Roth Makes Mess Of Freedomland

In a glut of winter junk films hell-bent on reducing movie theaters to cinematic waste-disposal facilities, you can now add Freedomland—an unsalvageable disaster all the more dismaying because it stars Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson and boasts a screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel of the same title.

All three have been seen to better advantage elsewhere. Mr. Jackson is one of our loudest commodities, but Ms. Moore is one of our most luminous. They are both dreadful here. Mr. Price is a serious writer with grit, sensitivity, imagination and intelligence. His script for Freedomland amounts to something very close to incomprehensible gibberish. Also sinking without a trace like charbroiled wooden puppets are Edie Falco and the excellent Ron Eldard, currently lighting up Broadway in Doubt. So what happened? How could so many respectable people with distinguished credentials go so badly astray?

It is hard to know just where to place the blame for this debacle, but the police-investigation seals at the crime scene all appear to lead to one suspect: I mean, what else do you expect from Joe Roth, a Hollywood studio executive turned director who was responsible for such epics as Christmas with the Kranks and Revenge of the Nerds II? (I’m not making this stuff up.) The direction of Freedomland is so clumsy, perfunctory and overloaded with predictable camera shots, clichéd narrative holes and jumps in time that you mostly watch it with your mouth open. When Julianne Moore comes off like an amateur, it’s got to be the director’s fault.

There isn’t much plot, but in a terrible, dark, deserted housing project in New Jersey that looks like the kind of place where you could get knifed if you stop to scrape the gum off your shoe, a woman (Julianne Moore) staggers through an alley into a hospital with her hands full of blood, claiming that she was carjacked by a black man with her 4-year-old son asleep in the back seat. The detective in the projects who is assigned to the case (Samuel L. Jackson) proves to be an instant moron by announcing: “Here I am, black as a coal miner’s ass at midnight, and she shakes my hand!” The focus of the search becomes the housing project itself, where the woman works as a volunteer counselor. The neighboring town of blue-collar whites would like to light a torch.

Every element is rife with tension, and Ms. Moore is pretty unstable, too—a former drug addict who wanders around in a dazed state, except for occasional bouts of bashing her head against the wall—and she may be lying about the whole thing. To make matters worse, her brother (Ron Eldard) is another racist cop who should be on the other side of the cage bars wearing stripes instead of a badge. Edie Falco makes a gruesome cameo appearance, unrecognizable with black, stringy hair as a member of a concerned-parents’ group that searches for lost children. They all appear to have wandered into the wrong movie, except Ms. Moore, who spends most of her time delivering tearful, disjointed, fragmented, quasi-hysterical monologues about spiritual disconnect, and Mr. Jackson, who delivers monologues about philosophy and fate (“God’s grace is sort of, like, retroactive”) while sucking on his asthma inhaler.

The story crawls along through a bramble of emotional thorns. I wish I could say it grabs you in some vital, galvanizing way and doesn’t let go, but it’s so dreary and unfocused that by the time it builds to an inevitable full-scale race riot, I doubt if anyone will be alert enough to care. This cannot be the same Richard Price who wrote The Color of Money. How did anything this lethal get released, and how fast can everyone involved do triage, recover and move on?

Junk-y

More rubbish arrives with Cate Blanchett, fresh from her Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. Ms. Blanchett returned to her native Australia for a painful ordeal about a heroin addict seeking redemption called Little Fish. Big career mistake, and a continent away from playing Queen Elizabeth.

No mistake, Ms. Blanchett is a finely honed and versatile talent. But it’s depressing to watch her struggle to find life in a film this dead on arrival. When Little Fish premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to underwhelming reviews, I chalked it up as a miscalculation, convinced it would never see the light of day. But here it is in a moribund February, making a pit stop on its way to oblivion.

Brave, miserable Cate plays Tracy, a vulnerable recovering addict unable to make a new life for herself after hospital rehab. She works in a Vietnamese video store, lives in a profoundly grim rental flat in Sydney’s predominantly Asian “Little Saigon” district, and has dreams of expanding into computer games by opening her own Internet café. Of course, she can’t secure a bank loan because she has no credit or collateral, and her history of crime makes her a security risk. (Lots of flashbacks tell us she’s done time on the boulevard of hard knocks and dirty needles.)

The camera follows her as she traipses all over Sydney looking for money, scoring drugs for her former surrogate “father,” Lionel (Hugo Weaving), who has just been dumped by his ex-lover, a gay crime boss (Sam Neill, who looked more comfortable in Jurassic Park). Poor Tracy also has an ex-boyfriend named Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), an Asian whom she believes to be a stockbroker, but who is really a drug dealer recruiting her amputee brother Ray (Martin Henderson) to a life of syringes and murder. When all of these dirty worlds collide, Tracy finds herself dragged unwillingly back into a lifestyle she vowed to leave behind. Horrible violence and bloodshed are inevitable, arriving late in a film that makes you wish you were dead from the start.

