Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman 1925-2008

Oldest Newman Movie I've seen: Hud
Newest Newman Movie I've Seen: Road to Perdition

Newman once said, "If my eyes ever turn brown, my career's shot to hell." You be the judge...
Rest in Peace.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Top Ten Favorite Modern Film Composers

10. Thomas Newman
Okay, even I'll admit that he's overrated sometimes. But he's often justifiably lauded. He's an eight-time Oscar nominee, though he's never won (I was surprised to find this out). He probably came closest to the win for his American Beauty score, which was lovely, but definitely not my favorite of his. I think that Newman's scoring works best when he underscores. Sample the scores from Todd Field's In the Bedroom and (even better) Little Children for some of Newman's best work. Field is just one director who has had their entire filmography scored by Newman. Sam Mendes went there for all three of his films and his upcoming fourth feature Revolutionary Road.

9. Jon Brion
His score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind still gives me goosebumps. And his work in I Heart Huckabees, Boogie Nights and Magnolia are no slouches either.

8. Rolfe Kent
He is Alexander Payne's go to man for music. Listen closely next time you watch Sideways, Election or About Schmidt (which is his Kent's best work). That's some beautiful music, n'est pas? Oh, and if you watch "Dexter" that's Kent doing the theme at the beginning. Good stuff, I must say.

7. Alberto Iglesias
I love his work in The Constant Gardener, for which he is Academy Award nominated. But his real genius is in scoring just about every Almodovar film, which all have great scores. Particularly his Volver score, which is my personal favorite.

6. Mark Mothersbaugh
He lent his talent to The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, Thirteen in 2003, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004. And although I preferred David Byrne's scoring of the second season of "Big Love," I definitely love what Mothersbaugh did in the the first season. His music is rather lovely and strange.

5. Alexandre Desplat
His score for The Painted Veil was a thing of utter beauty, but I first took notice of him in 2005. And believe it or not, it was his score for The Upside of Anger that turned me into a fan. Check it out. I think it will pleasantly surprise.

4. Gustavo Santaolalla
While I don't feel it was at all necessary to reward him at the Oscars two years in a row (his score for Babel is rather derivative) he did create the simple and now iconic Brokeback Mountain score which is likely to live on as a classic. His Motorcycle Diaries score also impresses.

3. Philip Glass
Some felt that his score for The Hours was...a bit much, to say the least. He's very communicative, that's for sure. Unforgettable, definitely.

2. Howard Shore
Not for The Lord of the Rings, which was a fine score. But for The Departed, which was a departure for Shore, yet totally matched the tone and feel of the film. Astounding.

1. Mychael Danna
Okay, so perhaps I'm biased because he's Canadian. He's probably most famous for scoring parts of Little Miss Sunshine. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. His beautiful, often guitar-based scores are simply elegant. From Girl, Interrupted, to his clear standout, the haunting and graceful score for The Sweet Hereafter. Danna's one to listen for.

Random Thoughts

I'm trying to add a little more structure to the blog. I'll be starting up the "Can We Talk About..." series once again. Possibly Michael Shannon? I haven't decided yet. Also, since I've gotten myself one of those newfangled Netflix accounts, I've been able to catch up on movies that I missed the first time around. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I just saw Moulin Rouge! for the first time this week. I'll be posting a retrospective review of it sometime later this week, as well as other superlative works of the past that I happen to see.

I'll also be doing my Oscar predictions for Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director and Picture when I get a chance. And I will post a review of Happy Go-Lucky in the next few days.

Peace, Love and Pretension

Burn After Reading

written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
starring: Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, George Clooney and Tilda Swinton
(This will be a shortened review since I saw this film some time ago and since it's already been spoken ad-nauseum)

After their heavy and meditative No Country for Old Men, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director, the Coen brothers are at it again, this time foraying into comedy (which they do so well). I won't recount the film's storyline in too much detail because A.) I don't think that's the point of a movie review and B.) It's rather ridiculous. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) a dismissed CIA operative is penning his memoirs as a means to make money, much to the dismay of his cold fish of a wife, Katherine (Tilda Swinton). In a series of unfortunate (and improbable) events, a disc containing several pages of the memoir lands in the incompetent hands of two fitness club employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), who wish to use the secrets contained therein for their own financial gain. It's classic Coen brothers storytelling. A group of unwitting, unsuspecting people getting drawn into situations with dire consequences that they never seem to realize until it's way too late to turn back.

