When most storytellers want to use a natural occurrence as a metaphor for a great cleansing, they usually turn to something Biblical, like a massive fire or flood. Leave it to Ang Lee, the master of restrained emotions, to instead gravitate to Rick Moody's novel of suburban ennui in the 1970s, The Ice Storm. In Moody's story, the storm of the title comes and brings everything to a standstill, covering everything it touches in a sheet of subzero glass. With the thaw comes a great emotional awakening.
The movie opens at the ending, with Tobey Maguire at his gawky adolescent best playing 16-year-old Paul Hood, riding a train back from New York after a failed attempt at a night of debauchery. He's reading a Fantastic Four comic book and pondering the central concept of the series: the superhero team as a stand-in for the nuclear family, the curse of outrageous power being analogous of the emotional power that tears apart a regular family unit. It's Thanksgiving weekend, a manufactured excuse for people to gather, take time off from work, and get up to trouble, and Paul is visiting his Connecticut home after spending the rest of the autumn at boarding school.
The citizens of New Canaan--a modern Biblical name if there ever was one--are at an interesting point in history. The hopefulness of the '60s is about to give way to the cynicism and wayward morality of the '70s. Nixon is on his way to impeachment, and the morning after for the party of the previous decade is dawning. For the affluent denizens of this town, they are also at the cusp of new innovation in technology, both large and small. The Hoods' neighbor, Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), is on the groundfloor of silicon chip development, but he's also the mastermind behind the Styrofoam peanut. It's hard to say which feels more exciting or important.
Ma and Pa Hood, as played by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, aren't so much in a loveless marriage as they aren't sure where the love has run off to hide. Both feel trapped in their situation. Ben Hood is a nice guy with a good job, but he doesn't see the point of this endless charade and yearns for someone to talk to. Thus, he turns his affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) into a gabfest that she has to shut down in order to remind him that he's in her bed to have fun.
For her part, Elena Hood is also seeking some kind of outside thrill, some kind of freedom or meaningful experience that will remind her that there is more to life than can be contained in her house. Her blossoming young daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) reminds her what it was like to be young, to ride a bike and shoplift. Ironically, Wendy mistakes her parents' malaise for a lack of awareness, for a failure to see that a country run by Dick Nixon is a country run on lies. They see it, they are just stuck in the middle of those and many other lies, and it's easier to keep the covers on than lay bare the truth.
The storm hits the day after Thanksgiving, and it serves to put a halt on the sexual turmoil that is heating up all around New Canaan. Screenwriter James Schamus sees the disparity between the fumbling of the young and the old. While young Paul heads back to the city to try to cop off with the oddly named Libbets (Katie Holmes), his sister is making clumsy attempts at physical connections with the Carver boys, the spacey Mike (Elijah Wood) and the younger, black-humored Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Talk about uncomfortable, imagine your dad stumbling out of his mistress' bedroom to find you on the couch with her son! On the grown-up side of things, group therapy has given over to group experimentation, and one of the neighbors (Allison Janey) is throwing a key party. This is where attending couples throw their keys into a big bowl, and at the end of the night, the ladies randomly choose that night's partner by fishing them out. Here Elena will test Ben, and all the adults will test themselves. For all of their supposed experience, they are just as clumsy at connecting with the turmoil inside their own bodies as their children.
Once the freeze hits, The Ice Storm moves away from its sardonic tone and gets real, slipping ever so calmly into the realm of Greek tragedy. Lee has pulled a cunning sleight of hand trick, having lead us to believe his film is little more than a satire of the banal concerns of middle-class America. The director has a lot of fun with the snappy veneer of the 1970s--the hideous fashion, the obsession with pointy angles, and even the glass fruit. Ben Hood brags about his new cologne, brand name of Musk, while Wendy watches "Divorce Court" and "Green Hornet" on TV. The movie almost looks over designed, like we've landed on an alien planet where butterfly collars and brown paisley is the norm.
It's an intentional culture shock, however, with the materialism of the '70s being an all-encompassing symptom of the greater problem. Again, the more ridiculous the cover, the better chance people will believe you're as shallow as you want to be. This is the thaw that is the key to Moody's metaphor: the façade has to drop, real emotion has to return, if these people are going to survive.
The Ice Storm is as close as anyone can get to a note-perfect film. There is nothing out of place here, not a single misstep. Released in 1997, it's a tremendous convergence of talent. Just look at that cast! Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney, Elijah Wood--how do you put together such an ensemble? There is hardly anyone in this movie that didn't go on to do plenty more. It's difficult to convey the enormity of talent at work here, and the subtlety with which they pull off this job. As heavy as it sounds, The Ice Storm is light as air, passing by with a quick and comfortable ease, brimming with a self-belief that wraps the viewer in the experience, erasing any sense of time or separation of audience and screen. Ang Lee moves the camera through the picture with an unobtrusive grace so that the filmmaking never shows through, something only a rare master can do. It's very hard making it look so easy.
