Monday, April 27, 2009

DVD Views: Notorious (2009)

Notorious ***
Directed by:
George Tillman Jr.
Written By: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker.
Starring: Jamal Woolard (Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace), Derek Luke (Sean 'Puffy' Combs), Anthony Mackie (Tupac Shakur), Antonique Smith (Faith Evans), Naturi Naughton (Lil Kim), Angela Bassett (Voletta Wallace), Dennis L.A. White (Damion 'D-Roc' Butler), Marc John Jefferies (Lil Cease), Christopher Jordan Wallace (Biggie - age 8-13), Julia Pace Mitchell (Jan), Aunjanue Ellis (Sandy).

Christopher Wallace was born a poor, fat kid in Brooklyn New York to a Jamaican immigrant who came to America for a better life. His father was a married man when he got his mother pregnant, and was never a part of his life. His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) tries to impress upon Christopher proper values. She wants him to be good in school, and grow up into a respectable young man, who will take care of his kids and not abandon them like his own father did. But sometimes, no matter how good a parent you are, your kids will make mistakes. If you live in a poor area of Brooklyn, those mistakes maybe more serious than elsewhere.

Wallace (Jamal Woolard) starts dealing drugs at a young age, and by the time he is 17 he is making a lot of money doing it. Although he is a very big guy, he is funny and charming, so he has a girlfriend, Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), and when she tells him she is pregnant, he says he will step up and be a man. His mother is furious, but still loves him and offers him support. That is, until she discovers he’s dealing drugs. Then, he’s out on his ass. Eventually, Wallace will be arrested and put in jail. While there Wallace, who has always been a talented rapper, who uses it just to entertain his friends, develops his skills even more. By the time he gets out, he makes himself a demo tape that finds its way into the hands of Puffy (Derek Luke), who works for a record executive. Together, they decide that they’re going to change the face of hip hop. Christopher Wallace becomes Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G. And he does indeed change rap forever.

Notorious tells Wallace’s story from the time when he’s that fat kid on the stoop in Brooklyn until the time when he is gunned down on the streets of LA at the age of 24. While the movie never sanctifies Wallace, it certainly does go a little soft on him. True, the film doesn’t shy away from calling him a womanizer – he moves on from Jan to Kim (Naturi Naughton), who with Wallace’s help will transform herself into Lil’ Kim, and then moves on again to Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), a R&B star, who he is still unable to remain faithful to, even after they are married. But if Wallace had a harder side – a more violent side – then the movie doesn’t really show it. Even though Wallace is a drug dealer who has done hard time, his gangster persona he put on in his music seems to be just that – a put on. When a war between East Coast rappers, led by Wallace and Puffy, and West Coast rappers, led by Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), erupts, the movie puts all the blame on the West Coast. The two former friends become enemies, because Tupac was paranoid, and believed that Wallace set him up and tried to have him killed. Not true according to the movie. But when Tupac is murdered, things get even more heated. And when Wallace travels to LA to promote his new album, his fate is sealed.

But what I found fascinating about Notorious is that the movie seems more interested in Wallace than it is in Biggie Smalls. This is not yet another movie about bullshit posturing and acting tough, but about a kid who made mistakes, made it big, and kept making mistakes. He decides shortly before his death, that’s it’s time to change his life around. He announces a new direction for his music, tries to reconnect with his kids, and seems finally ready to grow up and become a man. That he never got a chance to is tragic.

Jamal Woolard is excellent in the lead role. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Wallace, and although he was already an accomplished actor, he took voice lessons to make him sound more like Wallace as well. He is able to project Wallace’s charm, his humor, his slightly darker side, as well as his massive intelligence and talent. The whole movie rests on his performance, and it’s a great one. Also great are Naturi Naughton, who just about perfectly captures Lil’ Kim’s swagger and dangerous sex appeal, but allows a softer side to come through and Antonique Smith who makes Evans into a truly sympathetic character. Bassett could do this role in her sleep, but doesn’t. She makes Voletta into a strong, independent, intelligent woman. Less successful however are Luke and Mackie. Luke is saddled playing Puffy, who in real life produced this movie, and so is presented here in a completely positive light. He is a good influence on Wallace, who convinces him to do what’s best for him, and takes credit for much of Wallace’s music. Luke tries hard, but I was never able to reconcile that Puffy I have seen on TV for years with his version. Mackie, as talented as he is, just cannot match Tupac’s swagger and confidence, which to be fair, would be almost impossible. He tries hard, but there is never a moment where we don’t see him acting. It’s an honorable effort, but not one that he truly pulls off.

Yet the movie involved me from beginning to end. I have never been a huge rap fan, yet I am still interested in the world that they inhabit. It’s seems pointless and tragic to me that these multi-millionaires can never seem to leave the streets behind them, and continue to get involved with petty beefs and crimes. Tupac and Wallace were both talented young men, who changed the face of rap music forever. It’s too bad that they never got a chance to do more. They died way too young.

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