Ghosts of Sundance Past #4: Frozen River (dir by Courtney Hunt)

The 2008 film, Frozen River, tells the story of two desperate mothers.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) has spent two years working as a clerk in a discount store and still cannot convince her boss to promote her to full time because, in his opinion, she’s just not “long-term employee” material.  Ray’s husband, a compulsive gambler, has vanished and taken the majority of their money with him.  Ray and her two sons live in a mobile home, where they subsist on a diet of popcorn and tang.  Every few days, a man comes by and threatens to repossess the home and leave Ray and her children homeless.  Ray always manages to talk him out of it.  If there’s anything that Ray can do, it’s talk her way out of trouble.

Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is a Native American who lives on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and who works at a bingo parlor.  Because Lila is struggling financially and often resorts to illegal means to make ends meet, Lila’s mother-in-law has taken away her infant son.  If Ray’s defining characteristic seems to be her ability to talk her way out of trouble, Lila is quiet and often seems to be hiding from the world.

One day, while Ray is out looking for her husband, she spots Lila driving his car.  Lila claims that she found the car, sitting deserted at a gas station.  (It’s never established whether Lila is telling the truth or if she actually stole the car.)  Ray discovers that Lila makes her money by smuggling undocumented immigrants over the Canadian border and Ray soon joins her.

Frozen River takes place a few days before Christmas in Upstate New York.  There’s snow on the ground and a Christmas tree in the mobile home but there’s little holiday cheer to be found in the film.  In order to smuggle people across the border, Ray and Lila take them across the frozen St. Lawrence River and, just like the ice on the river, Ray’s occasional moments of happiness seem to be destined to only be temporary.  Just as the ice is eventually going to break, so is Ray and Lila’s operation.  One gets the feeling that it’s only a matter of time.  Ray and Lila almost immediately attract the attention of the stern State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe).  Significantly , Finnerty’s suspicions are initially limited to only Lila and he even tries to warn Ray that she’s hanging out with a known smuggler.

Frozen River is dominated by two strong lead performances.  Melissa Leo is the one who was nominated for best actress but I actually think that Misty Upham (who tragically died a few years after this film was released) is even better.  Leo is the one who gets the big scenes and who gets to deliver all of the best lines and she does a great job with a richly written character.  Upham, meanwhile, has to largely create her character in silence.  She rarely speaks but, when she does, she makes it count.  When Ray and Lila get pulled over by Finnerty and Lila snaps that Ray will be okay because she’s white, the way Upham delivers that one line tells you so much about what has led her to be in her current situation.  When you see Upham in the background, watching Ray or Finnerty or anyone else who is standing in the way of her seeing her baby, her glare is worth a thousand monologues.  Both Leo and Upham are so good that they hold your interest even when the film’s script and direction veers towards the heavy-handed.  (Director Courtney Hunt, for the most part, does a good job of keeping things credible but it’s hard not to roll your eyes a bit when a duffel bag being carried by two refugees turns out to not contain, as Ray originally suspects, explosives but a baby instead.)

Frozen River was a hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  Leo went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, though she lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Cinemax Friday: Blown Away (1993, directed by Brenton Spencer)

Rich Gardner (Corey Haim) and his brother, Wes (Corey Feldman) both work at a ski resort in Canada.  When Rich rescues the wealthy Megan (Nicole Eggert) from being trampled by a horse, she invites him to attend her 17th birthday party.  Despite the fact that he’s already dating Darla (Kathleen Robertson), Rich goes to Nicole’s party.  Nicole greets him in her underwear and soon, the two of them are having softcore, late night Cinemax-style sex.  It’s only in the morning that Rich discovers that Megan is the daughter of his boss, Cy (Jean LeClerc).

With Wes’s encouragement, Rich continues the affair, even after Cy demands that Rich never see his daughter again.  Megan eventually tells Rich that she believes that Cy was responsible for the death of her mother and that she thinks they should kill Cy and, after Megan has gotten her inheritance, run off together.  At first, Rich is hesitant but when Megan turns up bruised and claiming that her father beat her up, Rich reconsiders Megan’s proposition.

In many ways, Blown Away is typical of the neo-noirs that used to dominate late night Cinemax in the 90s.  Take a faded TV or a film star.  Toss in an up-and-coming starlet who is willing to do nudity.  Add a dimly lit sex scene or two and a surprise twist at the end.  In this case, the surprise twist was actually a good one, the faded stars were the Two Coreys, and the up-and-coming starlet was Nicole Eggert.

