[box cover]

Freedomland

A mysterious woman walks into a hospital in Dempsey, N.J., her hands shredded and covered in blood, and within hours all hell breaks loose. Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) has a story to tell, but it doesn't come easily. A social worker at the Rainbow Club day-care in the Armstrong housing project in Dempsey, she was driving back to her home in the neighboring town of Gannon when she got lost down a blind alley, tried to turn back, and was carjacked — the black assailant pulling her from behind the wheel and tossing her hands-first onto a pavement littered with shards of broken glass. Dempsey Police Inspector Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is tasked with taking Brenda's story and keeping an eye on her, but it won't be easy. For starters, her brother (Ron Eldard) is a cop on the Gannon police force, an agency that has a bad habit of ignoring jurisdiction and "hopping the fence" when it comes to serving warrants in Dempsey's housing projects. Even worse, Council is certain that Brenda isn't telling him something. Persisting with his interrogation, Council eventually gets Brenda to reveal a more horrible fact: Her four-year-old son Cody was in the backseat of the jacked car. With a missing child at risk, the Dempsey PD immediately puts the Armstrong project under lockdown, which doesn't sit well with its African-American residents, some of whom note that a missing white child is generating more police activity than previous homicides of black children on the property. Meanwhile, the "Friends of Kent" volunteer organization, led by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), offers its services to Det. Council in the hopes of finding the missing Cody, even though both Council and Collucci are perfectly aware that parents are the cause of their own missing children in two-thirds of all reported cases, and Council doesn't think Brenda will be an exception.

*          *          *

Freedomland suffered a miserable 2006 box-office debut, taking in just $6.7 over its opening weekend and leaving theaters soon thereafter with a $12.5 million gross. It only makes one realize just how much time has passed since the mid-'90s, when the A-list stars of Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights could bank future paychecks on their ability to "open" any movie, their very presence an insurance policy on a midlist title's overall production budget. Instead, Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore's competent work here was not enough to save Freedomland from a rapid decline, and they weren't helped by the fact that the same material can be seen, for free, on nightly network television. TV is the true home of the policier, where the industry's modest expectations and smaller budgets lead to dialogue-heavy scripts and journeyman acting, and were Freedomland's premise plugged into a two-part episode of "Law & Order" or "CSI," it doubtless would provide solid at-home entertainment. Here, the tail very much wags the dog as Joe Roth's film seems far too influenced by television with its dim lighting and moments of wild verité cameras, while screenwriter Richard Price (who adapted his own novel) is given to speeches and lets the story meander a bit too much, suggesting revelations to come, but never feeding us enough information to keep the action compelling in the early stages. When played on the big screen with big-name actors, Freedomland isn't bad as much as it feels small, disconnected, and short on tension. Both leads are good, particularly Moore, who takes a largely unsympathetic woman and mines out her essential humanity (if not her nobility), while Jackson finds himself caught between two worlds — the cops and the projects — both of which expect his loyalty. However, the brewing race-riot at Armstrong forms a second plot, which is as sweeping as Brenda's dilemma is intimate. And as both only intersect tangentially, Freedomland plays more like a true-crime drama with its many loose ends instead of a singular, fully envisioned story. Sony's DVD release of Freedomland features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with a pan-and-scan option and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Only the bare minimum was required for this DVD release — the only extra is a gallery of trailers for other Sony titles. Keep-case.
—JJB



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