4 Stars Movies

The sexual revolution freezes over in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm

The Ice Storm takes place at the precise moment when the burned-out remnants of the ’60s sexual revolution belatedly limped into the disaffected ’70s suburbia. The centerpiece of the film is a supposedly liberating “key party” that proves otherwise, thanks to long-simmering resentments and inhibitions. Two generations of two families clash during a single disastrous night, beset by heavily portentous bad weather and bad ideas.

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapt Rick Moody’s novel, in what was either a nightmare or dream come true for art directors and costume designers. The very specific milieu of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973 is rendered in oranges and browns, with the cast clad in plaids and shaggy hair, and the sets dressed with period flotsam like water beds and packing peanuts.

Indeed, its overpowering upper-middle-class ’70s tackiness was the primary talking point at the time, and I recall titters from the audience when I first saw it in the theater. The fashions may be unflattering for most of the cast, but it must be noted that Sigourney Weaver looks stunning regardless.

The Ice Storm
A key party may have seemed like an exciting idea in the abstract.

In the 2008 Criterion Collection edition, production designer Mark Friedberg describes recreating his childhood playroom, designed by his architect father. He also incorporated his grandmother’s paintings and his father’s furniture. Realizing the titular ice storm took a couple strategies, depending on the surface, including hair gel, cast resin, and biodegradable goop.

The striking visuals are made even more convincing by the crinkling, crackling sound design. Also of note is the minimalist score by Michael Danna, featuring a Native American flute. The end credits feature another creature of the 1970s: David Bowie’s melancholic re-recorded version of “I Can’t Read.”

The film and novel both cite the Marvel Comics series Fantastic Four, which features a uniquely dysfunctional family unit. The conceit is effective, if a little obvious. Lee and Schamus would later more directly explore this territory in the under-appreciated Hulk (2003). I am also reminded of Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), which also posits that the behavior of adults and their children is not all that different — albeit in a bone-dry satirical tone that makes it a hard movie to like.

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm
“Sometimes the shepherd needs the comfort of the sheep”

The casting for The Ice Storm is excellent all around, particularly for the young actors, who all went places. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood would each go on to headline major franchises. The former plays a complex character, perhaps the only one who comes through the evening with his innocence intact. Yes, he had dark designs that wreak havoc, but he pulls back from causing real harm. Christina Ricci is especially perfect here; she appears worldly and cynical beyond her age, and yet simultaneously so young and vulnerable.

Of the four deleted scenes included in the Criterion Collection edition, two foreshadow the fateful key party. With these scenes cut, the party is less signposted as a significant event, and its true nature as a pivotal moment comes more of a surprise:

  1. Ben (Kevin Kline) at the office, concerned with stagflation. Schamus cut the scene because it was “too funny” – this despite the fact they were under the impression the movie as a whole was going to be funnier than it turned out: uncomfortable and squirmy.
  2. Elena (Joan Allen) and the reverend at a diner, before the party. Timely gas crisis lines are visible out the window.
  3. Ben & Elena in bed, mentioning the party again.
  4. Paul (Maguire) calls Wendy (Ricci) with a “moral dilemma.” He hasn’t been privy to what she’s been up to in his absence, so he doesn’t know she’s probably the wrong person to come to with these kinds of problems.

On the same disc, Rick Moody describes seeing an adaptation of his work as someone else’s interpretation of your dream. Like a translation of a poem into another language, it is patently impossible, and says more about the translator than the original poet.

3 Stars Movies

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games confronts audiences with the violence they paid for

Director Michael Haneke has made Funny Games twice, a decade apart. They are essentially the same movie: nearly shot-for-shot, with the same title, similar music and location, and at least one of the actors physically resembling one of the original cast.

The few adjustments include the spoken language, updated telephone technology, and added Americanisms. So this is not a case of a filmmaker completing a rough draft (as Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown was to Heat), or reimagining a film (as Alfred Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much). So why recreate an earlier work in a fashion that hews so closely to the original?

The marketing images created for the 1997 and 2007 versions both utilize the stylistic fetishization of violence in popular entertainment.

Haneke has frankly stated that both Funny Games are his commentary upon violence in cinema, particularly American. His particular depiction of violence here is deliberately senseless, cruel, and unmotivated. The cyclical nature of the attacks is reflected in the very existence of the two films themselves. The remake is a sequel, or the sequel is a remake, just like the unimaginative popular entertainments that Haneke is satirizing.

