'Frozen River' oozes truth, stark reality

Hollywood produces countless movies each year which have an almost surreal patina of affluence and overall well-being. The list is endless. And perhaps filmgoers, in the main, prefer their entertainment more fantastical than not, insulating them from the harshness of life as it is lived by so many.

"Frozen River" comes from the other end of the continuum and offers a window into the life of a gritty, courageous woman, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), who is struggling to keep her head barely above the Plimsol line. She lives in upstate New York, at the Canadian border, with her two sons in a crumbling mobile home. Her husband has taken the down payment saved for a new doublewide and deserted his family for the casinos. She is left with all the flotsam and jetsam of his addiction. It's days before Christmas, all is winter gray, the cold penetrating, and Ray is desperate, her part-time job at the local Dollar Store barely able to put food on the table (one night's dinner is popcorn and Tang).

Vulnerable, out of options, she finds herself involved in smuggling illegal immigrants — Chinese and Pakistanis — from Canada, across the frozen St. Lawrence River, and into the U.S. It is high risk, high gain. Her partner, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), is a Mohawk Indian who knows the drill and the lay of the land and is filled with anger and resentment and generally doesn't like white folks.

Leo's performance is inspired. She is an actress who inhabits her character with such force and conviction that it is astonishing to watch. Reed Morano, the director of photography, wanting to convey the emotive harshness of Ray's circumstances, employs a series of tight shots of Ray's face, calling attention to the deep lines of worry and regret writ large in the set of her jaw and in her sad, dark eyes. Leo, free of all vanity, never flinches. It's a raw and superb performance. And though the film is weighted by the somber, almost blue light of this northern region, by people who rarely smile, Leo manages to transform and transcend all by her fearless portrayal of Ray Eddy.

The question a film can, on occasion, pose is: How much of life does the filmgoer really want to see? Though "Frozen River" is rife with truth and a stark reality, it is delivered by writer/director Courtney Hunt with a counterintuitive optimism. Hunt, using layers of expository detail, reveals the life of one woman who has almost more than she can bear and yet she prevails.

Ghost Town

Recall the signature line from the film, "Sixth Sense," "I see dead people." Well, there's a bit of that in "Ghost Town" — without the jeepers-creepers.

"GT" is actually a breezy comedy, filled with smart writing and nifty performances, led by Ricky Gervais as Bertram, a transplanted Brit dentist. Tea Leoni portrays Gwen, a Manhattan Egyptologist, recently widowed, and Greg Kinnear is her deceased husband, Frank, who can't give up the ghost, so to speak, before he takes care of some unfinished business. The triangulating ensemble demonstrate wonderful comedic timing, and Kinnear delivers a nice Cary Grant-in-"Topper" performance.

At the center of the film is Bertram, an insensitive, misanthropic jerk who died for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy and can now see dead people. Apparently New York City is filled with them, all trapped in a restless state of purgatory, unable to make the final transition until they complete one last task. They need Bertram's help, and so fill up the waiting room at his dental practice and show up in the dead of night at the foot of his bed. Frank, in particular, is a nag. It all sounds silly, and a bit over the top; it's not. The premise works as well as it did in the hugely successful film, "Ghost." Only in a lighthearted way.

And so, through a series of circumstances, Bertram is about to be tutored in how to be a better human being, and it's a journey filled with humor and, ultimately, a nice transformation. "Ghost Town" proves to be a sweet movie.

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