When looking at a movie as a critic, you have to judge each film on its own terms. Using the same yardstick for everything will just wind up with a reviewer doing that thing readers love to hate about movie critics: anything with subtitles and complicated characters — good. Anything with explosions, chesty heroines and gunplay — bad.
In the case of “Sahara,” this theory of relativity is advice to live by. This isn’t “Remains of the Day,” but at the same time, it’s not trying to be. With lots of action, a swarthy French villain and plenty of stuff getting the bad end of modern explosive technology, “Sahara” does what it’s supposed to do, which is help empty your popcorn bucket.
The plot isn’t new, but it’s done with style. Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk Pitt, a former Navy special forces guy who now works for the National Underwater Marine Agency. Along with his comic relief/sidekick Al (Steve Zahn), Dirk lives the life of a treasure hunter, going around the world looking for sunken riches. The one treasure he’s never found, however, might just be a pipe dream: an 1860s ironclad, laden with the gold of the Confederate treasury. Soon after the film begins, Dirk gets a tip that the ship might actually be in Africa, having sailed across the Atlantic and up a river that went dry in the years after the ship disappeared. Headed to check out this tip, Dirk and Al pick up a doctor with the World Heath Organization (Penelope Cruz) and agree to take her upriver, where an outbreak of a strange disease is killing the natives. There, they find the solar-powered toxic waste incinerator of the aforementioned swarthy Frenchman (Lambert Wilson), and a whole heap of trouble.
Matthew McConaughey is good here in a role that builds on his talents — good looks, a Cheshire cat grin and ability to stare into the camera with that look that says he’s both totally in control and scared out of his gourd. Too, unlike the year’s earlier treasure-hunting dud, “National Treasure,” “Sahara” sticks to the basics, refusing to get bogged down in the idiotic coincidences and unexplainable leaps of intuition that made “National Treasure” so hard to swallow.
Here, things get blown up, sure. But by keeping to the strong central hook of “Will he find the ship or not?” (and, in the case of the subplot, will Cruz find the source of the disease or not?), “Sahara” reaches the whiz-bang simplicity of an old-time Saturday serial. In this world of overwritten and over-thought action movies, such simplicity is more than welcome.
— By David Koon
Southern comfort
This lover of the South has deep problems with the Hollywood South. You know: that phantom region where nobody got the word about air conditioning, all the doctors still wear white linen suits, the sheriffs are all fat and racist, and everybody — from Key West to West Arkansas — speaks in that lilting, Scarlett O’Hara accent (unless they’re a no-count, in which case they say stuff like “you’ins” through their missing teeth and think a belch is a punctuation mark).
Given all that, it’s been nice in recent years to see Southerners make Southern movies. Mostly, I’m talking about Malvern native Billy Bob Thornton, who has made or appeared in a few great Southern flicks such as “Sling Blade” and “The Apostle.” After hearing Thornton was set to star in “Chrystal,” which filmed last year in Eureka Springs, I had high hopes for the project. The good news is that — with the exception of a few notable problems — “Chrystal” turns out to be an interesting little movie with an almost “Sling Blade” simplicity to it. A quiet film, full of guilt that’s passed from one character to the other by the eyes, it’s a worthy addition to the Southern genre.
Here, Billy Bob Thornton plays Joe, a pot-grower who crashes while running from the law; an accident that breaks the neck of his wife, Chrystal (Lisa Blount), and apparently kills his young son, though the child’s body is never found. After 20 years in prison (he served extra time for repeated escape attempts), Joe returns to the mountains to try to pick up where he left off. As always, however, coming home isn’t as easy as finding your driveway. While he was gone, Chrystal has become something of the town pump (the first time we see her is in the back seat of a Chrysler Cordoba having sex with a teen-age kid while his friends wait their turn outside). Too, Joe finds that his past comes looking for him in the guise of his old running buddy Snake (Ray McKinnon), who tries to force him back into the drug trade or else.
Thornton, as always, is great here in an understated role that’s a bit too close for comfort to his turn in “Levity” (where he played another guilt-ridden ex-con). Sadly, I wasn’t as impressed with the performance of another Arkansas native, Lisa Blount. In addition to Chrystal having her neck and spine fused — a trait which forces her to walk around like she has a board hot-glued to her back — Blount plays the character like she’s on a low dose of Thorazine. In scene after scene, she drags her lines out in a slumped-shouldered monotone, with long, breathy pauses between words and a dead glassiness to her eyes. Though I think this was supposed to represent the deadness she feels after losing her child — or maybe even that she is, in fact, on some industrial strength painkillers for her back injury — the net result is that she looks at all times like a woman roused from sleep by a wrong number.
Nevertheless, “Chrystal” is still a good movie, about the guilt we can’t leave behind and the redemption that only others can give us. While not living fully up to the promise of that storyline, it is a thought-provoking and authentically Southern film, one that any fan of good actors should see.
— By David Koon