Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ice Storm (1997)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Rick Moody, James Schamus
Photography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Mychael Danna
Editor: Tim Squyres
Cast: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Henry Czerny, Adam Hann-Byrd, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Jamey Sheridan, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Cumpsty, Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, David Krumholtz

I thought The Ice Storm was the movie of the year even back in the day. I had become aware a little earlier of director Ang Lee, originally from Taiwan, with 1993's appealing romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet. He fast established himself as a director of protean ability and wide range with Sense and Sensibility, a decent Merchant/Ivory-style upholstered drama based on Jane Austen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a martial arts fantasy, and Brokeback Mountain, an epic romance about modern-day gay cowboys. The 2003 Hulk cemented all that, if it needed cementing, though that one has subsequently been dropped down the memory hole, perhaps for the best. I've never seen it.

The Ice Storm is, as advertised, an impressively detailed portrait of bad weather. On a Thanksgiving weekend, two middle-class American families of the '70s with generalized spiritual sickness are doing things that can't be undone, even as a terrible winter storm closes down on them. It's an ensemble piece, involving all eight people from the two families and many others as well, with lots of good players chipping in small, effective turns, delivering strong performances in a swimming sea of faces. I still remember and think of many of them—Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, even Sigourney Weaver and Elijah Wood—chiefly as they appear here.


The Ice Storm is packed with great scenes, as it feels its way through its story. The school band in which 14-year-old Wendy (played with chilling precision by Christina Ricci) honks on a trombone, while slightly younger Sandy tinks away at a triangle and lusts painfully for her. A chance encounter at a rummage sale between Elena (played by Joan Allen) and a hip pastor (played by Michael Cumpsty's haircut). A funny father/son heart-to-heart between Ben (played by Kevin Kline) and 16-year-old Paul (played by Tobey Maguire), with Ben saying strange things about masturbation when he's really trying to talk about the possibility of divorce.

In this movie, adults always sound strange when they talk to children, but I have to say it's often in ways I remember and was puzzled by myself at the time. Here's Janey (played by Sigourney Weaver in a great turn) after she has caught Wendy and Sandy together in the bathroom with their pants undone: "Wendy, a person's body is his temple. This body is your first and last possession. Now, as your own parents have probably told you, in adolescence our bodies tend to betray us. And that's why, in Samoa and other developing nations, adolescents are sent out into the woods unarmed, and they don't come back till they've learned a thing or two. Do you understand?"

The picture is also a kind of miracle of production design—truly, it's the first thing you can't help noticing. The way people dressed, the look and feel of their homes, and the things they talked about and the way they talked about them are all captured here expertly. It occupies its chosen place and time with such confidence it's unafraid to be very specific: New Canaan, Connecticut, late November 1973. Mychael Danna's music washes everything over with a sound that is haunting, New Agey, Chinese, and Native American all at once, deeply coloring the action. It sounds like autumn. There are many surprisingly quiet moments, with beautiful suburban November exteriors, brown grass, bare trees, gray skies, rain.

I also connect to it on the level of chapter-from-my-life, full disclosure. I don't know Rick Moody's novel of the same name, on which this is based. But somebody here—Moody, Lee, or long-time Lee collaborator, screenwriter James Schamus—knows very well what he is talking about. Every character feels like a person I knew, someone stepping out of my past. This is a remarkable achievement for a movie, as anyone who has ever experienced anything like it knows. There is a bottomless thrill of recognition, and yet an uneasy feeling one has lived a hackneyed life if a Hollywood movie gets it so thoroughly.

The painfully shy one reading comic books and refracting all experience through fantasy and cerebrum is the one I used to see in mirrors. But I also knew Janey, the gorgeous embittered woman of early middle age industriously exploring her sexuality, dryly biting off one devastating putdown after another, and her husband Jim (played by Jamey Sheridan), a ubiquitous figure in my neighborhood, not necessarily married to Janey there, and Sandy (played by Adam Hann-Byrd), their scary kid who spends a lot of time playing with explosives. I even knew Philip Edwards, the long-haired pastor—in fact, he was important in my life.

The idea of the wife-swapping key party, which may be what The Ice Storm is remembered for best, caricatures the sexualizing of the self-realization movements and tedious over-self-involvement of the time, though I don't think by much or unfairly. But it's merely a device and only unfortunately lurid—not quite as ridiculous or invented from cloth as, say, the Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, even if in that vicinity. Yet the device also serves its function well of isolating how difficult, pathetic, and disappointing connection remains for everyone in this picture, and how reckless people can be in playing such games. My favorite couple, always, is the one that escapes with each other, the relief on their faces recognizing it in one another.

I've never been entirely sure about Paul's intermittent Fantastic Four analogies in the voiceover narration, but I will say there's something comforting for me in hearing someone who knows and can speak so knowledgeably about that era of the comic book. And it's not overdone, standing in as a kind of reassuring connecting point as things unravel. Paul is one of the few genuine innocents in all this, an increasingly precious commodity as events proceed.

The ice storm effects are realistic and beautiful and ice is a constant presence, with close-ups of ice cube trays from the freezer cracking open, chunks of ice dropped carelessly into glasses, booze splashed over it. One has some sense, certainly with the high-profile casting, that Ang Lee is seizing his moment and going full-bore Hollywood family chamber drama, with eyes on a prize—a sort of updating twist on Ordinary People. But as ambitious as he may have been here for the mainstream, he almost can't help his own instincts. This meditative small story of middle-class angst and farce in the Nixon years is constantly retreating to an almost clinical sense of detachment about everything it registers. That's exactly what makes it great.

Top 20 of 1997
Not bad. Best films from Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson (both so far, of course), strong strange entries from David Fincher and John Woo, and a trio of remarkable unpleasantries at 6-8, followed by Hollywood, indie-flavored and otherwise. In the second 10, peer-group-pressure classics (which I like!) matched up against more guilty pleasure Hollywood. I would say overall, any way you cut it, it's a strong 10, a weak 20, and I don't know what to say about the place of 1997 in cinema history because I have no theory of it. This will generally hold for most of the '90s, just so you know. To be honest, I'm not sure how strong the case is for anything after 1982. On the other hand, how strong is the case for any but one or two great years, at best, per decade? But sorting all that out is part of this project, so let us proceed.
1. The Ice Storm
2. Jackie Brown
3. Boogie Nights
4. The Game
5. Face/Off
6. Lost Highway
7. Funny Games
8. In the Company of Men
9. Swingers
10. Titanic
11. Career Girls
12. Taste of Cherry
13. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
14. Hana-bi
15. Princess Mononoke
16. Contact
17. The Sweet Hereafter
18. Wag the Dog
19. Chasing Amy
20. Air Force One

Didn't like so much: As Good as it Gets, The Fifth Element, The Full Monty, Grosse Point Blank, L.A. Confidential

Gaps: 4 Little Girls, Life Is Beautiful, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Starship Troopers, Welcome to Sarajevo

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