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By Ray Pride, Ellen Fox

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

Beloved

Directed by Jonathan Demme. In "The Silence of the Lambs," director Johnathan Demme hit the switches and put a flashlight under the faces of his stars, earning the leads Oscars for their work in his milieu of pared-down effects and pervasive claustrophobia. This time around, the ghost story is Toni Morrison's most revered tale of ex-slaves gripped by the past, a tribute to the oral tradition with its rich language of memory. But the result is a long, spare, darkly lit film, filled with large faces that consume the entire frame and reminisce for a while. With its exhausting number of fade-outs and stagey lighting (ie, red light in a hallway signifies evil), it begins to look more like a badly adapted play, and so-in plays as in ghost stories-it falls to the actors to carry "Beloved." Do they make it? The film's just a hair too heavy. As Sethe, a free woman now living in her own large, creepy house after the war, Oprah is, as usual, quite good. Righteous, but humbled by a certain persistent naiveté and bewilderment-the kind you never expect to see in adults, and certainly not in a character who has, by all accounts, endured just about everything. Kimberley Elise, as Sethe's sullen, honey-voiced daughter Denver is equally good, if not better. When Paul D (Danny Glover), Sethe's brother-in-law from the old plantation, reappears, the three attempt to forge out a "normal" family life. But return and reminiscence sets in motion the mysterious appearance of a squawking, drooling beast of a girl-part Linda Blair, part roly-eyed calf-who undermines what little they've built. It's hard to watch Thandie Newton's performance, even harder to figure if she's disturbing or just embarrassing, because she ruins every scene she's in. But however unpleasant it is, I'm grateful it's there. Far too much talk of Morrison goes on without ever mentioning that she's a writer of grotesques, that she belongs more along the horror shelves than she does to traditional lit. Mothers setting their sons aflame? Kids flinging other kids to their drowning deaths? That jarring, wholly out-of-place performance is the one thing that articulates the filthy, wholly out-of-place wrongness of Morrison's everyday human things, things that simply must be supernatural, that's how wrong they are. (Ellen Fox) 171m.


The Imposters

Stanley Tucci's athletically strenuous slapstick goes down mighty well if you accept the goofball behavior after one or two scenes. While the wonderful work of cinematographer Ken Kelsch repeats from "Big Night," "The Impostors" lacks every bit of the delicacy of Tucci's first film, lavishing itself instead on a cast of his friends hamming it up on an ocean liner in the 1930s. The cast is having the time of their life, and audiences could, too, unless all the leaping and running and shouting leaves them cold. Tucci and Oliver Platt area pair of unemployable actors who inadvertently stowaway on an ocean liner, where they cross paths with the likes of Prussian steward Campbell Scott, overactor Alfred Molina, first mate and spy Tony Shalhoub and a suicidal song star named Happy, played with hangdog gloom by Steve Buscemi. The showers of burlesque are blissfully dumb, but I still laughed all the way through and on my way out of the theater. 101m. (Ray Pride)


The Mighty

Material similar to the unendurably goopy "Simon Birch" comes to the screen with Peter Chelsom's deft, self-aware hand at the camera: the director of "Hear My Song" knows what kind of movie he's making, a comedy melodrama about oddball kids that needs strong performances to put it over, and does a decent job with it. With Sharon Stone, Kieran Culkin, Elden Henson, Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton, Gillian Anderson. 106m.(Ray Pride)


Practical Magic

It all starts with tinkly music, voiceover and swooping seagulls. Uh-oh. While "Practical Magic" has moments where it seems to be striving to become a clever parable about girlish otherness, Griffin Dunne's clumsy direction (and the multi-credited editing) dashes even the charms of leads Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. When only moments later, we're in the midst of a schlock-song driven montage, you know something went wrong with the chemistry set. Playing sisters who have inherited a knack for witchcraft and a nasty curse that kills any man who loves them, Bullock and Kidman are reduced to making silly faces. Bullock is dressed dowdily, while Kidman, looking all of ninety-four pounds, seems to have it written into her contract that her lithe legs and perfectly arched feet must be displayed as often as Harvey Keitel might show his penis. Flounce, bounce and preen as they might, they're adrift on a sea of Banana Republic home furnishings. The proceedings turn stranger when Arizona cop Aidan Quinn comes looking for an abusive boyfriend of Kidman's who the pair have killed, but it all turns out okay. Even the suspicious townswomen accept these perky Wiccans as good citizens. I think the film says that it's okay to murder and dismember men who are bad mates, a la your basic Marleen Gorris diatribe, but it's probably a stretch to assume that "Practical Magic" says much of anything in the end. Panavision.


Reach the Rock

This film's a cry for help if there ever was one. The old John Hughes films made rebel heroes out of high school kids, with the ring of their slang and their kinesis (even the most desperate of them were never torpid, like they are in real life). Best of all, they always showed up well-meaning authority figures as utterly naive, illustrating the injustice of having to be subordinate to people who clearly aren't as clever as you. "Reach the Rock," takes place on a single night when rebel Robin, now out of high school, sneaks in and out of jail to break windows and piss off a couple of dim, small town cops of the "You think you're real smart, dontcha kid?" variety. When they haul him in the first time, the chief takes a look at Robby's middle finger and tells him it looks withered because "it's been four years since you've had a teacher to flip it to." Things clearly aren't okay at home and one can't help but want to get inside Hughes' head: is it the frustration of having once been so hot in the high school arena, only to falter in the real world? The futility of sticking around, figuring maybe it's the only thing you know how to do? High school power hinges a lot on "If only," all that potential energy bouncing off the walls, manifesting itself mostly as a reaction to all that you can't do. But remove the walls finally and the energy disperses and gets absorbed. It's not so special any more. None of Hughes' trademark dialogue is here, lines which gave birth to a decade of slacker-talk movies, all of which articulate post-school futility much better. (Ellen Fox)


Shadrach

The title character, a ninety-nine year old ex-slave, returns to his old plantation grounds with a wish to be buried there. Told from the perspective of an affluent boy spending time with the hick family whose owns the land, the film ostensibly recounts the summer he learned not to fear death, learned that it's living that'll kill ya. As the hick patriarch, Harvey Keitel gets to wear a stained wifebeater t-shirt and exclaim "Goddamsonofabitch" quite a few times, while his wife Andie MacDowell fans herself and squints in the Depression-era Deep South heat, the best-realized thing in the film. The details of rural summer life are vivid (the family's too easy in their bodies to warrant a G rating) but it's never explained why only the children understand Shadrach's mutterings, or why Keitel feels obligated to bury him in the first place. When at last we're smacked with the great moral lesson ("And that was the summer...."), we feel cheated. Especially after having had to endure a protracted scene in which MacDowell cleans Shadrach after he's soiled himself in the family's rickety old car. (Ellen Fox)


Talk to Me

George Esguerra's modest comedy about dating in contemporary Manhattan includes a couple who meets on a pay-per-call love line, with a hot-and-heavy nude chat. Still, Esguerra and co-writer Robert Foulkes demonstrate a nice touch with dialogue about contemporary dating as they turn up the sexual heat. With Cheryl Clifford, Peter Welch. 87m. (Ray Pride)


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