Deja Vu

Twice Upon a Yesterday
Directed by Maria Ripoll

Twice Upon a Yesterday seems almost too geared for the Sliding Doors crowd. By relying on the same kind of conceptual sleight-of-hand as that recent Brit hit (which owed a giant debt of its own to Groundhog Day), this romantic fable's sense of originality and wit is greatly diminished. Although it contains a couple of very different -- and clever -- plot twists, Twice Upon a Yesterday resembles its predecessor in too many ways. Set in contemporary London, it features a lovelorn Scotsman with an endearing brogue and revolves around a "what if" scenario, as in: "What if events had gone in a different direction?"

Instead of two versions of the present running side by side, the new film gives its protagonist the chance to relive -- and thus change -- the past. Disheveled, unemployed actor Vic (Douglas Henshall of Angels and Insects) and hospital psychologist-in-training Sylvia (Lena Headey of Mrs. Dalloway and TV's Merlin) have arrived at the point in their long-standing relationship at which she wants more commitment and he wants less, a lot less. Only after obtaining his freedom does Vic realize that he truly loves Sylvia. By then, of course, it's too late; she is about to marry David (Mark Strong), a yoga enthusiast she met at a health club. A distraught Vic gets drunk and falls into the hands of two magical garbage collectors who transport him back in time to the morning of the breakup. With 20/20 hindsight, Vic doesn't make the same mistake again. But will the course of true love run any more smoothly the second time around?

Parts of this picture are highly enjoyable, although, as with Sliding Doors, one has to be somewhat of a romantic to get caught up in it (unlike Groundhog Day, which had such charm and humor that it appealed to cynics as well as to romantics). The film's weakness lies partially with the script, which makes Sylvia less sympathetic as the story progresses, but also with the characters -- or perhaps it's the actors -- who prove only intermittently engaging. This is especially true of Henshall, who, although he is playing a very different personality type, pales in comparison to the irresistible John Hannah of Sliding Doors.

Shot in England, with a predominantly British cast (exceptions include Elizabeth McGovern and Spanish actress Penelope Cruz), the film was actually written, directed and produced by Spaniards. Maria Ripoll, who studied directing at the prestigious American Film Institute and is a highly regarded television director in her own country, makes her feature debut with Twice Upon a Yesterday and shows a sure hand with both the surrealistic aspects of the story (most notably the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza-inspired trashmen and their fantastical garbage dump) and the more mundane romantic developments.

The junkyard sequence is, without question, the most bewitching in the film. The garbagemen -- 16th-century Spanish figures living in modern-day London -- have transformed their workplace into a whimsical playground of discarded refrigerators and dishwashers. The sense of wonder and magic that infuses this scene isn't replicated anywhere else, but then, Spanish novelist/songwriter Rafa Russo, making his debut as a screenwriter, clearly wasn't trying to fashion another Like Water for Chocolate. That's somewhat of a pity, because the scene casts a spell that the rest of the film fails to match.

Though it doesn't live up to its similarly themed predecessors, Twice Upon a Yesterday is an acceptable addition to the canon of romantic comedies and may prove just the ticket for viewers hungry for light fare with a romantic bent. And who among us hasn't wished we could travel back in time and change the past?

Opens June 18 at the Tivoli.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

The General's Daughter
Directed by Simon West

Simon West, the director of the new thriller starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe, likes the kind of close-ups that bore into an actor's face, exposing every clogged pore and mascara smudge. In The General's Daughter, his camera also tracks in to capture the thick layer of sweat coating the skin of both officer and enlisted man on duty at Fort MacCallum in the remote bogs of coastal Georgia. (The picture was shot in and around Savannah.) Travolta plays Paul Brenner, a detective with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division who is, as the movie opens, in deep undercover as a good ol' boy supply sergeant at Fort MacCallum with a thick-as-gravy Southern accent, the stump of a stogie and a shit-eatin' grin, hot on the trail of an illegal arms transfer. But no sooner is he finished with one job than an even bigger one, a murder, lands in his lap.

In fact, the biggest of his career. The victim is Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), an officer with SyOps, the Army's psychological-warfare division. Of perhaps greater importance to Brenner is that the captain is also the daughter of Gen. Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), the commanding officer at Fort MacCallum and, according to news reports, a likely national political candidate. As a detective with CID, Brenner is also an officer in the Army, a fact that the general and his fiercely protective assistant, Col. Fowler (Clarence Williams III), urgently press upon him. He should be reminded in conducting the case, Fowler says, that there are three ways a thing can be done: "the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way."

Because of the special circumstances of the murder, Brenner is joined in the investigation by a rape specialist with CID named Sarah Sunhill (Stowe). From the moment Sunhill comes on board, it becomes clear that she and Brenner are anything but strangers. For the audience, this is a blessing, because the banter between them makes their scenes together the funniest -- and the sexiest -- in the film.

