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SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: 

The Astronaut's Wife

By the time a character in The Astronaut's Wife succumbs to a "severe insult to the brain" in the early going, those few who have ventured out to see this bewildering anomaly unceremoniously dumped by its studio will feel they have suffered the same. Which is just as well, because the sooner such rational notions as plot and point are discarded, the more rewarding this wild indulgence in style over substance becomes.

Johnny Depp has had stranger roles than that of Spencer Armacost, space-shuttle pilot who gives the world and wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) a scare when one of his flights is interrupted by an explosion and a two-minute hiatus in contact with ground control. He returns with his syrupy Southern accent intact to impregnate Jillian with twins, but something is not quite right, especially when he starts working with a creepy military contractor.

Inevitable comparisons have been drawn to Rosemary's Baby and other lesser sci-fi standards, and first-time director Rand Ravich (screenwriter of Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) aspires to Polanski's baroque style without achieving much of his wit or clarity. But though not many fans of the genre are going to be thrilled with a climax involving an old Philco radio, and most will find the frenetic imagery pretentious and gratuitous, Wife's insults to the brain sometimes resemble strokes of genius.

-- Peter Keough

The 13th Warrior

In John McTiernan's 1990 film adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, the director avoided subtitles by simply having his Russians slip into English. The same trick works in this adaptation of the Michael Crichton bestseller Eaters of the Dead, where everyone considerately falls into English when 10th-century Vikings meet up with Arab emissary Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas), a wayward poet forced into ambassadorship. Exiled from his homeland for an indiscretion with an influential statesman's wife, and accompanied by his manservant Melchisidek (Omar Sharif), Ahmed is seized by Viking warriors who determine that he is the non-Viking "13th warrior" whose help they need against a mysterious flash-eating enemy that the elderly King Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) and his young wife, Queen Weilaw (Diane Venora), are battling back home. The mighty Norsemen poke mead-hall fun at their ally when he proves too weak to wield a broadsword; but Banderas, charismatic as ever, turns out to be pretty kick-ass (as we knew from Zorro), and this literate entertainment -- it's a loose retelling of Beowulf -- turns out to be a pleasing actioner.

-- Tom Meek

Outside Providence

Pitched as the latest film by those wild and crazy Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary), Outside Providence is actually based on a Peter Farrelly novel that preceded the filmmakers' reign as kings of gross-out comedy. It's a sweet, if minor, coming-of-age story in which Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy) gets one big chance to escape gritty Pawtucket when he spends senior year at a snooty boarding school. Leaving behind a crippled kid brother, his perennially stoned friends, and his gruff-but-tender dad (Alec Baldwin, doing a fine Ralph Kramden), Dunph maintains his integrity, never truly trading in the blue collar for a blue blazer.

The Farrellys, sharing script credit with director Michael Corrente, skirt many of the expected clichés, but the story they deliver is as thin as rolling paper. Fussy teachers and preppy antagonists are introduced, then dropped. The requisite rich girlfriend (Amy Smart) never amounts to much. Still, Hatosy shines: he's swan-necked, snaggle-toothed, and enormously likable, and his exchanges with the testy Baldwin are wonderful. So is a gay-baiting scene among Baldwin's poker buddies that takes a rich and surprising turn. But Corrente, helming his third unexceptional feature, marks way too much time with pointless montages set to a wall-to-wall soundtrack of 1970s crotch rock. Although it shares certain plot points with Rushmore, Outside Providence is a good deal less.

-- Scott Heller


William Roth's overwrought coming-of-age tale constructs an increasingly combustible structure of conflict and tension. As simmering protagonist Van, who's caught between caring for his alcoholic and wheelchair-bound father (Will Lyman) and wanting to go to college, Norman Reedus taps into rage and tenderness while remaining sympathetic. The family were once prominent members of a quaint, New England lakefront community, but following a car accident, Van's mother abandoned the men to a ramshackle cottage and despair. Neither does Van's girlfriend, Julie (Sybil Temchin), offer much support. With no outlet for his anger, Van begins to run with a pair of free-spirited punks (Jonathan Quint and Josh Machette). Then he encounters Doug (Chad Lowe), who has the perfect family (in fact, they live in Van's old house) and is the big-time college swimmer that Van dreams of becoming. But all for Doug is not what it seems: he has a secret and, like Van, struggles against a self-interested, controlling father (Bruce Kenny). Strong acting and taut direction almost spark the kind of tragic romanticism that recalls James Dean, but in its floundering ending Floating can't keep its head above water.

-- Tom Meek

Chill Factor

This Speed clone from Hugh Johnson describes the effect of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar on your career. David Paymer, who was nominated for Mr. Saturday Night, waxes portentous and absurd as Dr. Long, inventor of a lethal chemical weapon. When a test goes awry and soldiers are killed, Dr. Long takes up fishing and intoning phrases like "I am become death, destroyer of worlds" -- until Colonel Brynner (Peter Firth), the officer scapegoated and imprisoned for the test debacle, returns with a commando team to seize the weapon (code-named Elvis, as in "Elvis has left the building" -- the movie doesn't get any funnier) and propel Paymer into the most prolonged and lugubrious death scene of any career.

But first Dr. Long slips Elvis to local yokel Tim Mason (Skeet Ulrich in the Keanu Reeves part). Enter Best Supporting Actor victim number two, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mr. "Show Me the Money!" from Jerry Maguire. He's Arlo, the driver of an ice-cream truck, and since Elvis ignites when it reaches 50 degrees, Mason commandeers Arlo and his vehicle to get the blue goo to safety. With Brynner in bumbling pursuit, the ice-cream truck is succeeded by a rowboat and a UPS van, and cell phones and styrofoam coolers figure heavily in one of the most desultory chases since Speed 2. Gooding brings to the Sandra Bullock role all the charisma of Jar Jar Binks; he better hope his Pepsi One campaign doesn't go cold.

-- Peter Keough

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