DID YOU READ

Interview: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Courtney Hunt on “Frozen River”

Posted by on

07292008_frozenriver1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

When Melissa Leo went home for Christmas last year, she took a copy of “Frozen River” to show her family. It was a month before the film would go on to pick up the Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance, but those closest to Leo wasting no time in observing that “this is different.” Therein lies part of the charm of Courtney Hunt’s debut feature, a thriller that veers with the same reckless abandon in its narrative as its two leads do behind the wheel of a rickety Dodge Spirit, ferrying illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River in the trunk. “Homicide” alum Leo and Misty Upham play Ray and Lila, the prickly pair of single mothers/smugglers who struggle to make ends meet by forming an unlikely partnership that utilizes Ray’s car and Lila’s status as a Mohawk protected from the cops by her residency on tribal land. As a director, Hunt had to be even more resourceful in translating “River” from its previous incarnations — first, as a poem, then a short film — into a feature that could be shot over 24 days in sub-zero conditions in Plattsburgh, New York. The result is a chick flick that Quentin Tarantino could love — and does, as Hunt, Upham and Leo recently told me during a sit-down at, ironically enough, the Los Angeles Film Festival.

How did the short become the feature?

Courtney Hunt: I wrote a poem, I had a central image — women driving across the ice. There’s a smuggling culture that exists at the border up there and I was fascinated by why people would do that. The poem came out as an interior monologue of Ray’s character, and I went up and shot the short with Melissa and Misty and then we waited to see…is this going to catch on? Are we onto something here? We went to the New York Film Festival and I got a strong sense that there was an idea there people wanted to hear more about, so I went home and just poured out the idea as it was kind of coming together in my head. I threw out the short and started over again and wrote the story from beginning to end.

Was the chemistry there between you two from the start?

Misty Upham: The first night of the short when we met and we spent time together, I think I fell in love with her immediately and through the short, we really just became sisters.

Melissa Leo: We really bonded as actors. There were a lot of dimensions to our relationship — teasing each other, being hard on one another, being gentle and kind — all those different colors. Ray and Lila have certain ways they deal with each other, but Misty and Melissa dealt with each other on all those [levels]. It was a great working relationship.

07292008_frozenriver2.jpgThis film almost plays like a heist film in terms of its energy, and I remember seeing an interview where you mentioned you were disappointed with how female-driven films were usually referred dismissively as “character studies” or “relationship dramas.” How did that impact what you ended up putting on screen?

CH: I was concerned with that because sometimes women-driven films are criticized for being too talky or too concerned with relationships and not committed to just [telling] a good yarn that keeps you on the edge of your seat. When I stumbled upon the situation of these women who smuggled, I was like this is good, because they’re doing something. I had to work backwards and figure out why, so I could put the relationship in. The action part of it appealed to me first, even though it’s not an action picture.

ML: Oh! I thought it was!

CH: It was…[both laugh] because she did all the driving. [points to Leo] But the action part of it, you set it up that way and then the relationships take care of themselves. You set up the motivation, you set up the action.

And because of the budget level, I’m assuming you had to do your own driving.

ML: That was primarily why Courtney cast us. We had a driving test and she and I both passed. [laughs] She lucked out she had Misty and me behind the wheel.

CH: She’s good. [nodding towards Upham]

ML: People driving in films are…it’s a scary thing. Misty did a remarkable job.

MU: I used to race illegally in Seattle in high school, so…

ML: When Misty got behind the wheel, I thought oh, put me to shame.

CH: But the truth is there’s so much car stuff in the movie and there are situations where you really have to just [direct the car] — “can you move the car back and over just a hair?”

ML: The car is a beloved character in the film.

Courtney, what were the worst case scenarios running through your head before production started?

07292008_frozenriver3.jpgCH: The ice melting…[slight laugh] Mainly we wanted to make sure that we made our days. It was a lot of scheduling…we started days, we worked into nights, we went back to days — that’s really hard because you go from being a daytime creature to a nocturnal creature and then back. [That was] my main worry, personally, and for the cast and crew, that the weather would somehow run us down because you know how bitter cold can slow you down. Your engine has to really warm up, except if you’re her… [points to Leo] Her engine’s always warm.

ML: I went in a sauna to raise my internal temperature so I didn’t have to work so hard keeping warm. I was training my body to keep warm while we worked. Part of our difficulty was as you’d shoot, it would snow in the morning, it would be bright sunshine by noon, and snow again in the afternoon.

CH: It would start snowing between a two-shot. We’d do her close-up, snow…no snow.

