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|December 11-17, 2008
by Michael Phillips
by Michael Phillips
by Michael Phillips
Fans of musical dramas may experience some déjà vu while watching Cadillac Records. The story is remarkably similar to one told in the middle of 2006’s Dreamgirls, in a montage set to Steppin’ to the Bad Side. There’s the plucky upstart studio where African-American musicians are pioneering new kinds of music. There’s the driven record-label owner who’s dispensing payola to deejays, trying to buy his way past institutionalized racism and cross over from the R&B ghetto to the white-dominated pop charts. There’s the white group that steals a black musician’s song and turns it into a hit single. There are lots of flashy new cars as symbols of success.
And above all, there’s the music, the motivator and the moneymaker, the one thing that heals all wounds — or at least in the case of the blues, expresses them.
In Dreamgirls, the sequence is a flashy, fictionalized amalgam of events from the Motown era. In Cadillac Records, it’s straight-up history. The film may also induce déjà vu in longtime Chicago residents, because there’s a chance they lived through these stories, when South Side brothers Leonard and Phil Chess relaunched Aristocrat as Chess Records and started releasing albums by the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and many more. Cadillac Records shrugs off Phil Chess and the label’s early years in order to focus on Leonard, on some of the label’s biggest personalities and on the music they made.
The story starts in Chicago in the 1940s, with Chess (Adrien Brody) as a young Polish immigrant promising his girlfriend’s father that he’ll transcend his poor origins: “Don’t worry where I’m from. My wife’s gonna drive a Cadillac.” That’s the closest the film comes to explaining Chess’ obsession with the cars, which he later dispenses to his successful recording artists like badges of honor. When Chess takes up with Muddy Waters (played with growling charisma by Jeffrey Wright, also recently seen as Colin Powell in W. and James Bond’s CIA buddy in Quantum of Solace), his label takes off, and he rapidly brings in talents such as Little Walter (Columbus Short), Berry (Mos Def), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (executive producer Beyonce Knowles). But as the business comes together, his stars fall apart, sunk in various vices and deep-seated emotional issues. It’s almost as though singing the blues isn’t a cheery calling.
Those vices provide a bunch of riveting stories, including Berry’s arrest under the Mann Act and Little Walter’s public alcoholic meltdown. But they’re presented as a series of disjointed anecdotes, bookended by overripe narration from Cedric The Entertainer as Willie Dixon. Writer-director Darnell Martin leaves a lot of key issues dangling, particularly about Chess’ motives, and whether, as Waters repeatedly claims, he’s cheating his artists. Oscar-winner Brody (The Pianist) plays Chess as a guarded man who makes for a frail lead. He’s a shadowy background figure uncomfortably placed at center stage.
Fortunately, that stage is crowded with broader, more intense characters who keep the energy level high. In particular, Mos Def makes a terrific Berry, all flash and confidence, and Wright offers a memorably soulful take on Waters, whether he’s strutting, singing, suffering or all three. Walker’s Howlin’ Wolf is a deep-throated, pride-filled bear of a man who dominates the screen.
Between them, they offer portraits that sometimes veer toward caricature but fill out the film almost as well as its rich soundtrack.
Cadillac Records could use more music and less mugging — Knowles’ take on James in particular is only convincing when she’s singing, which is fitting from a woman whose acting skills come in a distant second to her voice. But after every misstep, the film finds its feet again during the exhilarating, sweaty Chess studio sessions, where the film’s cast covers songs from rock ’n’ roll to electric blues to soul, from Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” to James’ “At Last.” Just as in real life, no matter what else is going on in these musicians’ lives, the music temporarily makes everything much better.
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by Michael Phillips
Punisher: War Zone, the gory follow-up to the 2004 Punisher based on the Marvel comic book series, hangs around the same neighborhood as The Dark Knight. Both feature vigilantes who go too far. Both crime fighters speak in an affected tough-guy whisper, when they talk at all. Both favor the black vigilante threads when they’re out on the town, taking out the trash.
The film works a bit better than the 2004 Punisher installment, the one starring surly, dislikable Thomas Jane as Frank Castle. This time Ray Stevenson, Titus Pullo in the HBO series Rome, plays Castle. While he doesn’t say much in between workaday tasks — grinding a man half-to-death in a glass recycler, or shotgun-blasting a mob goon point-blank in the area formerly known as his head, thanks to the digital wonder of computer-generated effects — Stevenson brings some gravity to the viscera. Jane’s preening quality added the wrong sort of narcissism to the sadism. A few years ago, I saw Jane play Tom Wingfield in the Laguna (Calif.) Playhouse production of The Glass Menagerie, and besides being the least sympathetic Tom Wingfield, ever, Jane played the role with a headful of surfer hair he couldn’t be bothered to comb, let alone cut, to suit the play’s pre-World War II setting. Funny what you remember.
In Punisher: War Zone, Castle’s adversary is the recycling victim, the mob capo with a stitched-up face. He’s played with peppy relish by Dominic West. The relationship between Jigsaw and his organ-slurping brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), is one of affection and admiration. So much blood on the walls, so many corpses, yet such familial warmth at the center of it all.
With her background in kickboxing, it’s disappointing that director Lexi Alexander (who made Green Street Hooligans) couldn’t handle the non-digitized fight sequences with more dash. As with most of the these hard-R comic book movies, all roads lead to the first-person gamer perspectives, wherein the protagonist makes his way down a hallway and in and out of various rooms, slaughtering villain after anonymous villain. Punisher: War Zone is set in New York City, but you’ve rarely seen New York played with less conviction; the movie was shot mostly in Montreal, plus a cameo by Vancouver. Montreal’s about as convincing as Manhattan as Thomas Jane was doing Tennessee Williams.
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