A Review by Mark McLeod
May 23rd 2002
"Lantana" is film that I've had a great deal of interest in ever since I first heard about it while watching an episode of "Ebert and Roeper ". Their positive review of the film intrigued me causing me to search high and low for the film on the theatrical schedules but like many films before it never received a theatrical release in my home town of Vancouver. Thinking that I'd have a long wait until the eventual home video/DVD release I put the film out of my mind which is pretty easy considering the numbers of films I see in a year. Time passed and the film was back in the news after winning seven Australia Film Institute awards including Best Picture stealing that and many others from fellow nominee and my favorite film of 2001 "Moulin Rouge". It was shortly after this win that Lions Gate announced the upcoming DVD release which would finally allow me to see the film.
Leon Zat (Anthony Lapaglia) is a detective with the Sydney police department who is good at what he does. He's married to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) but their relationship has seen better days as Leon is now looking elsewhere for sex. He finds what he's looking for in Jane (Rachel Blake) a woman who just happens to be in the same Latin dance class that he and his wife take a couple night's a week. Sonja believes that something is wrong with Leon and decides to begin seeing a shrink. She chooses Dr Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) who comes well recommended. In their meetings she explains that the problem isn't that Leon is seeing someone else but that he is not being up front and honest about it. Meanwhile Valerie is experiencing some problems of her own as her marriage to law professor John Knox (Geoffrey Rush) has not been the same since the sudden and tragic death of their 11 year old daughter just two years prior. Valerie found the strength to continue on when she wrote a book which is an approach John didn't agree with. She also suspects that John's been having an affair with a client of her's, a gay man by the name of Patrick (Peter Phelps) who taunts her relentlessly during their sessions about an affair he's been having with a married man. Leon doesn't know this but Jane is also married although she is estranged from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). Also entering into the story are Jane's next door neighbors Paula (Daniella Farinacci) and Nik (Vince Colosimo) who have two children and are in the only truly happy marriage in the film. Things move along slowly and the characters emotional and physical stresses begin to grow deeper and deeper until one day someone disappears, another witnesses an important event and the others become suspects. Leon and his partner Claudia are assigned to the case and an investigation causes our characters to truly question their own lives.
"Lantana" was billed on "Ebert and Roeper" as a thriller and as such I was expecting a vastly different film going in. I was expecting the film to expand more on the woman's disappearance and carry that story line through to it's conclusion. Instead the film is a thriller of a different sort focusing more on the reactions and motivations of the characters then the events that occur in the film. In fact the disappearance of the female character does not occur until more then half way through the film. "Lantana" is truly an intimate character study dealing with the lives of many different individuals and how their happiness or lack thereof has affected their state of mind. The screenplay by Andrew Bovell is based on his off-Broadway play "Speaking in Tongues" which he expanded upon for this feature film. It doesn't surprise me that the origins of the story come from the stage because the film plays out much like a play would in that it's more dialogue driven then event driven. Director Ray Lawrence and writer Andrew Bovell focus more on the human side of the story weaving an intricate and well detailed account of the lives of a group of people who have long since passed the time in their lives when they were truly happy. Together they show how people become a custom to coasting through life in a haze and without putting any real effort or thought into the way they are living. It also presents a valid argument for the definition of happiness which can mean many things to many people. Is happiness an abundance of pleasure? or is it simply just a lack of pain or discomfort?. These are the central issues explored in "Lantana".
Strong casting is one if not the most important aspect of any character driven ensemble film and luckily casting director Suzie Maizels has put together an excellent cast for "Lantana". There isn't a weak performance in the bunch covering all the lead roles and the smaller supporting ones. Anthony Lapaglia is an Australian actor who usually plays a tough cop type role or something along those lines. I was first introduced to him in the film "Empire Records" where he played the no-nonsense boss of a record store. I'm not sure what it was but there was just something about him in that film that elevated it to another level. It was around the same time that he was starring on ABC's "Murder One" a show that had the unique idea of carrying one murder case throughout an entire season. Although the show would change it's format half way through the season due to poor ratings and ended up being cancelled shortly thereafter Lapaglia's Jimmy Wyler was one of the stronger lawyer characters I've ever seen on the small screen. In "Lantana" Lapaglia is a cop whose work has taken it's toll on his personal life and his performance suits the role perfectly. Geoffrey Rush best known to American audiences from his role in "Shine" carries his moderate sized role well showing a range of emotions and adding depth to what could easily come across as a shallow character. Barbara Hershey is in fine form as Dr Valerie Somers a well known psychiatrist who appears calm on the outside but inside is barely keeping it together. Aussie TV veteran Kerry Armstrong gives an excellent performance as a middle aged woman who doesn't want to leave her husband but yearns for more then he can give her. Also giving a top notch performance is Rachel Blake as Jane a woman who agree's to a one night stand that ends up going on for much longer then originally planned.
Director Ray Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Bovell have created an interesting feature film that combines elements of thrillers and dramas and blends them together in just the right way. The pacing is deliberately slow allowing the viewers to get to know the characters before their worlds are turned upside down by a tragic event. I'd tend to classify the film as more of a drama then a thriller as it's more like "Magnolia" then "Double Jeopardy". As a thriller it tends to let down the audience as there aren't really all that many twists. Those looking for a film that twists and turns due to the story line will not find much of either in this film. However if your looking for a smartly written character study dealing with the different effects that marriage can have on people then you need not look any further then "Lantana". Strong performances from the entire cast combined with an interesting look at marriage and it's effects make "Lantana" well worth watching.
