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5 reviews, 11 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Freedomland is just another word for another crappy Joe Roth joint."
1 stars

“Freedomland,” the big-screen adaptation of Richard Price’s 1998 best-seller, would seem on the surface to have everything going for it. The story is a provocative, torn-from-the-headlines tale in which a hard-boiled police procedural is fused with an exploration of how long-simmering racial tensions can boil over in a flash and has been adapted to the screen by Price himself, one of the few contemporary writers who has been able to turn in impressive work in both the literary and cinematic worlds (his books include “The Wanderers” and “Clockers” and his screenplays include the adaptation of the latter, “Sea of Love” and “The Color of Money”). It stars Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, two ace actors who are about as ideal selections for the roles as anyone could have possibly hoped for. It even contains a mesmerizing opening sequence, in which a middle-aged white woman, seemingly in a trance, wanders unnoticed through the streets of a run-down New Jersey housing project, that resonates with a quiet and creepy power. Unfortunately, these top-shelf ingredients have been put into the hands of Joe Roth, the cinematic equivalent of a fast-food burger flipper, and it soon becomes evident that he has no idea of what to do with them. What should have be the “highly charged and gritty mystery” described by the press kit turns into the kind of ham-fisted and unconvincing melodrama that is the sadly inevitable result of the auteur of “Christmas With the Kranks” suddenly deciding that he wants to be the next Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee.

The woman in question is Brenda Martin (Moore) and she eventually turns up in the emergency room of a hospital with an obvious case of shock, bloody hands and a tale of being car-jacked by a young black man in the isolated strip of land dividing the Dempsy projects and her blue-collar town of Gannon. Dempsy detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson) questions her about the car-jacking and begins to suspect from her answers that she is hiding something. Since she is a recovering junkie, he thinks that she relapsed and was trying to score drugs. She denies it and eventually reveals that her four-year-old son was sleeping unnoticed in the back of the car when it was taken. Although Lorenzo tries to keep things under control, the situation immediately spirals out of control when Brenda’s brother (Ron Eldard), a Gannon cop, learns of the missing child–he and his fellow officers swarm the projects and essentially shut the entire place down while searching for the child.

This doesn’t go over well with the largely black residents, who resent both that they are being made prisoners in their own neighborhood by the largely white cops and that the disappearance of a single white child can spark such an overwhelming response from the police and media when black kids are dying there every day virtually unnoticed. While these tensions increase as the blockade continues, Dempsy continues to work with Brenda to try to get to the bottom of what happened. Although he believes her at first, possibly because he also knows the pain of losing a child (his son is in prison), some details of her story just don’t sit right with him and he desperately digs deeper to find out the truth before the situation can explode. What he doesn’t realize (or perhaps he does and just doesn’t want to admit it) is that it is pretty much too late for that; if Brenda is telling the truth, the oppression by the cops is likely to increase and if she is lying about any of it, the neighborhood will be up in arms over the unnecessary harassment.

Even in a version that has been necessarily slimmed down from Price’s sprawling narrative (one major character, a reporter covering the story, has been eliminated entirely), “Freedomland” still contains the makings of a compelling film but it needs the sure hand of someone like Scorsese or Lee, filmmakers who have the ability to get into the skins of their characters and their environment and who don’t shy away from potentially volatile material. These are skills that Joe Roth simply doesn’t possess as a filmmaker and this becomes evident early on. He has obviously studied their works but doesn’t seem to have picked up anything from them other than an over-reliance on jagged editing patterns and deliberately shaky camerawork. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that when a strong filmmaker utilizes such tricks, it is usually for a reason. By contrast, Roth uses them simply because he thinks that this is how you make such film, even though the material doesn’t call for such tricks. To give one obvious example, the first conversation between Jackson and Moore ideally should have been a simply composed affair in which the tension would come from the words they were and weren’t saying–instead, that tension is dissolved by a rapid-fire editing style that seems more suited for the likes of “Armageddon.”

A more significant problem is that Roth fails miserably at capturing the racially charged atmosphere of the material. Although he gives us plenty of shots of white cops lashing out at the black residents and those residents loudly protesting their aggression, there is never any real sense of tension in what we see or even the sense that this is a real neighborhood. Everyone goes through the motions of what they are supposed to say and do but, unlike the gradually escalating events of films like “Do the Right Thing” or “Summer of Sam,” what happens here feels less like the inevitable result of a problem long in the making and more like the unlikely machinations of a screenwriter. And when the tensions do finally boil over in the end into a race riot, Roth refuses to even consider the impact of such a thing on the characters–instead of getting a look at the aftermath of such an event, we are instead treated to a speech by a supporting character (a missing-children advocate nicely played by Edie Falco) that is only believable if we can somehow overlook the previous scenes of violent carnage.

Jackson and Moore both do what they can with the roles but even their efforts aren’t quite enough to save it (and Jackson has been given an asthmatic condition that winds up serving more as a distraction than anything else). For them, this film must have seemed like a good idea at the time that slowly and sadly slipped out of control and transformed from a highly promising film into something that plays like an uninspired episode of “Law & Order.” Considering the fact that remakes are all the rage these days, maybe someone will get the bright idea to redo “Freedomland” and give it the treatment that it deserves.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14013&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/17/06 00:10:33
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User Comments

8/21/18 Action movie fan The amusement park was better 2 stars
12/05/08 Shaun Wallner Fell asleep to this one. 2 stars
6/09/08 Crappy McCrapster a big steamy pile of poo..... 1 stars
5/26/08 kathryn Where was the car? was it ever located? extremely bitty and very poorly acted . 2 stars
4/17/07 Matt A good concept not terribly well handled, but not nearly as bad as a one star rating. 3 stars
1/27/07 mets1986 Complete and total waste of time........... 1 stars
6/04/06 Monday Morning Everyone involved with this "movie" should eat their guns. Absolutely the worst. 1 stars
5/25/06 Jeff Anderson Phony & badly directed with rare awful performances by S.L.J. & J.M. Racism at it's lowest! 1 stars
3/12/06 djacosta Movie doesn't get anywhere, Music sucks 1 stars
2/17/06 martin Walpole Moore had me writhing--had to cover my ears fo r relief from whiny monologues.Totally BLOWS 1 stars
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  17-Feb-2006 (R)
  DVD: 30-May-2006



Directed by
  Joe Roth

Written by
  Richard Price

  Samuel L. Jackson
  Julianne Moore
  Edie Falco
  Ron Eldard
  William Forsythe
  Anthony Mackie

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