Mini Reviews (April 2005)
In My Country, The Upside of Anger, Sahara, A Lot Like Love, Turtles Can Fly
In My Country (April 6/05)
Despite the presence of a potentially riveting subject matter - Africa's post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Hearings - In My Country never becomes anything more than a dull and surprisingly silly little drama, thanks mostly to Ann Peacock's incredibly simplistic screenplay. Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche star as reporters assigned to cover the hearings, while Brendan Gleeson plays a sleazy former soldier (his den is packed with animal heads, if that's any indication). In My Country's been directed by John Boorman, an uneven filmmaker who's nevertheless reached a new low (say what you will about Beyond Rangoon, it was - at least - watchable). There's a real sense of heavy-handedness at play here, as the filmmakers imbue the film with extremely melodramatic and unnecessarily obvious elements (ie virtually every single scene featuring a victim's testimony is augmented with shots of Binoche in tears, as if we wouldn't get it otherwise). The supporting cast seems to consist entirely of amateurs, something that thoroughly negates the possibility of an emotional impact in the sequences revolving around the hearings (no small feat, given the kind of atrocities being described). Despite a boatload of good intentions, In My Country just doesn't work - though Red Dust, another film dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, isn't all that much better, so perhaps this is just an unfilmable subject.
The Upside of Anger (April 7/05)
Though it gets off to an admittedly underwhelming start, The Upside of Anger eventually becomes a surprisingly involving little drama - anchored by an unexpectedly complex performance from Kevin Costner. The film stars Joan Allen as Terry Wolfmeyer, an angry and bitter mother of four who - as the film opens - has just been left by her husband for a much younger woman. She seeks solace in her next-door neighbor, a washed-out former baseball player named Denny Davies (Costner), and the two spend their days drinking and commiserating. The Upside of Anger has been written and directed by Mike Binder (who also appears in a small role), and it's clear almost immediately that the filmmaker is in no hurry to tell this story. This is a character study of a woman that is - initially - awfully unpleasant, as Terry spend much of the film's first half drinking excessively and behaving abusively towards her daughters, Denny, and anyone else in the nearby vicinity. But as the movie progresses, Binder allows us to understand what makes Terry tick - and as a result, the woman becomes a much more likeable figure. It certainly doesn't hurt that Allen is quite good in the role, effectively (and bravely) portraying a person that often says and does the exact wrong thing. The supporting cast is filled with talented young actresses (including Alicia Witt and Keri Russell), but it's Costner who quickly proves to be the most intriguing aspect of the film. Unshaven and sporting a few extra pounds, Costner delivers a subtle, engaging performance that's completely different from anything he's done before and might just mark the beginning of a new phase in the actor's career.
Sahara (April 14/05)
While it's easy enough to prepare for Sahara's ludicrous, silly storyline (adventure flicks aren't known for realism), nobody could've expected the unbelievable sense of dullness that's permeating every aspect of the film. Based on the book by Clive Cussler, Sahara follows Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and his wacky sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) as they attempt to thwart a dastardly plot that will poison the majority of our planet's water. Sahara's been directed by Breck Eisner, a thoroughly inept filmmaker who forces the viewer to sit through a good hour of meaningless banter and pointless subplots before the actual story kicks in. Character development is non-existent; McConaughey and Zahn are essentially riffing on their pre-established personas (something that's particularly true of the latter, as he's played this exact role about a dozen times). Even the action, usually a saving grace for a movie like this, becomes tedious almost immediately - leaving the viewer with little to do other than admire the admittedly impressive scenery.
A Lot Like Love (April 21/05)
Though it's being marketed as a frothy, predictable romantic comedy along the lines of some of star Ashton Kutcher's previous efforts (ie Guess Who, Just Married, etc), A Lot Like Love is actually a surprisingly mature and unpredictable romance revolving around two characters - Oliver (Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) - as they flirt and chat with one another over the space of seven years (the movie captures their five encounters during that period). A Lot Like Love plays out like a more conventional take on Before Sunrise (and Before Sunset, for that matter), as Oliver and Emily spend the majority of the film's running time chatting about a variety of subjects - while, at the same time, falling in love. It doesn't hurt that there's plenty of chemistry between Peet and Kutcher, with the latter delivering an unexpectedly effective performance (Peet is, as usual, quite good). More than that, though, the film is genuinely romantic - an increasingly rare phenomenon in contemporary love stories - making it easy enough to recommend A Lot Like Love, despite a slight case of overlength.
Turtles Can Fly (April 21/05)
Set somewhere between Iraq and Turkey, Turtles Can Fly follows a select group of children as they attempt to cope with the emerging conflict between Iraq and the States (the film is set in the days before the war starts). The movie has been written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker who places the emphasis on the mundane day-to-day lives of these characters - a choice that effectively allows us to sympathize with their plight, but also results in a story that's far from compelling. And while there are a few intriguing sequences - ie a surprisingly suspenseful moment involving a blind toddler and a landmine - the movie is, on the whole, just not that interesting. It certainly doesn't help that one of the film's central roles, an industrious young boy named Satellite, has been filled by a truly atrocious actor named Soran Ebrahim. His performance casts an pall of amateurishness over the entire production, essentially negating the film's few positive attributes.