Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thin Ice

Actress Lea Thompson and director Jill Sprecher at Sundance

THIN ICE                    C                    
aka:  The Convincer
USA  (93 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Jill Sprecher               ATO Pictures [us]

Originally playing at Sundance 2011 under the name THE CONVINCER, the film changed the title and was re-cut and re-scored for its commercial release, and, according to a letter by the director to Roger Ebert mentioned as a footnote in his review here: Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert], suggests quite a bit more was changed as well:  “The producers and distributor of our film completely re-edited it without me. Nearly 20 minutes were cut; the structure rearranged; out-takes used; voiceover and characters dropped; key plot points omitted; a new score added. Although our names contractually remain on the film, my sister and I do not consider 'Thin Ice' to be our work.”  One wonders how often this is the case in the movie industry, though normally one would hope changes may be slight or mutually agreed to.  However, there is a long history of this in the movie business, which is why it’s so hard for struggling directors to get final cut rights on their films.  According to Anthony Kaufman from indieWIRE: Exclusive: Sundance Film Taken from Director; is Werc Werk Works ..., since the premiere at Sundance, “The film lost its original title; it's now called ‘Thin Ice.’ The film lost its editor, Stephen Mirrione, who won an Oscar for his work on ‘Traffic.’ The film lost its composers, Emmy-winner Alex Wurman and Grammy-winner Bela Fleck. And it has lost its filmmakers, writer-director Jill Sprecher and her sister/co-writer Karen Sprecher.”  Werc Werk Works | Home is the Minneapolis production company on the film, founded by producers Christine Walker and Elizabeth Redleaf, where Walker subsequently resigned her position as President, leaving Redleaf as the CEO in charge, with others following Walker's departure as well, leaving the company’s future in jeopardy as they currently have no new films under contract.  The website mentions the film played at Sundance, but hasn’t mentioned it in any of their news items since then, as they have with their 4 other produced films, releasing the final product with as little fanfare as possible.  The Sprecher sisters, who found out about the cuts made to their film not from a company directive or agency communication, but from reading about it in newspapers and over the Internet, are forbidden under contract restrictions to use a pseudonym or to say anything substantial to the press other than their version of the film will be included on the eventual Blu-Ray release.  Wow, what a backstabbing, behind-the-scenes roller coaster ride!
As for the film itself, it reunites the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) team of Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin, adding Billy Crudup as comic relief, offering the potential for a dark comedy, but instead this is a somewhat convoluted and disturbing small town crime thriller where everything than can go wrong does, blowing up in the faces of the unsuspecting who grow more and more desperate over time, reminiscent of the Coen brother’s FARGO (1996), but without the meticulous detail of a brilliant script, including the accentuated personalities and hilarious small town charm.  Set in the wintry snow of Kenosha, Wisconsin, we find ourselves at a Midwest insurance convention (resembling a Moose lodge) where Kinnear plays Mickey, a bit downhearted that he didn’t take the top prize for salesman of the year, but ratchets up his hopes as the next year’s winner wins a trip to Aruba.  Before he knows it, he’s been waylaid by a conniving oversexed female who trades sex for stealing his credit cards, waking up in the morning feeling like he got fleeced.  To make up for his bad luck, he hires an insurance agent on the spot, David Harbour as Bob, who was about to go to work for the competition, feeling like he made a steal as Bob is a hard worker and conscientious team player, doing most of the work Mickey should be doing out in the field, but he’s consumed by other affairs, namely losing his wife, Lea Thompson (always excellent), and falling into a seemingly insurmountable mountain of debt.  Any man in his position would feel compelled to try Lady Luck despite the pitiful odds.  But he’s a born salesman, so he’s got experience on his side, perhaps taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with an elderly customer Bob finds who’s already over-insured, Alan Arkin as Gorvy Hauer, who may have an invaluable violin lying on the premises which Mickey thinks might come in handy, thinking he could switch violins and the senile old man wouldn’t notice.

As if by design, Gorvy has out of town family business, which Mickey thinks is the perfect opportunity, but there’s a kicker.  Just before he leaves, he has a security alarm installed by Billy Crudup as Randy, a sort of fly by night operator who turns out to be an ex-con, changing the rules of the game midstream.  What seemed like a simple bait and switch runs into serious difficulty, which has both of these guys on the run for a despicable crime intended to shut somebody up.  Over time, these guys dig themselves into a deeper and deeper grave, where Mickey’s money problems escalate with his lies and guilty conscience, both intended to cover up his tracks, but he only grows more exposed, which really pisses off Randy, who thought these guys were a bunch of nobodies that no one would care about, thinking they couldn’t be more perfect foils to take advantage of.  Randy never did any actual respectable work in his life, so he has to con (read threaten) others into giving him money, something he does very well, as he turns into a crazed maniac when things don’t go his way.  Crudup is really loony most of the time, always over the edge, while Kinnear is the ordinary everyman who can’t resist temptation when it comes calling in dollar signs.  Kinnear’s secretary, Michelle Arthur as Karla, makes the most of her small part, while it’s really a two man operation, Kinnear and Crudup who continue to out screw up the other.  What’s missing is any real sense of humor or playfulness in their boneheaded acts, where the characters find themselves caught up in the scrambling details of the story and don’t have much of a chance to breathe life into their characters.  Kinnear can’t stand up to William H. Macy’s role in FARGO of a squirming weasel which is played with a delightful relish of immorality and cowardice, while Kinnear is perhaps too likeable, a decent guy gone to bad ends to try to make up for the fact he’ll never get anywhere in smalltown America without changing the odds by pulling off a big score.  The odds are always stacked against him, and there’s a reason why they call them low “odds,” as it would take a miracle to pull off this caper.  One can only surmise that this wasn’t that good a film to begin with at Sundance, probably made worse by the somewhat desperate, last minute measures taken by the production team which were obviously at odds with the originators of the film, who are themselves daughters of a Wisconsin insurance salesman, and in a truth is stranger than fiction twist ironically woke up one morning after Sundance feeling like they got fleeced.    

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