Tag Archives: C-

FREEDOMLAND

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C-

There’s little doubt about the earnestness of this film adapted from Richard Price’s novel about the social tensions arising from an explosive accusation that a white child has been kidnapped by an African-American car-jacker. Director Joe Roth obviously wants to use the story in the same way that Norman Jewison did with “In the Heat of the Night” back in 1967, to dramatize how often suppressed racial animosities can be released and made gruesomely apparent under the stress of a horrible crime. But good intentions aren’t enough; skillful execution and clarity of vision are necessary components, too. Jewison’s film possessed them; Roth’s doesn’t. “Freedomland” wants very much, as Spike Lee might say, to do the right thing, and it’s truly unfortunate that it goes so wrong, especially with two formidable leads.

Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lorenzo Council, a cop in Dempsy, New Jersey, who has an especially protective (yet stern) attitude toward the residents of the Armstrong Houses projects on the edge of town. One night he’s called in to interview Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), an injured, shell-shocked woman who stumbles into a hospital ER claiming that her car was jacked while she was lost in the undeveloped area separating the projects, where she works as a volunteer in a day-care center, and her apartment in the adjacent white-collar town of Gannon. Under Council’s questioning, she blurts out that her four-year old son was asleep in the back seat, setting off a mad scramble that includes the Gannon PD descending upon the Armstrong complex like an occupying army and refusing to let anybody leave while Council tries to find out the truth about what really happened from Brenda, a recovering addict with a hot-tempered brother (Ron Eldard) on the Gannon force. The level of tension escalates as the child remains missing, with pressure on Council coming from Armstrong residents Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis), her troubled boyfriend Billy (Anthony Mackie) and a frustrated Reverend Longway (Clarke Peters) to halt the police pressure on the projects and from his own superiors to crack the case. Along for the ride is Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the intense head of a group of community activists who work to locate abducted children.

All of this sounds like the basis for an hour-long episode of some network police procedural–one produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, probably–and though Roth strains to give it greater depth, he fails. Part of the fault is his own: his direction lacks subtlety in the intimate scenes, where he goes for the emotional jugular too intently (an early example is the initial meeting of Council and Martin, which is positively frenzied, an effect only exaggerated by the hyperkinetic camerawork of Anastos Michas), and power in the crowd scenes, which are curiously small-scaled and anemic (in a riot sequence he tries to obscure the limited numbers by Eisenstein-style cutting, but the effect is contrived). But a good deal of the blame belongs to the script by Price, who adapted his own book. It fails to clarify even so basic a point as the administrative relationship between Dempsy and Gannon, whose police seem to intrude on one another’s jurisdiction without so much as a by-your-leave. But worse, it has a penchant for inserting Big Speeches into the action on the slightest pretext, and they stop the movie dead in its tracks. Maybe it was those monologues that attracted Jackson and Moore to the project–actors generally appreciate such opportunities to shine (visions of Oscars dancing in their heads)–but if so they miscalculated badly; they’re among the weakest parts of performances that don’t show the stars at their best. Jackson, wearing his hat askew and keeping his intensity level high in ways that suggest a 2006 version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, does nothing we’ve not seen from him before. And while Brenda is supposed to be a woman perpetually close to the edge, Moore makes her so fragile and tremulous a creature that she becomes more caricature than character. Falco, on the other hand, is so tightly wound that you’d think she’s been sipping prune juice between each take, while Eldard, Ellis, Mackie and Peters play consistently at too high a pitch–evidence, perhaps, that Roth is too insensitive a helmer to know when to ask his actors to hold back. The only member of the cast who comes through unscathed, in fact, is William Forsythe, whose bemused calmness as Council’s partner is a consistent breath of fresh air in what’s otherwise a maelstrom of overacting (and melodramatic music from James Newton Howard).

And what, ultimately, does “Freedomland” (the title is derived from a nearby park with a deserted orphanage which is one of the areas searched for Martin’s son, and the place where the truth about his disappearance is discovered) teach us? First, that racism and discrimination are alive and well, ready to emerge under the slightest provocation. Second, that the only answer is for good people of both races to work together (and, if you believe one character, to believe in divine providence). These are not exactly major revelations. And while it’s always good to have such lessons expressed anew, the hard truth is that the job was done better by both Lee in his great film and by John Singleton in a similar story (though in period trappings) with “Rosewood” in 1997. Doing the right thing means watching, or rewatching, those movies rather than this one.

MANDERLAY

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C-

Another spare, tiresome, pretentious yet simple-minded anti-American diatribe from Danish Dogma-tist Lars von Trier, the latest in his line of assaults on U.S. imperialistic cruelty and sexual-and-economic exploitation that began with “Dancer in the Dark” but took off in earnest with “Dogville,” which was the first installment in a projected trilogy of which “Manderlay” is the middle portion.

