Three years after he slipped into the north Atlantic in Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio has washed up on The Beach. In the interim, the baby-faced idol appeared in just a couple of low-profile movies. Off-screen, he was seen but not heard, turning down all interview requests but repeatedly showing up in the media as the leader of an infamous party posse. DiCaprio spurned a number of projects—among them the forthcoming, controversial American Psycho. Finally, he signed on to The Beach, a gripping adaptation of 29-year-old British author Alex Garland’s best-selling novel about Gen X travellers in Southeast Asia.
When DiCaprio took the role of Richard, the film’s thrill-seeking protagonist, the character’s nationality was changed from British to American. Reworked, Richard is more brash, less subtle and much more of a heartthrob—in the movie he even gets the girl (Virginie Ledoyen) he can only long for in the novel. When Richard arrives in Thai-
land, he rooms beside a delirious Scotsman named Daffy. Played by the remarkable Robert Carlyle ( Trainspotting, The Full Monty), Daffy soon kills himself, but not before leaving Richard a map to a remote utopia, a perfect beach.
The beach community—multinational modern-day hippies enjoying heaven on a remote island—forms the basis of filmmaker Danny Boyle’s third successful portrayal of apathetic, cynical and self-destructive twentysomethings. This time, the director of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting targets young men who, while never having been to war, have memorized all the lines in Apocalypse Now and imagine violence is no more horrific than that appearing on their Nintendo Game Boys. Boyle is sympathetic to the young travellers’ desire for something real and untainted by the commercial world, but casts a cold eye on the tragedy that follows their thoughtless hedonism.
The problem in paradise is that the tourists share their island with local drug lords. And as the inevitable danger encroaches, Richard’s taste for thrills becomes a hunger for violence. He spends most of the second half of the movie exploring his inner Kurtz, drawing the wrath of the island’s marijuana growers.
In The Beach, DiCaprio joins The Talented Mr. Ripleys Matt Damon as another Hollywood golden boy out to convince audiences that he can play dark roles. Ultimately, DiCaprio is convincing. In 1998, the actor drew acclaim for parodying himself as the quintessential Hollywood bad boy in Woody Allen’s Celebrity. And in his earliest movies— What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or The Basketball Diaries—he was effective playing less-than-heroic youths. With The Beach, DiCaprio returns to the kind of role that originally heralded him as a premier actor of his generation.
Train of Life
Directed by Radu Mihaileanu
A Holocaust comedy is still a rare beast, and Radu Mihaileanu’s extraordinary French-language movie is bound to be compared to Roberto Benignis Life Is Beautiful. The Italian comedian’s film, about a waiter who convinces his fiveyear-old son that they are on holiday instead of in a death camp, was an Oscarwinning hit. But it also rankled many who felt it risked trivializing one of history’s greatest crimes. Mihaileanu’s haunting but very funny fable, however, trivializes nothing at all.
The story opens in the summer of 1941 in Romania, where Mihaileanu was born. In an isolated shtetl—a Jewish village—the elders cannot think of anything to do to save their people from the slowly encroaching Nazis. Then Shlomo, the village idiot—in truth, more a Shakespearean fool—makes an inspired suggestion. The villagers will secretly acquire a train, dress half their men as Nazi soldiers, and fake their own deportation—all the way to Palestine.
The first half of Train of Life is an affectionate re-creation of an idealized prewar shtetl, with its hierarchies, endless amicable squabbles and ingenious adaptability. After they board the train, however, the film turns both darker and more unreal. The pretend Nazis become increasingly authoritarian, while the others dissolve into factions. When a breakaway Marxist group flees, the “Germans” force them back into the cars, edging the fake deportation train perilously close to the real thing.
Just as the increasing implausibility begins to threaten his film, Mihaileanu shifts gears with an abrupt ending. The conclusion is both surprising and tragically inevitable, and makes Train of Life a moving tribute to a way of life now utterly destroyed.
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