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EW review: 'Freedomland' shrill and joyless

Also: Thrilling 'Eight Below,' awful 'Night Watch'

By Owen Gleiberman
Entertainment Weekly

Freedomland
Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in "Freedomland."

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(Entertainment Weekly) -- "Freedomland," a dying-to-be-cathartic drama of American racial turmoil, lets us know from the outset that we're in for a heady dose of social studies.

An adaptation of Richard Price's 1998 novel (Price wrote the script himself), directed by the earnest rather than inspired Joe Roth, it's set in and around a New Jersey public housing project, and it starts by hitting us with bulletins from a war zone: a candlelight vigil for missing children, Julianne Moore slamming into the emergency room with blood -- literally -- on her hands.

Samuel L. Jackson, in a gray goatee and fedora, surveys the gathering storm from his car, a detective smoldering with silent dismay. (How noble is this cop? His name is Lorenzo Council.) Veteran moviegoers won't be fooled: When Sam Jackson grows quiet, we're surely two scenes away from a high-voltage tantrum.

It takes a while to sort out the chaos, but once "Freedomland" gets going, the movie comes down to the following pressure cooker: Brenda Martin (Moore), a woman on the verge of about three breakdowns at once, claims to be the victim of a carjacking. A large black man, she says, bullied her out of her vehicle and shoved her to the ground, her palms sliding ragged over a field of broken glass.

The real crime, however, is that her 4-year-old son, Cody, was sleeping in the backseat. Is he now safe? Or even alive?

As a movie plot point, a lost or abducted child doesn't exactly suggest a lot of gray area. Kids are innocent; their attackers are bad. Period. The complication in "Freedomland" arises out of Brenda's hysteria, which is so extreme that we doubt her story even before we've bought into it, and from the movie's dogged, booby-trapped demonstration of the sins of racism.

Julianne Moore, pale and dissolute, with pink-rimmed eyes and stringy hair that falls into her face, does a scrupulous job of playing a forlorn, broken-down mother, a woman who claims so feverishly not to be a drug addict that we sit back and wait for the story of how she bottomed out on drugs.

Shrieking, moaning, and crying, smashing her damaged hands on the wall (at times, Brenda is devoured by self-loathing), Moore doesn't just act. She goes on the attack, embracing the kind of lower-rung-of-the-middle-class role that actresses from Jodie Foster to Meryl Streep have long savored. Her performance is an achievement of sorts, yet, like the movie itself, it's also strenuous and joyless.

As a novel, "Freedomland" was a gloss on Price's vastly superior "Clockers," and the movie, likewise, is a hokey and diagrammed affair, without Price's trademark verbal fireworks. It's thesis filmmaking masquerading as organic drama.

The disappearance of Brenda's child becomes a media event, as the Jersey cops, setting up a vast phalanx of sawhorses, flood the neighborhood with their blue-uniformed presence, putting the Armstrong housing projects in lockdown. Assuming that the attacker must have come from the projects, the cops distribute the usual sketch -- of an anonymous, threatening black face in a Unabomber hood. That face becomes the film's emblem of injustice.

The obsession with a missing white child, in a world where countless missing black children go unremarked upon, has too many topical resonances to count (most recently, it carries an overtone of the Aruba case), yet there's a half-baked quality to "Freedomland's" outrage. The film, for all its huffing and puffing, doesn't allow a single person in the projects to become a fleshed-out character.

The full weight of black anger and sorrow is carried by Jackson's cop, who's the sole link between the Armstrong residents and their police aggressors. As he takes Brenda under his wing, protecting her, almost coddling her, trying to pry out the truth of what happened, Jackson makes Council a torn and tortured soul, with a dicey legacy of his own (he has a son in jail). Yet the man's gruff honor is never in doubt, and the movie gives him too many lines like "The more you try to know, the more mysterious life gets."

Roth, at times, directs like a caricature of a Hollywood liberal, as when he stages the climactic race riot with an angelic choir on the soundtrack. (The real message: It makes him feel good.)

"Freedomland," with its showy compassion for "the children," its meticulous slides from despair to hope and back again, is a movie that appears to have been made in the shadow of "Crash." It has a similar didactic idealism, the view that if you scratch a bigot, you'll find a saint. In the end, there's something distressingly too easy about that. Watchable as it is, "Freedomland" comes to very little, because it keeps showing you the seams of its good intentions.

