Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The best ensemble movie that, apparently, almost no one will ever see


Actually, the craziest thing I heard this morning was that The Roots are gonna be the house band for Jimmy Fallon's late night show, which I don't think I'd bother tuning in for even if I could still stay up that late on a regular basis. Seems like a definite step down to me, but anyone who's seen "Chappelle's Show" knows that ?uestlove can be one seriously funny guy, so who knows?

The real topic here today is director Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records," which managed to take in a rather unsensational $3.5 million in its first week domestic (sadder still, it even lost to the latest "Punisher" flick, which took in just more than $4 million.)

Which means if you wanna see this one the big screen, you'd better do it this week. I couldn't bring myself to call Martin's fun flick a great one, because she just plays too loose with the facts to get there. But as far as drawing great performances out of an ensemble of performers, I do submit that no one has done a better job this year (not even Oliver Stone with "W.", a very strong ensemble flick in its own right.)

I was inspired to think of this by an ad I saw for "Burn After Reading" touting it for Best Ensemble, easily my favorite of the Golden Globes categories and one the Oscars would be wise to pick up on. As for "Burning," however, it was full of good performances and one great comedic one, Brad Pitt's turn as Rusty, but it falls way short of what you'll see (if you bother) in "Cadillac Records."

It starts with Jeffrey Wright, who plays Chess Records' first big star, Muddy Waters. Wright was in "W." too, of course, as Colin Powell, but this was the first time this year when I felt he really just disappeared into a role. His Muddy is fiercely proud and clearly has a devilish streak that you can always see in Wright's eyes. One of the best exchanges comes near the beginning when he first meets Adrian Brody's Leonard Chess and Chess asks him to drop the "yes boss" act. Muddy's response, "what the f*** do you want?", just made me laugh out loud.

I was certain going in that Wright would be great in this one, but I wasn't ready at all for what happened when Beyonce entered the scene about an hour in as Etta James. Beyonce, clearly just a beauty beyond all reason, becomes something completely different as Etta: Desperately sexy. It comes out best when she's singing, both in the money shot "At Last," but also as she performs my favorite Etta James Chess track, "I'd Rather Go Blind." In every mannerism she just captures the perfect mix of anger, desire and vulnerability, and it's the kind of performance I never would have guessed Beyonce could deliver. My apologies.

And the supporting cast in "Cadillac Records" is almost as great as its leading man and women, starting with Mos Def. He's easily one of my favorite actors already, but just as Chuck Berry's career was cut off at its height because of his attraction to young white girls, Mos doesn't get a whole lot of screen time here. He does, however, make the most of it, playing Berry with an impish smile that masks serious attitude, and if you don't smile too when he does the duck walk I just have to wonder what's wrong with you.

Rounding out the cast are Columbus Short as mouth harp man extraordinaire Little Walter, Eamonn Walker as an amusingly menacing Howlin Wolf and an understated Cedric the Entertainer as narrator Willie Dixon. Brody wisely and mostly just stays out of the way of these energetic performers but is still likable enough as the Chess boss man.

Like I said at the beginning, Martin's first flick isn't necessarily a great one, but with a cast like that and an all-around fun feel, surely it deserves more than $3.5 million.

Though this certainly isn't a reason to see a movie, I'll leave you with this rather troubling fact: With last year's "Talk to Me," which I almost thoroughly enjoyed, Kasi Lemmons became the first black woman to direct three feature Hollywood films, the other two being "The Caveman's Valentine" and her debut, "Eve's Bayou," both well worth a rental. One of my co-workers, Eldridge McCready, suggested perhaps Gina Prince-Bythewood had also reached this peak, but her only two features so far are this year's "The Secret Life of Bees" and 2000's "Love and Basketball."

Again, not a reason to automatically go see a movie, but unless it just looks too sappy for my taste (as with "Secret Life of Bees), I'll always spring for at least a matinee when a black woman gets the chance to direct a flick that actually makes it out to my little corner of the world.

And now I'll leave you for real with this rather remarkable Etta James and Dr. John performance of "I'd Rather Go Blind," apparently on Japanese TV. As sad songs go, I'd say there's only one better, Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Can Take the Place of You." Enjoy this dose of the blues, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.

1 comment:

triv said...

I like her song.