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Put some soul in your stocking

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Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning debut, was as groundbreaking, devastating, auspicious, and from as far out of left field as Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. His equally impressive follow-up, 21 Grams (opens Friday, December 26, at the Little Theatre), is nearly as accomplished as Pulp Fiction, and it should see just about as much action during awards season, as well. The two pictures are worth mentioning in the same breath because of a similar nonlinear way of storytelling involving fate, though Iñárritu's is much more challenging.

            Iñárritu once again lends his vision to a Guillermo Arriaga screenplay involving a traffic accident with overwhelmingly tragic consequences told in three story threads. But it takes us a while to figure out exactly what transpired because everything is shown out of order (it's not episodic, like Perros, or Doug Liman's Go). As a critic, it would be derelict of me to put it all together for you, especially since the utter confusion you're likely to experience in the first 10 minutes is an important part of the experience of seeing this film. So I'll just briefly outline Grams' three players.

            Sean Penn is Paul, a math professor with a bum ticker and a slightly ghoulish wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who desperately wants to become pregnant before Paul's sperm die along with him. He's been given one month to live.

            Naomi Watts is Christina, a happily married suburbanite with two kids and a darkish past filled with drug abuse.

            Benicio Del Toro is Jack, an ex-con who, despite serious reluctance on the part of his wife (Melissa Leo), became a born-again Christian during his last stint in the pen. Jack's prison tats get him fired from his country club caddy job, but he works with troubled youth at his church, which is also where he won his spiffy new truck in a raffle.

            Before long, one is dealing with loss, one is dealing with causing loss, and one is dealing with the loss of himself. The interconnected stories take place in Albuquerque, and each involves salvation of some kind. The religious slant starts to become a little too much from time to time, but it's really the only major flaw in the film. Well, that and the part that resembles Bonnie Hunt's Return to Me, but that's a whole 'nother story.

            You'll likely be lining up for the critically lauded acting (the three leads each won awards at the Venice Film Festival premiere of Grams); the only way you won't be dazzled by it is if you're sitting in front of morons complaining out loud about not being able to follow what's happening. (They're the same people who didn't get Punch-Drunk Love and All the Real Girls but just loved Sweet Home Alabama).

            Watts is the standout here, mostly because it's been a while since we've really seen her in a serious film. Hers is the first best-actress-quality performance I've seen this year. Penn is solid, as usual, in a rather physical role, though his shot at Oscar glory will likely be foiled... by himself for his recent turn in Mystic River. Del Toro's role is the most subtle and the one we connect with the least, but it's no less impressive than anything else he's done before.

            Grams, whose title refers to the weight human beings are supposed to lose at the exact moment of their death, is just as gritty and audacious as Perros, thanks to photography from Rodrigo Prieto and some of the year's best editing from Stephen Mirrione (the Traffic Oscar winner). Iñárritu's work, however, is noticeably more mature here than it was in Perros. He's become less Tarantino and more Soderbergh. That's damn exciting considering the only things he's done between then and now are shorts for BMW's The Hire and the 11'09"01 collection. Grams is the rare film you wish was even longer because it's so good.

Last Christmas we were treated to a dark, sexually charged update of Nicholas Nickleby, and this year moviegoers return to Victorian England for a retelling of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (opens Thursday, December 25). Oddly enough, both pictures were given a PG rating, while better family fare like Whale Rider is saddled with PG-13's merely for being created outside the standard Hollywood system.

            Unlike Nickleby, there's no cross-dressing in Pan, as Jeremy Sumpter becomes the first young male actor to play Peter on the big screen. Pan does, however, conclude with a sexually charged swordfight which takes on new meaning under the tutelage of Aussie co-writer and director P.J. Hogan (and makes the name of Michael Jackson's ranch seem even more creepy than usual).

            The drawing cards in Hogan's ominous and surprisingly erotic take are Donald McAlpine's breathtaking photography and the interaction between Peter and Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood, who is destined to be confused with Evan Rachel Wood). For a while, I seriously thought they were going to do the deed right there in front of God, The Lost Boys, and everyone. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better on-screen kiss this year, which probably explains why Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier, who spent the majority of Swimming Pool baring it all) would rather just kill Wendy. I sure don't remember that from the Disney version.

            Hurd-Wood steals the show in a half Kate Beckinsale, half Ione Skye kind of way. Though she's probably going to end up looking like something closer to The Real World's Trishelle, who most likely would have banged Peter on the first date.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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