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Uneasy riders: Upshaw and Leo in Frozen River.

Living on Thin Ice

By Laura Leon

Frozen River

Directed by Courtney Hunt

An unintended but highly pro vocative irony occurred this weekend at the Spectrum 8 Theatres. There I was, awaiting the afternoon showing of Frozen River, when the trailer for Diane English’s remake of The Women came across the screen. Meg Ryan, Eva Mendez, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett Smith gossiped, flounced and reacted with and to one another in a stylish assortment of designer togs and digs (all the while making me wonder if Clare Boothe Luce is reeling in her grave). Clearly, this is going to be a big-budget girlfriend type of film, sort of like Sex and the City with more wedding rings and multiculturalism. Soon after, Frozen River spread its glacial Plattsburgh-in-January setting before us, and we were submerged in a world of bracing winds, limited opportunities and no plastic surgery. Near a rundown trailer home and an even dingier toy carousel, Ray (Melissa Leo) sits in the front seat of her car, a fuzzy bathrobe clutched in one hand while the other holds the stub of a cigarette to the grim line of her mouth. A shiny new mobile home is en route to be delivered to her, only her gambling-addict husband has flown the coop with the money that was to have paid for their piece of the American dream.

Writer-director Courtney Hunt does a stunning job of evoking the world of characters for whom the prospect of upward mobility means getting a full-time gig at Yankee Dollar, and for whom making it till payday means living on Tang and popcorn; and her cast is stellar at making us feel that kind of unsettled desperation. While Ray tries to negotiate with the delivery people, her teenage son J.T. (Charlie McDermott) looks on with a growing realization of his family’s place in the scheme of things; while 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly) desperately clutches the little suitcase he has joyfully packed in anticipation of the big move. Clearly, without Ray’s husband returning with the cash—a highly dubious possibility—her family is screwed, but she heads out in quixotic hopes of finding something, anything, to grab on to or work with. At this point, she meets Lila (Misty Upshaw), a surly Mohawk woman ostracized from her people and hateful of authority. Through mutual need, the two women take on a job smuggling illegal immigrants out of Canada, through the reservation and into the United States proper. It’s highly dangerous, involving crossing (what else?) a frozen river and engendering possible prison time, but it’s also extremely lucrative. With just a few runs, Ray realizes the potential to pay for that mobile home, while Lila harbors hopes of regaining custody of her baby—or at least contributing to his future.

The runs that Ray and Lila make increase in the potential for disaster; indeed, there were times when I thought of fleeing the theatre, momentarily unwilling to come face to face with decisions and events that could only meet with very terrible consequences. This is the stuff that keeps people up in the emotional cold of 3 AM, counting remaining mortgage payments or configuring ways to make a dollar stretch 17 ways and praying, always praying, for some kind of deliverance. Ray and Lila can barely stand each other, but as Frozen River plays out, they realize they are quite similar, two women with less than zero economic prospects for improvement. That said, Hunt does not attempt to romanticize the women’s criminal activity. These are not Bonnies in search of Clydes, or even Thelma and Louise—but nor are they even on the same planet as the women in the new The Women. Ray and Lila, with their bleak prospects, are not much different from their human cargo, many of whom will become little more than indentured slaves. What Hunt is most interested in, rather than melodrama or political dogma, is the possibility that her audience might actually look at, not through, her characters.

Thai Stuck

Bangkok Dangerous

Directed by Oxide and Danny Pang

With The Messengers last year, Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye) maintained their reputation for stylishly creepy suspense. Though the story dissolved into cliché, familiarity didn’t quite dispel the shivers created by the Pang’s spooky imagery. Bangkok Dangerous, however, the brothers’ Americanized remake of Oxide’s Chinese-language blockbuster, shows that the Pangs’ have probably run out of pictorial steam. A shopworn story of a hitman who develops a conscience, Bangkok Dangerous is most notable for its inexplicably choppy action and Nicolas Cage’s matted black wig (which does not make him look the least bit Asian).

Joe (Cage) is a robotic hitman trying to get out of the racket with one last job. His anonymous, loner existence is constricted by four rules; one of them is that his helpers must be disposable. Joe’s voiceover narration explains his ruthless modus operandi during the terse opening sequence. He executes a prisoner by long-range sniper fire, brazenly takes out another victim by motorcycle, and kills his trusting foreign contact. He then relocates to Thailand for a final contract that will set up his escape from his crimelord employer. Bangkok, he explains, is corrupt, dangerous, and dense, and thus the ideal locale for him to disappear without a trace.

In the roiling streets of the city, he selects a helper, a petty hustler who calls himself Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) and falls for an innocent pharmacist, Fon (Charlie Yeung), who is deaf and dumb (in the livelier original, it’s the hitman who is a deaf-mute). Kong thinks that Joe is a vigilante because he seemingly kills only bad men. Actually, he kills whomever he’s paid to, but Joe is moved by Kong’s admiration. His nonverbal dates with Fon are even more tedious than his double-crossed contractual hits for the bland crimelord, but having a social life causes Joe to lose his edge, and needless to say, losing his edge makes him a liability to the criminals he takes orders from.

Cage’s snarky cynicism is familiar but effective—it’s the familiar and sloppy choreography that makes the movie’s second half a total bore. As if realizing they have nothing new to add to the genre, the Pangs vary film stocks, shutter speeds, and color saturation to make the gunplay more interesting, but what they really need to change is their script selection.

—Ann Morrow


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