21 Grams
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu; writ. Guillermo Arriaga; feat. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo, Paul Calderon (R)
21 Grams juggles three main characters who, though they don't know it yet, are involved in one story. We see snippets (very short ones, for much of the film) of their lives and get only the slimmest clues about how each scene relates to another temporarily or logically. What we are certain of is that bad things have happened and will happen to these people; and somewhere in those words "have happened and will happen" may be a good argument for the film's challenging structure. The terrible events, accidental and planned, are meant to seem inevitable and immutable, preordained by God and predictable by mathematics, unseen in each individual's past but looming there nonetheless like a black cloud on the horizon. The film's editing achieves this mood. At the same time, the mental effort involved in putting the pieces together can leave a viewer unable to be moved completely by the very tragedies that cast such a long shadow. It is easy to be ambivalent about the structure, but hard to deny that this cast's performances would survive any number of editing-room tricks. Penn, Watts, Del Toro, and supporting player Melissa Leo do the kind of work awards were made for. JD

Big Fish
Dir. Tim Burton; writ. John August, based on a novel by Daniel Wallace; feat. Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito (PG-13)
A journalist in Paris, William (Crudup), exasperated with his father's constitutional aversion to honesty, has not spoken to Edward Bloom (Finney) for three years. According to his son, Edward is "just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined - just as funny and just as fake." The same could be said of Big Fish, except that it is not quite as funny. A Dixie specimen of Magical Realism, the film expects a viewer to swallow it all, hook, line, and sinker. "He's never told me a single true thing," William complains. But when he learns that Edward is dying of cancer, William returns to Ashton, hoping to learn the truths about his father's life before it comes to an end. Big Fish cuts between the fantastic stories Edward tells about himself and the prosaic present in which, at least at first, Edward seems like a sick old salesman with a vivid imagination. The cast manages to pull it all off - though the "it" is the viewer's leg. Big Fish is a piscine piffle, a feel-good film that nevertheless makes a skeptic feel like sludge. "There are some fish that cannot be caught," warns Edward. Director Tim Burton comes back with a charming old shoe. SGK

City of God (Cidade de Deus)
Dir. Katia Lund & Fernando Meirelles; writ. Braulio Montovani, based on a novel by Paulo Lins; feat. Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge (R)
"We came to the City of God hoping to find paradise," recalls a former resident, one of thousands who moved into the new section of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, in the film City of God. What they found was a ready-made favela, a congested slum lacking electricity, running water, or divinity. The film derives its texture in part from its origins in a novel; a narrator frames the entire story and introduces characters as characters, while sections of the film are designated by chapter titles. City of God offers raw exposure to Rio's savage, youthful street culture, but refracts it through overt and artful cinematography and editing. It this is Candid Camera, the lenses, lighting, and arrangement of the frames are not invisible. SGK

Cold Mountain
Dir. Anthony Minghella; writ. Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier; feat. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ray Winstone, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (R)
Filmed largely in Romania, whose lovely, lush hills double for North Carolina, Cold Mountain is the latest effort at American introspection. Adapted by director Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier's ubiquitous novel, the film portrays the arduous odyssey of a Confederate deserter back to the town and woman he loves and the hardships that that woman undergoes as she, a Dixie Penelope, awaits his return. Among the adversities, dangers, and temptations that Inman overcomes during his journey back to Ada, his sojourn with Sara, a lonely widow with a baby, is most memorable. On a dark, stormy night, Inman relies on the kindness of this stranger for a hot meal and a corn crib in which to lay his weary head. In the middle of the night, needy Sara asks Inman to share her bed. When three Union soldiers raid the cabin in the morning, Sara calmly kills one of them, a man no less frightened and starving than Inman was the night before. Amid the cinematic simplicities spread out in Cold Mountain, the complexities of this eloquent sequence might keep a viewer from deserting. SGK

