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The Ice Storm: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Ice Storm (1997) movie poster The Ice Storm

Theatrical Release: September 27, 1997 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Ang Lee / Writers: Rick Moody (novel), James Schamus (screenplay)

Cast: Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Henry Czerny (George Clair), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver), David Krumholtz (Francis Davenport IV), Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Carver), Michael Cumpsty (Reverend Philip Edwards), Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey), Allison Janney (Dot Halford), Kate Burton (Dorothy Franklin), Jonathan Freeman (Ted Franklin), Donna Mitchell (Maria Conrad), Glenn Fitzgerald (Neil Conrad), Larry Pine (Dave Gorman), John Benjamin Hickey (Mark Boland)

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In the spring of 1996, Ang Lee most likely had a number of promising projects from which to choose. By then, Lee had directed four films. The first three, generational Mandarin language dramedies made in his native Taiwan, were critical and commercial hits that won him notice. The fourth, Sense and Sensibility,
drew even bigger business and raves. With his options open, Lee chose to adapt another novel for his first American production. The Ice Storm saw James Schamus, Lee's co-writer on his Taiwanese films, bringing Rick Moody's 1994 book to the screen.

Given limited theatrical release in the fall of 1997, The Ice Storm was met with good reviews and modest ticket sales. While it picked up a number of award nominations, the Oscars ignored it and the Golden Globes only included it in one of its least significant categories (Supporting Actress). This little coming-of-age drama could have easily been forgotten and Lee himself, especially after his follow-up U.S. film, the 1999 western Ride with the Devil, was a major bomb. But Lee rebounded in a huge way with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon coming soon after.

Since that international box office sensation cemented him as an important filmmaker worthy of regular awards consideration, Lee has alternated hits and misses, neither conforming to expectations. Hulk, released at what appeared to be the height of the superhero movie age, underperformed dramatically. Then, Brokeback Mountain, a film about gay 20th century cowboys, overperformed, with huge returns despite losing the Best Picture Oscar many felt it deserved. Lee still won his first Oscar for Best Director, an honor he repeated last winter for Life of Pi. He's not going anywhere, Hollywood, nor is The Ice Storm, which has gradually become one of the better known and more respected independent films of the 1990s.

In "The Ice Storm", Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Ben (Kevin Kline) have an awkward father-son talk en route to their New Canaan, Connecticut home for 1973's Thanksgiving weekend.

Set during a week in late November of 1973, The Ice Storm depicts life for a pair of interconnected nuclear families in New Canaan, Connecticut. The families are both affluent and educated, yet every member of each wrestles with personal issues. From the infidelities of the middle-aged parents to the sexual awakenings of the teenaged children, dirty secrets are laid bare for us to see and identify with.

For Thanksgiving, Fantastic Four-loving 16-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is visiting from his boarding school, his mind set on winning the affections of his classmate (Katie Holmes in her film debut). Paul's younger sister Wendy (Christina Ricci), whose close relationship with him for some reason includes each calling one another "Charles", has the attentions of both troubled sons in the neighboring Carver family, molecule-obsessed Mikey (Elijah Wood) and toy mutilator Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Furthermore, Hood patriarch Ben (a pre-title billed Kevin Kline) and Carver matriarch Janey (Sigourney Weaver) have been having an affair, to the escalating suspicions and pain of Ben's wife Elena (Joan Allen).

The Ice Storm is nothing if not flavorful. The film is full of period detail, from prominently-seen vintage food packaging and Richard Nixon sightings to glimpses of television episodes broadcast that week and such period novelties as waterbeds and key parties. It is a fascinating portrait of 1970s America relayed through author Moody and screenwriter Schamus, who were the influential ages of 12 and 14, respectively, at the time dramatized.

Janey Carver (Golden Globe-nominated Sigourney Weaver) has grown tired of her affair with Ben (Kevin Kline). Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) goes outside to get a better look at the titular ice storm and to enjoy breathing its clean molecules.

This melancholic drama explores and celebrates the human condition with its consistently compelling look at the flaws of characters experiencing two of life's richest and most complicated phases.
You won't find a single content character getting what they want or even knowing what they want. Ben and Janey's affair is long past any excitement and due to end any day. The Hood kids' developing relationships aren't based on any kind of romance or reality, unfolding with naοve drug and sexual experimentation. Elena's unhappiness seems less about Ben cheating on her than her not having the nerve to return the favor, not even with an interested minister.

Though dark and broody, The Ice Storm gains considerably from repeat viewing and reflection. It emerges from those processes as the kind of indie film that all can enjoy. It will probably speak most to those who came of age in the suburbs in the early 1970s. But that is no prerequisite for appreciating this arresting slice of life. For his part, Ang Lee turned nineteen in the fall of '73 and was then attending a three-year arts college in Taiwan. He didn't come to the US until the end of the '70s, when he attended college in Illinois and grad school at NYU. Somehow, though, Lee seems to know this world of malaised upper middle class New Englanders in and out, knowing how to stage and shoot it for maximum impact. Alive in 1973 or not, viewers come away feeling as if they know what it was like, having been given all-angles access to these two clans at crossroads.

It's tough to wrap your head around The Ice Storm within the context of 1990s cinema. It almost seems like this film was made in an alternate universe where its young actors hadn't recently appeared in movies like Casper, Flipper, Jumanji, and The Santa Clause. It's not like Lee's film is superior to all those others (though to claim otherwise would warrant a "'90s kid" asterisk next to one's critical credentials), it's just that it seems so ahead of its time, mature, and in stark contrast to the family films these busy child actors and their less accomplished contemporaries naturally had been making. It's a tad bizarre that Wood and Maguire were soon to headline two of the 2000s' biggest trilogies, and without exactly hanging on to movie stardom on the other side. Having come down to earth from their multi-billion dollar franchises, both 30-something actors would now likely leap at the chance to make another small film as substantial and revered as this one. For that matter, who in this cast full of future stars wouldn't love to pick up another credit this distinguished today? Even Lee had two low-impact indies between Best Picture nominees that grossed less -- ignoring inflation -- than The Ice Storm's meager $8 million.