ML: But that’s how the days go up there. What might seem incontiguous is in fact how the weather goes up there by the lakes. The crew liked to call the film “Frozen Feet.” I was well-prepared for it. Playing the role, having my focal point be on that character and not the weather was very important to me. Ray lives in that cold weather. She survives it. I just put myself in her shoes with it. There was an arduousness to the shoot, [which] I as an actor choose to use for the role, much in the same way as shooting in Western Texas on “Three Burials [of Melquiades Estrada].” The climate informs the character.

Quentin Tarantino famously remarked when he gave you the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “It put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame.” Were you surprised by the attention?

MU: That was the cherry on top.

ML: He’s a cherry, isn’t he?

CH: He is a cherry on top.

MU: He’s so behind the film and us as a trio. I can’t say enough how grateful I will be to him for plugging us that much. But yeah, Tarantino has [put the film] on a level that’s almost surreal, with the amount of attention, devotion and support he’s given us. It’s amazing how much he cares and how much he wants us to succeed.

CH: I didn’t even know he was a juror [at Sundance] because I didn’t look to see who the jurors were because it’d make me nervous. I walked by him at the director’s brunch and I thought “oh God, he’s going to hate this movie.” And I was soooo wrong.

[Photos: “Frozen River,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“Frozen River” opens in limited release on August 1st.

Watch More
Religuous Bill Maher

Politics Now!

10 Hilarious Political Documentaries You Need to See

Documentary Now! gets political with "The Bunker" premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: ©Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Who says political documentaries can’t be hilarious? The best political docs — like The War Room, the 1993 depiction of the Clinton presidential campaign that Documentary Now! pays homage to with “The Bunker” — have plenty in them to make you laugh. Here are 10 political documentaries that will elicit more than just bitter laughter.

1. The Yes Men

Activist duo Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are responsible for not just one, but three funny and scathing political documentaries: The Yes Men (2003), The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) and The Yes Men are Revolting (2014). The pair impersonate bad guys from the worlds of business and government, and often end up fooling the media. They also stage elaborate pranks like having dozens of people don inflatable ball outfits called SurvivaBalls to help survive catastrophes resulting from climate change. Along the way they’ve racked up numerous awards and almost as many arrests.


2. Weiner

“Hilarious…like a Spinal Tap of politics,” said the New York Post about the doc Weiner, of course adding, “…it’s the full package.” This doc follows the disgraced Congressman, who had to resign due to a sexting scandal, in his quest for a comeback, running for Mayor of New York City. Incredibly, yet another sexting scandal explodes during the course of filming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, as the whole sordid story unfolds before the cameras, featuring Weiner and his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. It’s the film that puts the (Carlos) “danger” back in politics.


3. Please Vote for Me

Politics on a scale much smaller but just as riveting are on display in this 2007 documentary. A third grade class in China is given the task of holding an election for class monitor. The resulting web of intrigue, dirty tricks and bare-knuckle politics among this group of 8-year-olds are reminiscent of something Karl Rove or Lee Atwater would come up with. And the parents are worse. A fascinating look at the roots of democracy, with a touch of Lord of the Flies.


4. Roger & Me

Filmmaker Michael Moore could have any one of a number of his movies in this list (his is the first name most people think of when the subject of funny political docs comes up). But his first doc, Roger & Me, remains one of his funniest and — with its focus on the economic impact of globalization on American workers — still remains one of his timeliest. The film centers around Moore’s attempts to confront then CEO of General Motors Roger B. Smith. Moments from the film including scenes with former game show host Bob Eubanks and another with a luckless rabbit have become iconic.


5. Bronx Obama

The first feature-length documentary from filmmaker Ryan Murdock, Bronx Obama follows the story of Louis Ortiz, a lifelong resident of the South Bronx. Unemployed and with a young daughter, Ortiz is told by a friend in 2007 that he looks like a rising young politician. Before long, he’s making a living as a Barack Obama impersonator. The award-winning doc shows many hilarious moments intentional and otherwise as Ortiz comes to grips with his new life over the course of three years during Obama’s first term and deals with an unscrupulous manager.


6. Religulous

Bill Maher brings his scathing satire of organized religion to his 2008 documentary Religulous. In the course of the film he travels to The Wailing Wall, The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and The Vatican, among other places. But some of the best scenes are in cheesy locales like The Creation Museum and a Christian theme park in Orlando called Holy Land Experience. He even finds a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam. Maher is merciless in his mockery of the main Western religions, but even if you disagree with his viewpoints, his comedy is always spot on.


