Alice Walker and Steven Spielberg are such an odd, initially incongruous match that it’s rather hard to believe that The Color Purple (1985) manages to be as good as it is. Not that it’s anything great, mind you, especially since Spielberg’s reverence to the material is distracting (the impoverished backwoods of the American South seems just a bit too color-coordinated, polished, and in some ways just as grandly mythic as Gone with the Wind), but overall he does justice to Walker’s characters, which are the very things that sets the film (and the book) on fire. It’s quickly apparent where Walker and Spielberg see eye-to-eye, as both share a clear-cut, almost fantastical worldview where good people are obviously, undeniably good, and bad people are obviously, hopelessly evil. In her book, however, Walker is more uncompromising in her rendering of the best and worst of humanity, and willing to carry it out to its natural conclusion, and that is where the film really fails: in the final act Spielberg imposes on the film happy resolutions for all of its characters, where even the most sadistic get to experience magical redemption. The result, while immediately cathartic, leaves an extremely empty feeling.
Italian for Beginners (2000) takes a while to get going, its presentation of its cast of social semi-misfits quite tedious and more often than not feeling rather contrived. Despite its distinctive Dogme 95 style (which my boyfriend actually compared to “every cheap soap opera in Europe”—a fascinating observation if true, as the claim of Dogme is realism, and soap operas more or less define artificiality), Bergman seems to echo throughout the entire thing—disaffected clergymen, family secrets, personal tragedies, death, death, death—though the revelations (and numerous funerals) serve as the starting point for all the neat romantic pairings that eventually form. But after a while it begins to breath and branch off into more organic directions, and also starts develop a sense of warm, offhand humor that nicely counterbalances the tragedy. As the awkward Olympia, Anette Støvelbaek is the standout—a performance that’s exceedingly graceful despite the character’s clumsiness. And even if the film’s conclusion feels unfairly calculated and is most definitely cheating, I admit that I still fell for it.
As I slowly made my way through The Clark Gable Collection (loved the hate mail I received for that review!), I have to admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Boom Town (1940), as I have a general aversion to “real men taming the wilderness” type of films. But it quickly became apparent that this Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy vehicle is more sudsy than gritty—a massive soap opera, when it comes down to it. Along for the ride is Claudette Colbert as the woman Tracy loves but Gable gets to marry—like San Francisco several years before, this forms a tangled love triangle with more than a hint of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. The spectacular and spectacularly awkward Hedy Lamarr shows up in her haute couture Adrian gowns about halfway through and her detached amusement seems to indicate that she’s acting in another film entirely. Overall an early take on the type of material that would eventually spawn the massive, decadent Giant —only unlike that film, Boom Town doesn’t drone on endlessly, overstaying its welcome.