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There's a fine novel buried under Freedomland; plus, the bygone worlds

Deep in the heart of Freedomland, there's a good movie trying to be free. That film coulda been a contender, with a pair of strong performances by Edie Falco and Samuel L. Jackson anchoring a tough tale adapted by Richard Price from his own novel. Price has a long, smart résumé that includes Clockers, Sea of Love, The Color of Money and Night and the City.

But the film coming to theaters this weekend that calls itself Freedomland is brought low by the amateurish direction of one-time studio honcho Joe Roth and the calamitous decision to cast Julianne Moore as a drug-plagued single mom. Roth's previous directing credits include Christmas with the Kranks, America's Sweethearts and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. When he wasn't delivering fodder to America's remainder bins, he was a top boss at Disney.

For much of the early going, Freedomland, in Roth's hammy hands, resembles a parody of other dumb and loud thrillers in multiplexes today. From the would-be shock edits--cued with that "whoosh" sound from the woofers in the rear of the theater--to the meaningless jump cuts that break up the dialogue, Roth's directing choices exude distrust for the intelligence of his audience and contempt for the idea of patient and subtle storytelling.

But there's some good news: Despite its manifold failings, Freedomland is worthy enough to warrant a qualified recommendation. Price's script is set in what seems to be the only world he knows, the housing projects of urban New Jersey. As with Clockers and his recent novel Samaritan, Freedomland features a middle-aged, disillusioned police officer trying to do the right thing. Samuel Jackson is Lorenzo Council, a cop assigned to the Armstrong public housing project in a New Jersey town that resembles Newark.

Council has some personal skeletons in his closet, chief among them the fact that his only son is doing hard time in prison. An aging warrior in the projects, Council has cultivated relationships that help him strike an uneasy balance between enforcing the laws and keeping the peace. But all of that trust threatens to blow sky-high when Brenda Martin, a troubled white woman, turns up at a hospital with bloodied hands claiming that she'd been carjacked and her young son kidnapped by a black assailant.

Does this premise sound familiar? It doesn't spoil things to acknowledge that the setup--if not the execution--resembles the notorious case of Susan Smith in South Carolina a decade ago. There's little suspense about Brenda's carjacking tale, for she's clearly a sketchy, unreliable character and Detective Council and other investigators are suspicious almost immediately.

The ways in which Freedomland's plot resembles the actual facts of the Smith case are less meaningful than the film's explorations of flawed adults and their efforts to honor their obligations to their children, other loved ones and their communities. This goes for Brenda, but also for Council and other characters, including a concerned citizen played by Edie Falco. The detective, in particular, is caught in a bind as the black residents of the Armstrong projects look to him to intervene with the police brass that have ordered a total lockdown.

Typecasting is understandably a dirty word as far as actors are concerned, but the contrasting performances of Moore and Falco show the perils of casting against type. Moore's reputation is built on playing fragile, neurasthenic suburban housewives. She's done it in faux melodrama (Far From Heaven), literary pastiche (The Hours), with bleak humor (Safe) and with can-do spirit (The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio). Divine as she may be in such roles, her frail features and native tremulousness leave her ill-suited for more hard-edged characters.

Consequently, and without putting too fine a point on it, Moore's turn as an impoverished, vulnerable and negligent single mother is a disaster, and her character's climactic peroration--which must have covered five script pages--is unbearable to hear and to watch.

Edie Falco, on the other hand, is cast as a suburban New Jersey mother--which is exactly what she plays in her signature, career-making role on The Sopranos. As Carmela Soprano is fervently devoted to her kids, so is Falco's Karen Collucci, a woman who lost her son in a still-unsolved crime years ago, and who has since started a mothers-against-child-killers support group that supplies search and rescue operations and moral support. Falco is dressed down for the role--gone is the bottle blond hair and lacquered nails. Instead, she wears sloppy jeans and sweats, and her brunette hair is pulled back, while her familiar New Jersey accent is softer and less operatic.

In other words, typecasting works beautifully in Falco's case. Although she's playing a character that's quite distinct from a mob wife, she's working the same community as The Sopranos if not the same neighborhood or country club. When it comes time for her big scene with Moore, it's no contest. Falco is the more interesting and concise actress (in this film, at least), and director Roth--in an atypically adroit directing choice--simply holds the camera still for her confrontation with Moore's Brenda. In perhaps one-twentieth of the time, Falco tells us 10 times more than Moore does in her final, LP-length cri de coeur.

 

Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine apparently didn't know much about ballet when they began interviewing surviving members of two loosely related bands of émigré ballet companies. It is our good fortune that they became obsessed with the topic when they did, for Ballets Russes is an utterly engrossing film about globetrotting artists in an age of international chaos. In the maelstrom of the mid-20th century, these stateless wanderers plied the four corners of the earth for the sheer love of the dance.

Ballets Russes was conceived and executed in the barest nick of time. The surviving stars of the two rival ensembles that claimed the "Ballet Russe" mantle are in their 80s and 90s, and indeed, several of the film's subjects have since died. The aged dancers are remarkably fit--indeed, most have eschewed retirement in favor of teaching and continuing to dance in character roles.

The film's title is in the plural because there were two rival companies that flourished during the 1930s and '40s. Both the Original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo were descended from the company run by the great Sergei Diaghilev, an outfit that disbanded with his death in the unpropitious year of 1929.

Throughout the film there's a Warhol-like effect as we encounter people--of whom most of us have never heard--who were superstars in their world many decades ago and who still carry themselves as such. The film is shot through with the biggest of boldfaced 20th-century names, including Pablo Picasso, Agnes De Mille and George Balanchine. Among the film's interviewees is Dame Alicia Markova, the last survivor of the Diaghilev era and rival to Alexandra Danilova. The garrulous Frederic Franklin was Danilova's partner for 20 years and provides the most descriptive accounts of the glory days, although there are a dozen other star dancers who contribute recollections and serve as evidence for the health benefits of a lifetime of dancing.

Slightly younger veterans include the great and still-fabulous Maria Tallchief, one of several American Indians hired by the dueling companies in the 1940s. As doughtily perseverant as the two companies were in the face of Bolshevism and Nazism, not even they could defeat anti-black hostility in America. We meet Raven Wilkinson, an African-American dancer with the company in the late 1940s, whose presence created such headaches on their Southern tours that she finally quit and relocated to Europe.

In addition to the remarkable vigor of its subjects, Ballets Russes is a special film for the incredible archival footage it contains--a good bit of which is in color. Here is an opportunity to see dances that featured costumes and sets by the likes of Matisse and Dali.

In one important way that the filmmakers didn't intend, the film functions as a wistful reminder of a bygone world. The reunion of dancers that sparked the film takes place in New Orleans, a city that may continue to exist but will surely never be the same. The dancers of the Ballets Russes, we realize by film's end, know all about the impermanence of states, cities and passports. For them, art is their reality and their state of being, the only state they really need to live in.

  • There's a fine novel buried under Freedomland; plus, the bygone worlds

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