On celebrity drag nights, Judge Christopher Kulik's stage name is The African Queen.
Thailand is no place for a virgin.
While I was in the Navy, my ship docked several times at Pattaya Beach, Thailand. Little more than a string of go-go bars and streets filled with prostitutes (both male and female), it was an alarming wake-up call for an 18-year-old with very little experience in the realm of sex and drugs. In college, I wrote a play entitled God's Toilet, about sailors on shore leave in Pattaya. It's one of the most disturbing places I've ever been and I have no intention of visiting again. So you can imagine watching a movie set in Thailand might be a challenge.
The 2006 film The Elephant King is about a young American named Oliver Hunt (Tate Ellington, Taking Chance) who gets seduced by the decadence of Thai nightlife. His older brother Jake (Jonno Roberts, Downstream) is sent to Thailand by his university to study a faux tribe. Now, Jake's an expatriate living it up in high style while his family is drowning in his debts. His mother Diana (Ellen Burstyn, Requiem For A Dream) pleads with Oliver to go to Thailand, "rescue" his brother, and bring him back so he can pay the piper. As a result, Oliver's innocence—and virginity—is put to the test in an exotic land he finds inviting and intoxicating.
It's hard to tell, but I think The Elephant King is striving to be some sort of coming-of-age tale. Writer-director Seth Grossman achieves an appropriately gloomy atmosphere, filming on-location in the streets of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. His personal experiences while living there fuel a realistic portrait of the tourist experience while avoiding Thai stereotypes. Grossman even has the guts to have scenes which have Thai characters talking to each other without subtitles. I found this aspect of the film to be daring, even logical, since everything is told from Oliver's point-of-view.
Alas, the story is thin and completely unsatisfying. The circumstances surrounding Jake being in Thailand are difficult to buy, for one thing, and it's even more difficult to believe parents who allow their other son to go there alone, knowing full well the dangers embedded in its dirty environment. What ultimately stains Grossman's script is its predictable pattern. Most people will see early on what will become of Oliver and how the relationship with his brother will be tainted and scarred. This familiarity goes double when it comes to Oliver's hookup with a sexy college student who works nights as a bartender. Ho-hum!
The one-note performances don't help, either. Ellington is utterly unconvincing as a virginal teenager and Roberts really overplays it at times. Furthermore, we aren't drawn to their characters and don't care about their plights. As for Burstyn, all she's really here for is marquee value, easily walking away with the movie's best scenes. I'm not sure what she saw in Grossman's script, which she surprisingly praises in the making-of featurette. Oh, well, at least she hasn't lost her special touch.
E1 Entertainment crowns The Elephant King with a respectful treatment on DVD. The sumptuous photography by Diego Diez looks great in the 1.78:1 anamorphic print, which is clean and free of debris. Local color is vivid, flesh tones are superb, and black levels are deep. Audio is equally impressive, with solid 5.1 and 2.0 tracks provided; dialogue is easily heard and environmental sounds are natural. Bonus features include an audio commentary with Roberts and Grossman. The director doesn't really go into specifics regarding how autobiographical the film is, and Roberts provides an odd comment every now and then. Rounding out extras is the aforementioned featurette. It runs for 10 minutes, interviewing several cast and crew members while shooting in Chiano Mai. Both of these extras are inconsequential, but E1 deserves points for trying.
An inert drama which is both downbeat and pointless, The Elephant King
is found guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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