(15) HHHH

Director: Ang Lee

Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver

A person can grow weary of seeing teenage narrators in the movies depicted as adolescent prophets, so The Ice Storm earns a special merit badge for confounding this stereotype. The voice-over delivered by Paul (Tobey Maguire) trades in abstract reflections, peppered with poppycock. Paul isn't especially intuitive, but he knows that there's something ugly and insidious about families, and his family in particular - his ineffectual father, Ben (Kevin Kline), and his mother, Elena (Joan Allen), who is clipped and brittle, and barely able to continue faining ignorance about Ben's ongoing affair with their neighbour, Janey (Sigourney Weaver). It's November, 1973, in the leafy Connecticut suburb of New Canaan, and when 16-year-old Paul and his slightly younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci), watch Nixon buckling under the pressure of Watergate on TV, they experience a self-righteous glee. Later, when Wendy has a moment of intimacy with her boyfriend, she pulls on a rubber mask of the President, so that the offer of hand relief seems to be coming direct from Tricky Dicky, a figure not renowned for his aphrodisiac properties. The scene goes from absurd to unsettling so quickly that it's hard to pinpoint the moment you stop laughing and start shuddering.

Ang Lee's film of Rick Moody's novel has a general aura of detached, muffled horror - it's as though the characters are trapped beneath the misty surface of a frozen lake. They're drowning in slow motion.

The movie is like a beginner's guide to dysfunctional families. The adults don't know how to communicate, but Paul and Wendy are bonded by their jokey affectations of cynicism. They address each other as "Charles" with mock formality and refer to their mother and father as "the parental units". Ben and Elena might have arrived in New Canaan via Stepford.

They're like the Brady Bunch, though, compared with Janey and her clan. As Sigourney Weaver plays Janey, she is how Joan Crawford or Rita Hayworth would have been if their raging sexual appetites had been reduced to mechanical reflex responses. She is as frosty and soulless as her square science-fiction house. She doesn't bother to disguise her contempt for her husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), and neither does their eldest boy, Mike (Elijah Wood). Returning from a business trip, Jim rushes to his son's bedroom. "I'm back!", he announces. "You were gone?" comes the withering response.

Ang Lee has encouraged his cast to pare their craft to the bone, and what you're left with is a stark, frugal acting style that is European in essence. Unusually for an American film, the actors aren't the primary source of information - the composer Mychael Danna produces a haunting score which imagines the music that would be playing in the characters' souls rather than in their heads.

It's also rare for a film this dependent on symbolism to engage the emotions so completely, and though it is early days yet to be invoking comparisons between Ang Lee and Tarkovsky or Bergman, you sense he's really tuned into their frequency.

As the picture builds towards a climax, it stubbornly refuses to accommodate any sense of resolution. No one undergoes a miraculous transformation, no one learns a valuable life lesson upon which they reflect years later from the comfort of an Ivy League dormitory. A film this bleak can really make you cheer.

Ryan Gilbey


(U) HH

Director: Les Mayfield

Starring: Robin Williams

Full of obscene vigour, the uncontrollable star of Flubber bounces off the walls like a hyperactive child causing havoc and playing rude practical jokes. No, not Robin Williams, but the flying rubber invented by his absent- minded professor.

Cooked up in Williams's cellar of flasks and vials, Flubber is a wondrous new energy source - a glutinous goo with enough power to fly the Professor's old T-bird above the rooftops or send a bowling ball hurtling skywards for hours at a time.

For reasons that have more to do with audiences than physics, when this unstable chemical compound is left to its own devices, it transforms itself into endless wobbling jelly babies who perform a mambo spectacular, with more than a nod to Busby Berkeley.

The robotic plot has Professor Brainard (a bow-tied Robin Williams doing his naive manchild thing again) forgetting his own wedding to college principal Marcia Gay Harden for the third time, and then trying to win her back from an old rival by selling the Flubber patent to save the college from closure. Before he can do so, however, a pair of dim villains are sent to deliver Flubber into the hands of a wicked businessman.

All that is more than you really need to know, however, since the main delights here are the stunning special effects which include a fabulously elasticated game of basketball. Predictably, when the film dabbles in emotion, it's more gooey than Flubber. In one particularly sticky scene, a damp-eyed Robin Williams asks what happens to the soul of a machine when it dies. Those watching Flubber might similarly ask, what happens when a film's soul is mechanised?