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The International Writers Magazine
: DVD Review
'Some dreams can't be shared'

House Of Sand And Fog
Dan Schneider
Jennifer Connelly - Ben Kingsley
Ron Eldard - Frances Fisher
Kim Dickens - Shohreh Aghdashloo
Jonathan Ahdout

Having watched old-time movie serials and pro wrestling for most of my life, as well as soap operas for the last quarter-century I have become something of an expert in the forms of drama and melodrama.

The primary difference between the two is that drama is fairly serious and straightforward, and the narrative unfolds over the real reactions of well-developed characters to given situations, whereas melodrama tends to rely on stereotypes, archetypes, and caricatures, and forces climaxes at certain points in a narrative- which is always propelled by the stupidity of the characters.
Think of most soap operas- where dumb people foolishly tell deep secrets to those they barely know, and usually someone else is eavesdropping. In true drama- say, Patton, or Ibsen plays, things evolve more naturally out of the events that are portrayed and the protagonists’ reactions to them. Of course, sometimes melodrama can rise above its worst tendencies to become drama. In the best of his plays, The Tempest or Hamlet, Shakespeare creates drama out of pure high melodrama, but in his worst- A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Titus Andronicus- it’s just fifth rate soap opera.

With those definitions in mind, welcome to the horridly melodramatic world of House Of Sand And Fog. This is one of those films like In The Bedroom (ironically penned by the father of this film’s novel’s author) that start out very well - it’s well acted, beautifully filmed, and puts forth an intriguing premise- but falls to unrealistic pieces in the second half. A young woman named Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is booted out of her home, which has been wrongfully seized by the county for nonpayment of a business tax. The home is then sold to an Iranian family that fled their homeland after the fall of the Shah. The family is Colonel Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and teenaged son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). Massoud has been lying to his family about their finances- working jobs on a road crew, and at a convenience store in a failed attempt to continue their former lives of luxury, including a fancy apartment. The setup of this dynamic is excellent- with scenes of Massoud’s changing from work clothes into a suit before he comes home to his wife, whom we feel suspects the charade- but does not force the issue. We also glimpse some of the sexism and abuse that goes on in the family.

 As for Kathy, she is wooed by one of the deputies who helped boot her out of the home the Behranis bought for about $44,000 at auction. The deputy, Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), is both unsympathetic as written, and woefully misplayed into caricature by Eldard. His wooing of Kathy is evidence of a bad story. Their romance, and gratuitous sex scene designed to show off Connelly’s firm bod, are a giveaway that both the book’s author and screenwriter felt that the adult drama over the battle for home ownership, nor Massoud’s struggles to come to terms with his fall from grace, were not dramatic enough to sustain a film. Of course, it would be, if only because there’s never been such a film before. Lester leaves his wife and two kids for the oldest cliché- she doesn’t understand him. There is another scene where his wife begs for his return, yet Lester is a total idiot- the wife is better off without him. Instead of encouraging Kathy to continue her legal battle- an eminently winnable case that would force ownership of the home from the Behranis- Lester decides to go Rambo and threatens Massoud with deportation. He responds by siccing Internal Affairs on Lester. Yet, we never get any resolution on that extraneous aspect- is Lester fired, suspended, or what? The film would have been better off without that arc, but once raised it is never resolved, although we might surmise that he has been disciplined in some way for he later follows Kathy to her old home where she has gone to commit suicide in the driveway after relapsing into alcoholism- another unnecessary character trait with no cogency to the central battle over the home. There are other extraneous details, but none worth mentioning for the film simply tosses and discards them as throwaways masquing as revelations.

  She tries to kill herself with Lester’s stolen pistol, but is taken inside by Massoud. Nadi draws a bath for her, and Kathy takes her pills in a suicide attempt. Of course, the Behranis have apparently not heard of 911 in their stay in the USA, so Lester then storms in, assumes they are up to no good with his lover, and takes the Behranis hostage in their own bathroom, and attempts to force Massoud to sign the home back over to Kathy the next morning. Massoud agrees, but hatches some plot with Esmail. At the County Courthouse steps the father and son overpower Lester, take his gun and Esmail rages at Lester’s mispronunciation of his name. Seeing a gun held on a fellow cop some other deputies order Esmail to drop the gun. He panics and they shoot him dead. Massoud breaks down, and Lester somehow ends up in county jail. As he returns home Massoud kills his wife with sleeping pills in her tea, without telling her of Esmail’s death, and then duct tapes a plastic bag about his head and suffocates. As the character is portrayed up to that point in the film this would never have happened as Massoud is definitely one of those ‘unbreakable’ types. Kathy finds them and falls apart. When she calls 911 and a cop asks if the home is hers she answers no. This is both the film’s first and last scene- designed to show how petty the whole conflict was. But, that demolishes the only worthwhile true drama in the film- the sanctity of an individual’s home.

Now on to more problems. The characters are not real, especially after they are set up fairly well. Having known crooked and dumb cops, Lester is just unbelievably stupid, from his infidelity with nutty Kathy to his destructive machismo, to his breaking laws for no reason, to his turning his back on Esmail as he struggles with Massoud. Kathy is a very weak character who stupidly allows her house to be taken without any preemptive legal steps, then falls apart, and goes suicidal over the house, Lester, and life in general. Massoud is a small-minded sexist whose refusal to do what is right (he refuses to sell the house back to the county for anything less than the market value- almost four times what he paid for it) makes him totally unsympathetic. Nadi is a quivering cipher and Esmail a plain cipher. The House Of Sand And Stupidity would have been a better title.

Also, once the flush of the toilet of the film’s credibility begins and you know that the stupidest possible action will result the ending is predictable, no matter how out of character the actions are with the characters’ earlier portrayals. Another point that sticks in my craw is that this is the third film in which Connelly is seen musing off the end of a pier- in almost exactly replicated shots- first in Dark City, then in Requiem For A Dream, now this. Why, exactly?  Regardless, like In The Bedroom S&F cheats its audience with its unbelievable and unrealistic end. It’s a far worse sort of feeling than viewing a film that was garbage from the first scene, for then you can almost feel a campy glee over the stupidity.
With this bad story I can only scratch my head as to why the filmmakers and company did not change the ending- that’s the right and duty of any true filmmaker of merit, to make a story better- no? Obviously, they did not see the gaping flaws because on the DVD’s featurette all the actors & filmmakers gush over the horribly written tale. As for the rest, the commentary is likewise banal and asskissy, but the film and sound quality are ok.

Yet, it all comes down to the poor script. This film is even worse than In The Bedroom, though, because as silly and unreal as that ending was at least it was in the realm of possibility due to the darkness of certain characters and events. In S&F we get a virtual bloodbath over a county clerk’s screwup. Just silly. If I were to give the first half of the film a solid 75 the second half earns a 5, for a 40 out of a 100 total score. As my dad used to say: Ach du lieber Gott In Himmel! Scratch that- for even God would chuckle at this disaster!
© Dan Schneider Feb 2005

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