Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Movie That Makes Magnolia Look Like Beach Blanket Bingo: House Of Sand And Fog

The Good: Well shot, Decent acting
The Bad: Unbearably depressing plot, Unsympathetic characters, Narrative technique, Repetitive soundtrack
The Basics: In this dull, slow, mind-numbingly disappointing story, two cardboard characters fight over a house and everyone ends up miserable. Especially the viewer.

I am a person who enjoys a decent, depressing movie as much as the next person. I honestly do. I like movies that don't necessarily have a happy ending and that challenge me and that make me feel sympathetic to the characters and the struggles they are going through. That said, I hated House Of Sand And Fog. If there was ever a movie with Jennifer Connelly that I was to give a low rating to, this would be it.

House Of Sand And Fog is a dismal epic that is ruined in its first moment. In the opening shots of the film, we meet Kathy, who is standing on the balcony of a house on a foggy, mysterious night with police cars below. The movie flashes back immediately after that shot to introduce the viewer to the house and Kathy. Kathy is a working-class woman who inherited a small house when her father died. She has lived there and struggles to keep up payments on it by working as a housecleaner for wealthier people. She is evicted from the house when the state of California mistakenly claims she has failed to pay business taxes on the residence.

Enter Behrani, an immigrant from the Middle East who has become a citizen with his family. Behrani buys the house from the bank before Kathy can legally challenge the State and with his wife, they make improvements to try to sell the house at a profit. Then everything goes to hell as Kathy becomes obsessed with getting the house back, Behrani becomes obstinate about making a profit and an over-the-line cop tries to intervene on behalf of Kathy.

It is amazing how quickly a film may lose momentum, plummet in terms of character development, and sink into a depressing and disappointing waste of time. I can save you a few hours of your life; there is no happy ending in this one. Everyone gets screwed. And it's not fun to watch it happen. Instead, we watch as the characters become more and more miserable and they make bad decision after bad decision.

In Magnolia (reviewed here!), people suffer. People suffer throughout the film and there is almost no emotional payoff for it. But there, the characters are intriguing and the way the stories weave together makes it engrossing. House Of Sand And Fog is devoid of those interesting characters. Instead, the characters are all archetypes. Kathy is the working woman, Lester is the corrupt police officer who has crossed the line, and Behrani is the archetypal immigrant clinging to his own culture until he suddenly does something completely contrary to his heritage.

It is difficult to sit and watch this movie with how it fails to create or portray interesting or empathetic characters. Instead, everyone comes across as bland and like a cheap stereotype. All are devoid of any real individuality. Kathy is a cookie-cutter image of the poor working class person we see in other, more successful movies. She is a pale shadow of Violet from Cradle Will Rock.

The only things that make this movie bearable are the cinematography and the acting. In fact, the cinematography ruins much of the film in the first moments of the movie. The night that we first see Kathy is so distinctly lit and shot that the viewer waits the entire movie for the same lighting to come up. It eliminates any menace to Kathy's character. The shots of the fog at night are beautiful, though.

The acting, then, is pretty impressive and the movie hinges on the performances of Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. Connelly plays Kathy and she works hard to keep the character interesting, but is not given enough material to work with. Instead, she succeeds in making Kathy seem like she could be real through her body language and facial expressions. As the movie wears on, Connelly plays Kathy as more beleaguered, slumping more and that makes her seem quite credible.

Kingsley, though, fills Behrani's shoes with presence. Kingsley has a dignity to him that makes him instantly credible as Behrani and the ways he changes his bearing between the scenes where he is working and when he is home give his realism. Kingsley is given perhaps the widest emotional range to portray and he plays Behrani with stoicism, love and heart wrenching anguish.

In the end, though, it is not enough to save House Of Sand And Fog. It still is a drawn out tale of two people fighting over a house and being far more obstinate than interesting. And watching them slug it out (metaphorically) loses its charm quickly. There are real people with similar struggles every day in America and around the world; it's not entertaining there, either.

For other works with Kim Dickens, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Blind Side
Thank You For Smoking


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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