A rich, but also bleak, drama

The Color Purple (1985) is based on Alice Walker’s diary-formatted novel, about life for African Americans during the early 1900s in the American South. It is well translated to the screen.

It begins with teenager Celie giving birth to twins, their father is Celie’s father.

When she is older, Celie becomes the housewife of Albert (Danny Glover), who needs her to look after his household chores. Though Albert would sooner have married Celie’s sister Nettie because she is more attractive.

Celie, they say, is ugly, but knows how to work hard, and Nettie isn’t for “sale”.
A hard thing for Celie to take is when Nettie is visiting Celie and she’s thrown out of Albert’s house. The separation of the close bound sisters is raw.

The hard life abounds in The Color Purple. When I looked closely at the first half, it is bleak. Manhood and masculinity are equated with aggression and abuse to show who’s boss, but it leaves the women in their lives hurting and fighting for survival. Inter-generational sins of the fathers come down to visit the sons.

It’s not an easy watch in the first half, but shows people doing the best they can in a difficult world. This is someone’s story. This is real. But what’s inflicted on others is still unacceptable.

The meaning of ‘purple’, an intermediately colour between the colds of blue and the hots of red, sums up the first half. Life can be ‘blue’ or ‘red’, but in between is how one copes, it’s not flash, but somehow one gets through. It’s the ‘colour purple’.

But the second half is transcendent. Here’s the theme of having enough and confronting the abuse. Here’s taking a stand, here’s finding redemption. It’s also about coming to terms with God in their almost hopeless world.

As well, the second half broadens the scope of the film, to how black and white interact. Sofia, played with spunk and fire by Oprah Winfrey, comes out worse for ware, in her interactions with whites, but Sofia is not one that is easily walked over.

The Color Purple is rich in characters, performances, and delivers a redemptive story, but it also has bleak parts.

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie is outstanding in her subtle and nuanced delivery, Danny Glover is, as always, convincing, playing Albert, Celie’s husband by arrangement.

Great support comes in all directions, especially Margaret Avery as a singer who shows Celie affection for the first time and Oprah Winfrey storms her way through her role like a powerhouse.

The Color Purple (1985) **** Starring: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey. Director: Steven Spielberg. Warnings: a profanity, domestic violence, and sexual situations.


Not Mozart the musical, but it does contain Mozart’s music

This is not a musical about the legendary Mozart, the man who brought the world the ‘divine’ operas The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni, among others, but which are recreated in part in Amadeus (1984).

I know that some people liked the musical episodes in this film more than the story, but I am not in that camp. I appreciated the music, but enjoyed the story, the production and performances more.

It is no straightforward, sentimentalized bio-pic of the musical genius, who wrote his first symphony at age five (a fact which I forever remember in the extended remix of Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus.). Perhaps some inspiration could be leveraged from his life, but not in this film.

Amadeus is fiction, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer, that takes liberties about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and imagines his descent at the hands of another Austrian composer, who in history perhaps had a good relationship with Mozart.

This man, Salieri, is fictionalized as a rival in the film, who appears friendly and well-mannered but seethes with jealousy at Mozart’s better abilities and gifts in music.

Salieri was also disillusioned by Mozart because of his appetite for the seamier side of life, which according to this film was Mozart’s crude, rude and unconventional side, but Mozart’s music held a rare purity of sound, beauty, and skill, which came naturally to Mozart, a fact that confused and infuriated Salieri.

Salieri plotted Mozart’s downfall in a silently brooding and calculated effort to swipe the man of genius from his pedestal and put this “trained monkey” in his place.

Cold hearted snake Salieri was, his obsession to be the best consumed him though he would never reach Mozart’s heights. His confession to a priest comes after his suicide attempt, because of his guilt at doing the unthinkable, to rid the world of Mozart and another human being.

Yet his music is what Salieri connects with. It is flawless and remarkably skilled yet triggers Salieri’s base instincts, instincts which have nothing to do with Mozart’s music, but with Salieri’s nature.

In the end, from a bird’s eye view, God who bestows the gifts has no favorites.
This was my first serious film that I really appreciated—so have a special place in my heart for it.

Salieri’s (F. Murray Abraham) confession of jealousy and revenge to a Catholic priest frames the drama. It takes a while for Salieri to unleash his “demons”—in a sophisticated plot to kill Mozart (Tom Hulce) involving the ‘ghostly’ presence of Mozart’s overbearing father and the naïve complicity of Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Berridge) who is susceptible to Salieri’s good manners.

Salieri’s passions had been simmering underneath for a good hour-and-so into the film during which Amadeus may be faulted at being too literary minded. However, Amadeus works, and production values and musical episodes are done to the hilt.

Revised version, original published Entertainmentnutz.com, 2000. Amadeus (1984) ****½ Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge. Director: Milos Forman.


Judge not the theme of this murder mystery drama

The investigative murder mystery A Soldier’s Story (1984) comes around to a profound maxim that ricochets thematically through the entire story: who are you to judge your brother? Do not judge wouldn’t seem to be the point considering an investigator is sent to identify who killed a sergeant, but the theme of crime and punishment is juxtaposed with the human story and a sense of brotherly love that goes deep.

It is bonding between brothers in a close-knit military unit and baseball team, in Louisiana, 1944. But the unit’s sergeant causes them grief. He is murdered although there is no hint of foul play in the unit.

An investigator is put into the case. Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black lawyer, is assigned from Washington D.C, to find out who killed the sergeant.

The unit co-operates, but the white folk of the town may not accept an African American man investigating the shooting of a black man. They think a white man may get unfairly pinned as the culprit.

