Movie Openings

Movie Openings

The Horseman on the Roof **

(Guild) It's 1862, and Europe is in turmoil following the fall of Napoleon. With much of his native Italy in the grip of the Austrian Empire, a handsome young nobleman sets out across the magnificent countryside of southern France to warn his fellow freedom-fighters-in-hiding that a band of Austrian assassins has entered Provence and is on their trail.

Along the way, he encounters (of course) a beautiful but mysterious woman whom chivalry dictates he lead to safety. But who is she? And will they or won't they?

Trust me, you don't want to bother finding out.

While pretending to be a romantic swashbuckler, "The Horseman on the Roof" is, in fact, a wrong-headed and self-congratulatory parable about intolerance. France, you see, is in the midst of a cholera epidemic, and those without the disease are filled with fear and loathing toward strangers who they believe threaten to bring the disease to their village.

Obsessed with the ugliness of the loathing, writer/director Jean-Paul Rappeneau ("Cyrano") fails to acknowledge that the fear is well founded. France in the time of cholera is not the same France in the time of AIDS; travelers did carry the disease from city to city, and quarantines could be effective.

Yet Rappeneau treats the nobleman's repeated breaking into and out of quarantined areas as an act of gallantry in an era of narrow minds. And you thought chivalry was dead.

With Olivier Martinez as the handsome hero, and Juliette Binoche--doing her usual passive-aggressive enigma shtick--as the damsel in distress. Rated PG-13 for slight nudity. 1 hour, 58 min.

--Leonard Schwarz

Cold Fever ** 1/2

(Palo Alto Square) Armchair travel alert. The most breathtaking Arctic images can be found in Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's "Cold Fever," a quirky road movie in which a young Tokyo executive postpones his annual golfing vacation in Hawaii to perform a memorial service for his parents in Iceland during the dead of winter. Japanese actor and pop singer Masatoshi Nagase ("Mystery Train") shares top billing with the show's true star: the stunning snowscapes of the volcanic island. Upon first sight of this very strange wonderland, the screen bursts into a wide aspect ratio that showcases the Icelandic vistas like a panoramic picture postcard.

The slight, sometimes tedious storyline strings together a series of odd encounters between the Japanese traveler and an assortment of weirdos that include a cab driver, an ice fairy and a pair of American hitchhikers (Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens). Nagase's face remains frozen in the same expression until he reaches the remote spot where his parents had been killed seven years ago in an auto accident. There he realizes "sometimes a journey can take you to a place not on any map." His renewed ties thaw the emotional coldness of the film in its final moments.

Before you start mulling over the symbolic significance of the San Jose Sharks jacket worn by Fisher Stevens, be aware that team owner George Gund took to the ice to co-produce this movie. Not rated. 1 hour, 25 min.

--Susan Tavernetti

Mission: Impossible ***

(Century 16, Century 12) Star power. It can transform a mediocre production into a glittering, A-list, big-bucks mega-hit. Tom Cruise has star power, and he's the reason that "Mission: Impossible" is going to be a whopping summer success story. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a cocky and charming secret agent from the Impossible Missions Force. The IMF has been assigned the difficult task of retrieving a top-secret computer disc listing the names and codes of every American spy in Eastern Europe. But the mission results in disaster, and most of the agents involved are wiped out. Now, Hunt has a choice--to flee from imminent danger (ha!) or to turn his vast repertoire of skills to finding the villainous agent responsible for the needless deaths. Not surprisingly, Hunt opts for the latter, and we're off on a series of special-effect adventures that are just as implausible as they are thrilling.

Did I mention implausible? Plot confusion is masked by an exploding bomb, an abrupt change of subject or yet another double-cross by a faithful agent. Long sections of dialogue are incomprehensible, but thankfully punctuated by nail-biting action sequences that distract from any serious need of conversation. As in "Twister," special effects take center stage. The three big action sequences are beautifully choreographed (a la John Woo). A computer break-in that requires ultra-sensitive physical maneuvering had my heart pounding with anticipation. The super-spy playthings (eyeglasses with cameras,, exploding chewing gum) rival 007's, but there isn't enough variety to support a two-hour adventure.

But set aside expectations of the talent involved and you won't be disappointed. Brian DePalma's direction is pedestrian and lacking his twisted imprint, Danny Elfman's ("Nightmare Before Christmas") music overwhelms, and Steve Zaillian's ("Schindler's List") story is a muddled mess. But Cruise and his star power are firmly intact, and the action hero role suits him well. Henry Czerny ("Clear and Present Danger") is delightfully wicked as the double-crossing voice of reason, and Ving Rhames ("Pulp Fiction") brings just enough humor and sweetness to a movie desperately in need of a little humor and sweetness. Throwaway roles by some big names are too numerous and poorly acted to mention.

To enjoy "Mission: Impossible" and the onslaught of summer fare, keep in mind the rules for the season's moviegoing: Check your brain at the door, wallow in the special effects, and ride it out until September when good old-fashioned action will once again prevail. Rated PG-13 for violence and some gore. 1 hour, 50 min.

--Jeanne Aufmuth