Adapted from Rick Moody's 1994 novel of the same name, Ang Lee's 'The Ice Storm' tells a powerful story about the interactions between two dysfunctional, middle-class families in suburban Connecticut in 1973 as they cope with the dissatisfaction of their lives and with each other.
The film opens with 16-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) coming home by train. He's reading an issue of "The Fantastic Four," #141 to be exact, and in it Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic makes a drastic choice that brings an end to the group. Though no one runs the same risk of turning into an atomic bomb, this scene and the panels from the comic foreshadow potential crises that may or may not be averted. Luckily for the filmmakers, 20th Century Fox was developing a Fantastic Four movie at the time, making it easier for them to use the comic book in the movie. Paul's parents, Ben (Kevin Klein) and Elena (Joan Allen, and his 14-year-old sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) are waiting for him at the train station.
A flashback takes us to a dinner party the Hoods attended hosted by Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver). Their sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood), who is about Wendy's age, and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), who is slightly younger, help serve. At the dinner, the state of Ben and Elena's marriage is revealed after the disclosure they have stopped couples counseling. What is also revealed is that something is going on between Ben and Janey based on how comfortable she is cleaning up spilled wine in his crotch region and Elena's look in response. It's a well-executed scene because nothing is said but the actions speak volumes.
Sure enough, we soon find the two in bed together, but it's not just the adults looking for satisfaction and meaning through sex. The teenagers are becoming aware of their own sexuality as well. Wendy explores this with both Carver boys, making out with Mikey at an abandoned pool and offering to exchange a peek at each other's privates with Sandy, whose reaction is one of the many honest yet heart-wrenching moments about sex the film delivers. Though a virgin, Paul wants to get together with schoolmate Libbets (Katie Holmes), whose family is going away, but he again has to compete with his dorm mate Francis (David Krumholtz), who goes and gets every girl Paul wants.
It is the toughest on Elena because she is the most aware of how unfulfilled she is but doesn't know what to do about it. She doesn't want an affair, like her husband who can't stop giving clues that he is, such as his wearing a new cologne, even though the free-spirited Reverend Philip Edwards (Michael Cumpsty) signals he's there for her. She relishes the freedom Wendy exhibits riding a bike and takes a turn herself though it oddly leads to a bit of trouble. Finally, when she and Ben discover they have been invited to a key party, she assumes he was using it as an excuse to be with Janey, and demands they take part. The sequence is increasingly uncomfortable to watch as it plays out as neither imagined.
Ang Lee and his entire team of cast and crew do a great job capturing an era while telling stories that are timeless and universal. The cinematography and production design are impressive and subtly change in service of the story. I was absolutely stunned to learn the film got shut out at the Academy Awards. I wouldn't have guessed that in reaction to the outstanding work done by a a number of individuals.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. "Supervised by director Ang Lee and director of photography Frederick Elmes, this digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 4K DataCine from a 35mm interpositive, and color-corrected on Autodesk's Lustre system. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction," as noted in the booklet.
The image looks clean, free from dirt and debris, and it only reveals light grain. Details within scenes are usually sharp, such as the textures seen in clothing and the ice covering different objects.
At the beginning of the film, colors really shine with bright hues in daytime exteriors, and blacks are deep. The scene when Elena notices Wendy riding her bike through town is a great example of the former. As the film progresses, the cinematography changes to augment the storytelling. This results in scenes where hues are intentionally muted and blacks are lightened to mirror the characters' emotions. This was done on set and also in post. This stylistic choice also finds contrast diminished and the depth flattened, particularly in very low-lit scenes like when Janey returns from the key party and when Ben searches for his keys.
"The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm LT/RT magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
The dialogue sounds precise and clean throughout and showed no sign of age or wear. The track offers a sense of space. During the opening credits, a train moves across channels. Later in the film, separate car doors can be heard closing on each side of the vehicle. Both Wendy's school band and Mychael Danna's score filled the speakers.
The track offers a surprisingly wide dynamic range for a family drama. At the quiet end, ice on the tracks could be heard being crushed by train wheels and ice-coated branches tinkled as they brushed against each other due to the wind. At the loud end, the bursts of fireworks rang out and made the most use of the bass channel.
All the extras were previously available as part of Criterion's 2007 DVD release of the film.
While 'The Ice Storm' is an excellent film, I hesitate to highly recommend it, as the rawness of the emotions involved might be too much for some and may limit its rewatchability, but it's certainly a marvelous endeavor, and Ang Lee is a filmmaker whose work deserves to be studied. For their part, Criterion delivers a satisfying high-def disc, and even though the extras aren't new, they offer a rewarding experience for those who want to learn about the film's creation.