Thursday, January 18, 2024

THE COLOR PURPLE (2023)**


Alice Walker's iconic novel of African American female endurance, THE COLOR PURPLE, has a new life as a movie-musical.  I cannot fault the look of the film, clearly inspired by Julie Dash's iconic DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, nor its production values, cinematography, costumes, or performances.  Fantasia Barrino is deeply moving and convincing as the heroine, Celie - a woman we first meet as the victim of her father's sexual abuse. We watch her children abducted, her marriage to the equally abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), and late in life discovery of her sexuality and economic power.  By the end of the film she is a late middle-aged woman, with all of the physical change that that implies. She is framed by two other impressive performances. Taraji P Henson plays the renamed Shug Avery - the glamorous nightclub singer who has to reconcile with her faith and father. And Danielle Brooks plays Sofia - Celie's no-nonsense duaghter-in-law who is humbled by a racist white woman.  

Every individual element of this film is calculated to impress but I just could not get over the fact that it was a musical, and moreover that the music was not contemporary to the period in which the film is set (the first half of the twentieth century).  As a result, whenever the production design and performances pulled me into an emotional space, the anachronistic music pulled me right out.  It also didn't help that the director Blitz Bazawule chooses to have the actors lip synch to the ruthlessly studio clean soundtrack. Given that so many scenes are outdoors with the sounds of nature around, I feel this is really a film where it would have been of benefit to have the actors to sing live, as in Tom Hooper's LES MIS, or at least make the songs sound less airless and clean.

The upshot was that I never felt involved with the characters or their story and while I admired it theoretically I was not moved.  The original film made me cry, I felt keenly the humbling of Sofia, and the more discreet relationship between Celie and Margaret sizzled with sensuality. I didn't need the awkward intervention of anachronistic music. 

THE COLOR PURPLE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 141 minutes. It was released in the US on Christmas Day 2023 and will be released in the UK on January 26th.

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT**


THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a deeply dull, paint-by-numbers underdog sports biopic about a working class American rowing eight than won Gold at the 1936 Olympics. We don't learn much about them, other than that they are poor and motivated. We know they are poor because is an opening scene the hero (Callum Turner with an absurd and distracting blonde dye job) is putting cardboard inside his shoe. We don't learn much about their coach (Joel Edgerton) who just looks taciturn and unknowable for the entire film. We certainly don't understand why they are so good and what he did to make them that way. And we don't really understand the stakes.   

This was the Hitler/Berlin Olympics but director George Clooney has no interest in showing the real peril of fascist Germany, just as he isn't interested in showing the real tragedy of Depression-era America. Instead, he puts a few Nazi flags up, has a few brownshirts cheer for Germany, and some guy play dress up as the Fuhrer. It's actually so trivialising it's insulting - particularly to Jesse Owens. What we learn from all this is that Clooney doesn't want to get his hands dirty in the period.  

Instead he creates a film that is book-ended by a sappy grandpa-grandson bit of nostalgia; that is forever bathed in twinkling sunlight; and where the hero's girlfriend forever has perfectly styled hair and no character or lines to speak of.  This is dull retrograde film-making of the worst kind, and all the more embarrassing because CHARIOTS OF FIRE figured out how to inject emotion, stakes and modernity forty years ago.

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 123 minutes. It was released in the USA on Christmas Day 2023, and in the UK on January 12th.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

DREAM SCENARIO****


Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli's DREAM SCENARIO is a film that feels as though it could have been made by a collective of Spike Jonze, Charlie Kauffman and Michel Gondry. This is a good thing. 

Nic Cage stars as a schlubby university professor who starts showing up in everyone's dreams. At first this leads to a wonderful surge in popularity - students actually turn up to his lectures and he gets a book deal. But when his dream avatar turns into a nightmare, the world turns on the real life professor. He and his family are shunned, and then subject to violence. The book deal morphs into a crass trashy occult-baiting book.  The poor man's entire life is upended.

The film has lots to say about the absurdity of the mob - whether in hyping someone up or tearing them down. The increasingly surreal dreams are beautifully executed. And through it all we have Cage's measured, disbelieving, horrified Professor. People are right when they say it's the most well-modulated performance Cage has given in years - playing against type - or rather the caricature that Cage sometimes puts forth of himself.

The resulting film is an intelligent and darkly absurd satire that entertains and provokes. Superb!

DREAM SCENARIO is rated R and has a running time of 102 minutes.  It played Toronto 2023 and was released in the USA and UK last November.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE****


Nicole Newnham's new documentary is an urgent, well-constructed and desperately relevant film about a feminist sociologist and publishing sensation cut down by the patriarchy. 

Shere Hite was a beautiful, intelligent, curious and sex-positive woman. She supported herself through college at Columbia and then in her sociological research by modelling, some of which was nude.  She saw nothing wrong with this. She became famous for publishing The Hite Report in 1976 - summarising the results of a survey of 3000 American women. The most shocking of its revelations was that the best way to satisfy a woman sexually was through clitoral stimulation, and that conventional vaginal intercourse was a poor way to achieve this.  As a result, most women's best sexual experiences were through masturbation.