Movie Rating : 8/10
VIDEO: I've been critical of Lions Gate's transfers in recent months feeling that they weren't hitting the same marks as some of their competitors. It's been tough to determine if the fault lies in the films themselves being that they are often small budget independent type productions or if the studio just hasn't been putting in as much work as other studio have. The transfer on "O" was a bit soft and dark for my liking and "Tape" did nothing to hide it's digital video origins. I'm happy to report that "Lantana" doesn't suffer from any of these major problems and is a giant step in the right direction for the studio. Presented with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen "Lantana" is by far the best transfer I've seen from Lions Gate in recent memory. The film as a whole is very dark and the majority of the scenes take place during the night or in darkly lit locations like rooms, forests and streets. As you all know dark scenes are one of the hardest things to capture accurately on DVD and Lions Gate has done a nice job as the brightness is at the right level with perfect contrast. It's never to dark to make out the on-screen action and it's not overly bright either. Day time scenes are also right on target with the images of the lush Australian countryside appearing as if you were looking at a picture book. Colors are sharp during the daytime exteriors and muted in the interiors coming across as very natural. The print used is good shape with only a few minor print specks that appear over the course of the two hour. The image is sharp and well defined throughout without succumbing to softness at any point. There is a touch of edge enhancement but it's never at a point where it becomes a distraction. Lions Gate has done an excellent job here.
Video Rating : 8.5/10
SOUND: Lions Gate Home Entertainment brings "Lantana" to DVD with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. Since the film did not receive a theatrical release in Vancouver I was unsure of what to expect in terms of an audio experience. Imagine my surprise when I popped in the disc to find a subtle yet completely enveloping audio mix. The film comes alive through the soundtrack which is constantly engaging from start to finish. The film wastes no time at all as the opening scene opens the sound stage up to all 5 speakers with the hums of many insects getting louder and louder until it's almost unbearable. The use of sound works well for this film as it helps elevate the tension of the characters to the next level with it's haunting score. The score is the primary component of the mix and it fills the room nicely from all five channels. Surround use is not just limited to the score as the many exterior scenes place everything from sirens to crickets to voices in the rear speakers. Split channel surround effects are used during the film's more action packed sequences. These sequences sound natural and are recorded at a nice level. The film contains one of my favorite sound tricks where a car drives away and the sound of the car goes from the front to the back or from the right to the left. I know this is used in almost every movie but it's things like this that continue to impress me with the digital sound present on the DVD format. Dialogue is anchored firmly in the center channel with the exception of one scene where one of the characters is giving a lecture. In that scene the dialog echoes throughout the room like it would if you were at the lecture hall. Bass comes into play a number of times in the film including scenes where you wouldn't expect it. The LFE channel get's a moderate workout but it's nothing that's going to do permanent damage to either your sub or your home. A well rounded audio experience that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats by adding tension to an already tense film.
Audio Rating : 9/10
EXTRAS: "The Nature of Lantana" is a nearly 30 minute long look at the filming of "Lantana". This isn't your generic promotional fluff piece as it covers the production of the film in great depth. Starting from the beginning this documentary details the selection of the cast from the director and writer's perspective, the concepts and themes of the film, the problems getting the film made, the choice of a composer and numerous other subjects. Interviews with the ensemble cast as well as producer Jan Chapman, composer Paul Kelly, writer Andrew Bovell and director Ray Lawrence make up the majority of the documentary. The interviews for the most part are very interesting as each actor or actress discusses the reasons they wanted to be involved with the project and the motivations they brought to their roles. By watching these interviews it's clear that everyone in the cast is doing the film for the right reasons and that they truly believe in the material. The documentary does contain some clips from the film but thankfully these are kept to a minimum and with the exception of one or two brief scenes are spoiler free. It should be noted that the video quality varies throughout the piece with some of the interviews looking like they were shot on consumer grade VHS tape. It's not really a distraction as the final product itself is quite fulfilling.
Also included and hiding underneath the Lions Gate Entertainment logo on the main menu are trailers for Monsters Ball (Full-Frame/2.0), Perfume (Full-Frame/2.0) and American Psycho 2 (1.85:1/2.0). When the logo is selected all three play one after another in sequence. The film's theatrical trailer is also included and is located on the Special Features menu.
According to the back cover a collection of deleted scenes were to be included on the disc. However looking through the disc they are nowhere to be found. This is a bit disappointing but there is nothing that can be done about it now. I'd chalk this up to an labelling mistake and let it go at that.
Extras Rating : 7/10
Final Thoughts: "Lantana" is a strong film that will appeal to any one who likes well acted and well written character driven stories. Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" will find similar things to like in this Australian drama. I'm not surprised that this film won a number of awards in Australia as it is by far one of the best non Hollywood films I've seen in the past year. Lions Gate Home Entertainment have done an excellent job on this DVD edition by including a top notch anamorphic transfer, a strong yet subtle Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and a very interesting documentary on the making of the film. Surely this DVD will serve as an introduction to the film for many American's while fans of the film will finally be able to view it in the comfort of their own homes. The film isn't for everyone and people who like mindless fare will probably not enjoy the film. However if your a fan of the genre or similar films then there is no reason not to pick up "Lantana". Highly Recommended.
Disc Rating : 8/10