by the dozen derange his senses and heighten his belief in the masquerade, the music, and the camaraderie of hundreds of kids running riot on the beach at Brighton. Daniels was among a startling generation of British actors that included Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Ray Winstone (who shows up briefly in Quadrophenia). “Phil was the purest actor of us all,” Roth once commented, and that purity, with its refusal of glamour, may be the reason his career never took off.

More intimate than most youthquake musicals, Quadrophenia is filmed fairly close-up with an unassuming handheld camera. Roddam keeps his focus on Daniels’s scrappy-thin body and his Modigliani-shaped face. His inane grin is reminiscent of De Niro’s in Mean Streets, but he gives Jimmy a bewildered hunger that’s unique and heartbreaking. Quadrophenia is set largely to the 1973 album of the same name by the Who—they initiated the film and seem to have learned from the mistakes of Ken Russell’s overblown Tommy. In Quadrophenia, the music is the landscape, and the best aspect of this new print is that the sound still has the quality of a worn LP.

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