7. Al Franken: God Spoke

From the makers of The War Room, this doc shows the evolution of Al Franken from comedian to political pundit during the first term of George W. Bush. We see Franken touring in promotion of his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, broadcasting at Air America Radio and touring with the USO in Iraq. The most memorable encounters in the film are clashes with right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. It’s a funny look at a man on a journey from SNL to the US Senate.


8. Journeys with George

In the year 2000, Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) was covering the presidential campaign of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush for NBC. For 18 months, she also used a handheld camcorder to record Journeys with George. The result is a remarkably warm and funny portrait of a somewhat goofball politician. Pelosi went on to become a filmmaker. Bush went on to bigger things as well. From the vantage point of 16 years later, the big takeaway from Journeys with George is that George W. Bush seemed a lot funnier before we had eight years of him as president.


9. Mitt

You may have suspected that George W. Bush could make a goofily entertaining subject for a documentary. What you never suspected was that Mitt Romney could ever be anything other than stiff and robotic. For the film Mitt, documentarian Greg Whiteley was given unprecedented access to Romney in his runs for president in both 2008 and 2012. What emerges is a surprisingly human portrait of Romney and his family. There’s an amazing scene in the hotel on the night Mitt lost to Barack Obama revealing that he never even contemplated the possible need for a concession speech.


10. Sarah Palin: You Betcha!

No list of things both political and funny can avoid having at least one entry about Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is from noted British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and should not be confused with the fawning Palin doc The Undefeated. In 2011, after she had become a conservative icon, Broomfield went to Alaska and documented his attempts at getting an interview with Palin in a Roger & Me-esque pursuit. In interviews with Palin family, friends, fans and foes, Broomfield manages to make the self-described “mama grizzly” seem both dangerous and ridiculous, both of which are undoubtedly true.

Watch More
Bill and Teds Bogus Journey Everett

Die Laughing

5 Depictions of “Death” in Comedy

Catch Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey this week on IFC's Rotten Fridays.

Posted by on

With Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey airing as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays, we got to thinking about how exactly the character of Death made his way onto the screen – and onto the poster – of a 1991 comedy sequel.

Ingmar Bergman’s depiction of Death in his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal set the tone for how most people think of The Grim Reaper. Portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, Death was a chess-playing philosopher, answering deep existential questions while capturing your rook with his knight. In Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Death is partial to board games.

Here then is the journey of Death in movie comedies, from Bill & Ted to Whoopi.

1. The Dove / De Duva (1968)

Three years after The Seventh Seal hit theaters, this short film parodied as much Ingmar Bergman as could fit into 14 minutes. The centerpiece is of course the pale-faced and shrouded Death, challenged this time in a game of badminton. It’s also the film debut of Madeline Kahn, who would go on to become the queen of parody with Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles.


2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail trailer (1975)

One of the greatest comedies of all times parodies one of the greatest movies of all times –- but only in the trailer. Referring to the director and title by name, this preview promises something “all rather silly” when compared to The Seventh Seal. To wit: Death takes a pie to the face.


3. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Bill and Ted
Orion Pictures

If Death can play chess, then why not Twister, Clue and Battleship? Of all the comic portrayals of Death in movies, this is the one that holds up best. William Sadler brings a vulnerability to the role while never losing Death’s sense of menace. Like the Bill & Ted movies, it’s brilliantly smart and stupid all at the same time.


4. The Last Action Hero (1993)

"Ian
Columbia Pictures

This action-comedy-trainwreck acknowledges The Seventh Seal as a movie and then takes a big leap as the character of Death leaves the land of Ingmar Bergman and jumps into the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ian McKellen (the Bengt Ekerot of our day) takes over the role and wreaks havoc in 1990s America.


5. Monkeybone (2001)

Monkeybone
20th Century Fox

Whoopi Goldberg plays Death in this bizarre 2001 comedy, where Brendan Fraser’s comatose cartoonist must get an “exit pass” from Death in order to return to the land of the living. Also, Death has a giant robot. It’s a weird movie, folks.

Watch More
Rick Moranis Honey I shrunk the kids

Rick of Time

10 Best Rick Moranis Roles

Catch Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids this month on IFC.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everyone loves Rick Moranis. It’s just the truth. This month on IFC, you get a chance to rediscover his awesomeness in Honey, I Shrunk the KidsAs you enjoy that family comedy gem, here are a few other roles that showcase Rick Moranis’ greatness.

1. Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn

Only Rick Moranis could play a character that you still root for even though he’s murdering people and feeding them to an alien plant. Audiences loved Seymour so much, the studio had to reshoot the ending of the film. Originally, the film ended like the original Off-Broadway play, with Seymour and Audrey being eaten and Audrey II taking over the world. Test audiences couldn’t stand the fact that they were killed, so a new ending was shot with our leads victorious and the film became one of the best movie musicals of all time.


