Wild Swings

In which Norm spins up the new releases of AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM and the new musical version of THE COLOR PURPLE. Do join him!

Wild Swings

I don’t have much to say about the Oscars this year, except to note that it was really strange to realize that two of the night’s biggest winners, Oppenheimer and The Zone of Interest, are films about the horrors of World War II that go out of their way to avoid showing any of the devastating loss of life for which their protagonists are directly responsible.

The abstraction of carnage feels weird, right? And before you bring up Godzilla Minus One, yes, that film has a body count in the thousands … but all of it, including the wartime deaths, is monster-related. Like I said: Weird.

The Academy was not so interested in either of the holiday releases that arrived on disc this week. The Color Purple earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Danielle Brooks (who lost to The Holdovers’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was overlooked entirely. As much as Warner may have hoped for The Color Purple to be an awards monster, it didn’t really have a shot in a year as crowded as 2023.

When Alice Walker’s novel was reimagined as a Broadway musical twenty years ago, I thought it was a weird choice … but at least there was a logic to it, given how important music is to Walker’s characters. Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation opens on two sisters singing, and the film springs to life whenever Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie gets close to Harpo’s juke joint. It’s the reason Shug Avery comes into her life, and the setting of Margaret Avery’s showstopping performance of “Miss  Celie’s Blues”. Fold in a little gospel and a Color Purple musical more or less writes itself, doesn’t it?

But Walker’s novel also understands that the music her characters embrace represents an escape from the harsh reality of life in Jim Crow-era Georgia, where the threat of domestic and institutional violence is baked into the daily experience. And while the stage offers some distance from the narrative’s most brutal moments, a movie version necessarily brings us a lot closer.

It’s a conceptual stumbling block Blitz Bazawule’s new version of The Color Purple never really gets around, yanking us between elaborate, often joyful production numbers – most but not all of which are presented as fantasies of Fantasia Barrino’s abused protagonist – and moments of casual, unthinking cruelty and abuse that the film can’t reconcile. It’s not an impossible task – Herbert Ross’ adaptation of Pennies from Heaven managed it four decades ago – but Bazawule can’t get the balance right, and the movie can’t find secure footing as a result.

And that’s a shame, because the cast is up to the challenge. Barrino’s very good as Celie, letting the character’s light slowly emerge over the course of decades as she finds strength and support in the relationships she builds with the women around her – primarily Taraji P. Henson’s Shug and Brooks’ Sofia – while her monstrous husband Mister (Colman Domingo) sinks into alcoholism and misery, alone in a crowd that sees him for who he is.

All four principals are rock-solid, as are Corey Hawkins as Sofia’s husband Harpo and H.E.R. as Harpo’s eventual mistress Squeak; Halle Bailey, Louis Gossett Jr, Jon Batiste, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and David Alan Grier are other power players in the supporting cast. This movie is bursting with talent, and it’s disappointing that it doesn’t know what to do with it.

Aquaman, though? It gets it. After Jason Momoa and James Wan used their 2018 solo sea king movie to go full Flash Gordon on the DC audience, the pair have delivered a sequel that is just as goofy, just as weird and just as engaging as its predecessor – and if this really is the last picture in the current DC cinematic universe, it’s a strong closer.

It’s four years later, and Arthur Curry – having found both his family and his destiny as the King of Atlantis after unseating usurper half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) – is growing restless with his royal duties and trying to get the hang of parenting his baby son – though Mera (Amber Heard), his father Tom (Temuera Morrison) and mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) are doing their best to help him out. But when Orm’s collaborator Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) resurfaces, bent on revenge and wielding a mysterious trident that gives him supernatural levels of power, Arthur has to figure out a way to beat his newly souped-up foe … which means breaking Orm out of prison and convincing the former Ocean Master to fight for the Atlantis that rejected him.

It sounds complicated, but it’s pretty easy to follow, thanks to the meathead enthusiasm Momoa brings to Arthur – which isn’t the knock you might think it is. As has been established over the various DC movies, Arthur “Aquaman” Curry is a guy who doesn’t think terribly highly of himself, and channels that impostor syndrome into brawls at every opportunity; rather than the serene, confident hero of the Silver Age comics, this guy’s the wild card of any movie he’s in, rushing headlong into danger with a goofy grin.

