Sweet Land (2006)

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Review #357 of 365
Movie Review of Sweet Land (2006) [PG] 110 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $11.50
Where Viewed: Landmark Chez Artiste, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 4 January 2007
Time: 4:15 p.m.
Film's Official Website
DVD Release Date: unscheduled

Directed by: Ali Selim (Emperor of the Air)
Written by: Ali Selim based the short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" by Will Weaver

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Elizabeth Reaser (The Family Stone) • Tim Guinee ("The Lost Room") • Alan Cumming ("The L Word") • John Heard ("Prison Break") • Alex Kingston ("ER") • Ned Beatty (Cookie's Fortune)

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
Sweet Land is a pastoral period film that would seem to appeal mostly to people who sentimentally glamorize a pre-technological, simple, rural existence in the United States post-WWI but pre-WWII. Based on Will Weaver's short story, "A Gravestone Made of Wheat", Writer / Director Ali Selim's film opens with a long shot of a particular white farmhouse standing alone on the open prairie of Minnesota somewhere a day's horse ride from Minneapolis. The angular slope of part of the roof which sweeps downward toward the front door bothered me architecturally from the moment I saw it because it would cause all of the winter snow to fall down onto the door step. This flaw in roof / home design served as a metaphor for what was wrong with this film throughout. The wrong things were put in the wrong places at the wrong time as if those who planned it didn't quite know what to expect or whose research had stopped just short of reality much like this plot line posted on the IMDb about the film, "Set in 1920, Inge travels from Norway to rural Minnesota…". Inge is from Germany; and, in fact, her German heritage and birthplace is the source of nearly all the conflict in the film. In other words, there is no way one could have seen this film, have read the story or even the first few pages of the script and not known she was German. Little things, just not quite right, off the mark, and misunderstood—the theme of this film. Thus is not to say the film is without merits. A surprisingly show of support from some critics making their top 10 lists or giving their thumbs up, made me wonder if they too had actually seen the film. Of course, every year, there are a few small films that receive rave reviews for reasons the general public will never comprehend for two reasons: (a) the brilliant mega-chain cinema owners will not release these films to the national audience so most USAers will have never heard of them let alone seen them, and (b) to be considered a legitimate film critic in the USA, you have to have at least a couple of films that no regular person in the world would think was one of the best films of the year, on your list. This is how all traditional critics define themselves. The good parts of Sweet Land are the performances of Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, and Alex Kingston—though Ms Kingston would fall also into the category of sort-of-miscast—and the chemistry that cooks up between Olaf and Inge.