The severity and savagery of the masculine backlash was comprehensive.  The publishers tried to sabotage the book by restricting sales and the first print run.  They refused to run any publicity. But they couldn't stop the juggernaut of interest. Apparently it's the thirtieth best selling book of all time, even though few today have heard of it.  But the accompanying PR interviews, many of which are excerpted here, show the toll it took on Hite. She was pilloried on TV shows and accused of making men irrelevant. Men tried to discredit her based on her nude modelling and the sample biases in her research (you try getting a representative sample of women to answer a sex survey!).  Publishers would not give her a contract for her ongoing research and she ended up giving up her US citizenship and forging a new life in Europe.

Perhaps this cancellation and suppression is ongoing. People today all know about the Kinsey report on men, but how many now about the Hite report on women? Why - after immense critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival, did this film not get wider distribution, despite a star as big as Dakota Johnson voicing the words of Shere Hite? Why does the world not care when Shere Hite was speaking to exactly the repression of female sexuality that we now see rearing its head in the United States?  All of these factors speak to the continuing importance of Hite's work. This film is a worthy argument along those lines.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE is rated R and has a running time of 118 minutes. It played Sundance 2023 and was released in the USA last November. It was released in the UK this week.

GOOD GRIEF**


An artist turned househusband loses his apparently rich and loving spouse in a car crash on Christmas Eve. Over the next year he grieves with the help of his two best friends: an earnest art gallerist and a flaky creative with an problematic relationship with commitment and alcohol.  On the anniversary of the death they go to Paris for a healing weekend of indulgence and honesty.  The artist becomes an artist again. The addict gets sober. The nice gallerist doesn't grow because I guess he doesn't need to?  

The film is not funny. I don't think it's actually meant to be but the fact that it's written by, directed by and stars Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy is likely to raise some expectations in the audience. This wouldn't matter if the film worked as an emotional exploration of grief - after all, that's purportedly its aim. I don't think the writing is insightful enough or moving enough for that. Instead what we have are some very well-dressed moving around beautifully appointed houses having fairly superficial conversations. There is no actual peril - neither financial, nor emotional - and one could argue that the addiction story is not given the respect it deserves either. I remain convinced that Dan Levy is missing his true story as an interior designer. 

GOOD GRIEF is rated R and has a running time of 100 minutes. It was released on Netflix. 

Friday, January 05, 2024

SOCIETY OF THE SNOW*****



Spanish writer-director JA Bayona's retelling of the iconic 1972 Andes air crash is his career best work, which is a big call given how masterful his 2016 film A MONSTER CALLS is.  There is evident care taken to listen to the testimony of the survivors and honour both their experience and that of the victims.  What lifts this film beyond earlier movies covering the same topic is its technological prowess in showing the crash, and then by contrast, the quiet moments of philosophical and moral contemplation as the survivors decide how to live.

The film opens with a brief but powerful essay on life before the crash. We see these young college students full of life and exuberance as they plan for a flight to Chile for a rugby match.  Within five minutes we are on board and the fun continues until the first dramatic moment of air turbulence shifts the mood. Bayona moves as fast as events would have in real time, showing the plane hit a storm, wildly gyrate before having its wings sheered off, the fuselage ripped, before crashing into a mountain. We feel the impact viscerally - it's the most frightening depiction of a crash yet seen on film - and matched in impact by an avalanche shown later in the film.  We feel the peril and the suffocation and claustrophobia of endless hostile snow.

And then we move into the main bulk of the film which has a far quieter, more contemplative tone.  The team captain with his quiet gentle manner becomes the leader of the 29 survivors, raising their morale, rationing food and organising their tasks. When their hope of rescue is quashed by a news report heard on the radio. And so they realise that they are on their own, with no food, but a misperception that Chile is just on the other side of the mountain. And so they take the fateful, profound decision to use the "protein" of their dead comrades, build strength, survive and achieve their own rescue. Two of them hike an incredible ten days, without any mountaineering equipment or experience or even a compass or a map, and achieve rescue.

The most moving scene is how JA Bayona chooses to end the film - showing the Society Of The Snow reassembled, now seemingly safe and clean in a hospital ward, but still emaciated. They look confused and concerned, maybe now facing up to the decisions they took and the improbability of their rescue and the injustice of who did and did not survive. Bayona chooses to give us the essential truth beyond the sensational headlines - that these boys survived because they were truly a society - they were friends, they trusted each other, they cared for each other, they helped each other do the unthinkable, and willed each other to survive. And that this community care is going to have to continue as the men process what they have been through.

SOCIETY OF THE SNOW is rated R and has a running time of 144 minutes. It played Venice 2023 and was released today on Netflix.