Hallenbeck wanted me to start this review with, “There is no fucking way Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful person in Entertainment!” But... somehow she got this movie made, and I can’t imagine any sensible studio person giving it a green light. I wouldn’t, unless of course I had heard the talent assembled for this film.
I don’t believe that is so much a tribute to Oprah’s power, as much as it is a tribute to Toni Morrison’s book. Real Power would have opened this film, like Spielberg opened Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, but that is all quite unimportant stuff. Things that don’t need to be discussed. This film had real problems for me, but I figured I’d give Hallenbeck his wish.
I really really wanted to like this film. Not because I met Jonathan Demme, but because I’ve been a fan of his films since his exploitive beginnings with Roger Corman. I am a real big fan of THE COLOR PURPLE, not because of Steven Spielberg, but because of the performances of Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.
So when I heard that two of those cast members were teaming up with Jonathan Demme to bring to life a strange ghost story that takes place right back there at the end of the civil war period... well... I got excited.
First off, having Jonathan Demme aboard means his DP Tak Fujimoto was going to be aboard, and I just love that guy’s lensing.
I knew Demme was sure to nail the atmospherics, allegedly the film was based on a pretty good book... at least that’s what I had heard, so with Richard LaGravenese among the screenwriters... well I had faith in this project from day one.
The reviews came in mostly positive from the legit critics, at least according to the ones I read. I got mostly positive reviews sent in by film fans before hand, so I went into this film expecting a great movie. I had to keep from seeing the film for three weeks because... well I’ve been pretty broke as of late and having to pick and choose my film outings carefully.
There was this one fellow that had been pestering me to go see the film because to him, “It was so bad I ripped my eyes out and ate them.” It seems he wanted me blind. Also Hallenbeck was hesitant to discuss the film really with me. None of my friends saw the film.
Along comes CAN DAY in Austin. This one day of the year where you can take three cans of food to your local theater and trade it in for a ticket to any movie of your choice.
Tom Joad went out and scored 60 cans of Canned Creme Corn. He is an evil bastard, there would surely be many a homeless person cursing that Joad fella for Creme Corn. Yuck.
We went and saw MONUMENT AVE and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME... I enjoyed Monument Ave, but out and out loved What Dreams May Come.
So then we arrive at the GATEWAY theater here in Austin. Father Geek, Tom Joad, Sister Satan and I hand in 12 cans of creamed corn and get our ticket for BELOVED.
This film is not worth the creamed corn we gave to see it!
I despised this film. I loathed it. Then later.... I laughed my ass off about the film, and still later... I felt bad for the film. That’s where I am now.
I’ll explain all of that. I promise.
First off, I have not read the book. I think having read the book might have helped with my understanding of what I can only call a hopeless mess.
I went into this film thinking, “This will be in the competition for BEST FILM!” Hahahahaa.... I hope not.
I loved the first thirty minutes of this movie. I thought it perfectly captured the tone and the profound sense of sadness that it was seeking, but then... well I think Jonathan Demme pulled a fast one on us.
The film suddenly became what I call a Blaxploitation film. I have a film called ABBY on 16mm. It’s about a possessed black woman that wants to get laid. It’s sick, it’s twisted, it’s a lot like this film.
I so wanted this to be a great film, but I wasn’t prepared to see a Blaxploitation film. It literally has many hallmarks of the genre. I don’t think it’s as good as say... THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY or ABBY, but that’s what I feel it is emulating.
It’s a film that showcases a scene that... well... here...
In one key sequence we have a full frontally naked pregnant wild possessed black woman howling and contorting her jaw while an insane Oprah starts charging with a knife to kill Jason Robards who is dressed like Col Sanders through a crowd of older hymn singing and cross bearing women.
And it took foooooor-ever to get going. The audience I saw it with began laughing. This was meant, I think, to be a key dramatic payoff, but for me, and at least at this screening, it was pure exploitation.
When you tie this together with scenes of standing female full flow urination. A dog with an eyeball being placed back into it’s socket. A scene of spraying milk from a pregnant woman’s breast while being raped, which for whatever reason seemed to be less traumatizing then say the rape scene in THE ACCUSED. And I don’t want to hear anything about me being some sort of rascist that is only offended at the sight of a white woman being raped. My sister’s childhood best friend (Hispanic) was raped, and if I could chop the ball sack off that evil son of a bitch I would. The bastard got off on a technicality and fled the North Texas county fearing a lynch mob. My sister has had another friend that this happened to, that didn’t bring charges due to the humiliation of the situation.
