Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror

Saint John of Las Vegas


Saint John of Las Vegas

Some pictures can't be done justice by a simple caption.

(2007) Black Comedy (IndieVest) Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Emmanuelle Chirqui, John Cho, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew McDuffie, Ben Zeller, Aviva, Danny Trejo, Avu, Josh Berry, Isabel Archuleta. Directed by Hue Rhodes

Sometimes, the most expedient solution to facing one’s demons is to run away. It is also one of life’s truths that the easy way is generally not the right way to deal with problems.

John Alighieri (Buscemi) has a particular demon – gambling. He has lost everything due to his addiction and is desperately trying to find himself a “normal life” and by fleeing the gambling dens of Sin City may have found it in the auto insurance company he finds employment at in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But what is insurance but a different kind of gambling? And although John has found himself a new girlfriend – the effervescent Jill (Silverman) who is far prettier than John could have possibly hoped for – he still finds himself in need of cash, so his boss Mr. Townsend (Dinklage) gives him a mission for his sins . Okay, that’s a different allegory.

He sends John out into the field to investigate the claim of one Tasty D. Lite (Chirqui), a stripper in Las Vegas. Accompanying John is Virgil (Malco), a taciturn man who is one of the company’s top investigators.

Into the desert they go, where they meet a strange collection of nutjobs and oddballs, like Smitty the Carnival’s Flaming Man whose fire suit has malfunctioned, going off every twenty seconds or so, turning him into an inferno. Smitty has to wait until the fuel is exhausted but has a desperate craving for a cigarette, which isn’t exactly fire-retardant.

Then there’s Militant Ned (Nelson), a nudist with an automatic weapon dead set on preventing anybody from entering his land. And Tasty herself, who is in a wheelchair after her accident; John asks her for a lapdance which she gamely provides.

The whole point, as Virgil informs John, is to find a way to deny the claim. As John discovers, a normal life may be a whole lot less fulfilling and honest than the one he was trying to avoid, one which he meets head-on in the shopping marts and casinos of Las Vegas.

First time filmmaker Rhodes loosely based his script on the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, and all the temptations show up in one form or another – some more obliquely than others. The problem here is that for a black comedy, there’s far more black than comedy. Some of the bits are pretty funny (the Flaming Man bit for example) while others are mere head-scratchers.

Buscemi is perfectly cast, playing a man who is not entirely sin-free who is in a constant state of confusion. Nobody does the guilty conscience like Buscemi. Dinklage as always strong in his role, playing the money-grubbing and bullying boss to perfection. Silverman, also as always, is wasted in a role that plays on her sex appeal but doesn’t use any of her comedic talents.

This is a wildly uneven movie, well-done in some parts and horrible in others. The concept itself is interesting, but when you think about it, how many people know their Dante well enough to really figure out what’s going on, or more importantly, care? In your case, it’s probably a wash; Buscemi is worth checking out but there is little more than that out there that will either make any sense or worse still, elicit any laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: Buscemi, Malco and Dinklage are solid and the quirky characters that show up throughout the film are at least entertaining. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wildly uneven; some of the bits work like magic, others fall completely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spike Lee was one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $111,731 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Delgo

The Darwin Awards


The Darwin Awards

It's not so much flying as falling with style...

(MGM/Bauer Martinez) Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Wilmer Valderrama, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Nora Dunn, Lukas Haas, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin Dunn, Ty Burrell. Directed by Finn Taylor

The human race numbers nearly seven billion people. That’s a lot of variety in the gene pool. That also means there are a lot of people whose genes the human race would be better off without; sometimes they demonstrate this in the method in which they remove themselves from said gene pool.

Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a police detective in San Francisco with a brilliant mind. In true Sherlock Holmes-like fashion he is able to observe the smallest details in order to create a profile of the criminals he is investigating. Unfortunately, he does have a slight hang-up; he has a phobia about the sight of blood. It causes him to faint. In that particular line of work, this can be a liability.

This comes to pass when he, through brilliant deductive work, manages to corner the North Beach serial killer (Nelson). However, when blood is shed, Burrows passes out and the killer gets away. He loses his job because of it.

Burrows is a methodical and logical sort, so he doesn’t panic. He knows that his gifts would be of great use in other industries. He has also developed a fascination for the recipients of the Darwin Awards – people who die in foolish and bizarre manners, so-named because those who cash out in these manners have failed the basic law of evolution: survival of the fittest. He realizes that the insurance companies pay millions out to survivors of these people and that his expertise might be useful in not only determining the difference between legitimate accidents and Darwin Award candidates, but also in pinpointing people who exhibit the kind of behavior that would make them susceptible to that kind of demise. 

He interviews at a large insurance company to pitch them his skills. At first, the executive (Kevin Dunn) who is interviewing him is skeptical but when Burrows makes some observations of the executive that are painfully close to home based on almost no information, the executive changes his tune. He pairs Burrows with Siri Taylor (Ryder), an investigator who specializes in bizarre cases.

She is none too thrilled to have a new partner, but has to admit grudgingly that Burrows is good at what he does when he figures out that what appears to be an industrial accident when a vending machine falls on a hapless office worker (Burrell) is actually a result of that worker over-balancing the machine in violation of the warning plainly visible on it.

As they travel from city to city, Taylor is at first a bit put off by the fastidious Burrows’ quirks and mannerisms, and his almost total lack of social skills. However, as she begins to see the man behind the mannerisms, she grows softer towards him, especially as he saves the insurance company millions. However, Burrows has some unfinished business to take care of; a serial killer in San Francisco with whom Burrows must face down one last time.

I have to admit liking the concept for The Darwin Awards a great deal. The execution is another matter. Director Taylor stages the death sequences well enough and there is some morbid humor in them, but they aren’t enough to carry the movie. Fiennes isn’t a bad actor – he has shown some chops in Shakespeare in Love but he is very low-key, which works to a certain extent here but at times he is too deadpan. He could benefit from an infusion of a little Nicolas Cage.

Ryder is a fine actress as well, but the chemistry between her and Fiennes isn’t really there. Their romance isn’t really convincing and in all honesty, I think the plot could have done without it. It’s a cliché that brings things down a little bit.

One of the conceits used in the movie is that Burrows is being followed around by a documentary filmmaker (Valderrama) who is using the footage (starting when Burrows was a police officer and carrying over to his new job) for a graduate thesis. There are moments when the movie benefits from it, but the filmmakers try too hard to integrate the documentarian into the action, especially joking how he is unwilling to help when someone is in trouble, even refusing to dial 911 when the serial killer is cornered. That whole component could have been done better, and have still been funny.

Black comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off. The filmmakers have to walk a very thin line between funny and grim, and sometimes it pays off – and other times it doesn’t. There are moments that make The Darwin Awards worth a look, but too often I found myself wishing the filmmakers had come up with a better film.

WHY RENT THIS: The premise is mightily intriguing. Some of the death scenes are cleverly staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fiennes’ character gets a little bit too over-the-top with the quirkiness. Deadpan humor gets to be so deadpan as to be un-funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some squirm-inducing death scenes, a little bit of drug usage and sexuality as well as a fair amount of blue language, all enough to make this unsuitable for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Mythbusters” hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appear as surplus store salesmen to the rocket car driver; in the first episode of the show, they dealt with this very urban myth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Amateurs