Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Ice Storm (1997)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - It was 1973, and the climate was changing.

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver turn in crystalline performances as two dysfunctional families learn to cope with the unyielding forces of nature - human nature - in this emotionally charged tale of suburban life in the 70's. When a self-centered husband's relationship with his wife and mistress grow cold, it takes a wife-swapping "key party" and a freak ice storm to clear their loves forever. Director Ang Lee offers a compelling look at a controversial era.

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Jamey Sheridan, Elijah Wood
Box Office: Budget: $18 million. Opening Weekend: $75,183 (3 screens). Gross: $7.837 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.0 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 24 chapters; rated R; 114 min.; $24.98; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Featurette; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/D+

Whether or not you like his work, you have to give director Ang Lee credit: he certainly has produced a diverse body of material. Best know for the hit 2000 flick Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee’s résumé provides an interesting mix of subjects. 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman was his first success here in the States. I never saw it, but it appears to have been a quietly comedic relationship flick that took place in Taipei.

He followed that up with Sense and Sensibility, another quiet character piece, but one that took place far from Asia. That film adapted the Jane Austen novel and was Lee’s first English-language offering. For this movie, Lee left modern Asian settings and went to the 19th century England of the book. The picture also marked his first Oscar Best Picture nomination, though the Academy failed to toss a Best Director nod Lee’s way. (Eat Drink was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it lost to the Russian Burnt By the Sun.)

Lee must have liked the 19th century; he decided to return there for 1999’s Ride With the Devil. The least acclaimed of his flicks, that one took place during the Civil War and was most notable because pop star Jewel apparently went topless in it. I have to say “apparently” because I never saw the movie, and I wasn’t alone. For reasons unknown, USA Films chose to bury this $35 million picture; it only appeared on 60 screens in the States and it grossed less than $600,000! Man, I’d think Jewel’s knockers could have merited more attention than that - am I the only one who thought she looked insanely hot when she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl a few years back?

CTHD sent Lee back to Asia, and he remained in the past as well with that fantasy set in feudal China. Without question, CTHD was his most successful film; it took in a solid $125 million at US theaters, a number that made it the biggest foreign language flick of all-time. It also grabbed Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Oscars and netted a Best Foreign Language Film victory.

With all those movies as a background, it’s hard to find any work in Lee’s canon that seems unusual. That said, 1997’s The Ice Storm feels like the oddest piece of this puzzle. Like most of his films, it takes place in the past, but not a distant one; Ice Storm goes to suburban America of 1973. It examines the social climate of the time, in which kids tried to grow up too quickly and adults found it hard to act in a mature responsible manner.

Most of the film concentrates on the Hood family in New Canaan Connecticut as they “celebrate: the Thanksgiving holiday. We find father Ben (Kevin Kline), a decent enough guy, really, but he seems clueless about how to relate to his kids, Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci), and he also doesn’t know how to get along intimately with his semi-frigid wife Elena (Joan Allen). As such, he has an affair with the neighbor’s wife, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), a somewhat domineering woman whose husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) spends a great deal of time out of town on business. Elena knows that something’s happening, but she’s too wimpy and repressed to do anything about it, though she flirts with some adulterous possibilities herself.

As for the kids, they’re fairly distanced from their family. Paul goes to school in New York, so he only makes a brief return visit for the holiday. He feigns interest in his parents nicely, but he only really connects with Wendy, as the two seem to best understand what a mess their family is. Nonetheless, he quickly hightails it back to school, mainly to go after a cute girl named Libbets (Katie Holmes) who invited him to her place.

Wendy’s the most overtly messed-up of the bunch, I suppose, though she doesn’t really show it to the outside. She spends most of her time with semi-boyfriend Mikey (Elijah Wood), who’s Janey’s son; the two do some mild sexual exploring, but Wendy upsets Mikey when she decides to play doctor with his younger brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Not that anything terrible comes of this, even when Wendy’s caught with one of the boys; the parents in the film are so ineffectual that they muster little threat.

All of the action comes to a head during the titular tempest; yes, the movie’s name is allegorical, but it also describes an actual storm seen in the film. While this event takes place, all of the main adults are at a swinging soirée where Elena confronts Ben’s cheating ways indirectly. This shindig includes something called a “key party”. All of the couples involved put their car keys in a bowl, and the women draw them; the females then go home with the men whose cars they select. Although the Hoods didn’t plan to participate, Elena gets involved mainly as a “screw you” to Ben.

While this sexual nuttiness ensues, the kids are left on their own. Wendy and Sandy get to know each other better, while Mikey checks out the physical effects of the ice storm. Paul hangs out with Libbets, but not with the desired results. Before the evening ends, the families will be given serious “wake-up” call.

