The Color Purple

October 19, 2012

The Color Purple opens with a shot of a beautiful field of lavender flowers; then the camera tilts up to show two young girls playing and singing in the field. After 2 ½ hours of movie, and 30 years in the lives of its characters, this shot will have its emotional payoff in a final scene set in the very same field, among the very same flowers.

That’s getting a little ahead of things, but it’s indicative of the balance and classical construction that fills this movie. With this film, Steven Spielberg sheds the stigma of being a kiddie director—one which he didn’t really deserve anyway—and puts his hands on the best director Oscar that’s eluded him for years.

That’s right, you can send the statuette to Steve’s house now, and save everybody a lot of trouble. At this admittedly early date, it’s hard to imagine The Color Purple in anything but a sweep of the year’s awards—for a few of the actors, for Allen Daviau’s cinematography, and for Quincy Jones’ music.

Jones is also the film’s executive producer, and the man who secured the rights to Alice Walker’s novel in the first place. He also hired Spielberg, which was a brilliant stroke; few other directors could discover such a sense of life within the melodramatic and painful events of the story.

The story spans 30 years. We first meet Celie as a 14-year-old girl about to give birth to her second child—both products of her father’s rapes. He gets rid of the children, and he soon gets rid of Celie, by marrying her off to a local widower farmer, known to her only as Mister.

It’s a violent union. He beats her, and throws her younger sister out of the house. Over the years, Celie grows accustomed to this treatment, and even to the fact that Mister’s mistress, Shug, moves into the house with them. Shug, a juke-joint singer, turns out to be a friend to Celie—after her sister, the only friend Celie has known.

Other characters weave in and out: Harpo, Mister’s oldest son, and his boisterous wife, Sophia; Mister’s father, a mean and crotchety old man; Squeak, who vies with Sophia for Harpo’s attentions.

Spielberg’s treatment of the story at times recalls the silent rural dramas of D.W. Griffith; he uses motifs, such as the reading of letters, the singing of songs, the framing of characters in windowpanes, to trace the spiritual growth of the heroine. Celie’s habit of covering her smile with her hand, which began with her father’s opinion that she was ugly, is used in such a way that when Celie finally learns to smile with a big toothy grin, it fairly lights up the screen.

Much of that power also comes from the interestingly understated performance by comedian Whoopi Goldberg, making her film debut as Celie. Goldberg lets her eyes do much of her talking—watch especially a scene in which Shug sings a special blues song for the heretofore-ignored Celie, and the heart-melting look in Celie’s surprised, embarrassed, touched eyes.

All the performers are good—Danny Glover as Mister, and Margaret Avery as Shug, especially—and I can’t think of a single wrong or awkward note in the film.

Early in her life, Celie consoles herself from the ravages of living by saying, “This life be over soon. Heaven lasts always.” It is Walker’s contention, and Spielberg’s, that that is not enough. Eventually Celie realizes that there must be something more to existence than just existing. That realization is her triumph. That film’s triumph is in making us believe it, too.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1985

Yeah, funny story about those sure-fire Oscars. The movie got 11 nominations and no wins, and Spielberg was not nominated. (Out of Africa was the big winner.) I think Spielberg’s command of film language actually worked against him here, and the movie might have puzzled people looking for a different kind of approach.

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Lethal Weapon 2

March 19, 2012

While I was watching Lethal Weapon 2, I kind of enjoyed it. By the time I walked to my car afterward, it was already turning sour. And by the time I was home, I was actively disliking it. It’s one of those.

Like its predecessor, Lethal Weapon 2 is hard, fast, and dangerous, a slick Hollywood entertainment made by pros who know how to get the job done. The film’s two hours pass by quickly, what with all the car chases, machine-gunnings, ship-burnings, and house-demolishings. (There’s also a bomb attached to a toilet seat.) Yes, Lethal Weapon 2 is full of action, enough for five such movies.

Sandwiched in between the explosions are glimpses of the friendship of the two cops we met in the first Lethal Weapon: Riggs (Mel Gibson), the crazy, hair-trigger chap, and Murtaugh (Danny Glover), the calm family man. Some of their banter is fun to listen to (there’s an amusing thing early on involving Murtaugh’s daughter and her appearance in a TV condom commercial), but most of their wisecracks are drowned out by the sound of flying bullets.

Director Richard Donner, a once decent talent whose recent work has included the tired Scrooged, also directed the first Lethal Weapon. As though to keep things interesting, he has added a current affairs spin to the bad guys: They’re South African emissaries, blond sleazeballs with funny accents who can’t be arrested because of diplomatic immunity.

Donner also throws in a mob witness (Joe Pesci), who’s supposed to be guarded by Murtaugh and Riggs. This guy doesn’t have a whole lot to do except add pepper to the dialogue between our heroes (and Pesci has one hilarious rap on the importance of avoiding drive-through windows at fast-good restaurants). Other than that, he’s from a different movie.

But then this film feels like several different movies all mixed together. One has a James Bond-size villain (Joss Ackland), one provides a bit of squeeze (Patsy Kensit) for Riggs, one provides a fitting anti-apartheid message, another gives motivation for Riggs’ explosion of violence at the end.

It’s entertaining, but in a mechanical, cynically constructed way. Here’s hoping this sequel really is lethal.

First published in the Herald, July 9, 1989

It wasn’t the end, of course. I suppose this one must be better than the sequels that followed, although I would never want to go back and find out.


Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.


Lethal Weapon

August 26, 2011

Lethal Weapon is Hollywood filmmaking at its most muscular. Also, unfortunately, at its least original.

The latter stems from the buddy-cop formula that has proven popular, especially lately. It’s a predictable mismatch: The 50-year-old veteran (Danny Glover) draws duty with a young pistol (Mel Gibson) who’s had suicidal tendencies since the death of his wife.

Gibson’s a hotshot, given to recklessness on duty (in these movies, this is almost always qualified by someone saying, “But hey, he’s a good cop”). When he confronts a guy threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a rooftop, Gibson claps the cuffs on the bewildered man and takes the jump—onto the huge air cushion in the street below. Glover, a family man, goes by the book and doesn’t like to unholster his gun. The last thing he wants is a livewire beside him.

Got the picture? You and a million other screenwriters.

The only new wrinkle is Gibson’s self-destructiveness, but the film generally backs away from this, and keeps to a jokey style even as bodies are dropping up, down, and sideways. (The plot is something about murderous ex-CIA men importing heroin from Southeast Asia.)

The effective, and frequently enjoyable, muscularity comes from the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, plus director Richard Donner’s aggressive feel for action. You can be perfectly aware from scene to scene that the thing doesn’t make any sense, but Donner’s energetic forward motion carries it from one charged situation to the next. (He tried the same tack in The Goonies, but that film was just too unpleasant to begin with.)

He’s loaded the movie with detestable villains—notably a trimmed-down, platinum-haired Gary Busey—and some incredible hardware. Naturally, the villains and the hardware come together in an extended bloodletting climax, and they all get blown up good. In fact, Lethal Weapon may set some sort of record for the phenomenon of wasting every single villain by the time it’s over.

All of these things, assembled and weighed like a fine machine, make for an effective package. It’s sure to be a hit, and there’s already industry talk of a sequel. But there’s also something cold about its slickness, as though it were just a bit too well-oiled for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 5, 1987

Yes, the buddy-cop movie was already worn out by the time the first Lethal Weapon movie opened. And indeed it was a big hit—there was no missing its appeal—and it launched not only one of the signature franchises of the time but dozens of knock-offs. I have never revisited any of the LW pictures, and I’m all right with that.