But Travolta isn't good just in his scenes with Stowe. As Brenner, Travolta may look heavier than usual and rumpled from the humidity, but the actor has seldom been sharper or more focused in his work. Both physically and intellectually, he's a formidable presence. In addition to his scenes with Stowe, he is also at the top of his game in his encounters with James Woods, who plays the late captain's immediate superior in SyOps and everyone's primary suspect. Their first meeting together, during which the two adversaries size each other up, is a tour de force for both performers and easily the movie's most electrifying scene.

As Travolta's sidekick, Stowe does her best work in Sunhill's early scenes with Brenner and is mostly forgotten later on. (Brenner and Sunhill's relationship is dropped, too, as the film progresses.) She is given one vital scene, in the last part of the film, that shows what a smart, sassy actress she can be when given the chance. The rest of the supporting cast -- including Timothy Hutton, Williams and Cromwell -- give serviceable performances, but they are mostly held in tight-lipped check to heighten the possibility that one of them might be guilty. The one exceptional supporting performance is given by John Beasley, who, as Capt. Campbell's psychiatrist during her West Point days, is sensitive and affecting as he fills in some important information from the murdered woman's past.

In general, it's good that the level of the acting in the film is so extraordinarily high, because the further we are drawn into the story, the more preposterous and less satisfying the movie becomes. From the beginning, the filmmakers rely on the lurid sexuality at the heart of the story to create a sense of impending violence. But audiences are more likely to be disgusted and even turned off by this aspect of the film than shocked into a state of foreboding.

Also, West, who comes to filmmaking after a successful advertising career in England, doesn't so much direct his story as hype it with his supercharged technique. (He made his feature debut with Con Air and instantly established himself as School of Tony Scott.) To their credit, he and his creative team -- cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. and production designer Dennis Washington -- have given the film a beautiful, haunted look in which the landscape seems almost to be rotting before your very eyes. This, together with Carter Burwell's destabilizing, gutbucket-blues score, make nearly every frame seem eerie and threatening, as if at any moment violence is ready to spring.

Still, neither West nor his actors can disguise the essential thinness of the source material, Nelson DeMille's 1992 bestselling novel. Yes, the picture is engrossing, but not especially because of anything in the story itself, which seems not only farfetched and arbitrary but also unfounded psychologically. And, though Paramount has taken special precautions to make sure the ending is not revealed, the twists and turns in the plot are easier than usual to figure out. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes, in other words, to put together "who done it."

Opens June 18.
-- Hal Hinson

The Red Violin
Co-written and directed by Francois Girard

Anthology films are an odd-duck genre: Though there once was a time -- long gone -- when books of short stories were published with nearly the frequency of novels, their cinematic equivalent has never amounted to even 1 percent of the fictional films released. You could argue that Pulp Fiction counts as an anthology, but its stories are too inextricably intertwined. Far on the other end of the spectrum are true anthology films, like The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Tales from the Hood.

On that loosely improvised spectrum, The Red Violin falls about two-thirds of the way toward the latter films. It has five stories, one of which also serves as a framing device for the other four. As in the amusing 1993 Twenty Bucks, the separate narratives are linked by the titular object, but whereas Twenty Bucks managed eventually to bring its stories together a little, The Red Violin makes its central spine a mystery ... a mystery that is cleverly revealed near the end.

The film starts in Montreal, where an auctioneer (Colm Feore) is about to start the bidding on a reddish-tinted violin, which, we learn, is the most fabled and sought-after instrument of its kind in the world. Among those in attendance are Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), the expert who has authenticated it, and Evan Williams (Don McKellar), the techie who aided him. Each time we meet one of the prime bidders, the film flashes back to reveal the incident that has inspired them to pony up millions for this 300-year-old curio.

First, we go to Cremona, where master violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) is putting the finishing touches on the instrument. His pregnant wife visits a tarot reader, who foretells a grim, exciting and impossibly incident-filled fate for the young woman.

A hundred years later, the violin turns up in an Austrian monastery, where master music teacher Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) discovers a dazzling 6-year-old prodigy (Christoph Koncz). Another 100 years pass before the instrument makes it way into the hands of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a famous virtuoso/composer who is the classical equivalent of a pop star. And 70 years later, it shows up in Shanghai, where its presence threatens to bring the wrath of the Cultural Revolution down on its owner (Sylvia Chang).

In all these stories, the violin is the catalyst for catastrophe -- it seems to carry a curse, as repeated flashbacks to the tarot reading emphasize. Finally we are brought back to the weeks before the auction, where we follow Morritz's discovery of the violin and his eventual unraveling of its secret.

