MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Cadillac Records plus reviews of Nobel Son and Punisher: War Zone

Cadillac Records (Three Stars)
U.S.; Darnell Martin

The renaissance of the movie musical — at least since 2001 and Moulin Rouge! — has been one real cause for joy in the last several cinematic years, and Darnell Martin‘s Cadillac Records is another shining example. A rockin’ dandy one too.Cadillac Records starts off with a great story (fictionalized here of course) about some amazing, seminal singers and songwriters — the saga of Chicago’s Chess Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a hit factory and fountainhead of rhythm and blues and then rock n’ roll in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which provided a home and a studio for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others — and adds the great music they made and some fantastic actor-musicians to impersonate those legends, recreate those times and even sing most of the songs. (This is no lip-synch saga like Taylor Hackford‘s Ray — a movie I love, by the way. Here, when Mos Def does Chuck Berry, he’s really singing the tune and really walking the (duck) walk.

The rest of the cast is just as high-powered. Jeffrey Wright is a terrific somber Muddy Waters. Eamonn Walker is a great ferocious Howlin’ Wolf. Columbus Short is twisted and magnetic as the flawed prince of harmonica Little Walter. Cedric the Entertainer is a little toned-down, but handily does a lot of the narration as songwriter deluxe Willie Dixon. Perhaps most impressively, current rock superstar Beyonce Knowles is an overpoweringly sexy and lyrically anguished Etta James.

Overseeing all this and providing the smooth oily counterpart to the raw passion of his top-notch performers — the passion he sells to get their Cadillacs — is Adrien Brody as entrepreneur and record company czar Leonard Chess. Brody, the victim of The Pianist, can play sleazy as well as sympathetic, and, with Chess, he‘s able to suggest both possible sides of the man: the devotee and blues connoisseur/explorer who brought some great music and musicians to the light — and the white boss who also got rich off them. Both sides, the movie suggests, are there, but the important thing about Chess was the fact that he provided the conduit. Someone else might have come along later, but he did it then. No small feat.

Darnell Martin is a very good humanist writer-director — she made Their Eyes Were Watching God — and she’s able to get her entire wonderful cast to dig out all the dimensions of their characters, make every scene come alive. I would have liked more intense period Chicago atmosphere, but there isn’t a one-note performance in the movie. Wright, always a super-smart actor, is able to bring real majesty to Muddy Waters, the spiritual monarch of this little chessboard, Mos Def does wonderful comic turn as Berry (which is one right way to play him), Walker is just incredible. And, as mentioned, Beyonce’s Etta James, whom the movie identifies as an illegitimate daughter of pool shark Minnesota Fats — is a star making role if ever I’ve seen one.

We know that the mid ‘50s saw a genuine revolution in popular music and that Chess and his company were a good part of it, a genuine inspiration. In one scene, the Rolling Stones with Keith Richards (Marc Bonan) show up to pay special obeisance to Muddy. The fact or the legend? You can complain about Cadillac Records historically — though I don’t think that’s any key to appreciating the movie’s achievement — but musically, it’s a goldmine, a Cadillac in the years when cars really meant something fine. And so did rock and the blues.


Nobel Son (Two Stars)
U.S.; Randall Miller

Alan Rickman, who probably has the nastiest sneer in the business, gets to use it nearly nonstop in Nobel Son, a would-be darkly comic thriller that, for me, just didn’t get the right formula down. Writer- director Randall Miller (of the well-regarded Bottle Shock) here casts him as Eli Michaelson, a newly-awarded Nobel Prize winning chemist, in the bloom of his fame, who‘s actually such a foul human being — philanderer, exploiter, cad and thief — that he winds up the target of a meticulous kidnapper named Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), who abducts Eli‘s gentler son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) and starts a cascade of revelations, that expose Eli for the swine he is.

Also involved in the action are Eli‘s cheated-on wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), a prying detective (Bill Pullman), an obsessive-compulsive gardener (Danny De Vito) and a Village bombshell poetess named City Hall (Eliza Dushku). That’s a damned good cast, and an interestingly motley character assortment, but Nobel Son lacks the panache and style — and sheer narrative smarts — of a truly dark comedy classic like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers or Dr. Strangelove.

