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Colonial Life 

The brave bugs of Antz and the rabid racists of The Life of Jesus

Wednesday, Sep 30 1998
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Antz, the suave first collaboration between DreamWorks and the computer-animation outfit PDI, is a charmer, complete with cute critters voiced by the ultrafamous, a love match between Woody Allen and Sharon Stone, and a sly, vinegary script that's designed to keep the grown-ups happy while their offspring drool over the electronic whiz-bang. For a breezy tale of insect lib, the movie also comes larded with heavy messaging about war, dictatorship, conformity and the virtues of individualism. Nothing new in that: Disney has been plugging the American Way and trashing the Totalitarian Other through 60 years of animated features.

Except that no one whistles while he works in Antz. The movie even boasts a class revolution and some droll chitchat about workers' control of the means of production. Lest you fear that Messrs. Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen have given their hearts to dialectical Marxism, be assured that the revolt of the bugs is quintessentially American, based on the creative initiative of individuals banding together inenlightened cooperation.

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There's no species better equipped to front for American anxieties about work, leisure and class than the ant, a creature thoroughly programmed for unquestioning obedience and overwork. How fitting, then, that the unwitting, unwilling hero of this movie, a proletarian ant named Z-4195, is the ambivalent kvetch we know as Woody Allen. When first we meet Z (who, like all the major players in this movie, looks more like a grasshopper than an ant), he's stretched out on a couch, rambling on about his abandonment issues and wondering why he has to give his all for the colony and save nothing for himself. "Yes, Z," intones his psychologist (voice of Paul Mazursky). "You are insignificant." If Z hadn't laid lustful eyes on the beautiful ant-Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) one night when she went slumming at the workers' bar, he'd have gone right on bemoaning the caste system even as he kowtowed to it. But, pepped by love, Z talks his gentle-giant soldier-pal, Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), into swapping jobs so that Z can get close to the Princess. From then on it's open season on the rigid roles apportioned at birth to every ant, from lowly workers to the royal family. Bala is none too pleased with her own life, chafing at her enforced engagement, by order of the Queen Mum Ant (Anne Bancroft), to General Mandible (Gene Hackman), an ambitious cad with a sting in his tail and a grand design to bring not just the colony, but the entire underground world, to heel.

Plunged willy-nilly into a "preemptive strike" against the enemy termites (which makes for some terrific crowd scenes as the two armies slug it out for sovereignty over a tree trunk), Z becomes an accidental war hero and the bane of Mandible's life, and soon finds himself on the run with Bala, headed toward "insectopia." Two more self-absorbed lovebirds you couldn't hope to find this side of The Philadelphia Story, but they make a fetching couple. PDI's witty new facial-animation techniques both capture and gently satirize the gestures by which we know the stars who play the ants, making Allen more endearing than he's been in years in his own films, and Stone as sultry as ever despite being deprived of her luscious physicality.

As Z and Bala negotiate the joys and terrors of the free life above ground, they learn how to pool their skills and survive. Just as well, for insectopia, which they find with the aid of a kindly wasp couple, Chip and Muffy (voiced by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin), turns out to be an ambiguous, not to say terrifying, paradise in the form of a giant human picnic stuffed with product placement. One wonders if the makers of Mountain Dew and Pepsi understand just how much of a mixed blessing they appear to be in these scenes. And though the giant sneaker on which the ants are transported through grass the size of a forest has no brand name, it could easily pass for the heavy foot of Nike.

Antz's most exciting scenes come toward the end, when Z and Bala turn their backs on hedonism and return home to help the workers throw off the chains of the dastardly Mandible. If you're amused at the apparent hypocrisy of a movie - made under the aegis of three of the most powerful corporate cats in Hollywood - that celebrates the lowly worker and warns of the perils of centralized power, look carefully and you'll see the irony fade away. For Antz is that most American of stories, a tale of high-speed upward mobility. Music to the ears of Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen, inventors of their own American Dream.

A French-Arab boy, by no means an innocent, is victimized by white teenagers in Bruno Dumont's wise, achingly beautiful first feature. Yet The Life of Jesus is more about the banality of everyday evil than about some abstract thing called racism. For one thing, the story is filtered through the perspective, such as it is, of the white aggressor, a boy for whom racism is but one unreflective aspect of an unreflective life. And Dumont unfolds his story, not with the faux "insights" of textbook liberalism, but with the empathic intelligence of a director who wants us to know a world from within. So much so that by the time the movie delivers its first small shock hinting at the brutality to come, we are deeply and sympathetically absorbed in the life of Freddy (David Douche), a chronically unemployed boy with a broad, blank face at once vulnerable and thuggish, in the small Flanders town of Bailleul, where the director grew up.

Freddy loves his mother (Genevieve Cottreel), a kind but passive woman; his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), a rosy cashier at the local supermarket; his pet finch; and the pimply comrades with whom, when he's not receiving treatment for his epilepsy, he spends his days mindlessly speeding round the countryside on motorbikes. Theirs is a barren life: Dumont depicts Bailleul as a forlorn, bedraggled place unglamorized by either the Rockwellian romance of Hollywood schmaltz or the black comedy of neo-noir. It's a ghost town brought low by joblessness, its culture sucked dry by television, its stoical inhabitants drifting around in the padded silence of the hopeless. Dumont shoots his nonprofessional actors in long, static takes that reveal the compulsive repetitions of Freddy's world: his ravenous couplings with Marie; his jerking epileptic fits; above all, his frantic rides through the country lanes with his friends, playing chicken with a mysterious fancy car. When a character moves out of frame, the camera lingers on the lovely landscape as if to emphasize its contrast with the boys' futile lives. More than any facile psychologizing, the desolate tone of The Life of Jesus explains the alienation that moves these boys, who love playing in the town's marching band, to casually rape a pudgy cheerleader and then wonder what all the fuss is about when the town responds with outrage. It's Freddy's dead-end drifting, as much as the lascivious eye that the good-looking - and fully employed - North African boy Kader (Kader Chaatouf) casts on Marie, that brings the white boy's rage and frustration to a boil. When, at the end of the movie, a policeman wearily asks, "Is it even your fault?" it's not the director throwing in a glib sociological excuse for Freddy's actions, but a logical extension of the compassionate understanding he has brought to his subject, and the humanistic spirit that gives this wonderful movie its title.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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