[box cover]

The Ice Storm

Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver,
Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, and Elijah Wood

Written by James Schamus, Rick Moody (novel)
Directed by Ang Lee

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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    

You've got to hand it to Ang Lee. What other contemporary director has tackled such a diverse list of films with such gusto and talent (well, with the possible exception of the Jewel fiasco Ride With the Devil)? From the 19th century English drawing rooms of Sense and Sensibility to the high-flying martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's obvious that Lee isn't — and doesn't want to be — restricted to a specific genre of filmmaking.

Instead, Lee's movies show that he's interested in examining different groups of people and exploring what makes them — and their particular circumstances — tick. Even Crouching Tiger has breaks in the fighting for moments of insight into personality and society. But Lee's motivations are never more obvious than in The Ice Storm, his 1997 follow-up to Sense and Sensibility. A moody, intense look at two Connecticut families in the fall of 1973, The Ice Storm is both darker and more heartbreakingly realistic than American Beauty, which, for all its power, was closer to an impressionistic watercolor of the disaffected landscape of suburbia than an accurate portrait.

The Ice Storm is all too accurate, from the avocado-green macrame vest Joan Allen wears as a desperate, frustrated housewife to the Our Bodies, Ourselves speech Sigourney Weaver gives Christina Ricci after catching the girl with her pants down. In suburbia, the early '70s were a time of upheaval, as the ideals and notions of the '60s — from political disenchantment to casual sex — finally reached the mainstream, and regular people had to deal with being "liberated." Based on the novel by Rick Moody, Lee's film is about two families at this make-or-break point, a place as fragile — and deadly — as the ice that coats their neighborhood after the titular storm.

They're the Hoods — Elena (Allen), her husband Ben (Kevin Kline), son Paul (Tobey Maguire), and daughter Wendy (Ricci) — and the Carvers: Janey (Weaver), Jim (Jamey Sheridan), and their sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Neighbors and friends, the two families have complex relationships. Ben and Janey are having an empty (for her, at least) affair, Elena suspects what's going on, Wendy and Mikey are fooling around, and Sandy worships the ground Wendy walks on. This tangled web leaves emotions running high, and everything finally comes to a head over the long Thanksgiving weekend, with confrontations and tragedy permanently changing both families and their connections to each other.

The cast of The Ice Storm is uniformly excellent, making their characters and the film's plot completely believable. Kline plays Ben as a talker trapped in a mono-syllabic family; he's sleeping with Janey in a futile attempt to find someone to connect with, and his most poignant comment about his wife comes when he tells his mistress, "we're on the verge of saying something to each other." Allen is fantastic as Elena, a woman who knows her marriage is falling apart but doesn't quite know what she's supposed to do about it besides not discuss it. Allen plays Elena's repressed anger, confusion, and despair perfectly; when Elena finally snaps and tosses Ben's keys into the bowl at a partner-swapping sex party, it's a powerful act of defiance. Weaver, too, does well as the distant, brittle Janey, a lonely woman who thinks the best way to raise her sons is to leave them alone so they'll learn to be independent.

And speaking of kids... Ricci's smoldering, cynical, 14-year-old Wendy is caught between childhood and adulthood; she drinks, messes around with boys, and decries Nixon's duplicity, but she's not beyond playing with Sandy's GI Joe or accepting a piggy-back ride from her dad. As the spaced-out Mikey, Wood looks at the world around him with hollow eyes — he's not at home in his family or at school, so he just drifts. Hann-Byrd is haunting as Sandy, the quiet, tense boy who covets his big brother's girl but is terrified of her — and growing up — too.

Finally, as the only outsider, Maguire's Paul stands apart from the rest of the cast, and it's his viewpoint that frames the film. Paul goes to boarding school in New York City, where he longs for the lovely Libbets (Katie Holmes) and experiences drugs and freedom firsthand. When he comes home to New Canaan for Thanksgiving, Paul sees it with new eyes and, in a voice over, comments that "your family is the void you emerge from and the place you return to when you die." Despite that somewhat bleak analysis, Paul seems the happiest of the Hoods; having left suburbia behind him, he doesn't dread the thought of returning temporarily.

In an interview clip from the DVD's behind-the-scenes featurette, Lee claims that The Ice Storm is ultimately uplifting, but that's a call that could go either way. Yes, the ice melts and the families make it through the weekend, but at what cost? With everything that comes to the surface during the movie, it seems impossible that either the Hoods or the Carvers are bound for calmer waters. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, what family really is? That's one truth that The Ice Storm hits dead-on, which is probably why it's ultimately such a powerful movie.

Fox's DVD edition ofThe Ice Storm looks great; every icicle-covered tree is crystal clear in the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The sound is solid as well, with Dolby Digital 5.0 and Dolby 2.0 Surround tracks, as well as English and Spanish subtitles. Feature selection is slim: scene selection, the theatrical trailer, previews for other Fox dramas on DVD, and a six-and-a-half-minute making-of featurette. In the absence of a commentary track, the behind-the-scenes short is actually quite interesting and worth watching, offering quick interviews with Weaver, Allen, Lee, Moody, Kline, and Ricci, among others.

— Betsy Bozdech

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