The film is well-written, but is that saying much? The Coen brothers have such a way with dialogue and characters. The film clearly wants you to laugh along with the ridiculously intricate nature of the tale, which is funny enough. About 3/4 of the way through the film, it starts to grow tiresome and lag somewhat, but the conclusion is enough to keep the average Coen brothers fan at least partially satiated.

All of the players here are in top form. Tilda Swinton plays ice queen once again like nobody's business. Swinton's Katherine is cheating on her husband with Harry (played by George Clooney) and doesn't even take off her pearls when she's making love. Frances McDormand seems to be able to elicit laughs with a mere facial expression and George Clooney is wonderfully bumbling and un-suave. The film also boasts great supporting talent from the likes of JK Simmons (Juno) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor). The standouts of the film are clearly John Malkovich and Brad Pitt, probably in that order. They are both having such joyous fun with their roles. While they are both great, it seems that Pitt is getting all the press for his sharp comedic turn. I found his performance to be slightly more self-conscious than Malkovich, who found a sort of effortless, fluid humor that I found to be delightful.

There are a few more Coen brothers trademarks at work here. The "ho-hum" attitude towards death and the expectation that you chuckle along with them. I'm not sure how I feel about that, nor am I sure it's even a huge problem. I mean, our culture doesn't really have a problem with death the way people would like to think, but that's another issue entirely.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Emmy Predictions

People who know that I love the Oscars often assume that I will therefore love the Emmy's, which I don't get. Or the Grammy's, which I understand even less. But I digress. I certainly don't hate the Emmy's. It's just that I normally don't get as excited as I do about the Oscars. As often as I disagree about the deserving nature of the films nominated for Oscars, I agree even less that the television shows nominated for Emmy's are truly deserving (except under a few circumstances). Alas, here are my predictions for who will win big tonight.

*What I think will win
+What I think should win
**You never know...

Outstanding Comedy Series

30 Rock*+
Two And A Half Men
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Office**

Conventional wisdom says that "30 Rock" takes this. True, they won last year, but the Emmy's aren't like the Golden Globes. They like to repeat themselves "30 Rock" is also my pick. I like "The Office" just fine, but it had a really off season and it feels like it's on its way out.
Should have been nominated: "Flight of the Conchords"

Outstanding Drama Series

Boston Legal**
Mad Men*

Okay, so "Mad Men" is the it show of the moment. And from what I've seen of it, it deserves the acclaim (I'm reinstating my blockbuster account soon and Mad Men Season 1 shall be at the top of my queue). I'm fine with a win for "Mad Men" but not so much that I can pretend it's superior to "Dexter." Though people seem to like "Boston Legal." That's one of those shows that always seems to get nominated for Emmy's, even though it supposedly sucks. Well, my friend's roommate made us sit through a couple of episodes of "Boston Legal" and I'm happy to confirm that it does in fact suck. Which means it might win, because the world is against me. And none of these shows are superior to...
Should have been nominated: "Big Love"

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Alec Baldwin - "30 Rock"+
Steve Carrell - "The Office"*
Lee Pace - "Pushing Daisies"
Tony Shalhoub - "Monk"
Charlie Sheen - "Two and a Half Men"**

I will never understand the notion that "Two and a Half Men" is somehow a funny show. Seriously, it gets nominated in every possible category every year. What gives? This one should go to Alec Baldwin, who is superb on "30 Rock." But I have a feeling they'll tip their hat to Steve Carrell for his work on "The Office." He's lost out before and his star is rising. Plus, Alec Baldwin made all those comments about how "30 Rock" rules and "Scrubs" and "My Name is Earl" suck. That might make him seem unsympathetic and it's all very political.
Should have been nominated: Charlie Day for "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

Christina Applegate - "Samantha Who?"
America Ferrera - "Ugly Betty"**
Tina Fey - "30 Rock"*
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - "The New Adventures of Old Christine"
Mary-Louise Parker - "Weeds"+

I love "30 Rock" and am a fan of all things Tina Fey. I'll even be happy for her if she wins tonight. She's very good on "30 Rock" but I can't pretend that what she does is superior to what Mary-Louise Parker does on "Weeds." Of course, America Ferrera could win for the overrated "Ugly Betty" like she did last year. They do like to repeat themselves. But for now, I say Fey takes it.
Should have been nominated: Marcia Cross for "Desperate Housewives"