The self-confident Davenport stands his ground to do the job he is assigned. Davenport says he is about the facts, but even he appears to hold a sense of suspicion about who did it. Essentially, he’s fair, even when the prevailing racist attitudes of the community may cause him to think a white man may have done it.

The events around the murder of Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar) unfolds in interviews and conversations with the unit’s men. They are dramatized in flashback.

As that unfolds, the murder victim is boozy, good-hearted, and a spit and polish kind of sergeant and becomes a clear-as-crystal character.

Waters demeaning attitude towards some of his men rubs them the wrong way setting up a potential showdown between brothers and a possible motive for murder.

It ends up a worthwhile story as it makes one think about the humanity of characters one may not side with.

A Soldier’s Story (1984) wasn’t the frontrunner to win Best Picture at the 1985 Oscars. With Places in the Heart it was an also-ran. A Soldier’s Story didn’t win the Best Picture category in the end. It shows on a purely superficial level. It’s no epic, it’s not highly visual, it’s not indulgent, and it’s not an obviously cinematic film. It was based on a play.

Nevertheless, this who-done-it murder mystery is good dramatic entertainment. It is buoyant but more than juxtaposed by a deep seriousness. There’s some dirty language and mild profanity, but director Norman Jewison’s efforts behind the camera shows skill has gone into making this film, it’s engaging, and all the performances, especially Howard Rollins as the airily confident investigator, are excellent.

A Soldier’s Story (1984) ****½ Starring: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans, Larry Riley, Denzel Washington, Scott Paulin. Director: Norman Jewison.

Oldman consumes Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour

Why watch Darkest Hour (2017)? Gary Oldman is the appeal of watching Darkest Hour. In the uncertain days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill (Oldman) became Prime Minister of England, replacing the statistically and politically unpopular Neville Chamberlin.

Chamberlin couldn’t lead during wartime according to one observer, but perhaps equally unpopular was Churchill, after a series of misfires as diplomat. But he had the backing of the opposition in Parliament so was the obvious choice.

Churchill struggles under the pressure of leading Britain during wartime, but his stubbornness and resolve to pursue his policies against Nazi Germany rather than sign a peace treaty with them is his great strength. Churchill did the right thing at the right time, despite the surrounding pressures inside and outside Parliament.

Churchill is played as a charmless, but genuine and kind person, whose charm-lessness has the opposite effect of being charming in its odd way, and his humour sharp and biting.

Oldman conveys the flaws and strengths of his character with masterfulness. Otherwise, Darkest Hour is a bit of an uninteresting, even boring war-time drama, replete with grey suited English politicians in stuffy stodgy environs of the parliamentary corridor, and very little production colour to brighten things up. It is efficiently bland with an even more pedantic sense of precision than Darkest Hour director Joe Wright’s Atonement.

Oldman doesn’t hold the movie together alone as it is rather grey and uneventful despite Oldman’s bursts of splendid outrageous colour. Still, worth a look for Oldman, made up unmistakably as Churchill, if one is curious enough.

Darkest Hour (2017) ***½ Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ronald Pickup, Lilly James, Ben Mendelsohn. Director: Joe Wright.

Painstakingly effective

This is a movie that flew under the radar. For one thing, it’s very long. The production design is mostly indoors, which may be too wooden for some tastes, and the costumes from the 1800’s, with only the occasional flare for cinematic storytelling. Despite the pitfalls, it’s not gratingly so. Although the dialogue and interactions are more or less so sophisticated and may require one’s full concentration, Little Dorrit (1987) is involving.

It is impressive in terms of the scale of the storytelling despite the setting limitations. In Little Dorrit, famed English actor Alec Guinness plays William Dorrit, the gentlemanly head of a debtor’s prison in Victorian England. He sweeps visitors up in conversation and is the object of adoration of her daughter Amy, otherwise called Little Dorrit. One has a certain amount of sympathy for William Dorrit, as the story sides with him, especially evident in the final scenes which are breathtakingly good and highlight the divide between rich and poor.

It’s all based on Charles Dickens reportedly satirical novel about being rich and poor in Victorian society. Part one—the three hour It’s Nobody’s Fault—is seen through the eyes of Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi), who becomes involved with the business of William Dorrit (Alec Guinness). William’s daughter Little Dorrit (Sarah Pickering) is the seamstress of Clennam’s mother to earn a crust. Clennam aims to help them get out of the debtor’s prison with the help of a lawyer.

Part two is much the same storyline as part one, but told through the ‘eyes’ of Little Dorrit (or Amy). Scene after scene is framed to see the second half through the perspective of Little Dorrit. One finds respect for her, her kindness, genuineness, good manners and even temperament standing out, which made quite an impression.

I loved the cast and characters. With a sprawling cast, Little Dorrit is filled with good performances and interesting characters. As Clennam, Derek Jacobi exudes a youthful air. Clennam’s fineness and reserve is the surface but he is secretly in love. Clennam’s also impeccably generous which reveals nobility.

As Cleenam’s mother, Joan Greenwood is frightfully straightforward. Her reading of the Bible is of a punitive passage in the book of the prophets at exactly eight o’clock and no bible context is given. With her bubbly personality and effervescence in a reserved society, Miriam Margolyes as Flora Finching stands out in the sense that she seems out of place, but in a good way.

Roshan Seth’s exuberance is catching, his cockney accent a change of pace from his refinement in Gandhi and a villain’s off-colour charm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The actual logistics of undertaking a film told from two character’s perspectives would be painstaking to produce, but effective and very satisfying.

Little Dorrit (1987) ****½ Starring: Derek Jacobi, Sarah Pickering, Alec Guinness, Roshan Seth. Writer/Director: Christine Edzard. Running time: About six hours.