HotDocs 2011: HOT COFFEE Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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HotDocs 2011:  HOT COFFEE Review
In Rodrigo Cortés' thriller Buried (the one with Ryan Reynolds making cellphone calls from a coffin) there was one bit of highly effective satire involving the company employing Reynolds' character (as a truck driver in Iraq) and their insistence of getting liability out of the way before they would help him escape from asphyxiation that struck me as both hilarious and outlandish.  There is a nihilism in Cortés film that was rather off putting, it is practically a deal breaker for recommending the film (beyond its handsome craft), that I find myself now reconsidering after watching, Hot Coffee one of the big 'issue' documentaries at this years edition of HotDocs.  If nothing else, it shows that the intentions of the founding fathers of the U.S. constitution probably had no idea that lobbyists and unfettered capitalism would go so far in undermining so many of the rights (and checks and balances) implicit in the formation of the land of the free.

You probably heard of that case in the early 1990s of the old lady who spilled a cup of coffee on herself in the car after purchasing it from a local McDonald's restaurant.  It was a gag in Seinfeld, late night talk show fodder, and the poster child for frivolous civil litigation in the United States.   The jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.86 Million dollars.  The initial thought is, holy Jackpot!  After you see the photos of Ms. Liebeck's inner thighs and all the skin grafts and whatnot, it is crystal clear that those are some serious burns, and that McDonald's had its coffee makers set a egregiously high temperatures and had hundreds if not thousands of customer complaints up until that point, it becomes less of a case about common sense of one lady, and more of a case of media spin.  But it's not the media at the heart of things, it's those damn lobbyists (while not unique to the United States, but certainly America has turned corporate advocacy it into an orchestrated art-form and if the middle-brow comedy of Thank-you for Smoking was not enough to sway you, perhaps the hand-over-mouth personal tragedies outlined in the workmanlike fashion of director Susan Saladoff might change a world-view or two.   At the very least, you will know what a Tort is and why its reform is perhaps better described as a deform, meaning taking the Jury of your peers out of the equation in favour of recommendations given from firms/individuals often employed by the corporate defendant, or otherwise at the behest of their lobby.)  It is certainly worth repeating that most of the great advances in safety in consumer goods comes from injured parties costing the company enough money to consider safety the wiser and cheaper alternative to ignoring a low-on-the-companies-priority list issue.

Although, I question the wisdom of using John Grisham and Al Franken (both of which have enough celebrity baggage to distract from things) and considering the artistry (and the look-at-the-facts approach) of the eponymous hot beverage, going the route of parading out the human sympathy side of things perhaps over-extend the remaining chapters in the film:  A medical malpractice suit involving brain damage of a half a set of twins, a judge forced out an election by the big money bags of the Chamber Of Commerce (a business lobby fronted as a citizens group) via election ads allegation/over-litigation tactics do not quite land an impact despite a lot of time spent in kitchens and living rooms of those families.  However, a female Halliburton employee who was gang raped by other Halliburton employees while on the job at Iraq resonates.  Because the fine-print in her employment contract calls for private arbitration with the company, and no public disclosure to the outcomes.  You want a jury, Miss?  Fuggetaboutit.  That ain't western democracy folks, that is corporate dictatorship.  In the meantime, the insurance industry isn't lowering its premiums, and is making a killing.  In 21st century American, transparency is certainly not the corporate worlds strong suit, although, as Wallace Shawn in The Incredibles cries out in frustration, "They're penetrating the bureaucracy Bob!"  And, a word to the wise, either have the impossibly clairvoyant foresight to envision yourself randomly locked in a buried coffin with a cell phone and little hope, or at least read the fine-print.

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Susan SaladoffChuck AllenJudy AllenJay AngoffDavid ArredondoDocumentary