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Movie Review by Michael Goldberger

"Evita"

3 Popcorns

(1-Poor 2-Fair 3-Good 4-Excellent)

It is amazing how so very little about something can prove so hugely entertaining. Even when it's saying absolutely nothing, the powerfully pleasant "Evita" is revving its tuneful engine. Screaming its mythic gospel.

Chalk it up to uncanny mood evocation by director Alan Parker, a deft perpetuation of the folklore surrounding Eva Peron by the screenwriters, and peerless production standards. Oh, and then there's the matter of acting. After much hype and endless ballyhoo, the jury is in. Madonna, the self-proclaimed material girl, the virtual princess of in-your-face stardom, is tops in the title role.

To call "Evita" a musical is a misnomer. Virtually all the dialogue is sung, irrepressibly hitched to the music originally composed for the stage by the ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hence, this spirited work based on the lyrics originally penned by Tim Rice is, more correctly, a rock opera a la "Tommy." (Robert Stigwood, who produced the movie "Tommy," is aboard here)

But, save for the imbedding strains of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," the bulk of this show's songs are less stand-alone numbers than they are musical accompaniment for a series of very emotive images. The exception that proves the rule is "You Must Love Me," a worthy new addition to the original score.

"Evita" can be likened to an attractive puff pastry, evanescent in its impact, and not to be taken seriously. It's the fear that viewers will accept this popular chronicle as truth that sends shivers up the collective spines of historians. Naturally, it reads like a fable.

In rural Argentina, in the mid l920s, a poor little girl is denied entrance to her father's funeral. Her mother was not married to the man, and the abashed widow refuses the child admittance to the ritual. Little Eva Duarte has chutzpah, as they may be apt to say down Argentine way. She crashes the funeral. As the story goes, it's this kind of determination that leads Eva to her destiny. After sleeping her way to moderate success as a radio actor in Buenos Aires, she similarly climbs a few more rungs of status and becomes the wife of President Juan Peron.

To the backdrop of political unrest and governmental cataclysm exploding around every corner, which is always good reason for song, Eva eventually wins the unqualified love of the people. A self-immortalizing mystique soon surrounds her.

In the movie's most novel bit of dramaturgy, Antonio Banderas excels as Che, the beguiling narrator who does double duty as the representative soul of Argentina. He sets the tone, establishes the meter, and points the way to every desired emotion. He is absolutely aces. And if it weren't for Madonna's death-grip hold on this career plum of a role, Banderas's picaresque everyman would surely steal the show.

A series of tightly-tied, lickety-split vignettes, directed with formidable fluidity by filmmaker Parker, serve to emphasize something or other about Evita. Just what, it's never quite clear. Maybe that's a metaphor for the whole shebang. Or, maybe it's all just a lot of colorful bunk. Hazy can often be mistaken for mystifying.

Doubtless, in the more scholarly accounts of this page in history, there are contravening opinions on the much adored wife of Argentina's fascist dictator. But while director Parker's script, co-written with Oliver Stone, may pretend a legitimate account, its real forte is in romanticizing the sights and sounds of history. The pageant of time in sound-bites. In Kodak moments.

Madonna's saintly Evita visits the peasants, kisses babies, listens to an old woman's concerns in beautifully framed sepia hues; at the center of a labor union protest, Evita as Joan of Arc addresses the people, promising whatever it is that living legends promise.

Close-ups of the downtrodden, now given hope, show thankful eyes welling with tears of adoration. And on and on...........the camera shamelessly canonizes its subject. While there is no substance, Madonna supplies the mother lode of wonderfully extravagant texture.

It takes a paradigmatic legend to know one. Taking her cue from Alan Parker, from Broadway, from Hollywood and, ultimately, from her own great sense of ego, Madonna is indeed "Evita." Maybe they deserve each other. "Evita," rated PG-13, is a Hollywood Pictures release directed by Alan Parker and stars Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce. Running time: 131 minutes

ALSO SEEN: "Mother"(PG-13)(3 popcorns)-Albert Brooks's latest psycho-babble, this time about mother-son relationships, is witty, wise, and off-the-wall enough to cause belly laughs along with chortles and titters. A man in his 40s (Brooks as sci-fi writer John Henderson) has just concluded his second divorce and figures a refresher course on his upbringing may give him the insight he needs to move on with his life. So he decides to move back in with Mom (Debbie Reynolds in a dynamite performance) and claim his old room. Expect the expected as well as the unexpected as Brooks does Freud and the Baby-Boomer, adroitly applying his funny bone to the subject at hand.

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