2 items from 1998
Bewitched, honored and bewildered may describe the range of audience reactions to Buena Vista's "Beloved", starring Oprah Winfrey as a former slave tortured by a horrific past.
Graced with a daring, revelatory lead performance by Winfrey as a woman who carries scars that no human being should be forced to bear and charged by Jonathan Demme's visceral direction, "Beloved" is likely to emerge as one of the most revered and honored films of the year.
Winfrey and Demme seem shoo-ins for Academy Award nominations, and the expert technical team seems destined to win accolades as well.
While the film's initial draw will likely be Winfrey's legions of mostly female fans, the film's 172-minute length, elliptical structure and unsparing depictions of human cruelty will likely challenge the endurance of casual viewers. Undeniably, it's not a film for those seeking escapist fare or sensationalistic thrills, although the film's graphic portrayals of human need and the intrinsic horrors and soul-deep dimensions of the story line will undoubtedly stir discussion. Overall, "Beloved" represents the best in storytelling. It's a haunting mix -- pain, humiliation and happiness -- and its excellence surely will be buoyed by fevered word-of-mouth, here and abroad.
Adapted from Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved" centers on middle-aged Sethe (Winfrey), a runaway slave who in 1865 escapes the heinous cruelties of her Southern life to escape to Ohio, near Cincinnati. It's now 1873, and Sethe ekes out a small living in a tiny framed house with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise).
She is a strong woman, proud, self-reliant but scarred, physically and psychologically. The slavers' whip and raping yahoos have taken a heavy toll. Her proud deportment masks a woman who, though she endures, doesn't expect much.
Wondrously, the arrival of long-lost neighbor Paul D. (Danny Glover) from back at "Sweet Home" stirs pangs of love and family in Sethe that have been drained from her. (She fears her husband deserted her in their escape.)
Yet Paul D.'s arrival, unfortunately but hardly surprising, also brings back the nightmarish memories of her former life. Still, for a woman not used to happiness, even the uneven contentment that She finds with Paul D. is a blessing. Nurtured by his presence, Sethe taps even further strengths, taking in to her tiny household a disturbed teenage girl who has arrived at her doorstep.
The girl, who calls herself Beloved (Thandie Newton), is strange and bewitching, wild-eyed and pouncing. She's damaged goods but shines with a magical, childlike integrity, and Sethe can't resist. Who is this girl?
Narratively, "Beloved"'s nature is contextual rather than linear. Although a triumvirate of screenwriters (Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, Adam Brooks) has fitted Morrison's sprawling, multigeneric novel to cinematically fathomable dimension, director Demme has vitalized it and brought it to emotional life with a throbbing mix of sounds and imagery. It's tactile -- we feel "Beloved" more than we follow it.
Demme has fused image, color, sound, movement and cadence. It's a cinematic caldron that often scorches our sensibilities: Laden with insect sounds, animal images and searing close-ups, "Beloved" makes you feel the brutality and, perhaps as far as a movie can, feel and appreciate the uncertainties and degrading obstacles newly freed slaves faced after the Civil War. Despite some showy supernaturalistic flourishes that don't quite fit, it conveys most powerfully the horrendous psychological and social cruelties that slavery has left on those who had, to some degree, survived it.
"Beloved"'s other great powers spring from the courage of its cast members to tear fearlessly into their character's darkest torments, gnawing far beneath the surface to the very bone -- which can be unflattering. On guts alone, this cast is winning.
Winfrey's performance is terrifically raw. Stripping herself of all actress-like techniques and affectations, Winfrey shamelessly exposes her character's deeply troubled soul. It's the sort of portrayal that transcends training -- human rather than studied.
As the humble, good-natured Paul D., Glover plucks out the fright and uncertainty that his character masks with garrulous good humor. It's well-measured and wonderfully appealing.
With her beatific manner and determined resolve, Elise exposes the fears and dreams of Sethe's surviving daughter, a young woman whose painful upbringing makes her fear her new world but who also senses that she will someday make a step to a better life.
Newton's feral, bedeviled portrayal of Beloved is inspired. With her eyes pierced to another reality, she startles us into appreciating her horror and trauma.
Under Demme's inspired hand, the technical contributions are powerful, evoking emotions and empathy not usually stirred by conventional storytelling. Tak Fujimoto's washed-out, varied hues clue us to the character's interconnecting realities and turmoils, and Rachel Portman's baleful score with its hollowed reedy swells is a fitting voice for this haunting creation.