Before they become direct-to-video mainstays in the 90s, both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman had a good, if brief, run as legitimate film stars.  With their subsequent notoriety, it’s easy to forget that they were two of the busiest and most critically acclaimed child actors of the 80s.  Corey Haim appeared in movies like Murphy’s Romance and Lucas while Corey Feldman did The Goonies and Stand By Me.  They co-starred in films like The Lost Boys and License to Drive.  Unfortunately, neither one of them was able to make the transition from being child stars to adult actors.  (It didn’t help that both of them had very public struggles with substance abuse and that the 90s saw both of them developing a unique talent for tracking down the worst projects possible and agreeing to star in them.)  Blown Away was one of the first of their post-stardom films and, whatever else you may say about it, it’s definitely better than the majority of the films that the pair made afterwards.  (Just try sitting through Dream A Little Dream 2.)  After years of playing best friends, Blown Away cast them as brothers who always seem to be on the verge of throwing a punch at each other.  When Rich and Wes say that they secretly hate each other, it feels less like a movie and more like real-life couples therapy.

Blown Away is a classic of its kind.  Though Rich is not a very sympathetic hero and there’s a few scenes where Haim’s tendency to overact gets in the way of the film, Nicole Eggert is a perfect femme fatale and Corey Feldman again shows that he had more talent than he was usually given credit for.  If you can overlook a few plot holes (and not spend too much time worrying about how a bunch of teenagers became experts in setting explosives), the film’s storyline is interesting and far darker than the usual late night Cinemax fare.  When people like me talk about being nostalgic for the old days of watching Cinemax after midnight, this is the type of film that we’re talking about.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: East Lynne (dir by Frank Lloyd)

In the history of the Academy Awards, East Lynne is a curiosity.

Released in 1931, East Lynne was one of the five films to be nominated for Best Picture at the fourth annual Academy Awards.  Best Picture was the only nomination that East Lynne received, which of course leaves you to wonder just what exactly was so good about it.  Why was it nominated as opposed to something like A Free Soul, which received nominations for Best Actress and Director and which won the Best Actor Oscar for Lionel Barrymore?  East Lynne was a success at the box office but so were The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface.  None of those classic gangster films made much of an impression with the Academy but all of them are better remembered today than East Lynne.

One reason why East Lynne has fallen into obscurity is because it’s not an easy film to see.  There is only one complete print of East Lynne still in existence.  It’s housed at the UCLA’s Instructional Media Lab but it can only be viewed by appointment.  There are, however, a few bootleg copies on DVD.  The picture is grainy.  The sound is inconsistent.  Even worse, the bootleg is missing the last 12 minutes of the film.  Still, for those of us who don’t live near UCLA, that bootleg copy is the only convenient way to watch East Lynne.

That’s how I watched it.  (I also looked up how the film ended so I know where the story eventually led, despite those missing 12 minutes.)  Having now seen the film, I can now say that it makes even less sense that the film was nominated because it’s pretty bad.  I can only imagine that it received its nomination as a result of Fox Film Corporation (which would later merge with 20th Century Pictures to be come 20th Century Fox) demanding that its employees vote for it.

Based on a Victorian novel that had already been filmed several times during the silent era, East Lynne tells the story of Lady Isabella (Ann Harding), a British noblewoman who marries a stuffy attorney named Robert Carlyle (Conrad Nagel).  From the beginning it’s an awkward marriage.  Isabella is sociable and popular and wants to enjoy life.  Carlyle is a humorless jerk.  Not even the fact that they live in a nice mansion called East Lynne provides much comfort.

When Isabella accepts a kiss from a cad named Captain William Levinson (Clive Brook), Isabella’s sister-in-law uses it to drive a wedge between Isabella and Carlyle.  Carlyle, being a jerk, kicks Isabella out of the house and takes custody of their child.  Now viewed as being a figure of scandal, Isabella goes abroad with Levinson.  (Since this is a pre-code film, going abroad amounts to going to a then-racy show in Vienna.)  However, through a series of improbable events, Levinson ends up dead and Isabella ends up very slowly going blind.  However, Isabella is determined to see her child just once more before losing her sight so it’s up to her to convince a maid to sneak her back into East Lynne late at night….

And then the bootleg version of the film ends!  Now, I did my research and I discovered — here’s your SPOILER ALERT — that the film apparently ends with a blind Isabella stumbling over a cliff and her husband realizing too late that maybe he was kind of a jerk.  I’m kind of sorry that I didn’t get to see that.  I may have to book a flight to UCLA.

