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House and Sand and Fog

There are few lengths an individual will not resort to in order to retain their dignity. And for Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), dignity has been hard to come by — abandoned by her husband, she's spent several months isolated in her modest Bay Area home, ignoring the passing hours of the day by staying in bed, and rarely bothering to clean or open her mail. But when a clerical error in the county tax office claims she owes $500 in business tax, that unread mail brings unfathomable costs, and before she knows it the county assessor and the sheriff's department arrive at her home to slap eviction notices on her doors. The property is immediately auctioned off, and bought for one-fourth of its market value by Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley). A former colonel in the Iranian Air Force who now lives in exile in America with his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout), Behrani has been leading a double-life, leaving for work each day in a suit and tie, only to change clothes on the fly as he holds down jobs on a road crew and as a convenience store clerk. The meticulous Behrani has been watching his assets dwindle over the years, but he's convinced an investment property will be a step in the right direction, and in a matter of days he's moved his family into Kathy's modest bungalow and started remodeling. However, despite her depression, Kathy isn't willing to let go of her late father's home without a struggle — she retains legal counsel, but also gains unexpected support from Dep. Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who is in the process of leaving his wife and two young children. But as events unfold, it becomes clear that Behrani is as determined to keep the house as Kathy and Lester are to dislodge him, leading to a series of small events that eventually compound into unthinkable consequences.

*          *          *

The debut feature from director Vadim Perelman, House of Sand and Fog (2003) was considered a hot film property not long after the novel by Andre Dubus III appeared. Perelman's screenplay (co-written by Shawn Lawrence Otto) managed to earn Dubus' blessings, largely because it was faithful to the source-book. A small character study, the film builds tension not merely with the legal conflict over the house, but because of the attention to character development — each individual is assigned their own virtues and flaws, and granted clearly established motivations, making the drawn-out conflict all but inevitable before it even gets underway. Foremost among them is Ben Kingsley as Behrani; one might expect that it would be some time before he would sear the screen with a performance as memorable as his incendiary turn in Sexy Beast (2000), but his take on the exiled Iranian is equally hypnotic, and with far more depth. In Kingsley's hands, Behrani is an old-world gentleman, uncomfortable with back-talk from his wife, quick to temper, and occasionally prone to flashes of violence. But he's also a man who lives by a core set of values, and one cannot doubt his devotion to his family (indeed, he loves his wife very much, and he carefully instructs his son on the wisdom of immigrants who do not take America's blessings for granted). Opposite Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly is another person who has been roughly shaped by her life experiences, and while she spends much of the film mired in either depression or reckless desperation, she never tries to portray Kathy's frustration with superfluous histrionics, instead making quiet, intent choices that increase the tension that much more. The third player, Lester Burdon, is smartly portrayed by Ron Eldard — at first he comes across as sensitive and charming, but his decision to leave his own family should raise a red flag for a woman such as Kathy, who has suffered through her own abandonment. And in fact, Lester is the only character who's motivation is not driven by his need to appear successful to his family, but rather for his need to serve his own ends. A tale of several disparate people and their tenuous hold on American idealism, House of Sand and Fog could be thematically compared to the Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999), which also considers a series of minuscule events that eventually spiral beyond anyone's grasp. Thankfully, Sand and Fog doesn't settle for essentially shallow, dislikable characters, and instead suggests that idealism both ennobles and binds us — and nobility, after all, is what marks the difference between catastrophe and genuine tragedy. DreamWorks' DVD release of House of Sand and Fog features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements include a commentary track from director Vadim Perelman, Ben Kingsley, and novelist Andre Dubus III, five deleted scenes with commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette (15 min.), Shohreh Aghdashloo's audition tape (6 min.), a photo gallery, cast and filmmaker bios, and production notes. Keep-case.

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