“And if you don’t know”, well it won’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

Notorious

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$9.99 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Pretty good direction, some good acting by Basset and Luke, the music of cou

Cons: Nothing revealed, rushed feel.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

When I first saw a trailer for Notorious, my initial thought was “wow they did the Biggie movie pretty quickly. Next up, the Tupac movie”.

Yet I was curious to see it seeing as I own and love both of Biggie Smalls’ albums. Seeing as I like director George Tillman Jr’s work (Soul Food, Men Of Honor) as melodramatic as it can get at times. Seeing as I find myself drawn to bio-pics of musicians I like even as many of them turn out tto e average or bad for every good one.

Yet I missed seeing Notorious during its theatrical run. In fact I more or less forgot about it until about a year ago when I went iinto my local FYE and bought the remastered version of Ready To Die to replace the original (which got stolen from me at a party in the late 90s). After taking the album home and giving it a re-listen for the first time in a couple years, I remembered Notorious. So I rented it from Netflix.

Tillman’s direction is very good here. The film is shot well, there is some good acting and the way he integrates the music into the story is very good. Unfortunately, on the whole, Notorious is a letdown.

First off, this movie doesn’t really tell me anything about Biggie that I didn’t already know or couldn’t just as easily learn from reading his WIkipedia entry. We see him played in a sort of fast-forward fashion. His life is shown and high points are touched on. But we never really get a feel for the man. The movie has a rushed feel, similar to Oliver Stone’s George W Bush movie, although this one is better put together that the Stone film.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the movie doesn’t really show the talent in Christopher Wallace, the drive that made him successful for a brief period in the mid 90s. It depicts what happened to him as being based primarily on luck and while luck did play something of a role, he would not be as well-regarded today if the talent wasn’t there.

On the plus side, there is some good acting here. The best performance is by (the underused nowadays) Angela Basset as Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother. There’s also good acting by Derek Luke as Sean “Puffy’Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy/Diddy Whatever He’s Callimg Himself nowadays” Combs and Anthony Mackie as Biggie’s friend turned foe Tupac. This leads to another plus for Notorious: it gets the details of the Biggie-Tupac feud down right as far as I can tell. Jamal Woolard is okay as Biggie. He looks like him. But he never really brings him to life.

In some ways I suspect that the problem might be that Tillman and his screenwriters were not sure how to handle a Biggie bio-pic. It’s easy to forget that Biggie’s time in the spotlight was relatively short. Unlike with a Ray or Walk The Line, there wasn’t a massive wealth of material for the filmmakers to draw from. So in trying to follow the conventional approach, they ended up short-changing their subject.

Notorious is far from the level of a Walk The Line. But it’s ahead of misfires like The Doors and Why Do Fools Fall In Love. But if you want to learn about Biggie Smalls I’d suggest reading the book Unbelievable that this movie was based on. Of course I’d also suggest buying both Ready To Die and Life After Death if you don’t own them already.

Saving One Million Books from Destruction

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004

ISBN Price for hardcover $24.95 (at this writing, the highest price on Amazon is $9.89)

Outwitting History

Outwitting History — find it at Amazon!
Available in Hard Cover and Paperback

(5/5)

Pros: Well-written and includes a bibliography for those who are interested in reading some of the books and articles quoted

Cons: If I have to pick on something, I caught a few grammatical errors

When Aaron Lansky and a few fellow college students decided to learn Yiddish in order to understand modern Jewish History (since the 10th or 11th Century), he could not imagine that he would be dumpster diving or rubbing elbows with Woody Guthrie’s widow. Yet this and many other miraculously interwoven adventures became part of his odyssey into Yiddish literature.

I’ve known about Aaron Lansky’s National Yiddish Book Project – now known as the National Yiddish Book Center – for many years because of my activity with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. When I started my own Yiddish Club in Nevada, I visited the National Yiddish Book Center’s website (yiddishbookcenter.org) and discovered a wealth of articles, blogs, and video interviews. My favorite section is a series of interviews with the late Leonard Nimoy, who was an actor in Yiddish Theater long before he was
Mr. Spock. The first clip begins with him reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Yiddish – worth enjoying whether or not you understand Yiddish.

