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Friday, May 19, 2000

Washed up on 'The Beach'


Director Danny Boyle (of "Trainspotting" fame) has a new film out there; it's called "The Beach," though if you haven't been looking closely at the ads, you might have supposed it's called "Leonardo DiCaprio."

Yes, that's right, the boy wonder (it's a wonder anyone takes him seriously) is back, and the hype surrounding Leo's long-anticipated return to the screen has largely stolen the limelight from the director. And a good thing for him too, for if anyone was paying attention, they'd see that Boyle has sold his soul to the Hollywood machine.

Not that "The Beach" was necessarily a bad project for Boyle to embark upon. Like Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting," author Alex Garland's novel was a cult hit in the U.K., zooming in on a drop-out culture -- travelers in Thailand instead of Scottish junkies -- the nuances and mores of which become the very substance of the tale. Throw in plenty of drugs, a current Brit-pop soundtrack, and some knowing, cynical voice-overs, and you have the makings of "Trainspotting 2."

Well, on paper at least. The film starts off all right as beach bum Richard (DiCaprio), bored of the beaten path, runs into the quite mad Daffy (Robert Carlyle) in a roach-infested hostel in Bangkok. Daffy tells him of a mysterious island beach, paradise on earth, in an utterly secret location. Bringing along the French couple rooming next to him (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet), Richard embarks on a quest to find this mythical beach.

Sure enough, he does, discovering that the island is inhabited by both well-armed Thai dope farmers, and a self-sufficient hippie commune run by a control freak named Sal (Tilda Swinton), who forbids anyone to leave the island. Sal will go to any lengths to keep this paradise private, which gets a bit out of hand when others start to arrive . . .

The film does a decent job of capturing the feel of the traveler scene, while Darius Khondji's ("Seven") camera-work is as stunning as ever. Some of the casting as well is spot-on -- Carlyle's acid-fried nutter will certainly look familiar to anyone who's been to Koh Pha Ngan, while Swinton comes across like a hippie version of Margaret Thatcher. But, as expected, the film sinks on a shoal named Leo.

DiCaprio does all right for the first half of the film, playing a rather average American lad of about his own age. But when Richard is exiled from the commune and starts eating bugs and imagining himself to be Martin Sheen from "Apocalypse Now," the movie just falls apart. Leo's performance is well over the top -- just try not to laugh when he bursts from the underbrush hissing like a snake.

Sellout is a charge that's often used too liberally, but it's certainly accurate here. The lead character in Garland's novel was a Brit; Boyle chose to cast the very American DiCaprio, so he claims, in order to "add to the film's international feel." Now there's an idea: We need more Americans in Hollywood films to make them more "international."

What Boyle really meant to say -- before he caught himself -- was "we'll sell 50 times as many tickets with Leo in the film and all be filthy rich, rich, RICH!" Of course any deal with the devil has its price; Leo -- now a star with an ego big enough to warp the trajectory of any film he's in -- would not play Richard, the protagonist of Garland's novel. Rather, Richard would be shaped to fit the image Leo wanted to project.

Thus an undercurrent of romantic tension with the French girl becomes a full-blown shag fest, and an additional shag with the commune's hippie queen Sal is invented just to make Leo look more buff -- every woman in the film has to fall for Leo. Ultimately, "The Beach" spends so much time lingering on Leo, that it fails to be about anything else.

By the time the references to "Apocalypse Now" and video-game realities start to drop like so many zapped moths, the viewer strains to make sense of the proceedings. "Apocalypse Now" was a brilliant evocation of the internal struggle against the pull of evil and madness; "The Beach" is about quoting a film that was about something -- a cheap post-modernist move that seeks to imply depth where there is none.

As such, it's a perfect reflection of its star: Pretty vacant.

"The Beach" is playing at Hibiya Eiga and other theaters.

Screening from May 19 to June 4 at Kokusai Koryu Kikin Forum in Akasaka, the Mediterranean Film Festival 2000 is a much-needed overview of a section of world cinema rarely glimpsed on Tokyo screens. With 34 films from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Greece, there's certainly a lot to choose from.

There are plenty of unknowns in the mix, but a few gems stand out. Especially recommended is the highly acclaimed Lebanese film "West Beirut," the debut by Zaid Doueiri, Quentin Tarantino's assistant cameraman. Doueiri's film captures Beirut in the agonies of civil war in 1975, as seen through the eyes of a pair of Muslim high school boys, who seem more concerned with girls and Super-8 film than the conflict around them. Funny, poignant and unforgettable.

Also recommended is "The Silences of the Palace," a gorgeously shot Tunisian film that won the Camera d'Or award at Cannes in 1994. "Silences" tracks the memories of a singer who was raised by a concubine in one of Tunisia's last royal harems. Big on ambience, it also boasts an achingly beautiful soundtrack.

From Egypt is highly respected director Youssef Chanine's latest, "The Other," a modern-day "Romeo and Juliet" that highlights a lot of the religious/social tensions racking Egypt, and Radwan El-Kashef's "Date Wine," which is a much dreamier tale, set in a desert village emptied of men but for one young boy. Finally, there's "Mektoub" from Morocco, a controversial film based on a disturbing real-life incident involving a serial rapist cop who videotaped his victims.

Quality seems strong all around, so it wouldn't hurt to pick a few films at random and treat yourself to the sights, sounds and thoughts of the Arab world -- there is indeed life and culture beyond the stereotypes.

Screenings are as follows: "West Beirut," May 20, 7:30 p.m. and May 26, 4:30 p.m.; "The Silences of the Palace," May 27, 2 p.m. and June 3, 7 p.m.; "The Other," May 19, 7 p.m., May 25, 4:30 p.m., and June 4, 4:30 p.m.; "Date Wine," May 22, 2 p.m. and May 31, 7 p.m.; "Mektoub," May 20, 5:30 p.m. and May 26, 2 p.m. Call (03) 5562-4422 for more info, or go to www.jpf.go.jp/


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