Sunday, December 21, 2008


FILMS REVIEW: Milk; Cadillac Records; Christmas Tale
Sean Penn and Beyonce' Knowles Over-The-Top Performance

Eric Green

These three films have a few things in common: First they each were distributed in time for the Oscar nominations; each featured incredible acing performances; and, each of them is quite special.

The most memorable film is the Gus Van Zandt film, "Milk." This politically historical film treats an important social movement with honesty and effectiveness. There isn't a slow moment in this film. This especially significant given the Hollywood level of production. Usually "Hollywood" films are more about the over the top drama, mind confusing special effects and manipulating historical events for financial ends. Van Zandt avoided those pitfalls.

Well Gus Van Zandt is a different kind of mass media director

Darnell Martin on the other hand, created "Cadillac Records". Martin wrote and director the film. She was clearly taken by the history of Chess Records and the discovery of by Alan Lomax of blues Singer Muddy Waters. But, she didn't stop there. True to the history of Chess Records she put on the screen a few of the most important Blues, Jazz and Rock and Rolls stars of the Post WW II period. This film was marked by excellent casting and then the follow through of casting with amazing musical performances. That in itself was as major victory.

Jeffrey Wright was perfectly cast as Muddy Waters and along with Chess Records founder, Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant, is the centerpiece of this him. Adrien Brody plays Chess and is on screen more than anyone else. The film leaves out Len Chess's brother, Phil.] The film is narrated by Willie Dixon, and is played by Cedric the Entertainer, a singer who successfully fought through the issue of payment for lyrics and music of Black performers. This film is worth seeing for many reasons, but, especially for two Off-the-Screen performances: Beyonce' Knowles who plays Etta James; and Eamonn Walker who does an amazing performance of Howlin' Wolfe [Original name Chester Burnett.] The film also has Mos Def doing a remarkable Chuck Berry. Berry remains one of the most compelling and interesting rock and roll stars….he remains active at the age of 82 years old. The film is worth seeing for these performances, alone.

A "Christmas Tale" is a French film, which takes you through 2 ½ hours of a grueling family scene that is sometimes hard to watch. Catherine Deneuve [with her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, via Marcello Mastroianni] is the matriarch of the family, but not a willing one. This film was reviewed in newspapers with a high number of stars; which usually means it will be a center of attention for the Best Foreign Film of the year. This film will join other films, which excruciatingly dramatize dysfunctional families on the screen. Although, this time the family is French.


Sean Penn's performance of Harvey Milk is almost frightening. As soon as he hits the screen, you think it is Milk and for the next 120 minutes he doesn't disappoint. Josh Brolin as White is also amazing. Playing White, in some ways, was far more difficult, but he pulled it off with flying colors.

Penn has already been nominated in the Golden Globe Awards; and, will surely gain an Oscar nomination. Given Penn's international work for peace and justice, his winning the OSCAR would be very important.

At the same time, while Jeffrey Wright's performance of Muddy Waters was extremely good, it wasn't until Beyonce' Knowles came on screen that this film really took off. Now, granted, as Executive Producer of the film, which usually means this person gets the money for the film, it could be said that she bought the role of Etta James. If she did, so be it, but casting her as Etta James was the right decision. When she finished her performance singing Etta James' great song, "I'd Rather Be Blind," there wasn't a dry eye in the theater. With this performance, she definitely establishes herself as a serious and potentially great actor. And, it has been reported that after visiting Phoenix House in NYC, a drug rehab program, she donated all of her salary for the film to that important program. She is a winner all the way around.

Eamonn Walker who was selected to play the great blues singer, Howlin' Wolfe, was born in London, England. He trained as a dancer, but then a leg operation forced him to give it up, he turned to his second love: acting. His father is from Grenada and his mother is from Trinidad. He attended the University of North London; and studied to become a social worker. He founded the Flipside Theatre Company in London. He was the first black actor to play Othello at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. His performance will certainly attract Best Supporting Actor attention. Darnell Martin's selection of Walker has a little history. Martin has a long history of directing highly successful episodes of television hits like Law and Order and the award winning OZ [HBO]. In fact, Martin directed Walker in the three 1997 episodes of OZ; Plan B, Capital P, and the Routine. Other note worthy performances included: Gabriella Union as Muddy Waters mate, Geneva Wade; and Columbus Short's, Little Walter. Eric Bogosian plays Rock and Role producer, Alan Freed.

Darnell Martin is one the very few, if there are any, African-America woman film directors working these days.

Christmas Tale, on the other hand, was an ensemble performance that is too rare these days. The number of immediate and extended family members of the Vuillard family were over 12, with each having their own individual issues. Yet, the director, Arnaud Desplechin was able to intertwine many of them and most importantly with the film's matriarch, Junon, played by Catherine Deneuve and her husband, Abel Vuillard, played Jean-Paul Roussillon. French filmgoers will recognize him, as well as, Mathieu Amalric, who plays Henri a son of Junon and Abel, who is just about over the top in his family antics. Desplechin does a good job in keeping the film going for its rather long length.


Cadillac Records takes place in Chicago [although it was filmed in New Jersey]; Milk in San Francisco and Tale in Lille, which is northeastern France.

Cadillac Records director Martin recreates the 1950s and 1960s; and does it well. You definitely feel that you are living through that exciting musical period. The financial rip-off of Black artists and writers is described very well. Howlin' Wolfe's role is particularly important in that regard. But, Willie Dixon is the overall key person that issue. The post film credits do a very good job in describing that time period.

Milk is the 1970s with the mass struggles that the Bay Area had experienced in the 1960s ad '70 as backdrop. The frenzy of that time period in Height Asbury was done extremely well. "The Castro" was also well described and portrayed. Van Zandt did an excellent job linking the struggle of Gay activists to other social and political struggles of the day. One character became active in the Bay Area after witnessing Anti-Fascist rallies in Barcelona, Spain., in which gay and lesbian activists too an active role.

Tale is contemporary that is purely a sociological family fracas.


The best directing job was the highly full-length film experienced Gus Van Zandt. His film was complete from the beginning through the middle to the end. The continuity was smooth and flawless. The film credits at the end are noteworthy. Each character is labeled and a real life photo of the person who was portrayed then replaces the photo of the actor. And, Van Zandt tells the filmgoers the activities of those activists; and they were considerable.

Tale had a similar feeling for the full length of its length, which for films these days was very long. Arnaud Desplechin, a highly experienced film maker showed his abilities in taking this film of misfits and hard-to-like characters come to life on screen; and, make them worth watching and wondering how the film would end. And, actually care how the film would end.

Martin, on the other hand, did a great job in directing each actor to fully explain and characterize the musicians and others who they were hired to portray. She had to dodge the many potholes that any writer and director would encounter when creating a film that has such a rich history. But, technically speaking, in linking of the films many scenes she seemed to be directing a motion picture with the same short scenes that a television show would command. The continuity between scenes and performances could have been better. Clearly, with more opportunity to direct films, this skill will no doubt improve.

Penn and Knowles

You'll surely be seeing Sean Penn in the Awards shows. I can only hope that judges will allow Beyonce Knowles the freedom to be seen as an actor of more than modest means. More than just a great singer. She is a real talent who deserves more jobs in film. A Best Supporting Award should be on her shelf. And, as said before Eamonn Walker deserves similar recognition.