The earlier film, you’ll recall, was set in a Depression-era Colorado hamlet, into which a damsel named Gloria wandered. She was taken in by the townspeople but eventually was turned into their virtual slave, until her gangster father showed up and gave her the upper hand. In this picture Gloria (previously played by Nicole Kidman, but now by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her ruthless daddy (previously James Caan, now Willem Dafoe) come upon an old plantation in Alabama–the titular Manderlay–and discover slavery is still practiced there though it’s 1933. Infuriated at this state of affairs, Grace takes it upon herself to reform the place by force, freeing the blacks and making the whites their servants and teaching the former slaves how to run the community democratically (and the whites their new place). But though there’s some initial success, things ultimately go south, as it were, and the denouement is predictably dire. In von Trier’s version of America, doom always lurks just around the corner.

As with “Dogville,” the writer-director presents his fable on an almost empty soundstage, with chalk marks on the floor indicating locales and an occasional stick of furniture or bit of background construction to suggest place. The artificiality of the approach–which also divides the piece, rather preciously, into eight clumsily titled chapters, is as dreary this time around as the last, though the actual writing (much of it narration delivered, once more, in from the perspective of some omniscient observer–read von Trier–by John Hurt) seems slightly less arch, perhaps because the pace isn’t quite as ponderous this time around. That’s not just a factor of length, though the fact that “Manderlay” is about forty minutes shorter than “Dogville” is certainly beneficial: the tempo is a trifle less deliberate and the delivery a bit more animated, too. But all that means is that while this film is ponderous, history shows it could be worse.

But the real problem with “Manderlay” isn’t just formal; it has to do with content. Von Trier’s script, as usual, covers lots of bases–one twist takes us back to a condemnation of capital punishment, which he already dealt with in “Dancer”–but it’s basically about white guilt over slavery in this country and the fact that we can’t admit that racism is a continuing problem, simmering just beneath the surface, and that criticism of that reality (like von Trier’s, for instance) can lead to an eruption of anger and violence that unmasks the continuing but unspoken bigotry. The picture isn’t just a general condemnation of slavery as an institution; it’s a critique of the distinctively American do-goodism that claims to have addressed the evils of the system by a process of assimilation and instruction. (One of the most interesting turns the fable takes–because it has obviously topical overtones considering current Mid-East policy–involves Grace’s efforts to teach the freed slaves to decide matters democratically. Needless to say, the effort turns out badly. That extends von Trier’s indictment of American racial prejudice into a more general critique of U.S. arrogance in thinking that we can “reform” the world, and of our presumption that we inhabit some sort of moral high ground from which we can justifiably do so.)

All of which is well and good: criticism of the American past and present, of the spoken and unspoken assumptions of U.S. policy and of the baleful effects of our history and the attitudes that still exist as a result of it is entirely valid and worthwhile, from whatever source and in whatever forum, including a movie theatre. But such criticism, if expressed in cinematic form, has to be more than von Trier offers: it needs to be a flesh-and-blood drama rather than a dry dissertation, an experience that makes you viscerally feel the points it wants to make in emotional terms, not this sort of stale, arid polemic in the form of a pseudo-story. “Manderlay” fails utterly not because of the position it takes, but because of the way in which it takes it. It reduces white-hot issues to drab, dull soap-box rhetoric.

Still, some of the cast make good impressions. Howard and Dafoe recite their lines decently, even though they can’t make much of their stick characters, and Danny Glover has quiet authority as the “house Negro” Wilhelm, whose subservient pose hides something more sinister. And Isaach de Bankote is appropriately virile as the “proud” Timothy, who also turns out to be rather different than his original persona suggests. (Gloria’s misreading of the two is obviously intended to suggest U.S. blindness in seeing things as they really are.) Some of the others in the large supporting cast have their moments, too. But ultimately none of them is anything but the writer-director’s mouthpiece. Nor is the crew given much leeway, though Anthony Dod Mantle’s camerawork is as fluid as the straight-jacket approach allows. The music–a collection of somber baroque movements–is attractive, but the dirge-like quality weighs things down even more than the visuals would alone.

“Manderlay” isn’t contemptible: it represents von Trier’s effort to express his view of America. The problem is that his view is incomplete and schematic, and that he presents it in a stagy, turgid and ineffectual way. He recently announced that he’s postponing the concluding episode of the trilogy until he’s more mature. Let’s hope he does some real intellectual growing-up, and reconsiders his absurdly ascetic cinematic approach, before he takes it on.