Anyway, from what I did see, East Lynne is a creaky old film.  This is one of those films where you can tell that the cast was still adjusting to the new sound era.  Ann Harding’s screen presence is a bit too insubstantial to keep the film’s melodramatic story grounded and neither Conrad Nagel nor Clive Brook seem to be worth all of the trouble that Isabella goes through.  Frank Lloyd’s direction is painfully slow and stagy, though things do pick up briefly when the action moves to Vienna.  Worst of all, the film is pretty much on Carlyle’s side.  He’s a jerk, the movie says, but Isabella should have made more of an effort to keep him happy.  Welcome to 1931!

East Lynne lost the best picture race to Cimarron, which was another fairly forgettable film.  Though there were plenty of good films to choose from in 1931, it doesn’t appear that the Academy nominated any of them.  Of course, that wouldn’t be the last time that would happen.


The Casting Society of America Honors Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Academy does not have a category to honor Best Casting.  They really should, though.

Until the Academy gets their act together, the Casting Society of America will have to do the job.  Here are their picks for the best of 2019:

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood – Victoria Thomas

Knives Out – Mary Vernieu, Angela Peri (Location Casting), Bret Howe (Associate)

Jojo Rabbit – Des Hamilton

Marriage Story – Francine Maisler, Douglas Aibel, Kathy Driscoll-Mohler (Associate)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Julia Kim, Nina Henninger (Location Casting),
Sarah Kliban (Associate)

Skin in the Game – Matthew Lessall

(tie) The Lion King – Sarah Halley Finn, Jason B. Stamey (Associate)
and Toy Story 4 – Kevin Reher, Natalie Lyon

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Nina Gold, April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg,
Angela Young (Associate)

“Russian Doll” – Christine Kromer, Andrew Femenella (Associate)

“Pose” – Alexa L. Fogel, Kathryn Zamora-Benson (Associate), Caitlin D. Jones

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – Cindy Tolan, Juliette Ménager (Location Casting),
Anne Davison (Associate)

“Game of Thrones” – Nina Gold, Robert Sterne, Carla Stronge (Location Casting)

“When They See Us” – Aisha Coley, Billy Hopkins (Location Casting), Ashley Ingram
(Location Casting)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Tamara-Lee Notcutt, Tiffany Mak (Location
Casting), Alexis Allen (Associate)

“Live in Front of a Studio Audience: ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’” – Marc
Hirschfeld, Geralyn Flood, Katrina Wandel George (Associate)

“Andi Mack” – Amber Horn, Danielle Aufiero, Steven Tylor O’Connor (Associate)

“Big Mouth” – Julie Ashton-Barson

“Queer Eye” – Gretchen Palek, Danielle Gervais, Ally Capriotti Grant, Quinn Fegan,
Pamela Vallarelli

Skin – Jessica Sherman

“It’s Bruno!” – Bess Fifer

To Kill a Mockingbird – Daniel Swee

Hadestown – Duncan Stewart, Benton Whitley

The Waverly Gallery – David Caparelliotis, Lauren Port

Oklahoma! – Adam Caldwell, Will Cantler

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (Fidler Afn Dakh) – Jamibeth Margolis

Daddy – Judy Henderson, Nick Peciaro (Associate)

In the Heights (Westport Country Playhouse) – Tara Rubin, Claire Burke

Sweat – Heidi Levitt, Billy Hopkins (NY Casting), Ashley Ingram (NY Casting), Marin
Hope (Associate)

Annie – Margery Simkin, Michael Donovan, Beth Lipari, Richie Ferris (Associate)

Hamilton – Bethany Knox, Lauren Harris (Associate)

Music Video Of The Day: Anarchy in the U.K. by The Sex Pistols (1976, directed by Julien Temple)

Today is John Lydon’s 64th birthday so today’s music video of the day features him at his best.

For the record, John Lydon (or Johnny Rotten, as he was known when he was the Sex Pistols’s lead singer) is not an anarchist.  The famous lyrics that start off Anarchy in the U.K, came about because “I am an anarchiste” was the best rhyme that Lydon could come up with for “I am an Antichrist.”  Lydon has described anarchism as being “mind games for the middle class.”  Lydon’s right, of course.

Remarkable, John Lydon has gone from being regarded as a symbol of everything that was wrong with British youth (a representation of what the Daily Mail famously called “The Filth and the Fury” after drummer Paul Cook called Simon Grundy a “fucking rotter” on national television) to being a national treasure. Songs that once scandalized Britain are now unofficial anthems and, remarkably, Lydon’s gone from hated to beloved without changing a thing about his outlook or even his attitude.   Listening to an interview with Lydon from the Sex Pistols-era is not that much different from listening to an interview that Lydon may have given last month. He may now be doing butter commercials and appearing on I’m A Celebrity!  Get Me Out Of Here! but he remains that same Johnny Rotten who once scared the Hell out of anyone with a pension.