Of mice and mensch


Frame by frame, The Tale of Despereaux stands with Wall-E as one of the most beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen: a riot of colors, textures and movements rendered with a deft balance of painterly realism and cartoonish exaggeration. But scene by scene, The Tale of Despereaux is the single most tedious movie I’ve seen this year, and that includes the two Tarkovsky flicks I rented in order to placate a film geek buddy, of which one had me snarling “Fucking end already!” at the screen. Instead of the witty, economical storytelling of Wall-E, Despereaux gives us three dour, slow-moving plotlines in a tangled mess involving a mouse with heroic dreams, a rat with a guilty conscience, a princess who wishes it would rain and a king who hates soup because his wife died of a heart attack and fell into her bowl of broth after bring scared by a rat. Hardly a moment goes by without some breathtaking visual treat or gorgeous detail, but there’s no fun in this thing, and the plodding story makes it borderline unwatchable.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Cadillac Records — based on the rise and fall of Chess Records, the storied Chicago label that straddled the line between “race music” and rock’n’roll — didn’t make more of a splash. The sheer amount of talent on the screen is remarkable: Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess, half mensch and half exploiter of a roster of historic blues and R&B performers;  Jeffrey Wright as electric blues star Muddy Waters; Eamon Walker as the overpowering Howlin’ Wolf; Mos Def in a hilarious turn as Chuck Berry. A lot of blues fans I know resisted the casting of Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, and while I’m no great fan of Beyonce’s corporate R&B dance music, she’s quite good in the role and there’s no denying her vocal power — or her ability to fill out those skin-tight dresses. (We never get to see the later, morbidly obese Etta; I guess Beyonce didn’t want to do a De Niro and pack on the pounds for authenticity’s sake.) And the idea of casting Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the portly bassist who quickly figured out that songwriting was the path to wealth, was genius enough to let me forgive the omission of Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Darnell Martin’s script (she also directed) skims over a lot and fictionalizes a little more (Little Walter never casually shot an imitator, as far as I know), but if it’s documentary you want, read Spinning Blues Into Gold by Nadine Cohodas.  Martin gets a lot more into the film than I expected to see, maybe even too much — many significant events are skimmed over, particularly the late-arriving British love for blues and the appearance of the worshipful Rolling Stones at the Chess office. But from the early scene showing the arrival of Alan Lomax, who gave Muddy the first chance to hear his own singing and realize there were bigger things in store for him than plantation work, Cadillac Records had me grinning like a fool. It’s a rare film that seems too short instead of too long, and if there’s a longer version of Cadillac Records destined for DVD release down the line, I want to see it.

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One thought on “Of mice and mensch

  1. Jeff says:

    Your review makes me glad my nephew forgot that he and I had plans to go see Despereaux during my last visit. He thought it was funny that a mouse was using a needle as a sword, but it sounds like we spared ourselves a dreary time at the movies.

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