Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Swinging in the Rain

"The Ice Storm" offers cold comfort.

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  The title event in The Ice Storm, Ang Lee's masterful film of Rick Moody's acclaimed novel, takes place in New Canaan, Conn., on the day after Thanksgiving, 1973. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline), the patriarch of an upper-middle-class suburban family, is attending a "key party" with his wife Elena (Joan Allen), who has just learned of her husband's infidelity. At the party, all the men have placed their car keys in a bowl, to have them extracted by their sexual partner for the evening. Among the revelers are the Hoods' next-door neighbor, Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan), and his wife Janey (Sigourney Weaver), the "other woman" in Ben's life. As the couples gather around the bowl to lose their inhibitions, the rain outside starts to freeze, making the roads and pathways treacherous.

Severe weather is a heavy metaphor for the sexual revolution, but a good one. While the grownups come to terms with the new rules of conduct, their children are enjoying the relaxed morals. Ben's 16-year-old son Paul (Tobey McGuire) is in New York, trying to drug his best friend so that he can make time with a girl they both like; and his daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) is playing "show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine" with the Carver boys next door. Yet, adult or child, enlightened or repressed, when they step outside, they're all reduced to slipping around, trying to find their balance.

The Ice Storm is a slow, quiet film, almost devoid of plot. Lee's focus, drawn from James Schamus' script, is on details of time and place. Observant filmgoers will find the real story between the bed-hopping and the scant lines of dialogue. (The only character who likes to talk is Kline, who seems to think he can keep his family together with positive thoughts.) The story is in the look of pining for lost youth on Joan Allen's face, and in the mixture of arousal, jealousy, and desperation on the faces at the key party. It's also in Paul's insights into the dynamics of the Fantastic Four, and the meaning of their adventures in the Negative Zone (read: the '70s).

The story Lee tells is similar to his Sense and Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman--it's about the importance of manners and codes of behavior in society. The Ice Storm has some puckish fun with the spectacle of this chilly Connecticut suburb trying to embrace sexual liberation, but mostly Lee hones in on the sadness at the center of these lives that suddenly seem so empty.

Key concepts
Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, not feeling too liberated in The Ice Storm

This is illustrated through the storm, yes, but it also comes across in the characters' clothes and the decor in and around their homes. At first we laugh at the enormous beaded necklaces, clingy sweaters, and inflatable couches; then we see how uneasy everyone is with their own surroundings. They don't know how to sit on their waterbeds or walk in their landscaped yards. They've made themselves uncomfortable in order to be fashionable, and when the ice comes, their outfits can't protect them from the cold, or from the sting of the ground when they fall.--Noel Murray

All washed up

After a misguided attempt to revive expressionist cinema in Bram Stoker's Dracula, and a misguided attempt to make a family fable in Jack, it's time for Francis Ford Coppola to get well. John Grisham's The Rainmaker seems like the right project to get him back on track. But this poorly paced, unimaginative version of Grisham's lighthearted courtroom tale reveals that Coppola put little effort into the project either as director or as screenwriter. The director of such classics as The Godfather and The Conversation appears to have lost sight of the goal of moviemaking--to tell a compelling story.

The backstory that occupies several chapters of the novel is squeezed into five minutes of narration and montage as the movie opens. Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a Memphis law student on the brink of the bar exam who takes a job with a sleazy, ambulance-chasing firm headed by "Bruiser" Stone (an almost unrecognizable Mickey Rourke). He has a bead on a contingency case, a lawsuit against a health insurance firm by the family of a leukemia patient. When his boss skips town one step ahead of the feds, Baylor and his partner Dick Shifflett (Danny DeVito) are left alone to battle the high-priced lawyers of the insurance company, led by the evil Jon Voight.

