Gully Boy (2019)

When director Curtis Hanson died a few years back, there was an understandable outpouring of appreciation online for a few of his more notable films – titles as disparate as L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and The River Wild. I was mostly on-board with this posthumous gushing for a fairly low-key studio director, but the praise that confounded me at the time was the effusive love for his hit battle-rap melodrama 8 Mile. I just can’t imagine a 2010s audience willingly looking at or listening to Eminem on purpose (especially not the Film Twitter crowd), no matter how rousing the film’s against-the-odds/rise-to-fame story of a trailer park rapper made good could be in the moment. One of the many miracles of the 2019 Indian melodrama Gully Boy – directed by Zoya Aktar – is that it’s finally enabled the world to enjoy the emotional triumph of 8 Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid. Detroit’s favorite White Boy makes a brief appearance in a magazine clipping pasted in the lyrics journal of Gully Boy‘s titular aspiring rapper, but that image is mostly just a get-it-out-of-the-way acknowledgement of 8 Mile‘s influence. It’s almost unavoidable that this lengthy Indian battle-rap melodrama will be reductively contextualized as the Bollywood 8 Mile, but I hope that descriptor doesn’t scare anyone off from giving it a fair chance on its own terms. No offense meant to the legacy of Curtis Hanson, but Gully Boy only borrows 8 Mile‘s basic structure in order to create something far superior in both craft &  emotional heft. Its class politics hit harder. Its romantic drama is genuine & heartfelt. And, most importantly, there’s little to no Eminem to be found, which is always a plus.

Loosely based on the lives of “the original gully boys” Naezy & Divine (two rap-fame success stories from the slums of Mumbai), this sprawling melodrama doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect based on its early acknowledgement of its 8 Mile story template. That’s why I was shocked to find it one of the most emotionally moving, politically invigorating films I’ve seen all year. Half an aspiring street musician’s triumph against the odds of soul-crushing class disparity and half a Romeo & Juliet-style tale of doomed romance, Gully Boy fully utilizes its 2½ hour runtime to ensure that neither of those tracks plays as a rushed afterthought. An unassuming hip-hop nerd (played by the superhero-handsome Ranveer Singh), living in an overcrowded shanty with his overbearing family and facing a future of lifelong servitude, finds the courage to voice his frustrations with economic injustice in his YouTube-uploaded rap videos. His mentor & idol in the Mumbai’s minor-but-growing rap scene (whom he has a big, goofy boy-crush on) is phenomenally supportive of the new kid on the block, pushing him past class lines & familial roadblocks to a rapid, bewildering success he didn’t know was possible (not least of all because of his debilitating shyness). His efforts to maintain a lifelong romance with a childhood sweetheart under intense scrutiny & surveillance only complicates this rapid rise to fame, which explodes the scope of his world of possibilities from a cramped neighborhood to a global playground. Both of these simultaneous storylines are surprisingly effective, as both are ruthless in refusing to pull political punches in their discussions of class,  gender, privilege, abuse, and – above all else – power. You already know every beat of the story this movie wants to tell, but there’s a heartfelt conviction to its messaging that makes it feel like an anomaly in the rise-to-rap-fame genre.

I suppose you could take an objective look at this film as a fascinating snapshot of American pop culture’s omnipresence as a global export. It’s alarming to see the full scope of how much of our bullshit makes a significant cultural impact worldwide: Eminem, Nas (who’s listed as an Executive Producer here), dabbing, Grand Theft Auto, conversations that inanely pit commercial rap against Real Hip-Hop, etc. Gully Boy  is just as aware of that potential fascination as it is of its inevitable 8 Mile comparisons, though, staging scenes where wealthy American tourists treat our titular hero-rapper’s talent & poverty as a sideshow novelty. Mostly, there isn’t much room to objectively examine Gully Boy as a cultural object all, as it’s continually engaging on a personal, intimate level that more than transcends its potential Bollywood 8 Mile status. Translating the American rise-to-rap-fame story template to an Indian filmmaking sensibility only strengthens its merits as a genuinely engaging melodrama & an act of political Art, not at all reducing it to a novelty act the way you might expect. The lengthier runtime allows you to fully invest in both the rap-hero’s artistry & his rocky romantic life instead of either track feeling rushed or inauthentic. It’s amazing how well rap lyrics like “The lava of my words will melt my shackles,” and sweet nothings like “You let me be myself” land when there’s enough breathing room to fully flesh out their context. Also, Indian cinema’s built-in musical breaks from reality provide the perfect platform for Gully Boy‘s hip-hop music videos, which voice righteously angry class politics at full length & full passion in their allotted space. As much as I’ve enjoyed other 8 Mile improvements & revisions over the last couple decades (Hustle & Flow, Patti Cake$, Straight Outta Compton, etc.), this is now the definitive benchmark for the rise-to-rap-fame genre in my eyes. No offense meant to Curtis Hanson (but plenty of offense meant to Eminem, who remains The Worst and should be avoided whenever possible).

