5 items from 1997
DreamWorks SKG's "Amistad" is a holiday feast: Namely it is an ambitious story layout teeming with historical significance, packed with a sterling-set cast and dished up with the finest technical crockery. But like most holiday tables, after everything gets passed around for the first time, nothing much goes together.
Alas, this personal/legalistic story about 53 Africans who broke free of their shackles while aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad keeps afloat mainly on its kind-spirited intentions rather than the narrative craftsmanship of the vessel itself.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, this DreamWorks presentation in association with HBO is certain to win some end-of-year honors. In fact, slot it as a Golden Globe nominee in the dramatic category (in last year's "Evita" slot). Generically and aesthetically, however, "Amistad" seems more akin to some of the fine HBO films of the past several years (the political/social John Frankenheimer films, in particular). Were it sailing under the HBO banner exclusively, it would certainly win a slew of CableACE honors.
On the boxoffice horizon, "Amistad" should navigate best on select-site waters and will likely win a significant black audience for its initial sails, but word-of-mouth will capsize this talky and surprisingly tedious history lesson.
With Spielberg at the helm, "Amistad" starts out with raging power as the African slaves break free of their shackles and conquer their oppressors. One recalls the ominous terrors of an early David Lean film in these initial, emotion-packed moments. Here, Spielberg does his hero, Lean, proud.
Unfortunately, the film's initial visceral and intellectual promise soon tacks off course after the slave-sailed ship is captured by the U.S. Navy.
Still, "Amistad" charts an ambitious course as moral/philosophical/political issues are debated and confronted: Who has jurisdiction over the Africans, since Spain claims they are its "property?" And, most importantly for the United States, should they be freed, since at that time (1839) slave transport was illegal?
Well, prepare to take notes on a veritable survey course on navigational and constitutional law. Most woefully, this important section is written in a style most akin to the lectures of an assistant professor of history: One's mind drifts and then settles back on the eloquent clarity of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" in which important questions of church and state were delineated in the most moving and concise manner. No such eloquence, no such emotion here in David Franzoni's painstakingly pallid script.
"Amistad", despite its powerful subject matter, is most vexingly long on philosophical wind but disappointingly short on human emotion. A Spielberg movie short on human emotion? Are you nuts? Steven Spielberg can milk tender feelings out of the most generic commercial vehicle, and slavery is a subject matter that should fibrillate your heart into its most convulsive sympathies.
Despite its good intentions, "Amistad" also does not do justice to the African captives who endured this horrible hardship. Perhaps that is a flaw inherent in the story structure. Throughout, except for the uprising leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the African prisoners are presented only as a noble mass, sitting solemnly in the docket or being led back to their cells. They are not sufficiently personalized and their anguish and agony is never properly prismed to an individual level -- we should be crying, but we're only looking at our watch, waiting for the class to be over.
Laboriously, "Amistad" sinks to courtroom histrionics and showy, historical name-dropping. Through it all, we finally learn that this case is of particular national significance. It will surely trigger the loss of the South to President Martin Van Buren's reelection plans should the Africans not be convicted of murder.
There is no denying the significance nor the importance of this story; there is only disappointment in the numbing, mutton-chopped narrative. Most gratingly, there's a transparently manipulative scene involving an African violet that Spielberg milks as a visual correlative to connect the two cultures -- that of the United States and that of the entire continent of Africa. We would pay quadruple admission in Brooklyn to sit near Spike Lee when this scene pops up.
Despite its unfortunate shortcomings, "Amistad" is a veritable flagship on the acting front. Morgan Freeman's quiet, stirring power as an abolitionist could win him a best supporting actor nomination. Similarly, Anthony Hopkins has never been better. Playing former President John Quincy Adams (regarded as the brightest president in U.S. history), Hopkins' performance is a joy of crusty brilliance and moral tenacity. As the African leader, Hounsou brings a perfect blend of courage and honor to his role. Matthew McConaughey is once again captivating in his role as an upstart attorney who takes on the Africans' case, but then he's had practice with this type of pro-bono performery before in "A Time to Kill".
Technically, "Amistad" is a marvel of craftsmanship, owing to the precise period design of Rick Carter, the astute costumery of Ruth Carter and the articulate cinematography of Janusz Kaminski.
Ultimately, "Amistad" sinks to mere cannon fodder in a showy denouement as U.S. naval vessels shellac a slave-holding, Mediterranean prison that is only cursorily referred to in the movie. Admittedly, it's one helluva cathartic bombardment, the kind we love to see in a Joel Silver action movie.