This central plot line would be compelling on its own, especially since it demonstrates Baylor's inexperience, idealism, and disillusionment with the system. But Coppola chose to leave in fragments of Grisham's subplots, such as a widow cutting her kids out of her will. Most distracting is Baylor's love interest, a young abused wife played by Claire Danes. The insurance trial has little enough momentum as it is, thanks to John Toll's flat, underlit cinematography and static compositions. When it's interrupted every few minutes by violence and heartache that barely affect the main story, the movie seems twice as long and twice as slow.

Just a few more script revisions, it seems, and The Rainmaker would have been a serviceable legal drama. Instead, the revisions happened in the editing room, resulting in an erratic lurch from comedy to melodrama without warning. Elmer Bernstein's laughable score tries to keep up with the shifts in tone by stealing stingers from Dallas and My Three Sons--even island rhythms when a beach scene suddenly appears.

Matt Damon, who was arresting in Courage Under Fire, carries the lead with authority, and the remaining roles are well cast. But there is no way for the actors to save this patchwork creation; the story's construction is the problem, as the unmotivated conclusion and repetitive voice-over reveal. Grisham's novels require a leaner, more aggressive attitude, a willingness to lose whatever does not serve the film. The widow disinheriting her ungrateful children gives Baylor some direction that Coppola should have heeded: "Cut, cut, cut."--Donna Bowman

Slow, cheap, and out of control

Gummo, written and directed by Harmony Korine, is a pretty hateful experience, and I'd be loath to watch it again without needles under my eyelids. At its worst--which is about 90 percent of the movie--it's as if Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had been concocted by slumming East Village swells. Within that other 10 percent, however, are some startling, affecting, even visionary moments. The cruelty and condescension in Gummo are detestable, but the movie shouldn't be dismissed entirely. That's too easy a way of ducking the issues it raises about making--and watching--a movie.

By now you know that Gummo was filmed in Nashville, is virtually plotless, and takes place in a mythical town that was once leveled by twisters. In the movie's impoverished Xenia, Ohio, adults are largely absent, sex is either a living or a perversion, and kids make money poaching cats for meat. This is the norm. The movie is largely a series of scripted and improvised outrages, enacted by a cast that mixes professional actors with friends and locals who were found by happenstance.

It's the blurring of the line between fiction and documentary that makes Gummo conceptually fascinating and dramatically frustrating. Fascinating, because with the movie's untrained performers, we're always aware that the set-up situations could explode into real mayhem. Frustrating, because at a certain point bad improvisation reveals nothing more than the performers' desperation and the director's lack of ideas. Scenes of two kids enacting a murder ritual in a junkyard or two skinhead brothers walloping each other recall the worst of John Cassavetes--the endless takes of actors bullying extras or repeating each other's lines while they stall for inspiration.

Only with Cassavetes, we never felt the director was looking down on his subjects. Documentarians such as Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers were sometimes accused of exploiting subjects who couldn't or wouldn't think for themselves, but Wiseman and the Maysles could claim they were simply reporting. As manipulator of his fictional universe, Harmony Korine comes on like King Midas crossed with Spalding Gray: Everything he touches turns to performance art. He doesn't see anything wrong with using breast cancer or incest or mental retardation just to spice up his act.

The most discomforting aspect of Gummo is the sense that Korine used destitute people in Nashville so he could stick them with attitudes and actions he wouldn't dare otherwise. Korine may give himself a drunken, sentimental baggy-pants turn on camera, but when he wants somebody to declare, "I hate niggers," or to rant about gays, those words are carefully placed in the mouths of non-actors, who take all the heat.

As craven as Korine is in many ways, though, he's fearless in others. Even if Gummo is numbing and soggy, it's the first American movie this year to suggest a way out of the present dead-end of conventional narrative cinema. Movies don't have to tell stories in straight lines, and when Gummo works, it forces us to respond to the images onscreen without the crutch of narrative bearings or routine musical cues. The opening, in which a half-naked boy (Nashville skateboarder Jacob Sewell) shivers on an interstate overpass, is a great short film in itself; so is a beautiful scene of the boy and two sisters frolicking in a swimming pool during a rainstorm.

