Boys to Men: Singleton on Kids Raising Kids

John Singleton’s Baby Boy , from his own screenplay, is more Chris Rock than Bill Cosby as it plunges deeply into the womb-like world of the allegedly infantile black male of “inner-city” South Central Los Angeles. The proof? Mr. Singleton’s protagonist addresses his girlfriend as “Mama” and refers to his apartment as his “crib.” Jody (Tyrese Gibson) serves as the “baby boy” of Mr. Singleton’s story. He is 20 years old, streetwise and jobless, and still lives with his 36-year-old mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), despite having fathered two children with two different women–Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass), both of whom he visits only periodically.

When we first see Jody, he is sitting in Yvette’s car outside an abortion clinic waiting to take her home. Yvette is understandably depressed after her traumatic ordeal and wants to go to bed to grieve over her aborted child and its irresponsible father. In an almost comical expression of callousness, Jody asks her if he can borrow her car to visit his other family. Yvette says yes with bitter resignation.

With this introduction, Jody could easily serve as the insensitive male poster pig of the year, even in South Central. Yet he evolves as Mr. Singleton’s protagonist until he becomes a candidate for eventual redemption. The path to his salvation, however, is a messy one, strewn with many almost unbearable scenes of pain, anger, humiliation and occasional violence.

Jody expects to die at any moment, and yet he seems to lead the charmed life of a romantic hero. Mr. Singleton is committed to Jody more fervently than Jody seems to be to anyone outside himself. Mr. Singleton may have to pay the price with women–black and white–in the audience. Still, I don’t think he shortchanges his female characters, though mine may be an unenlightened view–in the sense that I, like Mr. Singleton, can accept the fact that it takes two to tango before the dire problems of illegitimate births, single parenting and teenage mothers can take form.

Curiously, there is no white presence in the film to bear the burden of blame for Jody’s immature character. The oppressive “system” is in place, but it is off-screen. Jody solves his financial problems by selling stolen dresses around the neighborhood, and he is never caught or punished for his illegal activities. Jody’s problems seem to go deeper–perhaps to a mother who can pass as his sister, and who suddenly decides that she wants a new life with Melvin (Ving Rhames), a reformed ex-con gangster who runs his own home-landscaping business. Jody refuses to accept Melvin as a paternal presence and is outraged when his mother tells him it is time he moved out of the house. Melvin tries to be as tactful as possible, but Jody’s taunting finally forces him to exercise a muscular, I’ve-been-there-and-done-that kind of moral authority. Mr. Rhames is the most experienced performer in the cast, and he gives his character more modulation and nuance than is written into the part.

Jody’s best friend, Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding), is even more dysfunctional than Jody and, out of his sheer frustration, dangerously violent besides. He has been in and out of prison many times and exists as a character simply to illustrate the road Jody is not willing to take. In the end, Jody is as unwilling to kill as he is to be killed, even when he’s provoked by Yvette’s former lover, the casually homicidal Rodney (Snoop Doggy Dogg), a marvelously lazy and sleazy piece of parole-board flotsam and jetsam. Sweet Pea and Rodney provide much of the comic tension in Baby Boy , until their final confrontation results in Sweet Pea killing Rodney without any law-and-order consequences. One hears police sirens in the background, but there is no follow-up by the gendarmerie.

Jody pulls away from danger just in time, with Melvin’s unostentatiously paternal assistance. Jody moves out and into Yvette’s apartment, to which he now has his own keys and does not have to knock to be admitted. Perhaps a set of your own apartment keys is all it takes to be a man in South Central L. A., or anywhere else. Yes, it is a happy ending–almost a fairy-tale ending. Yet I liked the film, because it started so odiously and then drew the audience in with the anguished confessionals of Ms. Henson’s Yvette and Ms. Johnson’s Juanita. I felt myself drawn into a vortex of raw emotion from which I could not escape. One may quibble with Mr. Singleton’s awkward handling of the genre violence and the inflated repetitiousness of some of the dialogue, but he does feel for his characters, and that is a refreshing attitude in these cynical times.

