Blue Christmas

Films that fit the (other) holiday mood

click to enlarge DIE-T: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts sparkle in the - dark 21 Grams, a movie whose title alludes to - the 21 grams of weight humans mysteriously lose at - the moment of death. - JIM SHELDON
DIE-T: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts sparkle in the dark 21 Grams, a movie whose title alludes to the 21 grams of weight humans mysteriously lose at the moment of death.

The great, unwashed masses have their Elfs and Santa Clause XIIs at this special time of year, so I suppose it's only fair that the art-house crowd get a little something, too. And what better way to say "Merry Christmas!" to a cinephile than with a good old-fashioned film about souls in torment?I exaggerate, but not by much. There are three independent features opening locally this Christmas — Cold Mountain, 21 Grams and In America — and, while each has its moments of sweetness and light, they all share a marked preoccupation with personal tragedy, doomed romance and the omnipresent specter of death.

In America is directed by Jim Sheridan, the talented Irish filmmaker responsible for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. Cold Mountain is the latest from Anthony Minghella, director of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The English Patient. 21 Grams is director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to his brilliant Amores Perros, and that's as good a place to begin as any.

Amores Perros was a clever and extraordinarily effective cinematic puzzle, a cubist portrait of a society seen through three dovetailing stories presented from all angles at once. 21 Grams seems to be attempting to repeat that prismatic fracturing of time and space, but as is so often the case, lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice.

The themes of spirituality and redemption being addressed in 21 Grams (the title refers to the amount of weight humans mysteriously lose at the moment of death) are much grander than in Amores Perros, but what's actually happening is much less interesting. Without giving too much away, let's just say that one major narrative thread here has to do with a heart transplant patient who forges a mystical connection with his donor. Another plot point involves a man riddled with guilt over accidentally killing a child, while the dead child's parent obsesses on revenge.

Mostly, 21 Grams is an excuse for its characters to wallow in endless rivers of anguish. Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro deliver intense and beautifully articulated performances, but exclusively on the one note provided by the script. And while there's much to admire in its purity of purpose and performances, 21 Grams ultimately lacks the sort of subtlety and scope that would allow it to become something more than a meticulously detailed portrait of all the colors of the dark.

There's still more pain on display in Jim Sheridan's In America, but luckily for everyone, a good bit of joy, too. Like 21 Grams, Sheridan's film is about characters haunted by death (a dead child again, no less), but it's also something of a fairytale, the sweetly old-fashioned kind that comes complete with three wishes.

The director wrote the film with his two grown daughters, drawing upon their early memories; it's a more-or-less autobiographical account of a family of Irish immigrants struggling to get by in New York City. And while the New York of In America is undeniably tough, crazy and dirty, it's also just the sort of magical place you get in fairytales.

The earlier and, by far, most successful sections of the film detail the family's introduction to the wonderful, horrible world of Manhattan in summertime. These early scenes feel delightfully spontaneous and loosely sketched (unlike Sheridan's tightly orchestrated approach in his other films) and convey an unmistakable air of authenticity that makes small moments like purchasing an old air conditioner or strolling through a street fair feel quite large indeed. The fact that some of what we see is camcorder footage shot by the couple's young daughter adds to the sense that In America is someone's personal diary, a memory piece.

The brood (mom, dad and two young daughters) moves into a dilapidated Hell's Kitchen tenement where junkies shoot up in the halls and the tenants scream all night — but, against all odds, magic still seems to be in the air. That magic dissipates during the film's later sections, however, when that screaming neighbor turns out to be an eccentric African artist (Djimon Hounsou) who's not nearly as crazy or scary as he seems to be.

Beyond Hounsu's sadly underdeveloped character, the movie cops out in the end with a number of other conventional flourishes, including a terminal illness for one of the characters and a complicated pregnancy for another. Even more problematic, however, is the movie's awkward, eleventh-hour shift into darker territory, as the family becomes increasingly tortured over a tragedy in their collective past. By the end, the film has somersaulted into an orgy of blood, death and drama-queen theatrics that would make a suicide bomber blush. It's almost enough to make us forget that In America is also a film that brims with life.

With eight Golden Globe nominations under its belt, Cold Mountain is probably the most acclaimed of this week's openings, but it's also the most disappointing. Like Minghella's previous The English Patient, this is a movie about memory, the horrors of war and the heartbreak of love, a wildly tragic-romantic story told across time, and one that often seems to be taking place entirely within the mind of one of its characters. As with English Patient, there's an air of uneasiness that hangs in the air, and it won't be giving away much to mention that it all ends badly.

Jude Law and Nicole Kidman (sporting not-too-embarrassing Southern accents) star as a pair of absurdly clear-complected, Civil War-era lovebirds buffeted by the cruel winds of destiny. He's been to hell and back in the war, and spends most of the movie's two-and-a-half-hour running time winding his way home to her. Law's character trudges on through the war-ravaged countryside, encountering various colorful characters along the way, as Kidman's voice-over implores "My love, where are you?" Meanwhile, she's found herself alone in an increasingly harsh and lawless world, forced to depend upon the kindness of strangers.

The film practically begs for consideration as Minghella's Gone With the Wind, or maybe his Pilgrim's Progress, a panoramic study of a vanished America, bolstered by handsome cinematography and oodles of lively performances. Even at 150 minutes the film feels rushed, though, visibly struggling to cram in too many characters and events.

Ultimately, for all the epic sprawl, there's a scattered, episodic quality to the film that makes even the better performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman) feel a bit like cameos. And even though everyone's faces are dutifully smudged and fingernails are appropriately dirty, Kidman and Law rarely fail to look like fashion models striking poses out in the wild. Even the dirt is attractive in Cold Mountain, with crowd-pleasing tragedies that are as inevitable as they are skin-deep.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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