Bleed Out


Steve Burrows faces an overwhelming situation.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Stephen Burrows, Judie Burrows, Beth Burrows, Cindy Knueppel, Lynn Laufenberg, Mark Bauer, Susan Darmstadter, Ted Payne, Mike End, Marty Markery, Cindy Payne, Mary Ellis, Charles Harper, Margo Burrows, Catherine Scoon. Directed by Stephen Burrows

 

It is no secret that the American health care system is badly broken. Just how broken may come as a surprise to those who are only aware of statistics. Sometimes, getting to the heart of a problem requires us to look at it from the perspective of a single incident.

Steve Burrows in 2008 had a good career going. A comedian, he also wrote and directed comedy features (Chump Change) as well as acted in them (Spy Hard). He had a close-knit family including his mom Judie, a retired schoolteacher in Wisconsin who traveled the globe in her golden years, as independent and free-spirited a woman as Steve had ever known.

Then he got the call from his sister; his mom had fallen and broken her hip. Surgery was required. Fortunately it would be an old family friend – Mark Bauer – who would be doing the operation. Things seemed to be well in hand, but then they weren’t. The surgery took much longer than expected. While in recovery they were unable to rouse Judie, so she was sent to an intensive care unit. During the night, her blood pressure fell to near-fatal levels.

That’s when the bottom fell out of Steve’s life. First of all, it turned out that Judie was on Plavix, an anti-platelet drug used to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks; it is recommended that patients on Plavix discontinue the use of it at least five days before surgery. Bauer knew that but assured the family that he had performed surgery without the buffer period without any ill effects. In any case, Judie was in serious pain and he wanted to get the surgery done as quickly as possible.

Also, the ICU that Judie was in had no doctors assigned to it. In what can only be deemed a cost-cutting move, the ICU was monitored remotely by a physician in a building near the Milwaukee airport. To make matters worse, it is possible that the camera in Judie’s room had never been turned on. In any case, it was evident that Judie had slipped into a coma. She had lost more than half of her blood during the operation; either at that point or when her blood pressure dropped in the supposedly monitored ICU her brain didn’t get enough oxygen and became damaged. Judie would never be the same person again.

Nobody would take responsibility. The surgeon blamed the anesthesiologist who blamed the hospital who blamed the surgeon. Everyone was pointing a finger. Steve was urged to sue, especially by his Uncle Ted (Payne) whom Steve trusted because his Uncle Ted was a doctor. The advice sent Steve and his family into a quagmire of legal issues, laws stacked against the patient and in favor of insurance companies and hospitals, and against health care professionals who lied through their teeth during sworn depositions.

Judie’s savings, which were to get her through retirement, were blown through in a matter of months. Soon Judie was broke and in need of constant care; Steve and his wife took the brunt of responsibility to see to Judie’s medical needs and steer the lawsuit, although few lawyers wanted to touch it – medical malpractice lawsuits in Wisconsin have been rendered pointless mainly because they are expensive to prosecute and laws putting a cap on how much patients can win makes lawsuits impractical; the plaintiff could win the lawsuit but receive nothing and in fact owe the lawyers a considerable sum afterward. Still, Steve persisted in trying, even though it was impacting his own finances and career.

If you look at Steve’s iMDB page you’ll notice that between 2008 and 2018 there is almost nothing. Yes, he did do some advertising work but for the most part his life was focused on taking care of his mom. His agent ended up dropping him and until this documentary came out, his career was essentially over. Relationships within his family, who watched this saga drag on for a decade, became frayed and in some cases unraveled completely.

Burrows shows the incident from all sides whenever possible, interviewing the various participants as well as experts in the medical insurance business. We get a fairly comprehensive view although his intent – and rightly so – is to give his mom a voice. She is the one who has been most devastated by all of this. Steve has had his own suffering; as he suffers setback after setback, listens to his own mother sob that she wants to die, getting no help from any corner, his sense of humor begins to ebb and the weight of the world is clearly on his shoulders. I don’t know what I would do in his shoes but there would be a lot of tears and yelling.