EW Grade: B-

'Eight Below'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

We're just moments into the majestic Antarctic snow whiteness of "Eight Below" when a cute little penguin flaps and shimmies out of the water through a crack in the ice, shuffling off as if in search of the open bar at a black-tie event. Sorry, buddy, wrong picture!

Despite the early cameo appearance of a flightless waddler as a subliminal link to the success of "March of the Penguins," Disney's spirit-affirming family affair about the resourcefulness of God's creatures leaves the birds to their baroque reproductive choreography and casts its bid for audience love with an adventure drama about doggies.

There are eight of them, you see -- below (as in the bottom of the world), as well as working under subzero conditions -- and the canine octet spend their days harnessed to sleds, transporting scientists around otherwise unnavigable territory. Their nights, meanwhile, are drowsed away at a base station watching survival guide Jerry (Paul Walker) flirt chastely with bush pilot Katie (former Laker Girl Moon Bloodgood) and pal around manfully with goofball cartographer Cooper (Jason Biggs).

The arrival of an ambitious geologist (always pleasurable Bruce Greenwood) who won't let bad weather slow down his research puts the canine team through their paces: Naturally, the brash human ignores warnings against venturing beyond safe terrain, and naturally, the doggies save him from what might have been a deadly accident, tempering his vanity with their four-legged goodness.

But not until dire weather sets in and the entire nattering population of B actors, with their B-human story lines, is evacuated by airlift while the dogs are forced to stay behind does "Eight Below" get to work. And then this clean, classical, hooray-for-the-pooches picture, directed by veteran Frank Marshall for what seems like the pure geographic fun of it, does the thing that Disney animals-in-the-snow movies have been doing so reliably -- and satisfyingly -- since "White Wilderness" nearly 50 years ago: It tells a wordless, admirable tale of quadruped bravery, cooperation, loyalty, patience, and nobility, with crisp nature photography and fine, round music.

Based on a Japanese Antarctic film and inspired by a real-life story of sled dogs who survived extended subzero abandonment, "Eight Below" teeters at times too coyly on the frozen territory of anthropomorphism -- the handsome, personable dogs who find a way to survive until the humans return aren't just impressive animals (and terrific movie stars, at that), they're also designated as "heroes" who enact psychological dramas of their own in David DiGilio's ingratiating script.

But happily, Marshall and his superb cinematographer, Don Burgess ("Spider-Man"), attend to the big picture, letting nature speak for herself beyond the reach of staged conflicts. There's something invigorating about this unpretentious dog tale. And if a penguin drops by to promote his own movie product, well, there's room on the frozen continent for all.

EW Grade: B+

'Night Watch'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

A friend of mine who ran a revival theater described the nearly religious hush that would settle over an audience of Russian expatriates as they watched the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. His obscure mystical epics spoke their language in every way, and I couldn't help but wonder if a similar dynamic has powered "Night Watch," a smashed mirror of a vampire film that set box office records in its native Russia.

The movie I saw is a fractious fiasco: whiplash camera movement set to raging blasts of death metal, a story so incoherent it made me wish I was watching, instead, the collected outtakes from "Van Helsing."

The director, Timur Bekmambetov, knows how to speed a subway car in your face or impale a man's hand with a pair of scissors, yet there's no light or order to his morbid tricks. Then, too, maybe it's that frenzied hopelessness that audiences in Russia responded to.

EW Grade: F

'Darwin's Nightmare'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

In the 1960s, a bucketful of perch was dumped into Africa's Lake Victoria, a body of water the size of Ireland. (It's the largest source of the Nile.) Forty years later, filmmaker Hubert Sauper, armed with his video camera, journeyed to Tanzania, one of the three troubled nations that border the lake, to record the tragic fallout from that intrusion of nonnative fish.

"Darwin's Nightmare" is an urgent, horrific, yet at times oddly blinkered vision of the crisis of modern Africa. The Nile perch devoured the other species in the lake, and a ruthless European fishing industry grew up around it. Tentatively, like a spectator tiptoeing through a hot zone, Sauper shows us villagers as they scavenge piles of maggot-infested fish carcass (the filets are sent off to Europe), and his talks with guards and industry officials reveal that the planes exporting the fish arrive stocked with illegal arms, thus stoking the region's civil wars.

One of this year's Oscar nominees for best documentary, "Darwin's Nightmare" points an all-purpose finger at globalization, yet the movie, as raw and vivid as it is, meanders terribly and -- bigger problem -- never hints at how the disasters it shows us are rooted in Africa's colonial past.

EW Grade: B


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