Wednesday, November 25, 2009

DVD of the Week: The Ice Storm: Criterion Collection

Director Ang Lee has had a fascinatingly diverse career. He’s tried his hand at the literary adaptation with Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Civil War epic with Ride with the Devil (1999), a period martial arts tale with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and a comic book adaptation with the much-maligned Hulk (2003). He has successfully dabbled in several genres and with The Ice Storm (1997), he adapted Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same name, a drama set in 1973 during the waning years of the sexual revolution.

The film takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday in New Canaan, Connecticut and explores the relationship between two families: the Carvers and the Hoods. Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is returning home from school and hopes to lose his virginity to an attractive classmate named Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). His sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) is obsessed with the Watergate hearings and delights in watching President Nixon going down in flames. Their parents, Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen), are a bland WASPy couple whose marriage is stuck in a rut. Ben is having an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) who is in a loveless marriage with Jim (Jamey Sheridan). They have two sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), oddly off-kilter boys who are becoming increasingly sexually aware with Wendy’s help.

All of their conflicts and problems boil to the surface at a “key party” that the Carvers and Hoods attend during an ice storm. There’s a faint whiff of desperation as all of these conservative WASPs try to be hip swingers. Meanwhile, their children are up to their own subversive activities with unfortunate, tragic consequences.

Needless to say, both of these families are very dysfunctional with the adults being sexually repressed and the kids exploring their sexuality. Lee underlines the dysfunction of these families by visually referencing panels from issue 141 of the Fantastic Four comic book occasionally throughout the film. Paul is reading it on a train during the film’s climactic ice storm. The FF are a family of superheroes and in this particular issue they are plagued by internal strife. There is some delicious foreshadowing as Tobey Maguire would go on to play Spider-Man and Lee would adapt the Incredible Hulk.

The Ice Storm feels like an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes film from the 1970s with a dash of Atom Egoyan (the look of either Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter). It also has a textured, painterly quality thanks to the exquisite cinematography of Frederick Elmes who also shot some of David Lynch’s best films (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart). He really captures the tacky, kitschy look of the ‘70s and is helped considerably by the attention to period detail (awful sweater vests over turtleneck sweaters) and the top notch production design (capturing the look of the houses from that era).

The Ice Storm takes a fascinating look at a specific time and place through the eyes of an outsider – the Taiwanese-born Lee who offers a fresh perspective on American culture. His film can be seen as a melancholic lament for the end of an era and the loss of innocence that began with the Kennedy assassination. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for giving this unfairly neglected film their deluxe treatment.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus. They banter back and forth like the long-time friends and collaborators that they are. At one point, Schamus jokingly refers to a “pre-Scientology” Katie Holmes and recounts some of the challenges of shooting on location including greedy town locals who held up filming. Lee makes some astute observations about the characters and points out his favorite shots and lines of dialogue in the film. They talk about Maguire’s voiceover narration and how it provides structure to the film and how it comments on the action. This is an entertaining and informative commentary.

There is also a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with “Weathering the Storm,” a 36-minute retrospective featurette with new interviews with a lot of the key cast members who reflect on making the film and how it affected their careers. Joan Allen describes the script as minimalist in nature and was intrigued by it. Kevin Kline’s agent described it as the bleakest one he’d ever read and this piqued the actor’s curiosity who read and found it quite funny. Sigourney Weaver talks about the social restrictions her character and women in general faced in the ‘70s. Everyone talks about what it was like to work with Lee. This is an excellent look at how the film came together by some of the actors who were in it.

“Rick Moody Interview” features the author of the source novel talking about his feelings towards the film adaptation. These characters were an intimate part of him and the film version was a very different take on them. He was allowed to watch the process of the adaptation by the filmmakers.

“Lee and Schamus at MOMI.” The two talk about their filmmaking career together at the Museum of the Moving Image in November 2007. They talk about how various films came together and reflect on them in an eloquent and intelligent way.

“The Look of The Ice Storm” features interviews with cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg, and costume designer Carol Oditz. They talk about how they helped realize Lee’s vision.

Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Schamus. We see Ben at work in a funny bit with Kline and Henry Czerny. He talks about why these scenes were cut.


  1. Love this movie. I love the way it makes me feel cold when I watch it, emotionally and physically.

    Don't have the Criterion disc, though, just the plain old Fox one.

  2. I had forgotten the young talent that was in this film (along with the established in Kline, Weaver, and Allen)! I have to re-visit this film (btw, wonderful line: "...the tacky, kitschy look of the ‘70s...). And I quite agree Ang has had a remarkable film career. Plus, where would we be without the fine treatments of the Criterion folk? They do such great work. Another wonderful review, J.D. Thanks for this.

  3. Hey there. I'm back from my blogging vacation. I hope you had a great week and weekend. I enjoyed myself this Thanksgiving holiday. I did miss your blog. Take care. Have a fantastic week ahead. Cheers!

  4. Yes, Elmes, a consumate visual surrealist, is a versatile lensman, and I quite agree that Bergman and Cassavetes (with that dash of Egoyan) are aboard for this one. But there's a delicate sensibility here, and deep emotional resonance, certainly one of two Lee films that are deeply felt, with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I saw this in the theatre multiple times and own the DVD you so superbly appraise here. Bravo.

  5. Mark Salisbury:

    Yes, the coldness you speak is very tangible in this film, due in large part to the color palette that Lee and Elmes use.


    Yeah, the young talent in this film is pretty astounding. It was also nice to see that Criterion got most of the cast back for the extras on the DVD so they must feel really proud of this film.

    Ang Lee has certainly had a diverse career. I can't say I'm a fan of all of his films but I have enjoyed several of them and have deep respect and admiration for all the genres he's tried his hand at.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.


    I had a really nice Thanksgiving weekend and I'm glad you did also. good to see you back and blogging, my friend!

    Sam Juliano:

    Good call on the "deep emotional resonance" of this film. Well said, sir! I have fond memories of seeing this in the theater and being really affected by it, thinking about it days afterwards. It might very well be my fave film of Ang Lee's. And thanks again for the mention on Wonders in the Dark! That really means a lot to me.

  6. Just got a chance to rewatch this last night. I think I had completely forgotten just how great it is. The similarities to Egoyan that you pointed out seem quite appropriate, especially considering the icy/snowy atmospheres and haunting scores of this and THE SWEET HEREAFTER.

    Credit to Lee also, as he never overdoes the "look, this movie is taking place in the 70's!" thing. The styles, events, and music are background and are woven into the filma, instead of being a character in their own right.

    I always think of this movie hand-in-hand with AMERICAN BEAUTY, a film I've never been terribly fond of. Lee's film takes a lot of those same middle-class suburban issues and goes at them in a much more subtle, subdued, and emotionally real way.

  7. Troy Olson:

    Yes, I prefer Lee's film over AMERICAN BEAUTY for the reasons you mentioned. AB has not aged nearly as well, IMO.