What I didn’t know was the whole story (in Yiddish, di ganse geshikhte) of Lansky’s search and rescue of Yiddish books, some dating back to the 1800s. This book takes the reader back to the very beginning when Lansky was a college student in search of Yiddish books to learn and practice reading. As I read the early chapters, I realized that Yiddish is not a dead language – yet. Unfortunately, Jewish immigrants, in an effort to be 100 percent American, i.e. assimilated, have been suffocating Yiddish for many years.

This reminds me of my childhood. I always felt that I was caught between generations. I spoke Yiddish almost as well as English. Most Jews of my generation remember their parents and grandparents using Yiddish to keep them from understanding the discussion. For me, it was a way of keeping the rest of the world from understanding the discussion. When I even came close to misbehaving in public, my mother would give me “the stare” and tell me in Yiddish to stop whatever it was I was doing or about to say.

These memories were the basis of understanding I had going into the reading of Outwitting History. My husband first borrowed the book from the library and told me that I would enjoy it. He began slipping bits and pieces, such as the Woody Guthrie story, because he just had to share. I didn’t quite get the need to share the stories because I was concerned that he would spoil it for me. Yet, that’s not at all what happened. When I started to read and could tell that an anecdote was one that my husband mentioned over dinner, I was even more interested.

Although Outwitting History isn’t a novel and we already know the ending, I still don’t want to take the chance of spoiling the middle. Learning how ultra-orthodox Jewish Scholars look upon Yiddish literature is an eye-opener, even for someone who is familiar with the various factions in the Chasidic community. The general feeling is that books in Yiddish are a distraction from studying Torah and Talmud (it encompasses more than just the Hebrew Bible; it includes the foundation of Jewish Law). Of course, once I read about it, I understood why they have a disdain for Yiddish books, even though I disagree with them.

Yiddish books include poetry, reference books, novels, and history books – everything necessary to learn about a society. This includes a world destroyed by the Holocaust and a world conceived by American life.

When Lansky relates the stories of finding the first batches of Yiddish books, what sticks with the reader is that each donor insisted on treating Lansky and crew as welcome guests. Elderly couples would cook feasts for them and package extra food “for the road.” Many of them were giving up their personal libraries because they were coming to the end of life and wanted to ensure that someone somewhere would read their books.

The one story I want to single out is the encounter with Woody Guthrie’s widow:

One day, Lansky received a letter from Marjorie Guthrie asking if he was interested in her family book collection. In addition to being the widow of Woody Guthrie, Marjorie was the daughter of a Yiddish poet and songwriter, Aliza Greenblatt. “Fort a Fisher,” one of Greenblatt’s songs is a favorite of mine. It tells of a young man watching a fisherman prepare to go out to sea and compares it to his own fishing expedition for someone to be his love. When the fisherman comes back in the evening with empty nets, he feels his own loneliness that much more deeply.

Lansky was familiar with all of Greenblatt’s work and couldn’t imagine that there was such a close connection between her and Woody Guthrie. To quote:

“Amazing. Could it be that the daughter of ‘Fort a fisher’ was also the wife of ‘This Land is Your Land’ – and, come to think of it, the mother of ‘Alice’s Restaurant?’ ”

As Lanky spends more time with Marjorie, she tells him about Arlo and Nora who had a visiting tutor for Jewish studies because Woody (who was not Jewish) and Marjorie wanted their children to have a Jewish education. I won’t ruin the surprise identity of the tutor.

Although this is a very Jewish book, Lansky explains a lot of inside information so that everyone can understand the significance of each adventure. Because of that, I believe that Outwitting History is for anyone who loves books and has an interest in the development and rescuing of a language and culture. This was the best nonfiction read I’ve had in a very long time!