Belly (1998)
Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Cast: Nas,DMX,Taral Hicks, Method Man
Extras: Director Commentary,Deleted Scenes,Trailers,Music Video, Spoken Word Featurette

"Belly" is the first and only feature film from 1998 directed by the somewhat legendary music video director Hype Williams. Personally I hope Hype Williams makes some more films, especially after listening to the commentary, in which I gained a lot of insight into his intentions with this often misunderstood film, which at first glance can seem to glorify and glamorize gangster attitudes and the lifestyle itself. Of course, many crime dramas have been accused of that, perhaps this film got a little more notoriety because of its possible negative inner city influence (some theater chains refused to show the film, fearing violence).

Hype Williams is known mainly for music videos, and he has worked with many notable Hip Hop acts, including the Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott, and The Game just to name a few. Because of his immersion in the world of rap videos, I expected a stylish film when I sat down for my first viewing of the film, and this film certainly has some truly unique and fascinating style going for it. The opening seen as we follow some thugs into a club is quite memorable with its strobe light effect and slow motion techniques, you get the idea immediately that you are in for something different, and "Belly" certainly doesn't disappoint as eye candy, in fact there were many scenes and shots throughout the film that were truly spectacular and visually impressive, and the Blu-ray certainly is a great format for this type of film.

With a cast featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Nas, DMX, Taral Hicks and Method Man, this is one release where I wouldn't have minded a behind the scenes documentary, as watching some of these larger than life hip hop figures work together would have been fascinating.

The sometimes confusing and somewhat inconsistent plot (the film was also written by Hype Williams) centers around two gangsters named Sincere (Nas) and Tommy (DMX). In the opening scene (and thanks to the narration that carries throughout the film like in a Scorsese crime drama) we witness that they are immersed in a life of crime, highlighted by club robberies and eventually the drug trade. While Tommy has the attitude that we are born to die, but make as much money as possible before you get there, and raise as much hell as you can in between, Sincere is way more low key and down to earth about his life. Married and with an infant child, he is torn between the financial gain of the thug life and the peace and tranquility of his family life. But Tommy knows how to get to him, and he always ends up right back in the twisted life of violence and money he so yearns to escape. Tommy knows all the right buttons to push, and this time he wants to make some real money, with a grand scheme to sell drugs supplied by a notorious Jamaican kingpin, but to branch out from their Queens, NY origin and take the business to other places in the country in an attempt to cash in and make some real money.

Both of them go through some serious consequences after they are eventually narced out, and what happens in their lives become equal voyages of self discovery, and both of them find themselves eventually confronted with not only moral and spiritual dilemmas, but also facing a turf war and the very real violence that will affect both of them before the film is through.

The film has some real talent behind it, but unfortunately, even with all of the stylish video wizardry that make this release such a thrill, it doesn't hold up many times in certain areas. The script should have been gone over a couple more times, because at times it is unintentionally funny, but at other times it is really quite brilliant. Also, the hip hop cast is certainly an appealing concept, but perhaps a few of them could have used a few more takes on a few scenes, because they aren't entirely convincing, and perhaps some re editing would make the film a little easier to follow. In other words, this is a first time film from a director of videos, and it is filled with flaws of every nature, but I like the concept and think the vision this filmmaker has is so enticing that I can actually forgive these flaws and can actually recommend it to those who don't mind a little style over substance and want to see an extreme and outlandishly creative vision of an urban apocalypse. Kind of like a flawed hip hop version of "A Clockwork Orange", really. I actually quite enjoyed the film, and it does have some good action scenes also. The film also has so many blunts smoking that I swear you almost get a contact high, especially with some of those amazingly stoned shots scattered throughout the film like some kind of urban surrealist nightmare. Probably many hookahs will be lit before this film finds its way into many players

And I might mention that the film actually is quite funny at times, intentionally and otherwise. These people in the film are so over the top, I could hardly believe it sometimes, the way they dress and talk. Fascinating stuff really, at times I thought I was watching a science fiction film, in fact. Either way, despite the flaws, this film takes you somewhere else,that is for sure. A commendable first effort, and definitely worth getting if you are into this type of music, because it really has some memorable tracks on it.

