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This hair better get me an Oscar: (l-r) Theron and Woody Harrelson in North Country.

Victimized Again
By Laura Leon

North Country

Directed by Niki Caro

Ripped from the script of this week’s Lifetime Network melodrama starring Nancy McKeon as a brutalized. . . . OK, the movie North Country is not born of a tradition of bad TV movies, but inspired by the book Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Still, its resemblance to Lifetime’s stock-in-trade is far stronger than any thread that may link it to the book, and while that’s probably to be expected in a mainstream Hollywood film, it’s a crying shame.

The movie purports to tell the story of the real-life Lois Jensen, an iron miner in northern Minnesota who endured years of on-the-job sexual harassment, followed by years of legal wrangling in the courts, to achieve a landmark decision that required companies to establish, and follow, protocols to discourage such treatment in the workplace. In North Country, Jensen’s double is Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a woman who should just go ahead and have a big old “v” for victim tattooed on her forehead. You know, just in case we don’t get the point with the abusive husband, unappreciative children, dismissive parents and so on. It’s almost a no-brainer that when Josie goes to work, either at the mill or anywhere for that matter, that she’s going to get dumped on, which is a huge detriment in terms of involving the viewer in what should be an involving, emotional story.

Josey defies her father (Richard Jenkins), who likens her desire to take a job at the mines with a need to profess her “lesbian” status, and becomes a miner. In a series of quick montages, we see Josie, with her newfound financial stability, buying her first house, getting gifts for the kids, becoming friends with other female miners and living a sort of good life, finally. Except for the male chauvinists with whom she works, that is. There are scenes, some quite grisly, that limn the extent to which the women were harassed and threatened, and, to a lesser extent, provide insights into why the women stayed (and, later, why many of them were reluctant to join the class-action suit). For the first half of the movie, Caro does a mostly masterful job of evoking the lifestyle and limitations of the barren northern Minnesota in which this story takes place. Jenkins and Sissy Spacek, as Josey’s mother, telegraph enormous amounts of information and emotion about their characters into brief scenes.

Sadly, the filmmakers do everything they can to infuse the story with melodrama. Potentially harrowing tangents, such as the onset of a debilitating disease in Josey’s plucky coworker Glory (Frances McDormand), seem included to show that the actress can play ill rather than something that adds to the fabric of the story.

By far the worse offense to the integrity of the real-life women is the script’s insistence on threading the movie together with courtroom flashbacks that focus on the paternity of Josey’s firstborn. In other words, the complexities of the class-action suit, and the enormity of what t he plaintiffs are attempting, is boiled down to a question of “Who’s the daddy”? I guess I should be thankful for some consistency (something that’s rare in today’s screenwriting); the paternity issue speaks to yet another atrocity performed against our plucky heroine. It’s too bad that the filmmakers had to resort to such lows, however, as if the viewers couldn’t possibly relate to Josey’s plight for equal treatment at work without feeling sorry for her as an abused woman. Such ploys serve to distance us from Josey and her cause, rather than help us embrace both for what they are.

A Longshot Pays Off

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Directed by John Gatins

First: Try to forget the stupid subtitle, which adds neither eloquence nor necessity to the matter at hand. Second: Try not to think too much about all the other horse movies you’ve seen—you know, those stories in which a plucky kid puts his/her faith in the horse in which nobody else believes, and ends up in the winner’s circle. That done, you should be able to do what I didn’t think possible, which is to enjoy this quiet family drama much more than you have any right to expect.

Written and directed by John Gatins, Dreamer focuses on how the rehabilitation and retraining of a horse, Soñador, transforms a broken family and breeds success for a bunch of old-fashioned dreamers. Eleven-year-old Cale Crane (Dakota Fanning), a refreshingly normal child by Hollywood movie standards, grieves for the loss of time and attention with her gruff father Ben (Kurt Russell), a horse trainer working for the imperious Everett Palmer (David Morse). When Ben advises Palmer to hold back a horse—Soñador—from a big race, because he senses that the horse is in pain, Palmer shrugs him off. Of course, Ben’s prediction proves all too accurate, as the horse collapses in a nasty, well-edited fall. The now-jobless Ben takes the horse back to his farm, where he hopes to heal her enough to become a money-making breeder. Joining him are Balon (Luiz Guzmán) and former jockey Manny (Freddy Rodriguez), and, eventually, his estranged father “Pop” (Kris Kristofferson). With Cale at their center, this motley crew of horse lovers engage in an against-all-odds struggle to reclaim the heart of a champion, and, hopefully, make some money in the process.

What’s especially nice about Dreamer is the gentle way its drama unfolds, and the subtle interplay of characters with each other and, of course, the horse. Gatins’ script evokes a genuine love of horses as well as the bittersweet realities of today’s race world, which is heavily populated by new money and foreign powers, leaving middle-class farmers like the Cranes, not to mention their Mexican employees, out in the cold. There are nice touches, not overplayed, in which Cale, early on, is forbidden from entering a part of the stands reserved for owners, and its later counterpart, when she and Balon, part-owners of Soñador, are able to walk through this hallowed section. Gatins doesn’t make too big a deal of this, or, for that matter, of Palmer’s rude dismissals of the myriad ethnics who work the stables, but the point is there; it adds a much-needed bite to the sweetness of the movie.

There were times when I was reminded of those Shirley Temple movies that my mother made me watch on cold Saturdays, and I cringed in anticipation of a whiney plaint or, worse, a tap dance and song, but Fanning and her stalwart costars are far above that sort of thing, delivering instead underplayed, essential humanity to their roles, raising Dreamer, in spite of its hokey title, from the ranks of the less-than-inspired.

—Laura Leon

Game Over

Doom

Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Doom is aptly titled, and not because it’s based on the groundbreaking video game of the same name. No, the doom inherent in this cinematic mutant is the sheer hell of sitting through it: Doom may be the worst movie ever made. And that’s only partly because it’s not quite a movie, but a moronic attempt to cash in on the gaming industry. Doom assumes that anyone who played the game—by all reports a challenging and rather chilling experience—is a complete and total imbecile who can’t follow the simplest plotline without obvious exposition such as “I fell in a hole!” (this from a character who falls in a hole).

The gist of the story is that in the year 2026, a portal to an ancient civilization on Mars was discovered. Years later, a scientific research team hunkered down in a Martian space station comes under attack from mysterious entities. An elite force of Marines is sent to the rescue, and one by one, they meet their doom. The evolved demonology of the game has been changed to anthropology; instead of supernatural terrors, the Marines are now up against cruddy, Alien-type monsters that come apart like hunks of stale cheese. Like the game, the movie wallows in graphic violence and a depraved sensibility that drives many of the characters to self-mutilation. But since they don’t seem to be under any particular pressure—there isn’t a suspenseful split-second in the entire movie—their extreme behaviors are just icky. And the set design is complete junk. And in case the infantile dialogue isn’t boring enough, the characters all have their intentions telegraphed with long, penetrating close-ups. The platoon leader, Sarge, is played by the Rock, who exaggerates the cartoonish qualities of his face to a really irritating degree.

Meanwhile, the camera closely follows the characters for their every routine movement, perhaps trying to mimic the notorious “first-person shooter” perspective of the game. The effect is more like a home movie shot by a toddler. Subtitles announce each change of location, no matter that these changes are announced verbally at every turn. Karl Urban actually gives it a go as Reaper, a Marine and the brother of one of the surviving scientists. Smoldering as though his life depended on it, Urban seems determinedly unaware that he’s in the world’s stupidest zombie movie. First-person viewers should be so lucky.

—Ann Morrow


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