1990s Movies

by Tim Van Schmidt

Twin Peaks ****

Bizarre. Inscrutable. Confusing. Infuriating. Fascinating. “Twin Peaks” was all of those things. As a television series, it was very strange and unnerving compared to the rest of what was on television at the time. So much so, that despite the far out script and oddly stylistic production, viewers were first drawn to then glued to a mystery that was nearly impossible to put a finger on- at least for an audience that was used to everything being spelled out completely.

Twenty years later, a fresh look at “Twin Peaks” reveals that it wasn’t just an oddity of the time, but a resonating creation where horror and humor walk side by side. At least that’s how the pilot episode plays out- underneath the surface of a seemingly normal town with seemingly normal people is a bubbling cauldron of primal passions and appetites. The horror comes when those things push their way into the open.

The humor comes from the script and production- all of the action in “Twin Peaks” is strained through the odd vision of the directors, who seem to find the bizarre elements just a little funny. We laugh because we don’t know how else to react to most of what happens. Maybe we’re laughing at ourselves because usually the answer is plopped right in front of us and this time it isn’t. Or maybe we’re chuckling because we know that the filmmakers are having a good laugh with us- they’re throwing stuff at us that not only doesn’t make sense, but it may not have been meant to.

The pilot episode disk for “Twin Peaks” came with an extra that I couldn’t resist. It is called the “international version.” Apparently when “Twin Peaks” was made, it was decided that a European version of the pilot should become a stand-alone movie, complete with an alternate ending that side-steps the rest of the series. I liked the “international version.” It presents and wraps up the intial murder mystery in one package. For those who do not wish to wade through all 30 episodes, the international version of the pilot provides plenty of the story- and the atmosphere- to get the general idea.

To me, what makes “Twin Peaks” so alluring is that it plays out like a dream- or maybe a nightmare. Every little detail seems significant, but in ways that are just beyond day-to-day reasoning. There is a sense that “Twin Peaks” is working the sub consciousness, where random elements swirl together in an unnerving cloud of things that may seem familiar in everyday life, but become strange when mixed together in the mind.

It should be mentioned that the music for “Twin Peaks” goes a long way toward enhancing the action. From cool, slow melodies to deep, ambiance-shattering sounds, the soundtrack is a big part of the unique success of the series.

Created by Mark Frost, David Lynch…1990…1 hr. 57 min…featuring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Dana Ashbrook, Sherilyn Fenn, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Joan Chen, Michael Horse, Piper Laurie, Harry Goaz, Ray Wise…music by Angelo Badalamenti.

The Dark Side of the Moon **

A half-baked combination of sci-fi and horror. A maintenance ship gets stranded on the dark side of the moon and is approached by an old NASA space shuttle. Then the Devil and the Bermuda Triangle get thrown into the mix to make a muddled, confused mess. The final scenes of what actually lies on the dark side of the moon are clever, but it takes a long time to get there, through gratuitous gore, violence and weak dialogue.

Directed by DJ Webster…1990…85 min…featuring Robert Sampson, Will Bledsoe, Joe Turkel, Camilla More, John Diehl.

Misery ****

A popular novelist is taken in by his “number one fan” after a car accident in a blizzard breaks his legs- only no one else knows this. The fan- an ex-nurse- takes exceptional care of the writer, but as time goes on, cracks start to appear in her attitude that reveal that this guy is in a lot of trouble. Kathy Bates puts plenty into her role as the crazy fan, underscoring that just about anyone who is unhinged can be dangerous.

Directed by Rob Reiner…1990…107 min…featuring James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Lauren Bacall.

Good Fellas ****

This tell-all confession by a small-time gangster is both witty and brutal. To save himself, the gangster rats out all of his associates- at least those who are still alive after cold-blooded infighting brought on by a big heist. His story provides a look inside the world of the Italian Mob system- its benefits, like lots of cash and a free reign lifestyle, and its dangers, mostly from within. The movie illuminates this with a smart script and plenty of action. The gangster’s reward is to escape his circumstances alive, but having to live life as a “schnook” like everybody else- a wry twist of fate for a person who has developed an appetite for a much different kind of life. This is a classic of the gangster genre.