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Touchstone Pictures presents
a Harpo Films/Clinica Estetico production
A Jonathan Demme picture
Executive producers: Edward Saxon,
Gary Goetzman, Oprah Winfrey
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriters: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, Adam Brooks
Based on the novel by: Toni Morrison
Producers: Ronald M. Bozman, Jonathan Demme, Kate Forte
Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto
Production designer: Kristi Zea
Editors: Carol Littleton, Andy Keir
Music: Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Associate producer: Steven Shareshian
Casting: Howard Feuer
Sethe: Oprah Winfrey
Paul D.: Danny Glover
Beloved: Thandie Newton
Denver: Kimberly Elise
Baby Suggs: Beah Richards
Younger Sethe: Lisa Gay Hamilton
Stamp Paid: Albert Hall
Ella: Irma P. Hall
Janey Wagon: Carol Jean Lewis
Amy Denver: Kessia Rordelle
Schoolteacher: Jude Ciccolella
Running time -- 172 minutes
MPAA rating: R
A weak ant can carry 10 times its own weight, but this computer-animated "Antz" is no weakling -- it should carry thousands of times its own heft in enjoyment and success at the boxoffice.
The first coupling in DreamWorks and PDI's partnership in animation, this marvelously enjoyable feature animation not only was a towering delight at the Toronto International Film Festival, it represents a giant leap forward in the aesthetic of computer-animated entertainment.
If you can say nothing else for animation (computer-generated or hand-drawn), the mere fact that the process can line up such a disparate cast of characters as Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Anne Bancroft and Gene Hackman for one production is a novelty. In this brainy creation, these players' voices bring distinct personality to a winning and sobering storyline.
"Antz" centers around Z (Allen), not surprisingly a neurotic and self-absorbed insect who is not cut out to be a worker. Slogging away underground moving dirt with millions of his peers is not the hyper Z's idea of fulfillment. Surely there has to be more to life than serving the state, Z surmises. There must be a better place.
To Z's surprise and glee, he spots a female ant who makes his many legs buckle. Unfortunately, she's Princess Bala (Stone) and way out of his league, but Z manages to convince his soldier friend Weaver (Stallone) to switch places with him so that he might have a shot at seeing the princess again at a military inspection. One hyperventilating thing leads to another and before he can say "social revolution," Z has unwittingly whisked the princess away and kindled a new spirit of enthusiasm among his fellow workers.
Although foremost and always a wonderfully entertaining story, "Antz" also carries an inspiring message. In its depiction of Z's discontent with the conformity of the colony and his need for personal expression, it's a shrewd laceration of the fascist state and the totalitarian mindset. Screenwriters Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz have nimbly juggled deep ideas with zany comedy.
The power of computer animation is not exercised just for showmanship here, but magnifies the story line through appropriate usage. Aesthetically, a number of computer-animated crowd scenes of massive Red Square/Nuremberg/Shanghai proportion are daunting as the filmmakers marshal spectacular numbers of animated characters into sequences of colossal proportion. The sheer number of these characters, marching in perfect phalanx, etc., is overwhelming and makes us feel the monstrous oppression of such formidable orders.
Under directors Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson's inventive hands, the character ants are packed with personality. No mere caricatures of the players, each character is etched with droll exactitude. Moreover, the 3-D like quality with which the process imbues them seems to bring them even more to life. Their vitality and appeal is in no small part due to the flavorful voicings of the cast.
As the distressed and unwittingly heroic Z, Woody Allen's shrill, nasal twang evokes memories of his overly-intellectual neurotic persona. He's a perfect selection for this story's juicy ironic thrust, that a social revolution would be lead by a generally cowardly, non-physical type and motivated solely by self-interest.
Sylvester Stallone's clipped cadence and good-hearted tones infuse his soldier character with just the right amount of humanity, while Sharon Stone's princess combination is just right -- spoiled and sexy. Giving stentorian finality to the role of the evil empire-builder Gen. Mandible is Gene Hackman. Hackman's growlings would scare the pants off Mussolini.
While "Antz" is first and foremost a visual treat, its music is a jaunty and delicious accompaniment, from the playful score of composers Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell to the witty inclusion of such standards as "High Hopes", warbled by Doris Day, no less.
DreamWorks Pictures and PDI Present
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell
Production designer: John Bell
Art director: Kendal Cronkhite
Editor: Stan Webb
Lead character designer: Raman Hui
Supervising animator: Rex Grignon
Z: Woody Allen
Chip: Dan Aykroyd
Queen: Anne Bancroft
Muffy: Jane Curtin
Barbatus: Danny Glover
Mandible: Gene Hackman
Azteca: Jennifer Lopez
Drunk Scout: John Mahoney
Psychologist: Paul Mazursky
Foreman: Grant Shaud
Weaver: Sylvester Stallone
Bala: Sharon Stone
Cutter: Christopher Walken
Running time -- 77 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
2 items from 1998
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