Tuesday, April 28, 2020


FRESH (1994)

Director/Screenplay: Boaz Yakin

By any standard, 1994 is widely regarded as one of the major seminal great years in cinema, especially American cinema. Yet, I rarely see this film mentioned among the greats of that year anymore. I don't think it's forgotten necessarily; I've run into it occasionally on late night television, in edited versions of course, 'cause there is,- well there's a couple scenes that might be somewhat questionable today, but one scene in particular that involves a drug addict literally offering herself as payment to get more crack, and the distressing part about this, is the dealer is our protagonist, a 12-year-old boy. It doesn't read, unrealistic, but it reads distressing, and unlike other movies like shitty cuts of "Ghost World" on TV, I get why this might not play. However, this is kind of the forgotten movie of the late '80s-early '90s-. well, I don't actually know the term for this era. This era of great young filmmakers, mostly African-American like Spike Lee, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, etc. who started tell stories of the urban African-American youth; basically all the movies that "Don't Be a Menace..." was trying to make fun of. "Juice", "South Central", "Poetic Justice", there was a run of them and most of them have some level of wide acclaim and acceptance, and I think "Fresh" does as well, but it's not as highly regarded in this group, and I guess there's one obvious good reason for it. Well, it's filmmaker's is not a young African-American. He's a New York Israeli who already had success in Hollywood. 

You’d know his more well-known work for the sports film “Remember the Titans,” as well as other more conventional Hollywood fare, but then there's this directorial debut film of his. Boaz Yakin was a respected go-to screenwriter in Hollywood, making Hollywood thrillers and crime movies and script doctoring a few others, but eventually after writing a movie he really didn’t like, (Most suspect it was Clint Eastwood's "The Rookie") he decided to move to Paris and vowed not to return to making movies until he had a story worthy being made into a film, and full control over how it was made. 

It took four years, and I'm not sure how four years of Paris ended up with the inspiration for this, but he finally came up with “Fresh,” a movie that has stuck in my mind since first seeing it in a film criticism class years ago. It looks like a typical film about inner-city drug trade, but this movie’s more subtle than the films that would draw it’s obvious comparisons. And there are definitely some aspects of it at the corners of the screen that make this film, while still feeling like an American '90s urban youth story, it's influenced is not quite originated from that place.  

Notice for instance,  how there’s no rap music on the soundtrack something that most of the biggest and most important films of that era were renown for.  Instead, there's a musical score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland of all people. Also the directing by Yakin, if you know his more Hollywood work, and he's always been a talented, efficient director, but "Fresh" his directorial debut rarely feels like the conventional movie studio directing his films have usually felt like, and if anything, he seems to be channeling Francois Truffaut in many of his shots. Bizarrely, if I was double-feature screening this with something, it might be "The 400 Blows". 

The movie follows Michael (Sean Nelson), a smart middle-school kid nicknamed Fresh, who works as a runner for one drug dealer, Estaban (Giancarlo Esposito) and as an streetcorner seller for another. Estaban doesn't like that Fresh is double-dipping, but is fascinated with Fresh's addict sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright). Fresh lives with his Aunt Frances (Cheryl Freeman) at a home with about eleven other streetkids she’s taken in. Occasionally, against permission, he goes down to the local park to see his father, (Samuel L. Jackson) a drunken chess hustler who lives in what’s barely a trailer, but is known enough to keep chess games by mail with grand masters, and teaches small life lessons to Fresh while schooling him at playing and hustling chess. He’s a smart kid who’s unimpressed with his customer’s pleas, and seems to be the perfect runner for the big dope dealers, since he’s so young, nobody would consider him for having so many drugs on him. He also has a lot of hiding places where he’s got money and drugs stashed. It’s only later on do we realize how smart he really is, and how brilliant and tragic that is. Mainly because the world around him is already filled with tragedy. He works for the violent hustlers, he's dealing with addicts, and except maybe for those games of chess with a father that he's really not even supposed to be around, he didn't have much solace from his world. 

I don't want to give too many details about the events that happen in the film, or for that matter, the events that help set up the strategically-laid plan that he manages to pull, but I should mention a character named Jake (Jean-Claude La Marre), who's basically one of those tradition hotheads in movies like these, where they find and embrace the life of the murderous group in order to perpetuate their own sociopathic, and murderous desires and tendencies. At one point, for literally the stupidest and most shallow reason you can think of, he starts shooting and flailing a gun randomly killing a couple people. 

All the while, Fresh is a strange character in this. He's a character that's implicity trusted by all the older, grownups on both sides of the legal line, but he doesn't say much to anybody. Yet, he is a witness, and as he observes everything, he's also secretly setting up his plan. Like Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List,” he doesn’t say out loud what his intentions are, nor do we necessarily realize it’s his intentions, period, at least, not until late. Each move is thoughtful and deceitful, and when they’re combined, they lead to a greater whole, one that Fresh realizes must result in certain sacrifices in order to reach a greater objective. One that, nobody realizes just how much they've been manipulated, until it's too late, if they ever do at all.... 

I've heard some criticisms that the second half of the movie, is a little too much to be believed, especially how much he does. Hmmm... perhaps, but that's presuming this is all supposed to be a realism. The same sort of document of the modern horrors and travails of urban life some of the more memorable and notable films are trying to be. It's not that that's not there, but it's also not the inspiration for the work. Like I said, this came from Yakin having an early mid-career crisis, and screwing off to France. What it really is, is a tale about a kid using what skills that he has, in order to achieve the better life he desires. So what skills does Fresh have that the others?

Well, without giving everything away, it might help if you know chess well enough. Especially those hustlers like his fathers; I was into chess myself years ago, right around when I was Fresh's age in fact; I still have a chess set collection even. There's one scene where he sees inside his little trailer of a house, and we see his father has photos of many of the well known grand masters that he's played. (Although, he notably mentions that he hasn't played Bobby Fischer, of course) 

The final scene involves one final meeting with his father at the park, where he finally breaks down his emotionless exterior. He doesn't speak, he doesn't respond, but his emotional walls break down, and If you’re observing closely, you’ll understand why, both because of what's happened and how he orchestrated it, but also because, he's the only one who knows the game he was playing. Check, and mate. 

No comments: