Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ice Ice Baby

In cinemas across the land today, a new film is opening: The Ice Harvest, directed by Harold Ramis.

I saw The Ice Harvest at the Virginia Film Festival last month; Ramis was there to introduce the film.

The Paramount Theatre was packed, and I'm not sure how others in the audience reacted, but I was disappointed. I had been misled by the trailers for The Ice Harvest I had seen; they make the movie seem like a light-hearted, dark-comedy caper flick. It's not. In fact, previews for The Ice Harvest are comparable to the parody trailer for The Shining, the one that makes Stanley Kubrick's thriller look like a warm family comedy. ("Coming this fall, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall star in a heartwarming story about a family's journey of self-discovery. See it again and again.")

Tim Hulsey, who was with me that night at the Paramount, agrees with my assessment of The Ice Harvest, and he wrote a review of the movie for The Metro Herald, to appear in this week's issue.

Since Tim is traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and isn't blogging while on the road, I'm taking the liberty of posting his review here (which I edited for the newspaper before submitting it for publication; believe me, Tim does not require much editing, though he'd protest that he does -- he's far too modest). When he returns to Charlottesville and is back to blogging, I'm sure Tim will post a version of this himself.

In the meantime, those interested may want to look at Tim's review of Jarhead, another movie currently in theatres and getting a lot of attention.

Here is Tim's guest-blogger review of The Ice Harvest:

The Ice Harvest: Meltdown
Tim Hulsey
Special to The Metro Herald

One of the new movies that had its regional premiere at the Virginia Film Festival last month was The Ice Harvest, directed by Harold Ramis. Ramis made a special trip to Charlottesville to introduce his film to the audience in the newly-renovated Paramount Theatre, serving for the first time as a film festival venue. Now the movie is opening across the country, just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, one of the biggest movie-going weekends of the year.

Sordid, bleak, and unsympathetic, Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest may be the feel-bad movie of the year. Although the film is being marketed as a subversive Christmas comedy, it offers surprisingly little in the way of humor.

Loosely based on the novel by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest is a nasty thriller replete with gratuitous nudity and explicit gore. As directed by Harold Ramis (best known for Groundhog Day and Caddyshack), it feels like an homage to the violent thrillers of Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Fargo).

Yet even as a thriller the film falls flat.

The Ice Harvest tells the story of Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), a mob lawyer who with the help of his friend Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) steals money from a local mobster (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve. The crime seems to go off without a hitch. But complications ensue, beginning when a sudden ice storm closes off the thieves' escape route. As the night progresses, Cusack finds himself enmeshed in a web of danger, deceit and murder -- in short, all the elements of a middle-of-the-road film noir.

Ramis’s film begins pleasantly if blandly, with sporadic jabs at holiday excess. (His funniest image -- a plastic elf holding a crowbar -- is prominently featured in the ad campaign.) The script, by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo and Academy Award winning writer-director Robert Benton, offers a few razor-tipped one-liners, though not often enough to keep the proceedings lively.

Unfortunately, the humor peters out at the halfway mark, and The Ice Harvest turns into a disappointing, hackneyed crime drama. Double and triple crosses play out much as one would expect, and each character manages to commit some unpardonable act of betrayal and depravity. Ramis overplays the violence for maximum shock value, but never generates real suspense.

To be fair, some of the actors manage to spin gold -- or at least a bit of brass -- from all this straw. Cusack plays his trademark sad-sack character to perfection, while Thornton manages to be cheerfully venal even when committing cold-blooded murder. Randy Quaid’s bitter, explosive star turn provides the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal third act. But the most flamboyant performance in The Ice Harvest belongs to Oliver Platt, as a depressed, alcoholic architect. Platt serves as the film's emotional center, though at one point his character receives a vicious, nauseating comeuppance that will strike many audience members as overkill.

The women in this film don't fare half as well as the men. Danish actress Connie Nielsen (of Gladiator fame) sleepwalks through her role as the manager of a local strip club. She looks and acts like Veronica Lake, which begs the question of why she would work at a third-rate bar. Her vocation proves convenient, however, because it allows the film to exhibit nubile, naked young women in its slower moments. The humiliation doesn’t end there, of course. When Platt and Cusack take a detour from holiday barhopping to visit an ex-wife they happen to share (Meghan McDonough),The Ice Harvest wallows in brutish misogyny.

With so much talent in front of the camera and behind it, one has to ask what went wrong here. Some of the blame must fall on Ramis, who seems ill-suited to the material, and compensates with a litany of film noir cliches. The real problem, though, lies with the high-powered scriptwriting team of Richard Russo and Robert Benton. Individually, they’re masters of their respective crafts, but together, they seem unable to agree on basic scriptwriting concerns like tone, plot and genre. All in all, this film has something to alienate absolutely everyone.

Harold Ramis's Ice Harvest is a lump of coal in holiday moviegoers' stockings, and should disappear quickly from area theaters. It won't be a moment too soon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tim Hulsey covered the Virginia Film Festival for the Metro Herald. His film reviews and cultural commentary can be found at

I found The Ice Harvest to include far too much gratuitous, graphic violence to be truly funny. A caper movie brings with it certain expectations of cartoonish violence, but The Ice Harvest goes far beyond that. There are some humorous moments involving violence, to be sure, such as when Cusack and Thornton are dealing with an armed mobster inside a big metal box, accompanied by surreal dialogue about the roominess of a luxury car. But these moments are too sparsely spread across the film.

I was surprised that the Washington Post critic, Desson Thomson, liked the film ("'Ice Harvest': Killer Thriller Goes for the Jocular Vein"). I suspect if the review had been assigned to Thomson's colleague, Stephen Hunter, it may not have been as favorable. (I say that because Hunter and I tend to agree on the movies we see; not always, but most of the time. Consequently, I will go to see movies that Hunter recommends, just as I'll go to see any movie that Washington Times critic Gary Arnold dislikes.)

My prediction: The Ice Harvest will make a lot of money in its opening weekend, then fall precipitously in the box-office rankings as word-of-mouth goes out to say "this is a disappointing movie."

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