This is a sobering and depressing film that is nonetheless essential viewing. We often talk about the state of the healthcare system but here it is in al it’s ignominy. People like Judie Burrows, through no fault of their own, are left holding the bag physically and financially, their lives altered in meaningful ways, their future grim. For all the political talk about why single payer healthcare won’t work here, it remains a fact that had Judie resided just a few hundred miles north, she wouldn’t have been bankrupted because she’d have been living in Canada.

Medical errors are the third largest cause of death in the United States to the tune of a quarter of million deaths annually. Think of it as three fully occupied 747s crashing every day. Certainly there’d be more of a hue and cry if that were going on but partly because we tend to hold doctors in such high esteem – and honestly, most are deserving of it – we seem to be willing to allow them to dodge accountability when, as human beings, they mess up.

I don’t think it’s possible to watch this movie without feeling angry – not so much at the doctors, although there is some to spare for the doctor who falsified records and lied about it – but at the insurance companies, the for-profit hospitals and the politicians who protect their interests at the expense of the patients. If you ever wondered if your local representative is looking out for you, this is a movie that will put in stark focus that they are not.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely flabbergasting. Burrows lays out the various facets of the film very succinctly, covering all sorts of different dimensions. Burrows is a likable on-camera presence.
REASONS TO STAY: This cautionary tale may hit a little too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Burrows got his start as a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bleeding Edge
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dede

Uncle John


Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

(2015) Suspense/Romance (Self-Released) John Ashton, Alex Moffatt, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Don Forston, Laurent Soucie, Gary Houston, Tim Decker, Mark Piebenga, Janet Glimme, Michael Sassone, Matt Kozlowski, Eli Rix, Carol Sekorky, Charles Stransky, Andy Cameron, Ian Pfaff (voice), Donna Steele, Tammy Newsome, Adria Dawn, Ashleigh LaThrop. Directed by Steven Piet

Florida Film Festival 2015

Most of us have some sort of secret or another; few people are completely transparent. Maybe it’s a secret crush we harbor for someone we work with or maybe it’s a dark deed done in the heat of passion. Maybe it’s just how we feel about the man who raised us.

John (Ashton) is an aging man who lives on a Wisconsin farm he inherited from his dad but is no longer a working farm. He has managed to keep the land but has turned his skills to carpentry, where he installs and repairs cabinets or builds furniture in the small town near his farm. Generally his social life involves hanging out in a diner with his friends, men he’s known and hung out with likely since childhood. They’re all old men now, chattering about gossip like you’d expect from old women. The main source of gossip is the disappearance of Dutch (Soucie), a former roustabout who had found Jesus and was trying to make amends to everyone he’d wronged which was a fairly sizable list.

Ben (Moffatt) is a young man working for a digital animation studio in Chicago that handles a lot of advertising accounts. He works long hours and doesn’t have much time for a social life. His latest project has a new producer, Kate (Lyng) who is a very attractive young woman. Ben is instantly attracted, and it soon becomes clear that the feelings are mutual but both are aware that office romances can be career killing things, so they keep things cordial but the fire is clearly smoldering. The two are forced to spend a lot of hours working together and naturally begin hanging out after work, a post-work cocktail here, a late dinner of Thai food there. Even though Kate is trying to get Ben laid with hook-ups at their local bar, Ben bicycles home late at night with Kate on his mind.

When the client for the project that Ben and Kate are working for demand some late changes, a weekend work session begins to take its toll. Ben suggests some pastries at the best bakery he knows – in the small Wisconsin town he grew up in. Kate is all in and they take a road trip to visit Ben’s Uncle John, the man who raised him after his parents passed away.

In the meantime Dutch’s brother Danny (Blevins) is certain that his brother is dead despite the fact that no corpse has been found. He is also certain that his brother has been murdered, even though signs point to a fishing accident. His suspicions land on John, whose behavior arouses Danny’s instincts and while the genial John denies it, Danny is certain he knows a lot more about the situation than John is letting on. With Ben and Kate arriving for a visit, both stories begin to swirl towards the inevitable; will Kate and Ben give in to their feelings for each other and will Danny confront John with the violence that is clearly bubbling beneath his surface?

Piet is attempting the rather ambitious task of filming two different stories in two disparate genres and then entwining them together in a single movie. The effect is not unlike switching channels on broadcast television between two different movies whenever a commercial interruption occurs. It’s an intriguing notion on paper.

