Into the Bush With Kim Basinger

Kim Basinger, African Queen

Weaned on Technicolor adventures about the Dark Continent like King Solomon’s Mines and Mogambo , I’ve always had a weakness for movies about the challenges of Africa. Lions and tigers and crocs, oh my! So I am pleased to report that I Dreamed of Africa fulfills my lust for danger and exoticism heroically. Beautifully photographed, though sometimes dramatically inert, this saga of life in a strange land of passion and hardship is based on the best-selling memoirs of Kuki Gallmann, an Italian dilettante who emigrated with her seven-year-old son, Emanuele, to a 100,000-acre cattle ranch in Kenya in 1972, oblivious to the pain, joy and heartbreak that awaited her. She is still there, a leading conservationist and defender of animal rights, despite great personal sacrifices. Africa has shaped her destiny, and if this film doesn’t exactly live up to everything she has learned in this mystical, unsentimental outpost, it still captures the essence of her experiences memorably.

Directed by Hugh Hudson, who explored the terrain with disastrous results in the awful Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes , the story of Mrs. Gallmann benefits hugely from a spunky and indefatigable performance by alluring Kim Basinger in the leading role. The film begins when she survives a near-fatal auto accident that propels her to find new meaning and focus in her frivolous Venice life of cocktail parties and charity balls. Restless and eager to make a new start, she marries a reckless adventurer named Paolo Gallmann (Vincent Perez) over the strong objections of her cultured, protective and dubious mother Franca (Eva Marie Saint) and follows him to Kenya where, despite the absence of creature comforts, she finds self-fulfillment and prevails against all odds.

She chases an elephant out of her vegetable garden. A lion kills the family dog. There are confrontations with murderous poachers who butcher elephants for their ivory and endless fights with Paolo, who disappears for weeks at a time on hunting trips with his chums, leaving Kuki alone while pregnant with her second child. Her mother arrives in time for the rainy season, getting her new Guccis stuck in the syrupy mud. A ferocious sandstorm nearly destroys the ranch and the entire world Kuki has carved for her family in this lovely, but punishing, environment.

There’s the arduous task of building a dam, a bonding with the natives and two tragic deaths that would send most women shrieking to the nearest airport for a flight back to civilization. But Kuki survives every test of Job that Africa can dish out, even when her husband is badly injured in a hunting accident and Emanuele, at l7 and ready for college, is bitten by a poisonous viper.

These detailed accounts of life in the wilderness, accompanied by herds of galloping antelopes and sunsets that take the breath away, add up to little more than insertions in a family scrapbook, and there is no strong sense of perspective in either Hugh Hudson’s flat direction or the often turgid script by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday. To make matters worse, there is no chemistry between the alluring Ms. Basinger and the vapid, one-dimensional Mr. Perez to help explain why the real Mrs. Gallmann stuck it out, undaunted. You might also wonder why Kuki and her snobbish, aristocratic mother, Franca, both fiery Italian brunettes, are played by two all-American blondes like Kim Basinger and Eva Marie Saint. But who cares? It’s great to have them both on the screen, intriguing and lovely as ever, and I really believed they could be mother and daughter, no matter where they came from.

Still, I must admit, the soul of Africa in its never-ending astonishments is the soul of the movie, and in my opinion, I Dreamed of Africa triumphs over its weaknesses to capture the imagination, holding you in its moody narrative grip. It is less pretentious and not so much of what I call “a coffee-table movie” as the overrated Out of Africa . Much of the film’s success is due to the fascinating, underrated Kim Basinger, who remains gorgeous and natural even when the script is too minimal to provide much range for her emotions. Grumpy comparisons to other game gals like Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa are obvious, but Ms. Basinger holds her own ground admirably. Surrounded by hippos, rhinos, bush spiders and puff adders, she is never upstaged, and her spirituality and brio are a perfect contrast to the rugged landscape of Africa, a dark and mysterious world that still offers extraordinary peace while extracting an extraordinarily high price.

I Wanna Dance in a Movie

Ballet films are rare, and Center Stage is the best one since The Turning Point .

With heart and energy, director Nicholas Hytner traces the dreams and ambitions of a dedicated band of young dancers seeking scholarships to a fictional New York dance academy. At the end of a year of sweat, tears and backbreaking work, a production determines which dancers make the American Ballet Company. Only six will make it. Among the fiercely competitive students, there is Jody (Amanda Schull, an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet), the hardest-working dancer with the worst technical problems; Maureen (Susan May Pratt), perfection itself but a potential star with no drive; Eva (Zoe Saldana), the black girl from the streets with obvious talent but a bad attitude; and Charlie (Sascha Radetsky, who dances in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre). Cooper, the Harley-Davidson-riding choreographer who puts them through their paces and falls for Jody despite her problems, is played by Ethan Stiefel, the 26-year-old Ballet Theatre superstar.

All of the dancers are making their film debuts, but you’d never know it. They are marvelous in a backstage story that incorporates human drama with dancing pyrotechnics, music that ranges from Tchaikovsky to jazz and two complete ballets choreographed by Susan Stroman, the creator of Contact , and New York City Ballet star Christopher Wheeldon. Surrounding the newcomers are such veterans as Donna Murphy, Peter Gallagher and Debra Monk.

The film invades the world of dance like a laser. You get the pain, blisters and bandages that accompany their sacrifice, but you also get the real personalities of kids who bowl, disco and eat pizza. The ballets are fantastic, and in the jazz exercise class you can also spot many of the dancing stars from Contact . Everything about dance–the idealism, rivalry, artistry, failure, physical punishment and soaring sense of accomplishment–permeates Center Stage , a film bursting with passion, electricity, excitement and joy.

Wonderful Town: Why Did It End?

The real blockbuster of the past week was the third and final Encores! production of the season, a brilliantly mounted concert version of the rollicking 50’s musical Wonderful Town , which could only be described as sensational. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote some of their wittiest lyrics for this show about two sisters from Ohio who hit Greenwich Village in search of fame, fortune and guys; and Leonard Bernstein’s score experimented with a wide variety of musical styles and tempos that included rag, swing, Irish jigs, dreamy ballads, patter songs, a rousing conga and a ballet reminiscent of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue .

An almost perfect cast under Kathleen Marshall’s innovative direction sang and danced with show-stopping gusto. In one of the year’s most polished and professional personal triumphs, Donna Murphy was a stupendous Ruth. With flawless timing, a soaring voice and an assured sense of comedy, she was every bit as fabulous as I imagine Rosalind Russell was in the original production. And who knew she had such great legs? Only Laura Benanti seemed out of time and place as Ruth’s younger sister, the ditsy man-magnet Eileen (a role that made a star of Edie Adams). With frizzy modern hair like moss hanging from a live oak tree and a take-charge attitude that seemed as canny as her older and wiser sister, she was nobody’s idea of what critics of the day called a cream puff.

Better than anything currently running on Broadway, Wonderful Town was the perfect antidote to the blahs that engulf us all. I cannot remember the last time I prayed for a show to never end. Compare this masterpiece with something as vulgar, stupid, depressing, unmusical and pointless as The Wild Party and you can only wonder why, when and how the American musical went so badly off the track. Into the Bush With Kim Basinger