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.
Criterion brings the director’s cut of Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society back into the collection (after originally releasing it on LaserDisc in 1994), presenting the film on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a brand-new 4K restoration conducted by The Criterion Collection and Warner Bros. The restoration was sourced from the 35mm original A/B negative. I am working from the Blu-ray that comes with the 4K UHD edition, but outside of the absence of the UHD disc the editions are the same.
Unsurprisingly, Criterion’s new high-def presentation offers a far superior one over Warner’s 2009 Blu-ray edition. There’s a more film-like texture to the presentation thanks to a better retention of the film’s grain structure. It’s rendered here decently enough, though does hit some noticeable hiccups during scenes using heavy reds, like the opening flashback, the house party sequence, and the police interrogation; interestingly, in his commentary, Albert Hughes mentions that New Line didn’t want him to bathe any scenes in red due to how poorly such sequences are rendered on VHS. Though the reds look gorgeous, far better than what VHS could have even dreamed in doing, the scenes can come off a little bit noisy, especially when blending into the shadows. Despite this, the presentation still manages to look better than what Warner’s offered, the same scenes presenting heavier macroblocking effects around the reds.
Outside of those sequences grain looks fine otherwise, and details are sharp. Despite the mild noise around the reds, the interrogation scene still comes off incredibly sharp, the faint smoke cleanly rendered. The restoration has cleaned things up impressively, though minor specs still pop up here and there, though they can be easily ignored.
In all, despite a couple of minor issues, it’s a sharp upgrade over Warner’s previous edition, and probably worth picking up for that reason alone.
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. I always found it curious Criterion had 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.”
Criterion has then recorded a couple of new 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.
Criterion’s special edition packs in some great supplementary material and a far better presentation compared to Warner’s previous Blu-ray. An easy recommendation.