THE ICE HARVEST Who’s calling me hangdog?

The Ice Harvest
dir. Harold Ramis

As devotees of the noir novelist Jim Thompson can attest, there's an oddly cathartic buzz to witnessing horrible people do horrible things to one another. Such go-for-broke nihilism doesn't usually fly on the screen, though, as studios and audiences generally demand, if not a happy ending, at least a whisper of redemption. For the bulk of its running time, The Ice Harvest appears to defy the odds and embrace the murk. Set within the relative hell of a Kansas Christmas Eve, the film is joltingly, brazenly nasty, with a pair of beautifully hangdog performances by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. Save for a last-minute stumble, it delivers the sinister goods.

Based on the novel by Scott Phillips, the story follows a smalltime mob lawyer as he makes one last tour through his old stomping grounds after skimming a suitcase full of cash from his boss. While boozily drifting through a succession of cheap bars and cheaper strip clubs, he realizes that his plan may not be as foolproof as he once thought. Director Harold Ramis and screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo make the most of the narrative's steady downward spiral (including a throwaway scene involving the wife of a secondary character that's blacker than anything in the book), which is blessedly free of any post-Tarantino winking or easy outs. The violence here hurts as it rarely does. That it also often manages to be as funny as hell is just a bonus.

Sadly, the last moments feel like a bit of a betrayal, with a final twist that screams of test-marketed manipulation and takes some of the deserved bitterness out of the aftertaste. Still, considerable props are due. Throughout, Ramis and company do an admirable job in evoking and honoring the old-pulp-novel darkness. They just can't wholly embrace it. ANDREW WRIGHT

Just Friends
dir. Roger Kumble

Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) loved his high school best friend, Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), a lot—but not as much as he loved pancakes! You see, back in high school, Chris was a big, dumb, retainer-clad, jiggly fatty, and Jamie was a popular, jock-datin', fat-male-best-friend-havin' babe. This left Chris shut out of the coveted "grope zone" and stuck firmly in the "friend zone."

The "friend zone" is a fictional, metaphorical place invented by some romantic comedy writer to hold up the sagging premise of this tired, hacky movie. As Chris explains, "The 'friend zone' is like the penalty box of dating, only you can never get out. Once a girl decides you're her 'friend,' it's game over. You've become a complete nonsexual entity in her eyes, like her brother, or a lamp." While "a lamp" is clearly funny, the idea of the "friend zone" is both stupid and egregiously untrue. Out of all the couples in your acquaintance, how many didn't start out as friends? I don't even know you, but the correct answer is "very few."

After high school, Chris moves to L.A., where he learns how to eat a salad, loses the fat suit, and becomes wealthy. Then, one Christmas, he finds himself back in his hometown (I won't tell you how, but wackiness is involved) and things unfold exactly as you'd expect.

Luckily, the cast is funny (with the exception of Amy Smart, who is boring and looks like a bug) and, in some cases, super-funny. Chris Klein is great, sporting luxurious curls. Anna Faris, crazying up her Cameron Diaz impression from Lost in Translation, is hysterical as crotch-grabbing pop star Samantha ("God, I want to lick your skin off!"), and Chris's younger brother Mike (Christopher Marquette) turns brotherly slap-fights into comedy gold. Also, Ryan Reynolds is handsome.

Look. I can't recommend that you go see this movie. But if Just Friends came on TBS on a wintry Sunday afternoon, I wouldn't turn it off. I'm just saying. LINDY WEST

Rent
dir. Chris Columbus

I spent roughly two years of my life—high school years—obsessed with Rent. It pains me to admit that my best friend in 12th grade once declared Rent a greater artistic achievement than The Great Gatsby, and I thought she had a point. I saw the show in Los Angeles several times and memorized literally all of the lyrics, including (this was the real accomplishment) the entirety of "La Vie Boheme," the end-of-the-first-act ensemble blowout wherein the cast—having just been told by a real estate developer who wants to raze their squat that "bohemia is dead"—enacts a funeral to bohemia with a litany of prurient, hilarious, and now kind of dated elegies to bisexuals, trisexuals, German wine, Gertrude Stein, and so on, for eight minutes.

