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Hustle & Flow (HD DVD)
Hustle & Flow is about a drug-dealing pimp who aspires to become a rapper. In the great and varied history of the motion picture art form, I can think of few movies whose subject matter I would be less inclined to find interesting. As many good things as I'd heard about the film, I remained skeptical right up until about the first scene, which is when it started to win me over. And that's exactly the genius of the picture, that it subverts all expectations set for it. Whether you go in anticipating a misogynistic, exploitative B-movie, or whether you've been inundated by the hype and awards hoopla and figure that it can't possibly live up, once the movie settles into its groove, it simply delivers a compelling story with fascinating characters, which is all anyone could hope for.
Character actor Terrence Howard stars as D.Jay, a Memphis hustler trying to make ends meet by pushing the occasional bag of weed and pimping out a couple of girls who've been hanging off him. Director Craig Brewer goes to great pains to deglamorize the hip-hop image of the urban pimp. D doesn't have a fancy crib or wear a lot of bling. He lives in a hovel and spends his days sitting in a sweaty car under a bridge, trying to fast-talk passersby into sampling his wares, all the while trying to make some sense out of his life. D isn't particularly educated or cultured, but he knows that he wants something more. Just what that is, he isn't sure, but once he figures it out, he has enough drive to attack it with a ferocious determination.
When word comes that big-time rapper Skinny Black, a one-time hoodlum from the same background as D.Jay, will be returning to town, that sets off a new life's goal in D's mind. All these thoughts that have been spinning disorganized through his head can be put to paper and to music, and may just lead the way to a better life. At least that's the way D figures it. It's a million-to-one shot, but he's not going to let it pass him by. Enlisting the help of an old grade school friend (Anthony Anderson) who'd settled into a respectable domesticated life, and a white church kid (D.J. Qualls) who happens to be a huge hip hop fanatic, D sets his plan in motion. With limited resources at his disposal, he's got to record a killer track and find a way to slip it into Skinny Black's hand. It may be a pipe dream, but the dream is all that keeps him going.
What could have been a movie about unlikable people in an unpleasant milieu is transformed in Brewer's hands into a richly textured story about multi-faceted characters. The writer-director knows these people and has lived in this town, which he lovingly showcases by developing a palpable sense of atmosphere and local color. He lets us in on D's dream by showing us the hard work that goes into the creation of a good hip hop song, the difficulty of finding just the right repetitive hook that can put the rapper's "flow" (his stream-of-consciousness ramblings) into proper relief and make the whole thing feel structured and tight.
If Hustle & Flow sounds a bit like a Rocky-style tale of underdog victory and redemption, it is only on the most superficial level. At the same time, Brewer isn't afraid to show us the darker side of this lifestyle, the use and abuse of human beings, particularly evidenced by D's cold-hearted eviction of one of his girls who mouthed off one too many times. These aren't all lovable dreamers. They can also be petty, ignorant, and cruel. But they're vivid, real, and never less than interesting. It's a terrific film, worthy of its acclaim.
The HD DVD:
Hustle & Flow has been released on the HD DVD format by Paramount Home Entertainment. A comparable Blu-ray is also available.
The disc's main menu is stylish but replays the "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" theme song in a loop, which is kind of annoying. If you should pause or fast-forward/rewind the movie during playback, a timeline meter will appear on screen to tell you how far along you are.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Hustle & Flow HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
The movie was shot on 16mm film and has a very grainy, stylized appearance with a strong '70s vibe. Contrasts are slightly pumped up, colors are vividly saturated, and black levels run rich and inky. Camera focus is sometimes erratic (especially during night scenes, where the film stock didn't have enough latitude), but the picture has very good sharpness and detail for the style of the film. The grain is properly digitized and compressed, and does not look like video noise, as happens in many other disc transfers. Viewers expecting a squeaky clean digital presentation will likely be disappointed, but the grain is clearly used deliberately to give the image a gritty texture, and it's essential to the tone and mood of the story. The movie won a cinematography award at Sundance, and frankly I think the HD DVD looks great. It has a rich film-like appearance. This is the disc I plan to pull off the shelf to demonstrate why grain isn't always a bad thing.
The Hustle & Flow HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, and for a low-budget production it sure sounds fantastic. The funky hip-hop score is filled with clean bass impact and quite a bit of surround extension. Dialogue is crisp and clear. Sound effects such as the couple of gunshots featured in the story are well recorded and delivered. Fidelity is very nice across the board. This is excellent work all around.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the supplements from the DVD edition have carried over to this HD DVD title, plus several new ones.
Recycled from the DVD are:
- Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Craig Brewer - The filmmaker is a good speaker and has a lot of interest to say about his influences, intentions, the music, and the ordeals of making a low budget movie. As the track starts, he admits that, "What I try to do is steal as much as I can. I think that there's kind of two different kinds of creativity. There's theft and then there's inadvertent theft. You know, there's things that you're stealing from the greats and then there's things you don't realize that you're stealing".
- Behind the Hustle (27 min., SD) - A very good making-of piece that covers the story, script, and casting. Terrence Howard initially turned down the role and had to be convinced of it. Craig Brewer looks like the last person who should be directing this sort of movie.
- By Any Means Necessary (15 min., SD) - A discussion about the difficulties of finding financing (nobody wanted to back the movie), Brewer's background, shooting in Memphis, and the film's reception at Sundance.
- Creatin' Crunk (14 min., SD) - A look at the music and songs, their Blaxploitation influences, and the participation of local rapper Al Kapone.
- Memphis Hometown Premiere (5 min., SD) - Red carpet interviews.
- Promotional Spots (3 min., SD) - 6 short TV spots that feature original footage of the actors in character.
- Paula Jai Parker Audition (3 min., SD) - The actress showed up for her audition in some very provocative wardrobe, and really nailed the role right from the start.
- Ludacris and Terrence Howard Rehearsal (2 min., SD) - The actors working out their characters.
- Scene Extensions (6 min., SD) - Two scenes (the introduction of Shelby, and D.Jay playing with the keyboard) are extended with footage from the cast's table reading of the script.
- It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp Acoustic Version (3 min., SD) - A very funny Country version of the song performed to liven up the set.
- Theatrical Trailers (5 min., HD) - Two trailers, one focused on the music and the other on pimpin'.
Despite my initial reservations, Hustle & Flow is a movie that really lives up to the hype around it. The HD DVD has a video transfer that faithfully reproduces the look of the film, whether everyone will appreciate that or not. The disc also has excellent sound and some pretty good bonus features. Highly Recommended.