So how does this film hold up as a high definition title? Well, this is one of the most interesting titles I've ever reviewed actually, because Hype Williams and his style made me at first think the film was riddled with flaws, but after listening to the extremely informative commentary track, many of my questions were answered. My first problem had to do with the black levels; I thought they were way too dark because there are many scenes in which we can hardly see what is going on. But the filmmaker informed me it was completely purposeful, so therefore what first appeared to be a poor transfer reveals itself to be a faithful representation of the artist's intent. Also, before we hear all of the complaining from people who think all high def titles should have so much digital noise reduction that everyone looks like a mannequin should take note of this release, because there are scenes that are very grainy. Because of the types of film used, many scenes have plenty of grain. And yet many scenes are crystal clear and have the three dimensional effect we have grown accustomed to with our high def titles. Using a variety of different filming styles, this movie is simply all over the place. Hype and his crew were experimenting, and some scenes work and others don't, and the film is just all over the place. I admire it's defiant imperfection though, and this Blu-ray definitely handles the chaos effectively. I'm sure many out there will simply think this title looks awful, but not me. Also, the film does fill the whole screen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The audio arrives with a bombastic English 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, and like the rest of the film, it's kind of all over the place. The audio holds up quite well, especially in the music department and certain scenes filmed in clubs were quite amazing, and Hype kept using this trippy locust like effect, some may say he over used it, but it's really cool sounding. Also, this title obviously has a lot of bass, and the action scenes are very explosive. The audio is simply all over the place because this filmmaker is experimental, some scenes sound more immersive than others, and like the visual elements, the audio can appear to be inconsistent at times, but really the dialogue is always audible, except the Jamaican Drug Lord could have used some subtitles, but the filmmaker wanted us to be confused I'm sure.

The special features are highlighted by an unapologetic yet undefeated commentary in which the director goes through the film and its mistakes in detail. He is his own worst critic, and I've never quite listened to a commentary quite like this one, because it is so honest. Hype Williams is much more soft spoken than his profanity laced writing and streetwise thugs that populate his film, and it is very insightful to hear him describe his true intentions with this understandably misunderstood film. In fact the commentary make the film more enjoyable and makes his mistakes easy to forgive, in fact the flaws and imperfections actually make this release stand out, and what is commendable is that Hype Williams tried so hard at this project, as a way to try and speak to the young people of 1998 in their own language. It may be a hit and miss affair, and many may think the film is simply a mess, but when you listen to his intentions (and sometimes it sounds like he is cringing at some of the flaws), it is obvious he wishes he could go in and reshoot some scenes and fix some things. I hope he gets another chance at making movies, although he doesn't seem concerned with his career, since he's a high profile and much sought after music video director, after all. His admiration of film and all of his favorite filmmakers are also mentioned (and the styles he emulated). A very good commentary.

We also have a feature called "Spoken Word" which is about forty minutes and presented in standard definition, it features urban spoken word performances that revolve around certain themes in the film. Captivating or annoying and cheesy, I'll let you decide. It is without a doubt an interesting idea for a feature, though.

A 'Deleted Scene' which gives you some audio manipulation choices and a music video featuring "Grand Finale" does more to shoot down the filmmakers true intentions than anything else, since it features only the action scenes and makes the life of crime seem so cool. We also have some high definition trailers to round things out.

I'm sure this is a release that will appeal to some and others will avoid entirely, but I must give Hype Williams and his cast and crew due credit for attempting something different, and while it certainly doesn't always work, it has some really stylish and visually breathtaking scenes and I certainly enjoyed the over the top attitude displayed throughout the film, even if during some of the scenes I was laughing during I probably was not supposed to be. The commentary is actually indispensable for once. The image quality may baffle some, but I think the film truly is represented on this Blu-ray disc quite faithfully and it simply looks the way it is supposed to, although perhaps it could have been cleaned up in a few scenes. The audio is fine, especially for fans of hip hop. This is a release I quite enjoyed, so pick it up if you are feeling adventurous.Myself, I tried not to be a PHD when I watched the film, a vulgar but useful term I learned from the film which basically translates to player hater. Peace.