Silly Sahara Makes No Sense

Sahara should, by all the rules, be one of those randy, rowdy adventure yarns in the tradition of old Saturday-afternoon matinee serials and every desert epic from Gunga Din to Indiana Jones.  Alas, the mumbling, mush-mouthed Matthew McConaughey is no Cary Grant, or even Harrison Ford, and can scarcely say “I’ll find the bomb, you get the girl” without the need for subtitles.  Never mind that Sahara was the name of a 1943 Humphrey Bogart movie. Today’s stupid techno-freaks who make movies in databases with no regard for entertainment value have never heard of Humphrey Bogart and seem both bored by and oblivious to the concepts of cinematic history, traditions and narrative coherence. So the fact that Sahara is totally incomprehensible seems par for the course. It is based on one of those unreadable Clive Cussler novels you see tossed into the surf in places like Fire Island and Pismo Beach.

The plot is impossible to relate, and when the scene shifts from 1865 Virginia at the end of the Civil War to the dunes of today’s battle-scarred Africa in 60 seconds, you know what I mean.  Mr. McConaughey and his goofy sidekick (Steve Zahn) play “naval historians” searching for a phantom ship and the buried treasure it was rumored to carry. They work for William H. Macy, a “salvage merchant” (which is really just another name for a modern-day pirate) who owns NUMA, which stands for the National Underwater and Marine Agency, whatever that means. Between swigs of tequila and rounds of machine-gun fire, Mr. McConaughey also rescues a dedicated scientist from the World Health Organization (Penélope Cruz, who is right at home with her co-star because she can’t speak coherent English either). He’s searching for a Civil War battleship; she’s tracking the cause of an outbreak of what looks like bubonic plague before it turns into an epidemic. He saves her from rape and murder at the hands of warring rebels. She enlists his aid to get to Mali. He thinks the warship might have somehow ended up there 150 years ago when it disappeared in Richmond, Va. (Logic is the last thing on anyone’s mind.) 

Anyway, it’s off to the Niger River in the middle of a civil war that has nothing to do with the North and South. As it turns out, there’s no plague: The natives are being poisoned by a toxic water supply, and it seems to have something to do with Old Ironsides, which they call “the ship of death.” The movie drones on with as many distractions as the director, USC film school graduate Breck Eisner (son of Michael), can come up with-camel caravans, desert volleyball, an ancient walled city, restless natives chanting “Um-gawa, bwana”-to prevent you from realizing that nothing much is going on here. The rest of this noisy charade focuses on the nuclear power plant in the middle of the Sahara, where a master fiend (Lambert Wilson, in the old mad-scientist role Bela Lugosi used to play) has devised a diabolical plan (aren’t they all?) to use solar energy to vaporize toxic waste and dump it into the Niger River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, where the toxins will reach New York in six months and then destroy the world! And guess where the oil drums with the toxic waste are stored? The underground river where the old Civil War battleship is. Whew! Find the ship, and you find the toxins! Only Mr. McConaughey, Mr. Zahn and Ms. Cruz can do it, but one minute the guys are walking across the Sahara handcuffed to a detached truck bed, and the next minute their shackles have mysteriously disappeared and they’re gliding on the wing of a plane wreck. It all ends up in a dune buggy with exploding Huey helicopters and … oh, well. Have you had enough, as Harry Truman used to say? 

Despite the vast beauty of location settings in Morocco and Spain, the vast lack of chemistry between the two stars is appalling. Mr. McConaughey’s character is a Navy SEAL, lawless pirate, U.S. Senator’s son, reckless adventurer, womanizer, inventor and practical joker with multiple personalities (and unconvincing in every one of them). For an internationally respected doctor and world expert on contagious diseases, Ms. Cruz looks like a Playboy centerfold. William H. Macy just looks miserable. Filming in 120 degrees, who can blame him? I’d like to say Sahara is the kind of escapist nonsense that is more fun to watch than to make, but it fails the endurance test on both fronts. The comic-book audience with which I watched this drudgery was alarmingly silent and morose from start to finish. 

Wise Women

Not all directors are hopping on the comic-strip bandwagon. David Duchovny’s House of D may not break any opening-week records, but it’s a warm, nostalgic mood piece that recaptures a time and place when people were friendlier and more human, things were more positive, movies were more creative and life was more fun. Mr. Duchovny makes his feature-film debut as writer-director and even plays the small role of Tom Warshaw, a bohemian American artist living in Paris for the past 30 years, with a 13-year-old son he doesn’t know how to communicate with and a French wife who doesn’t understand him. Seeking clues as to why his life hasn’t fulfilled the once-inspired promises of his youth, his analysis of the roads he didn’t take and a family crisis back home in New York lead him to his childhood in Greenwich Village in the 1970′s.

