"There is a house in New Orleans they call the... Sand and Fog, and it's been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God, I know I'm one." Okay, there isn't exactly a name for the house featured in this film, which takes place in Northern California, way off from New Orleans, but there was no way I wasn't going to make that reference, so just stop your sulking, or at least save it for after this film. No, this film isn't quite that depressing, but jeez, I'd imagine the immigrants in this film had never seen a territory war this brutal, and they bailed out of Israel, for goodness' sake. Man, the ignorance of our female lead is startling, as this family came from a hard life to try to find a happy home, yet they go harassed by some pesky... formerly drug-addicted, abandoned and poor woman who shamed her father by losing the house that he died trusting her with. Jennifer Connelly's forehead is depressing enough (At least she tried trimming down the eyebrows for this film), so I think it's safe to say that all of these people have led some pretty messed up lives, and they're about to get even more unfortunate, and not just in the movie world. Yeah, Ben Kingsley doesn't exactly have the track record with films that he used to, but hey, at least he sometimes does films that some people are bound to see, because that Oscar nomination hasn't exactly been all that beneficial to Shohreh Aghadashloo's career, possibly because people whose names you can actually pronounce tend to be more marketable. Like I said, the Iranian's just can't catch a break, but hey, their and some American's problems sure do make for a good film, even if potential does get a touch "fogged" up (Yes, I said it) by some of this film's problems.
I'm not really asking for an especially unique drama here, but it feels like this film wants to be more than your garden-variety drama of this type, and if that's the case, then even on paper, this film is not off to a great start, as Shawn Lawrence Otto's and Vadim Perelman's script goes tainted with conventions that don't establish all that much predictability, but are still too familiar for you to not notice some under-inspiration in the originality department. Really, there was always going to be some kind of under-inspiration to this drama, as it is quite minimalist, offering only so much kick to conflict and even questionable characters, and ultimately crafting a sparse dramatic tale that still boasts much potential, betrayed by pacing problems. Even in atmosphere, momentum is too steady to hit all that hard, because even though this film is never dull, to my pleasant surprise, some hint of blandness stand within dry spells that, quite frankly, stiffens pacing, and therefore allowing you to meditate upon the perhaps unreasonable length of the film. At just a little under 130 minutes, this minimalist drama doesn't exactly have a minimalist length, and that's nice and all, seeing as how it's hard not to enjoy a drama that takes plenty of time to meditate upon its depths, much too often, the film finds itself meditating too much on its depths, dragging, if not meandering along fat around the edges until it becomes repetitious, then continuing to drag its feet until it becomes aimless. When I say that this film meanders, I man it, as there are only so much rises and falls in a drama this intense, and before you know it, tension is undercut within this drama whose emotional resonance is challenged enough by aforementioned natural shortcomings and familiarity, and that all too clearly wants to bite harder. Vadim Perelman, as a first-time filmmaker, puts a lot of ambition into this project, and I cannot blame him, as this is a promising project, just not as promising as he wants it too be and tries to make it through meditative tastefulness that gets to be too meditative for its own good, until you're left too detached to not notice other problems that drive this effort short of what it could be. Of course, the potential of this film is pretty hard to full obscure, and sure enough, as misguided as this drama kind of is in some places, when Perelman hits its mark, things get mighty compelling, or at least mighty appealing on an aesthetic level.
For a new filmmaker, Vadim Perelman was able to get some pretty good names in the film business for this project, even within the style department, as this film is lensed by the great Roger Deakins, whose cinematography is surprisingly kind of flat in a lot of places, but makes its highlights really count with that distinctly Roger Deakins taste in near-noirishly sparse lighting, whose well-defined, tasteful emphasis on the environment is both hauntingly beautiful by its own right and complimentary to the bleak depths of this drama, much like the great James Horner's Oscar-nominated score, which is subtly dynamic, with a thoughtful minimalism and ambience that entrances as both musically lovely and atmospherically effective. I wouldn't say that the artistic value of the film is quite as consistently remarkable as they say, but its remarkable moments are very much worth noting as worthy supplements to the effectiveness of this tasteful, perhaps overly meditative film, or rather, worthy, if somewhat improvable subject matter. As I've been saying, natural and storytelling minimalism drag out the drama and thin out its full sense of consequence, but note that I've also been going on and on about how there are some betrayals of potential that is very much present in concept, as this is still a very promising story concept, with very human drama, as well as noble thematic depth that deals with anything from xenophobia and flaws in the system for living, to self-destruction through pride and the dark depths that people will sink to for the sake of their own prosperity, brought to life by what Vadim Perelman does well as a first-time director. This isn't exactly some dull art film straight out of Cannes or something, but Perelman is pretty atmospheric with his approach to this film, and while such steadiness blands things up much too often, all-out dullness rarely, if ever ensues, as Perelman's atmosphere is often controlled enough for you to soak up the heart of this tense drama, generally to where you get some sense of intensity, and sometimes to where you catch a breath of emotional resonance, especially with the crushing ending. This gets to be a pretty harsh drama, and I wish Perelman was even more controlled with his storytelling, because with more realized storytelling and a more polished, less formulaic script, this could have perhaps been a strong film, and yet, when it's all said and done, Perelman's performance as director does a good bit of justice to a worthy story, which is perhaps most brought to life by the performances. There are strong talents throughout the film, with worthy supporting performances including convincing ones by Ron Eldard as a corrupt man searching for a better life in the midst of struggling lives, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as a loving matriarch who fears what the flaws of her husband and the American system could do to her and her family, but it's the main leads who truly carry this thing, with Ben Kingsley capturing the pride and anguish of an honorable family man struggling to retain the opportunities for happiness of his loved ones, while a trim-browed and, believe it or not, particularly beautiful Jennifer Connelly proves to be subtly powerful in her portrayal of a miserable, tainted and all around thoroughly flawed woman who initially looks for both a new happy life and the happiness she lost, and grows to just look for some kind of a way out. The performances are stronger than the film itself, and while good performances are certainly important in this character drama, they can't fully restore the potential of the final product, which is still done enough justice to compel as a flawed, but rewarding experience.
When the fog has cleared, you can find a film too held back by a formulaic and even naturally improvable story concept, atmospheric cold spells that stiffen pacing enough for you to meditate upon repetitious, if not aimless dragging, and a touch too potent of a hint of ambition to fulfill its potential, yet there is still enough beauty to cinematography and score work, effectiveness to direction and inspiration to the performances - particularly those of Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kinsley - for "House of Sand and Fog" to stand as a somewhat messy, but ultimately rewarding dramatic meditation upon the tragedies that can occur when the destinies of the struggling and flawed clash.
3/5 - Good