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JUNE 21, 1999: 

The Red Violin

After the Baroque brilliance of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, the Canadian filmmaking team of director François Girard and co-screenwriter Don McKellar pass from the solo to the concerto form in The Red Violin. In emphasizing the instrument, however, they've sacrificed the players, not to mention the music. A worn, faintly crimson violin goes up for auction in Switzerland -- the legendary, long-lost "Red Violin" made by the master craftsman Nicolo Busotti (Carlo Cecchi) in the late 17th century (this is all fictitious), and in the tense minutes as the bidders scramble to possess it, the history and the peregrinations of the object they covet unfolds in flashbacks. Of these episodes, the best are the tragicomedy of a 19th-century orphan child prodigy with a weak heart and the chilling travails of those trying to preserve the violin from the Red Brigades during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But the tale of a Paganini-like British artiste (Jason Flemyng) and his passion for a muse played by Greta Scacchi sounds a sour note, and the film's prevailing theme -- the transcendence of love over greed, transience, and delusion -- falls flat. As does the original music by John Corigliano. Samuel Jackson puts in the standout performance as the present-day restorer who first discovers the violin -- imperious, vulnerable, driven. It's a pity he doesn't get to play it as well.

-- Peter Keough

The General's Daughter

One thing to be thankful for in director Simon West's film is that John Travolta abandons his shit-eating Southern accent within the first few minutes. On the other hand, at least the drawl added some distinction, however annoying, to what is otherwise an inert pastiche of clichés and generic conventions. West, who injected a note of subversive black humor into the crash-and-burn Con Air, abandons all pretense of originality in this bloated, overdetermined mystery that drowns a first-rate cast and some worthwhile issues in its high-concept morass.

Travolta plays Paul Brenner, a hardboiled military investigator assigned to a murder case on a steamy Georgia Army base. The victim is the title daughter, Captain Elisabeth Campbell (photogenic newcomer Leslie Stefanson), a brilliant officer in the psychological-operations division who is found naked and tied to stakes one night on the camp's urban-warfare training ground. Needless to say, the killing unsettles her father, General "Fighting Joe" Campbell (James Cromwell), who has the vice-presidency in his sights -- especially when Brenner's investigation uncovers a secret S&M grotto in Elisabeth's basement.

Who's guilty? Could it be the general's ruthlessly loyal adjutant, Colonel Fowler (Clarence Williams III)? The eager-beaver but vaguely unwholesome provost marshal Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton)? The committee of writers who transformed the somewhat coherent potboiler on which the film is based into swamp gas? Or perhaps Travolta, who seems determined to celebrate his career renaissance by turning himself into a second-rate Bruce Willis? Despite the arch maneuverings of James Woods as a twisted officer with a past, and a ruefully witty Madeleine Stowe as an old flame of Brenner who's also assigned to the case, the biggest mystery here is why this film got made.

-- Peter Keough

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