In association with HBO Pictures
A Steven Spielberg film
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Franzoni
Executive producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Rick Carter
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Casting: Victoria Thomas
Associate producers: Bonnie Curtis,
Co-producer: Tim Shriver
Co-executive producer: Robert Cooper
Sound mixers: Ronald Judkins, Robert Jackson
Joadson: Morgan Freeman
Martin Van Buren: Nigel Hawthorne
John Quincy Adams: Anthony Hopkins
Cinque: Djimon Hounsou
Baldwin: Matthew McConaughey
Secretary Forsyth: David Paymer
Holabird: Pete Postlethwaite
Tappan: Stellan Skarsgard
Yamba: Razaaq Adoti
Fala: Abu Bakaar Fofanah
Queen Isabella: Anna Paquin
Calderon: Tomas Milian
Running time -- 152 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
A long, hot summer in Tennessee Williams country with a Creole family in turmoil, Kasi Lemmons' feature directorial debut focuses beautifully on relationships -- sister-sister, parents-children and mystical-elders-to-troubled-youths. In its use of "magical" voodoo, the film strays from reality, but it engagingly rings true and never fails to impress with its solid filmmaking and richly rewarding performances.
Produced by Caldecott Chubb ("The Crow", "Hoffa") and co-star Samuel L. Jackson, "Eve's Bayou" is one of the classiest items in recent years from distributor Trimark, which should see the worthy project enjoy solid business with discerning black audiences and crossover viewers intrigued by, no-doubt, generally positive reviews.
An actress ("Silence of the Lambs", "Hard Target") and screenwriter, and the wife of filmmaker-actor Vondie Curtis Hall (who plays a small role in the film), Lemmons has a sure and steady hand with actors and the economical-but-evocative style to fashion this moody tale into a literate and sometimes challenging drama with humorous elements that arise naturally from the material.
Narrated by and centered on 10-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), Lemmons' original scenario quickly reveals the core problem in the otherwise stable lives of Eve and her older sister Cisely (Megan Good). Their country-doctor father Louis (Jackson) is fooling around regularly with patients and old girlfriends, even as he professes true love for his wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and otherwise embraces family life.
While Eve and Cisely struggle to cope with knowledge that undermines their love and faith in dad, their mother and aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Louis' sister, form an allegiance. The latter has a "gift" that allows her to access the spiritual world, a way of seeing the truth in a situation involving physical and metaphysical contact between the priestess and those seeking her healing powers.
Eve and Mozelle spend a lot of time together, and Eve begins to develop her own powers but consults Mozelle's rival Elzora (Diahann Carroll) when the desire for justice overrules family bonds. In the final half-hour of this leisurely paced and loosely plotted film that's never tedious or unduly manipulative, an incident between Louis and Cisely causes a horrific blowup with tragic consequences, but it's not a completely downbeat resolution.
Along with all-around terrific performances -- Jackson has rarely been better and Carroll is excellent in her few scenes -- "Eve's Bayou" is visually rewarding, thanks to cinematographer Amy Vincent, and makes good use of another fine score by Spike Lee's regular composer, Terence Blanchard ("Get on the Bus", "Clockers").
A Chubbco/Addis Wechsler production
A Kasi Lemmons film
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons
Producers Caldecott Chubb, Samuel L. Jackson
Executive producers Mark Amin, Eli Selden,
Nick Wechsler, Julie Yorn
Director of photography Amy Vincent
Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire
Production designer Jeff Howard
Costume designer Karyn Wagner
Music Terence Blanchard
Casting Jaki Brown-Karman,
Robyn M. Mitchell
Eve Batiste Jurnee Smollett
Cisely Megan Good
Louis Samuel L. Jackson
Roz Lynn Whitfield
Mozelle Debbi Morgan
Elzora Diahann Carroll
Running time -- 109 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Spike Lee's first feature-length documentary is an uncharacteristically restrained effort by this major filmmaker, lacking the intense style and outlandishness of much of his earlier work. But it tells a powerful story simply and movingly and thus serves as an important cinematic document of one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era: the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that resulted in the deaths of four young children. To be shown on HBO early next year, "4 Little Girls" is receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum.
Lee uses a fairly conventional combination of talking heads and archival footage to tell the story and eschews the flashy camerawork and editing that mark his fiction films. He quite rightly concentrates on the victims and does a powerful and effective job of making us feel the loss of these four innocent lives. There is a great deal of testimony from the little girls' families and childhood friends, as well as many photographs that vividly remind us of exactly who they were. The director also doesn't hesitate to shock us by using autopsy photos of the girls' bodies, which many viewers will find difficult to take.
Alongside the archival footage that graphically illustrates the violent clashes of the period, there are informative interviews with public figures of the time, including civil rights leaders (Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson), politicians (former Birmingham Mayor David Vann, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley) and journalists (Howell Raines of the New York Times, Taylor Branch). In a clear bid to up the celebrity quotient, Lee also includes less-than-compelling testimony from the likes of Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby.
