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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Lantana
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

A movie's title is rarely an afterthought. Although commercial concerns no doubt drive the naming of many a movie, a good title is often a masterful metaphor. Two of the best films of the year 2001, but only now in wide release (another commercially driven practice aimed directly at The Oscar competition) are cleverly and aptly named. The cleverest title, by far, is "In The Bedroom". As a movie, it's not the sensuous celluloid encounter that some may have anticipated, but a disturbing and quiet study of grief. To apprehend the aptness of the title, one must pay careful attention to a scene early in the movie. It takes place on a lobster boat. The explanatory moment occurs during a conversation between a child and an avuncular adult. It's an unobtrusive moment, and I missed it the first time around.
     
"Lantana", a brilliant Australian film, provides its audience with no direct verbal clues regarding the meaning of the title. Unless you're an Aussie or an avid gardner, you'd have to have seen the movie poster to know why the title is such an appropriate metaphor for the film. 
     
Lantana, as the poster tells us, is a hardy, sub-tropical shrub. Its canopy of large green leaves and clusters of small pale flowerettes covers an interlocking jungle of woody, thorn-bearing stems.
     
Which is to say: appearances can be deceiving, that beneath our veneer of civility, a darker world may flourish.
    
It's not a new idea, of course. There aren't many of those around. What artists do is continually recast and reframe old ideas. They remind us, in original ways, of who and what we are, of where we've come from, and maybe, where we're going.
     
"Lantana" marks the re-emergence of Ray Lawrence, last heard from, almost 16 years ago, via the fascinating "Bliss", a semi-surreal film about a man's close brush with mortality, and his subsequent reassessment of his life. It's also about an urban jungle of duplicity and hypocracy."Bliss" never generated the attention it deserved. But it's available on video, and I highly recommend it to you. 
     
In "Lantana" Lawrence takes another look at urban society, gender, relationships, and, as in the fine "In The Bedroom", grief.
     
"Lantana" is Altmanesque, perhaps more like "Short Cuts", both in tone and story structure, than other Altman films. In an attempt to blunt the unlikelihood that its disparate characters could find themselves entangled by chance in each others' lives, Lawrence spices the plot of "Lantana" with a plateful of red herrings. 
     
The device works. Like the 'karass' in Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle", the paths of the half dozen or so major characters in "Lantana" criss cross into a complicated but believable climax. The resolutions are colored by karma. The director's eye aims unblinkingly at human foibles and the consequences we must endure. There is grief and suffering, but not without the suggestion of redemption for those who would look honestly into the thorny underbrush of their lives.
     
The acting ranges from good to superb. Anthony LaPaglia is excellent as Leon Zat, a Sydney police officer. Approaching middle age, Zat finds himself "numb", unable to feel anything. A one-night-stand leads Zat and the audience into a fascinating portrait of believable adults, each negotiating an emotional crisis. Leavened by an occasional dash of humor, Ray Lawrence has us rooting for all of his characters. And we ought to. They are so believably drawn that we can find ourselves in each of them.
     
"Lantana" is a major film, made by an artist who understands us. Miss this and you will have missed one of the finest films of the year.
     
For KUSP's Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton 2002