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 The first glance is soon superceded by second and third and fourth and fifth glances, until the bits of film begin to take shape in a pattern that imposes a considerable degree of narrative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. The film opens in the overburdened government hospital in Quebec where Rémy has landed. Morose patients on gurneys pack the halls. Webs of electric cords hemorrhage from the disheveled dropped ceilings. Only 51, the cantankerously passionate Rémy (played to snarky perfection by Rémy Girard) is too young to die and he knows it. He wrestles with the meaning of his life with convoluted recrimination. “I’m a total failure,” he laments. 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. “Big Fish” is a big crowd-pleaser. In addition to spectacular visuals which are better seen than described, the film manages to earn a few tears by its clever ending. Loews Lincoln Sq., Loews Cineplex Village VII and AMC Empire 25. (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. The events, which unfold in a deceptively dreamlike manner, are presented strictly as-is. Van Sant took top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his work here, and deservedly so. “Elephant” features partially improvised performances by non-professional teenaged actors and truly mesmerizing cinematography. But the film’s most appealing attribute is an especially brilliant structure that ignores linear conventions and instead allows viewers to see events from multiple perspectives. We are introduced to the students in no particular order of importance. They include a sweet but overburdened slacker, a frumpy nerd, a genial gay photographer, a trio of cool girls, and the school’s reigning heartthrob. We are also introduced to a pair of outcasts. Despite the malevolent intentions, their day unfolds in an almost comically mundane manner. Passing time on what they expect to be the last afternoon of their lives, they sleep, hone their shooting skills first on a video game and then with a recently purchased weapon, play piano, and, notably, share a kiss and a shower. As the story heads, mercilessly, toward its inexorable conclusion, the camera’s measured pace and detached manner begin to feel overwhelmingly menacing. By lulling viewers into a complacent trance before hitting them over the head, Van Sant skillfully heightens dramatic tension. The ever-changing perspective reminds us that, for each of the students, school is a markedly different experience. Moreover, it demonstrates that, as in all matters, “ordinary” is in the eye of the beholder. Angelika Film Center.

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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. When her property is seized for unpaid business taxes—never mind that Kathy does not own a business—it is sold on auction the following day. The buyer is Behrani, who pays $45,000 for the house, and hopes to sell it for four times that amount. Unfortunately, the county realizes its mistake too late, and the battle between Kathy and the colonel will be a fight to the finish. “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. Playing citywide. (B. Judell)

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PIECES OF APRIL

It’s hard to believe the grungy Goth chick with the tattoos and combat boots at the center of “Pieces of April” is actually former “Dawson’s Creek” cutie-pie Katie Holmes. Made over here as a very credible East Village hipster, Holmes delivers a fantastic performance that all but erases any lingering memories of her girl-next-door TV alter ego, Josephine “Joey” Potter. The directorial debut of screenwriter Peter Hedges, who also penned “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “About a Boy,” this low-budget Sundance favorite might easily have been a maudlin affair. Playing citywide. (M. Rucker)

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