The Color Purple (1985)

2016 #66
Steven Spielberg | 154 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

These days, Steven Spielberg is as well-known for his Oscar-worthy historical prestige pictures as he is for his action-adventure genre movies, so it’s kinda strange (at least for me) to imagine the time in his career at which this film came about. I mean, it’s an adaptation of a controversial literary novel about the miserable lives of black women in the American South during the early decades of the 20th Century, directed by the white guy known for Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Temple of Doom. To give it a modern frame of reference, it must’ve been a bit like if Zack Snyder had made Precious.

Beginning in 1909, the film tells the life story of Celie, played as a teen by Desreta Jackson and as a woman by Whoopi Goldberg, in her debut role. She’s surprisingly good, actually — often understated, doing a lot with just her eyes. Anyway, over the next 28 years Celie is systematically abused and downtrodden, first by her father, then by her husband Albert (Danny Glover) and his unruly kids from a previous marriage. Her beloved sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) disappears, never to be heard from, despite a promise to write. Various characters and their subplots weave in and out of Celie’s life, like Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong-willed woman who one day slaps a white man and suffers for it; and jazz singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), the object of Albert’s affections, who eventually helps Celie find greater independence.

If it all sounds a bit grim then, well, it is. I’m sure it can’t’ve been a great time or place to be a black person (though any suffering at the hands of white folk doesn’t play into this particular narrative too much, aside from Sofia’s storyline), nor is it exactly the greatest period to have been a woman, so put the two together… Yet because it’s a Spielberg film, it never quite feels like we’re getting the full force of the story’s brutality. That’s a mixed blessing: as a viewer, we’re spared all the horrors you can infer from what actually happens; at the same time, how much should a story about such horrors be sparing us from them? Though as it was at one point advertised with the tagline, “Remember how good it made you feel… See it again.”, someone clearly thought it was meant to be a feel-good movie.

Nonetheless, the lack of gritty realism isn’t just Spielberg’s fault, I don’t think, but also the era of filmmaking. These days I imagine such a story wound make for a much grittier movie, like the aforementioned Precious, or 12 Years a Slave, but this comes from a ‘prettier’ time. Look at something like Once Upon a Time in America, released the year before: it’s a film about violent crime and associated dark deeds, but it’s also an historical prestige movie, tinged with nostalgia. There’s not a whole lot of nostalgia in The Color Purple, but there’s something of a similar tone.

That said, Spielberg’s handling of tone here is certainly not as accomplished as Sergio Leone’s in Once Upon a Time. The really grim stuff rubs up against slapstick comedy, and Spielberg’s patented sentimentality is unleashed in undiluted force in a final act where everything comes up roses, and even some of the grim stuff from earlier is retrospectively re-written (some of that is a fault inherited from Alice Walker’s novel, of course). It’s also far too long, in need of a good streamlining rather than losing any one part in particular. Famously, it’s the only Spielberg film not scored by John Williams (until he was too ill to do Bridge of Spies). Ironic, then, that Quincy Jones’ score often sounds quite Williams-y, particularly one motif that constantly feels like it’s going to evolve into the Jurassic Park theme.

Spielberg’s first foray into Serious filmmaking is a long way from being an unqualified success, but it’s not a bad movie either, and at least it was the gateway to him making some superior dramas. Bonus points, too, for a mainstream big name director tackling a story about the historical lives of black women — depressingly, that still feels like it would be a noteworthy move 30 years later.

4 out of 5

Dreamgirls (2006)

2015 #195
Bill Condon | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar-winning adaptation of the stage musical that doesn’t tell the story of the Supremes in fictionalised form, no sir.

Jamie Foxx is the ambitious car salesman who transforms a trio of black soul singers into a crossover hit by replacing chunky lead Jennifer Hudson with sexy Beyoncé Knowles. Personal issues dog the girls’ career, as Foxx becomes megalomaniacal, leaving early successes like R&B star Eddie Murphy in his wake.

Despite oddities, like diegetic performances being replaced part way by characters breaking into song, and questions over the story’s adherence to fact, the film is a compelling (if heightened) character drama.

4 out of 5

Lethal Weapon (1987)

2009 #8
Richard Donner | 110 mins | download | 18 / R

Lethal WeaponLethal Weapon comes from another era — an era in which R-rated films were still allowed to be blockbusters. One only needs to look at the classifications attached to the most recent instalments of formerly-R-rated ’80s franchises — primarily, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Die Hard 4.0, both PG-13 — to see how things have changed. Of course, maybe they have just cause: Watchmen, the first proper R-rated blockbuster for a while, has been labelled a box office disappointment (because that’s what $150m worldwide in two weeks is these days).

I digress. Though, my mind frequently wandered during Lethal Weapon — often to Die Hard. This may predate the Bruce Willis franchise by several years, but it’s a testament to the fame of that film’s Christmas setting that my first thought was they’d ripped it off (Lethal Weapon, like Die Hard, begins with a classic Christmas song over an urban setting). And my next thought was, did they not have a costume budget? The film opens with a young girl, lazing provocatively with one tit out… at first, before Donner makes sure to show them both off thoroughly before she hurls herself from a building; and then we find Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the bath and Mel Gibson’s Riggs wandering around showing his arse off. Nudity is fine in its place, of course, but here it’s so gratuitous that it sets a low tone — to be fair, one the film does little to belie.

