Menace II Society
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Directors Albert and Allen Hughes and screenwriter Tyger Williams were barely into their twenties when they sent shock waves through American cinema and hip-hop culture with this fatalistic, unflinching vision of life and death on the streets of Watts, Los Angeles, in the 1990s. There, in the shadow of the riots of 1965 and 1992, young Caine (Tyrin Turner) is growing up under the influence of his ruthless, drug-dealing father (Samuel L. Jackson, in a chilling cameo) and his loose-cannon best friend, O-Dog (Larenz Tate), leading him into a spiral of violent crime from which he is not sure he wants to escape, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and the steadfast Ronnie (Jada Pinkett). Fusing grim realism with a propulsively stylish aesthetic honed through the Hughes brothers’ work on rap videos, Menace II Society is a searing cautionary tale about the devastating human toll of hopelessness.
The Hughes’ brothers’ debut feature film Menace II Society reenters The Criterion Collection with a new 4K UHD edition. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode and Dolby Vision. The presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by Warner Bros. and Criterion, scanned from the 35mm original A/B negative. A 1080p, high-definition version can be found on the included standard Blu-ray disc, which is covered here.
Of Criterion’s debut 4K titles, this may be the one I was most impressed by. The digital presentation is very clean, even managing to provide clear improvements over Criterion’s own Blu-ray. Film grain is rendered in a far cleaner manner with this presentation, and it really helps the sequences the Blu-ray had issues with. There are a handful of scenes bathed in red light (something New Line wasn't fond of, according to Albert Hughes in his commentary, due to how reds come out looking on VHS) that came off a bit noisy on the Blu-ray, yet that same issue doesn’t appear in this presentation; the image is clean and far more film-like, the macroblocking no longer present. And though the Blu-ray’s presentation holds up very well throughout the rest of the film, the 4K presentation still manages to come out cleaner in this area, and it does lead to sharper looking details and textures.
Dolby Vision has also been nicely applied, Criterion again taking an easy touch, though not to the extreme they did with Citizen Kane. The opening sequence in the convenience store nicely shows this aspect off, as the characters travel through the dimly lit shop to the coolers bathed in fluorescents. The transition from the shadows to the bright lights looks very clean and there's a nice aura present that bathes the objects in the scene without clipping the highlights. Those scenes bathed in red, particularly that opening flashback sequence, are also aided by the wider range provided by HDR, more details showing through the reds and in the blacks of the shadows. The police interrogation, with the lights seeping through the smoky interior, is another knockout.
Though a few minor specs remain the restoration efforts have really cleaned things up, and paired with the sharp digital presentation the film comes out looking brand-spanking-new. It’s an incredible looking upgrade.
(All SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and have been converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality, they should not be used for reference purposes.)
Criterion includes two audio tracks: a remastered 7.1 DTS-HD MA surround presentation along with the original 2.0 surround track, also provided in DTS-HD MA. I listened to the 7.1 soundtrack using a 5.1 set-up.
Listening to the 7.1 soundtrack and sampling the 2.0 it will more than likely come down to personal preference as the quality of both are good: they’re sharp and clear, no obvious damage. Having said that, I thought the 7.1 presentation (through a 5.1 setup) came off more dynamic and involving, at least in the more active scenes I compared. Most of the activity still sticks to the fronts, dialogue and other effects panning nicely between the fronts where appropriate, but I liked how background effects, some gunshots, and some of the film’s music spread out to the surrounds. The lower frequency is also used to nice effect, even in that opening sequence where Samuel L. Jackson’s voice goes lower as time seems to slow for the film’s protagonist.
Criterion puts together an impressive special edition for the film, porting material over from both Warner’s previous edition and their own 1994 LaserDisc edition before adding on some new material. First, from the LaserDisc, are two individual audio commentaries recorded by each of the brothers, Allen and Albert Hughes, which are both found on the 4K UHD disc and the included Blu-ray disc featuring a 1080p/24hz presentation of the film.
I've always found it curious how Criterion went the route of two separate tracks instead of recording the two together as I (ignorantly) assumed they would more than likely cover the same material. That doesn’t turn out to be the case. Despite the fact they do go over similar ground in they’re looking at the film from two very different perspectives, whether it be based on what the film is to them or what their duties were during production. I’ve never been wholly sure around the duties of each brother when they did work together, though from these tracks it sounds as though Allen worked more on story details and structure, staging scenes, working with the actors and such, while Albert worked more on the visuals (alongside director of photography Lisa Rinzler) and general look, including storyboards, while also overseeing editing. What’s interesting about Albert, though, is that it sounds as if he really did not care for the film, possibly still doesn’t (at least at the time of the track’s recording), mentioning that he “disappeared” when it came time to edit because he really did not want to see the film.
Despite the slight disinterest present in Albert’s, he still manages to keeps things engaging and informative, the filmmaker focusing on the planning and ideas around various scenes, touching on the influences behind them and some of the moments he had to push for, like filming a beating late in the film through the interior structure of the house. He also enjoys talking about a lot of the technical details around the camera work, like the use of Steadicam.
Allen’s track does come off a little more passionate as he runs down how the production came to light and talks about their intent with the film, which is simply summed up in another feature as being an antithesis to Boyz n the Hood. He also talks about issues with the MPAA and having to trim a few shots out, which are now all present here (Warner also included a longer cut on their previous release, though I didn’t confirm whether it was exactly the same), and he also explains the thought process behind the story structure and some of the film’s smaller details, including the reasoning behind the use of an early gangster film appearing on the television in one scene and It’s a Wonderful Life in another. Unsurprisingly, he does get hung up on some plot holes and story points that ended up getting looked over thanks to the tight schedule and budget.
