In last week's review I groused, yet again about the fact that some of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year arrive, technically, after the beginning of the new year. Sure, they're released in one or two or ten theaters around the country, just so that they are in the running for the 2003 awards season, but I think it's a cheap distinction. Plus, I habitually miss half of these critical darlings in my year-end wrap up, which inevitably causes me to question my status as a "real" reviewer and my relative self-worth as a person, sending me into a spiraling depression, which I will just recover from around Oscar time. This year, I took matters into my own hands and went on a movie blitz. Unfortunately, I still missed two of the most talked about films of the year, a fact I alleviated in one fell swoop last night. What I have discovered this year is that sometimes the best-reviewed films of the year are full of hot air and sometimes they are heavy enough to drown the entire audience.
Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, or at least the story as he sees it. More the tale of a son's desperate attempts to know his father than the wild fairy tale the trailer suggests, Fish marks the first really grown up tale for accomplished director Tim Burton. Brits Albert Finney and Ewan MacGregor fill out the dual role of Bloom, both affecting a convincing and charming southern accent. The father/son dynamic played out between Finney and Billy Crudup is well-done and heartfelt, but the problems occur during the fantasy-like flashbacks illustrating Bloom's fantastic tales about his life. Somehow, they feel hollow, like they are missing something. It's hard to describe what it is that might be missing - we've got everything from giants, werewolves, and witches, to bank robbers and huge ghost fish. Maybe it's because the sequences are so staged, a necessary fact due to the storytelling set-up, that spontaneity is lost. One of Bloom's early stories tells of the time he foresaw his death in the glass eye of a witch - a fact that rendered all of his later adventures harmless for he knew they would not kill him. I know how he felt, watching with the full realization that each of these tales would amount to nothing.
I enjoyed Big Fish but was disappointed by it. Though it is, as I say, the first really mature tale spun by the perpetually child-like Burton, this is not necessarily a good thing. I miss the days of Pee Wee's Big Adventure or Edward Scissorhands classic fantasies with a current of joy running through the center of them. Big Fish tells big stories without a big enough heart to sustain them. Grade: B-
House of Sand and Fog, by contrast, will succeed in tearing your heart out and stomping all over it. Fog is the story of Kathy Niccolo, a down on her luck house cleaner who watches incredulously as what little life she has made for herself is torn apart after a bureaucratic error at the county causes her to be evicted from her home. It is also the story of former-Colonel Massoud Behrani, a victim of the Ayatollah's rise to power in Iran, who has immigrated to the United States with his family to try to make a new life. These two parties collide after Behrani buys Kathy's house at auction for one-quarter of its worth, and refuses to sell it back for any less than fair market value. The consequences of this conflict go from bad to worse before spinning completely out of control.
The great asset of this movie is in the acting, although it boasts superb writing and an entirely original story as well. Jennifer Connoly is remearkable as she slowly begins to strangle in red tape and depression. The house, though it means little to her personally, is important because it symbolizes what little bit of independence she is able to muster and signifies that she is not a total washout, as her family seems to fear. For Beharani, however, the house symbolizes a possible return to glory, redemption of the shame of lost position. The resale of the house will mean being able to quit his humiliating day job working highway construction, a shame he has hidden from his family thus far. Ben Kingsley, in the role of the beaten Colonel, is a powerhouse and likely will be nominated for an Academy Award for his role. His struggle with his role as an American is nearly as heartbreaking as is Kathy's. Joining the stellar cast is Ron Eldard as an on the edge deputy sheriff who takes Kathy's cause as a personal quest, facilitating terrible tragedy.
Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard and Jonathan Ahdout in DreamWorks' House of Sand and Fog - 2003
Photo Copyright DreamWorks Pictures
Almost Shakespearean in its scope House of Sand and Fog, though a definite downer, is marvelously conceived and executed, leaving the audience with a tear-streaked glimpse of true storytelling. Grade: A
Big Fish is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and adult themes. House of Sand and Fog is rated R for violence, sexual situations, and strong language.
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