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Mysteries of the Heart
By Laura Leon

Lantana
Directed by Ray Lawrence

Let’s deal with the first mystery: the title. No, Lantana is not the name of some L.A. suburb that’s rife with infidelity and mischief, nor is it the name of an exotic femme fatale living in that kind of setting. Rather, it is an Australian bush whose delicate blossoms belie its thorny, snakelike branches and roots. The title of Ray Lawrence’s movie is doubly apt: Not only does the film take place in the environs of steamy Sydney, where lush lantanas seem to have a chokehold on the local roadsides, but it concerns myriad mysteries, some criminal, and others, far more sinisterly related to the heart.

Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is a cop whose helplessness to the realities of middle age—an expanding waistline and an increasingly sterile emotional life—gives way to, as he bluntly describes it, “a one-night stand that lasts two nights” with Jane (Rachael Blake). Meanwhile, wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) confides her domestic frustrations to psychologist Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who is herself on shaky emotional ground due to the murder of her daughter and growing doubts that her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), is having a homosexual affair. The lives of these characters collide in unexpected, often calamitous ways when Valerie disappears. In charge of the investigation, Leon discovers far more than he bargained for when he finds his wife’s name in the missing doctor’s client list.

The many coincidences that fuel Lantana seem, on paper, to be contrived. Yet Lawrence and writer Andrew Bovell (adapting his play Speaking in Tongues) consistently reward viewers by building those coincidences into something much more meaningful than, say, the groundwork for a whodunit. The lives of these characters intersect in ways both profound and mundane, and while viewers may be expecting some neat wrap-up to one of the film’s central mysteries, what they get instead is a thrilling, often painful evocation of modern love (what it is and what it isn’t), paranoia and betrayal. It shouldn’t spoil the movie to say that the biggest knot Leon and others try to unravel is that of the unfathomable puzzles of life that change our selves and our relationships. Despite their shared grief, John pulls away from Valerie; her abject neediness is something he is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to fill. On the surface, Leon clings to the notion that his marriage is happy and passionate, even as the silences between him and Sonja grow more pronounced.

No wonder, then, that Jane wonders at the stability and genuine happiness of working-class neighbors Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci). At one point, she asks Paula how she knows that Nik didn’t do something of which he is accused. Paula simply states, “Because I asked him.”

Bolstered by outstanding performances, especially by LaPaglia, Lantana balances the complexities of its central theme while never losing its cohesion, and, as if that weren’t enough, posits some tantalizingly difficult ideas about the nature of love and honesty, and the place therein for necessary deceit.

Shallow Wells

The Time Machine
Directed by Simon Wells and Gore Verbinski

The new-millennium adaptation of H.G. Wells’ philosophical sci-fi classic The Time Machine makes only one interesting point: that contemporary cinema is in a state of devolution. (For further proof, see last year’s Planet of the Apes.) You’d think a film shot in the year 2001 and directed by Wells’ great-grandson, Simon, might have a jolt of future shock, but no. This mass-market version is simplified to bare-bones clichés and special effects. Accordingly, Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce), a nutty professor in 1890s New York City, invents a time machine (materializing as a cross between a Victorian reading chair and a state-of-the-art tanning booth) in order to prevent the death of his fiancée, Emma (Sienna Guillory). We know that Alex is a freethinker because he gripes about the ubiquity of bowler hats.

Powerless to stop Emma’s demise, Alex travels to the year 2037, where everyone is intensely aerobicized and there isn’t a bowler in sight. The densely detailed set design is utterly without nuance, but there is a moment of amazement: Alex finds a parking spot right off the bat. Shortly after, he bonks his head on the machine’s crystal joystick, sleeps through an ice age, and ends up 800,000 years in the future and about eight centuries backward in human evolution. New York City is now a primordial wilderness inhabited by two races: the attractively multi-culti Eloi, who live in chrysalis-like, cliffside abodes; and the pasty, practically noseless Morlocks, who reside in an old sewer system.

The Morlocks have superhuman strength and dexterity (they also have bright blond hair, in case anyone is wondering what the white devils of the future will look like) and hunt the Eloi for food. In pursuit, they speed-leap like robotronic jackrabbits, and with about as much believability of movement. Maybe that’s because they’re under the mind control of the über-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons with the film’s only hint of realpolitik. Alex is ministered to by the loveliest Eloi (Samantha Mumba), making all that whirling around with his brass gewgaws rather worthwhile.

The film isn’t horribly bad, just silly and so uninspired that the change in directors is unnoticeable. (The
Mexican
’s Gore Verbinski took over in the final stretch.) Pearce is appealing as the heartsick scientist who must ponder such vapid platitudes as
“I wonder if we’ll go too far?” But the best role-playing is done by Albany’s Washington Park, which evocatively stands in for Central Park in the Gay Nineties.

—Ann Morrow


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