2. Ghostbusters, Louis Tully

In a film with so many comedy legends, it would have been easy for Rick Moranis to fade into the background as the hapless Louis Tully. But he more than holds his own up against the rest, making Tully just as funny as he is pathetic. And when he goes bug-eyed as Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, that’s when the fun really starts.


3. Spaceballs, Dark Helmet

You don’t often think of James Earl Jones and Rick Moranis being typecast together. But in Mel Brooks’ goofy send-up of Star Wars, Moranis takes on his version of Darth Vader. As Dark Helmet, Moranis is a perfect mixture of occasionally threatening and mostly inept. If Brooks ever decides to revisit the Spaceballs franchise on the big screen, hopefully he’ll find a way to bring Dark Helmet into the new Star Wars universe.


4. Parenthood, Nathan Huffner

Directed by Ron Howard, Parenthood is a wonderfully truthful movie about marriage, having children and the dangers of oral sex while driving. Moranis plays Nathan Huffner, an intellectual who’s more interested in raising his daughter as a science experiment than being a loving father. Though there are many comedic moments, this is a much more understated performance for Moranis. And he gets easily the sweetest moment in the film when he serenades his estranged wife in front of her students.


5. Strange Brew, Bob McKenzie

Bob and Doug McKenzie were breakout characters from SCTV that were originally created by government demand — the CBC mandates that a certain percentage of all shows in Canada have specifically Canadian content. So, Moranis and Dave Thomas thought of the most stereotypical Canadians possible and the McKenzie brothers were born. The duo appeared on SCTV, in Pizza Hut and Molson commercials, on a platinum-selling comedy album and their big screen debut, Strange Brew. It’s a tale of poisoned beer, mind control plots and an escape from an insane asylum. Plus, it’s a loose take on Hamlet. Probably not what you’d expect from characters made as a joke, but that’s what makes Bob McKenzie a great and surprising “hoser.”


6. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Wayne Szalinski

In this 1989 classic, Rick Moranis plays a bumbling inventor who accidentally shrinks his kids and neighbors to the size of ants. Though that may sound horrifying, Moranis is great as a man who’s thrilled that something of his finally worked and just as comically terrified by what he’s done. With impressive special effects for the time, the film still holds up as a fun family comedy.


7. My Blue Heaven, Barney Coopersmith

Did you know that Rick Moranis was in a comedic version of Goodfellas? My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin and Moranis, came out one month before Scorsese’s legendary Mob film. Though the silly comedy and gritty gangster drama may seem completely different, both are based on the life of Henry Hill, known as Vinnie Antonelli in Heaven. Moranis plays the average neighbor who tries to keep former mobster Vinnie (Martin) in line so he can remain in witness protection. Though Goodfellas was based on a novel about Hill’s life by Nicholas Pileggi, My Blue Heaven was written Nora Ephron, who happened to be married to Pileggi at the time. It’s a small mob world.


8. The Wild Life, Harry

This ’80s teen comedy has been mostly forgotten, but it’s notable not only for a performance by Moranis as a trendy manager with very big hair but it’s top level cast. Eric Stoltz, Randy Quaid, Lea Thompson and a bleached blonde Chris Penn all star, with a soundtrack by Eddie Van Halen. It’s all the more surprising that this film isn’t better remembered, since it was writer Cameron Crowe’s follow up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


9. Head Office, Howard Gross

This 1985 satire of the corporate world stars Judge Reinhold as a new employee who gets mysteriously promoted within a huge company and learns of the seedy underbelly of business. The film features a few subplots, one starring Danny DeVito and one with Moranis as a failing executive whose screaming idiocy is a great parody of the executive top brass. Though it may not be much of a parody, since we’ve all probably experienced our fair share of screaming, asinine bosses.


10. Brewster’s Millions, Morty King

In Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor finds out he’ll get a $300 million inheritance only if he can spend $30 million in one month. (If only we all had such troubles.) As Pryor’s character gets more attention for his big spending and eventual mayoral campaign, he attracts a bunch of odd characters. One of which is Moranis as Morty King, King of the Mimics. It’s a small role where he plays a guy that always repeats everything that’s said, but Morty has got a great costume and Moranis plays this confident weirdo with delightful skill. Also, the idea of anyone crowning himself “King of the Mimics” for doing a trick that little brothers use to annoy everyone is a pretty insane thought.

Watch More
Powered by ZergNet