EVE'S BAYOU (R) (105 min.) _ This mesmerizing, evocative family drama marks the arrival of actor Kasi Lemmons (The Silence of the Lambs) as a first-rate filmmaker who should turn out to be one of the guiding lights for African-American cinema as it matures beyond gangstas and booty humor. Eve's Bayou is poetic, shocking, and full of love for its characters and the period in which they live. Lemmons shows remarkable control of her actors, a keen eye for visual impressions, and dramatic ambition that never overreaches her grasp.
"The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old" are among the first words we hear in voice-over from the now-adult Eve Batiste, and it's difficult to imagine a more gripping introduction. It's also a teaser that could spoil the rest of the movie, but Lemmons' script has a few surprises along the way. Yes, Eve killed her father, but in a fashion that we don't expect until it happens, with a lingering guilt that haunts viewers long after the end credits roll.
Eve's father is Dr. Louis Batiste, the wealthiest man in his Louisiana community, whose idea of a house call often involves an extramarital tryst. He's a philanderer, yet so charismatic in his cheating ways that even his wife ignores the truth until it isn't possible anymore. Eve's Bayou doesn't paint anyone as a villain or hero, merely human beings with foibles and flaws that can surely sting if revealed.
Samuel L. Jackson presents one of the most full-blooded and fascinating performances of his career as Louis, matched note for note by a remarkable newcomer, 10-year-old Jurnee Smollett as the young Eve. Their chemistry together, and the conspiratorial closeness of their characters, recalls nothing less than Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird, a comparison that deepens with the film's acute sense of Southern drama.
Lemmons and cinematographer Amy Vincent create some indelible images, lingering on a landscape or the way a drunk uncle's hat topples off his head, like moments that only reappear in memories. One of Lemmons' smartest moves as a screenwriter is the avoidance of easy dramatic twists to propel the story. Eve's Bayou is foremost an unfolding multicharacter study, even if a character has only has a handful of screen minutes.
We take the time to meet a colorful batch of bayou personalities: Eve's flirtatious Aunt Mozell, who makes money on the side as a voodoo counselor, or the eerie high priestess (Diahann Carroll) who even scares Mozell. Lynn Whitfield is a model of slowly wavering devotion as Louis' wife Roz, slowly building the suspicion and jealousy with her performance. The most daring secret that Louis and Eve share is kept simply because it would be too painful, and that applies to all secrets of this swamp.
One scene concocted by Lemmons would be admired by any veteran director: a striking sequence in which Mozell tells Eve about a confrontation between a former husband and her young lover. It's a masterful example of blocking and camera movement Many films feature an actor speaking to his reflection in the mirror, but Lemmons gives the old conceit a thrilling originality.
In the end, the most memorable sight isn't the mossy surroundings or a zydeco party, but a single finger placed over someone's lips in the universal command for silence. People stay silent too long, and for the wrong reasons in Eve's Bayou, leaving the audience emotionally drained and artistically satisfied.
Eve's Bayou opens today at selected theaters around Tampa Bay. A
BEAN (PG-13) (90 min.) _ Rowan Atkinson has long been considered one of the funniest people in the world. It's just taken our corner of the globe a little longer to realize it. Atkinson's pseudo-stuffy persona and self-morphing expressions have been beacons of wit painted over by Disney animation (The Lion King) or served as a mere appetizer at Four Weddings and a Funeral. Meanwhile, his wackiest creation, the lovable loser Mr. Bean, has been in posh exile at PBS television, where some viewers probably looked at the title and thought it was a gardening show.
That may explain why America had to wait for the release of the feature film Bean until most of the rest of the world finished laughing. The film has been setting box office records everywhere from Japan to France, and amazingly sold enough tickets in Canada alone to crack the domestic box office top 10 a couple of weeks ago.
Now it's our turn.
Bean is a low-budget affair whose primary special effect is the blank prankster Atkinson. There isn't a plot to describe as much as a framework for set pieces of spastic, risque physical comedy and infantile gross-outs that somehow seem smarter, possibly because you can detect the pure science of silliness employed by the star.
Mr. Bean is a comical creation along the lines of Chaplin's Little Tramp and Keaton's stone-faced underdog, nearly mute except for well-crafted grunts, grumbles and the occasional punch line delivered in a voice so absurd that he can say only one word and you're giggling. He's a loser, but blithely unaware of that fact, trudging through the world of real people, trampling on their normality, and emerging better off than anyone else.
Bean places the title character in the role of a London museum guard who is hired to accompany the Mona Lisa to the United States, not because he's an expert, but because his bosses want to get him out of their hair for three months abroad. The people he encounters in Los Angeles are just as eager to send him back, but he bluffs his way past their defenses, especially fooling an uptight curator (Peter McNicol) for a while. The story doesn't unfold as much as the sanity of the situation unravels.
For example: In one brilliantly conceived 10-minute sequence, Mr. Bean is left alone with the painting and he sneezes on the masterpiece, then frantically attempts to clean up the mess, making it messier in the process. That seems like a simple case of low-brow comedy that Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis would tackle, yet there is such panache in Atkinson's bumbling performance, and a hint of continental class that makes it special. He can even take the most unseemly barf-bag gag and make it seem fresh. Bean is loaded with such scenes, which usually would make us cringe but entertain us here instead.
Bean opens today at Tampa Bay theaters. B