Thursday, January 18, 2024


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 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


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.


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.


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


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.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

STRANDED (2007) *****

In 1972 a charter plane carrying a Chilean college rugby team crashed into the Andes when the pilot made a navigational error amidst a heavy snowstorm. These were rich medical students who lived by the sea and had, many of them, never seen snow before. The atmosphere on board before the crash was one of high jinks and festive jubilation. This ended abruptly with the crash. The pilots soon died, the back of the plane had been sheered off, there was very little food, and the radio told them the rescue had been called off. Faced with certain death, this group of Catholic college boys were rallied by two things - the leadership of their team captain who rationed their food with discipline and fairness. And then the profound decision to cross the taboo of cannibalism in order to survive. For some, this was a challenging but rational decision - these were men of medical science after all. But for others, with a deep Catholic faith, it was a sin that could damn them, and it needed to be justified in terms of an act of consuming the Eucharist. 

Gonzalo Arijon's documentary, made 35 years after the accident, is a triumph of film-making. He has access to many of the survivors and their family members and reconstructs the events through their testimony and some recreations. They are candid about their emotions at the time and in retrospect. We hear grown men describe almost dying - slowly through starvation - and suddenly when an avalanche buries them alive. We see the pain on their faces and in their voices when they discuss the need to eat their friends.  We see the deep care taken to respect the dead, and to be honest with the rescuers for the sake of the families.

The result is a film that is by turns moving and dramatic.  Despite knowing the outline of the story I was again and again taken aback by the men's candid insights and resilience. Truly this is a story of the importance of friendship, camaraderie and the willingness to survive.  I was left with nothing but admiration for the men.

STRANDED has a running time of 130 minutes. It played Sundance 2008 and can be viewed in full on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024


Zoya Akhtar's Indian adaptation of the Archie comics is a strange beast.  One assumes that these comics are aimed at kids, and apparently they were very popular in India in the sixties. But why then do we have a film that seems neither aimed at kids nor at adults?  On the one hand, we have pantomime villains and heroes and an entirely sexless love triangle. On the other hand, Akhtar is trying to say something about the unique position of the Anglo-Indian community in a post-Independence India. None of it hangs together.  The film might have been saved by wonderfully catchy songs, but the songs are trite and unmemorable with bizarrely statically shot dance sequences.  And as for the performances..... Much has been made of the fact that Zoya Akhtar (herself a "nepo baby") cast three scions of major Hollywood dynasties in lead roles. Archie himself is played by Agastya Nanda, grandson of Amitabh Bachchan, and his love interests are played by Suhana, daughter of Shah Rukh, Khan and Khushi, daughter of Bonny, Kapoor.  None of them can act (yet?) but if I had to rank them, Khushi seems to have the most talent, followed by Suhana then Agastya. Maybe it's just the thin characterisation giving them nothing to do.

So what is there to like about this film? I genuinely liked the prologue where we get the history of the Anglo-Indian community and something of their culture. This isn't something we ever see in mainstream Indian cinema.  I liked the production design and beautiful rendering of the interiors. I felt a sense of place in Riverdale and its central Green Park and independent stores, and peril that this would be demolished to make way for a mall. In other words, I liked the background, but not the plot or action.

THE ARCHIES has a running time of 141 minutes. It was released on Netflix last December.


So cards on the table. Gene Wilder is my Willy Wonka. I love that film. It remains perfection. Silly and fun and sinister and melancholy and everything wonderful and enchanting.* But I am pleased to report that Timothee Chalamet's musical origins story is charming and delightful, and if lacking the sinister melancholia, well he is just a young lad. 

This version of Roald Dahl's iconic character sees him as a young impoverished man, desperate to share his chocolate with the world so that he can feel close to his dead mother. (Okay it's not as creepy as that just sounded). But he is up against two interlocking groups of villains. First, Olivia Colman and Tom Davis are Wonka's evil landlords, straight out of Les Miserables, complete with an abandoned cute orphan girl called Noodle (Calah Lane). The second group of villains are the chocolate oligopoly who control the supply by bribing the local police chief (Keegan Michael Key) and cleric (Rowan Atkinson).  And in case you didn't think that was story line enough, we have a delicious cameo from a scene-stealing Hugh Grant as the original Oompa Loompa.

All of this makes for a complicated but never hard-to-follow adventure story set in a kind of fantasy Victorian mittel-europe that is sumptuous and wonderful in its production design. Chalamet is absolutely delightful as Wonka, Calah Lane adds empathy and earnestness as his sidekick Noodle, and all the adults are wonderfully cast. Of course, this is Hugh Grant's film. He is always better as villains and rogues, but his Oompa Loompa really does have some pathos to him too. Kudos to the writer-director behind PADDINGTON (Simon Farnaby and Paul King) for creating yet another warm-hearted but never schmaltzy family adventure. My only quibble is that the songs - from The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon - are not as immediately catchy as those from the original film - something that is highlighted whenever they use one of those iconic vintage tunes. Nonetheless, I await the inevitable West End musical!

WONKA has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated PG. It is on global release. *Let's not even discuss the abomination that was the Johnny Depp version. 


Writer-director Molly Manning Walker's debut feature is an astonishingly raw, brave and affecting drama about a teenage girl's summer holiday turned horror.  I am unsurprised to learn that Manning Walker won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes for her work, and can't wait to see what she does next.