"…this story grows as slowly as corn…And, it might nearly be as corny…at times."
Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a German mail-order bride arranged for Olaf (Tim Guinee) by friends in Europe. Olaf and his best friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming) pick her up at the train station in Frandsen's car. Frandsen is beside himself with joy over her arrival and obvious beauty. Surely she will be one of the most stunningly gorgeous women in the state of Minnesota. Olaf is smitten, but shy and boyish in his reactions to her. She speaks approximately 25 words of English and has one favorite expression she uses in response to the question, "Are you hungry?" which the USAers all ask while rubbing their stomach and pantomiming eating soup with a spoon, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." The silly USAers, it seems, are not quite certain if she means this literally or figuratively because they don't know exactly what the German people eat, and maybe horse is a common staple food. Marriage plans for the day are swiftly dispatched by the town's Lutheran minister Sorrensen (John Heard) who refuses to marry a woman with no citizenship and no proof she's not part of the socialist movement in Europe or a secret German spy and whom can speak almost no English. The xenophobia of the community with its mighty principles is an embarrassment that should be remembered. The irony being, of course, that the early settlers of Minnesota were involved in brutal slaughters of the indigenous people of the land and were mostly of Scandinavian descent who also had to learn English. In any case, Minister Sorrensen, suggests they go see the nearest judge to get a ruling on her citizenship and try again later. In the meantime, Inge will have to live with Frandsen and work on her English. Frandsen is a jolly and fun-loving farmer, husband to Brownie (Alex Kingston) and father of nine children. He has mortgages his entire farm through Brownie's cousin Harmo (Ned Beatty), the banker tycoon of the area who makes his living by extending credit to farmers he knows cannot afford it and then foreclosing on their property sending them to the poor house. Inge resents the treatment she's received and longs to be free to play her records on her Victrola she's lugged half way around the world. She sleep in a bed full of little kids alternated head to toe and with little feet in her face each night. She struggles to learn English in a family that tries little to teach her anything, though she does develop some sense of friendship with Brownie as she teaches Inge how to make pie. As time goes by, Inge grows more and more weary of her life away from her future husband and decides one night to sneak over and take a bath at his house. Shortly thereafter, Olaf caves in and moves her into his bedroom. He moves to the barn so that the neighbors will not have room to talk about an unmarried couple living together. It is under this new situation that the two begin to bond and fall in love as if their love at first sight were not enough. Well, I won't spoil the plot further, I'll just say there is a happy, sentimental ending to this corn harvest of a film, but it will be a long, long, long, long, long time in coming. The pace of the film is equivalent to the times in which it is set. People still harvest their corn fields, for the most part, by hand, ten stalks at a time per bundle. Along the way, Frandsen and Brownie will come close to losing everything to shady cousin Harpo, Olaf will prove his manhood in more ways than one, the town will overcome its xenophobia toward Inge and enjoy watching stereoscope slides of Eskimo kissing to the a record on her Victrola, and the descendants of Inge and Olaf will be confronted with the opportunity to sell the family farm for $2.2 million.

The drawbacks to the film, even setting the MTV-fast food generational needs for a rapid-fire movies, this story grows as slowly as corn. It will be knee-high by the Fourth of July by golly. And, it might nearly be as corny as corn at times. To laugh with this film requires a unique sense of humor. Much is made, for example, of the fact that Inge makes her coffee for Olaf too black and wastes, therefore, beans. The casting directors did a brilliant job with Olaf and Inge, but Alan Cummings as Frandsen the father of nine children? Ned Beatty as the villainous banker? These two were just odd. And, while Elizabeth Reaser was gorgeous and fantastic as the pouty German, she's from Bloomington, Michigan, while the supposedly American Brownie was played by Englishwoman Alex Kingston? Why not get a real German actress to play Inge and up the authenticity of the part? Well, whatever, the other problems with the film were the nearly incomprehensible future scenes of a Grandma Inge. Trying to decipher who was who and what was going on in these was a challenge made worse by the attention span required to keep alive during the corn growing parts of the film. At the kernel, this is a simple love story. Two people are brought together and fall in love despite the cultural and language barriers. The town doesn't like it too much. The minister tries to sabotage it best he can, but in the end, love prevails, and that's about it.

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Cast Members
Elizabeth ReaserTim GuineeAlan CummingJohn HeardAlex KingstonNed Beatty
Writer / Director
Ali Selim

Sweet Land (2006) Review-lite [150-word cap]
Sweet Land is a pastoral period film that would seem to appeal mostly to people who sentimentally glamorize a pre-technological, simple, rural existence in the United States post-WWI but pre-WWII. Based on Will Weaver's short story, "A Gravestone Made of Wheat", Writer / Director Ali Selim's film opens with a long shot of a particular white farmhouse standing alone on the open prairie of Minnesota somewhere a day's horse ride from Minneapolis. The story is of Olaf (Tim Guinee) and his mail order bride Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) as they weather the corn-growing season that stands between them and marriage. The social and moral convictions of the xenophobic rural area in which they live prevent them from taking their wedding vows. Miscasting, shots of the future, and a pastoral pace, detract making an otherwise bittersweet love story into a film best appreciated by corn farmers.

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1 comment:

careycat said...

It appeared Olaf and Inge harvested the entire crop (40-80? acres) by hand in one 24 hour period. Not likely. I don't believe their corn shucking procedure was correct and corn is not winnowed like wheat.