-Brandon Ledet

Belly (1998)

If the main metric of cinematic excellence is in the art of the moving image, it’s a grotesque injustice that legendary music video director Hype Williams was locked out of feature filmmaking after just one attempt, Belly. Just before venturing into the sleek futurism of his iconic music videos for TLC’s “No Scrubs” & the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes collaboration “What’s It Gonna Be?,” Williams sets this over-stylized action thriller just one year ahead of its release date, in the far-off distant future of 1999. Belly‘s intense monochromatic neon lighting vaguely recalls the sci-fi standard set by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, even though the story it serves is more like a late 90s hip-hop version of GoodFellas. As you might expect from a music video auteur, Williams subscribes to the term “style over substance” as a personal mantra rather than a potential criticism. Belly’s visuals are as gorgeous as its dialogue is disposable. Its performances (mostly from musicians like Nas, DMX, T-Boz, and Method Man) and its overall narrative are so oddly constructed that the film practically qualifies as outsider art. However, 20 years later, there’s no one film that can be directly compared to its merits as a visual achievement. Long after the emptiness of the narrative & dialogue fade in your memory, the film still lingers as a sensory spectacle, a gold standard in the art of the moving image. If Williams had been paired with a stronger screenwriter for a second feature, I have no doubt he’d be hailed as one of the great auteurs of our time. His debut’s lousy 13% approval rating on the Tomatometer is entirely undeserved, though, as its ambition far outweighs its means. Belly’s vision of an MTV-minded, near-future crime dystopia is a powerful narcotic; getting hung up on whether it has something meaningful to say is almost beside the point.

Nas & DMX lead the cast as two tough-as-nails gangsters who’ve become incredibly wealthy though incrementally more dangerous crimes, but dream of leaving the game before it’s too late. There’s a nihilism to their wealth-hoarding that they both recognize as unhealthy (though Nas is by far the first to get there), as indicated by the line, “We’re born to motherfuckin’ die, man. In the meantime, get money.” The dialogue & acting are, to be honest, conspicuously amateur, with near-constant voice-over pulling most of the narrative weight. Thematically, the film can also be downright nasty in its function as a macho power fantasy, with gorgeous women dressed in lacy lingerie patiently waiting in sterile McMansions while their men shoot up nightclubs and coerce teen girls into acts of fellatio. The line between what’s supposed to be glamorous and what’s supposed to be grotesque is a grey area in the film, as everything is framed with a loving, stylized cinematic eye. We do know that theft & murder are A-okay in this world, but selling heroin is a bridge too far (a common theme in these kinds of crime narratives). The casual misogyny & homophobia are on much shakier moral ground, as they’re not directly dealt with in the text. Ultimately, the movie does attempt to pull most of its loose, frayed ends together in a few climactic monologues about the black experience in modern America. Reflections on the prison system, the ravages of addiction & gun violence, kids who’ll never make it past the borders of a housing project, and the spiritual promise of returning to Africa recontextualize the violent excess of the preceding 90min in a near-convincing last-minute turnaround. It’s difficult to know what to do with the information, though, since it’s philosophically at odds with the strange music video glamour of the film’s constant violence & macho posturing, but that moral tension is partly what makes Belly such a fascinating work.

It’s there’s any one clear way that Belly was ahead of its time, it’s in how it fulfills a recent push to pay attention to how we light & film black skin. Titles like Girlhood & Moonlight have earned much-deserved praise for acting as a corrective to a standard way of shooting that favored white complexions on the screen, but even they pale in comparison to the way Belly looks. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, who more recently shot the “Formation” video for Beyoncé’s Lemonade project, creates otherworldly, monochromatic spaces lit in impossibly rich blues, reds, pinks, and browns. The way these hues compliment black complexions is never more evident than when the few white characters (i.e. cops conducting drug raids) invade these spaces to interrupt the reverie. Hype Williams pairs this lighting-intense vision with fashion photography-minded production design and a distinct sense of music video cool to establish an insular world that is only ever disrupted by the arrival of the aforementioned white cops. The way gun violence & misogyny also look cool in this in this otherworldly space is troublesome, especially in the opening, strobe-lit sequence where Nas & DMX shoot up a strip club & return to a gaudy McMansion homestead to “lay low.” That sense of danger & moral unease is distinctly build into the film’s charm, though. It’s also somewhat thematically undone in a climactic series of speeches about the plight of modern black America. There’s something oddly off-balanced about the image Belly is presenting and the (unclear) message it ultimately tries to convey, but the way it consistently carves out a thoroughly black, American space ties the whole thing together as a cohesive piece. It’s one of the many ways the film’s visual achievements outweigh its narrative shortcomings.