The Red Violin arrives here on the strength of both its cast and the success of director/co-writer François Girard's last effort, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The two films have more in common than their musical subject matter; Glenn Gould was another fragmented narrative, presenting brief elliptical sketches in hopes of capturing at least some notion of the eccentric pianist.

The earlier film was like a postmodern or cubist portrait of its subject. The Red Violin is far less daring. The sum of its parts may constitute a mystery and a solution, but it's a completely fictional and arbitrary one. Without the contrast of a real-life focus, the movie is more abstract: We are inevitably faced with the question of why we should be interested in this make-believe object and its history.

The obvious answer is that storytelling is its own reward; an engaging narrative needs no other justification. But the narrative better be engaging if the entire exercise is to have any aesthetic purpose; in the case of The Red Violin, thecontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagefilmmakers just barely squeak by. Girard has mounted a handsome production, featuring several first-rate actors. (Either an uncredited Minnie Driver or her double shows up in a cameo as a gypsy.) He wisely obtained composer John Corigliano and violinist Joshua Bell to contribute to the score.

But, that said, I suspect the film's texture and structure are more the result of the current state of film financing than of any inherent thematic needs. The Red Violin reeks of the International Co-production Syndrome: The settings are determined by the needs of the entities putting up the money. Officially this is a Canadian/Italian co-production, but it was also funded by New Line, England's Channel Four and the Vienna Film Financing Fund. (Somewhere in the background, there just has to have been Chinese participation as well.)

As a result, The Red Violin's mandated narrative is carried more by stylistic and structural tricks than by much of a plot. With so much leaping around in time and such a speedy resolution to each individual segment, it's unlikely that anyone will be bored. But it's just as unlikely that anyone will be swept off their feet, either.

Opens June 18 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Devil's Island
Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson

Set in 1950s Reykjavik, where a variety of odd, underprivileged Icelanders have set up housekeeping in the metal huts of Camp Thule, an abandoned U.S. Army barracks, Devil's Island is a human comedy with a bitter streak, a Finnish Graffiti flavored by a nostalgia that's turned sour. Watching it is somewhat like listening to someone who thinks he's giving a sentimental account of his family history but can't help dwelling on Uncle Barney's adultery or Cousin Betty's drinking problem. Director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, whose earlier Children of Nature (1991) and Cold Fever (1995) are probably the only other Icelandic films ever to receive American distribution, shows affection for his sad, odd figures who populate his cold setting but allows his perspective to waver from sympathy to ridicule.

The film begins at the wedding of an Icelandic woman and an American GI -- a heavy-handed symbol of the United States' cultural influence on postwar Europe -- but the remainder focuses on the family the America-bound bride leaves behind, including two adult sons, Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur) and Danni (Sveinn Geirsson). After a few brief episodes involving the rest of the family (an ineffectual grandfather and his fortune-telling wife) and their neighbors (an abusive alcoholic briefly persuaded to relive his past athletic glories), the story settles on the troubles of the loutish Baddi (my unfamiliarity with Finnish names prevents me from determining whether the name is a description of his character or merely a coincidence, but I suspect the former), who returns from a visit to his mother thoroughly corrupted by American culture, complete with car, TV, teddy-boy wardrobe and a new set of physical and verbal mannerisms borrowed from James Dean and Elvis (who he proudly declares is "the only man I respect"). Dissatisfied with all things Icelandic, Baddi settles into a comfortable reign of terror based on bullying, threats and weekend revels with his good-for-nothing friends; is briefly put in his place by the achievements of moody younger brother Danni; and is finally left to face an ambiguous but unpromising future.

Despite its allegorical pretensions, Devil's Island takes no clear position on Iceland or America or the 1950s or pop culture or any of the other subjects it raises. The film's apparent distrust of Baddi's U.S.-inspired greaser act doesn't extend to its soundtrack, which relies heavily on familiar twangy instrumentals like "Rumble," "Harlem Nocturne" and "Red River Rock," and though the characters grumble about the U.S. presence on their soil, they never offer any coherent political reason for their enmity.

The characters in Devil's Island merely endure, almost in spite of themselves, and the best Fridriksson can offer is a kind of bemused admiration for their eccentricities. Though they survive tragedy and absurdity, family crises and triumphs as well as "Hound Dog," they're no better off than they were at the film's beginning.

Plays at 8 p.m. June 19 and 20 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

Tarzan
Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck

Disney departed from its usual practice of basing its big animated features on classic literature or myth when it made what has proved to be one of the studio's most popular films ever, The Lion King. Yet just barely beneath its surface, that film had a streak of xenophobia carried almost to the point of fascism -- the effeminate usurper of a hereditary title pollutes the leonine kingdom by integrating the hyenas, creatures with ethnic voices, into the pride. Late in the movie, there's a shot of an army of hyenas goose-stepping; clearly someone working on the picture was alert to the subtext and decided it would be wise to distract us from it by sneaking the jackboots onto the wrong paws.