The Dreamers
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci; writ. Gilbert Adair (from his novel); feat. Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor (NC-17)
If you've heard anything about The Dreamers, odds are good you know it is being released with the rare NC-17 rating, but all the noise about the film's explicitness (and the near-miss Bertolucci had with the censor's scissors) has done the movie a disservice, letting readers infer that it's just another piece of highbrow softcore, that its main selling point is that you can go see it and get turned on without the shame of visiting your local porn emporium. This is not to suggest that The Dreamers isn't graphic. The film has an almost Penthouse-level familiarity with the human body; aside from erect penises and actual penetration, there's little hidden outside the frame. But moviegoers inured to dirty pictures may be more unsettled by the social dynamic that gestates here: American student Matthew stumbles into the lives of French twins Isabelle and Theo, and immediately suffers the awkwardness of a houseguest whose sense of privacy is vastly out-of-whack with his hosts'. The brother and sister go to the bathroom together, share a bed (sans intercourse), and, once things get rolling, perform sex acts in each other's presence. Amid the chaos of Paris in 1968, the three find themselves cocooning in one sprawling apartment, talking about the cinema and very little else. JD

House of Sand and Fog
Dir. Vadim Perelman; writ. Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; feat. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonthan Ahdout (R)
House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. Kathy (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago, is evicted from the property her late father purchased more than 30 years before. The action is erroneous, based on Kathy's failure to pay taxes she in fact never owed, but before her rights can be restored, the house is sold at auction to an Iranian immigrant family, the Behranis. Kathy is soon reduced to transience, sleeping in her Bonneville and spying on the strangers who have appropriated her bedroom. "They're already more at home there than I ever was," she says of the Iranian invaders. Rich in textures of mist and murk, House of Sand and Fog, which itself deserves packed houses, is a graphic reminder of how brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives. Our deeds can always be contested. SGK

Dir. & writ. Patty Jenkins; feat. Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley (R)
Desperate to persuade Selby Wall (Ricci), a lonely gamine she meets in a bar, to spend a week with her, Aileen Wournos (Theron) insists: "You'll never meet someone like me again." She is right, and, instead of returning to her father in Ohio, Wall joins Wournos at a seedy motel in Daytona Beach. Monster is a horror show, its horror intensified by an opening announcement that it is based on a true story: a spiteful woman's homicidal spree. Between 1989 and 1990, Wournos, a 33-year-old hooker who worked the roads of Florida for $30 tricks, shot six of her johns to death. Raped by her father's friend, prostituting herself by age 9, and on her own by age 13, Wournos has, by the time she stumbles out of the rain and into the opening scene, been around the wheel several times. Monster itself is a fun-park attraction that induces less amusement than nausea. A spectacular performance by Charlize Theron, who reportedly put on 30 pounds and prosthetic teeth to impersonate Wournos, gives life to Monster. She commands the screen whenever she is on it, which is almost every moment. But Monster refuses to put together a coherent case for whether Wournos and Wall should be held accountable for their odious actions or regarded as creatures of circumstance, monsters created by a commodity culture in which love, like cash, is just another four-letter word. SGK

Triplets of Belleville
Dir. & writ. Sylvain Chomet; feat. MichËle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas (PG-13)
In contrast to the undersea wonderland of Finding Nemo, where nothing would exist without computer animation, Triplets makes its technological tools almost invisible, using 3-D rendering to achieve certain effects (the fluid motion of automobiles, the rough seas between Paris and Belleville) but always making it subservient to the style of writer/director Sylvain Chomet, whose ridiculously exaggerated characters and rustic drawing line have more in common with European comic books than with most feature films. Beginning with a giddy musical tribute to pioneering cartoonist Max Fleischer, in which real-life entertainers like Django Reinhardt and Josephine Baker are parodied, Triplets quickly moves to the outskirts of Paris, where a sad, rotund boy (ironically named Champion) lives with his grandmother. One line of dialogue is spoken, and those are practically the last words we will hear. The plot begins when Champion is kidnapped during the race, stolen for unknown purposes, and Grandma sets off with Bruno on the long quest to rescue him. They follow his trail to Belleville, a fictional hybrid of Montreal and New York City, and are taken in by the Triplets, a singing group featured earlier in the film. Any kid mature enough to follow a wordless narrative for 80 minutes stands a good chance of being entranced by this film - and any adult willing to watch smart cartoons (we're looking at you, members of the Academy) would be a fool to miss it. JD

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff

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