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by Jim Wunderle

"Beloved"

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise

Rated: R

There's little doubt in anyone's mind that come next March, Steven Spielberg's World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan," is going to take home its fair share of Oscars. The only film that's likely to give it a run for the money is Jonathan Demme's latest effort, "Beloved." It's got all the things that Oscar likes; big budget, dignified subject matter, based on an esteemed novel, high-profile stars and probably most importantly, a title character who is "disturbed." From "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "The Elephant Man" to "Rainman" to Demme's own "The Silence of the Lambs," the members of the Academy seem to be suckers for a character that's, shall we say, slightly "touched." Demme is no stranger to the golden statue "The Silence of the Lambs" won the five major awards in 1991, and two years later, "Philadelphia," nominated for five, garnered a best actor Oscar for Tom Hanks as well as the award for original song.

The back story on "Beloved" is Oscar- friendly as well. Mega TV star Oprah Winfrey has been trying to get Toni Morrison's novel to the silver screen for a decade now. The film was produced by Winfrey's Harpo Pictures, and she's listed as one of the producers, meaning she no doubt threw a good chunk of her own money into the making of the movie.

She stars as Sethe, the former slave who will go to great lengths to protect her children and family. Regardless of what you might think of Winfrey, you will have to applaud her work here. She does a fine job, and after a few minutes I was able to forget that I was watching the world's highest profile talk show host. Demme's direction is great, too, as is Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. We've already established that the story is great, so why then, with all of these pluses, does "Beloved" come across as a piece of work that, as a whole, is less than the sum of its parts?

I don't really know. I do know that with such a great director and gripping story, I should have been a lot more emotionally involved than I found myself.

By now you probably know the story: Sethe escapes from slavery, sets up household near Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver, and lives in a house that is haunted by the ghost of her dead child.

One day a strange young woman shows up on the scene and we learn that this is, somehow, the flesh incarnate of the daughter she lost so many years ago. As the film unfolds we see, through a series of flashbacks, Sethe's escape from slavery, the birth of daughter Denver and the episode that lead to the death of Sethe's other child.

It's a moving story, but somehow the film just didn't grab me the way it should have. I'm sure come Oscar time my opinion will be in the minority.

"Practical Magic"

Directed by: Griffin Dunne

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Aidan Quinn

Rated: PG-13

A much lighter film light as fluff to tell the truth is Griffin Dunne's supernatural comedy, "Practical Magic."

Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock star as the best-looking team of witches since Samantha and Sabrina (both played by Elizabeth Montgomery) on the old "Bewitched!" TV show.

As the Owens sisters, the pair comes from a long line of witches. The two live with a couple of old witch aunts, played to the hilt by Stockard Channing and Dianne West. There's a curse on the Owen clan, though, and any man that falls in love with one soon finds himself in a world of trouble, culminating in death.

Bullock's Sally risks the curse and finds happiness with a seemingly perfect guy. They have a couple of great kids and everything is going great until ... yep, the curse kills the guy.

All the while, Kidman's Gillian has been off on a non-stop party and parade of lovers. When one of her beaus begins to rough her up, the two witch sisters make short work of him, or so they believe. The remainder of the film involves a police investigation, Sally falling for the cop, and a surprisingly frightening exorcism during the last act. I liked "Practical Magic" as a "guilty pleasure," but keep in mind the exorcism scenes may be a bit heavy for the younger viewer.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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