Given the almost Aryan mythos of The Lion King, one would expect Tarzan, Disney's newest excursion into the jungle, to drip with upper-class entitlement and subliminal racism. The source material is from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who may just be the least politically correct of popular American writers. His 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, like most of his other works, is full of gushingly described brawny white heroes chastising swarthy savages and ravenous beasts, and not much separates the two kinds of enemies. Blacks are either fierce cannibals or faithful retainers, and women, whether pure or seductive, are swooning damsels. Like many Americans (still), Burroughs was also dazzled by the idea of English nobility, and Tarzan of the Apes hinges on the conception that if you take a titled British lord and abandon him as a naked infant in the wilds of darkest Africa, he will just naturally, by dint of his inherent superiority, become Lord of the Jungle.

Yet somehow hardly any of this sensibility carries over into Disney's Tarzan. And, oddly, this is a bit disappointing, because along with Burrough's obsessions, however retrograde, much of his passion has also been drained out of the story. The biggest letdown in this Tarzan is the handling of the apes. In the novel, our hero's parents are marooned on the African coast by mutineers (swarthy, of course). Both soon die at the hands of Burroughs' fanciful notion of gorillas -- the boy's delicate mother succumbs simply from fright at their attack, and his father is mauled to death by Kerchak, the ferocious ape-clan ruler, who is on the point of killing the baby as well before the infant is rescued by the she-ape Kala. Kala gives him the name Tarzan -- "White Skin" in Burroughs' apespeak -- and raises and protects him.

It's been pointed out that mothers don't get much play in the world of Disney animated fantasy -- they're usually either absent altogether, as in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, or else they're minor background figures, as in The Lion King. I had hoped that Kala's bottomless, courageousdevotion to her foundling son might partly redress this gap. As ludicrous as it is, it's hard not to be touched when, in the novel, Tarzan proclaims, "My mother was an Ape ... I never knew who my father was." In Disney's Tarzan, even though Glenn Close was brought aboard to lend Kala her fine, strong voice, theape-mother still remains a recessive figure, and Kerchak, who simply feels the boy is a threat, is no longer so much a menace as he is one more dad who just doesn't understand.

Because science now knows the gorilla to be a peaceable creature, and in light of the appalling degree to which the species is endangered -- Kerchak's misgivings about interacting with humans have proved tragically sound for his species -- Disney's decision to retell the story without the "killer ape" calumny seems entirely reasonable. Burroughs, after all, never visited Africa. For that matter, no one should expect fidelity to all of Burroughs' pulpy ideas and plot twists. It's not usually remembered that the plot of the novel reaches its climax not in Africa but in a forest fire in Wisconsin. But this film reworks the novel's hoary theme -- a man becomes master of a dangerous world through superior breeding -- into an equally maddening modern formula. Did it really have to be one more tour of the Search for the Father's Approval?

Granting all of this, however, there's still no doubt that the title character has swung his way through far less artful and thoughtful incarnations, especially in the last two decades. An utterly abysmal 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man was mostly a showcase for a topless Bo Derek as Jane, and Greystoke, Hugh Hudson's 1984 attempt to take the tale seriously, was a scattered misfire. As recently as last year, an unintentional laugh-riot called Tarzan in the Lost City starred Casper Van Dien, whose Nazi-poster-art looks might, at least, have pleased Burroughs.

By comparison, Disney's Tarzan is a fine entertainment value. Most kids will love it, and it won't leave adults fidgeting. It's beautifully made -- and, considering the literally thousands of names that crawl past in the end credits, it better be -- drenched in deep, rich emerald, with sinuous tracking visuals driven forward by pleasantly African-flavored songs from Phil Collins.

The characters just don't leap to life here as vividly as you want them to, however. The cartoonish big-band animals of Disney's The Jungle Book had more storybook vitality than the residents of Tarzan's jungle. The strongest of the vocal performances is by Minnie Driver, who gives a charming, nonsyrupy reading to Jane. The title character, rendered with an appropriately impossible, sinewy physique (no less impossible, of course, is Jane's wasp waist) and dark, ropy hair, is voiced by Tony Goldwyn, a curly-haired fellow from the same competent-but-generic category as Tate Donovan, who provided the voice for Disney's Hercules.

The villains are a leopard who never speaks and a great white hunter who, even with the magnificent pipes of Brian Blessed behind him, has no real personality. The comic relief, the spunky young gorilla Terk and the fussy elephant Tantor, voiced by Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight, respectively, share the Jar Jar Binks duty on this film; adults may cringe at their corny antics, but kids will giggle.

Opens June 18.
-- M.V. Moorhead

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