DVDs for 2/10/09 – ‘Frozen River,’ ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’ and more

Melissa Leo in
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River"

Courtney Hunt delivers the best kind of American independent drama with Frozen River, a film that is respectful of its characters, responsive to its location and honest in its storytelling. This kind of uncompromising filmmaking is often a hard sell. Hunt not only got her film a theatrical release, she earned Academy Award nominations for her screenplay and for her lead actress, Melissa Leo. Leo plays Ray, a mother of two in the border town of Massena in upstate New York. Misty Upham is Lila Littlewolf, a widowed Mohawk whose mother-in-law “stole” her newborn son a year ago. Life in this underemployed town is as harsh and barren as the frigid winter landscape. Ray’s gambling-addicted husband left town with the down payment for their new trailer home. Faced with little opportunity to make ends meet, Ray and Lila embark on an illegal venture transporting immigrants into the U.S. across Mohawk territory and the frozen river of the title. Hunt’s drama is devastating, not because of the tragic twists, but because of the human reality of poverty and desperation, and the equally human triumph of generosity and sacrifice in the face of it.

The women are tossed together by necessity and they may not particularly like each other, but they develop an understanding and even a mutual respect. Set in the rural culture of poverty and bigotry in upstate New York over a bleak winter, the film never cheats the grim reality of their circumstances and writer/director Courtney Hunt is clear-eyed about the animosity between the Mohawks and the whites and hardships facing them all, which makes the acts of kindness and sacrifice all the more moving and meaningful.

Read my complete review here.

Every decade or so, Eric Rohmer steps out of his comfort zone of contemporary romantic comedies and dramas to makes something different, a stylized period piece with a similar sensibility and performance style dropped into a different time and space and genre. At age 88, long past the age when Hollywood allows directors to keep on working, he does so again with The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, a romantic tale of first century French peasants in the idealized, fertile paradise of rural Gaul in the Roman era. It’s a gently stylized period piece based on a 17th century novel and filled with chivalrous notions of love and devotion. Yet take away the Renaissance Faire fashions, the elevated diction (even the shepherds speak as if reciting poetry) and a beautiful boy (Andy Gillet) passing himself off as a girl, and it’s another tale of gorgeous young people earnestly engaged in philosophical discussions of the meaning of love and devotion. This no historical portrait of ancient life but a dreamy reflection of 17th century romanticism of the past, right down to their Celtic culture refracted through a Christian sensibility. There’s a purity to the emotional turmoil of tormented lovers, but it’s the rich simplicity of the filmmaking and the seductive sensuality of a bucolic Eden where maidens innocently fall out of their artfully revealing dresses that makes the romantic frolic so delicious.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (“the filmmakers turn to the zippy animated comedy of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes for inspiration”)

W. (“Stone’s psychological profile is as facile as they come but there are minor pleasures in the film”)

Miracle at St. Anna (“Lee can be an evocative filmmaker, but the film stops dead for racial debates and gets lost in melodramatic detours”)

TV: M.A.N.T.I.S.: The Complete Series

Before Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert hit the right balance between snappy low-budget action and tongue-in-cheek self awareness in their syndicated TV hits Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, they teamed up with screenwriter Sam Hamm (Tim Burton’s Batman) to concoct this superhero series, which ran for a single season on Fox. Carl Lumbly plays the crippled millionaire scientist who straps on a mechanical exo-skeleton that turns him into a superhero. The cheesy costume of the feature-length pilot episode gets a much-needed make-over in the first episode proper. The action also improves once M.A.N.T.I.S. is given a significantly more dynamic presence. It’s still a little cheesy but kind of fun.

Tales from the Darkside: The First Season (“a budget-minded syndicated show of half-hour horror tales and ghost stories and O. Henry twists”)

What Makes Sammy Run (“Broadway actor Larry Blyden stars as Sammy Glick, a man who doesn’t care who he walks over to get to the top, in this 1959 production, which was broadcast live on NBC’s Sunday Showcase over two nights.”)

Special Releases: Clint Eastwood: An American Icon

Four films with American icon Clint Eastwood. Eastwood was fresh from his Sergio Leone spaghetti western epics when he made Coogan’s Bluff, playing an Arizona lawman in the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s the first collaboration between Eastwood and director Don Siegel and, in hindsight, feels like the transition film between his iconic western characters and his maverick Dirty Harry cop films.

The Exterminating Angel (“Luis Bunuel’s devastatingly funny satire is a surreal farce about a dinner party that never ends…. Bunuel never even attempts a rational explanation; the whole thing has the logic and tone of a dream with allegorical echoes. “)

My Name Is Bruce (“Bruce Campbell lampoons his self-effacing image and his B-movie career in his directorial debut”)

Chocolate (“a sloppy film with some amateurish acting but the choreography is terrific and JeeJa Yanin is duly impressive”)

Blu-ray: Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the quintessential high school spazz in Jared Hess’s eccentric comedy. Imagine a John Hughes teen comedy remade by Jim Jarmusch and dropped in the town that time forgot. With a fantasy inner life and an outsized weirdo vibe in his day-to-day routine, Napoleon is constantly pantsed, wedgied, and body-checked in the halls by the bullies and buttheads of his school, but Hess makes Napoleon a special kind of hero at home in his eccentricities.

The Rock Collection (“Three action films starring Dwayne Johnson, aka WWE veteran and life-size action figure The Rock.”)

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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