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Indie flicks: Fact swamped by fiction

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published May 26, 2005

In My Country (R) (108 min.) - Like Hotel Rwanda, John Boorman's film addresses an African tragedy overlooked by the U.S. media. Unlike Hotel Rwanda, the fictional elements added to an already compelling true story leave In My Country flawed and unfulfilling.

The film is set in 1994, when South Africa purged itself of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, in which victims of racist violence, mostly committed by white Afrikaaners with government approval, confronted their abusers. Amnesty was available to anyone who confessed, told the entire truth and proved the crimes were committed under orders. The shame of being forgiven, as often happened, was punishment enough.

Antjie Krog's novel, adapted by Ann Peacock, uses this potent drama as a backdrop for two people growing more self-aware and, in the movie's worst move, falling in love. Samuel L. Jackson plays Langston Whitfield, a Washington Post reporter sent to cover the hearings, who immediately reveals his righteous bias. Juliette Binoche plays Anna Malan, an Afrikaaner embarrassed by her culture's bloody intolerance. Her job as a radio journalist gets her into the hearings, where she mostly gasps at testimonies.

The first hour of Boorman's film is fine: The hearings take center stage and Langston's sense of outsider superiority softens. He doesn't understand South Africa's pain or cure as much as he thinks, and neither do we. Then he softens so much that Anna is drawn to him, taking the focus off political history and making this simply a star-crossed love story between two married people.

The performances are solid, especially Brendan Gleeson as a former police officer charged with brutal deeds, confronted by Langston at regular intervals. Gleeson's character is something to hang a climax upon, a feel-good moment wedged into Langston and Anna's romance. In My Country has the power of truth on its side, although it's sacrificed for easier-to-digest fiction. B-

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

Perplexing "Palindromes"

Palindromes (R) (100 min.) - Todd Solondz makes movies like Rorschach made tests; oddities slapped together through whims, interpreted by viewers in ways revealing something of their own character, morals and values. Solondz uses society's misfits to represent each of us, whether he makes that connection clear or not.

His latest puzzler, Palindromes, is ostensibly about abortion, with a young girl becoming pregnant from her first sexual experience, then running away from home after her parents force her to terminate the pregnancy. The setup could be an outline for a political statement, but Solondz's art isn't so simple. He's so concerned with pointing fingers at anyone who takes sides that he neglects to mend his film's problems, specifically a strange creative choice to have eight actors of various ages and ethnicity portraying Aviva, the girl at the center of his story.

The role-swapping may be the filmmaker's attempt to show abortion as an issue for every woman who can bear children. Or it may simply be a means of keeping our attention while Aviva's story meanders into distracting territories. Very likely it's a disguise for the story's arbitrarily shallowness. Vital things occur in Palindromes - parental oppression, religious delusions, even murder - but so nonchalantly that their weight never sinks in.

The most intriguing Avivas are played by adults acting like children. Sharon Wilkins is a plus-sized African-American woman playing Aviva when she's taken in by cheery Christian fundamentalists with a lethal grudge against abortionists. Wilkins plays it shy, hesitant and naive; her size is absurdly different from those of her playmates. Late in the film, the role is assumed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose more mature face reflects the burden Aviva has carried throughout her journey. Those casting choices have discernible rationales; the children playing Aviva are either too amateurish or too briefly seen to register.

Palindromes becomes another example of how far Solondz is willing to go to avoid an audience's embrace. That's admirable when the subject is teenage alienation in Welcome to the Dollhouse (Palindromes is dedicated to, and slightly hinges upon, that film's hero, Dawn Wiener) or sexual perversions in Happiness and Storytelling. Those topics beg to be kept at arm's length. Something like abortion and the hypocrisy surrounding it requires linear drama or straight-ahead satire, like Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth. Otherwise, like a palindrome, the novelty of backward and forward being one and the same quickly wears thin. C+

- S.P.

Out of step

Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey (Not rated, probably G) (40 min.) - As a fan of the percussion performance art of Stomp, the chance to see those swinging, swaying, trash-can playing artists on an IMAX screen is appealing. What we get isn't a jumbo-sized concert, but a noisy travelogue of places where Stomp's rhythmic roots lie.

From Africa to Japan, from Winchester Cathedral to the Brooklyn Bridge, we witness people making sounds with drums, beads, various whistles, teeth and tongues. The problem is that most of these performances don't last long enough for patterns to take shape in our ears. Once we get the beat, it's off to the next country and another sonic adjustment.

The only time Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey matches the troupe's onstage ingenuity occurs underwater, with divers tapping tethered cans floating under the surface. That's the beauty of the stage show, the notion that music can happen anywhere, sourced from anything.

It's interesting to see Kalahari Desert bushmen keeping their tradition alive, but without any narration, the history and impact of their musical style is unclear. The most visually arresting segment features Kodo, a Japanese drum corps; the least impressive are a cacophony of church bells ringing in England, and flamenco dancer Eva Yerbabuena. There may be lessons to be learned from such episodes, yet nobody takes time to teach them.

The only thing to be learned from Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey is that commercials - this time from Honda, which sponsors the film - have no place in movie theaters, even when they're several stories high and wide. Whoever approved that addition deserves a Kodo stick to the head, to see how hollow sounds. B-

- S.P.

[Last modified May 25, 2005, 15:32:11]

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