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March 19, 2016     Post 72
Great Lakes Movie Review



Now that the days are getting longer it's time to go boating. Winter time is movie season. Still, movies reflect and help shape cultural concerns and interests and there's still rainy weekends to watch them. Movies are a mirror of sorts to our society. What does John Q Public think of the Great Lakes when he/she thinks at all of them? Movies give clues. “The Surface” and “Frozen River” are both low budget independently produced movies that feature portions of the Great Lakes basin as settings for stories of hard pressed people trying to get by in a tough world.

“The Surface” takes place on Lake Michigan on a summer day where two men contemplate death, while Frozen River involves mostly two women who flirt with death and try not to think about it on the ice of the St. Lawrence. Both stories involve the drug trade and are said to be inspired by true events.


The one line summary of “The Surface” states “two strangers, both at the end of their rope, suddenly meet in the middle of the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan.” Actually, they spend a calm summer day discussing their lives and fates aboard a small runabout. One character who is burdened by guilt over his father's death and the slow decline of his mother with Alzheimer has taken the boat out with the intention of committing suicide. The other, pressured into acting as a courier for drug runners, has crashed his small plane in the lake. He isn't suicidal but he is afraid the drug lords are going to track him down and finish him off.

The website says “As they confront the secrets and sorrows that brought them there, they find inspiration in one another’s struggle to survive. Beautifully shot on the vastness of Lake Michigan and around the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, “The Surface” is about how even on the darkest days there’s light, and tomorrow’s a new day. “


I thought it was an OK movie, but Chris and I both wondered why the characters were so casual when the boat sprang a leak. We thought surely they would have at least started bailing or pumping after the water got over the floorboards and their feet got wet. Give the crew their due though, Sean Astin, one of the stars said of the setting “you don’t realize — until you’re out there in the middle of it — it’s a HUGE body of water. I think it’s under-appreciated by most people —”. He also said something to the effect that every actor should make at least one movie while afloat.

Frozen River is set a lot closer to Lake Ontario, just downstream of us at the reservation by Cornwall. It is without doubt a better story and won a number of awards including a big prize at the Sundance film fest. It was described as a low budget blue collar thriller. It stars two women one of whom is trying to raise money to buy a new doublewide trailer, the other a Mohawk also a single mother.

They start smuggling illegals across the border through the reservation to raise needed cash. I was cold the whole time I watched. Put on an extra sweater before you start watching it. I imagine the crew must have had a real ordeal to do the videography and acting in that sub zero weather.

In this movie the river and the boarder lands are integral to the story. It could have only happened at this area. In The Surface, also based on true events, the lake has a less powerful role than the icy river does.

The Internet says the producer Courtney Hunt and her husband raised the money to shoot the film so they had complete artistic freedom to do so. The producer also spent years researching the location and the Mohawk people of the north country. It all added up to something that seemed truly authentic to this former resident of northern New York.


Both videos are available through Netflix.



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