Earnest, anemic, and ham-handed, Maggie Greenwald’s new period drama, Songcatcher, occupies interesting territory: Appalachia circa 1907, explored by a woman musicologist in order to record the native folk tunes she recognizes as long-lost Anglo-Celtic ballads unheard anywhere else for a century or more. But it’s anthro-fiction as Lifetime Original. Fascinating sociocultural contexts don’t automatically translate into narrative, and because recording hillbilly croonings from recalcitrant mountainfolk isn’t a story, Greenwald resorts to cheap politics and cliché for her frictions. College prof Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer)—a fictional version of academic researchers like Folk School founder Olive Dame Campbell—is the prim but dogged Easterner venturing into the wilderness, weathering suspicion, ignorance, and primitive conditions. As in Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo, history and culture are merely vehicles for hitching a free identity-politics ride. Penleric’s primary conflict is pre-suffrage misogyny, and her schoolmarm sister, Elna (Jane Adams), has a passionate gay relationship that creates a Bible-thumping crisis once interest in Penleric’s musical besottedness has definitively waned. To keep things predictable, David Patrick Kelly keeps reappearing as a weaselly corporate broker looking to get the uncooperative natives to sell their land, to the repeated response of shotguns brandished on the porch.
Not surprisingly, the exploitation of folk art is an evil deal Greenwald both acknowledges and partakes of (“Barbara Allen” eventually ends up with an electronic rhythm track, sung by Emmylou Harris). Indeed, her movie is the commonest sort of cultural pasteurization. The highlanders are rough-hewn but sweet, the “civilized” Easterners are mercenary pigs, a communal dance scene ends in a brawl. Songcatcher fails to even capture the landscape—here’s a movie that needed the ’70s, when the South could be photographed with gritty, humid conviction (see Deliverance, Wise Blood, Sounder, et al.). McTeer pushes her chin out like a dutiful soldier, but her watchful eyes seem lost, particularly once Penleric lets her hair down and an unlikely romance with a cross-grained local (Aidan Quinn) is set in motion. The music makes its own movie, of course, as warbled by Metropolitan Opera vet Emmy Rossum and, in one lovely, patient scene, by folk goddess Iris DeMent.
More honestly vulgar about its use of ethnic collision, Stavros Kazantzidis’s Russian Doll is the cheesy idiot-twin of Pawel Pawlikowski’s superb Last Resort. Led by the prospect of marriage and materialism, a Russian maiden emigrates to the capitalist promised land (here, Australia), only to loiter on society’s edges and become embroiled in subterfuge. When Katia (Natalia Novikova), a Russian tramp with big hair and a push-up bra, finds her prospective Aussie husband keeled over, she starts romancing a slick married man (David Wenham), who decides to keep his floozy in town by encouraging his broken-hearted buddy (Hugo Weaving) to marry her. Broad as a Nebraska barn and racked with zooms, campy music cues, beach-walking song interludes, and fast-motion comedy, Russian Doll nevertheless focuses on Weaving’s lonely unease, lathering up audience sympathy like a Save the Children commercial. But unlike the matrioshka dolls that serve as the mushy farce’s obligatory plot-arc portent, neither the characters nor the movie have any inner layers to reveal.
In Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, on the other hand, the globe is simply a sandlot for wireless espionage and plastic explosives, and its non-American denizens merely assassinatable wogs. The title is predicated on the old Marx Brothers speakeasy-password routine, but the story (superhacker Hugh Jackman is connived into working for megacrook-CIA splinter John Travolta, on what turns out to be a draconian anti-terrorist campaign) is just what fills in the gaps between slow-motion fireballs, Matrix-style frozen mayhem, and Halle Berry’s notoriously undraped breasts.