With a series of quick, cross-cut scenes, Nowhere in Africa establishes Walter and Jettel, a married couple separated by a great distance. He’s in Kenya, wracked by malaria, but she’s in even more perilous circumstances: She’s a Jew in Germany in 1938.
Fortunately, Walter (Merab Ninidze) has gone to Africa to establish a new home for his family, which includes high-spirited young daughter Regina (Lea Kurka), the film’s soul and occasional narrator. Yet the bourgeois Jettel (Aimée and Jaguar’s Juliane Köhler) doesn’t feel fortunate when she arrives. Having ignored her husband’s instructions and brought the good china and a new evening gown rather than a refrigerator, Jettel decides not to unpack. The Kenyan bush, she says, is lovely but unlivable. Regina, of course, takes quickly to her new home, finding a close friend in Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), who insists that he serves only as the family’s cook but in fact is much more.
Walter has been unable to convince any other family members to leave Germany; they expect the unpleasantness to blow over in a few years. Gradually, though, the news from Europe convinces Jettel that she can’t return there. But the film’s real turning point doesn’t come until war is declared and Walter, Jettel, and Regina are detained as enemy aliens by the British authorities who run Kenya. Because the women and children are given much more freedom than the men, only Jettel is now in a position to improve her family’s position. She arranges for the three of them to move to a more remote farm, which she must run solo when her spouse joins the British army. By the time the war ends, Walter is the only one of the three who wants to return to Germany.
Thematically, Nowhere in Africa is quite similar to writer-director Caroline Link’s 1996 Beyond Silence, in which a deaf couple’s daughter serves as her parents’ connection to an alien world. Regina is also the family interpreter, learning both English and Kiswahili and excelling at a British boarding school as well as in the local rituals that mark her as an honorary Kenyan. But this film, adapted from Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, allows its parents more depth and growth. Walter accepts Kenya immediately, yet never feels entirely at home therehe’s a lawyer, not a farmer. Jettel resists her new life, yet comes to love it. If Regina sometimes seems too bold, open, and resourceful, and Jettel ultimately appears too beatifically at ease in Africa, the shifting dynamics of their relationships with each other and with Walter are nuanced and believable. When Jettel and Walter grow close again after an estrangement, it seems like a natural development instead of a contrivance.
The film contains some of the irritants common to cinematic family sagas in general and whites-in-Africa pictures in particular. In one semester away from home, Regina leaps from roughly 8 to 14 (she’s subsequently played by Karoline Eckertz). The African characters are engaging but thin, and the soundtrack is predicated on the overfamiliar juxtaposition of a Western string section with African percussion and massed voices. Still, Link’s movie isn’t as prettified as such Hollywood epics as Out of Africa. This Kenya is scruffy rather than verdant and largely devoid of charismatic megafauna (though there is one baby antelope).
Nowhere in Africa retains much of the rough texture of real life, even if its edges are somewhat smoothed with sentiment. Jettel’s transformation is finally reduced to a glib maxim, revealing that Link is neither a distinctive stylist nor a subtle thinker. But the director does locate the details that inject humanity into a tale that could have been merely an exercise in generic cross-cultural uplift.
While George W. prepared to send troops into the desert, Hollywood’s masters of war were planning for a different sort of terrain. Basic is the third jungle-rain-forest-Special Forces action flick in four weeks, but don’t let the choppers, explosions, and dense vegetation fool you: As garrulous as Tears of the Sun and The Hunted are terse, this swaggeringly entertaining movie is The Usual Suspects posing as Rashomon.
Unfolding at a moment when the American empire was contracting, Basic is set in Panama, to which the United States is about to relinquish the Canal Zone. As a hurricane hits the isthmus, flamboyantly capricious drill instructor Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) takes a group of already exhausted Army Rangers into the rain-lashed wilderness for a training exercise. Seventeen hours later, only two men make it back: Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). They both agree that one of their number (possibly Taye Diggs’ Pike) killed the hated West, but otherwise their stories don’t jibe. Hoping to solve the case before his superiors can intervene, base commander Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls his old friend Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a former Ranger who’s now a DEA agent being investigated for possible graft. Hardy arrives to break the case, dogged by Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen, who’s also in The Hunted), a base officer who rightly should be the investigator.
The game is to ascertain whose story is correct. Of course, everybody has a different version of the eventsand the events behind the events. Director John McTiernan is quick to advise viewers that their position is not privileged: As Styles briefs Hardy, the music swells, obscuring what may be a crucial bit of information.
Armed with this knowledge, Hardy strides between Dunbar and the hospitalized Kendall, teasing out information, conning but also being conned. The cocky, coiled Hardy is having such a good time that he sometimes seems to keep interrogating people just because it’s a gas. His strategy is to keep everyone off balance, including the savvy but initially outmatched Osborne, who appears to function as the audience’s surrogate. She’s as overwhelmed as the spectator, who is challenged by breakneck pacing, shadowy images, and a densely multilayered soundtrack.
Unlike Rashomon, Basic is not a meditation on the ultimate inaccessibility of truth. Somebody knows what really happened, and he will eventually reveal it. As long as it keeps obfuscating, however, the film is a lot of fun. Whereas its fellow jungle-battle pictures let guns and knives do the talking, Basic is full of playful chatter and amusing performances, beginning with Travolta’s flirtatious, possibly corrupt investigator and including Jackson’s grinning sadist and Ribisi’s gay military brat. An openly gay Ranger? Well, there are also a woman Ranger (Roselyn Sanchez) and Harry Connick Jr. as an Army doctor, as if McTiernan and scripter James Vanderbilt are flaunting their disdain for plausibility.
Basic is set in an alternate universe in which everyone has a nifty hustle and the pleasure of the scam is in the process, not the result. So it’s sort of appropriate that the ending is a disappointment, rectifying circumstances that were more interesting jumbled. Its conclusion aside, however, the movie is a diverting conceptual romp, demonstrating that cinema’s power to reveal can just as easily be used to conceal. CP