The Ice Storm seems fairly similar to other films of the genre, though it might be a bit more subtle. 1980’s Ordinary People and 1999’s American Beauty also examined the lack of heart found at the center of some suburban households, and both took home Best Picture Oscars for their explorations. The Academy totally snubbed The Ice Storm, though a lot of critics gave it good marks. Why did OP and AB manage to earn so many more awards than TIS? I really don’t know. Timing may have played a role, but it also may stem from the fact that TIS is a bit more elusive than the other two. Its charms are somewhat less clear, and it’s a colder, more off-putting piece.

Not that I regard that as a bad thing. No, I can’t say that I was totally enamored of The Ice Storm, but I thought it was an interesting and generally provocative piece. The film lacks the immediacy and intimacy with the subject found in most movies of this sort, an aspect that makes sense when you consider the director; Lee clearly had no experience with well-off suburban families of the early Seventies. As such, he tends to treat the material with more of an artsy flair; what he lacks in knowledge he tries to make up through style.

In that vein, Lee largely succeeds. Frankly, the setting and time period of The Ice Storm are fairly irrelevant. They examine a distance that could apply to a variety of different family situations and eras; the movie just happens to take place in early Seventies America. The swinging attitudes of the period create additional drama that might be less evident elsewhere, but they aren’t restricted to the era; as I indicated, TIS fits in well when compared to other suburban dramas.

The Ice Storm won’t be for everyone. It lacks great dramatic thrust and it proceeds at an unremarkable pace. There’s little of the quotable comedy found in American Beauty, and the characters generally provoke little sympathy or connection from the viewers. Nonetheless, I thought it was a strangely compelling piece that kept me interested. I don’t know if it makes as grand a statement as it seems to believe, but it’s a fairly engrossing and nuanced program that merits a viewing.

The DVD:

The Ice Storm appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture looked decent throughout the film, it usually seemed a bit drab and was never particularly attractive.

Sharpness appeared reasonably accurate at most times. On occasion, the image could seem somewhat soft and hazy, but for the most part, the movie looked acceptably well-delineated and distinct. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but print flaws cropped up throughout the film. I saw various examples of grit, grain, and a few nicks; these never seemed heavy, but they were a bit more substantial than they should have been for such a recent movie.

Colors appeared a bit thick but were generally accurate. I think some of the heaviness to the hues was intentional, as the film went for an oversaturated look in general. In any case, though the colors rendered the overall image as slightly muddy, they fell well within the realm of acceptability and never seemed especially problematic. In a similar vein, blacks were a little oppressive but they were generally deep and rich, and shadow detail could be somewhat dense and overly dark, with some scenes appearing too opaque. As I noted, I think some of these issues were the results of stylistic choices, and though they rendered the image a bit murky at times, it still seemed thoroughly watchable.

The Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack of The Ice Storm offered a similarly decent but unspectacular experience, though its concerns were more expected. I didn’t think the film would be a five-channel extravaganza, and I was correct. The mix stayed strongly oriented toward the forward spectrum, where it provided a pretty positive atmosphere. Effects were placed accurately across the front speakers, and they blended together well. Music showed strong stereo separation and appeared well-defined. The surrounds contributed acceptable reinforcement of the forward mix, and they came to life fairly nicely during a few louder segments, such as when trains roared past.

Audio quality appeared positive. Speech sounded distinct and natural, and I discerned no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were clean and realistic and they displayed no signs of distortion. The music appeared warm and bright, and the track offered reasonable low end when appropriate. Ultimately, The Ice Storm provided a good but unexceptional soundtrack that worked well for the film.

Less exciting are the extras found on the DVD. Considering the success of director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one might think this DVD would take advantage of his new-found prominence and add a lot of supplements. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as the disc packs in only a few minor pieces.

First up is a six minute and 35 second Featurette that came out around the same time as The Ice Storm itself. This was a simple mix of film clips, shots from the set, and interviews with Lee, novelist Rick Moody, screenwriter James Schamus, and a few members of the cast. The latter were the most interesting aspects of the piece; I especially liked the bit in which Kevin Kline discussed his collaboration with Lee. This was a superficial program that didn’t offer many details about the movie, but it seemed good for its length.

In addition, we find the theatrical trailer for The Ice Storm plus a slew of other clips in the “Fox Flix” area. There’s we get ads for Titus, Grand Canyon, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Inventing the Abbotts, and Paradise Road. And that’s all she wrote!

Given the success of Crouching Tiger, it’s somewhat surprising that Fox didn’t create a more elaborate special edition release of The Ice Storm. After all, if it’s ever going to sell, the present time offers its best opportunities. Nonetheless, even without substantial supplements, The Ice Storm was a worthy DVD. The movie itself was a chilly but involving affair that provided a deft and compelling examination of suburban America. The film neither condemns nor endorses its characters, which was a refreshing change from most works of this ilk. The DVD provides generally positive picture and sound, though it skimps on extras. Nonetheless, The Ice Storm was a fairly winning portrait of life that merits a look.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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