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JUNE 29, 1998: 

Insomnia

From first-time Swedish director Erik Skjoldbjaerg comes this disturbing, expertly rendered neo-noir cop flick. The ubiquitous but incomparable Stellan Skarsgård (Amistad, Breaking the Waves) plays Engstrom, a Swedish detective investigating a teenage girl's murder in a small town near Oslo. Engstrom's reputation for ruthless fact-checking precedes him, and the local Norwegians are awestruck. But some undescribed recent trauma has him on the edge of a breakdown; he is dumfounded by the killer's methodical cleanliness, and he broods on the victim's youth and beauty. As if that weren't enough, it's high summer in the land of the midnight sun. Sleep-deprived, losing his grip on reality, Engstrom botches a near-perfect opportunity to nab the killer . . . and his partner winds up dead. What follows is a stunningly portrayed descent into moral and mental corrosion, wherein the line separating hunter and hunted blurs rapidly.

With minimal violence (four gunshots), and a clever mise-en-scène that inverts the expected film noir metaphor (here light rules), Insomnia is poised to infuse the contemporary crime-thriller genre with cool Nordic cunning. Skjoldbjaerg's taut pacing and calculated visuals have prompted comparisons to the Coen Brothers. But there is little of the black humor or cartoonish gore of Blood Simple or Fargo here, only a film that manages to be intimate and heart-rending as often as it is cold-blooded.

-- Peg Aloi


Dr. Dolittle

If you can talk to the animals, the one place you don't want to be is a dog pound. Dr. John Dolittle, as we all know from the children's stories by Hugh Lofting, is blessed/cursed with such an ability, and when he sets foot into the pound, one pooch mourns, "I promise I'll never bite again," while another mutt shouts, "Dead dog walking!" Yep, the animals are up on their pop culture, and Dolittle, played by Eddie Murphy, is the only one in on the secret. Trying to keep this ability hidden, Murphy displays some of the sneakiness of his Beverly Cop days. But he's not given the opportunity to create zany characters as he did in The Nutty Professor -- here, the animals star. Voiced by a who's who of comics, these furballs, most notably Chris Rock as a trash-talkin' guinea pig, Albert Brooks as a suicidal tiger, and Norm MacDonald as Dolittle's sarcastic but big-hearted dog, are, as Jenna Elfman's owl might say, a hoot. And with ailing critters of all kinds waiting for Dolittle's medical expertise, the key word is: cute. But when you've got Murphy teaming up with director Betty Thomas (Howard Stern's Private Parts), there's also room for the crass. Turns out dogs don't like it either when the vet (here played by Larry Sanders sidekick Jeffrey Tambor) sticks thermometers up their butts.

-- Mark Bazer


Cousin Bette

Based on Honoré de Balzac's bawdy novel, this period piece, set in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, outs the sanctimony of the aristocracy (à la Henry James's The Wings of the Dove), where money and posture outweigh love and compassion. Jessica Lange plays an impoverished spinster who has sacrificed her life for the family's name, so when the matriarch (Geraldine Chaplin) passes on, Bette fully expects to take her place as the bride of Baron Hulot (Hugh Laurie) but instead is humiliated and demoralized when she's given the role of housekeeper. Grudgingly she takes to the task of raising her ripening younger cousin, Hortense (Kelly MacDonald); her only solace comes from nursing a young artist (Aden Young) to notoriety. Bette has designs on the magnetic sculptor, but he slips out from her controlling hand and furtively pursues Hortense. They marry, and in riposte, Bette engages the services of Jenny Cadine (Elizabeth Shue), Paris's courtesan of the moment, to enact a frothy tract of revenge.

First-time director Des McAnuff (moving on from theater's Tommy) doesn't train his eye on the charged political environment of the time, instead wallowing in the seamy chambers of Balzac's self-destructive characters. The performances, most especially Lange's devilishly wry delivery, and the lavish cinematography by Andrej Sekula are top shelf -- it's too bad that the vehicle that bears their fruit blossoms with the frivolous frugality of a soap opera.

-- Tom Meek



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