Thin Ice and The Secret World of Arrietty

Danger zones


Thin Ice

There are several things one might say about Thin Ice; unfortunately, some of them must remain unsaid. Set in the wintry Midwest, the movie is a dark, twisty crime thriller that recalls the Coen brothers' snowbound Fargo and John Dahl's switcheroo classic The Last Seduction. It features colorfully comic performances by Greg Kinnear (in sleazeball mode), Alan Arkin (doing a variation on the windy codger he played opposite Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine), and especially Billy Crudup, who charges the film memorably as a menacing psycho.

Kinnear plays Mickey Prohaska, an egocentric ass who runs an insurance agency in small-town Wisconsin, where he hard-sells clients to buy more insurance than they could ever need. Mickey is living beyond his means and is up to his lying mouth in debt—to the point of emptying out the joint bank account he shares with his wife Jo Ann (Lea Thompson), who's now understandably estranged. After poaching a hotshot salesman (David Harbour) from a rival insurance agency, he acquires a new client, an irascible farmer named Gorvy (Arkin), who lives in a big house out in the countryside with his dog and an accumulation of junk that includes an old violin. When Mickey learns, surreptitiously, that the violin is anything but junk—that a Chicago luthier (Bob Balaban) has determined that it's actually a rare instrument, and is willing to pay Gorvy $25,000 for it—his larcenous mind shifts into scam-hatching overdrive.

But his scheme for separating the old geezer from his violin is soon complicated by the arrival of Randy (Crudup), a shifty security-systems workman who turns up at Gorvy's house one day to install a burglar alarm. Randy is an ex-con with a penchant for theft himself. He's also prone to fits of raving violence, and before long things get bloody, and Mickey finds himself sinking into a bog of blackmail and much worse.   

The picture is cleverly structured—in possibly too self-conscious a way—and has a socko payoff (which some viewers may well see coming). But it feels over-compressed, and one wonders what the director—indie vet Jill Sprecher, who wrote the script with her sister, Karen Sprecher—initially had in mind. Under its original title, The Convincer, the movie was enthusiastically received at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival; but Sprecher didn't have final cut, and the producers took over the film, radically trimming and reediting it, and slapping a new soundtrack on it as well. Last November, before she was reportedly cautioned to clam up, Sprecher told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she was "stunned" by this strong-arming, and angry that "my name must remain on the finished work, due to the contract I signed…." Now re-titled, Thin Ice is still a tangy little thriller; but the outside interference to which it has been subjected casts a pall—you have to wonder how much sharper (and maybe darker) it might have been before the cutters moved in. If you missed the original film at Sundance (as I did), it looks like you'll never know.

The Secret World of Arrietty

English author Mary Norton's 1952 fantasy novel The Borrowers has been adapted a number of times over the years, mainly for TV. But it's hard to imagine any previous version of the tale being more lustrously fashioned than The Secret World of Arrietty, the new animated feature from Japan's Studio Ghibli. Anime master Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded Ghibli 27 years ago, has been globally celebrated for writing and directing such singular films as Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle; his 2001 Spirited Away surprisingly won an Oscar—a rare achievement for a foreign-language production. Miyazaki co-wrote the script for Arrietty, but turned over the direction to a younger Ghibli animator, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The result, while not as gloriously eccentric as Howl's Moving Castle, is a magical classic distinguished by its intricate staging and an Impressionist interplay of sunlight and rural greenery that's a joy to behold. This is a great kids' movie, but, as usual with Ghibli films, it's not in any way just for kids.

Norton's narrative has been reconfigured a bit, but is unchanged in essence. At its center are the Borrowers, a family of "little people" (maybe three inches tall) who live in the recesses of a large country house otherwise inhabited by a lone human (or "Bean," as the tiny squatters say), an old woman named Jessica (voiced in English by Gracie Poletti). The Borrowers—father Pod (Will Arnett), mother Homily (Amy Poehler), and their daughter Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler)—have made a cozy home for themselves within a pile of bricks in the basement, venturing out at night to "borrow" the staples they need: a pin, a tissue, maybe a cookie. The rule by which they live is never to borrow anything that will be missed by the Beans.

Since Arrietty is about to turn 14, her father decides it's time for her to start accompanying him on his nightly borrowing sorties. Being a novice, she accidentally drops a liberated sugar cube down onto the floor of a bedroom, awakening a newly arrived human visitor—Jessica's sickly grandson, Shawn (David Henrie), who has come to the country to rest up for a heart operation that could end his life. Shawn's spotting of Arrietty is a disastrous event. Whenever the Borrowers' existence is discovered, they must move on and find a new home, since they know that Beans can't control their curiosity and will inevitably disrupt the lives of their secret boarders. As Pod and Homily begin packing, Arrietty befriends Shawn and realizes that he is prepared to keep their presence a secret—especially from Jessica's malevolent housekeeper, Hara (Carol Burnett), who has always suspected the little people's residence in the house, and wants to call in a crew of exterminators to eradicate them.

The picture is endlessly imaginative in depicting the Borrowers' nocturnal adventures around the big house, tripping nimbly along a row of nails high up on a wall, or climbing a table leg with taped shoes. And the outdoor scenes have a luxuriant beauty—not least the one in which Arrietty clambers up through a jungle-like tangle of ivy vines to reach Shawn's second-floor window with a warning. There's also a fat, menacing cat on hand, and a lively pair of crickets, and a wild Borrower boy from a faraway encampment of little people who offers to transport Arrietty and her parents to this new sanctuary in his tea-kettle boat. Since Norton wrote five Borrowers books, the little family's animated adventures might gracefully continue (the picture leaves that possibility open). If not, there'll always be this. Which is plenty.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.