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Sweet ‘Fish’ and bitter ‘Fog’

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Tim Burton's Big Fish (opens Friday, January 9) is a lot like that FedEx commercial where the young office worker suggests using the overnight delivery company to save money and then tells the story of his claim to fame over and over until the day he dies. Thankfully, the "story" in Fish is much more interesting than the FedEx ad, even though it's repeated just as often.

          William Bloom (Billy Crudup) doesn't feel the same way, though. He's never been able to establish a relationship with his father Edward (Albert Finney), because instead of dispensing wisdom via typical father-son chats, Ed chooses to tell tall tales about his life (his younger version is played by Ewan McGregor). Ed's accounts are of giants, witches, werewolves, bank-robbing poets, conjoined twins, and circus strongmen.

          Instead of telling William about the birds and the bees, Ed conjures up the story of a bird who caused him to be chased by bees until he discovered a magic town from which nobody leaves. When a young William (Grayson Stone) complains about having to stay in bed for a week with the chicken pox, Ed replies, "Heck, when I was little, I had to stay in bed for three whole years," before launching into a tale about how fast he grew as a boy.

          Eager to escape his father and the stories, an adult William leaves Ashton, Alabama, moves to Paris, and doesn't speak to his father for three years. Then, out of the blue, he gets the big call from his mom (Jessica Lange): His dad is dying, so he'd better get back and patch things up. And that sets up Fish's dual narrative --- Ed's unusual tales of his youth juxtaposed against William's last attempt to learn something real about his pop.

          Fish, which is inexplicably rated PG-13 despite being the best family film since the similarly rated Whale Rider, invokes the memories of a lot of other films, despite being original enough to not be a cheap knockoff. There are Secondhand Lions and The Princess Bride (old guy telling kid unbelievable stories about his youth), The Barbarian Invasions (father and son trying to mend relationship), Burton's own Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (unlikely hero has unlikelier exploits), at least a couple of Terry Gilliam films (the dark kids' stuff) and Forrest Gump (too many similarities to mention). I also found it comparable to the G-rated The Straight Story in that both are incredibly well-crafted stories made by filmmakers who usually tread in much darker waters.

          Fish also features some of the year's best casting (Alison Lohman as a young Lange is dead ringer), as well as a very strong ensemble performance which includes a pair of cameos from Faye Dunaway and Julianne Moore. Fish is a big step in the right direction for screenwriter John August (he adapted Daniel Wallace's novel) after following up the brilliant Go with the two Charlie's Angels flicks. Ditto for Burton, who since 1994 has offered a very good film every other outing. Of course, that doesn't bode well for his upcoming version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The idea of a simmering thriller based on real-estate tax foreclosure might sound impossible, but House of Sand and Fog (opens Friday, January 9) breaks all preconceived notions about the yawn-inducing subject matter. Even better, Fog is the most assured English-language debut to hit screens since the equally dark and creepy American Beauty.

          The finest film adaptation of anything ever chosen for Oprah's Book Club has two main characters whose paths cross over the titular house and the aforementioned tax foreclosure. Jennifer Connelly is Kathy Nicolo, an attractive, recently divorced woman living in a San Francisco home she inherited from her father. Kathy is also a lazy sack of shit, as well as a recovering junkie and alcoholic who can't even muster the energy to open her mail. Had she found the strength to do so, she would have learned about the error down at the tax collector's office and likely would have stopped local sheriffs from enforcing the surprise early-morning eviction we see in one of Fog's first scenes.

          Meanwhile, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) sees the listing for the foreclosure and snatches up the house at auction for a fraction of its value. Massoud used to be a colonel in the Iranian Air Force, and the cash stockpile he escaped with during the Islamic Revolution has been steadily dwindling as he tries to keep his family living the life to which they became accustomed in the old country. His wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son (Jonathan Ahdout) think he has a well-paying, fancy office job, but Massoud secretly has two rather menial gigs. Massoud sees the house as a new beginning for himself and his family.

          That's the setup, and the rest of Fog plays out as a painful attempt by Kathy to get her house back before her mom comes for a visit. She befriends one of the cops (Ron Eldard) who evicted her, and that adds a very unique element to Fog's story.

          Even though there aren't traditional Hero and Villain roles in the film, I can picture a lot of viewers siding with Kathy and her struggle because she's cute and white (aka The American Dream), while comfortably tagging Massoud as the picture's antagonist just because he was born in Dubya's dreaded Axis of Evil. Film-school-dropout-turned-television-commercial-director Vadim Perelman, Fog's screenwriter and director, plays this up to delicious success before pulling the old switcheroo in the second half.

          Aside from 21 Grams, you aren't going to find a better ensemble cast in a 2003 release, with Kingsley, Connelly, and Aghdashloo all likely to be in the Oscar hunt. And just when you thought you had seen San Francisco and its various landmarks filmed in every way possible, Roger Deakins bends the rules with some startling photography.Aside from the entire story taking place over a laughably short period of time, it's one unforgettable trip.

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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