Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The 1994 Project: Above the Rim

1994 turns 18 this year and we're celebrating! I’ve routinely cited this as my favourite year of film – it’s my 1999 if you’re a fan of that other particularly vintage year of the 1990s – and, just to stretch the birthday analogy as far as it can possibly go, I thought I’d investigate the year even further. Invite back old favourites as well as hopefully discover a lot of new ones. Being comprehensive is sexy, isn't it?

Despite an opening scene - a clumsy, dim one at that - the first thing that audiences would notice about this sports drama, Above the Rim, is Tupac Shakur. His song "Pain" plays over the opening credits and ignites such energy that actually just sets the film up for a downfall. It's disappointing to watch this film, a minor box office hit in the early part of 1994, never match the intensity of its soundtrack, because there was surely enough here to make for some great filmmaking. The aforementioned soundtrack including Warren G's iconic "Regulate" over the end credits, the evocative and transporting production design and real world filming locations of Harlem and East Harlem on Manhattan, and some strong performances help make individual scenes and moments memorable, but director Jeff Pollack never blends them into an impressive film as a whole.

Set in Harlem, Above the Rim is essentially an amalgamation of inspirational sports flick and streetwise gang movie, neither of which entirely work. The sport angle could have worked, sort of like a fictional retelling of the disadvantaged youths in Hoop Dreams, but Pollack's filming of the basketball sequences is rather uninspiring for a film that's trying to preach about the ways young black men can avoid the pitfalls of gang life by undertaking it. The gang stuff, too, spun prominently around the magnetic appearance of Shakur, rarely becomes more than kids playing in the sandbox. Moments of genuine power are lost amongst crude, exaggerated villainy and stereotypical "gangbanging". Occasional ventures into the ideas of regret and missed potential are appropriately stoic, but rarely affecting due to the naff ways they are presented as almost dreamlike visions.

That the main character of Duane Martin (yes, he played Joel in Scream 2, the smartest character out of the entire Scream franchise) isn't given a prerequisite love interest proves to be one of the film's finest and most surprising artistic choices. Furthering that point is that Above the Rim's sole female character of more than one scene is Martin's mother, played by soap actor Tonya Pinkins, does get the romance angle and it's a refreshing change of pace. Pinkins is - to borrow a sporting term - the film's MVP and navigates the landscape of her character really well. Her blooming relationship with a former basketball star cum high school security guard is actually rather nice in the way it is played entirely mature. Pinkins' ability to smack down a sass line of dialogue also helps - "I could ground you from a pay phone, boy!" Amazing.

As for Tupac, well... this is the first film of his that I have seen (although I have brief memories of Poetic Justice when I was younger, maybe?) and while it's arguable as to whether he's a good actor or not, he's certainly got charisma. Why somebody like Rihanna, who we were just talking about last week, didn't try and use her entrance into the world of film for something a bit meatier than Battleship is beyond me. Above the Rim isn't necessarily that good (although it's certainly better than Battleship), it's at least trying to tell a story that perhaps deserves to be told. It certainly deserves to be told better and by a director with camera skills as impressive as Martin's basketball skills (Jeff Pollack would go on to direct Booty Call and produce mostly television specials), and who can utilise the wonderful sense of place that the Harlem locations provide in an exciting way. It's saying something about the world and that's something to be admired, but it's just a shame that all those basketball montages and ridiculous people in "the hood" going clubbing took away from the stronger elements. C

Previously on The 1994 Project
Barcelona (C+), Blink (B-), Body Melt (C-), Nell (B-), Reality Bites (B)

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