NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

TUCK EVERLASTING (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Violence

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Directed by: Jay Russell

Written by: Jeffrey Lieber & James V. Hart

(based on the novel TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt)

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson, Ben Kingsley, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Scott Bairstow, Amy Irving & Victor Garber

I still remember studying TUCK EVERLASTING in Elementary School. Though I only read the book once, it had enough of a lasting impact to stick in my mind. What’s really surprising is that this acclaimed children’s book has only been adapted into film twice. There was a 1981 little-known flick and this 2002 Disney version. As with many book-to-film adaptations (especially those backed by Disney), changes have been made to the source material. TUCK EVERLASTING hearkens back to a riskier time for live-action Disney fare. This may not be as dark as SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES or WATCHER IN THE WOODS, but there’s definitely a more sinister side to this fairy tale. Ironically enough, TUCK EVERLASTING is more likely to entertain adults and preteens, than many kids. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Don’t go in expecting a cutesy, glowing fantasy that’s safe for the entire family. Rather, expect a fairy tale with a dark side, high concepts and deep questions.

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The time is 1914. Winnie Foster is a 15-year-old girl smothered by her rich parents. Winnie’s overly protective mother wants her daughter to be a “proper” woman, but Winnie just wants to explore the world around her. After a particularly nasty argument between child and parent, Winnie gets lost in the woods surrounding her family’s house and stumbles upon a teenage boy drinking from a mysterious spring. The boy is Jesse Tuck and the spring happens to be the fountain of youth. Worried that she will reveal the life-giving spring, Jesse’s family decides to “kidnap” Winnie. As she spends time with this family of four, Winnie begins to fall for Jesse. Meanwhile, a menacing stranger is on the hunt for the immortal Tuck family…and their life-giving water.

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The plot initially seems like a fairly straightforward fantasy-romance, but deeper themes about what it means to be alive and impending death also permeate through this story. There’s a fantastical atmosphere hovering over every frame. For the most part, the cast really sell their characters. I haven’t seen her in many notable roles, but Alexis Bledel is great as Winnie. Sissy Spacek and William Hurt, though underused, are perfectly cast in the roles of Jesse’s parents. Scott Bairstow is a scene-stealer as Jesse’s brother who sees eternal life as much more of a curse than a blessing. However, Jonathan Jackson is mighty bland as Jesse and takes on the role of a character who is probably the second most important person in the story. Jackson’s wooden delivery turns the character of Jesse into only a bland romantic lead and nothing else. This also results in would-be chemistry between himself and Bledel feeling totally unconvincing. The romance is rushed, but there isn’t a terribly long amount of time dedicated to it. Running at only 90 minutes, TUCK EVERLASTING has a lot of material to get through in a short amount of time.

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Despite my last comment about TUCK EVERLASTING running at only 90 minutes, there are a couple of moments that do drag. These are definitely the romantic scenes between Winnie and Jesse. The opening 15 minutes or so feel very rough as well with choppy editing. Things get much smoother once Winnie actually meets Jesse, though there are two distinct moments of clichéd slow-motion. A more sinister quality can be much appreciated with Ben Kingsley filling in the role of evil villain. He isn’t given as many scenes as one might hope, but Kingsley brings a higher quality to the film for every minute that he’s on the screen.

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TUCK EVERLASTING is far from perfect, but amounts to wholly enjoyable time well spent. An unusually mature tone makes TUCK a nice change of pace from the overly safe typical live-action Disney fare that we see so much of these days. The romance is forced thanks to a bland performance, but more serious and interesting parts of the story remain firmly in tact…creative licensing aside. TUCK EVERLASTING is not as potentially great as it could have been, but it’s the best film adaptation we can hope for (until someone eventually tries to give the material a third cinematic attempt).

Grade: B

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