I admit to a strong bias on this one. My first job as a young teenager was working in a record/baseball card shop where I got paid in product. Yes, $45 a week in something can very quickly bulk up a sturdy collection of anything. And this is where I built up a 200+ record collection of blues masters (both black and white). This is where I first heard early Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds), Rolling Stones, Alexis Korner, The Animals.... and then I discovered the guys behind these guys. Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf- a lifelong fascination was firmly rooted.And yes, I still treasure my record collection today, featuring some original issues of these masters as I grew older and had actual money to invest. Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records" is a competent spin through the boisterous years of my favorite blues greats as Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) built up a stable of blues musicians and, in turn, spawned a whole new generation of musical talent. The film, focusing on the family-like atmosphere that develops (and then degrades) between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and harmonica pioneer Little Walter (Columbus Short), is big on heart. Satellite relationships, such as the introduction of Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chuck Berry (a lively Mos Def) and Howlin Wolf (Eamonn Walker) helps paint "Cadillac Records" as yet another music biopic that often succeeds more than it falters. Certain aspects are a little glib and certainly manipulated for maximum Hollywood effect, but the central performances of Wright and Knowles are (pardon the pun) electric. As Etta James, Knowles lights up the screen and when she belts out classics such as "At Last", I found my emotions soaring. She makes you feel the zing of passionate music being spewed out with equal fiery and painful remembrance. Writer and director Darnell Martin doesn't do anything flashy. He allows the performances to carry the film. And in this regard, "Cadillac Records" is head and shoulders better than the lazy paint by numbers "Ray", yet it'll probably be overlooked both commercially and critically.
Milk not spoiler-free!
Shades of the morose drape Gus Van Sant's "Milk" from the very beginning, but it's to the credit of Van Sant, writer Dustin Lance Black and lead actor Sean Penn that the film rises above its inevitable sad conclusion by instilling such vibrant humanity in every character. Penn shines in the lead role as gay activist turned politician Harvey Milk (naturally) but it's the supporting cast that forms the real joyous core of "Milk". James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin provide miraculous supporting performances as members in (varying) aspects of the moral rainbow kick started by the right time and place- namely San Francisco in the late 70's when police beatings and routine discrimination against its growing homosexual population became the unofficial policy. Like any good bio-pic, "Milk" hits the right notes and duly checks off the high tide events, but the film managed to win me over regardless of its somewhat rudimentary framework. Again, the performances are so good it draws you in immediately. And when the inevitable does happen, Van Sant punctuates the moment in haunting and heartbreaking ways. Like he did with "Last Days" and especially "Elephant", the tracking shot becomes a fore bearer of evil. The minute the camera slowly tracks behind Supervisor Dan White (Brolin) down the halls of San Francisco's city building, you can taste violence in the air. A very good film.
A few minor blurbs about some others:
Step Brothers- I don't know why I continue to bother with these improvised Will Ferrell comedies. The best thing about this one is seeing Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins go crazy and say things like "what the fucking fuck?"
Blood of My Blood-Remember when the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance actually meant something for the recipient? At the very least, it meant respectable art house buzz and a generous push to a limited audience (thinking "Slam", "Three Seasons", "Welcome To the Dollhouse" or "You Can Count On Me"). With Christopher Zalla's "Blood of My Blood", it gets an unceremonious dump in early 2008, a full year after winning the prestigious Sundance acclaim. It's a decent little movie, following the divergent paths of two Mexican immigrants as they scrap and claw for a livelihood in the brutal concrete jungle of New York. While I personally wouldn't have garnered it with any awards, it's unusual to see the Sundance pedigree waning.