After the opening strobe-lit club raid, DMX entertains his guests at his gaudy McMansion by projecting Harmony Korine’s Gummo on the living room wall. Puzzled, Nas repeatedly asks variations on the question “What the fuck is that?” It’s an irreverently funny exchange that doesn’t hold much narrative significance, but does establish context of what’s to follow. Like Korine, Hype Williams is a highly skilled outsider artist whose approach to cinema is much more concerned with visual, stylistic provocation than it is with having something cohesive to say. His music video work alone should establish him as one of the great directors of our time, but I still find it shameful that he hasn’t made a second feature film in the 20 years since Belly. Where Korine has been afforded the space to develop his voice as a feature filmmaker in the public eye, Williams came out near fully-formed with a powerful debut, then returned to directing short-form videos. The critical disappointment with Belly may have been a result of the movie being framed as an MTV-era commercial product instead of a werido art piece like Gummo. Don’t be fooled by the inclusion of Kurt Loder & the stacked cast of big name, late 90s rappers. This is the exact kind of shaggy, off-balance visual piece that should be projected on the living room wall after a long night of partying so that your friends can ask in wonder & disgust, “What the fuck is that?”

-Brandon Ledet

 

Patti Cake$ (2017)

I remember thinking last year’s indie darling Sing Street (which celebrates the joy of watching a young new wave band come into their own in 1980s Dublin) was cute & mostly enjoyable, but 2017 has already offered two cheaply-made features that improve on its basic formula. The darkly funny romantic dramedy Band Aid juxtaposes the joys of watching a garage band come together with the tragedy of a marriage falling apart, adding a sense of purpose to the songwriting missing in Sing Street’s dedication to nostalgic pastiche. Patti Cake$, by contrast, sticks much closer to Sing Street’s recipe, a rags to slightly-nicer-rags story where a young pop music act struggles to gain the confidence in their own voice they can only experience in their music video daydreams. The difference for me is that Patti Cake$ steers this narrative towards a much more satisfying emotional climax and happens to frame its setting in a world I can much more readily identify with. Its tale of misfit nerds trying to leave their mark on a behind the times, low stakes New Jersey rap scene feels specifically geared to remind me of Coming of Age in my own shitty industrial suburb (Chalmette is pretty much a New Orleans-scale Jersey) when nu metal and Ca$h Money were a huge deal. It even includes an out of nowhere Bikini Kill needle drop plucked directly from my personal high school soundtrack just to drive the last nail in the coffin. It’s a celebratory music scene fairy tale version of a life I’ve already lived, which makes Sing Street’s coming of age romance feel increasingly hollow in the rearview.

The titular Patti Cake$, aka Killer P, aka Patricia (breakout actor Danielle Macdonald), is an aspiring white girl rapper whose service industry jobs (bartending at a karaoke dive bar & picking up extra cash catering) are far from the pop star excess she longs for in her music video-inspired daydreams. She hopes to be signed one day by local rap legend Oz, who appears to be half A$AP Rocky/half wizard, but doesn’t have the confidence to even challenge the Vanilla Ice-flavored EDM idiots who stage concert at the local VFW halls. Her addict mother (Lady Dynamite‘s Bridget Everett) knocks her down for not having a talent for “real” music, unlike her own past of fronting a hair metal band in the 80s. Neighborhood bullies insult her from all sides for being overweight before even hearing what she has to say. Rap game rivals & idols, including the all-powerful Oz, tell her she has no business even trying to make it, that she should just stick to her service industry purgatory. Still, she hones her skills at writing bars around the clock, rapping while she’s brushing her teeth, pissing, and preparing the morning’s Pop Tarts. Eventually, she finds her own scarecrow & tin woodsman (a nerdy pharmacist hype man & a goth version of Nell with a shack full of expensive beat-making equipment) to follow the mixtape road to success with her, despite the constant flood of reasons to quit. The speed bumps along the way are undeniably cliché (including a subplot about her mother’s jealousy so old hat it was spoofed on a Strangers With Candy episode nearly two decades ago), but feed into the film’s charms as an old fashioned fairy tale. By the time the Hero’s Journey concludes with a climactic concert and an alternate path to (minor) success, the cumulative effect is awe-inspiringly great. We’re all rooting for Patti Cake$.

Director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature is impressive not only in its parallel-thinking improvements on the Sing Street formula, but also in its infectious sense of style. Patti Cake$‘s slightly heightened sense of reality feels like a Ca$h Money album cover adapted to a feature length fairy tale. It’s less of the ramshackle 8 Mile it’s been marketed as than it is a surreal comedy that clashes the green smoke & bubble bath fantasy of rap videos against the strip mall & cigarette butts reality of industrial suburbs for relatable, darkly humorous effect. It’s like a hip-hop version of Drop Dead Gorgeous in that way, especially in scenes where it undercuts its small scale triumphs with the visible awkwardness of details like fumbling, nerdy sex and celebratory mozzarella sticks. Everyone in the film, from the rebellious go-nowhere twentysomethings to their bitter went-nowhere authority figures, feels as if they’re permanently stuck in the summer after high school graduation, rotting in a stasis of indecision & dwindling opportunities. Some of the details of this world are very specific to New Jersey, including a real life Cookie Puss, but a lot of it applies to every small town industrial suburb in the US. If Patti Cake$ were set in the Midwest, it’d likely be a Juggalo story. If it were set in Chalmette, Louisiana, its nu metal moment in the VFW Hall (featuring an industrial metal song with the lyrics “You’re sheep! Wake up!”) would’ve commanded the entire feature. If it were set in Dublin, well, I feel like I’ve already seen that movie. Patti Cake$’s Jersey rap scene setting isn’t essential to its storytelling, as hinted at by the cycle started by the mother character’s hair metal past, but it does afford the film a striking sense of cheap-to-produce visual imagery that helps distinguish its supernatural fairy tale tone. What’s much more important is the way the film succeeds in making that fairy tale feel freshly funny & emotionally satisfying, despite its overriding sense of familiarity.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Cool As Ice (1991)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Alli watch Cool as Ice (1991).

