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EW review: Get out your hankies for 'The Family Stone'

Also: Smug 'Three Burials' and fearless 'Nightmares'

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

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Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson and Rachel McAdams in "The Family Stone."

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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Which came first: the national yearning for an idealized Christmas gathering -- and I do mean Christmas -- in which photogenic, dysfunctional family members reunite in a nonsectarian Christian spirit of tolerance, compassion, and the swapping of perfectly wrapped gifts ...or the Hollywood holiday movies that insist this outcome is universally attainable?

Another year, another warmedy about the importance of improved parent-child relationships and artisanal sweaters is how I see it, with only the trend-sensitive specifics of dysfunction in doubt.

What's striking and, to my bloodshot eye, welcome about this year's edition, "The Family Stone," is the rather chic urbanity with which writer-director Thomas Bezucha serves up the old genre standby.

Maybe it's because his background is in product branding and store design that Bezucha's home-for-the-holidays fantasy is more like a beautifully styled cashmere throw draped on an Eames chair than a lumpy granny afghan tossed on a Barcalounger. But somehow, it dramatizes the attractive traps of bohemian-bourgeois aspirations (and snobbism) and, with a light comedic touch, also holds its ground as an old-fashioned and even sweet story about love -- and the swapping of perfectly wrapped presents.

Of the five adult children who gather for Christmas at the New England home of their handsome parents Sybil and Kelly Stone (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson), the oldest, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), is the polished corporate go-getter; Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) is the traditional wife-and-mother; Ben (Luke Wilson) is the SoCal loosey-goosey guy; Amy (Rachel McAdams) is the pretty rebel; and Thad (Ty Giordano) is the deaf one. Also the gay one, hoping to adopt a child with his black boyfriend.

The saving grace for the sophisticated clan in "The Family Stone" is that Thad's sensitive-issue grand slam is not the story. Instead, what rattles the Stones is the introduction of Everett's buttoned-down, sleeked-up fiancee, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose tightly wound career-exec personality is at odds with the family's own proud sense of liberal outspokenness in general and Sybil's forceful plans for her son's happiness in particular. (The sly title refers as well to the disposition of an heirloom diamond ring.) The very bun on Meredith's head seems to annoy Sybil (and inflame Amy, so proudly unkempt), and Parker has a great time being the anti-Carrie Bradshaw while Keaton-as-matriarch is a particular joy -- funny, beautiful, elegant, touching, and at ease with a familiar, get-out-your-hankies holiday subplot.

With the Stones doing a number on her self-confidence, Meredith buses in her sister Julie (Claire Danes) as an ally and that's where the romantic geometry gets fancy. Suffice it to say that at one point, Meredith does let her hair down and Parker gets to put in a performance as endearing as we like from her. How did Bezucha get this glam a cast into this traditional a pie? I don't know -- it's a secret Christmas recipe.

EW Grade: B

'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

One of the surefire ways to establish your credentials as a hipster film buff is to state how much you love Sam Peckinpah's bourbon-raw absurdist Western "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974). It's far from a great movie, but the ghoulish spectacle of sleazy, scruffy Warren Oates dragging a severed, fly-infested head (his bounty) through the Mexican desert has always lent this Peckinpah opus a special nihilistic cachet. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," the first feature directed by Tommy Lee Jones, is an unabashed descendant of "Bring Me the Head." This time, though, it's an entire corpse that gets hauled through the desert, and that's not all that's being toted. So is a hefty parcel of racial correctness.

In a dusty nothing of a West Texas town, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a recently arrived border patrolman, accidentally kills an illegal Mexican immigrant named Melquiades Estrada. How do we know the patrolman is a Nasty White Man? He's married to a beautiful chicklet (January Jones) he treats sexually as if she were a stray dog, he spends his idle moments masturbating to Hustler magazine, and he's played by Barry Pepper (so riveting as the sniper in "Saving Private Ryan") with the bulgy-eyed sociopathic sneer of a former schoolyard bully and torturer of small animals. Taking justice into his own hands, Pete Perkins (Jones), a grizzled ranch foreman who was Estrada's employer and friend, kidnaps Norton and forces him to dig up the dead man's body. They then ride on horseback into the desert, so that Estrada can receive a proper burial in his hometown.

Along the way, Perkins subjects his captive to periodic tidbits of abuse (at one point, he gets bashed with a coffeepot), but it's all to teach him a good lesson. Meanwhile, the corpse, fully dressed, looks on, rotting a little more each hour. How fun! "Three Burials" has some savvy scenes of small-town gossip and adultery, and Jones plays Perkins with a brittle sadistic force that hardens the edge on the movie's sanctimony. But it's still a smug lesson posing as a Peckinpah deathfest.

EW Grade: C

'The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Adam Curtis has become the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time. He's at once a psychologist, a historian, a journalist, a wizard of images, and a fearlessly incisive cultural detective who delves beneath the hidden myths of the modern world. "The Power of Nightmares," which he wrote, produced, and narrated for the BBC, is his epic dissection of the war on terror, and, like his earlier "The Century of the Self," it's a fluid cinematic essay, rooted in painstakingly assembled evidence, that heightens and cleanses your perceptions.

Curtis' audacious thesis is that the American neoconservatives and the Islamic fundamentalists are, in their dark way, the last idealists of politics, and that they rose, in tandem, as apocalyptic mirror images of each other: ideologues rooted in the absolutism of fantasy. Curtis does his homework. He shows, for instance, how the neocons deliberately fabricated evidence of the Soviet threat (an astonishing clip of Donald Rumsfeld in the '70s, talking about undetectable weapon systems that never existed, will look eerily familiar), and that their philosophical godfather, the legendary academic Leo Strauss, endorsed the use of such fictions as a basic organizing tool of a civilized society.

At the same time, the movie traces radical Islam back to an Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, who was shaped in the late 1940s by a paranoid disgust at what he took to be the inbred selfishness of America's liberal society. "The Power of Nightmares" presents a fascinating dissection of the evolution of Islamic fundamentalism, as it peers inside the mind of Qutb's fanatic inheritor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Curtis' boldest assertion is that 9/11 was an act of desperation, and that for all the deadliness of terrorism, the concept of an ominous organization called al-Qaeda -- the term was invented by American prosecutors as an analogue to the Mafia, so that Osama bin Laden could be tried in the U.S. in absentia -- has been greatly exaggerated. Could this possibly be true? What I promise is that if you see "The Power of Nightmares," you will think about it, talk about it, and argue with it for days.

EW Grade: A


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