Director Rowan Woods has no visual flair. The film looks like a stained and gaudy linoleum floor. It is also melodramatic to the point of kitchen-sink parody. But to their credit, Mr. Woods and his screenwriter, Jacqueline Perske, avoid the clichés inherent in most junkie plots, recognizing the contradictions that frame and define the sorry lives of addicts and ex-addicts alike, creating a cohesive, devastating portrait of people lost and beyond help from everyone but themselves. Cate Blanchett is the film’s luckiest secret weapon, sometimes spitting on those who try to rescue, while embracing those who seek to exploit. She’s a careful actress, allowing us time to absorb the dilemmas she faces. She’s a little fish swimming upstream in muddy currents, but the mood is so languid that even she can’t save it from dullness. Color it dingy and mark it forgotten.

Heaven Is Hell

It took four countries—Mexico, France, Germany and Belgium—to make a movie as bad as Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven. They wasted a lot of tax-relief money in pesos, francs and marks, but you’d be a fool to waste any U.S. dollars on a ticket.

This inept overdose of liquid Valium begins and ends with ratty, porous close-ups of a pretty young girl giving a blowjob to a fat, ugly old man who looks like rancid donkey meat. His expression is dead, but in the end it’s this bloated recipient who turns the lovely young Lolita into a blood-soaked corpse. In between, you get 98 minutes of pointless art-house tedium about politics, religion and socioeconomic hypocrisy in Mexico City—in the worst black-and-white cinematography this side of a 10th-grade high-school camera class. It collapses on every level.

The old 300-pound troll is a poor slob who raises and lowers the Mexican flag every day and works as a chauffeur for a rich general in the Mexican military. His obese wife with a bovine head is also obscenely grotesque, from eating nothing but a diet of unhealthy processed foods. They have committed a murder we never see, forcing them to make a journey of repentance to the shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe. A crowd of children on a holy pilgrimage of their own pass a gas station chanting, “We’re going to Heaven, and you hold the key.”

Elsewhere, the girl who is so good at oral gratification in the opening scene is the general’s bored and beautiful daughter, a product of Mexico’s privileged elite, who cruises around town shopping and working for kicks with her affluent friends as a prostitute in a brothel called “The Boutique.” A character who appears to be a junkie turns out to be the chief of police. The female cops on his force are nothing more than sex objects. You hear a voice on a cell phone, but all you see is the traffic on the gridlocked roadway that surrounds the city. The grotesquely ugly fat man and his grotesquely ugly fat wife strip naked and go at it, varicose veins and all. He urinates in his pants and finally stabs the boss’ daughter to death. There are long, lingering close-ups of genitalia, while a parade of uniformed militia marches through Mexico City to the sound of drums. The point? Sex and war are interchangeable? Don’t ask.

Although I don’t know a single sane person who will pay to see Battle in Heaven, you can always turn over a rock and find a movie critic who calls the worst movies ever made “tremendously powerful.” (Just watch the quote ads for this dreck and see what turns up.) They are already calling it reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a classic it in no way resembles. This one also pretends to be a tour de force interrogation of the deplorable unfairness of life, but any serious success at either cinematic storytelling or political statement is purely a masquerade.

Mr. Reygadas is hailed, in some film circles, as a visionary who attacks his country like a brave matador fighting in the bullrings of injustice. Don’t believe it. I haven’t visited every back alley in Mexico City, but I have spent a lot of time there, and nothing I have ever seen resembles anything in this movie. Battle in Heaven is loathsome; I don’t expect to suffer through anything worse in the next 10 months.

Odd Couple

Things aren’t much better on the cabaret scene. Faith Prince is a comic persona with a voice like a chainsaw. Tom Wopat is an old Duke of Hazzard who can croon his way around a ballad with charm. Separately, they have each worked on Broadway with varying degrees of success. Together, in an ill-advised “act” on a small, intimate stage the size of a postage stamp at Feinstein’s at the Regency, they blend like gasoline and vanilla. They work hard to fake a bubble of esprit de corps, but it looks and sounds like work, and the audience feels like a 40-mule team helping them up the hill.

They have good taste in material, but despite the superb support of a swinging five-piece band enhanced by the arrangements of Tedd Firth, their curious decision to reverse the boy-girl lyrics on Frank Loesser’s classic movie duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with Mr. Wopat singing the shy Esther Williams part and Ms. Prince tackling the aggressive Ricardo Montalban part, really backfires, while Ms. Prince turns Cy Coleman’s beautiful evergreen “It Amazes Me” into the shrill wail of an ambulance siren. He’s a better interpreter of lyrics, achieving a few genuine moments of warmth on songs by Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb. She’s less skillful at finding the subtext and sings everything too loud, like she’s throwing fly balls at the second balcony. Ill-suited together, in different keys and singing out of tune, they massacre “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story is total chaos. (What they do to that melody must have Leonard Bernstein tossing in his grave.)

What to do with two able performers who should never appear together on a nightclub stage again? A return to Broadway might be nice, even though Ms. Prince did nothing to improve the Judy Holliday role in the ill-fated revival of Bells Are Ringing, and Mr. Wopat, miscast as rodeo king Frank Butler opposite Bernadette Peters in the lackluster revival of Annie Get Your Gun, did look alarmingly like Gabby Hayes playing Yosemite Sam. But the intimacy of cabaret is not for them. For now, it’s probably best that they return to TV, where you can improve anything with the “mute” button on your remote control.

Roth Makes Mess Of Freedomland