I don’t take rape lightly, and I don’t think it is arousing in the least. I hold it to be one of the most repugnant acts of a semi-human being. But this scene just seemed to look and feel exploitive. The arc-ing stream of mother’s milk, for me, didn’t advance the sequence. Instead it made me feel embarrassed for the actors on screen. Same with the standing urination. I usually feel this way with scenes of urination, be it male or female. The only time I have felt that the act of using the bathroom served a useful plot purpose was John Travolta’s trip to the boy’s room on multiple occassions in PULP FICTION. Otherwise it usually seems to serve little purpose other than... “Look! We had someone PEE on Camera! Hahahahaha!” In trying to justify this scene, I believe... perhaps Oprah’s character was so scared by the sight of the Beloved, that she had to clear out her bowels. The audience laughed.
Now, I believe another person on the site objected to the breast-feeding scene, but for me... One of the simple beauties in life is this very act. It is a true act of motherhood and should not be shamed by anyone.
Quickly after this scene though, there is a sequence where Oprah’s character does a profoundly excessive act of protection of her children. This scene is one of the most disturbing scenes in film history for me. And it was meant to be exactly that, and it could have been a scene that set the tone for the rest of the film. But it didn’t work that way for me.
I think the problem I most have with this film is, there are moments that are simply so arresting and powerful that are ruined (for me) by long languishing sequences that just don’t seem to serve any purpose for advancing the narrative of this film. Now whether that is Demme’s fault or the editors Keir and Littleton or the screenwriters or Toni Morrison’s original novel... I don’t know.
Now maybe there is an underlying message to these long incomprehensible sequences, but having not read the book, they completely lost my interest. Then after forty or so minutes... BAM I would be right back into the film for thirty minutes then BAM another 40 minutes into the left field we’d be taken.
I asked my father if he liked the film, he said, “I liked pieces.” I agree. This is a film of pieces. Technically, it is a better film than ABBY, if only for the incredible presence that Danny Glover and his wonderful Frederic Douglas-style look gave the film.
However, unlike THE COLOR PURPLE, I can not praise Oprah Winfrey. I felt that Thandie Newton’s performance as Beloved was one of the worst performances in memory. Yes, I understand the concept of the role. The soul of an infant in an adult body, without a clue how to operate the limbs or the mind. Tortured by a tragic past. Yes, I get it, but I felt her performance was absolutely Wretched. Which I believe is a far more suitable name for the character and the film.
Besides Danny Glover, I enjoyed the tailend of Kimberley Elise’s part of Denver. When she reaches her moment of clarity amongst the madness surrounding her. BAM that worked.
I truly wish this had been a better film for me, but I didn’t ‘get’ it like some obviously did. As soon as the Beloved gained a physical presence, I didn’t enjoy the film. Thandie’s performance conjured the pain and agony I haven’t felt in my skull since I listened to Jodie Foster butcher my ears with NELL.
Scenes like the one where Beloved asks to be touched deep inside and to have her name called out, just felt... embarrassing. And when she simply... turns into butterflies rather than deliver the child... well.. gosh that disarmed the earlier scenes and just served NO PURPOSE that I could see. This had to have been further explored either in the script or the novel. But it didn’t work on screen.
I’ve talked with a couple of people that read Toni Morrison’s original novel, and they had felt it could not be brought to the screen. I can not comment further on that, as I have not read the book. But there was good material in here... somewhere... I could feel it every now and again pulling me back in the movie as I contemplated the ticks of my wristwatch and the hues of the Exit signs.
I hope we see Oprah on the big screen again, I hope she brings more good material to the screen, I just wish her better success. This didn’t do it for me, but I bet someday she’ll knock me out like she did in The Color Purple. Or... at least I hope so.
Every now and again a film with all the talent in the world comes along that just doesn’t work. ALWAYS didn’t work for me, AMISTAD didn’t work for many, but did for me. 1000 ACRES had one of the greatest casts I’ve seen in a while and... it just didn’t work.
Where do these films go wrong? Are the stories just too painful or wide in scope for a film? Do the filmmakers just respect the material so much that they don’t allow it to breath?
If you read the book and liked it... perhaps you’ll understand and grock the movie better than I. But for me, the film is just an incomprehensible collage of beautiful images and powerful thoughts interspersed with mediocrity and excess. I don’t really feel the need to issue blame, since as far as I know the blame lies in me for not being able to ‘get’ this movie. I wish you the best of luck watching this film. Some love it, some hate it, I pity it.