For the most part, Piet does achieve what he seems to be aiming for – the two stories make their way through the course he lays out for them. It’s like they’re both swirling down a drain as they reach a denouement, moving faster and faster towards their conclusions before joining and merging at the bottom of the drain. Some of the best moments in the movie occur when all four of the main characters are together.

Oddly, Piet then chooses to separate the stories again with Ben and Kate in the house and John and Danny out in John’s workshop across the yard in a converted barn. The sex/death metaphor is a bit hoary for the most part but effective as the two stories reach their conclusions and the questions outlined earlier are answered. We end up very much full circle in a lot of ways.

Ashton, who most know as the by-the-book Sgt. Taggert in Beverly Hills Cop, does some of the best work of his long career here. John is a pillar of the community sort who seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s a widower and lives alone, even though there’s at least one woman in the community who wouldn’t mind a little canoodling with him. However, his affection for his nephew seems very genuine and the chemistry between Ashton and Moffatt is really the adhesive that binds the film together.

How well the movie works for you is going to depend first of all on how patient you are as the two stories move closer and closer together. As I sat through the film, I found myself wondering if there was going to be some sort of destination but the swirling around the drain metaphor is apt; the further into the movie we go, the faster the two stories seem to get towards merging into a single story. The two stories are pretty compelling with a slight edge towards the suspense story of John and Danny – there are too many awkward courtship moments in the Ben-Kate romance for my liking. Still, if you stick with it, the reward here is worth the effort. I admire the audacity of the filmmakers to purposely make two stories that seem as different as can be and then attempt to join them seamlessly together; it’s not 100% successful in that venture but it is close enough to it that I think this is worth keeping an eye out for on your local film festival circuit. Hopefully the movie will get some distribution and also bring back Ashton’s career as he has been absent from the screen for far too long.

REASONS TO GO: Ballsy move, incorporating two disparate stories. Ashton delivers a fine performance and has good chemistry with Moffatt.
REASONS TO STAY: Two stories merge and yet stay separate. Takes maybe too long in delivering payoff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moffatt is a past member of Chicago’s esteemed Second City troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rope
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

Definitely, Maybe


Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher put in their bid to be the all-American couple.

Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher put in their bid to be the all-American couple.

(2008) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke, Nestor Serrano, Kevin Corrigan, Liane Balaban, Robert Klein, Adam Ferrara, Annie Parisse, Daniel Eric Gold, Jaime Tirelli, Melissa McGregor, Alexi Gilmore, Marc Bonan, Dale Leigh, Orlagh Cassidy. Directed by Adam Brooks.

Love is complicated and sometimes will tear you to pieces no matter how well-intentioned. We can go in with full hearts and open to whatever love brings and still come out the other side desolated and destroyed. Still, we live in eternal hope that the next one will be the right one.

Will Hayes (Reynolds) should be at the top of the world. Successful, handsome, charming and articulate, he has a beautiful daughter whom he adores. He is also about to sign the papers that will make his divorce final. The day he is served with those papers, he goes to pick up his daughter Maya (Breslin) from school, only to find that today the class has been a course in sex education. He brings his daughter home to hear questions that can only be described as uncomfortable.

For her part, Maya is puzzled about this whole divorce thing. Did her dad ever love her mom and vice versa? How did they fall in love? Her dad has never been real forthcoming about his life before marriage and how he met her mom. Will can see that the information is obviously important to his daughter, so he relents and agrees to tell her about the three women he has been serious about in his life, but on his terms – the names and some of the facts will be changed to protect the innocent. Maya is delighted – she describes it as a love story mystery.

Flash back to 1992. Will is a young idealist from Wisconsin, freshly graduated from college and getting ready to travel to New York to work on the Clinton campaign. His sweetheart Emily (Banks) is not happy to see him going, but comforts herself in that he will be gone only for a few months before the two of them reunite. Before he leaves, she gives him a diary to give to her friend Summer (Weisz) who is a native New Yorker who was her roommate in college.

