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Madonna's "Evita' beckons in preview

Tampa Bay film critics got a good look at Madonna this week.

What's the big deal? The material mom-to-be has never shied away from an audience or a camera.

The difference is that relatively few people have seen Madonna performing as Argentine legend Eva Peron in the epic screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita.

Hollywood Pictures honchos think they have captured something special on film. They're trotting out a 10-minute preview of Evita that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, screening it for critics in selected U.S. markets.

The only other time this has occurred in my 3{ years on the job was last year's lengthy preview for MGM's James Bond flick Goldeneye. That was the act of a studio desperate for a hit, and still unable to avoid selling out to new investors when it happened. Hollywood Pictures _ a branch of the Disney regime _ obviously doesn't have that problem.

The studio does appear to have a heckuva movie, though.

Evita's grand biographical sweep was evident in a golden-hued opening montage, showing young Eva Peron's impoverished beginnings, and the throngs that lined the streets for her royal funeral. Nearly every shot included hundreds of actors, often arranged in minorly expressionist fashion, as Alan Parker previously did in Pink Floyd: The Wall or Fame.

The first voice we hear isn't Madonna's, but the silky voice of co-star Antonio Banderas, in a narrator's role that belonged to Che Guevara onstage, but resides in a street-level revolutionary here.

When Madonna does appear, her resemblance to Peron (assisted by brown-tint contact lenses) is striking. She's a performer whose vocal talents always work better when guided by a melody _ and the reported format of Evita ensures every word will be sung. Her emotional peaks _ a rousing "speech" at a train station, or a prison meeting with husband Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) _ didn't seem as forced as her past screen work. She looks comfortable in the role of a woman whose determination made her an international icon.

Banderas' sultry expressions and smooth tenor Banderas' sultry expressions and smooth tenor also raise our expectations, especially during the protest song A New Argentina. He previously sang on-screen in Desperado, but Lloyd Webber's tricky tuneplay presents a challenge he appears ready to meet. Pryce (Carrington, Glengarry Glen Ross) has a capable singing voice, but it's his subtle expressions of distrust, affection and scheming that make the best impression.

Parker seems to be emulating the somber-surreal style of Bob Fosse's Cabaret at some points, and the best MTV videos at others. Some sights _ a collection of black umbrellas in a mournful rainshower, or the blank rigidity of repressed Argentinians lined in a row, or Evita's wheelchair rolling past her immobile servants in a wide-screen shot _ seem familiar from other works. It remains to be seen whether Parker can create a complete, singular vision from such borrowed scraps.

Ten minutes of footage certainly isn't enough to judge a two-hour-plus movie. For that matter, a 60-second TV commercial isn't, either, although that's how many moviegoers pick and choose where to spend their money. I saw enough, however, to convince me that I'd pay to see if Evita lives up to its preview potential.

My first impression? Well, to paraphrase Lloyd Webber's showcased song Don't Cry for Me, Argentina: If Parker's movie keeps its promise, audiences and honors won't keep their distance.

PROJECT BLACK CINEMA TRIP _ Florida's premier outlet for African Diaspora cinema returns Sept. 20-26 with the fifth annual International Film Festival. All screenings during the seven-day event will be held at Burns Court Cinema, 506 Burns Court Lane in downtown Sarasota.

Announcements of film selections are forthcoming, but should include its usual mix of U.S. and regional debuts by filmmakers from African regions. A special program, "Paths of Enlightenment: Artists, Heroes, Rebels and Thinkers," will be moderated by Clyde Taylor of New York University and June Givanni of the British Film Institute.

Other segments of the International Film Festival include an arts and culture marketplace, performing artists and social mixers. Details will be announced at a later date.

Transportation and motorcoach tours will be provided by Sarasota Travel. Tour packages will include three days and two nights of hotel accommodations, access to five films, opening ceremonies and a private reception. Arrangements and prices for the tours are still in the works. Call (941) 957-4880 for information.