"Gotta have more than one hustle."
In the history of filmmaking, has there ever been a director with a more appropriate name than Hype Williams? The music video auteur is all flash and no substance. Having worked with just about every major hip hop artist, Williams' eye-catching videos are easily identified by his love of super-saturated colors, bizarre camera angles, and collision of random nonsensical images. This is the guy that put Puff Daddy (as he was then known) in a wind tunnel, dressed Janet Jackson in a purple dominatrix outfit, and made Busta Rhymes into a living cartoon character. Image and attitude are everything in his universe. Above all else, a Hype Williams video has gotta be sleek, gotta be glossy, and gotta be expensive, the more of everything the better. Never mind whether any of it makes sense or means anything. It should come as no surprise that the director's first foray into feature filmmaking would be a 95-minute, R-rated music video featuring a bunch of rappers playing gangstas and celebrating the Thug Life.
Attempting to recap the plot of 'Belly' would presume that it has one. Even after watching it, I'm not quite convinced of that yet. As far as I can tell, the action has something to do with a bunch of young hoodlums stealing, murdering, peddling drugs, and slapping their hos around (how does one spell the plural of "ho" anyway?). The only characters whose names I caught were Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas). Tommy is the leader of the pack, and Sincere is the one destined to eventually have a change of heart and want to make something of his life. There's also a Jamaican guy who seems to be a local kingpin. He has about 20% of the dialogue in the movie, and he mumbles it all in a completely impenetrable accent. He talks and talks and talks, and I was lucky to make out one or two random words every couple of minutes. Not that the rest of the quote-unquote actors were any better. They all mumble their dialogue, if in fact the constant stream of expletives (including the forbidden one that I, as a white person, am never allowed to repeat) strung together without purpose or meaning could really be called dialogue. I lost count of the number of lines capped off with a "Know wha'm sayin'?" As in, "Fuck dat shit yo, know wha'm sayin'? Know wha'm sayin', dawg?" If you have to ask, the answer's probably no.
Williams certainly knows how to shoot an arresting image, but a storyteller he is not. There are no story, characters, or plot in 'Belly'. It's just 95 minutes of bustin' caps, strobe lights flashing, and hip hop blaring on the soundtrack. The picture is narratively incoherent. It's a sequence of mini music videos that have nothing to do with one another run back-to-back. There's no point to any scene, no way to tell what's going on, and no way to tell the characters apart. The movie embraces and reinforces the most embarrassing of gangsta clichés and the most cartoonishly offensive stereotypes about black urban youth. It then has the gall to turn preachy at the end by suddenly denouncing the violence, ignorance, and depravity of the lifestyle it had just spent an hour and a half joyously glorifying.
Am I just too white to appreciate the gritty urban drama of a movie like 'Belly'? I don't think so. I've watched my share of 'hood movies over the years, both good and bad, and can appreciate when they're done well. This is not one of those times. 'Belly' is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who watches it, regardless of race.
Don't believe the Hype. Know wha'm sayin'?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Yo, check dis. 'Belly' drops on Blu-ray from my dawgs at Lionsgate. Word!
The disc starts with five trailers before the menu, but you can skip them with the Top Menu command on your remote.
Credit where it's due, Hype Williams has an eye for composing striking visuals. Depending on how you look at it, 'Belly' is either a relatively low-budget feature film or a very big-budget music video. The movie's photography is rough and grainy at times, but dynamically stylized with the use of heavy color filters, fast shutter speeds, wide angle lenses, and even an entire sequence shot entirely under black light.
Lionsgate has opened up the movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to 16:9 by lifting the top and bottom mattes. The difference is only a few scan lines and doesn't harm the composition. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is relatively sharp and has a pretty good sense of detail overall, though the style does limit the available detail in a lot of scenes. This is a contrasty image with gleaming whites and deep blacks. Shadow detail is quite poor, with a stark fall-off to absolute black in dark scenes. The director's commentary implies that this might be intentional, but even if it is, I think the transfer exaggerates the effect. Colors are vividly saturated. I didn't spot any problems with edge ringing, and the digital compression quality is acceptable; there are a couple of scenes where the grain is excessively noisy or even a little blocky, but nothing that ruins the whole movie.
'Belly' is an uneven visual experience. Some scenes are very impressive, especially the Y2K New Year's Eve dénouement, which is sharp and clear enough that you can plainly discern the signs revealing that it was actually shot during the 1998 celebration. Others are less impressive. I think that's a natural characteristic of the movie. If you're actually a fan of this film, I'm sure the Blu-ray is a nice step up from the DVD edition.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is loud. Very loud. The hip hop bass thumps, thumps, thumps. As befitting a picture produced by people mainly associated with the music industry, the soundtrack got a lot of attention during production, obviously a lot more so than the script. The musical presence is vivid and expansive, and makes active use of both front and rear soundstages. Even the surround channels have aggressive stereo dimensionality.
The soundtrack is a lot better with the music than any other particular aspect, however. Dialogue is all mumbled and often difficult to discern. Sound effects are just OK. Gunshots lack the crispness of the best action movie mixes. Nonetheless, the audio sounds very good.
While the track has technically been remixed for 7.1, I don't recall hearing the center back channels engaged in any meaningful way, but that's not to say that it detracted from the experience at all.
Even the Special Edition DVD didn't have much bonus content. The Blu-ray recycles all of the DVD supplements, but they don't amount to anything worthwhile.
Also included are some trailers for unrelated Lionsgate titles.
'Belly' is the cinematic equivalent of being shot in the gut. I took a bullet in agreeing to watch this movie for review. Don't make the same mistake I did. Decent picture and sound don't make up for how torturous this piece of garbage is to watch. Life is too short to waste watching crap like this.