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Lessons in the lost art of subtlety 

The best actor prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival didn't go to an international critics' darling like Javier Bardem or Gael Garcia Bernal but to a 14-year-old boy named Yagira Yuya. His subtle, heartbreaking performance anchors Nobody Knows, the latest film by talented Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. Inspired by events that occurred in late '80s-Tokyo known as "The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo," the story focuses on a quartet of kids, ranging in age from around 5 to 12, whose mother leaves them to fend for themselves while she pursues a different life.

Akira (Yuya), the oldest, and his 10-year-old sister Kyoko seem to be used to their mom's occasional absences. At first we're a little surprised that she leaves them home alone while she goes to work. Then we're completely flabbergasted when this selfish woman splits for a vacation with her new man, though she's provided them with money which Akira carefully budgets using the math skills he learned during his short stint at school. But once her latest disappearance threatens to turn into a full-scale desertion, that's when the dread takes hold.

Kore-eda is probably best known for 1998's After Life, a lovely meditation on death and memory. He filmed Nobody Knows over the course of a year and a half, which allowed him to illustrate the actual progression of time: Kids got bigger, voices deepened, hair grew, seasons changed. All of the children seem completely comfortable in front of the camera, but Yuya is astounding --- what would normally be an understandably self-conscious time in a young man's life is on full, quiet display.

The film is basically just watching these resourceful kids get by from day to day as they try to remain a family. There are no histrionics, no madcap adventures --- only coloring, watching TV, doing laundry, and, in the case of the older kids, protecting the younger ones from some unnecessarily harsh realities. Playing outside is a luxury, as is school, as is worrying. So is an ending, happy or otherwise.

The people who confess to me their enjoyment of big-budget blockbusters do so with the sheepish shame of someone who is pro global warming or a really big Nixon fan ("Um, you know, well, I, uh, kind of liked National Treasure"). Matthew McConaughey's latest movie, Sahara, is another one of those silly, overblown flicks with no nutritive value and a plot like a colander. But if you disconnect your brain at the same time you turn off your cell phone, it's also a lot of fun. So stop being embarrassed --- junk food is supposed to be yummy. Would you prefer a steady diet of Brussels sprouts and A Beautiful Mind? Yuck.

Based on the novel by Clive Cussler, Sahara regales us with the tale of Dirk Pitt (McConaughey), an adventurer on the trail of a Civil War ironclad that legend has it made its way to Africa. He has an actual job doing something (?) for a marine agency, and as serendipity would have it, he and his crew happen to be in Africa. Also traversing the Dark Continent is Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a doctor with the World Health Organization, who is investigating the possible outbreak of a plague. Maybe they'll meet up, solve everyone's problems, and then kiss! That would be so... wait a second. I already saw this. They do.

McConaughey, all pearly-toothed and sun-punched, seems to be having a splendid time crashing boats, riding camels, jumping on trains, and thwarting Eurotrash. Cruz scowls her way through the proceedings, but there's no denying her spectacular, day-saving cleavage. Great supporting cast: William H. Macy plays Pitt's cigar-chomping boss, Delroy Lindo pops up as a CIA guy, and Steve Zahn --- oddly absent from the screen as of late --- does his usual baked sidekick thing, which, also oddly, never gets old.

Most first-time directors aren't trusted with a sky-high budget, but Breck Eisner was. Is it because his dad is Disney bigwig Michael Eisner? Maybe. Is it because when some studio stooge scribbled down his name it looked like "Bruckheimer"? That's more likely. Some mysteries just aren't meant to be solved. Eisner has an undeniable flair for the action sequence, if not believability, but who cares when stuff is blowing up?

The ads for Sahara are slightly misleading. The search for the ironclad is almost a MacGuffin designed to get our heroes from place to place, so if you're expecting a historical, DaVinci Code kind of romp, you may be disappointed. But if you've been hankering for a movie in which an African warlord and a French businessman must be prevented from ruining the environment, look no further.

I don't consider movies a group activity so I usually watch them alone, either at home or sitting in a theater with other critics. That insularity means I am pretty shocked almost every time I'm around a real live audience. Take, for instance, the women next to me at Sahara. McConaughey's shirtless appearances on the screen invariably led to a round of moans and twittering that was drowned out only by the sound of drool splashing onto the floor. Never mind whether I knew this lecherous duo (I did). I know Sahara isn't Citizen Kane, or even Citizen Kane II: Rosebud's Revenge, but doesn't anyone respect the moviegoing process anymore?

Nobody Knows(PG-13), directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Little Theatres. Sahara (PG-13), directed by Breck Eisner. Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatre, Cinemark Tinseltown, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Pittsford Cinema, Webster 12


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