Frozen River. Courtney Hunt, director & script. Starring: Melissa Leo (Ray), Misty Upham (Lila), Charlie McDermott (T.J.), James Reilly (Ricky), Michael O’Keefe (Trooper), Mark Boone Jr. (Jacques)
Hamlet 2. Andrew Fleming, director & co-script w/Pam Brody. Executive producers: Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa. Starring: Steve Coogan (Dana Marschtz), Catherine Keener (Brie), Skylar Astin (Rand), Phoebe Strole (Epiphany), Elisabeth Shue (as “herself”), Amy Poehler (Cricket Feldstein), David Arquette (Gary), Shea Pepe (school drama critic), Joseph Julian Soria (Haywood aka Octavio), Marshall Bell (Principal Rocker), Melonie Diaz (Ivonne)
Sundance Film Festival
As the Toronto International Film Festival gears up its publicity machine, extolling the virtues of obscure features from Winnipeg to Istanbul, it may be wise to view films that premiered at other festivals this year. Case in point—Sundance.
It’s big news in late January when Robert Redford’s celebrated festival screens indies from the US and abroad to a slew of international movie pros and media. The hippest of the hip show up to discover the latest trends in international film, or so the legend goes.
So what happened this year? The Grand Prize winner for best drama went to a little indie called Frozen River, which harkened back to the roots of the festival: it was vaguely feminist and pro-First Nations but nonetheless a melodrama. Worthy, of course, but it only sold to a distributor for approximately $1 million dollars.
The biggest buzz was reserved for Hamlet 2, a “bad taste” comedy produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the duo behind the financing of Little Miss Sunshine. A rough cut screening of Hamlet 2 was viewed so favourably by the industry that a bidding war started for the film’s distribution rights. The winner, Focus, spent $10 million dollars, a figure that almost matched Little Miss Sunshine.
That was then—when the snow was blowing off the Rockies in Park City, Utah. Now, in the dog days of summer, how do these two Sundance winners look to weekly film critics and the general public?
Set in Mohawk territory, which overlaps upstate New York and southern Quebec, Frozen River is a tough little thriller about a white trailer trash mom who teams up with a troubled Mohawk woman to bring “illegals” across the Canadian border to the U.S. “Trailer trash” may be overstating the case regarding Melissa Leo’s Ray Eddy: she’s a good woman, abandoned by her Mohawk husband, with few options for raising money to take care of her two kids, teenager T.J. and young Ricky.
When she meets Lila, Ray is at the end of her tether—so much so that it takes her time to recognize that the barely adult Native woman has troubles of her own.
It’s Lila, played stoically but sympathetically by Misty Upham, who comes up with their scam. Working together—a Native and a white woman—they can drive across the frozen river between the US and Canadian borders on Mohawk land and smuggle immigrants semi-legally from one country to the other.
Naturally, the scheme works well—at first. Just as naturally, the trips get more and more difficult as NY State troopers begin to figure out what the women are doing.
And why are they doing it? Their dreams are simple—the kind that festivalgoers love. Ray wants a larger trailer for her kids. Lila wants her kid back; the baby has been “stolen” by her dead husband’s mother.
Frozen River attempts to tell two stories—one, a thriller and the other, a character study. Although Melissa Leo’s performance is superb, she is ultimately creating a bravura part out of very little. You want to end up loving Leo’s Ray and her gradually building relationship with Lila—but it feels clichéd, not real. This festival film will find a life on DVD, not in movie theatres.
Does the concept of a pathetically bad high school drama teacher living his thespian dreams and becoming a national idol strike you as funny? If so, run—don’t walk!–down to your local ‘plex to see Hamlet 2. The rest of us may wait for Hamlet 3.
The immensely gifted British comedian Steve Coogan (Alan Patridge, Tristram Shandy) is saddled with the role of Dana Marschtz, a physically inept (at first) would-be actor who has become a teacher in Arizona, “where dreams go to die.” Dana’s idea of a good play is to stage “Erin Brockovich” with his two young actors—the only members of his drama class—evangelical and semi-racist Epiphany and closeted gay Rand.
Dana’s wife, Brie—astutely played by Catherine Keener—hates their compromised life and wants to move back to California—but he refuses to leave. Trouble at home is replicated at work, when the Latino community at school decides to join his class en masse because it’s one of the few electives being offered after cutbacks.
After a few confrontations, Dana realizes that Latino Haywood aka Octavio is a gifted actor. Inspired, he decides to write a sequel to Hamlet, in which all the “bad stuff” from the first play is eliminated. Yep, the Danish prince is still alive as are the rest of the Royal Family and Ophelia. Conflating the Hamlet story with that of Jesus—and incorporating his own troubled youth—a somewhat deranged Dana decides to stage a rock musical.
By this point, over an hour of tedium has elapsed. Comic ideas like having Elizabeth Shue play “herself” as an ex-actress turned nurse have been trotted out to the sound of zero laugher. Hmm…unless you think Dana saying, “Shoo, Elizabeth Shue, Shoo, Shoo” at the end of a scene to get her to leave, is funny.
Finally, the night of the musical arrives—and surprise!—it works. Ever hear the expression “so bad it’s good”? For 15 minutes, as the movie and “theatre” audience watch in amazement, the film actually tells the Jesus-Hamlet story to abysmal rock music. Yep, it’s funny. Finally!
Will either of these films be a hit? Not a snowball’s chance in…Well, you get the picture.
Funny thing—I’ve been to Sundance and have some understanding of what happens down there. People are looking desperately for authenticity or something truly different—which Is not the same thing. Hollywood phonies abound, so the search for quirky films and filmmakers reaches near epic proportions as the festival inexorably moves towards its conclusion. Juries inevitably endorse these “indies”—it’s in Sundance’s DNA.
Months later, wiser heads prevail as the films eventually reach the market place. Frozen River and Hamlet 2—and their like–get released just before the hot new Fall slate (and TIFF) hit cinemas.
Five months later, in the slow period after Christmas, everyone is sent back to Sundance. And the pattern continues…