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Gabriel Byrne - "In Treatment"
Bryan Cranston - "Breaking Bad"
Michael C. Hall - "Dexter"*
John Hamm - "Mad Men"+
Hugh Laurie - "House"
James Spader - "Boston Legal"**

Michael C. Hall deserves it. John Hamm will probably get it, knock on wood. But James Spader won last year. And there's always Hugh Laurie to consider. A win for Spader or Laurie wouldn't surprise me, but I still say that Hamm gets it.
Should have been nominated: Bill Paxton for "Big Love"

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Glenn Close - "Damages"+
Sally Field - "Brothers and Sisters"**
Mariska Hargitay - "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"
Holly Hunter - "Saving Grace"
Keira Sedgwick - "The Closer"*

I've seen enough of each of these shows, maybe with the exception of Holly Hunter's (I've got to check it out. She was so good in The Piano), to know that these are all fine performances. Even though I've only seen a couple episodes of "The Closer" I think Sedgwick deserves it, even over Sally Field, who I watch more often on "Brothers and Sisters" and who was last year's surprise winner. Conventional wisdom says that they won't let Field anywhere near the stage after her "inflammatory" speech last year. But if they let Kathy Griffin win two years in a row, then come on... All of these women are foreseeable winners, but I think it will ultimately go to Close.
Should have been nominated: Jeanne Tripplehorn for "Big Love"

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie

I won't even bother listing the nominees because Paul Giamatti will win this handedly for "John Adams." That is all.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie

Ditto for Laura Liney.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

John Cryer - "Two and a Half Men"
Kevin Dillon - "The Entourage"
Neil Patrick Harris - "How I Met Your Mother"**
Jeremy Piven - "Entourage"*
Rainn Wilson - "The Office"+

Can I just say that it's great to see two gay actors nominated for...Oh, wait. Sorry. Jeremy Piven is "straight." Where is my mind? There's not much to say about this category. Jeremy Piven will probably win. Rainn Wilson deserves it. But both Harris and Cryer have a real chance of upsetting. And Dillon is happy to be there.
Should have been nominated: John C. McGinley for "Scrubs"

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Kristin Chenoweth - "Pushing Daisies"**
Amy Poehler - "Saturday Night Live"*
Jean Smart - "Samantha Who?"
Holland Taylor - "Two and a Half Men"
Vanessa Williams - "Ugly Betty"+

I guess of these five nominees, Amy Poehler is my favorite. But honestly, I don't care about this category. Not when it doesn't include Jane Krakowski for "30 Rock" or Elizabeth Perkins for "Weeds". I predict Vanessa Williams to take it, but Kristin Chenoweth is supposedly just darling on "Pushing Daisies," so watch out.
Should have been nominated: Elizabeth Perkins for "Weeds" or Jane Krakowski for "30 Rock." Everything they both say is hilarious.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Ted Danson - "Damages"+
Michael Emerson - "Lost"
Zeljko Ivanek - "Damages"
William Shatner - "Boston Legal"**
John Slattery - "Mad Men"*

I don't really care about this category either, but what I've seen of "Mad Men," speaks well of John Slattery's performance. I think it will go to Ted Danson, but who knows? And of course Shatner's always a possibility.
Should have been nominated: Harry Dean Stanton for "Big Love" (Are we seeing a pattern yet?)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Candice Bergen - "Boston Legal"**
Rachel Griffiths - "Brothers and Sisters"*
Sandra Oh - "Grey's Anatomy"
Dianne Wiest - "In Treatment"
Chandra Wilson - "Grey's Anatomy"+

Everyone thinks Chandra Wilson should get it for "Grey's Anatomy." I have no problem with her winning. I have a problem with her character on that show, who is such a mammy archetype, it borders on offensive (especially since the showrunner is a BLACK. WOMAN.) I think Rachel Griffiths should get it for her searing work on "Brother's and Sisters," but I think it will go to Wilson.
Should have been nominated: Patricia Wettig for "Brothers and Sisters"

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie

I'd bother listing the nominees, but I think that we're looking at a John Adams sweep. It's going to be Tom Wilkinson hands down.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie

Eileen Atkins - "Cranford"**
Laura Dern - "Recount"+
Ashley Jensen - "Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale"
Audra McDonald - "A Raisin in the Sun"*
Alfre Woodard - "Pictures of Hollis Woods"

I just love Audra McDonald, so I'd love to see her win here, even if the TV version of "A Raisin in the Sun" was vomit inducing. But Laura Dern will probably get it. This is the easiest way to reward "Recount."



written and directed by Alan Ball
Starring: Summer Bishil, Peter Macdissi, Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello and Toni Collette

Nearly every aspect of Towelhead feels calculated and patently false. Much in the same way that there's something admirable about transgressive material that's making a large and salient point, there's something desperate and almost immature about transgression for its own sake. Films that try to shock, push buttons and appear provocative when it is clear that the writer-director (in this case, Alan Ball) has little or nothing insightful to say about the subject matter.

