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‘Menace II Society’ (R)

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 19, 1993


South-central Los Angeles. Two black teenagers go into a Korean-run grocery store and buy some beer. The owner is tense, his wife fearful. The youths open their bottles and drink; the owner tells them to leave. An argument starts, grows ugly, and suddenly one teenager pulls out a pistol. He shoots the grocer point-blank, through the head, then kills the wife.

That's just the opening sequence of "Menace II Society," a film that premiered in Cannes today and opens in Washington next week. It seems guaranteed to provoke vivid -- if not violent -- reactions in the United States.

The best of a crop of independently made films shown here, "Menace" is a relentlessly realistic view of life in the Los Angeles ghetto, of what it's like to be black, male, 18 and on the streets.

Echoing a similar film screened in Cannes two years ago, "Boyz N the Hood," the film stars Tyrin Turner as Caine, a teenager just out of high school who finds himself inexorably drawn into the cycle of violence, drugs and crime that rules his world. Caine is a criminal, at least in the legal sense, but he is also a victim of a society in which his parents were drug dealers and addicts, in which he was introduced to guns and witnessed murder before he was 10.

Directors Allen and Albert Hughes -- 21-year-old identical twins -- know their subject matter. Born in Detroit, the pair grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Pomona, Calif., where the violence of the film happens blocks, or a few houses away, from their own.

"Every character is either a friend of ours, or a combination of someone we know," said Allen, the twin with two earrings. "Some of our close friends are like that. One of the guys who plays in the film ... he did everything Caine did -- he positively did. But he's cool now. He's a good guy."

The twins shot the film in south-central L.A., hiring local gang members as security and extras on the set. "I felt people could learn from what's really going on, from the inside, instead of this view on CNN," said Albert. "They paint a false view of life there. We dealt with the worst-case scenarios that go on, but it's not all of the black community."

The Hughes brothers refuse to contemplate the possibility that their film -- like "Boyz N the Hood" -- might provoke violence.

"I don't want to talk about it. What about the white kids coming out with baseball bats after 'Lethal Weapon'? I'm going to worry about those white kids and their violent {expletives}," said Allen. "You don't hear about that. But anytime that violence happens, everybody goes and pushes it off on some rap song or some movie. Seems like there's some conspiracy. I'm not even going to talk about it."

After a few years of rampant popularity in Cannes, Russian and Eastern European films are fading out. There are only two such films in the competition this year -- the Russian "Douba, Douba," which was screened today, and "Presentiment," a Moldovan film scheduled for later in the week.

"Douba, Douba," more than two hours long, stars Oleg Menchikov as Andrei, a script writer who commits a series of crimes in order to help his ex-girlfriend, Tania, escape from a prison camp. This is a Russian film, so it couldn't possibly have a happy ending: Andrei realizes he cannot win back Tania's love, thus his suffering and criminal acts are stripped of meaning.

Through bureaucratic bungling or the government's ill-intention, director Alexandre Khvan was not given his passport in time to arrive in Cannes for the presentation of his film. This is all the more tragic since there is little chance the film will ever appear on Russian screens; few Russian films do, as they are pushed out by slick American fare.

Oleg Sulkin of Eurasia Film is heading a booth of independent Russian companies trying to sell about 50 titles abroad, mostly to art houses and television. It isn't easy.

"There is a certain decline in the quality of Russian film," he acknowledged. "I'm sorry to say this, but it's because of a deterioration of all the values there. The older generation of filmmakers are confused, disappointed. It's a dead end for them. ... The new generation is mainly copying Western standards, and no one in the West is interested in it because Russia is always considered a source for humanism, the soul, Tolstoy, Dostoevski."

Movies shown in Cannes you're lucky you missed: German director Wim Wenders's "Faraway, So Close," an excruciating 2 3/4-hour sequel to "Wings of Desire," portraying the path of Wenders's angel after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nastassja Kinski and Willem Dafoe are in it. Some of the numerous epitaphs pronounced after today's screening: "pretentious," "adolescent," "self-indulgent" and "boring."

Also, an American film by Philip Haas, "The Music of Chance," starring James Spader as a greasy card player and Mandy Patinkin as a wandering ex-fireman looking for a purpose in life. Spader, his hair dyed black, is horribly miscast, and Patinkin's formidable talents are barely tickled. The film, Haas's first, is based on a Paul Auster novel; it will be released in June.

Required dress code in Cannes for aspiring starlets under 25: any outfit at all (preferably baring a midriff), with a black choker around the neck and platform shoes.

There were plenty of the latter on sale at the weekend flea market, just across from the Palais de Festival, where the movies are screened. One white-haired woman was peddling three pairs she'd found in her attic, blue-and-white striped, cork and silver. "Retro, retro," she said. "These were mine, but I can't wear heels anymore. Apparently it's all the rage now." She said she'd already sold one pair. "The lady down the street is selling her old pairs for 100 francs {about $20}. I sell them for only 50. Retro."

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