Frozen River

Desperation is not a place, but a long journey. So often we look at those in worse situations than us and say “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” when unlike us they weren’t born into a pair of nice boots and no one ever taught them how to tie their shoes, much less balance a checkbook. In Frozen River, we meet Ray Eddie (Melissa Leo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) on a very bad day. Her husband is gone, probably off to a casino; her kids are hungry, and their new house (a double-wide, naturally) can’t be delivered because hubby ran off with the cash. The bootstraps have long since been worn to shreds.
But she tries anyway. We see her waking up to begin her day with her sons- the young Ricky and the older T.J.- and the opening shot is on her weathered face, and her tattooed, lean body as he pulls on a sweater. The lines on her face show the hard road she’s been on, and it’s impossible to tell her age, but I’d lean to the younger side. She’s had it rough, living in upstate New York near the Canadian border, next to the Mohawk Reservation. She works retail, and they live in a beat-up single-wide trailer, with nothing but “popcorn and Tang” to eat. But they have a big TV, so you get an idea of her missing husband’s priorities.

She goes looking for him at the casino on the Res, where she finds his abandoned car- while she’s there, a Mohawk woman hops in his car and takes off. She follows her to her even more meager home- a tiny trailer in the woods, and bangs on her door. When she won’t come out, Ray takes out a purse gun and shoots a hole in her trailer. She’s got issues of her own. She gets her keys back, but can’t take two cars back… long story short, she needs the woman inside’s help. Lila (Misty Upham) is in the midst of her own personal tragedy, and wanted the car to make money smuggling illegals across the frozen river from Canada to the States, all on Mohawk territory where it’s tough for the cops to intervene. And when Ray sees how easily she can solve her monetary woes, they strike a wary partnership.
Lila teaches Ray about the business- they shuttle Chinese illegals, who pay snakeheads to smuggle them in. The debt is upwards of forty thousand, and they work years to pay it off. “They pay forty thousand dollars? To come here?” What’s unspoken is that while Ray and Lila are struggling, others have it so bad they’d enslave themselves to have a chance at their shitty situation. Ray just wants enough cash to get the doublewide, which Ricky asked Santa Claus for. At home, T.J. does his best to raise his brother, but has a disturbing habit of playing with the blowtorch his Dad gave him, and we keep waiting for Ray to come home to cinders and corpses.

Courtney Hunt’s film doesn’t give us predictable outcomes. Lila has bad eyes and can’t afford glasses; her money gets dropped off anonymously to her sister-in-law, who takes care of Lila’s year-old son. Her husband died in a smuggling run when he broke through the ice; we keep waiting to see it happen again. Like Hitchcock, she knows that the ticking bomb under the table is much more effective than the explosion. We see the shady edges of society that fuel the smuggling operation- a strip club run by the ever-slimy Mark Boone Junior (Batman Begins, 30 Days of Night).
Ray and Lila shuttle a Pakistani couple over the ice, and they have a duffel bag that Ray is suspicious of. She tosses it on the ice, not wanting to be responsible if they’re terrorists, but that sets a whole sequence of events in motion, and it doesn’t end like you expect. The one predictable occurrence is that Ray wants to do one last run to pay off the trailer, and pushes her luck. But once again, the story doesn’t end where you expect. There is a strong emotional payoff, tempered by the bond between the two struggling women.

As excellent as Melissa Leo’s Oscar-nominated performance is, the script is even better. It is also nominated, and up against Milk, WALL-E, In Bruges, and Happy-Go-Lucky it has some stiff competition. It’s a worthy opponent in its own right, and while I’d love to see Bruges or Lucky get a nod, I can’t see the Academy ignoring two excellent movies that touch on illegal immigration- this and The Visitor– this year. Frozen River and Visitor, with more money and big names, would be sitting where Frost/Nixon and The Reader are in the Best Picture category. In my mind they’re more deserving.

5 dead snakeheads out of 5

Slap Shot

Hey it’s winter, let’s watch a hockey movie! Slap Shot stars Paul Newman as a coach of a bunch of hockey bums who always lose, in a mill town whose mill will be closing. So the team knows nothing matters and they’ll be shut down at the end of the season, and they go all out to win at any cost and be entertaining as hell for the fans. For hockey fans it’s a classic, and for the rest of us, it’s still good fun. The Hanson Brothers- three goons in coke-bottle thick horn rim glasses- and Melinda Dillon from A Christmas Story make it unforgettable.
We meet the Chiefs at a home game against a team with a drunken player and they still manage to lose. The fans get more fun out of cursing them out than watching them play. Newman plays Reg Dunlop, an aging hockey star leading the team under the bumbling manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin, looking completely different than he did in Cool Hand Luke!). When he hears the town mill will be closing, he decides to go out with a bang- he tells the team that someone in Florida wants to buy them, and they have to play their hearts out. But McGrath has his own idea, when he picks up the rowdy Hanson Brothers for the team. They’re your typical hockey kids- hockey hair, roughneck players that Reg meets when they’re bashing the hell out of a Coke machine for stealing a quarter.
He sees them making brass knuckles out of aluminum foil under their gloves, and benches them for the season until a series of fouls force them onto the ice. They get their revenge on the other team by slamming, sticking and punching their way to victory, and the crowd loves it, so Reg decides to play things the Hanson Brothers way. He sleeps with an opposing goalie’s ex, played by Melinda Dillon, to get some tips on how to intimidate him. There’s a surprisingly long topless scene were she talks to him in bed.