The two also talk about working with Bill Duke and Charles S. Dutton (and you get the sense they were geeking out on being able to work with both) and then talk about the directors that had a heavy influence on them, Scorsese and De Palma sounding to be the two big ones, and I also had to chuckle that they both really hated having to shoot a love scene for later in the film, something they both were trying to avoid. They’re both good tracks and both worth listening to, and I also got a nostalgic kick from them since they still hold LaserDisc references, Allen referring to “Voyager” instead of Criterion, and Albert welcoming you, the listener, to the track found on “analog two.”
The remaining special features are all found on the standard Blu-ray disc, no other features included on the 4K UHD disc. Things start off with a couple of new video interviews, the first featuring director Albert Hughes, writer Tyger Williams, and critic Elvis Mitchell, the second director Allen Hughes, filmmaker/actor Bill Duke, and Mitchell. The first, running 34-minutes, features Hughes and Williams talking about the writing process and how it was created as a counter to Boyz n the Hood, with Hughes getting a bit more into his initial disappointment with their film and why he more than likely felt that way at the time. They talk about the casting process and getting past how they originally envisioned characters, Hughes explaining how he perceived O-Dog being a far bigger character and nothing like Larenz Tate, who they describe as having a “Disney face.” The topic of toxic masculinity comes up when Hughes mentions an article he recently read about the film, both he and Williams admitting that wouldn’t have been in their thoughts at the time, though it’s very easy to see now that a lot of the events in the film are born out of that.
The discussion even touches on some issues that arose after production, including with New Line, who sound to have been generally good and helpful for the most part (based on comments throughout the supplements) but ended up having “concerns” around the idea of gang violence coming about with the film’s release, leading to the film being released on a Wednesday because, as the two joke, New Line executives probably thought it was less likely people would be killing each other in a movie theater during the middle of the week. This then leads into discussion around the MPAA, who were especially harsh on the film’s violent content, and then how it seems as though black filmmakers can finally break out of just telling what the two call “PTSD stories,” with films like Black Panther and The Last Black Man in San Francisco being notable stand outs.
Similar discussion comes up in the second interview, where Hughes and Duke talk about being shoehorned as a black director. Duke even gets to talk a little about some headwinds he faced after making The Cemetery Club. He would get questions about why he would want to make a general comedy with a predominantly white cast (Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis, Diane Ladd, and Danny Aiello), and it was never good enough for him to state he made it just because he liked the story. He’d even bring up how no one questions someone like Steven Spielberg could make The Color Purple to no avail (he was told “that’s different”). While the conversation also gets into Duke’s performance and Hughes’ gentle handling in directing the veteran actor in his cameo (along with the funny little coincidence that actor Tyrin Turner, who is the lead in this film, was also an extra in Duke’s Deep Cover), I thought the conversation was strongest when the two were talking about their experiences as black filmmakers, that particular period in the 90’s and the types of films they were both able to make, with the hope that technology today may make it easier for voices to be heard.
Director of photography Lisa Rinzler next provides a 24-minute select-scene commentary, speaking over the opening sequence, the house party scene, the Bill Duke cameo, a couple of quick moments, and then the closing sequence. She first offers up details around her background and how she came to be involved with the Hughes brothers and the film before then talking about the planning and the technical aspects of each scene, with happy little accidents along the way (the opening was supposed to go from Steadicam to handheld, but time didn’t allow the transition, and I’d say the scene is probably more effective because of that). Throughout she talks about lighting and influences, the kitchen walkthrough from Goodfellas being the influence for the house party scene, and then talking about the difficulty in getting timing right with some of the film’s longer takes. It’s actually one of the better, more descriptive presentations of its type that I recall watching.
The disc then ports over some material from previous releases, starting with the 2009 making-of Gangsta Vision, featuring the Hughes brothers, Williams, producer Darin Scott, and actor Larenz Tate, produced for Warner’s Blu-ray release. The 21-minute feature goes over the production, from writing to casting to filming, but outside of getting interviews with Scott and “Disney Face” Tate there’s not much here that is new. There’s also an 11-minute interview with the Hughes brothers from 1993, recorded for Criterion’s LaserDisc edition. Through the feature’s very 90’s roots in video editing the two just talk about what inspired them to become filmmakers, listing their favourite directors and making sure to mention Steven Spielberg after Scorsese and De Palma get mentioned constantly elsewhere. They also talk about how their lives have changed, neither seeming to like the extra attention they’ve been receiving.
Criterion also ports over a couple of deleted scenes, converted from an analog source. One scene revolves around Harold’s funeral, the other is the sequence before we get to see Caine throwing up in the toilet after being released from jail. In the case of the latter, it’s explained in one of the commentaries (I didn’t note which one) that the lead up wasn’t necessary, and actually showing Caine be sick was too much.
It also looks like Criterion has ported over their film-to-storyboard comparison, as it has a very 90’s video-look about it, though with the new restoration being used for the film side. The scene in question is the revenge sequence at the burger stand, and the analog sourced storyboards play over top of the finished film. Interestingly, the film plays out differently in editing, probably born out of having to compromise during shooting. A couple of shots that appear in the storyboard appear to have not made it into the film.
After that is the Hughes’ video for 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” followed by the film’s original theatrical trailer. The included insert then features an essay by Craig D. Lindsey, first mentioning the film’s target audience before getting into the film’s story and structure, as well as its clear influences.
In all, it’s a far more satisfying collection of material.