Yet, it's that confidence that makes The Ice Storm timeless. A film about the 1970s made in the 1990s still reverberates as contemporary and new. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met these Americans, and they are us.
This is the second DVD release of The Ice Storm, the first from Criterion. I remember the old Fox disc as being fairly adequate, but it's been some time since I've had occasion to look at it. Regardless, this new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is a brand-new print overseen by Ang Lee and his director of photography Frederick Elmes, and I can't imagine the 2001 DVD being anywhere in this disc's league. The only way you will get a clearer, more detailed picture would be to get in a time machine and travel back to filming and watch the whole thing on set. This DVD looks gorgeous.
The sound and video for the 2001 disc actually earned high marks from our original reviewer, but you will notice that he made mention of the old 5.1 soundtrack not having very many multi-speaker effects. This would likely be because the film was never intended to be mixed in 5.1, and it's why Ang Lee has requested that it be returned to a standard stereo mix for the Criterion DVD. Interestingly enough, I would probably say just about the same things about this mix as my colleague did about the fancier version: the music sounds great, the dialogue is centered and clear, and there is no static or distortion. The main special effects sequence involves a downed power line that writhes like a sinister serpent, and it was immediately apparent in that scene how good this DVD actually sounds, and even with just two channels, the audio team still managed to convey danger and movement.
Subtitles are available for the deaf and hearing impaired.
One thing the 2001 DVD lacked was substantial bonus features, and the double-disc The Ice Storm - Criterion Collection corrects that in honorable fashion.
DVD 1 is your standard movie disc, with the original theatrical trailer as well as a new commentary by Ang Lee and writer/producer James Schamus. Two long-time friends and collaborators, the guys have a flippant tone that keeps the commentary light even as it is detailed and very specific. They have a critical eye for their perceived flaws, but also fondly warm memories for the production.
DVD 2 is exclusively supplemental features, and it's a staggering array.
* Weathering the Storm, a 36-minute collection of interviews with the principle cast: Weaver, Kline, Allen, Maguire, Ricci, and Wood. It's an in-depth look at the collective memory of making the movie, and recreating the feeling of being at the flashpoint of creativity that caused this movie to come together as it did.
* A 21-minute interview with author Rick Moody, wherein the author candidly discusses his reactions to the film and his thoughts about the nature of adaptation, both good and bad.
* A 2007 discussion with Ang Lee and James Schamus at the Museum of the Moving Image, a 32-minute symposium with an audience reliving the fruitful career of the production team on the occasion of their 10th feature together, Lust, Caution.
* A triptych of production-oriented featurettes, with audio interviews illustrated by photos, sketches and production art, and scenes from the film: cinematography by Frederick Elmes (13:30), production design by Mark Friedberg (14:00), and costume designs by Carol Oditz. Each tackles the inspiration for the look of the film and the specific problems they had to overcome. The Friedberg piece is particularly interesting, explaining the mammoth task of covering a real town in fake ice.
* Four deleted scenes show subplots that were excised for various reasons, including Ben at the office, Elena's further conversations with the kooky preacher, and added doubt from Paul. There is optional commentary for the scenes, and they are also discussed some in the feature-length commentary, where Ang Lee relates his Sisyphean efforts to create a final cut of the movie.
The Ice Storm - Criterion Collection is manufactured in a standard-sized clear plastic case with a staggered double tray to hold both DVDs. The elegantly designed cover, which is undeniably striking, is printed on both sides, so that when the case is opened, there is added imagery. The interior booklet has a cast list, chapter breakdowns, photos, and a new critical essay by Cahiers du cinema writer Bill Krohn.
A 1990s movie about 1970s America made by a Taiwanese director. It shouldn't have worked, but it did, and The Ice Storm - Criterion Collection is an impressive testament to how well it did. Equal parts satire and heavy drama, The Ice Storm is family story about a family that has lost its inability to connect. Everything is topsy-turvy, the kids are acting like adults and the adults are acting like kids. It takes a massive natural event and a tragic loss to bring them out of their stupor, and the effect it has on the audience is tremendous. Director Ang Lee brings together one of the most outstanding casts of recent memory, and the whole thing crackles with loss, fear, and heart. The two-disc Criterion version has a stellar image transfer and remarkably insightful extras. The best of the best. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.