But Momoa also knows when to dial it down, and his father-son scenes with Morrison – just sitting around Tom’s lighthouse, sharing a drink at the end of the day – have a tenderness most action movies would rather rush past; that side of Arthur, and Momoa’s clear pleasure in investigating it, also grounds the fury he musters when Manta makes this fight personal. All the action stuff is just window dressing to the character’s evolution, and while he’s still very much the “Yeah!” guy introduced in Zack Snyder’s films, Momoa shows us there was always more going on underneath the bluster. Also, Oscar winner Nicole Kidman rides a robot dolphin into a massive undersea laser battle, and where else are you going to see that?

Not pictured: The robot dolphin. But it's around!

Fold in Wilson’s return as the canny, complicated Orm, and a smart subplot focusing on Randall Park as a Manta scientist slowly cottoning onto the idea that he might be on the wrong team, and you’ve got a pretty fun ride. Honestly, I couldn’t help feeling like this was the Warner Christmas release that should have been a musical. Topo already plays the drums, you know.

Warner’s 4K edition of The Color Purple leans heavily on the HDR, with night scenes reading even darker and deeper than they did when I saw the film theatrically; it might even be too dark. This is the first time since Paramount’s Arrival that I’ve found myself having to adjust the base settings on my projector to accommodate a given disc. (The Atmos soundtrack requires no tweaking; it’s clear and precisely placed throughout.)

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom had no such issues, as Wan’s film sports a bright, cheerful comic-book palette with glittering pops of color even in its creepiest, darkest sequences – and the 1.78:1 presentation nicely recaptures the project’s made-for-IMAX scale. (The first Aquaman played in large-format in an alternating ratio, with scope for dry land and full IMAX underwater; this one goes big throughout, and that’s the way the home version looks as well.)

The individual gold-and-green scales of Arthur’s costume are downright vibrant, the red energy of Manta's power suit looks like it fired straight out of a splash page, and the larger scale action sequences – particularly the raid on Atlantis’ entryways – are jammed with vivid detail. You want to watch Oscar winner Nicole Kidman ride a robot dolphin into a massive undersea laser battle, this is the best way to do that short of a large-format theater.

The Atmos audio is just as impressive, with pew-pew water lasers and explosions competing for your attention from distinct points in the soundscape – while dialogue always remains clear and intelligible even when filtered through Manta’s helmets and intercoms. Also appreciated: An early audio nod to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of several reminders that Wan might be making big studio blockbusters nowadays, but he’ll always be a horror guy at heart.

When it comes to special features, though, The Color Purple’s supplements feel like standard promotional fluff, offering shortish looks at the production, the casting and the staging of the musical numbers totaling just over 20 minutes and a fourth segment, “A Story for Me: The Legacy of The Color Purple” calling in Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and others to consider the legacy of Spielberg’s earlier adaptation, and its influence on Bazawule’s new version.

Given its focus, “A Story for Me” feels like the sort of thing that should have appeared on last December’s 4K release of Spielberg’s film … but since that it’s only six minutes long maybe it’s better served here. Accompanying the 1985 film, it would have felt pretty paltry.

The Aquaman extras are somewhat more lively, with over an hour of featurettes offering a high degree of nerdery. “Finding the Lost Kingdom” is a 20-minute look at the production, with Momoa, Wan and DC’s Jim Lee discussing the challenge of maintaining the first film’s tone while building a web of family relationships for former lone wolf (rogue shark?) Arthur Curry; Wilson’s rehabilitated Orm is the focus of “Atlantean Blood is Thicker Than Water”, while four other segments break down specific locations and set pieces. (The best one? “It’s a Manta World”, which spends ten minutes letting Abdul-Mateen II make a case for the movie’s villain as a guy who’s effectively doomed by bad choices and a lack of emotional maturity.)

Finally, “Oh, Topo!” explains why Aquaman’s cephalopod sidekick – apparently a comics favorite? – graduated from a sight gag in the first film to a proper supporting player in the sequel. Basically James Wan loves Topo. No, I don’t get it either.

The Color Purple and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom are available from Warner Home Entertainment in individual 4K and Blu-ray editions.

And coming in this weekend’s paid edition: Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed gets the Criterion treatment, and Via Vision makes some impressive new additions to the Imprint line. Upgrade that subscription! Don’t miss out!

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