Perhaps the 2007 version, featuring internationally bankable stars Naomi Watts (also a producer), Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, allowed him to more directly confront English-speaking audiences with his cynical thesis. As if prophetic, the American home-invasion themed The Strangers would be a box office success the very next year.

Funny Games introduces us to a happily carefree family, immediately signaled as affluent and cultured. They own a vacation home, boat, and listen to classical music. Even their neighbors have refined taste; they are heard enjoying the downtown New York avant-garde musician John Zorn. The family is not unlikeable, but Haneke’s depiction of their easy privilege seems designed to invite either envy or eat-the-rich distaste.

Class envy is certainly implied when they are shortly terrorized by home intruders: unsurprisingly a pair of young white men. Their choice of golf whites and equipment is no accident; perhaps only fencing accoutrement would have been more apt. Had either Funny Games been made a mere few years later, critics would be analyzing these characters in the distressing language of today — disaffected male incel rage — and compared their appearance to the preppy white supremacists that rallied in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 with the fascistic Donald Trump’s open approval.

The obscurely-motivated home intruders from the 1997 (left) and 2007 (right) versions of the film.

Haneke, already known for employing the mechanics of cinema to indict or confront the audience in Caché (Hidden), does so here as well, albeit significantly less subtly. One character breaks the fourth wall five times:

  1. He winks at the camera during a childish yet sadistic hot/cold game.
  2. He bets the family they will be dead in 12 hours, then turns to the camera and asks how the audience would bet, and whose side it’s on.
  3. As the husband pleads for it to be over, he whines “But we’re not up to feature film length yet” and says the audience wants a “real ending”.
  4. He literally rewinds the film to alter events to a manner more satisfying to him.
  5. In the very last shot, he gazes directly at the camera again.

All suggesting one possible theory for his motive: his performative concern that audiences are suitably entertained and get their money’s worth — traditionally the role of the filmmaking, distribution, and marketing teams. Indeed, he seems at times to be directing and editing the action.

Even the marketing for each movie seems designed to comment upon the visual fetishization of violence in popular entertainment. The original poster depicts a child in bonds, and the latter a beautiful woman in distress, with her anguish and tears presented in a fetchingly artistic manner.

The intruders behave dispassionately and ritualistically, and when they are through with this family, they immediately move on to another. We never learn for sure what motivates them, if anything, so we are left to wonder about the film itself, and our culpability for paying to watch it — and other violent delights that the entertainment industry offers.

2 Stars Movies

Scream 2 is a self-fulfilling prophecy

There’s nowhere else the Scream franchise could have gone other than here: an ironic, self-aware sequel to an ironic, self-aware horror film.

When one the characters states “Sequels suck! Oh please, please! By definition alone, sequels are inferior films!”, it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a fine line between winking at your audience and just throwing up your hands and admitting your new movie can’t measure up to the original.

2 Stars Movies

Demi Moore goes chrome dome in Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane

Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists, through Black Rain, and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.

Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Demi Moore sports the chrome dome look that failed to take off in the 90s

For Alien‘s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this blogger recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.

Viggo Mortensen and Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Viggo Mortensen dresses down Demi Moore with his eyes

Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.

Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Hands up, who doesn’t want to watch Demi Moore do one-armed push ups?

Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was painted as a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor, known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.

Now having finally seen G.I. Jane as part of our Ridley Scott rewatch, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.


The House of Yes feels stagebound

Theater and film, as media, differ in as many ways as they overlap. Just as with adapting a novel to a movie, there is no simple translation from one media to another — a play takes place from a fixed vantage point, there is no editing, and no digital/optical photographic effects.

Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of where a play has been fully reimagined as a movie is Julie Taymor’s Titus. On the other end of the spectrum is Glengarry Glen Ross, where the film makes no drastic divergence from the play, and in fact the largest change is just more words. And in still more rare cases, an original movie only feels like it was derived from a play, and is the better for it, like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

But to me, Mark Waters’ The House of Yes retains so much of its origins as a play that it’s difficult to see the advantage of translation to film. It still feels stagebound.

Unfortunately, the DVD picture quality was heinous. The bulk of the action takes place by candlelight, and the poorly compressed video cannot cope. You don’t have to be a home theater expert to clearly see the smudgy digital artifacts.

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