What is certain a staggering sixteen years since it premiered is that The Ice Storm is a film of lasting value that won't soon be forgotten or underappreciated. Helping its case is that it holds a place in The Criterion Collection, claiming spine #426 as a two-disc DVD released in 2008 and as a brand new Blu-ray edition issued earlier this week.

The Ice Storm: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: July 23, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Thick Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc Criterion Collection DVD ($39.95 SRP; March 18, 2008), 1-Disc Fox DVD ($9.98 SRP; March 13, 2001); and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Criterion's track record is strong enough to never doubt and this release carries Ang Lee's approval, so we can assume that the 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is as intended. It has that '90s indie film look to it: dark, somewhat grainy, and occasionally lacking focus. The print is clean, though, and unquestionably exceeds the standard definition transfers that both Criterion and Fox has put out on DVD.

Very narrowly predating the age when 5.1 mixes became standard, the film is offered exclusively in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio surround. The track is very fine, keeping dialogue crisp and doing a nice job of distributing Mychael Danna's haunting score.

Gaunt for "Brothers", Tobey Maguire is one of six cast members who look back in "Weathering the Storm." For an adapted author, Rick Moody is unusually candid about his complicated feelings toward the film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's extras, all of them recycled from the two-disc DVD and encoded in high definition, begin with an audio commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus. Recorded in 2007, the track is fun and irreverent, with Schamus doing the bulk of the talking. Topics include fleshing out backstories, being true to the setting neither really knew in terms of costumes and music,
the Connecticut shooting conditions, the importance of sound design to depicting ice, and the film's disappointing reception. It's a fairly good track from one of current cinema's most prestigious partnerships.

The substantial documentary "Weathering the Storm" (36:09) reflects on the film from the points of view of actors Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Christina Ricci. They each recall responding to the script, their character development assignments, and their experiences with Lee and co-stars, in addition to weighing in on their characters and the period dramatized.

"Rick Moody on Adapting The Ice Storm" (21:22) allows the author to reflect at length on the filming of his second novel. He confesses having complicated feelings to the movie, voicing concerns you rarely hear from adapted authors in bonus features but also admiring a number of the decisions, like the casting and filming in the real New Canaan. He also takes an interesting swipe at Marvel Comics' film adaptations.

Ang Lee and James Schamus revisit their numerous collaborations at this Museum of the Moving Image discussion. A collage finds the right 1970s period looks for characters to complement costume designer Carol Oditz's reflections in "The Look of 'The Ice Storm'."

"Lee and Schamus at MOMI" (32:08) finds the frequent collaborators speaking at the Museum of the Moving Image prior to a 2007 screening of their Lust, Caution. They unsanctimoniously and amusingly discuss their long history of working together and the challenges they've faced to get their earliest movies made, devoting some time to each completed by then.

"The Look of The Ice Storm" consists of audio interviews with three people who most directly contributed to that topic: cinematographer Frederick Elmes (13:36), production designer Mark Friedberg (14:00), and costume designer Carol Oditz (8:24). Each has some interesting thoughts and revelations about their contributions (masking green leaves, fabricating ice, cubism, and avoiding "The Brady Bunch") which are fittingly set to film stills, clips, reference material, and behind-the-scenes photos and sketches.

Giving us a small taste of the significantly longer cuts of the film that Lee trimmed down, four deleted scenes (6:50) are presented in a rough state. They show us Ben at work, Elena and the minister engaged in a flirtatious theological diner discussion, another demonstration of their marital strain, and an ice storm night phone call between the "Charleses." The cuts are also joined by optional commentary by Schamus, who laments their losses.

Rev. Philip Edwards (Michael Cumpsty) and his lovely hair share a cup of coffee with Elena in this deleted scene. The Ice Storm's Blu-ray menu image grows frosty every so often.

On-disc extras draw to a close with The Ice Storm's original theatrical trailer (2:31), presented in 1.33:1.

The menu plays score and icy sound effects over an evocative location still from the film.
As always, Criterion authors the disc with full resuming capabilities plus the option to bookmark scenes in the film.

Recycling Criterion's defiantly uncommercial DVD cover art, the Blu-ray houses the disc in a thick clear keepcase. Inside, of course, is the obligatory companion booklet. In between film and disc credits and transfer information, the nicely-illustrated 20-page pamphlet features "Baby, It's Cold Outside", a short essay by film historian/critic Bill Krohn. The enjoyable, informative 7-page article zeroes in on a magical nature of the film you might not notice but appreciate as it is spelled out. It also sheds light on its maker and gives the film historical context.

Elena (Joan Allen) doesn't know exactly how to take the apparent advances of a long-haired minister. The relationship of Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Wendy (Christina Ricci) is defined by the type of awkwardness which fills this frame.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though I'm typically unmoved by dark, bleak indie dramas, The Ice Storm possesses a haunting period charm and beauty that is easy to love and wish to revisit. Criterion's Blu-ray is easily the best release to date of this important, enduring piece of cinema. Loaded with valuable extras and sporting a feature presentation that's terrific without betraying the film's gritty original look, the disc earns recommendations by every standard and stands as one of the most satisfying sets assembled for a '90s film.

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Reviewed July 26, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1997 Fox Searchlight Pictures, Good Machine Productions, and 2008-2013 The Criterion Collection.
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