Friday, August 22, 2008

Skating on thin economic ice

If you're after the bleakest movie of the year, look no further than "Frozen River,'' the debut film of director Courtney Hunt. Set in economically withered upstate New York, "Frozen River" has a snow-blown chill that goes directly to the bone. Maybe it's like what happens when you put your bare hand on icy metal and the skin sticks. I attended graduate school in upstate New York, and, I'll say this, Courtney has captured something authentic about the seemingly interminable winters and the economic deprivation that too long has cast a pall over the area.

Courtney's movie, which she also wrote, centers on Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a mother who's trying to cope with two kids after her husband splits. Ray and her sons (Charlie McDermott and James Reilly) are hanging on for dear life. It wouldn't be accurate to say Ray's struggling to make ends meet; she's dealing with ends that don't even live in the same county. Frequently, there's not enough food in the house, and the family atmosphere is thick with the tension caused by borderline impoverishment. To make matters worse, Ray can't get a long-awaited promotion at the Yankee Dollar store where she works; she's hoping against hope that she can buy a pre-fab home that she can call her own. That's the sum of her ambitions, owning a home that can be transported on the flat bed of a semi.

Desperately in need of money, Ray eventually responds to a suggestion from a Mohawk Indian woman (Misty Upham) who makes a few extra bucks smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S./Canadian border. Upham's Lila, who can't afford to spend much by way of either money or emotion, eyes the trunk of Ray's car with entrepreneurial interest. She basically suckers Ray into the smuggling scheme, but Ray quickly realizes that she may have put herself on a fast track to that new home.

The movie's title stems from the fact that Ray and Lila drive across the border on a frozen river, harboring Chinese or Pakistani immigrants in the trunk. Lila's also a mother, but she's been forced to give her child to her mother-in-law. Her stoicism hardly masks the bitterness and rage she feels about not being with her child.

Some late-picture plot developments aren't entirely convincing, but overall "Frozen River" feels coldly honesty. Leo contributes mightily as a woman who can't waste time on sentiment, and Courtney perfectly captures a world full of wheezing cars, bingo parlors, shot-and-a-beer bars and bad weather.

"Frozen River" came out of Sundance with a strong reputation, having won the festival's 2008 grand jury prize. It's not a movie that will warm your heart, but it will remind you that there are people living on the margins, trying to walk an economic tightrope without a net. Ray and Lila are tougher than anyone should have to be. That's what breaks your heart.


Hamlet 2, another Sundance hit, also opens today. Although the movie has received some good and some tolerant reviews, I found it close to unbearable. This despite an engaging premise: A failed actor (Steve Coogan) who has turned to teaching tries to save his school's drama program by putting on a play he has written, an improbable sequel to Hamlet. To make matters even more absurd, the play involves time travel, and sets up situations in which figures such as Jesus and Einstein are able to populate the story. But premise (or promise, if you will) doesn't necessarily translate into anything especially funny, and Coogan's over-the-top, drama-queen performance got on my nerves. Even the usually spot-on Catherine Keener, as the embittered wife of Coogan's character, comes off poorly, and the whole movie builds toward a finale that strains for political incorrectness with inclusion of a musical number called "Rock me sexy Jesus." The only bit I found funny: An acerbic high school drama critic (Shea Pepe) provides steady humiliation for Coogan's Dana Marschz. Elizabeth Shue portrays herself, an actress who has taken up nursing as a second career. Shue couldn't coax this one into comic health, not for me.

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