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Movie Review: "House Of Sand And Fog"

This is a complicated movie about complicated people.

The basic plot is simple enough, and it's one that a couple of reviewers have gotten wrong: Kathy (Jennifer Connelly, who is almost too beautiful for this role, a woman who is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic) has lost her house because she didn't pay taxes to the fictitious Bay Area "Pacific County". What some of the reviewers got wrong is that there's a further subplot here, letting us know that she didn't owe the taxes in the first place; it was a bureaucratic mistake.

Of course, she'd have known this if she opened her mail, something we learn very early that she doesn't do. She has family "back East", but they seem to care little about her, only that they are visiting "on the 18th" (we never do learn how soon that is), and that she doesn't want to let them know that her husband left her months ago, and that she has lost the house, been evicted on a moment's notice, and the house is meaningful to her not only as a place to live, but because her father left it to her and her brother when he died.

If you think I'm revealing too much, you're wrong. And I'm going to tell you more.

Enter Ben Kingsley, playing Massoud Behrani, who used to be a colonel in the Iranian army under the Shah (we at one point find out he was very close to the Shah), but has been living in the USA (now a citizen) and working two menial jobs (construction and in a convenience store) to support his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo, who received the only acting Oscar nomination this film received for her performance, which is indeed powerful, though she speaks virtually no English during the film) and teenage son. He also has a daughter, recently married, for whom he wants to keep up "appearances". He was apparently wealthy in Iran, and so swoops in and buys Kathy's house for a fraction of its real value, because as we learn, he is rapidly running out of money, trying to keep up a lifestyle he can't afford.

Now is where I stop revealing details. Both Kathy and Massoud alternate between being sympathetic characters and people you would just like to throttle, and the entire film is more complicated by a sheriff's deputy named Lester (Ron Eldard), who initially shows up to help with the eviction and winds up falling in love with Kathy. Yes, even though he has a wife and kids of his own. Oddly, he winds up driving the entire plot, though you wouldn't suspect this at any time up to almost the very end.

You sympathize with Kathy and then get pissed at her when she won't take even the smallest proper steps to help get her house back.

You get angry at Massoud because he is being such a hardass and then there is one scene in which he performs an act of such overwhelming kindness and gentleness, that you realize that ... well, life is complicated.

The ending of this movie is very hard to deal with for many reasons, and so I won't say anything more about it, other than it doesn't feel like a "movie" ending; rather, it's one that follows logically from the story, which spins out of control even while you are sitting there hoping that someone will rescue all these tragic characters.

Hey, if you want neat packages with Hollywood endings, go see "The Big Bounce" (which I am, incidentally, not necessarily recommending -- for one thing, I haven't seen it!).

But if you want to see well-drawn characters, a fascinating story that rings so true in the modern world, and some of the best acting of the year (it's really a shame that more of the actors in this film didn't get nominated), go see "House Of Sand And Fog". I know that due to the 21st Century way of getting movies released, this one may not be playing everywhere. But if you can see it, by all means, do, and if it's not playing where you are, rent it when it comes out on video.

AYRating: ****