Brandon:  “I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of their time. And I think the main reason is they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to the static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is that they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I do believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Frederico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

I return to that Corman quote more often than any other summation of what cinema signifies & achieves as an artform. It’s even more insightful to me than Roger Ebert’s often-quoted pearl of wisdom about how the movies are “a machine that generates empathy,” because it better takes in the full spectrum of film as both a force for good and a force for commerce. Something that’s especially interesting to me about cinema’s nature as a “compromised” art form is that it’s more or less required to mask the fact that it’s partially a business, hiding its desperate need for profit from its potential customers. As Corman points out, not every filmmaker is a Bergman or a Fellini, so the main goal of most films produced in the annual cinematic cycle is to make enough money so that producers can, in turn, make more movies the next go-round. They’re not supposed to show their hand while doing so, however, and most audiences prefer to maintain the illusion that their entertainment was produced solely to tell a good story or provide a good time or achieve some kind of transcendent artistic ambition, not to make a quick buck. What’s always fascinating to me is when that illusion completely breaks down and the “art” of cinema is nakedly exposed as a simultaneously commercial enterprise. Titles like Space Jam (where the cash-in conscious brand mashup of Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan™ are injected with a wealth of unwarranted, but marketable 90s Attitude) and Mac & Me (where E.T. was shamelessly ripped off to promote a wide range of Coca-Cola & McDonalds products) make for an absurdist, deliriously silly confession of guilt where filmmaking is exposed as the compromised art form that it truly is. The Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, produced at the heights of the white boy rapper’s marketability as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, is one such film, a nakedly honest admission to its own nature as a cynical cash grab. What’s most surprising about Cool as Ice and what makes it a memorable watch, though, is how well it fulfills cinema’s other defining function: art.

Structured as a “rap-oriented” remake of the early Marlon Brando classic The Wild OneCool as Ice finds its titular star and “Ice Ice Baby” singer stranded in a small town in Everywhere, America. His big city looks (including a leather jacket that exclaims things like “SEX!” & “YEP!” in gigantic block letters and the loudest pairs of pants this side of MC Hammer), flashy motorcycle antics, and massive overdose of hip hop flavor make him & his crew (a conspicuously black entourage that provides him visual street cred among an endless sea of white faces) out to be a target for wild accusations in the small town they unintentionally invade. While waiting for one of his buddies’ motorcycles to be repaired at a Pee-wee’s Playhouse style garage described by the soundtrack to be a literal Limbo, Ice’s protagonist, Johnny, strikes up a budding romance with the Girl Next Door and gets blamed for a string of local crimes he had nothing to do with based solely on his outlandish appearance. Unlike a young Marlon Brando, Vanilla Ice is not exactly oozing with potent sexuality & onscreen charisma. When asked to deliver raw machismo in lines like, “Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero,” he mumbles his way through the readings as if he were rehearsing them for the first time. He is, however, in his own strange way, a beautiful specimen, an object that can be easily commodified. Like a wind-up toy idly waiting on the shelf for its opportunity to entertain, Vanilla Ice mostly exists as a fascinating image, a collection of 90s fashion quirks & excellent bone structure that only comes alive when he’s prompted to do the one thing he was built for: sing & dance. He’s a talent in both regards, even if his skill set is a time capsule of a bygone era, and the movie doesn’t ask much more from him than to wait his turn until it’s time to pull his string to perform another song. Cool as Ice boils down its titular star to his most basic essence: a product.

Just because Cool as Ice is a cheap cash-in doesn’t mean it’s a lazy cash-in. Artfully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kazinski, who has since made a name for himself as a longtime collaborator with Stephen Spielberg, Cool as Ice often plays like an alternate dimension where Terrence Malick directs feature-length breakfast cereal commercials. Although a cartoonishly inane crime thriller, love story melodrama, and half-assed comedy about a doomed romance between a bad boy rapper and a spoiled Daddy’s girl, Cool as Ice is just absolutely gorgeous to behold. Gay 90s club music (not unlike the soundtrack to recent Movie of the Month Head Over Heels) pulsates while luscious camera work and over the top set design flood the screen with a meticulous craft in imagery the movie doesn’t deserve, given its pedigree: Malickian breeze blowing through tall grass, lightbulb microphones lifted from the “In Dreams” sequence of Blue Velvet, long lines of glowing globes spinning in the moonlight. In one especially stunning sequence, Vanilla Ice takes his Girl Next Door love interest (sporting a downright iconic sunflower sundress) on a daylong bike ride through the desert sands & a nearby construction site in what I’d genuinely consider one of the most visually pleasing and oddly sensual two minute stretches of pure cinema bliss I’ve ever witnessed. Given that director David Kellogg’s resume mostly consisted of “video documentaries” for Playboy until that point, I’m willing to attribute that beauty & awe entirely to Kazinski’s eye (speaking of the intersection of art & commerce). Still, it’s interesting that so much careful attention to visual craft would sneak its way into a movie that mainly exists to strike while the iron’s hot on a one hit wonder pop star. And since the movie failed as a business decision, only making a sixth of its budget back at the box office, all that’s really left to chew on at this point is its novelty as a pop culture time capsule and the artful flourishes Kazinski was able to sneak onscreen. I’d say both of these elements hold up in a 2010s context and together do a fairly decent job of being honest about the movie industry’s compromised existence as both an art and a business.

