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Culture | Oprah the movie and other cultural buzz

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

Beloved by liberals
Toni Morrison is on top of the world. Her novel Beloved dominated the best-seller lists for years and now is on the big screen with Oprah Winfrey at the helm (Touchstone Pictures, rated R for sex and violence). Critics and college professors pay Ms. Morrison tribute like conquered armies giving their due to Caesar. They even gave her the Nobel prize. This novelist gushes with politically correct fury. Recently she tarred the congressional investigations into the Clinton scandals with the scarlet letters r-a-c-i-s-m. "This is our first black president, blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime," she wrote in The New Yorker. "After all, Clinton displays almost every trait of blackness-single parent household, born poor, working class, saxophone playing, McDonald's and junk food and fun-lovin' boy from Arkansas." Such demagoguery is considered as the wisdom of Solomon among the intellectually fashionable. And who better to give her characters life than Oprah? She rules daytime television with an iron fist, passing out flummery to those who leave the set on after the soaps. Now she can even send rockets up the bestseller charts herself, thanks to the marketing mafia known as the Oprah Book Club. The resulting picture, of Titanic length, is an overworked mess. Producer-star Oprah, reunited with The Color Purple co-star Danny Glover, is only an okay actress and can't carry a dramatic lead. This ghost story, about an escaped slave who lives in a haunted house and whose daughter comes back from the dead, falls flat on film. The filmmakers, notably director Jonathan Demme, can't tell whether to make this a historical drama about slavery or a rehash of Stephen King. And the explicit content only adds an overbearing sense of the grotesque that sinks Beloved even further. The audience waits for a dramatic turn that gives meaning to the 172-minute extravaganza; it never comes. The makers of Beloved seemed so certain they had a Big Event on their hands that they stopped trying to achieve an entertaining movie. Mighty misfits
Can two misfit junior-high kids bring back King Arthur's chivalry in a bad Cincinnati neighborhood? They try in The Mighty (Miramax, rated PG-13 for elements of violence and peril), a three-hanky drama about a handicapped smart kid (Kieran Culkin, Macaulay's younger brother) who teams up with the overweight, slow son of a convicted murderer (Elden Henson). One carries the other on his shoulders as they become close friends as misfits in school. In a bit of anti-typecasting, Sharon Stone plays the lame boy's mother and Gillian Anderson (of X-Files fame) plays a tart whose purse is rescued from a sewer by the young knights. The two boys form a unit because they serve each other's weaknesses: One provides the brains and the other provides the legs. Their adventures are interrupted as one boy gets sicker while the other's dad jumps parole. The story is told as the memory of the latter kid; the filmmakers do a great job of putting the audience inside the head of a confused, learning-disabled boy. With its Don Quixote metaphor, The Mighty plays a riff on adolescent anxieties. What happens to the kids who, through no fault of their own, are shoved to the bottom of the school caste systems? Our heroes imagine themselves as Lancelot and Merlin bravely defeating the neighborhood thugs. Their companionship helps them cope with their broken homes and failed fathers. This theme has a dark side, however. The lesson audiences take from the film may be a Gnostic moral that as long as one's mind is in Camelot, the state of one's body just doesn't matter. The Mighty is quite similar to Simon Birch of a few weeks ago. In both films the dying boy leaves his best friend forever changed. This movie is less touchy-feely and has a simpler story, yet this movie does more with less. The pain of death mixes with the kid's movie theme about imaginative youngsters foiling the bad guys, turning a snapshot of adolescent life into grown-up drama. The latest toy The Furbies are coming! Hide your children! What's a Furby? It's a cuddly piece of animatronics that looks like an extra from the movie Gremlins. He's also loaded with artificial intelligence technology that powers Tamagotchis and Giga Pets. Hasbro bills them as "genetically engineered" creatures and wants you to pay $30 to put one under the tree. Turn it on and it says its name. Furbies speak their own language, "Furbish," but learn English by interacting with people. Their eyes can open and close, their ears wiggle, and their mouths move when they talk. The toys use infrared to talk to each other. "The more you play, the more they do," is the slogan. Furbies are unique, but they have little red hearts embedded in the foreheads so you know they're good guys. The little creatures giggle, sneeze, and play peek-a-boo. They can even say "Me love you" at night to your kid. All this interaction may make him send Fido and Rover back to the pound. Hasbro is sure your kid will want a Furby. The corporate marketing machine is in overdrive to ensure it. The toy giant made sure their new product was seen in all the right places: Wired magazine, FAO Schwarz, CNN, Entertainment Weekly. Megapower PR campaigns have joined traditional advertising to make a one-two punch designed to herd customers to the cash registers. If it works, parents will be pushing, shoving, and outmaneuvering each other on shopping sprees that resemble guerrilla warfare. The marketing mindset behind this is that grown-ups buy toys the same way they buy clothes, stereos, and cars. Dad wants a sportscar and Junior wants his megatoy. So Furby (like Tickle Me Elmo or Power Rangers or Teletubbies) can be as much a cool status symbol as a new Beetle or Starbucks Coffee. Mom and Dad may not spend time with their kids or teach them anything explicitly, but they'll learn the art of consumption by example. In a year or two, Furby will be forgotten and The Next Big Thing will come along, starting the process again. Over time, the child's desire for something with four legs and batteries develops into one for something with four wheels and a gas tank.

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