Fantasia Barrino and Taraji P. Henson in The Color Purple


In its new musical incarnation, The Color Purple isn't a very good movie. But I'm not sure how much that matters. Director Blitz Bazawule's adaptation of the 2005 Broadway hit (itself inspired by both Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel and Steven Spielberg's notoriously Oscar-less 1985 film) is most certainly an effective movie – a big, showy, in-your-face entertainment that delivers the feels even if, like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time resisting it.

Because it's been 38 years to the month that I read Walker's book, many of its salient details have escaped me. Yet I can still pinpoint exactly where I was in my childhood home (a couch in the we-save-this-space-for-guests living room) when I finished the novel, and still recall my stomach-crunching sobs when 17-year-old me got to the final Celie letter that began “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky … .” By rough estimate, I've also seen Spielberg's version about a kajillion times. I'm so familiar with it than when we reached the climactic scene in Bazawule's musical, I started crying not because of anything happening on-screen, but from memories of a tall, broad-shouldered African meeting Whoopi Goldberg with one devastating word, and, in an exquisite laughter-through-tears touch, in a voice a full octave higher than we were expecting. Spielberg's take on Walker is loaded with flaws that were apparent even on a first viewing, and Bazawule's rendition chooses to re-stage a significant number of them, including the dumb bar brawl and a male character's inability to cook breakfast without setting the kitchen on fire. (This fealty shouldn't be a surprise, as Spielberg is a producer, as is the original's co-star Oprah Winfrey, as is the original's composer Quincy Jones.) But I've repeatedly returned to Spielberg's Color Purple nevertheless because, despite the copious misery, the film radiates absolute, cleansing joy. Now that I know what to expect, maybe Bazawule's will someday, too.

I'm taking it on faith that you're at least semi-familiar with Walker's tale of Celie, who, when we first meet her as a 14-year-old in the early-20th-century Deep South, endures all manner of abuse, trauma, separation, dislocation, and worse on her trek toward self-esteem, fulfillment, and love in her early 50s. It's an extraordinarily moving story rich in its celebration of Black perseverance and identity. Yet what was surprising (and not uniformly appreciated) about Spielberg's movie was how easily, even naturally, Walker's poetic bluntness fit into the framework of traditional, crowd-pleasing melodrama – even musical melodrama. (Jones' composition “Miss Celie's Blues” originated in the Spielberg and gets a reprise here, as does – in unexpectedly subtle form – Jones' gospel/blues hybrid “Maybe God Is Tryin' to Tell You Somethin'.”) It consequently made sense when the material found its way to a theatrical telling, and with Bazawule's endeavor my first exposure to the musical, I get why it works. I'm just not crazy about how it works.

Danielle Brooks and Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple

I can't fathom the difficulty in transforming a hugely popular movie into a stage musical. You have to include everything that fans are enamored of while also finding room for loads of songs, and do so without losing the essential narrative and/or emotional connective tissue from one scene to the next. (Maybe that's why film-to-theatre transfers tend to more fully succeed with films that don't have much depth to begin with: The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde, Shrek, et cetera). That said, if Teen Mike was initially annoyed by the shortcut liberties taken while turning Walker into Spielberg, Mid-50s Mike was equally vexed in the morphing from Spielberg to Bazawule. Celie's contracted husband Mister now goes from horrific to comically hapless in half the time it took Danny Glover. Mister's blues-siren mistress Shug becomes besties with Celie via warp-speed. (Gone, too, is Shug's drunken, immortal greeting to Celie: “You sho' is ugly!!!”) The handling of Celie's letters from her sister Nettie is so rushed that I wasn't sure if Mister was even aware of them being purloined. (In a complaint that dates back to Walker: Why was this man holding on to them in the first place? Why didn't he just burn the evidence?) That Bazawule and company can condense 37 years of narrative into 140 minutes with frequent musical interludes is admirable. But this still feels less like a wholly formed vision than a Color Purple Greatest Hits package.

Yet even the songs here are sometimes disorienting. I'll admit that I was off-put by the opener that found characters directly addressing the camera, but was also intrigued, thinking it a pretty novel approach if sustained. It wasn't sustained. The following number found young Celie belting while Bazawule placed her under a (geographically incongruous) fountain and chain-gang laborers toiled in sync; a fantasy sequence featured Celie swaying on an enormous Victrola; Shug's juke-joint showcase opens with hyperbole and concludes with naturalism. Bazawule's throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-if-anything-sticks method occasionally pays off, as it does in Sofia's “Hell, No!” and the effervescent “Miss Celie's Pants,” but more often than not, the presentation is merely confusing. By the time Celie sang straight at us in her “I'm Here” anthem – where her direct appeal to our heartstrings makes emotional sense – we've been too bludgeoned by stylistic leapfrogging to be suitably awed … and, not for nothing, Bazawule's weirdly indifferent staging of the number doesn't help. It's prototypical “get out of the star's way” filmmaking, and our hardworking star deserves better than that.

That performer would be Fantastia Barrino, who's quietly commanding in her book scenes and effervescent in her musical numbers. Celie's improbable, deeply affecting journey is what makes Walker's material soar no matter the delivery system, and Barrino (the American Idol champion who previously played the role on Broadway) captures and holds your attention with grace. Although Colman Domingo is a bit too theatrically “on” as Mister, Taraji P. Henson's natural vivacity is an ideal fit for Shug, and Danielle Brooks' Sofia is like the Second Coming of Oprah – if Oprah had Heaven-sent vocal prowess and could spit out the word “respect” as a four-syllable threat. Bazawule's movie is largely a mess, but it's overflowing with sensational talents: Corey Hawkins as the well-meaning Harpo; Gabriella “H.E.R.” Wilson as his girlfriend Squeak; The Little Mermaid's Halle Bailey as young Nettie; the massively intimidating, 87-year-old Louis Gossett Jr. as Mister's noxious dad. I spent more than two hours silently comparing this Color Purple to its forebears that I have undying respect for. By the closing credits, issues and all, I managed to admire this achievement for what it is. There are way-worse reactions to a movie than admitting that your first viewing will likely be the one you like least.

