Katie Recommends: Frozen River

When it came out in August, I read a review for the low-budget indie movie Frozen River and thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t get around to watching it until it came out on DVD a few weeks ago. I’m here to encourage you to do the same.

It takes place in northern New York, near Canada—an area of the country I can’t remember seeing portrayed in any other work of fiction. Ray (Melissa Leo) is a cashier and mother of two whose gambling-addicted husband has run off with the money they were going to use for a down payment on a new house. She has to ask for $2.74 worth of gas at the gas station until she finds an extra five bucks at the bottom of her purse, and her family’s dinner sometimes consists of popcorn and Tang.

While she’s looking for her husband, she meets a Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) who gets extra cash by driving to Canada over the frozen St. Lawrence River to smuggle immigrants into the country. Seeing Ray as a white woman with a car, unlikely to be stopped, Lila asks Ray to help her with the smuggling. Ray is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees.

This is a very grim movie, but a realistic one. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll just say that it’s very suspenseful and kept me guessing. The acting is fantastic—while I’m thrilled that Kate Winslet won the Oscar because I love her and she’d been nominated too many times without winning, I think Melissa Leo deserved it more. It’s not perfect—in particular, I’m a little annoyed at some important details that I feel were left out of Lila’s story—but it’s extremely well done. Amazingly, this is writer-director Courtney Hunt’s first feature-length movie, and I’ll be very interested to see what she does next.

Other movies I’ve seen lately:

I almost recommended this instead, but fewer people have seen Frozen River. Anyway, Milk is absolutely amazing. There aren’t a lot of movies that not only move me but inspire me to learn more, and that’s what Milk did. Before I saw it, I knew the bare details of the Harvey Milk story—gay politician in San Francisco in the 1970s who was assassinated by another politician who got off easy due to the “Twinkie Defense”— but not much else. I hadn’t known about what he actually did as city supervisor—most notably, sponsoring a civil rights bill and being instrumental in the defeat of Proposition 6, which would have led to the firing of gay teachers in California—or anything about his personal life or even his personality. But after seeing this movie, I watched a documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk, and I’m planning on reading The Mayor of Castro Street as soon as I can. Sean Penn is absolutely brilliant— I could barely remember that this was the same guy who felt the need to demonstrate his lack of a sense of humor at the 2005 Oscars. Josh Brolin is also great as Milk’s assassin, Dan White. While he’s not sympathetic, Brolin makes him interesting and three-dimensional, and while I don’t know if this was true, the movie implies that White may have been in the closet. (Side note: how did I not know until the Oscars that Josh Brolin is married to Diane Lane?)

The movie is also incredibly well-written. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, whose acceptance speech made me cry, completely deserved his Oscar. The timing of this movie is interesting, too—Harvey’s speech on hope (“I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without hope, life is not worth living”) is reminiscent of a certain politician we elected on the same day Californians demonstrated how little has changed since the 1970s. Bottom line: see this as soon as you can. It’s fantastic, and would have deserved Best Picture just as much as Slumdog Millionaire.

Speaking of which…

Slumdog Millionaire
First, what I didn’t like: it’s fairly predictable, and in telling the main character’s life story, there’s one part that the movie leaves out that I would have liked to see. Also, both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards spoiled a major scene at the end. Other than that, I liked about everything about Slumdog Millionaire. While it’s a love story at heart, it’s also very dark, and I like that it brings attention to the plight of kids living in the slums of India. Another thing this movie made me think about is how we accumulate knowledge. The main character, Jamal, is able to answer the questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? not because he’s super-intelligent, but because he’s picked up bits of knowledge from a variety of places. And if you’ve ever played any kind of trivia game, you know how much sense that makes—the answers that are obvious for you aren’t so for everyone else.

The Reader
This is worth a watch, for sure, but I’m surprised it was nominated for Best Picture. While it’s a well-done movie, there’s a certain…coldness to it, for lack of a better word, that turned me off. Kate Winslet plays a very interesting character, but one who’s not exactly sympathetic. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it sometimes feels like the movie is begging you to sympathize with her— did I mention that she’s a Nazi war criminal? The secret that’s revealed halfway through the movie is supposed to shed light on her actions, but it’s not really a surprise and doesn’t explain all that much. Kate Winslet is very good in it, and I’m glad she got her Oscar since she’s been so consistently excellent in everything she’s been in but like I said, I think Melissa Leo in Frozen River, and Winslet herself in a lot of her other movies, were better.

He’s Just Not That Into You
First, let me say that I absolutely love the book and consider it my relationship bible. It’s a book that delivers concrete examples of such a simple concept: if it’s not obvious that he likes you, stop making excuses for him—he’s just not that into you and you need to move on. The movie takes this philosophy and applies it to three main storylines: one about a sweet but clueless woman and the man trying to get her to see things clearly, one about a woman whose boyfriend of seven years doesn’t want to get married as much as she does, and one about a love triangle involving a young woman and a married couple. I do like romantic comedies, and while this won’t become a classic, it’s a fun watch. I was cringing at some parts of it, though—Ginnifer Goodwin plays a character who tends to misread signals and make some embarrassing mistakes. I recommend it, but you definitely need to read the book, too.

Revolutionary Road
…Damn. This movie is ridiculously depressing. I had high hopes for it because I’ve loved Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both separately and together, since my days as a Titanic fangirl. While the two of them don’t disappoint with their excellent performances, I couldn’t enjoy the movie as a whole. 90% of it is the two of them, a married couple in the Connecticut suburbs in 1955, screaming at each other. Like, imagine if Mad Men was all about Don and Betty. It starts off sad and just gets darker and darker—these are two people who aren’t happy with their lives and will never find what they’re looking for. Also, the screenplay is very melodramatic and lacking in subtlety. The most interesting parts involve their neighbor’s son, a mentally disturbed man with no filter (Michael Shannon) whose words hit a bit too close to home. Note that Shannon was the only cast member to get an Oscar nomination. I actually think Kate Winslet might have been better here than in The Reader, but great acting and pretty actors are really the only reasons I have to recommend this movie.

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