Detectives on Ice

Mathieu Kassovitz’s The Crimson Rivers , from a screenplay by Jean-Christophe Grangé and Mr. Kassovitz, based on the novel by Mr. Grangé, is set in the French Alps with a degree of authenticity that makes it ideal hot-weather entertainment. One can believe the reports that the cast and crew of this policier thriller had problems with the snow, ice and subzero temperatures up around Chamonix. Indeed, the extensive location shooting would seem more appropriate for a mountain-climbing adventure than for a gruesome murder mystery.

Lieutenant Pierre Niémans (Jean Reno) and Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) are two detectives who meet, or rather collide, while investigating two separate cases that lead to the same murderer. There is much graphic mutilation of a gratuitously exotic nature involved. There is also a sinister Nazi-like university in the area, a contingent of skinheads bent on desecrating cemeteries, a suspicious woman tour guide (Nadia Farès), a foot chase across the snow and a traffic skirmish with a murderous trucker. In fact, the digressions and diversions eventually overwhelm the narrative, which is driven relentlessly toward a climax more scenic than dramatic.

Mr. Reno holds the film together with a kind of genre charisma that tells us he will never rest until he solves the mystery and apprehends the malefactor. Mr. Cassel’s role as Mr. Reno’s brash young detective buddy is seriously compromised by a display of martial arts that seems to shift the action to Hong Kong or Taiwan. Yet somehow, the majestically mountainous snow-and-ice spectacle almost makes the frantic scurryings seem worthwhile. The solution to the “mystery” certainly doesn’t.

Animation (or Something Like It) Goes to the Dogs

Lawrence Guterman’s Cats and Dogs , from a screenplay by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, is not exactly an animated film, but what it is exactly in the realm of categories is beyond me. After all, when one finds oneself at a Saturday-morning screening in a vast auditorium full of little children shepherded by their dutiful parents, one becomes too distracted to be sure of anything. There are three bona fide visible and audible actors in the cast: Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins and child actor Alexander Pollock make up a family of human foils in a world of talking and warring cats and dogs. The roster of human voices for the combatants include Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Sean Hayes, Susan Sarandon, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Clarke Duncan and Jon Lovitz. Forgive me, but I think that is too many voices for too many cats and dogs for me to describe, much less evaluate, the proceedings. The gist of the action is that the evil cats want to take over the world by stealing an anti-dog-allergy formula from Mr. Goldblum’s home laboratory, and the dogs mobilize to stop them.

The animals, who seem harmlessly pet-like when humans are around, become high-tech feline and canine beasties on their own. After a while, the film’s massive explosions make Swordfish look like a chick flick. I asked the sharp-eyed little girl sitting next to me what she thought of the film. She said she liked it fine, and who am I to argue with her? Still, I think cats and cat-lovers have a legitimate grievance with this one-sided portrayal of the eternal war between cats and dogs, bless them both.

Are You a Dietrich Virgin?

I envy anyone who has never seen the comparatively plump pre-Hollywood Marlene Dietrich straddling a chair with her provocatively stockinged legs while singing “Falling in Love Again,” because now is your chance to be enchanted for the very first time (and for the rest of us, once again) by a talent that exploded on the screen more than 70 years ago and still is vibrant on the screen. From July 12 to July 26, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) will be shown in a new 35-millimeter print with new and franker English titles at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) as part of the Marlene Dietrich Centenary being celebrated at various film institutions around the country. For the record, Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901, in Schöneberg, Germany, on the outskirts of Berlin. She died in 1992, I believe in Paris.

One cannot talk about Dietrich without also talking about her mentor and Svengali, Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969), and one cannot talk about The Blue Angel without also talking of Emil Jannings (1884-1950), whose memorable projection of a crazed cuckold crowing like a rooster is one of the most stirring moments in the history of world cinema. And, as an added attraction, the restored print is being shown with Dietrich’s bizarre screen test for The Blue Angel . I’d rather you see it without my presuming to describe this revelation of Dietrich’s devastatingly ironic Kraut side.