Adam Driver in Ferrari


I'm all for more specificity in my bio-pic diet, and I'm all for women getting near-equal playing time in works otherwise devoted to explorations of Great Men of History. But why, this month alone, have we now had two cinematic biographies of revolutionary male figures that demand we pay significant attention to the protagonists' wives when they're merely presented as long-suffering stereotypes? (Extend that streak to November's Napoleon, and we have three, though that film's Vanessa Kirby is at least allowed to have some undignified fun.)

It was sweet of Bradley Cooper to give top billing to Carey Mulligan in Maestro, his long-gestating passion project on Leonard Bernstein, but please – while Mulligan's Felicia Montealegre may be the heart of the film, she's essentially there to silently suffer while her Great Man husband Lenny does all of his Great Things. And in Michael Mann's Ferrari, which is enticingly set wholly in the summer of 1957, we're forever being pulled away from Enzo's plans for racing victory, and the racing itself, for scenes of domestic dispute between Ferrari and his long-suffering wife Laura and his long-suffering mistress (and mother to his illegitimate child) Lina. Near the end of Mann's movie, we witness one of the ugliest, most traumatizing racing accidents ever re-staged on-screen – days after seeing the movie, I can't get this sequence out of my head. But does this nightmare lead to Ferrari having to actually face the consequences of his win-at-all-costs mania? No. Instead, he goes home to Laura, and they mention the event in passing, and then they scoot on to their marital issues. For all I know, this might be an accurate retelling of the event – that 10 lost lives were less meaningful to the Ferraris than the state of their marriage. Their behavior, though, seems like an act of perversion, and not just on the couple's part. Although he films the accident with sickening power, Mann himself doesn't seem much interested in the tragedy.

Penelope Cruz in Ferrari

Based on the evidence, what Mann is interested in here is the exploration of an obsessive male psyche, which, of course, has been his stock-in-trade for more than four decades running. Even before he made his name with TV's Miami Vice, Mann gave us TV's The Jericho Mile and the unsung James Caan film classic Thief, and since then we've had Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, Collateral, Public Enemies … . All stylish as hell; all Y-chromosomed to their teeth. A biographical drama on Enzo Ferrari would seem a perfect match for its director, and when its subject is expounding on the microscopic variances required to get from second place to first, or casually firing engineers for not living up to company standards, Ferrari is enthralling. I don't quite understand why Adam Driver was recruited to play the lead beyond the thematic obviousness of his surname, as he's two decades too young and at least 50 pounds too light for the role, and he already proved his difficulty with an Italian accent in House of Gucci. But he's certainly watchable, and his dialect is at least more passable than the ones offered by Shailene Woodley (as Lina) and Patrick Dempsey (as white-haired driver Piero Taruffi), so no harm, no foul, I guess.

But the kickass scenes in Mann's and screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin's drama – and there actually are a few, although they're mostly conversational in nature – keep getting waylaid by the logy marital/adulterous ones. And even with the internally fiery Penélope Cruz unsuccessfully de-glammed as a frumpy hausfrau, Ferrari dies a slow death every time the action shifts from the racetrack, or even the boardroom, to one of Enzo's two residences … and that's with Cruz's first scene finding Laura threatening her unfaithful husband with a gun and pulling the trigger. By a wide margin, Cruz is the best reason to see the movie. Her plotline, alas, is exactly the reason many viewers, myself among them, won't completely enjoy the ride.

Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Julia Roberts, and Ethan Hawke in Leave the World Behind


Writer/director Sam Esmail's apocalyptic thriller Leave the World Behind has been streaming on Netflix since the beginning of December, so there's probably little point in publishing a review. But over the past week-and-a-half, no fewer than three friends and/or family members have texted saying they were either planning to watch it or recently had watched it (and didn't like it), and in each case, I offered the same excuse for not writing about this feature that I viewed weeks ago and wholly loathed: “I couldn't build up the energy for a full paragraph.” But if I can keep even one potential viewer from considering sitting through this deathly banal, infuriating end-of-days saga, it'll be worth it, and I have now built up the energy for a full paragraph. Two, even. Starting now.

Leave the World Behind sucks. I have no idea what author Rumaan Alam's original version is like as a novel, but as a (streaming) cinematic experience, it's across-the-board worthless: close to two-and-a-half hours of unpleasant characters, maddeningly vague scenarios, unintentionally hilarious conversation, unexplored racial tension, and so many thematically apt yet intensely tiresome callbacks to Friends that our dear, departed Matthew Perry should sue from the grave. (Ironic, really, that one of our protagonists spends her entire screen time pining for old episodes of a streaming series that Netflix lost to HBO Max.) You always know a movie's in trouble when Julia Roberts steadfastly refuses to smile. But her somnolent portrayal here is matched by deathly obvious turns by Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali, who seem respectively convinced that “quirky” and “dignified” will get them through any motivational hiccups Esmail sends their way. And the writer/director attempts so many tricks with his camera – upside-down shots, 90-degree shots – that you quickly, accurately recognize them as the time-killing empty gestures they are. It should be mentioned that Leave the World Behind is a product of Netflix's Higher Ground Productions team founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, and that the former president placed Esmail's film (along with Higher Ground releases Rustin and American Symphony) on his annually published 10-favorites list. As a die-hard Obama fan, I say, ya know… cool. I still wish, at least this year, the guy had better taste.

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