Thursday, April 23, 2009

DVD review: "Notorious"

For someone who had never acted before, Jamal Woodard gives a confident, swaggering performance in "Notorious" as legendary rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. This affecting biopic tracks Biggie's life from the tough streets of Brooklyn, where few would have believed that the shy boy named Christopher Wallace and labeled "too fat, black and ugly" would become one of the transformative figures of the hip-hop world.

With his mix of sweetness and braggadocio, Woodard captures the essence of Biggie, who quickly climbed from two-bit street dealer to the top of the charts, only to be gunned down at age 24 in the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry of the 1990s that also claimed the life of Tupac Shakur. "Notorious" doesn't back away from showing the rivalry's nastiness, although it generally depicts Biggie as the victim, rather than the instigator of the feud.

That's not surprising, considering this film was produced by Biggie's real-life friends and business partners, including Sean Combs (who's ably portrayed in the movie by Derek Luke). Other key figures in Biggie's life include his mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), protégé/lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton), wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and mentor-turned-enemy Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

The "Notorious" DVD comes with both the theatrical and unrated director's versions of the films, plus an exhaustive amount of extras. In addition to the usual making-of documentary, there's also featurettes about casting and training the actors, many of whom studied with their real-life counterparts; a look at the lyrical creation style of Biggie; how they re-created the raucous concert scenes; 10 brief deleted scenes; and archive footage of the real Biggie performing.

A clever addition is the "Biggie 360" feature with a rotating view of the Los Angeles intersection where he was murdered, with keys to video clips about various landmarks and personal perspectives.

There are two separate commentary tracks, one by the filmmakers (including director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker) and the other by Biggie's real-life family and friends, including mother Voletta.

Movie: B-plus
Extras: A-minus

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