Now, not only is it freaky seeing Mom from A Christmas Story naked, but Melinda has nipples you can hang beach towels on. Paul Newman might have gotten a foul for high sticking, but she could get one for eye gouging. But aside from the boobies, she has that same easy manner that made her performance in the Christmas classic so memorable. Seeing it now is like seeing Mom’s wild youth. Anyway, Reg’s plan works and he uses secrets gleaned from this dangerous liaison to taunt the goalie into a rage that has him dive into the penalty box to get at him.
Reg and the Hanson Brothers’ antics get so many fans whipped up about the team that even he begins to believe his bullshit story about a sale. Some towns welcome them, others picket them- and get mooned for their trouble. Finally, for their championship game, the opposing team puts together a gang of roughneck rowdies so brutal that even the Chiefs are worried. Their games have gone too far. Reg wants everyone to play clean, old school hockey against the brutes… but can they win? or even survive?
Slap Shot is a true classic, hell there’s even a band named after the Hanson Brothers who sing about hockey and girls and beating people up. Canadian punkers NoMeansNo have a side band, so it’s actually good. It’s one of Paul Newman’s best, because it’s a self-effacing role- he’s playing an athlete past his prime, with his usual grin, glint in his eye, and biting sense of humor. And for hockey fans this movie is a Communion wafer that must be taken regularly, lest you be forced to confess in the penalty box.

80s Trash of the Week: Rock ‘n Rule

“We must remember Zip, that evil spelled backward is live. And we all want to live, don’t we?”
After the rock ‘n roll tittyfest Heavy Metal, Canadian animation company Nelvana tries its own version of a rock-inspired animated film. Theirs was more family friendly, contained anime-inspired funny animal critters based on the bands Cheap Trick, Blondie, and a villainous Mick Jagger clone not-so-subtly named Mok. For years Rock ‘n Rule was kept off DVD due to copyright issues over the music, but when Unearthed Films released a 2-disc special edition, I had to clutch this bizarre nugget of my teen-hood. I inflicted it upon Milky this movie night, and somehow he survived.

When in doubt, skimpy loincloths sell.

This is the first feature-length animated film made entirely in Canada, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs it ain’t! But it’s a lot of cheesy fun, with some really good music, so we’ll forgive them. It’s a simple enough tale about a group of friends in a rock band trying to get noticed, in a postapocalyptic world where the rats, mice, cats and dogs have evolved to take our place- thus explaining the button noses and pointy ears, and giving the movie some kid crossover appeal. The lead singers are Angel and Omar, whose singing voices are Debbie Harry (solo from Blondie at this point) and Robin Zander from Cheap Trick. Angel plays the keytar, and thus second fiddle to Omar’s ranting hard rock guitar. This creates tension, and of course they’re sleeping together, so the band in reality would disintegrate long before a power-mad rock musician stepped in to screw things up. Backing them up are Stretch and Dizzy, loosely modeled on the drummer and guitarist from Cheap Trick.

Fat & Skinny, aka Stretch & Dizzy

Omar and Angel fight over whose songs to play on open mike night, with O growling “Born to Raise Hell” and Angel’s sweet pipes belting out the best song from the movie, “Send Love Through.” Debbie Harry would use the same music and re-release this as “Maybe For Sure” on her Def Dumb & Blonde album, but the chorus seems forced. Here’s the original, and it’s played in pieces throughout the film. It’s so catchy that it helps things along a lot.

Angel’s Song

Lou Reed also has a hand in the music- he does Mok’s songs, and the second-best is definitely “My Name is Mok,” a spoof of superstar rock egos. He does some of the minor songs in the interludes too, such as “Triumph of the Glory in Me,” a goofy anthem used to hypnotize Omar and the boys so Mok can steal away with Angel. The little songs are quite funny and the bands seemed to have a lot of fun working on the film. The movie has its moments, such as the cartoon that Zip, one of Mok’s muscle-head goons, watches. The Uncle Mikey Show, which teaches kids the difference between good and evil. Remember, giving a cow a flower is good. Chasing it around with an axe? Evil.

Good… or evil?

Mok is of course, evil. He wants Angel for her voice- which is the final key that will let him summon an enormous demon to rule the Earth with. But I think he’s just jaded with success, and wants to see the demon eat his audience. He rides around in a zeppelin, between ruined cities like “Nuke York” to perform at “Carnage Hall” or Radioactive City Music Hall. When he finally hooks Angel up to a synthesizer to summon the demon, it’s Iggy Pop, rumbling an all-too-short song called “Pain and Suffering.” Angel is of course scantily clad to give budding teen boys some flashes of watercolor wank material. Which is probably why I remember this movie so well.

Angel and Omar caught in the act.
These are just two freeze-frames that make Angel look like a total slut, which cracks me up. She’s not jacking anyone off or diving for a mouthful of man-meat, but it sure looks like she is. At least you’re not hung like a mouse.

Can Omar get over his pride, and sing with Angel to save the planet? I think you can guess. The movie is a bit slow in points, but it has a lot of character. It couldn’t be as violent and boobie-laden as Heavy Metal, but it makes up for it with wit and charm. And they try to get a little naughty here and there to keep teenagers and adults interested, but it’s a hard sell. It was lazy to make them all funny animals, so they could stick with their usual button-nosey dog-eared rotoscoped models, and the humor is definitely on the corny side. But it certainly has its moments, and some one-liners that stick with you. Like “I spy with my little eye, something that begins with…. FAT!”

The ending.

Nelvana is probably best known for the Care Bears and other ’80s stuff, but they also animated Boba Fett‘s first appearance in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, an abomination that I will probably re-watch and review here someday.

Iggy never looked so good!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? No way in hell
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Metric fuckton of cheese curds on poutine
High Points: The songs!
Low Point: Roller-skating disco goons
Gratuitous Boobies: While Angel is hot, they’re mice you furry fuck!