Dubious strategies abound. Why does Thaddeus kidnap Barkley, which seems an slam-dunk job but a pretty silly notion, instead of Eli himself? Putting Eli in Thaddeus‘ clutches would seem the natural plot here, and it would also allow us more sneering space and a proper comeuppance for Rickman‘s Eli. And it would also eliminate even more ridiculous crimes later on, which muddy the tale and the emotions further.

Anyway, despite a brisk pace and a really attractive and nimble cast, I wasn’t much entertained by Nobel Son. Never mind Eli. The movie is nasty, mostly because of its younger generation. Brutal Thaddeus. Doofus Barkley. Even as alternatives to the odious Eli, they‘re faulty. And I thought Dushku, who looks just right for this part, was wasted. That leaves Steenburgen’s Sarah and Pullman‘s detective Max Mariner, but they didn’t work for me either. Now, I realize dark comedies aren’t supposed to be charm schools (or ballrooms). But the plot isn’t brainy or sophisticated enough to compensate. If one more character got kidnapped, I was ready to abduct myself out.

Nobel Son is the kind of movie — intelligent on one level, phony on others — that makes you want to tinker with it. I would have made De Vito the kidnapper, along with Rickman the victim — and let Hatossy and Greenberg do some maladroit detection and tussle over Dushku. Pullman would be better off doing his dumb detective routine. And Steenburgen would have been funnier as a nymphomaniac paying Eli back. But the hell with it. It takes more than a good cast and moxie to revive the spirit of Ealing Studio, Guinness, Sellers, Wilder and Kubrick. But, by the way, I would have changed the movie’s title too — to Nobel Savage.


Punisher: War Zone (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Lexi Alexander

You can’t win ‘em all. You can’t kill ‘em all. And Punisher: War Zone — which is about a gun crazy super-vigilante running amok in a neo-noir city festering with criminal gangs and psycho killers — unhappily breaks the recent string of peachy keen-o Marvel Comics- derived movies.

Iron Man was surprisingly witty and entertaining — and a great comeback vehicle for star Robert Downey, Jr.. The Incredible Hulk was a continuously exciting action blast with a few good tormented-hero moments for star Edward Norton. Punisher: War Zone, on the other hand, is a gruesome, creepy, over-loud, over-bloody, poorly scripted mess, which wastes the talents of its glowering star, Ray Stevenson, and of pretty much everyone else.

Based on the pulpy Marvel comic series The Punisher — filmed twice before, with Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, respectively, playing the relentless Punisher, a.k.a. Frank Castle — it’s a movie that starts with a loony Mafia party massacre with a lot of “Godfather“ impersonators blown to hell while wisecracking cops watch.

Then the show tosses its star villain (Dominic West as Mafioso Billy Russoti, a.k.a. Jigsaw) into a vat of glass to have his face shredded and justify his new nickname, teams Jigsaw him up with his insanely over-acting relative Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), lets hero Frank kill an undercover Federal agent and plunge himself into remorseful gloom, brings on nervous Micro (Wayne Knight) to keep Frank supplied with weaponry and angry FBI guy Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) to hunt Frank while Frank hunts Jigsaw, and then keeps the blood spurting and the clichés flying until the last stomach-heaving moment.

This is the kind of movie where the writers — including, amazingly, two from Iron Man, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway — bring on the dead Fed agent’s distraught wife (Julie Benz) and cute little daughter (Stephanie Janusauskas), and you worry that they’re only there to be abducted and terrorized.


Similarly, when you see an invalid old lady (Micro’s mother, played by Lynne De Bel), you worry that she’s only there to have her head blown off. Your fears are usually justified.

Stevenson, who’s essentially playing a pulpier, brawnier version of Charles Bronson’s vengeful vigilante in Death Wish — but with more firepower and less emotion — is pretty good at registering stoic sadism. But the writers mostly cheat him of the revenge back-story that explains his hatred and his vendettas. And any over-acting that the tightlipped Stevenson avoids is injected by the screaming, giggling heavies West and Hutchison, who start out over the top and then keep piling it on.

As for director Lexi Alexander, an ex-world karate and kickboxing champion who’s made some award-winning shorts and the British-set Hooligans, she, like the others, has her talents buried here in the slime of howling stereotypes and nonstop carnage. Alexander may direct a bang-up action movie one day. But not until she gets a script for a show that doesn’t rely on massacres for its punch lines.

– Michael Wilmington
December 5, 2008

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon