Cinemascope

21 GRAMS It takes about 15 minutes to start to make sense out of what’s going on in this movie because director Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and editor Stephen Mirrione have taken disparate, discrete units of footage of varying length, thrown them up in the air, then picked them up and strung them together in what seems to be no order at all. The first glance is soon superceded by second and third and fourth and fifth glances, until the bits of film begin to take shape in a pattern that imposes a considerable degree of narrative logic, though far from 100 percent. The stories of interlocking lives of three men and three women emerge. The men are Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), a high-strung, authoritarian ex-convict and born-again Christian, scrabbling to keep his family together; Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a mathematics professor with a wandering eye, a worn-out marriage, and a worn-out heart that will kill him within weeks if not replaced by a transplant; and Michael Peck (Danny Houston), an architect, nice guy, good husband, daddy of two young daughters. The women are Jack’s equally high-strung wife Marianne (Melissa Leo); Paul’s uptight insemination-seeking, insecure wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg); and Michael’s sweet, trim, appealing wife Christina (Naomi Watts), whose well-turned out exterior covers a now well buried proclivity for substance and alcohol abuse. A disaster that happens in one blinding instant sets all these separate lives pin wheeling and vectoring together in fateful – or fated – fusion. Playing citywide. (J. Tallmer)

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THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS Rémy is an unapologetic, libertine socialist. Sébastien, his estranged son, is a technocratic capitalist. Can they find common ground in a time of crisis? That’s the central dilemma that propels the new French-Canadian film “The Barbarian Invasions,” a heart-tugging crowd-pleaser at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. In less capable hands, such a sitcom-esque premise might make for a saccharine, tedious enterprise. But Denys Arcand, Canada’s most acclaimed writer/director, manages to infuse the material with rare warmth and textured panache, turning out a tender meditation on the myriad wild forces that make life wondrous… and frustrating. “The Barbarian Invasions” is actually a sequel of sorts, reuniting characters, and many of the same actors, from Arcand’s phenomenal 1986 film, “The Decline of the American Empire.” A lot of water has gushed under the bridge in the 17 years since these idealistic, sexually liberated friends loved and laughed together. Somehow, they’ve managed to mature and regress at the same time, much to our amusement. Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza. (D. Kennerley)

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Big Fish Director Tim Burton’s winning, whimsical yarn may be a bit sentimental at times, but it is also darkly funny and frequently magical. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a teller of very tall tales. Perhaps the only person who does not enjoy Edward’s tales is his son William (Billy Crudup), who is so miffed by his father’s storytelling upstaging his wedding, the two men stop speaking to one another. Yet when dad lies dying, William returns home to Alabama for reconciliation. He is determined to find out what—if anything—his father ever told him was true. The storyline gives Burton the opportunity to create a series of dazzling “flashbacks” that bring these tall tales to life. These episodes feature everything from a witch with a glass eye that foresees the viewer’s death, to the 12-foot tall giant, a shifty dwarf, Siamese twin showgirls, and other weird and wonderful characters. And the fantastic interactions Edward Bloom claims to have had with each and every one are the highlight of this immensely enjoyable picture. Recounted by Finney, the flashback sequences feature young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) making his way through a life larger than most people’s. Loews Lincoln Sq., Loews Cineplex Village VII and AMC Empire 25. (G. Kramer)

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CALENDAR GIRLS The film opens with a montage of boring lectures at the local WI meant to illustrate how dull life there is. Particularly bored are Chris (Helen Mirren) and her best friend Annie (Julie Walters). Early in the film, Annie’s husband John struggles with leukemia and dies. The comedy ensues naturally from the uphill battle Chris and Annie have convincing friends to pose, and then convincing the local, and finally the national WI to allow it. Essential to the comedy is the women’s challenge to the notion that this endeavor is inappropriate for respectable, upper middle class ladies such as themselves. Equally strong is the bias they face against women older than 50 presenting themselves as beautiful. Playing citywide. (S. Bookey)

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THE COMPANY “The Company” represents Robert Altman at his kindest and most gentle. Even when in a genial mood, as in “Cookie’s Fortune,” he’s been known to thrown in a few misanthropic touches. They’re missing entirely from his latest film. It deals with characters Altman seems to like and respect, but resembles “Kansas City,” one of his worst and nastiest films, in its structure. In both cases, thin narratives are broken up with performances: jazz there, ballet here. The storyline of “The Company” is so simple that the press kit for the film foregoes describing the plot entirely. It’s set at Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet. “The Company” often feels like a cinema vérité documentary about the Joffrey, although the camerawork and editing are too slick to pass for one. It’s a ballet lover’s delight. Paris Theater, UA Union Square. (S. Erickson)

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Crimson gold, Directed by Jafir Panahi and written by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, “Crimson Gold” is a riveting character study of a broken man that is utterly relentless and absolutely remarkable. Based on a true story, the film opens with a gripping sequence. A jewelry heist is in progress and Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin) is threatening the people inside the store with his gun. Meanwhile, various onlookers move in and out of the doorway that frames the action. The camera moves in slowly—imperceptibly at first—ending with a close up of Hussein who points the gun to his head and takes his own life. The movie then reveals Hussein’s daily life up to this horrific moment, explaining the motives behind both the robbery and suicide. The uneasy answers are crystallized in a series of vignettes that show how Hussein, a lower class man, was treated by society, and what caused him so much despair. With each episode leading up to Hussein’s death, the film becomes unbelievably powerful. The filmmakers repeatedly show, without tedium, how this man—an overweight pizza delivery guy—suffers at the hands of a society that pays him no respect. That point is made both subtly and with elegance, as when Hussein is unable to deliver pizzas while the police are seizing partygoers in the building he is calling on. Detained without an explanation, Hussein cannot do his job because the police have their job to do. This sequence, like much of the film, is an allegory for the contemporary state of Iran, whose strict class and political systems are drawn expertly without “Crimson Gold” coming across as didactic. Lincoln Plaza, Quad Cinemas (G. Kramer)

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Elephant An unsettling and thoroughly spellbinding new film from director Gus Van Sant, takes a distinctly different approach to his subject, a Columbine-style shooting, than countless filmmakers before him, who have tackled this and myriad other social problems in an obligatory cause-and-effect fashion. By contrast, Van Sant resolutely refuses to attempt to sum up the problem of school shootings. Nor does he offer explanations for any of the behavior depicted within his film. Angelika Film Center.

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HEBREW HAMMER Although mostly fueled by Jewish self-deprecating humor, Jonathan Kesselman’s debut film, “The Hebrew Hammer,” manages to bring some comic relief to the Christmas—or in the case of leather clad, gun toting, fedora wearing, “certified, circumcised dick” hero Mordechai Jefferson Carver—Hanukkah season. Angelika Film Center. (J. Carsey)

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House of Sand and Fog Based on Andre Dubus III’s novel, “House of Sand and Fog” dramatizes the engrossing and turbulent power struggle between recovering drug and alcohol addict Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) and a refugee Iranian colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) for possession of a San Francisco bungalow. “House of Sand and Fog” is a great character study of these very determined and desperate individuals, but the real story of this film is a commentary on how America is a land of opportunity for immigrants, but also a place where people, particularly addicts, can waste their promise. Playing citywide. (G. Kramer)

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MYSTIC RIVER One afternoon a pederast posing as a cop orders Dave Boyle, a young boy, into a car. Dave’s best friends, Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine, stand by watching. For the next four days, Dave is brutally molested until he escapes, apparently through the woods. Jump ahead 25 years: Dave has turned into Tom Robbins, Jimmy into Sean Penn, and Sean into Kevin Bacon. The guys no longer hang out together, even though the withdrawn Dave has married Jimmy’s cousin, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). The two have a withdrawn son, and Dave is now fascinated with vampire films. Jimmy, putting aside a stretch in prison, is a success. He now runs his own grocery story, has three beautiful daughters, and a very supportive wife (Laura Linney). Sean is a detective. The three, due to unexpected events, are going to have a reunion of sorts. The one major flaw in “Mystic River” is that the plot overly relies on a coincidence that appears a bit orchestrated. That fault is mitigated by the performances, however, which move the story along. Playing citywide. (B. Judell)

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