Towelhead, written and directed by Alan Ball, who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for penning American Beauty, tells the story of Jasira, a thirteen-year-old girl with a white mother (Maria Bello) and a Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi). After Jasira allows her mother's boyfriend to help her shave her pubic hair, her mother flies into a rage, siding with the boyfriend, not her daughter, and sends Jasira to live in Texas with her dad.

Her father is a creation of peculiar and often flimsy characterization. He is a Christian, but is often assumed to be Muslim because he's from the Middle East. He is Americanized in some ways, but not so much in others (to the point of inconsistency). For instance, he slaps Jasira when she shows up to breakfast in a tank top, yet seems to take little to no offense to his girlfriend liberally applying makeup to Jasira's face.

In a lot of ways, the film is about Jasira's sexual awakening, as she babysits for the family next door, whose son calls her "Towelhead." There, she discovers the family's patriarch, Travis (played by Aaron Eckhart) and his pornographic magazines, which prompt her to have her first orgasm. This is all compounded and complicated by her forays into sex with Travis and with Thomas, an African-American boy her own age. Fine. I have said before that I have no problems with frank portrayals of female teenage sexual desire, something seriously lacking in American films. But so much here exists to shock and offend. Only to shock and offend. Is Alan Ball trying to turn stereotypes about Middle Eastern women on their head? Probably. But this film actually serves to reinforce a lot of those stereotypes. Oh, and Summer Bashil, the actress playing Jasira, happens to be of Mexican, Scottish and East-Indian descent in a nice bit of Sacheen Littlefeather-esque racism. Jasira, for all her sexual desire and curiosity is an incredibly passive character. Her sexual misadventures happen to her, but are not brought about because of her doing. Alan Ball writes her so that she is placed in a situation where she allows herself to be manually stimulated by Travis to the point that he breaks her hymen and ends up with her blood all over his hand. It's shocking, yes. But it's hardly more than that.

Alan Ball also tries desperately to play with preconceived notions of African-American characters. My friend and I were the only non-white people in a theater filled with a white people who laughed riotously and the film's forced, heavy-handed humor. At one point, I actually leaned over to him and said "This movie is so obviously written by a white person." Thomas, the aforementioned African-American character, is so polished, so charming, so well-spoken, and so model-minority that he could only be the creation of a writer clearly suffering from Liberal white guilt. And yet, with all that, Ball reinforces one of the greatest black stereotypes in his characterization of Thomas. He is essentially portrayed as an oversexed predator. One who grabs Jasira's boob without prompting as soon as his parents go upstairs, when Jasira is over at his house for dinner one night.

Of course, Jasira's father doesn't approve of their friendship and the film also attempts to address the issue of racism as well. It fails here as well. Alan Ball bites off way more than he can chew with this fill, trying to tackle so many issues that the whole thing all but collapses in on itself. Had Ball dedicated the film to just one of these topics and actually done some research and honest characterization, the film might have succeeded on some level.

What of the performances? Praise is being heaped onto Summer Bashil, who plays Jasira and was 18 at the time the movie was filmed. She's fine. She's serviceable in a role that's completely underwritten and doesn't call for her to do much. Toni Collette is interesting as one half a liberal white couple whose fascination with and need to protect Jasira borders on exoticism. But she too is not given much to do. My mother and my sister recently went to see Tyler Perry's "The Family that Preys" and they commented that Tyler Perry is not kind to women in his films. I replied that there is sociological data to suggest that closeted gay men are often inherently misogynistic, so that might account for it. But what accounts for Alan Ball, who's out and proud, writing such flimsy and often sexist female characterizations here and in his debut American Beauty? I enjoyed American Beauty, but I am able to love it in spite of its problems, most of which stem from the script. That's how misguided Towelhead is. It points out its own flaws, but also makes you realize all the ways in which American Beauty is also misguided. And that Sam Mendes truly deserves his Best Director trophy. His direction may have been the only thing that saved it.

