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JULY 24, 2000: 

What Lies Beneath

I won't be giving away any plot secrets if I reveal that the most dramatic moment in this glossy yet inane thriller involves a protracted close-up of human toes. Said digits may actually be the most original element director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact) tosses into his MacGuffin-stuffed hybrid of Fatal Attraction and The Sixth Sense.

Michelle Pfeiffer is solid and sympathetic as the ridiculously self-sacrificing wife of a grumpy academic bigwig (a risible Harrison Ford) who discovers she's channeling the vengeful spirit of a missing student (Amber Valletta). Zemeckis crams every horror-movie ruse -- nightly rain, a creepy neighbor, a rambling house, a dearth of lamps, a foggy lakeside locale, you name it -- into what amounts to Me, Myself & Some Dead Chick. It all gets the adrenaline coursing, but the "Boo!" barrage never feels particularly perilous, just manipulative and contrived. Same for the film's attempts to rile women's anger with an allegorical subtext of female repression and revenge. A stupid, action-packed movie that advocates the all-men-are-dicks theory? We just may have found this summer's Double Jeopardy. -- Alicia Potter


Shower

Dripping with film-festival awards, Zhang Yang's second feature (his first was called Spicy Love Soup) serves up what Western audiences seem to want in their subtitled fare -- sentimentality and the quaintly exotic. At least we don't watch the drama unfold through a child's eyes. But in its own insistently heartwarming way, Shower is as formulaic as a Jerry Bruckheimer production. It's a lot more subtle, but no more trustworthy.

Mistakenly believing his father has died, Da Ming, a poker-faced businessman, returns home to settle his family affairs. His old neighborhood has barely changed -- it's a far cry from the rapidly modernizing city where he now works. Among the staples of everyday life is the communal bathhouse, which is run by his father, Master Liu. The whims of the outside world barely register inside its fading walls, where old men gather daily to gamble on cricket fights and a chubby teenager practices an opera aria, finding his voice under the relaxing spray of a hot shower. Da Ming is merely a visitor here, but his retarded younger brother, Er Ming, helps run the show.

It takes just a single whiff of true community -- plus his father's failing health -- to melt Da Ming's icy resistance. Yet Pu Cun Xin refuses to pander in the role, remaining largely stoic even as he loosens up, grimace by grimace. Jiang Wu's shameless Er Ming is another story entirely. Must the slow son wear a childlike haircut? The way he and his father take nightly exercise together is a lovely touch -- but must they wear twin electric-blue tracksuits? And must Er Ming hike up the legs of his pants as he gallops goofily around the block? This kind of syrupy detail mucks up an otherwise well-wrought tale -- then again, it's this kind of syrupy detail that makes movies like Shower popular. Call me a wet blanket for not joining in. -- Scott Heller


Set Me Free

Léa Pool's memoir of growing up in '50s Montreal centers on Hanna (Karine Vanasse), who's 13 and confused. Her Holocaust-survivor father (Miki Manojlovic) is an aspiring poet who takes out his frustrations on Hanna, her brother (Alexandre Mérineau), and their depressive gentile mother (Pascale Bussières). In between mom's suicide attempts and dad's rampages, Hanna takes refuge, like Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, at the movies. Her favorite film is Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie, but she can't decide whether she wants to be Anna Karina's prostitute character or is in love with her. The film shares a similar identity crisis, wavering between sentimental if offbeat coming-of-age tale and incisive, disturbing critique of the patriarchal family and gender roles. -- Peter Keough


Pokémon: The Movie 2000

This sequel is a marked improvement over the first big-screen adaptation of the kiddie-craze-turned-economic-empire. Sure there's more infernally insipid Poke banter, but the animation is crisper and the story line is more adventurous and better told.

In the feature segment, "The Power of One," the world's weather system is thrown into disarray because a self-interested Pokémon collector has hijacked the Titans of Fire and Lightning (giant birds with a lethal discharge). When the guardian of the deep (a majestic bird-seal-dragon thingy) can't restore harmony, it's up to kid Pokémon trainer Ash to save the world; in the process two teenybopper maidens vie for his affections. The cute and cuddly electro-vermin Pikachu gets plenty of screen time (he heads the all-Pokémon short "Pikachu's Rescue Adventure"), and the misfits from Team Rocket drop in too. This is reasonable family entertainment and a sure sign of more to come. -- Tom Meek


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