Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Angela Bassett, Dennis L.A. White, Marc John Jefferies, Julia Pace Mitchell, Naturi Naughton, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith
Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
Directed by: George Tillman Jr.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content
Running Time: 123
Date: 01/16/2009

Notorious (2009)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Life After Death

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Tillman Jr.'s Notorious, a biopic of the late, great rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a Christopher Wallace), happily avoids many of the usual biopic traps. Mainly this is because Biggie was only on the earth a mere 24 years, leaving far less material than usual to cram into a two-hour movie. Moreover, it leaves an unexpected amount of room for a few other interesting supporting characters. Unfortunately, the whole project is one of those "officially approved" affairs, produced by Sean 'P. Diddy'/'Puff Daddy' Combs, and it wraps up far too neatly to be believed.

Jamal Woolard plays Biggie as if he were born to the part; he so fully occupies this character that you might believe you're watching the real man play his own story, like Eminem and 50 Cent played theirs. He's smart, but a bad student and stifling under the wing of his overprotective mom (Angela Bassett). Thus, he begins selling drugs, impregnates his girlfriend and goes to jail, where he fills notebooks with rhymes. When he gets out, he meets Puff Daddy (Derek Luke) and records "Juicy." In the meantime, he discovers and helps launch the career of Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and marries his true love Faith (Antonique Smith). The rest is history, including a much-publicized fight with former pal Tupac "2Pac" Shakur (Anthony Mackie) and Tupac's producer Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold) and a part in an uneasy feud with everything West Coast. He was shot and killed just before the release of his second album in 1997.

Woolard and Bassett play some remarkably moving scenes together as mother and son, notably when Biggie calls her from prison, and veteran and newcomer generously share the screen. And Luke brings an unquenchable, kinetic drive to his Puffy, so fired-up he jumps on stage to share in Biggie's rhymes. But as Notorious enters its second half, the picture feels like it's winding down; Biggie begins to wrap up all his earthly affairs so that his ending can be a peaceful, hopeful one. That's nice, but hardly honest. Regardless, the film's unhurried, uncompressed feel yields many juicy moments worth savoring.

DVD Details: Fox has released a double-disc DVD with both the theatrical cut and a 129-minute "unrated director's cut." Commentary tracks include director Tillman, the screenwriters, and Biggie's mom Voletta Wallace. On the second disc we get a 30-minute making-of featurette, a ten-minute featurette about Biggie and his work, a nine-minute featurette on the casting, a seven-minute featurette on "Biggie Boot Camp," in which the actors get trained, twelve minutes of deleted scenes, trailers and other stuff. The menus all play "Hypnotize."

Best Buy Co, Inc.