Grade: C-

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I Met Todd Field! (And Other Thoughts)

Yes, I met Todd Field. And A.O. Scott was there too, but this isn't about him. It was an amazing experience at one in a series of lectures put on by Emory University called "Artists and Critics." Todd Field recounted his experiences as a filmmaker and his insights into the industry with very little pretension. Even A.O. Scott, who I'm not a huge fan of, was not nearly as full of himself as I thought he would be. There was this nice little moment where A.O. Scott was singing Clint Eastwood's praises for about ten minutes straight. It was very fanboy-esque and I think I actually saw Todd Field roll his eyes once.

I still need to post reviews of Burn After Reading and Happy Go Lucky, both of which I had the pleasure of finally seeing last week. I also saw Towelhead on Friday, which I will also review. I have seen a lot of really bad movies this year. But for what it's trying to achieve, and the already anointed talent behind it, I don't think there has been a movie in 2008 that I have violently disliked as much as Towelhead. I can almost guarantee that it ends up on my worst movies of 2008 list.

More to come later...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Random Thoughts...More to Come

I will be posting more at length later. I've been busy filming the last few scenes of my movie, working on Grad school applications and working in general. I'll be posting my thoughts on Burn After Reading and Happy-Go-Lucky, both of which I saw this week. I'm still not sure how I feel about the former (I just saw it tonight and I have to let it marinate) but I'm pretty sure that Happy-Go-Lucky contains my favorite performance of the year thus far. I'll talk about it more in depth when I post my review.

Peace, Love and Pretension

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paul Newman

Just because....

Isn't it very sad to think that the world will soon be without him?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

John McCain is silly

I know I said I would refrain from talking too much about the election. Well, deal with it. I'm allowed to change my mind, the same way Barack Obama and John McCain have been changing their minds on several issues as we draw closer to November 5th, but that's not the point of this post.

Today, I was watching John McCain talk to a group of "young voters." You know those people who are apparently going to play an instrumental role in every Presidential race, until election day roles around and it turns out...not so much. He was wearing a baseball cap with the word "Navy" printed on it. And I couldn't helped being filled with rage. Not because I hate the Navy, or even John McCain for that matter. But one article of clothing seems to perfectly encapsulate my issue with the guy. This desire he has to be liked. Not to say that Barack Obama doesn't also possess a borderline sad desire to be liked, but since Obama is actually likable (in the strictest definition of the word) it's not as noticeable. Every time I hear McCain talk about being in a POW camp, or how he's more experienced, or about how the surge is working, or starting out a sentence with the words "My friends..." I half expect to hear him talking about how he used to live in a van down by the river.

McCain needs to realize that people don't like him. And deal with it. His party doesn't even like him. Not really. They (at best) tolerate him. But they do respect him. Want proof? Sample the pack of lies they spouted on his behalf last week at the Republican National Convention. Mitt Romney talking about how we need to move away from a Liberal Washington D.C. Yeah, Mitt. The same liberal Washington DC that's been implementing pushy, militaristic politics for the past eight years? That's been ensuring that we have more pregnant, disease-ridden teenagers thanks to "ignorance-only " sex education? That liberal Washington DC? To quote Elizabeth Darko, Mitt Romney can "Go suck a fuck." (Since I A: Am digressing and B: Do not know how one would actually go about sucking a fuck, I'll get back to my main point).

I think John M cCain should relish the fact that he's unlikable. Look at Dick Cheney. Even Gargamel (pictured right in a photo taken at the the 2004 Republican National Convention) thinks Cheney is "kind of mean." And yet Cheney has managed to do just fine by one outsider's standards or another (let's face it, he's been our real President for the past eight years). McCain needs to stop referring to Americans as "My friends." He needs to stop trying to ingratiate himself with the American people. That's what he has Sarah Palin for no w, and frankly, in the two or so weeks she's entered the picture, she's been doing it a hell of a lot better than he ever could (God help us all). My point is, McCain should embrace his inner Dick Cheney and just have fun. If they bring up how he left his invalid wife and upgraded for a better model, he should just wag his head and say "Yeah, I did that. And I'd do it again. What else?" If they bring up how his current wife Cindy is pretty much a drug addict/thief, he should just hit them back with an attitude-filled "The bitch needed drugs and money, so she stole. It ain't rocket science. What else?" If they accuse him of picking Sarah Palin as his running mate because he didn't have the balls to pick Joe Liebermann, which kind of shows that he cares more about winning than what's right for the country, he should flip 'em off and say "Yeah, I did. I want to be President. A lot of people who want to be President would do (and have done) a lot worse things to get there, so don't hate on me just because I'm fly. What else?" He should be having FUN, man. After all, he may LITERALLY drop dead tomorrow.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Frozen River