Britnee, how hyperbolic am I being in praise of Cool as Ice as an art object? Do the visuals of its summertime bike ride sequence and Limbo Garage production design actually achieve an artful aesthetic or is the film solely enjoyable for its “so bad it’s good” charms as an expensive, feature-length advertisement for Vanilla Ice, like an extended music video relic? I’m curious to know your thoughts on how the film balances art & commerce.

Britnee: I do agree that Cool as Ice is a beautiful work of art, as completely bonkers as it may sound. The fun house style camera angles, the vibrant neon colors (clothing, background, motorcycles, etc.), the fast-forward sequences that incorporate 90s hip-hop beats are just a few things that make Cool as Ice a visual treat. As Brandon mentioned, the bike ride and Limbo Garage are some of the most artistic elements in the movie, especially the Limbo Garage. Every scene that took place in the Limbo Garage was almost like stepping into another world, maybe even another movie? The garage owners, Roscoe and Mae (Blanche from Grease), act like they’re aliens disguised as humans, and that somehow really adds to the artistic flair of the garage. Their blank stares and eccentric attitudes were sort of chilling, and their ultra funky home seemed so out of place in such a white-bread town. Also, let’s not forget about the insane sandwiches the bike gang members made while in the house. Was it their personal choice to put sardines and peanut butter on a sandwich or were they under some sort of extraterrestrial spell? It’s all just so mysterious, and I love it.

As for the bike ride/construction zone love sequence, it was visually stunning, but it leaned more toward being “so bad it’s good.” Vanilla Ice popping out of unfinished walls with a childlike smile was way over the top. However, I did love the shots of the two lovebirds riding through the desert on his sweet bike while the sun was setting in the background. It was all very Purple Rain. This was the moment in the film where we should have been able to get a better glimpse into Johnny’s life. Kathy began to ask him personal questions before they started hopping over pieces of wood, but he never gave her any answers, only his signature “Yep, yep.” This scene, much like the rest of the movie, was more about the visuals instead of the story itself, and that’s not really a bad thing.

Cool as Ice was ultimately a film made to capitalize off one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice, but in all honesty, I did not feel like the movie was trying to sell me Vanilla Ice. The incorporation of Vanilla Ice’s musical talent in real-life scenarios was surprisingly tastefully done. Yes, it’s terrible early 90s white boy rap, but his flow is pretty amazing. The film opens up with a club scene which is basically a Vanilla Ice video that incorporates Naomi Campbell’s lip syncing (I think?), but the rest of the movie, thankfully, strays away from that music video style. The next time Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Johnny, gets a chance to show off his mad rhymes is at a teen hangout called The Sugar Shack. The performance was pretty great and sort of romantic, even though Johnny basically dry humps Kathy on The Sugar Shack’s floor. It’s so terrible, but it truly seemed like the two had a strong connection after that moment. Kathy, much like myself, was officially “Iced.”

I really enjoyed Vanilla Ice’s performance as Johnny. His acting reminded me of the kind of stuff you would find in an art house film. The way he recites his lines is so poetic and he exudes confidence. Personally, I would love to see him in another lead role because he knows how to own the screen.

Alli, were you at all impressed with Vanilla Ice’s acting skills? What other genre of movie would you like to see him act in?

Alli: More than anything else, I was actually really blown away by his dance moves, which I wasn’t aware he had somehow. I guess that one sequence in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 didn’t prepare me. Acting wise, I wasn’t really impressed with anyone in this movie. However, in this cast, he was a gem.  He carried the role of the star very strongly, even stealing away attention from the ridiculous production design. His absurd balance of white boy rapper swagger and romance movie heroics somehow works. There’s no real explaining why, other than I think he’s given a lot of good (or bad, depending on how much of a grouch you are) material to work with. “If you ain’t true to yourself then you ain’t true to nobody. Live your life for someone else, you ain’t living,” is a real stand out line for instance. The showmanship of it all just comes so easily and naturally to him, which probably explains how he was even popular in the first place.

If I had to see him in a different genre of movie, I guess I would have to go with a road trip buddy movie. I’m thinking Crossroads, except replace Britney Spears with Vanilla Ice.  He’s got that hip, laid back style, but can play the troubled bad boy as well. Just find a couple of equally nuanced and ridiculous 90’s dudes and you’ve got a hit on your hands. They could teach each other life lessons and dance moves, as they try to find themselves and the American Dream. Pun totally intended here, I think something like that would have been the perfect vehicle for him.