There we meet his mother (Téa Leoni), a depressed, chain-smoking nurse who never recovered from the death of his father. We also meet Tommy’s best friend, a retarded janitor named Pappass (Robin Williams, in a sincere and moving characterization), and a prostitute named Lady (the remarkable Erykah Badu), incarcerated in the daunting and infamous Women’s House of Detention, who dispenses advice from the darkness behind the window of her top-floor prison cell about love and responsibility and how to grow from a boy to a man. Tommy goes through a lot after his father dies of cancer and his mom takes an overdose of sleeping pills that leaves her brain-dead on his 13th birthday. Pouring out his personal problems to a woman whose face he cannot see, his is a coming-of-age story that is as interesting as it is unconventional. Finding out how his old friend Pappass turned out, and meeting the mysterious Lady face to face for the first time, gives the grownup Tom a second lease on his own life. What he learns from revisiting his roots is that strength and resolve can grow from unexpected sources, and that some of the lost people in life have the most wisdom to share.

The dialogue and direction are as natural as morning coffee, and Mr. Duchovny has a profoundly sympathetic feel for actors. He gets special payback from Anton Yelchin, who plays the young Tommy and on whose small shoulders so much of the screen time is carried. Best of all, House of D brought back so many memories of my own. I was new to Manhattan in those days, and the Women’s House of Detention was one of the zany local sights that made the city worth writing home about. Imagine a prison, right in the heart of Greenwich Village, filled with moaning and blues-singing souls, yelling filthy threats and pleas of help at pimps, girlfriends, children and gawking tourists to throw them smokes, to deliver messages, to spread some compassion. We used to hang out there weeknights on the way to midnight shows or Howard Johnson’s; Truman Capote wrote about it as a bit of “local color” as important and uniquely New York as dinner at Gage and Tollner; and on weekends Gypsy Rose Lee dropped by to hold quilting bees. Torn down and replaced by a garden and a memorial plaque, the “House of D” symbolizes the period David Duchovny so artfully and reverently recaptures here. It’s a film of small joys and big hugs, recommended without reservation.

Faces of Love

Eros is a triptych only a film festival could love. A trio of famous directors-Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni-record their individual “takes” on the many faces of love in three short stories threaded together with lush songs sung by the throaty, floaty Brazilian crooner Caetano Veloso. It sounds better than it plays, for only the opening episode, Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Hand,” is worth talking about. In this dreamy look at the unrequited relationship between a beautiful courtesan and her tailor, Miss Hua (the fabulous Gong Li) seduces a young and virginal tailor’s apprentice (Chang Chen), convincing him he can never design or cut exquisite clothes unless he knows a woman’s body. Using her sensuous hands to create the impression that he will always think of whenever he is about to make her garments, she changes his life by introducing eroticism as an obsession from which he can never escape. As the years pass, her income dwindles and her debts increase, but the tailor remains loyal. In the end, the tailor meets Miss Hua again under diminished circumstances; her exquisite face shows the ravages that befall women of the brothels, but he is as captivated and spellbound as ever as he blends beauty and death in a supreme homage that turns out to be his masterpiece.

Contrasted with the vibrant, moody Technicolor of Mr. Kar-Wai’s poetry, the dull black-and-white of Steven Soderbergh’s contribution, “Equilibrium,” is a letdown. Typically coddled Soderbergh-full of attitude and arrogance, without a shred of coherence to hold it together-it’s the teasing tale of a tortured neurotic (Robert Downey Jr.) who is visited nightly in his sleep by an alluring Lorelei hell-bent on destroying his emotional balance. Married and feeling guilty, he rambles on incessantly to his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) for help, but the shrink has priorities of his own. Mr. Soderbergh builds this wafer-thin premise into a blank wall, with no whimsical or amusing originality of its own, despite a twist ending that I found utterly predictable.

Last and definitely least, Italy’s enigmatic Michelangelo Antonioni, whose cogent and innovative days as a filmmaker are as stagnant as the Catacombs, returns to a familiar theme in a study of a bickering young couple on the verge of a breakup. In “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” the man uses his attraction to another woman to solve the problems in their relationship, while his mate moons and pouts and talks endlessly about nothing. It’s all about distance and alienation, but it’s slow, boring and pointless. In addition to the melodic swoon of Mr. Veloso’s voice, the three sections are woven together by animated drawings from Lorenzo Mattotti that function as interludes between the episodes. But with its intense pulse, unspoken desires and the breathtaking face of Gong Li, Wong Kar-Wai’s episode is the only one with the precision, mood, tone and visual expression to make Eros live up to its title.