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In Brief:
"I Dreamed of Africa" and "Up at the Villa"

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In I Dreamed of Africa, Kim Basinger plays the real-life Kuki Gallmann, who, in 1972, left her life of patrician privilege in Venice to settle with her husband (Vincent Perez) and young son in rural Kenya. In the beginning, the hardships are routine, but by the time a lion mauls the family dog, we're pretty sure things will only get worse. And do they ever. "Why does love cost us so much?" Kuki asks in one of her periodic inspirational voice-overs. We're supposed to see her sacrifice as the price one pays for finding meaning in life, but it's difficult to suppress the notion that she and her family would be a lot better off far away from all the poachers and puff adders. The film, lackadaisically directed by Hugh Hudson, never really makes it humanly clear what keeps Kuki going, but the African vistas are breathtaking -- you were expecting otherwise? -- and so is Kim Basinger, whose lily-of-the-valley loveliness is incandescent amid all the sun-baked earth tones. She gives Kuki's indomitability a poetic force; Africa for this woman is one long ravishment. . . . Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novella of romance and murder set in 1938 Tuscany and directed by Philip (Angels & Insects) Haas, the lackluster Up at the Villa features actors who appear to be either exactly right for their roles -- like James Fox, as the soon-to-be-appointed governor of Bengal -- or exactly wrong, like Sean Penn, as an American playboy-dandy, and Jeremy Davies, as an Austrian refugee. Kristin Scott Thomas, who might seem well cast as an English beauty in murderous straits, turns out to be all wrong, too: Her poise, which once seemed so sensual, has now reached the freezing point.


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