The Wild One was also prime for him, though. Of course Brando and V-Ice play the troubled, bad boy Johnny in different ways and Cool as Ice‘s plot quickly jumps off the rails, but I think it was a good fit. Both movies and actors play up teen crazes and parental anxieties. The Wild One, with its leather jackets, hip jazz music, and wild hats, is a movie all about style, which is something I know Vanilla Ice to also be about.

Boomer, what did you think of Vanilla Ice and his crew’s fashion? Was it a beautiful early 90’s/late 80’s hip hop time capsule or a horrifying mess that you can’t believe you watched an hour and a half of?

Boomer: The fashion was certainly atrocious at points, but it worked for me in the context of this movie. Cool as Ice is even more of a cartoon than the similarly named Cool World which followed a year later. In fact, the moment that solidified my surrender to the absurdity of the film was when the two hapless goons stopped in the middle of a sandy waste to review their map, and the sound that accompanies the taller of the two pulling his gun from his waistband is the basic cork/rubber popping sound that you can hear in animated stuff going back to Looney Tunes. It was essentially the same experience I had when I saw God Help the Girl for the first time and just absolutely hated it, until I surrendered to that film’s tweeness and accepted it for what it was, then ended up falling in love.

I’m not saying I fell in love with Cool as Ice, but I was certainly willing to overlook a good many of its flaws the more I allowed myself to be carried away by its unwavering devotion to being as aesthetically and narratively discomfiting as possible. From the way that the featureless scenery of the unnamed small town and its surrounding areas are treated like beautiful vistas by the cinematic eye, to the stylistically indulgent music video-esque speed-ups and musical accompaniment when Kat’s family is preparing dinner, there’s a distinctly tongue-in-cheek animated quality to Cool as Ice that caused me, against my better judgment, to make allowances for the portraits in sartorial horror that float through the film. Perhaps that innate zaniness is why the director’s only other feature, the awful Matthew Broderick Inspector Gadget, was (slightly) better received.

That having been said, that doesn’t mean that the, erm, fashion in the film gets a complete pass. It’s mind-boggling to me that not only does Johnny own not only one, but two pairs of short overalls; one of them is black with white stripes and one is black with blue stripes, and both are worn with the bib down and the straps hanging on his sides. Worse still, both pairs have the word “ice” stitched into the bib, meaning that they are (a) intended to be worn this way, since the word is printed to be read by others, and (b) these are presumably part of Vanilla Ice’s personal wardrobe, not just Johnny’s, since “ice” is only part of his catchphrase in the film, not his name. On the other hand, the times when he is wearing this less eye-catching apparel are not as bothersome as some of his other outfits. I absolutely hated the eye-searing harlequin pants in the first scene, but when they made their reappearance in the final musical sequence, it was a welcome relief after the film’s most heinous vestiary crime: that awful skull cap that Johnny wore at the very top of his head like Parappa the Rapper. I was willing to forgive a multitude of sins based on how bizarre this movie was, but not that hat. All of that having been said, aside from Kat’s timelessly simply dresses, all of the outfits in this movie are ridiculous, so it’s not just Ice’s personal flair that we’re seeing take the wheel here.

Of all the things that can be easily mocked about Cool as Ice, Kristin Minter’s performance is not among them. Most of the cast seems to be made up of amateur actors (not counting Michael Gross, last seen hereabouts in previous Movie of the Month Big Business, and he seems to be sleepwalking through this film), but Minter turns in a pretty solid performance, with surprising pathos. It’s a shame to think that her career hinged on the critical and financial success of this film, which never materialized. What do you think, Brandon? If Minter managed to sell her performance in this movie, why hasn’t she managed to have a more successful career?

Brandon: I totally back the praise for Kristin Minter’s performance as Kathy. Minter’s tasked with a fairly thankless, almost impossible dual duty of both existing as a blank slate so that teen girls in the audience can daydream of being in her place next to the supposedly hunky Johnny and making Johnny appear hunky in the first place. She is the literal Girl Next Door in the film, with her only defining characteristics being that she’s college bound & rides horses. In a hilarious touch of production design, the film even emphasizes this personality void by prominently hanging a framed blank sheet of white paper over her bed. Minter’s physicality and genuine mix of intelligence & sweetness makes Kathy feel like a real human being against these odds, however, which even better served her role as an audience surrogate. The actor has continually worked since the 90s, but besides a role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, it seems she mostly appears in single episode runs on various television series. Cool as Ice was clearly her time to break out & grab attention and I’d agree she did so admirably. My best guess as to why that didn’t lead to wider success is timing. Minter bears a striking resemblance to early 90s Lara Flynn Boyle in Cool as Ice, which was released concurrently with Boyle’s run as Donna on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series. If anyone was specifically looking to cast Minter’s type at the time, I suppose they’d be more likely to look to the actor who worked with Lynch instead of the one who worked with Vanilla Ice. That’s all speculation, of course, but when I gaze at the glory of the Cool as Ice poster (as I often do, thanks to the hilariously puzzling tagline “When a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add ice.”) all I see is Donna Hayward waiting to straddle the back of a white rapper’s motorcycle (which is somehow still a step up from James’s motorcycle).