Frozen River
written and directed by Courtney Hunt
starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Michael O'Keefe

I left the screening of Frozen River asking myself if this film is too bleak. Maybe not, when one considers the weight of the subject matter. A poor single mother in upstate New York trying to keep herself and her two sons afloat, who turns to illegal immigrant smuggling in her desperation. Heavy. Truth be told, bleakness itself never ruined a film, at least not for me. Can anyone seriously argue against the incredibly bleak nature of The Sweet Hereafter (one of my favorite films) that (like Frozen River) sails over the Northern, snow-capped terrain exposing its desolation and hopelessness? Newcomer Courtney Hunt has created a downbeat human drama indeed.

Leo plays Ray, a woman living in a trailer with her two sons, aged fifteen and five. She can barely scrape together money for rent. Her husband is AWOL and has a serious gambling addiction that has afforded her family many opportunities for financial ruin. Her oldest son desperately wants to quit school so he can get a job and help the family. Ray lives day by day on the hope that she'll be made Assistant Manager at the dollar store she's been working at for the past two years and finally be able to afford a double-wide (did I mention bleak?) Ray is roped into the whole immigration smuggling racket quite by accident when she tracks down a Mohawk woman named Lila (a believable and natural Misty Upham), who happened upon Ray's car once her husband abandoned it. The two form a reluctant partnership as Lila shows Ray how simply having a car with a pop-open trunk can make her a lot of money.

The performances here are quite good. The actors steer very well around the big emotional turns. Melissa Leo reduces Ray to a sheer force of will to survive, never allowing herself to get too caught up or rundown by her emotional baggage (which is surely legion). Ray's been hurt before, and she'll be hurt again and she knows this. And so does Leo. As Lila, Misty Upham plays her cards very close to her chest. She is dishonest, but it is a desperate frantic dishonesty, not one of cold calculation. Upham plays Lila so that we always catch her in her lies. Consider a scene in which Lila is attempting to by a car with money she has saved. The dealer knows what she is up to and refuses to sell her a trunk. Watch Upham's eyes as Lila scrambles for excuse after excuse as to why she needs that car. Though they meet under contentious circumstances, perhaps the reason that Lila and Ray continue to be drawn to each other is not entirely about the large amounts of money they can make, but about a shared experience of desperation and attempt to regain some semblance of peace. Though it is ultimately about the money, and the film, in one of its few pieces of purely thought out characterization, never seeks to sentimentalize their bond or "Thelma and Louise" the two women. They speak little about personal matters when they're in the car together. In fact, an attempt by Lila to delve into the details of Ray's marital woes is met with a stern and stone-faced "fuck you."

Courtney Hunt's direction here is standard, logical, and ultimately impressive (and not just for a debut). Even more impressive is Reed Morano's cinematography, which captures the barren landscape of the American North without exploiting the obvious opportunities for wide shots of nothingness.

Ultimately, the aforementioned weaknesses are mainly content-based. The film ultimately says very little about the issue of immigrant smuggling, or the complexities of Native American/white American relations. One could make the argument that Hunt is attempting a more personal stories, free of easily digestible soapbox messages and platitudes. That's all well and good. The only problem with that is that in all of her attempts to humanize and engender sympathy for her characters (especially Ray), these characters do often feel archetypal (once again, especially Ray). The single-mother trying to make ends meet. Not to take anything away from Melissa Leo's performance, but because it's a character that's been explored countless times in cinema, it makes the film's ending lack the emotional one-two punch that Hunt is aiming for. I ultimately expected what I saw. This was still an intriguing debut from Hunt and I'm curious to see more. That being said, Frozen River suffers from a serious lack of focus, especially in its third act. The film is at least partially saved by Melissa Leo's smoldering star turn, which may well earn her an Oscar nomination for best actress if Sony Pictures Classic campaigns properly. But being fond of Leo's performance does not automatically install blinders on my face that make me oblivious to the film's other problems.

Grade: B-