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JUNE 14, 1999: 

Twice Upon A Yesterday

Maybe it's a reflection of our president's knack for escaping the consequences of past actions, but movies about cosmic loopholes seem to be enjoying popularity. Giving the stiff-upper-lip Sliding Doors a jolt of brio is Spanish director María Ripoll's similarly London-set Twice upon a Yesterday. Victor Bukowski (Douglas Henshall, his seediness doing credit to his character's namesake) has been in rough shape since some extracurricular shenanigans brought on by the high spirits of a neighborhood Mardi Gras (set in a Notting Hill a lot more culturally correct than the hit movie of the same name) ended his engagement with straitlaced Sylvia (Lena Headey). Lamenting before yet another bartender (who's played in a perplexing cameo by Elizabeth McGovern), he's guided to the care of a pair of magical garbage collectors, who enable him to return to the past scene of the crime and amend his indiscretion. What Victor didn't figure on, though, is the intercession of bookstore clerk and wanna-be writer Louise (Penélope Cruz), or the romantic misjudgment of Sylvia, who proves no better than she should be. Without venturing far beyond the conventions of romantic comedy, Ripoll offers glimpses of worlds of possibility as she indulges in a very Spanish taste for the paradoxes of time and true love.

-- Peter Keough


The Life of Jesus

There is one moment of Christ-like beauty in French director Bruno Dumont's first feature: an old barmaid gazes at a TV image of disaster victims with a face that calls to mind the Virgin of Michelangelo's Pietà. Except for that and a shot of a brass band marching to a tuneless dirge through an empty field, The Life of Jesus looks on its hapless Flanders denizens with the dull-witted exploitativeness of a TV news camera. The mostly unemployed young people of the drab town of Bailleul don't even do drugs to pass the time -- they drive aimlessly on their motor scooters, pull down the pants of fat girls, or stare into space and complain about the heat (things are so bad they long to go to Lille, the nightmare burg of The Dreamlife of Angels). The lucky ones have sex, like Freddy (David Douche, who looks at times like a sensitive, criminal child, at others like a bewildered, criminal old man) and Marie (Marjorie Cottreel, who deserves a better movie). But that sex is perfunctory, graphic, and gratuitous, as is most of this movie, which mistakes long takes, anticlimactic cutting, and alienating long shots for arty cinema. The plot revolves around Freddy's rage against a young Arab who takes a shine to Marie. Jesus is conspicuous by his absence, as are any signs of life.

-- Peter Keough


Besieged

The last time director Bernardo Bertolucci paired an eccentric recluse and a comely young thing to play house, the result was a masterpiece of ferocious eroticism. This effort, however, is no butter-slicked Last Tango in Paris but a cement-footed slow dance in Rome, its setting one of several echoes of the auteur's succulent but slender Stealing Beauty.

Thandie Newton (Beloved) gets the Liv Tyler treatment -- caressing close-ups, sensual reposes -- as an African medical student who flees her oppressive country for Italy after her husband is jailed. To make ends meet, she cleans for a kooky pianist (Naked's David Thewlis) who stalks every flick of her feather duster before proclaiming his love. Although she rebuffs him, he agrees to help free her spouse, and this arthouse odd couple strike a tentative truce.

With great grace yet uneven emotion, their interactions are wrought wordlessly, fluttering to life in the incandescence of Newton's delicate beauty. Thewlis, however, is miscast; he's too doughy, dopy, and effete to turn Bertolucci's visually playful, gossamer-thin love story into anything that feels believable, never mind besieged.

-- Alicia Potter



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