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Case Number 01063

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The Ice Storm

Fox // 1997 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // April 25th, 2001

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All Rise...

We lead off today with a piquant review from Judge Harold Gervais. The Ice Storm is a powerful costume drama set in the usually quite groovy '70s. You'll dig his excellent review.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Ice Storm: Criterion Collection, published March 18th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

"At first it comes down like water, really soft, suddenly it freezes and wraps everything. It adds weight to the objects, eventually causing them to shatter. It's a crystal world."
Director Ang Lee

Opening Statement

Beautifully shot, skillfully written and sensitively acted—all these things sum up director Ang Lee's 1997 film, The Ice Storm. The Ice Storm is one of the best films of the past decade and Fox finally has released it on DVD. While not nearly as feature laden as I would have liked, technically the disc certainly meets the high standards Fox has set for themselves in the past year.

Facts of the Case

It is 1973 and the place is New Canaan, Connecticut. Watergate is shattering a nation's idealism and the sexual revolution has finally hit suburbia. The Hoods and the Carvers are your typical, American nuclear families. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline—Sophie's Choice) and Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver—Galaxy Quest) are having an affair that Ben's wife Elena (Joan Allen—Nixon) knows about. Being too proper to comment on her knowledge, Elena occupies herself in other ways, like trying her hand at a little shoplifting or fighting off the advances of a local minister.

With the turmoil of her parents and their loveless marriage in the background, daughter Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci—The Opposite of Sex) is exploring her sexuality with both Carver brothers, Mikey (Elijah Wood—The Lord of the Rings) and the younger Sandy (Adam-Hann Byrd—Little Man Tate). In the case of Mikey, the exploration takes on a bizarre appearance. We also cannot forget the Hoods' oldest child, Paul (Tobey Maguire—Wonder Boys), who is home for the Thanksgiving break and is actively pursuing the girl of his dreams, Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes—Go!), a girl he wants to have by any means necessary. While Paul is in hot pursuit in the big city, his parents and their neighbors are also in pursuit at a "key party." All this is going on while a sudden and unforgiving storm moves into the Northeastern area. In the wake of this storm, choices will be made and lives will forever be altered. In a single night, two families will come to understand the true nature of The Ice Storm…and nothing will ever be the same again.

The Evidence

With the success of the true Best Picture of last year, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Director Ang Lee has become Hollywood's next "hot" thing. Slated to direct the big screen version of Marvel Comics' "The Incredible Hulk," he is also the name Pierce Brosnan keeps mentioning as the dream director for the next Bond movie. So it's easy to forget that Lee made his reputation by lensing literate and sly costume films such as Sense and Sensibility and Ride with the Devil, which maybe isn't so sly but it does feature a topless Jewel. Before those movies, he made films overseas like the wonderful Eat Drink, Man Woman, so he is hardly an overnight sensation. With his recent success I'm sure great riches are heading his way, but at what cost? That is one of the things I pondered as I watched The Ice Storm once more. Will Lee ever have the time to make this kind of movie again? The Ice Storm is a small little film where the fate of the world is never at stake, but where actions have consequences, words have a deeper meaning, and everything does not depend on special effects from ILM. It's almost enough for me to wish filmmakers like Lee would only experience limited success—where their movies make just enough box office so they can keep on going from film to film, but not too much so they stay off the radar of popular culture. Selfish? Maybe, but I prefer to think of it as being artistically altruistic to the rest of society.

Like Sense and Sensibility and Ride With the Devil, a movie that I will keep mentioning until it drives our editor Mike Jackson crazy [Editor's Note: That's okay, I'm the one who reviewed it], The Ice Storm is a costume drama. It is a costume drama that just so happens to take place about 30 years ago, but costume drama it is. Like all such movies, the people are prim and proper on the surface; they all dress neatly and everyone walks around with unspoken emotions waiting to bubble forth to the surface. Everyone except the children, who are unruly, dress strangely and don't completely know how to express themselves. Also, like all costume dramas, it takes one big event to push everyone together and force some kind of resolution to the scenario. In the case of The Ice Storm, the event is nature of a meteorological kind, but also to a greater degree, the human variety.

James Schamus, screenwriter and primary member of the Ang Lee team, has done a brilliant job of adapting Rick Moody's novel for the screen. Actions and words have a marvelous flow that the actors obviously locked into and relished. In Schamus' screenplay, there is tremendous wit and humor, but also a quiet, almost unspoken power that speaks volumes about the characters and the actions that drive them. It is, for my money, one of the best screenplays of the past decade, with passages that always produce a smile on my face or a look of amazement in my eyes.