More seriously then: the plot is full of holes with great gaps in its logic, especially as it heads towards the climax. There’s also no mystery — the investigation is just an excuse to string together action set pieces and comedic buddy scenes, neither of which are much cop, and most of the story is conveyed in a couple of info-dumps that supporting characters volunteer for no definite reason. The dialogue and performances are appalling — “may I remind you of some stuff you already know, that’s convenient exposition for the audience, thoroughly explaining the troubles of the main character and the scene you just saw”. I’ve seen better episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Their motivation makes about as much sense too — “tell me the truth!” “But they’ll kill my daughter!” “We can protect her!” “No you can’t!” “Tell me!” “Oh OK then.”

The villains aren’t just poorly drawn, they’re barely sketched at all. There’s an early scene where we see how Hard they are, then they just turn up in time for the climax and do little more than get chased around and die explosively, and in the wrong order to boot. At the very end, our heroes capture the one remaining bad guy… and then have a fight. Why? Because they do. And then all the police turn up and just watch this punch-up going on. It’s the thinnest excuse for a final fight ever put on film, and consequently the least tense — none of those officers are going to let the villain kill Riggs, and even if he did beat or kill him he’s not going to escape. There is literally no point to it. It’s appalling writing, and dire filmmaking to have left it in.

Oh, and Murtaugh smashes a car into his own front room for no reason.

Lethal Weapon probably wants to be a lot better than it is. Was it supposed to be a drama about these two cops with any old investigation plot stuck on, or a standard action-thriller with too much time spent on character? At best, it falls somewhere between the two — they’re not real characters (i.e. it wouldn’t pass as a drama if you cut out the thriller), each being made up of several stock Action-Thriller Hero traits; but nor is the plot the main focus, what with it being rather generic and not especially interesting or at all complex. The leads’ repartee and bonding is more interesting than the actual plot, and is surely the explanation for the film’s enduring popularity and three sequels, though to be honest I didn’t get it.

I’d always thought Lethal Weapon must be alright — after all, as I said, it’s had an enduring popularity and was written by Shane Black, who went on to both write and direct the thoroughly wonderful (and underrated) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr being fantastic a good few years before his popularity resurgence in Iron Man) — but having seen it, I struggle to see why people like it to any significant degree.

2 out of 5

ITV1 are showing Lethal Weapon tonight at 10:15pm.
Lethal Weapon is on Watch tonight, Tuesday 23rd September 2014, at 10pm.

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

2008 #90
Michel Gondry | 97 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Be Kind RewindThe work of Michel Gondry and the comedy of Jack Black are both, shall we say, acquired tastes, and not ones you would necessarily expect to overlap. Yet here they do — at least to an extent — but while Black is again doing his usual schtick as the Ker-Azy Best Mate, it’s the writer-director who is perhaps offering some surprises.

Gondry has exactly the sort of fanbase you’d expect for a French director who started out in music videos for Bjork and The Chemical Brothers before progressing to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. It’s not inconceivable those fans may’ve been a bit surprised by this effort, about two video store clerks who begin to remake well-known movies when all the store’s tapes are accidentally wiped, because it seems so thoroughly mainstream; or, to put it a nicer way, accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have an oddness about it — early plot points hit unreal levels, before the film becomes more grounded — but for the most part it errs on the side of realism. It’s almost hard to believe Gondry wrote and directed it, considering his previous output.

In fact, so conceivable is so much of the story that one could almost believe it was a fictionalised version of real events. The way the films are remade — using elaborate cardboard props and cunning camera tricks — are all pleasantly innovative, but well within the bounds of believability; and when they gain a previously-meaningless nickname (“sweded”) and explode with cult popularity, it’s heavily reminiscent of so many Internet-based crazes, several of which do revolve around retelling popular films. Indeed, placing the concept of ‘sweding’ at the heart of the film taps into the popularity such things tend to garner, and the enjoyability of the idea helps carry the film through some rougher patches.

And Be Kind Rewind is at its best — and, crucially, funniest — during the ‘sweding’ of recognisable films. These sequences are packed with the vicarious joy of recreating iconic moments from beloved films with just a video camera, some mates, and a pile of card. It’s here that the lovability of the concept comes to the fore, and it would perhaps benefit from even more of this. On the other hand, an endless stream of re-made movies is no substitute for a proper plot, so Gondry wisely limits how many films we see being ‘sweded’.

The problem is, the rest of the story doesn’t always do a great deal to make up for it. There’s a surprising number of stock moments and subplots considering Gondry’s roots, and some threads are underplayed to the point of seeming extraneous. In particular, a romantic subplot is so inconclusive — not even ‘resolved’ in an open-ended manner — that one wonders why it was included at all.

Your enjoyment of Be Kind Rewind is likely to ride on how much you like the idea of ‘sweding’. If it sounds like a fun thing to watch or do, the goodwill engendered by the concept may carry you through the film’s weaker moments. If, however, you think it sounds faintly silly, there’s not much else on offer besides a familiar moral message about community, and achieving your goals, and all that jazz.

4 out of 5