Rent: It's winter, half the characters are dying of AIDS, several of them are junkies, many are black, most of them are artists, all of them except the bad guy are poor, and in the stage version, the East Village and the squat were rendered in stripped-down visual shorthand; you needed the lyrics (which have always been a bit much) to understand what was happening. In this movie version, everything is painfully over-explained, no one except Rosario Dawson is sexy (a huge problem), no one actually looks poor or cold, and the scene where Mimi almost dies looks like a commercial for Urban Outfitters. It feels like a movie about American artists dying at the end of the millennium as imagined and shot by the director of Home Alone, which is exactly what it is. Plus, the music sounds awful. I love movie musicals and I used to live for Rent, but if I hadn't been there to review it I would have walked out. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

Yours, Mine & Ours
dir. Raja Gosnell

For want of a Trojan, a genre was born: From The Brady Bunch to Eight Is Enough to Just the Ten of Us, excessively multi-child families have long been a mainstream staple, with a geometric progression reflecting both the audience's growing tolerance for life lessons, and the increased efficacy of real-life fertility drugs. Featuring an astounding 18-child-shaped cuteness delivery system, Yours, Mine & Ours successfully wrestles the volume crown away from the Cheaper by the Dozen franchise. That questionable victory aside, there's not much to be said.

Adapting a 1968 Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda vehicle (which at least had the diverting element of a clench-jawed Lucy being forced to interact with hippies), director Raja Gosnell (Scooby-Doo) and his writers have done little to update the original's premise: Tight-assed military widower (Dennis Quaid) finds wedded bliss with a loosey-goosey artist widow (Rene Russo), forcing their legion of adorable spawn to intermingle.

Demographically savvy alterations aside (the bulk of Russo's brood are revealed to be adopted, which explains her fabulous figure and also allows the inclusion of a rapping African-American kid and a pair of Asian children who, respectively, hold cameras and strike kung fu poses), the results are strictly by the numbers, with pain-free pratfalls mixing freely with moments of diabetic-coma inducing sap. (Are there montages set to Top-40 hits? You bet.)

The leads try their best: Quaid retains some of his old roguish charm, at least in those few moments when he's not being hit in the face, and the wondrous Russo continues to defy the myth of middle-age unemployability. Even with their mighty efforts, though, the surrounding film remains so utterly, triumphantly white-bread that it fades out even before the lights come up. A scant two days later, only the memory of the family pet, a constantly belching pig, faintly remains. That's some pig. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Future of Food
dir. Deborah Koons Garcia

Untangling the complicated issues behind genetic engineering—whether in the fields of biology or intellectual-property law—isn't easy. Twisting those facts into a horror movie about your dinner couldn't have been a simple task either. Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia has made a flawed film, but it's effective.

The Future of Food's bogeyman is Monsanto, the agribusiness giant that manufactures the herbicide Roundup. In recent years, it's also ventured into the business of genetically modified organisms, such as a designer strain of canola that's impervious to Roundup, or "Roundup Ready." In the early segments of the film, we hear how Monsanto terrorized a small Saskatchewan farmer whose canola fields were accidentally infected by Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed (he speculates that it might have blown in off trucks on the highway that adjoins his property). By the end of the film, merely hearing a roll call of public officials who have been associated with Monsanto (Rumsfeld and Scalia being the most prominent) is enough to give you chills.

Other segments of the film address the indisputable disparity between the research funding available to scientists friendly to genetic engineering and those hostile to or suspicious of it; how a scientific journal withdrew an article critical of genetic engineering (though we aren't told the reason why); the effort to legislate the labeling of GMOs in food (wait a minute, didn't we just learn farmers don't necessarily even know when they're growing the stuff?); and so on. If you already know you don't like GMOs, your resolve to buy organic or join a co-op will be steeled. If you're curious about the arguments and arsenal of legal tools available to either side of the debate, you'll leave more freaked-out than convinced. ANNIE WAGNER