Lee has taken Schamus' work and directed in an equally impressive fashion. Lee knows just how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. He is a director of great focus, but he knows how to trust his actors and allow them to do the job for which they were hired. More than just pretty pictures (again Jewel in Ride with the Devil comes to mind), Lee has the ability to let his actors delve beneath the surface and get their hands dirty. It is this skill that allows Joan Allen, a gifted performer but an actress I have always found to be a bit chilly, give her warmest and most human performance onscreen. Lee takes Kevin Kline's wonderfully warm and funny quality and restrains it just enough to make him a little colder and a little more aloof than his usual performance. It is this kind of juggling act that Lee brings to his projects, and it is a reason I love his films so.

It certainly helps when you can bring together the kind of cast that has true faith in its leader and allows the director to direct. Besides Kline and Allen, The Ice Storm also features Sigourney Weaver in one of her best roles. Weaver is equal parts sexy, infuriating, loving and needy. Like the other actors, she hits just the right balance to make her character so much more than "the bitch next door" that it could have been in lesser hands. Playing the spawn of the adults is a veritable Who's Who of young stars. As Wendy, Christina Ricci has proven she grown totally away from the pint-sized Goth child of The Addams Family and turned into an inventive and talented actress of considerable potential. The once and future Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire has the movie's only thankless role as the older son Paul, but he makes the role work to his advantage. After a night of such upheaval, the look on his face when he gets off the train and sees his family waiting is one that sums up the entire movie. It is a crucial moment, and Maguire pulls it off. With Weaver's two children, it is once more a study in contrast. The older Mikey is played with subtle charm and knowing innocence by Elijah Wood, while his younger sibling is all wide eyed fantasyland in the hands of Adam-Hann Byrd. In order for the film's final act to work, we really need to get a sense of the direction these boys lives are going. Both Wood and Byrd are up to the task, and the sudden death of one of them carries an immediate sense of loss like a blow to the soul.

One other performer worthy of note is not one of the actors but the music of regular Atom Egoyan composer, Mychael Danna. Danna's Eastern influenced score has wistful, solemn quality that at times is also quite ethereal yet still possesses an underlying steel that helps bind the film together.

For the disc, Fox has turned in a nearly flawless transfer that takes the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and gives it an anamorphic transfer. It is an image that boasts natural looking colors, flesh tones that are life like, plus supple and deeply detailed blacks. It is a razor sharp picture that never becomes too sharp, showing no sign of edge enhancement. Outside of a few nicks to the source material, the print used was of the highest caliber, and this stands as another job well done by the people at Fox. The sound is Dolby 5.0 Surround, although truth be told, there is not a whole lot of surround involved. It is not surprising that in a dialogue rich movie such as this, most of aural action is center speaker oriented, and sure enough, that is what is can be heard. The rears do get a little bit of a workout during the storm sequences but they do little over the course of the film. This is not a bad thing, as everything is well recorded, well mixed and clearly heard, but if you are looking for a showoff disc, this is not it. Extras are slim. The disc includes a featurette that runs under 10 minutes and the movie's theatrical trailer.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As stated above, the extras are quite slim. Sometimes I just don't get these studios. Cleopatra rates a five-star, three-disc set, and one of the best films of the previous decade gets, well, nothing? Gets screwed is more like it. This is a film from a director who is not shy about recording director commentaries, not to mention participating in supplemental content and all we get is a crappy seven-minute featurette? There is something very wrong here. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that Fox has taken to DVD the way they have, and I don't have a lot of complaints with the way they treat their films, but every now and then they blow one. Well, folks, Judge Gervais is here to tell you that they blew this one big. I can't imagine another, better version of The Ice Storm coming down the pike any time soon, and as much as I love this movie, it really puts a cloud over the release of a title I have eagerly awaited.

As for the film, I don't have any real complaints; The Ice Storm is nearly a perfect movie. Which doesn't mean I would not have wanted to see some deleted scenes or something.

Closing Statement

If you don't like wonderfully funny and moving films that capture the pathos of life, love, despair and redemption, then The Ice Storm is not a movie for you. The film is a tribute to the skill of all involved but especially to the gentle yet insightful eye of director Ang Lee. Here is hoping the fame of directing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brings in all the fans that Ride with the Devil may have lost him.

It's a shame that such a great film does not get the status of special edition when other, lesser films are getting multi-disc retrospectives. In spite of this slight, I can't imagine recommending this movie to a true film lover more glowingly. It's not just an art film; it is a profound and rare movie that can speak to anyone willing to listen.

The Verdict

Ang Lee and company are gladly acquitted, with the only caveat being that Mr. Lee should never forget his roots in the charming and well made "little" film genre. Fox is thanked for a disc that is strong on the technical side but they are found guilty of neglect as it regards special features. Sentence is suspended because of past contributions to the communities but be aware this court is ever vigilant and we will be watching.

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 91
Audio: 89
Extras: 10
Acting: 95
Story: 99
Judgment: 98

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Production Featurette
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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