by Bill Hawk




Sony Pictures Classics, 2008, Color, 97 mins.- Sony DVD

Melissa Leo: “Look, I just need enough for the balloon payment for my double-wide and then I'm outta this. I'm no criminal.”

Well, anybody can be a criminal if they're pushed hard enough. And when you're working a crummy part time job, and have a husband with an addiction problem, and are trying to keep two kids going in an old trailer home with a larder that consists of popcorn and Tang, it doesn't take much of a push. Thanks to a chance encounter with veteran Native American smuggler Misty Upham, Leo is thrust into the shadowy world of human trafficking, sneaking people through a borderless Mohawk reservation that lies between Canada and the US. Although the two women get off to a rocky start, desperation draws them together and they spend some evenings traversing the titular iced-over waterway with folks of various nationalities stuffed into their car trunk. Despite a close call with the law, Leo and Upham decide to make just one more run, with lasting consequences for themselves and their families…

Veteran character actress Leo got an Academy Award nomination for this role, and you can see why from her very first shot, a physically and emotionally raw close-up which tells you that this will not be a picnic. Leo simply inhabits her character, and she is compulsively watchable. Upham doesn't have Leo's experience, but her second lead is a more damped-down character, and her performance works well for the film. The other standout in the cast is Leo's teenage son, Charlie McDermott, whose resentment at the family's troubles reaches a believable boiling point. The glimpse of grim financial circumstances has an added resonance in the current economic climate, and Leo's travails, from dealing with an unsympathetic boss to searching her couch cushions for lunch money, are as starkly rendered as the film's winter landscapes. Writer/director Courtney Hunt's story is a classic example of a project that succeeded on its merits and a lot of hard work, starting out as a short film before graduating to feature length and winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Although there are some melodramatic moments, on the whole it's a nice dose of independent cinema, its positives offsetting a budget that wouldn't have covered the catering costs of a big studio picture. This one is worth a look if you want to get away from the well-catered stuff. The one significant disc extra is audio commentary with Hunt and producer Heather Rae.



Focus Features, 2008, Color, 92 mins.- Universal DVD

Frances McDormand: “Desperation, that's what it's come to. A little desperation and life can make of us whatever it chooses. In my case, a smoking, swearing accomplice to misdeeds in a den of iniquity.”

Gee, she says that as though it was a bad thing. As a governess whose quirkiness has gotten her fired one too many times, McDormand finds herself with only the clothes on her back on the streets of 1939 London. With the aid of a job lead nicked from an agency that refuses to employ her any more, she sneaks her way into the life of ditzy glamour puss Amy Adams, a sort-of star of stage and screen. When McDormand demonstrates quick-thinking gumption in helping Adams to salvage a potential disaster in her personal life, Adams decides that she's found her new “Social secretary.” In that capacity McDormand has a lot to contend with, from Adams' “Professional” dalliances with nightclub owner Mark Strong and casting agent Tom Payne to her more human relationship with her piano player, Lee Pace. The opinionated McDormand pokes her nose into everybody's business, not always by her own choice, and connects with Adams and her friend Ciaran Hinds, a lingerie designer with his own romantic problems. Over the course of one memorable day, personal dramas come to a tipping point as the country girds itself for an inevitable war…and the very hungry McDormand tries to get herself a decent meal.

This frothy item, from Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, is a throwback to the screwball comedies of that time, treading the familiar ground of a lower class individual using their hard-won wisdom to improve the lives of frivolous rich folks. As such, it's a serviceable affair, with good production values and a cast who throw themselves wholeheartedly into the material. As the titular oddball, McDormand leavens the silliness with some genuinely poignant moments. Adams, by contrast, spends much of the film with her dizzy dame meter dialed up to eleven, although she does pull her weight in the drama department as needed. But it must be said that as good as much of the film's elements are, it is somewhat lacking in originality- there are few surprises to be found in the storyline. If you're in the mood for a lightweight diversion with some drama on the side, though, this isn't a bad choice. Disc extras include audio commentary with director Bharat Nalluri, deleted scenes, and featurettes.



Sony Pictures Classics, 2007, Color and B&W, 95 mins.- Sony DVD

Chiara Mastroianni: “I was very confused. I had a safe, frivolous life, while those I loved knew the hell of war. However hard I tried, I was haunted by guilt. I just wanted to live like a girl my age.”

Marji (voiced for most of the story by Mastroianni, and by Gabrielle Lopes as a child) is just your average little girl who idolizes Bruce Lee and is convinced that she'll do something great with her life, despite the fact that she's living in Tehran in the 1970s under the crumbling regime of the Shah Of Iran. With the Shah's ouster, her family is optimistic that its Communist ideals might have a chance- until the elections pick an Islamic Republic that's even more repressive than the previous government. And just when things can't get any worse, there's an attack from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Amid all of the dangers and deprivations of war, the people still cling to their humanity and even have some forbidden fun, as Marji's black market collection of rock-and-roll proves. But it's still no place for an adolescent girl, so her parents (voiced by Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) manage to send her to a school in France. A series of adventures and misadventures with Western culture ensues, leaving Marji sick and depressed, and she eventually returns to Tehran. But despite the support and guidance of her family, particularly her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux), she finds that she really cannot stay. She heads back to Paris to make a new life for herself, her family forbidding her to ever return to the land of her birth.

Based on the intensely personal graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, and winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, this semi-autobiographical story is realized in good old hand-drawn animation done in a deceptively simple style. And as one might guess from the plot synopsis above, this is not your typical animated film. It is a warts-and-all refection upon a woman's life from childhood to early adulthood, played out amidst some very trying circumstances. Eschewing cheap glamorization or sentiment, it presents both the good and bad sides of its lead character, and while there are plenty of humorous and heartwarming moments, there are also some very harsh realities on view. It is also a rather episodic tale, perhaps cramming a little too much into its relatively short running time, but such idiosyncrasies are part and parcel of it being one person's vision. All in all, this is well worth a look if you're interested in a life that was formed in a time and place about which most of us know very little. Disc extras include selected scene commentaries, featurettes, and an English-dubbed alternative to the original French version, with Mastroianni and Deneuve reprising their roles along with replacement talent that includes Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop (whose music Satrapi dug back in the day- talk about getting to work with your childhood heroes!).





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