If only the director didn't see the rest of humanity as found art, and himself as its appraisor! Harmony Korine has a gift for desiccated vaudeville--he's ideally suited for silent film, where we'd be spared his dialogue--and he's developing a groundbreaking style. But his grotesque misanthropy throws you out of the movie. When a girl of uncertain mental faculties shaves off her eyebrows for the camera, doesn't Korine see her as anything more than material? The last straw for me came when a pathetic girl discusses a mastectomy in garish close-up; the creeps seated in front of me just sat there and hooted at her. I don't know who should be clobbered first--them for laughing, or the director for making it so easy for them to laugh. At least Gummo is finding the audience it deserves.--Jim Ridley

Eve of destruction

In a small Louisiana town, a prosperous, charismatic doctor risks losing a lush estate and a beautiful wife because he can't stop providing intimate house calls to many of his young female patients. Meanwhile, his sister, a psychic counselor who dabbles in voodoo, has just buried her third husband and is about to spread her black-widow curse to a fourth. Then there are the doctor's children--bespectacled, 9-year-old Poe, flowering 14-year-old Cisely, and the middle child, Eve, whose narration of her family's story begins, "The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old."

Eve's Bayou, the filmmaking debut of character actress Kasi Lemmons, has all the trappings of a classic. The scenario calls to mind Southern coming-of-age novels by the likes of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Harper Lee. Terrance Blanchard's haunting score echoes the emotional sweep of Hollywood's golden age. The acting--particularly by Jurnee Smollett as Eve, Debbi Morgan as fortune-telling Aunt Mozelle, and Samuel L. Jackson as likable bastard Dr. Louis Batiste--is strikingly nuanced.

That the film does not quite achieve classic status is due mainly to Lemmons' own script, which overemphasizes long speeches at the expense of more telling conversational give-and-take. Eve's Bayou is, on the whole, a little too blatant about its themes. As such, it's on the level of a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, albeit an exceptionally good one.

The story opens at a party, where Eve is once again blocked from her father's attention by her more graceful, Shakespeare-quoting older sister. She retreats to the garage to wallow in self-pity, and there she spies her father enjoying a quickie with a voluptuous family friend. The doctor downplays the awkward moment by striking a unspoken deal with his daughter--he'll spend more time with her in exchange for her silence.

Soon after that fateful evening, Aunt Mozelle has a vision--someone is going to be struck by a rapidly moving vehicle. Her sister-in-law reacts by grounding her three children for the summer. Cooped up in the house all day and all night, the sibling rivalries threaten to reach a melting point, especially since Daddy seems to be coming home later and later, and the whole family falls apart without him. Finally, a stormy evening of family arguments--and one shady, ambiguous encounter between Cisely and her father--leads Eve to concoct an unsteady black-magic plan of revenge.

Eve's Bayou is enjoyably episodic, with fascinating digressions into the romantic history of Aunt Mozelle and into the wisdom of Eve's Creole grandmother, whose warnings about overindulging the whims of children turn out to be truer than she imagined. For a long stretch, the movie is merely a well-observed character study, centered mainly on the fascinating Dr. Batiste, a well-loved provider whose powers as a giver of life nurture a self-destructive arrogance.

But the film builds slowly to a true emotional crescendo, and a final voice-over speech by an adult Eve gives the movie broader, jaw-dropping implications. It snaps the story's puzzle pieces together but leaves the final picture open to several interpretations.

Ultimately, Eve's Bayou is a sensitive, well-crafted drama about coming to a very adult realization. If it seems too overwrought at times, the richness of character and setting keep the story intricate and worthy of reflection. And the film has something important to say about the way we understand our past and predict our future. Aunt Mozelle's visions have several meanings, and Dr. Batiste's seemingly reprehensible acts can be seen in more than one light. Kasi Lemmons tells us that memory, like prescience, can have an agenda.--Noel Murray

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