In the Big Apple, Will promptly discovers that many of his ideals are illusions and the harsh reality is that he is a very small fish in a very big pond. He is cheered up by his friends Russell (Luke), a fellow foot soldier and idealist, and April (Fisher) who is more of a mercenary. Things get exponentially worse when he finds out that Emily has cheated on him and wants to break things off.

Finally, he delivers the diary to Summer but not before reading some particularly steamy passages about a tryst between Emily and Summer. Summer is living with a cantankerous author, Hampton Roth (Kline) many years her senior but as she is an aspiring writer herself, it seems like a good career move. As Roth moves on to younger women, Summer and Will get together and begin to get serious, to the point that Will is ready to ask her to marry him…until she chooses her career over Will, costing him everything.

Broken and beaten down by life and love, Will rediscovers his old friend April whom he has always been attracted to, but as much as they obviously mean to each other, they can’t seem to get together. One of these failed relationships, however, has been given a second chance, only to end in further failure. Maya thinks she knows who her mother is of these three women. Did you figure it out too?

Up to that point I’d never been a particular fan of Ryan Reynolds, but I was actually impressed with his work here. He reminded me of another Ryan, Ryan O’Neal. He is sincere and captures the strengths and weaknesses of the character nicely, being at times charming and shallow, or sad and lonely. You wind up rooting for someone who has a lot of bad luck but makes some bad choices too. I liked Isla Fisher a lot as well – she reminded me quite a bit of Amy Adams and to a lesser extent, Zooey Deschanel. You immediately warmed to her the minute she shows up onscreen and quite frankly, she wipes the floor with Weisz and Banks both.

Derek Luke, so outstanding in Catch a Fire, is good enough in a small role but I think that he is destined for bigger things. I noticed him without him disrupting the flow of the movie, which is the sign of a good actor in a secondary role. And, of course, I am a huge Kevin Kline fan and I love seeing him even in the smallest supporting roles. Overall, the actors did a fine job.

Some great location work in New York makes the Big Apple a scene stealer as always. There are a number of terrific songs on the soundtrack. Most of the technical aspects are very solid, a good professional crew.

This is a very well-written, smart movie. The characters are believable and their dialogue sounds true. The main characters are flawed, but not so much that you don’t wind up rooting for them. As stated above, the acting performances are more than satisfactory. While this is definitely a chick flick, I found myself moved by it, particularly by Will’s own loneliness and sadness. Still, even though he isn’t happy, he’s a good enough soul to realize that he really does have it all, wrapped up in a neat 10-year-old package. Few of the characters turn out to be clichés, although one, sadly, does.

The ending unfortunately is very Hollywood and cliché. Part of me wanted a happy ending for the Will character, but it did make the movie less satisfying. Secondly, the character of Maya is another one of those precocious children smarter and wiser than their parents. Her role in the ending is what makes it extremely unsatisfactory; there is not a kid on the planet who would not only want their dad to fall in love with a woman other than their mother, but would actively assist in making it happen.

I was pretty impressed by it. It’s a lot smarter and a lot less cliché than your average romantic comedy. Ryan Reynolds does a particularly good job, as does Isla Fisher. Even Abigail Breslin, in a role that I found horribly cliché, delivers a nice performance. Perfect date movie fare for Valentine’s Day, or any romantic occasion.

WHY RENT THIS: Reynolds is pleasant and charming. Good chemistry with his various and sundry loves.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The character of Maya is cliche precocious kid. Nonsensical ending.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some sexual content as well as frank and suggestive dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Adam Brooks can be seen as one of the bookstore owners.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on maintaining the various time periods in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55.5M on a $7M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon (Rent/Buy), iTunes (Rent/Buy), Vudu (Rent/Buy), Flixster (Rent/Buy), Target Ticket (Rent/Buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How I Met Your Mother
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Good Lie

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

Map of the World


A Map of the World

Sigourney Weaver can't believe the box office numbers for this film.

(1999) Drama (Firstlook) Sigourney Weaver, David Strathairn, Julianne Moore, Chloe Sevigny, Arliss Howard, Louise Fletcher, Aunjanue Ellis, Sara Rue, Nicole Ari Parker, Ron Lea, Dara Perlmutter, Marc Donato. Directed by Scott Elliott.