Part of what’s so refreshing about Minter’s presence in the film is that she’s surrounded by so many mediocre, bitter men. Kathy’s father, the sleepwalking Michael Gross, allows his dark past to interfere with his daughter’s summertime fun & romance. The boyfriend Kathy leaves for Johnny is an alpha male shithead who slut-shames her in public for dancing with another man and obnoxiously threatens her life with drunk driving recklessness. Just about the only male character who isn’t a total monster in some way is Kathy’s kid brother, who serves as an audience surrogate for the demographic of potential Vanilla Ice fans who aren’t horny teenage girls: young children who look up to the rapper for being so cool. It’s entirely up to Minter (and Ice’s wardrobe) to sell that cool factor on Ice’s behalf, since a lot of Johnny’s actions read as bullheaded machismo. In the couple’s initial meet cute, Johnny shows off by jumping his motorcycle over a fence, scaring Kathy off the back of her horse in what could have been a paralyzing or even life-threatening fall. As payback, she kicks him in the balls. Johnny also steals Kathy’s personal property so that she’ll be obligated to talk to him again, shamelessly flirts with her in front of her boyfriend despite her obvious disinterest, and frequently sneaks into her bedroom window, uninvited, while she’s either asleep or not at home. In the film’s strangest moment (which is no small distinction) Johnny climbs into Kathy’s bed while she is sleeping and wakes her up by seductively sliding an ice cube between her lips. The frost on her breath is filmed beautifully as it rises in the early morning sunshine and the audience is left to stew in the creepiness of the moment for what feels like an eternity. Thankfully, Kathy is more turned on than creeped out and that scene leads directly to the construction site sequence I love so much. Vanilla Ice’s sex appeal can only be conveyed through so much wardrobe, dancing, and sunlit shirtlessness, so we rely on Kathy’s screen presence to sell us on its potency. She really does save the movie from just being a miserable parade of overly macho scoundrels.

Speaking of motorcycle straddling and ice cube sucking, teen horniness plays an alarmingly large role in this PG film about a white rapper and a small town kidnapping plot. It’s even been reported that a young Gwyneth Paltrow was offered the role as Kathy, but her parents made her turn it down because of the sexualized content. Britnee, you already mentioned Johnny dry humping Kathy on the Sugar Shack dancefloor. What are your thoughts on the way teenage sex & romance are handled in the film overall?

Britnee: I had no idea that this was a PG rated film. The ice cube bedroom scene alone is enough to get this film at least a PG-13 rating. Cool as Ice somehow manages to incorporate teen sexuality without making it too over-the-top. Kathy has a slight sexual awakening on the Sugar Shack dance floor, but nothing is really that hot and heavy after that. The film is trying to be sexy enough to attract horny teens to theaters, but at the same time, it’s trying to keep the main focus on Vanilla Ice’s dancing and rapping. For instance, the infamous ice cube scene could have gone much further than it actually did. Vanilla Ice is fully clothed in her bed (shoes and all) when lying beside her, while she’s fully clothed as well. This was definitely an opportunity for a sex scene, but it seems like it was intentionally avoided. Her little brother walks in on the two and asks if they were having sex, so it seems like that was done to keep the film’s sexiness on the quirky side to keep that PG rating.

Other than the surprising lack of sex scenes in Cool as Ice, I was very surprised to find that Vanilla Ice only had a few musical moments. He only raps about 3 or 4 times, and it just didn’t feel like it was enough for a film that’s supposed to be a hip-hop musical. I wanted to hear more of Vanilla Ice’s sick rhymes, so maybe this is just me being selfish. There were a couple of funky 90’s club songs thrown in here and there, and they took away opportunities for us to have more Ice.

Alli, did you find the relative lack of actual Vanilla Ice music to be strange? Do you think a love scene between Ice and Kathy that involves a rap serenade would have done well in this movie?

Alli: I did find that for something that seems so much like a vanity project there was a distinct lack of self promotion as far as music goes, but I’m glad he didn’t cram this movie with as much “Ice Ice Baby” as possible. I think that’s part of the reason why it transcends from weird vanity project to cult film art. While I’m glad his performance/seduction on the dance floor didn’t feel too, too forced, I actually would have really liked a delicate, free style serenade in the middle of that McMansion construction project (maybe a premonition of his current work on the DIY channel as a house remodeling wise guy). When they were just romping around in the emptiness would have been the perfect time to try to sell him more as a tender, troubled hunk, a role I just wasn’t buying. Overall though, yeah, I would have liked some more of his jams. I think the lack of Ice-related tunes just called more attention to everyone’s acting, and the bizarre muddled mess of a plot.

I didn’t really understand the whole crooked cop thing. Is this supposed to be a movie full of crime and intrigue or is it a teenage love story? I don’t even think anybody working on it knew for sure. I know we’ve talked about some of the similarities between Head Over Heels and Cool As Ice as far as the 90’s club jams, but I think they also have this crime narrative that happens somewhat out of nowhere that kind of hijacks the movie.