The most compelling interview, however, is with George Wallace; the obviously mentally and physically debilitated former governor of Alabama, barely coherent and not easily understood (subtitles are used), attempts to demonstrate his lack of prejudice by making constant, patronizing references to his black personal aide, repeatedly referred to as his "best friend."
As usual, the director has provided the film with highly evocative musical accompaniment, beginning with Joan Baez's rendition of the elegiac "Birmingham Sunday" and including both period songs and a haunting original jazz score by Terence Blanchard.
4 LITTLE GIRLS
and 40 Acres and a Mule
Director-producer Spike Lee
Producer-editor Sam Pollard
Director of photography Ellen Kuras
Music composer Terence Blanchard
Associate producer Michele Forman
Running time -- 102 minutes
No MPAA rating
Attempting to break up the paint-by-numbers feel of most romantic-comedies, " 'Til There Was You" serves up contemporary relationships in an unusually paced blend of drama and humor.
But like the constantly shifting parallel lives of its destined-for-each-other protagonists, the picture's elements never quite intersect despite some pleasing performances and thoughtful direction.
Given the current crowded slate of moviegoing options, Paramount will likely have to wait 'til there's video for the film to find a supportive audience.
As with all instances of the genre, we know from the outset that Gwen Moss (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Nick Dawkan (Dylan McDermott) are meant for each other no matter how many plot points would appear to conspire against them. Of course, the novelty is always in the placement of the various obstacles that stand in the way of true happiness. In their case, the roadblocks are considerable.
She's an unlucky-in-love ghost writer who's struggling to keep her own sense of identity from doing a vanishing act. He's an ambitious architect who's a bit of a cad in the commitment department. She's a hopeless romantic who clings to the love-at-first-sight ideals of her parents. He's an emotional shut-in who has revamped his background to bury an unhappy childhood.
While they never truly come face to face until the end of the film, the crazed orbits of their seemingly opposing lives begin to find a common path with the arrival of Francesca Lanfield Sarah Jessica Parker in another great comedic performance), a former "Brady Bunch-esque" child star who is looking to write her life story (enter Gwen) and for a new warm body (enter Nick). Not to mention the fact that Francesca just happens to own La Fortuna, the idyllic, historic garden apartment complex into which Gwen has just moved and which Nick's firm is planning to raze.
Initially charming, all the ensuing wild coincidence and near misses begin to take their toll. Making his feature directorial debut, Scott Winant ("My So-Called Life", "thirtysomething") demonstrates a smart visual sense and has coaxed some warm, winning performances from his ensemble, but ultimately he's unable to overcome screenwriter Winnie Holzman's mopey, tediously introspective script.
Among the acting contributions, Tripplehorn delivers on the chance to show a seldom-seen funny side; while McDermott finally makes the romantic lead leap with his most appealing turn to date. But it's the always terrific Parker who is particularly wonderful this time as the self-involved Francesca, a k a Taffy, who spent puberty in front of millions of viewers on "One Big, Happy Family" and continues to pay the price. Michael Tucker also has his moment in a shocking bit of revelation that stands as the film's funniest scene.
Tech credits are strong, although the score, composed in part by the late Miles Goodman and Terence Blanchard, is a poor fit. Most often heard in Spike Lee films, Blanchard's signature low-key jazz style does no favors for the picture's already languid pace.
'TIL THERE WAS YOU
Paramount Lakeshore Entertainment and Paramount Pictures
present a Penney Finkelman Cox production
Executive producers:Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannebaum
Director of photography:Bobby Bukowski
Production designer:Craig Stearns
Editors:Richard Marks, Joannna Cappuccilli
Music:Miles Goodman and Terence Blanchard
Francesca:Sarah Jessica Parker
Sophia Monroe:Nina Foch
Running time -- 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
The time is right for a renewed appreciation of the marvel that was Muhammad Ali in his prime.
Revised and expanded since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, this film tells the story of one of history's great boxing matches, between two of the greatest fighters ever.
Organized by the ubiquitous Don King, the fight was a worldwide media event, as much for its African setting as for the combatants themselves. Ali is the main focus of the film, as well he should be. Here he is at his most charismatic and funny, and his presence dominates every frame in which he appears.
On the other hand, George Foreman was at that point in his life relatively sullen and uncommunicative; his transformation into America's sweetheart would not come for several years. But he was an indomitable fighting machine, a powerhouse puncher who, the film makes clear, scared even Ali.
The film has a strong narrative line, detailing the preparations for the fight, the widely varying receptions accorded the two fighters in Zaire, the lengthy delay when Foreman accidentally cut himself in a sparring session, and, of course, the titanic fight itself.
The single misstep is the excessive footage of the various performers who took part in the bout, including James Brown and B.B. King. As Lee points out in his commentary, there is a whole younger generation who really don't know Ali or understand the effect he had on sports and the American psyche. "When We Were Kings" should help fill in that gap.
5 items from 1997
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