We all live our lives in a kind of haze of normalcy. We take comfort in the little rituals of the everyday, ignoring the fear that it can all be taken away in a moment. Sometimes, day-to-day living is just so chaotic that we don’t even notice that we’re falling from grace until we hit bottom.

That’s essentially what happens to Alice Goodwin (Weaver). She’s a school nurse and her husband Walter (Strathairn) runs a farm in rural Wisconsin. They’re originally from the city and although the locals are friendly enough, most regard them with a certain amount of distrust. The exception are their best friends, Theresa (Moore) and Dan (Lea) Collins, whose children regularly play with the Goodwin children.

Where Alice’s home is a symphony of chaos and mess, Theresa’s home is orderly and well-kept. While Alice struggles to keep on top of things, Theresa always seems to find time to bake muffins and do crafts with her kids. Alice is envious, even to how well-behaved the Collins children are. Emma, the eldest (Perlmutter) Goodwin child, is an absolute harpy, shrill, selfish and mean. Alice gets little or no help from Walter in keeping the house kept and the kids minded, which frustrates her.

On the last day of school, Alice has a run-in with Carole McKessie (Sevigny), the irresponsible single mother of a high-strung boy (Donato) whom she repeatedly sends to school sick. Alice is weary of dealing with sick kids and irresponsible parents and makes wiseass comments to a fellow teacher.

When Theresa asks Alice to baby-sit while Dan and Theresa take a little romantic time for themselves, Alice is only too eager to oblige. After all, she has a pond on her property, farm animals and all sorts of things to keep bored kids busy. Things are going as normal – chaos on the brink of hysteria – when things take a nastier turn, as things often will. The resulting tragedy leaves Alice in a state of shock.

Her shock is about to multiply. A few weeks after the incident, Alice is arrested for sexually abusing the McKessie boy. The Goodwins, already on the edge of financial oblivion, cannot afford her bail so Alice is obliged to remain in jail while awaiting trial on the charges, which are beginning to pile up as other children come forward.

Alice, her world already reeling from shock, finds herself in a prison where she is harassed by Dyshette (Ellis), an inmate with plenty of attitude, a chip on her shoulder and anger management issues. Alice is slowly beginning to break down, sabotaging the efforts of her frustrated lawyer (Howard) to get her off the hook.

Meanwhile, Howard is struggling trying to keep home and hearth together. He is aided by Theresa, but an attraction is developing between them that neither one of them want. The map of the world which they’ve all drawn for themselves has grown vague; whether it can take them home or not is by no means certain.

Alice is a complex and not always lovable role for Weaver, who has made a career of playing strong role models. Her Alice certainly has some strength, but that is balanced by a lot of vulnerabilities. The resulting juxtaposition between the two characteristics makes Alice a compelling character, although not always likable. Her means of dealing with the grief of her situation borders on the self-centered, but certainly that’s understandable; her very core has been threatened and she has gone totally into self-preservation mode.

Strathairn is amazing as always in his role as Walter. He plays a man who is anything but strong, constantly leaning on his wife for everything. When he has to step up to the plate, he doesn’t always manage but he’s in there plugging away. When Theresa compliments him as being “a very good man,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. Anybody thinking of getting married on a lark should see what this man goes through before saying “I do.” Talk about “in good times and in bad.”

This is definitely a film meant for women. The standard of women as nurturers and caregivers for their family is seen here as the state of grace. When a woman falls from grace, she is no longer able to care and nurture her family, hence the fall. That Alice in some ways relishes the fall is what makes the movie real and compelling.   

This is one of those little films that kind of slipped under the radar when it was released. I saw it recommended on Netflix, and was curious, and was glad that I chose to satiate my curiosity. It’s well worth checking out, even if, through no fault of your own, you’re a guy.

WHY RENT THIS: An unflinching look at how things can spin out of control. Straithairn and Weaver are both terrific in their roles, and the cast is generally outstanding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weaver’s character is often unlikable, so much so that it takes some effort to relate to her.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex and a smattering of bad language, particularly in the prison scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her role.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,965 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Battle: Los Angeles

The Tourist


The Tourist

Johnny Depp can't get over Angelina Jolie; Angelina Jolie can't get over venice; the bellman can't get over that he's actually in this scene.

