Reviewed June 28th, 2001 by David Nusair
In the tradition of Short Cuts and Magnolia, Higher Learning tells several stories that come together at the end. It's also John Singleton's third (and best) film.
Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson and Michael Rapaport star as freshmen at the fictional Columbus University. As the film opens, they're all trying to find their place in their new surroundings. Epps falls in with the black crowd, lead by a sage older student named Fudge (Ice Cube, in his most nuanced performance), while Swanson hooks up with an earthy lesbian (Jennifer Connelly). But the most dramatic relationship occurs with Rapaport and a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, who give him the friendship he so desperately desires. Finally, Laurence Fishburne plays a professor that routinely pops up, offering advice and counsel to those who need it.
Higher Learning is consistently entertaining and well-acted all around. While it's not a perfect movie - Cube's character disappears for a 30-minute stretch and Singleton's approach often veers into heavy-handedness - it is nevertheless an intriguing look at the differences between races and how such differences can clash. And for those that complain the situations that occur are too outlandish, keep in mind this is a movie. Were Singleton to film this as though it were a realistic look at a contemporary college, it'd be about as exciting as watching paint dry.
Audio: Despite what the packaging says, Higher Learning does not include a Portuguese track. But it does include both a 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2-channel Dolby soundtrack. Comparing the two, there's not much difference. Much of the movie is pure dialogue, so the sound is localized in the center speaker. However, there are a few scenes in which the 5.1 track does offer a fuller and more expansive sound, but really, either track works just fine (neither will blow away your guests, like say, Terminator 2 would). The movie also includes 2-channel French and Spanish tracks.
Video: The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is virtually flawless, as to be expected from Columbia Pictures. Colors are crisp and blacks are incredibly black. This is certainly the ideal way to view this film, outside of buying a print and renting a movie theater.
Extras: The most prominent extra on the disc is a commentary track featuring just Singleton. While it's not consistently fascinating, the track does contain enough interesting anecdotes and tidbits to recommend it to fans of the film (oddly enough, Fishburne's character was initially envisioned for Dustin Hoffman!). There are few quiet gaps and Singleton occasionally says the dialogue before the character does. You really get a sense that he's proud of this film. He also sets some sort of record for saying “you know” in the span of two hours. There's not much else in the way of extras. There's filmographies for all the major stars, and three trailers (Boyz 'n the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning) - all presented full-screen.
Conclusion: Higher Learning is several genres rolled into one - comedy, romance, thriller, action, drama - and it works on every level. Columbia has put together a disc, while light on extra features, that showcases it perfectly.
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