On July 23rd, Criterion will offer a Blu-ray upgrade of its Ice Storm disc. Criminally overlooked during its theatrical release in 1997, viewers have since rediscovered this wry drama, an adaptation of author Rick Moody's novel of the same name. Thematically, it covers much of the same territory as Sam Mendes' far showier American Beauty; both films chronicle a particularly toxic brand of resentment and quiet desperation that can sometimes accompany suburban affluence. However, while American Beauty dramatized this theme using surrealism and bold stylization, director Ang Lee adopts a chillier, more reserved tone for The Ice Storm. His protagonists – given life by a sterling cast that includes Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Allison Janney, and Joan Allen, who's heartbreakingly good here – are so alienated to the world around them (in this case, Watergate-era Connecticut) that they become immune to the sensations of promiscuous sex, drugs, and even death. The Ice Storm is not an easy film to love, but in its subtle, nuanced resolve, it achieves a kind of perfection.
In his Blu-ray review, Svet Atanasov notes that "there are a couple of things that make Taiwanese director Ang Lee's The Ice Storm a very unique film. First, it is the sense of uncertainty that permeates it. On one hand, large parts of the film are irresistibly funny – the funny comes from the openness and directness that exists in the exchanges between the different characters. The same openness and directness, however, also expose the many weaknesses of these characters in a manner that very quickly kills off the humor. These rapid mood swings create and sustain a very unique atmosphere, one that cannot be discovered in other similarly themed film."
Tuesday also provides a look at the range and versatility of Scottish actor James McAvoy; he has two pictures streeting on the 23rd, Welcome to the Punch and Trance. Welcome to the Punch is definitely the lesser of the two films. In it, McAvoy plays a tough London policeman who is obsessed with taking down Mark Strong's brutally efficient thief, only to face a series of complications that suggests a criminal conspiracy stretching far beyond his pursuit of Strong. This is a dependable enough setup, though filmmaker Eran Creevy undercuts it simply because his handling of the material is so derivative of other (better) movies – Welcome to the Punch feels stitched together from equal parts Heat, The Departed, and Assault on Precinct 13. That said, it still isn't without its charms, from Creevy's hard-hitting action scenes to the surprisingly flavorful cop dynamic between McAvoy and Andrea Riseborough, who are so good together that you wish the surrounding movie better served them.
Brian Orndorf's review of the theatrical release called the film "a steely, stylish picture, yet it lacks much of its titular promise. Weirdly abrupt and largely inconsequential, the feature is only good for a few decent shoot-outs and chase sequences, where writer/director Eran Creevy shows potential with visceral elements. However, consistency of storytelling eludes him, with Welcome to the Punch prone to meandering with complex character associations, almost showing disinterest in itself. Thankfully, a cast of solid U.K. actors pick up the slack, bringing intensity and behavioral nuance to an otherwise airy actioner that feels severely pared down from its original intent."
Like Welcome to the Punch, Trance is just as beholden to other genre films that came before it. At its core, it's a heist picture where McAvoy's cognitively impaired protagonist undergoes a radical hypnosis treatment in order to help him remember where he stashed a stolen painting; I noted callbacks to Gambit, Ocean's Eleven, The Lookout, Don't Look Now, and Inception, among many others. Yet Trance never feels as derivative as Welcome to the Punch, and the credit must go to Academy Award-winner Danny Boyle. Freed from the prestige picture ghetto that spawned his Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Boyle is back to his nasty, pulpy Shallow Grave roots, and he gives Trance the same manic vitality as his debut feature. This is acid noir, which Boyle galvanizes through a mix of throbbing techno, bloody violence, and graphic sexuality (McAvoy and leading lady Rosario Dawson have palpable chemistry with one another), and even though the end result doesn't make a whole lot of sense, the ride there is so much fun that any and all inconsistencies really don't matter.
For Brian Orndorf, the movie's style did not compensate for its flaws, and he criticized Trance for causing Danny Boyle to "cras[h] back down to Earth...[The film is] a soggy jigsaw puzzle of a movie that's so intent on frying the brains of its viewers, it completely forgets to invite them in on the grisly festivities. Crafted with Boyle's traditional electro bounce and cinematographic A.D.D., Trance is best left for those who either adore the filmmaker no matter the inconsistency of the work or those who love taffy-pull strands of interpretational material, working the stickiness until it makes some type of sense, even if the creator didn't intend such meaning."
Another screen auteur sees his work come to Blu-ray this week with the release of Twixt. The picture is the latest from Francis Ford Coppola, the mastermind behind such features as The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, and it finds him working in a mode he hasn't really attempted since 1992's Dracula: the horror film. In Twixt, a washed-up novelist (Val Kilmer) comes to a small-town to research his latest book, only to find himself embroiled in a supernatural mystery. This is a hardy, persuasive setup for a tale of terror (you could argue that Stephen King solidified his career with this concept), but Coppola bungles the execution, saddling unconvincing scare techniques alongside hammy performance (anyone hoping for some Tombstone magic from Kilmer will be sorely disappointed). Furthermore, the Blu-ray abandons the most unique part of Coppola's Twixt design, which was to present it to audiences using technology (some of which was in 3D) that would let them re-edit scenes on the fly, thus allowing for dramatic reinventions of the film with every viewing. Still, for Coppola fans, it's an interesting look at how he's re-conceived his career in the wake of his great 1970s stretch.
Finally, cult movie aficionados should get a kick from Olive Films' Blu-ray release of WUSA. Though little-seen since its debut in 1970, this fumbling political satire has baffled/delighted all those who seek it out. Star Paul Newman reportedly called WUSA "the most significant film I've ever made and the best"; as justly venerated as Newman is, one wonders (hopes) if maybe he got WUSA mixed up with something else. Certainly the subject matter is interesting – and still semi-relevant – as Newman's cynical drifter finds himself embroiled in the sinister machinations of a far-right-wing radio station (the WUSA of the title), but any salient points get lost in a sea of hammy theatrics and strident political histrionics. Compared to Newman and WUSA helmer Stuart Rosenberg's previous collaboration, the iconic Cool Hand Luke, WUSA is an abject failure, though it's a fascinating, unique trainwreck all the same. Dog Soldiers writer Robert Stone tosses out one ludicrous plot twist after another, and there's a certain dread fascination in watching WUSA's talented cast (besides Newman, the film stars Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins, Cloris Leachman, Pat Hingle, Moses Gunn, and Lawrence Harvey) struggle to convincingly deliver this overheated nonsense.
I don't know if anybody else said this elsewhere on this site, but Barnes and Noble is releasing Devil's Backbone Criterion today. It's some kind of promotion. Got mine on hold and heading there after work.