The film stars Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara, a sixteen-year old girl hoping to have some post-exam summer fun in Crete.  She is travelling with her two best friends, but we soon learn that friendship only goes so far when you both fancy the same boy.  We root for Tara to hook up with Badger (Shaun Thomas), who at least seems to have something of a moral conscience, but she inevitably ends up with his friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) who it is implied is more typical of the kind of guy you are going to meet on a party island.  Molly Manning Walker unflinchingly shows us the misogyny and sexual violence embedded in toxic holiday destinations like Cancun and the Med resorts. The most brutal part of all of this is how it manifests in the girls - the internalised misogyny of shaming someone for being a virgin, and the internalised pressure to have sex. You watch in terror as you realise the inevitable outcome of lots of booze, lots of pressure, and high-risk situations. All of this is portrayed with complete credibility by McKenna-Bruce and culminates in a final heartbreaking scene in an airport where she confesses the reality of what happened to her, and the evasive, equivocal reaction of her best friend. If you weren't worried about how teenagers think about consent before watching, you will be when you leave.

HOW TO HAVE SEX is rated 15 and has a running time of 91 minutes. It played Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival in 2023 and was released in the UK on December 29th. It will play Sundance 2024 before a February 2nd release.


In preparation for the release of the new adaptation of THE COLOR PURPLE I decided to finally watch the critically acclaimed DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST by writer-director Julie Dash. This is a film that debuted at Sundance in 1991, but where other indie debutants like Richard Linklater went on to get many feature films financed Julie Dash disappeared from view.  If one laments the fact that the original THE COLOR PURPLE didn't win an Oscar, despite its eleven nominations, consider the further and ongoing racism of Hollywood that Julie Dash could create a film of such unique and beautiful vision as DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and never make a feature again.  Which is not to say that her presence has not been felt. Beyonce's Lemonade is just one of the examples of films that reference Dash's visual style and social concerns. And the new COLOR PURPLE apparently also references her now iconic visual style.

The movie takes place in the saltwater Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina in the early years of the twentieth century.  Their story is told by the wise old grandmother of the family, Nana Peazant, and by an as yet unborn daughter.  We learn that their isolation was a blessing, freeing them from large-scale plantation slavery and preserving their specific language, religion and customs.  Much of the film takes place in conversation amidst the beautiful sun-drenched sands of the island, with strong women shaping their history and future.

The story is not told in a straightforward linear fashion but we soon discover that this community is in its dying days, and the younger members of the family feel the draw of greater opportunity on the mainland.  That brings with it cultural contamination - from Christianity and Islam - but also the actuality of white violence.

Where THE COLOR PURPLE has a surfeit of plot, and is structured in a conventional manner, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is poetic and loose and enchanting. The former is anchored on Celie's house, to where characters return and retreat, and the ownership of which is a key plot point.  By contrast, the Gullah woman seem to be eternally outdoors and connected to the water and sand and trees.  This maybe speaks to the fact that the seawater Gullah have managed to retain their African heritage in a way that the mainland post-slavery society that Celie lives in has been thoroughly alienated from its proud heritage. In THE COLOR PURPLE, Nettie has to return to Africa to discover her culture, but even then arrives as an outsider, a missionary, with a patronising civilising influence. In the Gullah community, Africa survives and is proximate.

The glory of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is the time spent with these fascinating women, contrasting their differing attitudes toward spirituality and the choice of where to live.  Cinematographer Arthur Jafa creates stunningly beautiful beachscapes populated by people in gorgeous white dresses against trailing moss. It's no wonder these images have been so influential. The only thing that felt anachronistic and dissonant watching it now was composer John Barnes' synth heavy score.

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 113 minutes.

THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)*****

In preparation for the remake of THE COLOR PURPLE I thought I would revisit the original screen adaptation. It was directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Menno Meyjes and based on Alice Walker's iconic novel of black southern female misery.  At the time this must have seemed like rather an odd combination of director and writer for such material - two white men, known for their work in blockbuster action movies. Indeed, the race of the directorial choice attracted a lot of criticism, as well as Spielberg's coy depiction of its lesbian storyline.  I feel that both of these criticisms fail to consider the context of the time: the need to attract commercial backers and keep a PG-13 rating for the mass market. They also fail to acknowledge the opportunity to see so much black talent in front of and behind the lens - with stunning debut feature central performances from Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, as well as a masterful score from Quincy Jones.*  A more convincing criticism of both book and film is its depiction of black male sexual violence.  Added to this, one might criticise the racism of the film industry. While the film was nominated for eleven Oscars, it didn't win a single one. 

The book and film take place over the first half of the twentieth century in the rural South. Their protagonist is Celie - a black girl so oppressed that she is raped by her father and her incestuous children taken from her.  She is then given to another violent man as his wife, dudgeon and surrogate mother to his children.  The only love in Celie's life is her sister Nettie, but they are cruelly separated by her husband and she spends much of her life believing Nettie is dead.  The only friendship Celie has is with her stepdaughter-in-law Sophia, whose fierce temper and assertiveness are an inspiration and then a tragedy.  And the only lover Celie truly has is Shug, her husband's long-time mistress, who teaches Celie what real sexual pleasure can be.

The standard criticism of Spielberg films is that they are sentimental and gauche. There is sentiment here but it is all earned. Whoopi Goldberg's debut as Celie is so heartbreakingly sincere that one cannot help but glory in her small moments of happiness and love. I was similarly deeply moved by Shug (Margaret Avery), the stunning singer, in her final homecoming to her disapproving pastor father. And there is something quite haunting about Sophia's humbling, portrayed by an otherwise vivacious and scene-stealing Oprah Winfrey. 

There is so much else to admire in this film beyond the economic script and great performances. Allen Daviau's cinematographer portrays both the lush warmth of the South as well as the oppressive claustrophobia. There is both beauty and violence in this film. But for me, it's all about Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy's score. This is tremendously powerful film-making.

THE COLOR PURPLE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 154 minutes.  *I am curious to see how the new film - based on a musical adaptation of the book - will better the final "coming home" of Shug to a thrilling gospel score.)