Boomer, do you think the father’s side plot took away too much attention from the love story?

Boomer: The side plot with the father’s past coming back to haunt him certainly seems to come out of nowhere, and is easily one of the least sensible elements in a film that’s already treads very close to nonsense, especially given that it’s instigated by his own foolishness. I mean, seriously, if you’re in witness protection, why on earth would you allow yourself to be filmed for a sound bite, even if it’s supposedly local? That aside, it does introduce the only real conflict in the film other than the fighting between Johnny and Katherine’s (ex)boyfriend, which is pretty tension-free after we see that Johnny alone is capable of fighting off a bunch of cornfed country boys single-handedly. Given that there’s not much other action taking place, there’s no real other way for Johnny to prove himself to Katherine’s family other than saving her little brother, but it still seems like a job that should have been left for the FBI (or whomever is in charge of the witness protection program in this bizarre universe), rather than a random rapping hottie with as much personality as an album cover.

Overall, the crime plot is the only element of the film that elevates it out of what would otherwise have been only nominally a plot. Without it, there’s not much in the way of conflict, nonsensical though it may be. It also gives the sleepwalking Gross something to do in the film, given that he’s the only real star here. I also liked the way that the two revenge-seekers were both somewhat bumbling and also credibly threatening. To go back to the above mention of Minter’s role as one of the McAllisters in Home Alone, they reminded me of the Wet Bandits from that film, in that they’re comically inept but still utterly capable of violence, as indicated when they kidnap Katherine’s younger brother. Her boyfriend is undoubtedly a “zero,” but without something to do other than stand majestically on his motorcycle in a romper, Johnny’s not much of a “hero” until the (ridiculous) rescue that serves as the meager climax of the movie. This centerpiece and the plot snags that lead up to it may seem tacked on, but without it, there’s even less of a film that what we end up with.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It seems that Vanilla Ice’s entire career has been defined by overcoming his early status as a one-hit-wonder. Ever since “Ice Ice Baby” made him a star, Ice has been struggling to reinvent himself. When gangsta rap changed the industry, he released the single “Roll Em Up,” refashioning ​himself as a hard-as-fuck street tough. When Limp Bizkit popularized rap metal, he reimagined his sole hit single as the would-be nu metal anthem “Too Cold.” In more recent years, he’s found his most appropriate home yet on reality television, where being a flash in the pan novelty act is a godsend, not a handicap. Cool as Ice is an obvious choice to me as the best of Vanilla Ice’s cynical cash grabs since his star prematurely rose and fell with his first album. It turned his blatant commercialism into pure artistic expression and an exaggerated cultural time capsule that only gets better as the years roll on, like so many motorcycles riding until dawn. That virtue entirely rests on cinema’s unique crossroads of art & commerce. If the movie has one major fault it’s that it didn’t lean into its obvious status as a commercially-minded novelty even further to conclude with a performance of “Ice Ice Baby,” which is nowhere to be found on its soundtrack. That would’ve been the icing on the cake.

Alli: I really, really would have liked more info about that Pee Wee’s Playhouse garage. It’s out of nowhere. I know Roscoe and Mae are eccentric, yet awkward geniuses, but as said above even for this universe they’re strange. Also, this house and garage are supposed to be a literal Limbo, but between what? Is the world Johnny and his friends came from in some sort of chaos? What did they go through before happening upon this innocent town?

Boomer: I also love the art design of this movie. When mentioning to a friend that I had just watched Cool As Ice, he asked if he was misremembering the film in that he remembered one location as consisting of nothing but colors and shapes, which I was happy to point out was an actual set on this film. My favorite bits were the globes and doors out front, as well as the ludicrously sized salt shakers that at first seem like a perspective trick but ended up being a gag. So fun.

Britnee: I wish Naomi Campbell had a bigger part in this movie that just a small lip sync scene in the film’s opening. She should’ve been part of the motorcycle crew! Even though I know that wish will never come true, I love the hell out of this movie.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)

-The Swampflix Crew

Blame It On the Streets (2014)

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Keenon Dae’quan Ray Jackson, better known as YG, produced Blame It On the Streets, a short film that offers an interesting look into what his everyday life in Compton was like prior to his success and fame as a rapper. What was intended to be a short film was more like an extra long music video without the music. There is a soundtrack that was created to accompany the film, but the film only contains short clips of YG’s songs. The lack of music was disappointing because the film was intended to illustrate the meanings behind several of his songs, such as “Meet the Flockers,” but it’s difficult to make that connection without the songs actually being in the film.

Blame It On the Streets wasn’t very good, but I highly doubt that YG wanted to make a cinematic masterpiece. The acting was very bland and the storyline was sort of all over the place, but despite all of its flaws, the film did hold my interest for its entire 28 minutes. There was a drive by, a high-speed police chase, a robbery, and loads of inappropriate language, so there was never a dull moment. One of my favorite scenes was when YG and his pals robbed a home in an Asian neighborhood in broad daylight. They didn’t have any gloves to mask their fingerprints, so they wore long black socks on their hands. It really lightened the mood.

Blame It On the Streets is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas