The House of Sand and Fog (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes in white:


Ben Kingsley plays Behrani, a former colonel in the Persian army during the Shah's reign. He is a proud man who is deceiving his family into thinking he has a good, dignified job. In reality, he was two menial jobs, but changes into a clean suit before he goes home. One day, he sees a public notice for a repossessed property auction, follows through, and is able to buy a beachfront house for $45,000. This is the key to his financial stability. He plans to sell it immediately, using the profit to play for his son's education and other necessities, as well as to upgrade the status of his family.

Jennifer Connelly is Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict whose husband deserted her. Like Colonel Behrani, she is also lying to her family. Her mother thinks she is still married, and knows nothing of her problems. Those problems escalate ten fold when she is evicted from her house for non-payment of a tax she never owed in the first place. Before she can resolve matters legally, the state has sold her home at public auction.

... to Colonel Behrani.

The conflict is thus established. The state is willing to do the right thing and give the colonel his $45,000 back, thus returning the house to Kathy, but the colonel insists quite correctly that he is the legal owner of a piece of property worth four times that amount, and he refuses to sell. Kathy's lawyer can sue the state for compensation for their error, but that could take months, or years, while Kathy is sleeping in her car.

A melodrama is set into action, one which will ultimately result in one murder, and four attempted suicides, two of them successful. And that is only among the four main characters (the colonel, his wife, his son, and Kathy)! Three of the four end up dead, and the other ends up alive despite two suicide attempts. Along the way, various other lives are destroyed. A local cop falls in love with Kathy even as he evicts her, and that situation destroys his life, and his family's happiness.

Your basic feel-good movie!


Various exposure from Jennifer Connelly:

1. She changes in a public bathroom, and you can see a little bit through her semi-sheer bra.

2. Sex scene with Ron Eldred. Very little nipple action, but a very nice shot of her bottom.

3. A silhouetted shot of a topless Connelly putting her shirt on.

4. A bathtub suicide scene in which her nipples are visible underwater.

It is pure melodrama in the 1950s fashion. Jennifer Connelly has now replaced Susan Hayward and Juliette Binoche as the cinema's official suffering woman. She makes her living either by being in tears, or by looking like she's about to be. Her veil of tears is clouded still further by fog-shrouded cinematography and turgid background music.

I like to think that human beings can almost always settle disputes of this nature without everyone dying and waving pistols at one another, which leaves this film in the category of contrived melodrama rather than social realism.

DVD info from Amazon

  • no features, no widescreen, crappy film.

  • but you can't beat the price.

The film had some pretensions toward great tragedy and meaningful social commentary, but is basically a melodramatic thriller for the cry-of-the-month crowd. That's a relatively small audience these days, as evidenced by the $12 million gross, but if you like that sort of thing, it is very well done. The characterization is intricate and complex. The script is sympathetic to both sides in the dispute. The acting is top drawer.

This was a strange one for critical reaction. Many American critics hailed this film as a masterpiece. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, and James Berardinelli placed it on his Top 10 list. On the other hand, the British critics were uniformly unimpressed - the average score in England was about two stars out of four, including many one-and-a-halves, and no fours or three-and-a-halves. Tuna and I split as well. He called it a tragedy, while I saw nothing but a contrived and sometimes ridiculous melodrama, a hankiesploitation film, although I was impressed by the depth of characterization and the uniformly good performances, all of which would have been better served if the characters had simply acted logically and in their own best interests.

In the end, for example, everyone would have ended up with exactly what they wanted if the Ben Kingsley character had simply done what he promised to do - get the money back, and immediately turn it over to Connelly in return for the deed. Everybody was happy with that solution. The film was starting to make some sense and was resembling real life. Instead of that, Kingsley, acting against his own best interests, decided to put his own life and his son's in jeopardy, with tragic consequences. My objection is not that there were tragic consequences, but that there was absolutely no reason for those consequences to happen in the first place. They other parties had already agreed to let ol' Gandhi keep the house, so he had already achieved exactly what he wanted, and had absolutely nothing to gain from the double-cross. Why would a guy place his son's life in jeopardy when he had absolutely nothing to gain? The death of the boy was simply used as a cheap device to milk sympathy from the audience, and to provoke more deaths from more characters, thus evoking more bathos.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

House of Sand and Fog (2003) is a wonderfully made film. It incorporates one of my favorite themes, that of cross-cultural communication, and presents real people, with all of their strengths and weaknesses. In its simplest terms, it is a battle over real estate between a divorced recovering addict, Jennifer Connelly, and an ex Colonel in the Iranian Air Force, Ben Kingsley. Connelly has her house repossessed by the county for non-payment of taxes she didn't owe. It never would have happened, had she just opened her mail, but she didn't open her mail for weeks while she was wallowing in depression and self pity.

Now she wants her house back, especially as it is the only thing her father left her, and her family is due to visit. Kinglsey has been working on a road crew by day, and in a convenience store by night, pinching every penny, but giving his wife and son the semblance of prosperity they were used to in Iran. He sees a chance to pick up the foreclosed house, make a few improvements, and sell at a huge profit, finally earning his part of the American dream.

Connelly is befriended by the sheriff who helped to evict her, and he eventually leaves his wife and two children for her. He becomes totally absorbed in helping her get her house back. That sets up the basic conflicts, but what made this movie so good for me was the nuances, and the amazing performances by all of the cast. Unfortunately, the movie was true to the novel it was based on, and had a three hankie ending. Since the script  successfully made both Kingsley and Connelly sympathetic characters, the tragic ending was very unsatisfying for me.

Sidebar: Connelly shaves her armpits in the restroom of the Pacifica pier, a place I have often fished for Salmon. Although the story takes place in the San Francisco area, only second unit filming was done there, with the film mainly being shot in the LA area. If you despise tragedy, you will not enjoy this because of the ending, which is a real shame, and it is a wonderfully made film. For those who like tragedy, this will satisfy start to finish.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General super-panel consensus: four stars. Roger Ebert, four stars, James Berardinelli, 3.5 stars and his annual Top 10 list.

  • UK consensus: between two and two and a half stars. Daily Mail 4/10, Daily Telegraph 8/10,  Independent 8/10, The Guardian 4/10, The Times 4/10, The Sun 5/10, The Express 6/10, The Mirror 8/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It grossed only $12 million dollars on a $16 million dollar budget.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C (Scoop) to C+ (Tuna).

Return to the Movie House home page