(2010) Thriller (Columbia) Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Steven Berkoff, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica, Alessio Boni, Daniele Pecci, Giovanni Guidelli, Raoul Bova, Bruno Wolkovich, Ralf Moeller. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A beautiful mysterious woman on a train. A math teacher from a Podunk junior college in Wisconsin. All the ingredients for a wonderfully crafted thriller in the vein of Charade or any one of a number of Hitchcock movies, and in the hands of an Oscar-winning director could be the makings of a marvelous two hours at the movies. 

A beautiful, sophisticated Parisian woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) is being watched by the police, in particular a Scotland Yard police inspector by the name of John Acheson (Bettany) who seriously needs to consider a decaffeinated brand. She receives a note from Alexander Pearce, a brilliant larcenist on the run from not only Interpol and Scotland Yard but also from Reginald Shaw (Berkoff), a notorious British gangster who has a predilection of surrounding himself with Russian muscle. You see, Pearce stole more than two billion dollars from Shaw and that kind of thing tends not to sit well with gangsters. Elise is apparently the connection to Pearce that everyone is looking for.

The note tells her to get on the train to Venice and pick out someone with a similar height and build as Pearce and make the police believe that the man she is with is actually Pearce. It appears that the thief has used some of his ill-gotten loot to change his face and even his voice. Nobody knows what he looks like now, not even Elise.

She chooses a very unlikely sort; Frank Tupelo (Depp), the aforementioned Math teacher from the junior college in Wisconsin (making Jolie the mystery woman on the train). The two of them wind up flirting. He is surprised; things like this never happen to him. Still, they share a fine meal and then as the train pulls into the station, they go their separate ways. Frank is certain he’s seen the last of her.

But he hasn’t. As he fumbles with a map in St. Mark’s Square, she pulls up in a boat and offers him a lift. She takes him to a five star hotel, and checks him in as her husband. It is clear they are mutually attracted, but she loves someone else – and his heart has recently been broken. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in the bed.

In the meantime, both Interpol and the gangster are closing in on them. Frank has no idea what he’s in for but as thugs with guns come after him and the police sell him to the mobster, he only knows that the deadly game he’s playing he must win because the consequences of losing are fatal.

There are definitely elements to a variety of old-fashioned thrillers, not the least of which are Charade, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. Director von Donnersmarck previously directed the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others knows his way around a thriller, and while this isn’t the most energetic ones in terms of suspense, it nonetheless keeps the audience on their toes.

Jolie is channeling Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly here simultaneously – not an easy feat I can tell you. Her Elise is cool, sophisticated and elegant – she even wears long formal gloves, not something most people wear these days. This is Jolie at her most attractive, and she uses her beauty as a deadly trap. She is the very embodiment of the femme fatale.

Depp can act the stammering, stumbling nincompoop when he chooses to; in fact, it’s part of his charm. I think the part might have been better served with a suave Cary Grant type – not that there are any around like that (maybe George Clooney comes close). Depp fulfills his role competently but there isn’t much chemistry between him and Jolie; a little more passion might have made the movie work better.

The supporting cast is solid, with Bettany as the obsessive cop, Dalton as his angry boss (what is it about superior police officers that they always have to have a bug up their asses?) and Berkoff as the baddie, a role he has more or less perfected.

This is a competent thriller that takes full advantage of its Venetian location, and the charm of Venice is where the charm of this movie lies. Von Donnersmarck has the makings of a great director, although The Tourist won’t go down as one of his signature films. It is, however, at least entertaining and if you’re into watching Angelina Jolie, she is at her best here. Actually, between her work in Changeling and this film, I might have to revise her position on my list of favorite actresses in a more upwards direction.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t get much better in the star power department than this. Magnificent Venetian vistas and the kind of upper crust lifestyles of the rich and shameless we all adore.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot twist at the end isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping as it should have been.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence a’plenty and a good bit of strong language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolie stated in an interview that the only reason she agreed to do the movie was because it would be a “quick shoot” in Venice.

HOME OR THEATER: The movie is on a grand scale that demands a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: How Do You Know