Directed by Martin Scorsese…1990…146 min…featuring Ray Liotta (as Henry Hill), Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Vincent.

Total Recall ****

Rebellion and corporate skullduggery mix on Mars, home of a greedy company and an underground network of mutants.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven…1990…113 min…featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside.

Night of the Living Dead

Directed by Tom Savini…1990…92 min…featuring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman.

Born on the Fourth of July *****

Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic.

Directed by Oliver Stone…1990…145 min…featuring Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgewick, Raymond J Barry, Jerry Levine, Frank Whaley, Caroline Kava.

Hardware ***

Directed by Richard Stanley…1990…94 min…featuring Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, Iggy Pop, Lemmy.


The Silence of the Lambs ****

Horror and suspense are wrapped tightly together in this classic production. The performances of Jodie Foster as an untested FBI agent and Anthony Hopkins as a severely twisted yet brilliant serial murderer are top notch. Her vulnerability offsets the calculating, manipulative cunning of his craziness to create a complicated and fascinating relationship as fragile as the events of the rest of the movie are horrible.

Directed by Jonathan Demme…1991…118 min…featuring Jodie Foster (as Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (as Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Diane Baker.

Naked Lunch ****

How do you rate such an unsettling, extended hallucination as “Naked Lunch,” when much of the movie sports disturbing imagery, obtuse dialogue and an inscrutable plot? Based on the life and work of William S Burroughs, “Naked Lunch” descends into a confusing nether world of junkies and jazz, poetry and paranoia. Actor Peter Weller’s steely eyes are intense as the writer Bill Lee, whose job as an exterminator leads to an adventure full of skullduggery and decadence. Is all of this symbolic in some way- from a woman shooting “bug powder” into her breast to a typewriter that turns into a messy talking bug that attacks other typewriters? Is all of this created just to illustrate that the junkie’s mind is a pretty strange destination? That’s the certain beauty of this movie- you can leave the logic you may apply to other stories behind because none of it helps when considering “Naked Lunch.” It is an art piece off all by itself in a dark, twisted corner.

Directed by David Cronenberg…1991…115 min…featuring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider.


The Last of the Mochicans ***

Based on James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, “The Last of the Mohicans” faithfully recreates life during the French-English war in the American colonies in the mid-1700s. With the British moving troops throughout the Colonies- and inscripting Colonial militias along the way- and the French doing the same but with various Indian tribes, it is a tumultuous life at that. The scenery in this movie is gorgeous and creates its own sense of grandeur. However, the dialogue is stiff and delivered with some effort by the actors. The romance is melodramatic while the war scenes are long and horrific.

Directed by Michael Mann…1992…112 min…featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Steven Waddington, Wes Studi, Pete Postlethwaite.

Badlanders (Prison Planet) **

Directed by Armand Gazarian…1992…90 min…featuring James Phillips, Michael M. Foley, Deborah Thompson Duda.


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, Episodes 1-6 ***

This collection of episodes of the PBS miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s novel, “Tales of the City,” follows the adventures of a colorful collection of characters searching for love and sex in 1970s era San Francisco. The production adds plenty of period touches- lots of pop music plus distinctive props and clothing- and the lifestyles of the characters reflect a pre-AIDS attitude toward relationships- basically jump on anything that moves. The series opens when the character Mary Ann Singleton, played by Laura Linney, arrives in San Francisco from Cleveland, looking to break free of her Mid-Western ties. In her search for an apartment, Mary Ann finds a room at “28 Barbary Lane,” a multi-level collection of apartments run by a wise and swaggering older woman named Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis.) As Mary Ann settles in, she becomes acquainted with the other residents- a red-head lesbian, her anxious gay friend, a swinging heterosexual and a shy guy living on the roof.

The action as the episodes progress follows a number of storylines, including Mrs. Madrigal’s affair with an advertising executive- played by Donald Moffat. His daughter and son-in-law’s embattled marriage makes another storyline. Added to this, Mary Ann becomes friendly with and then suspicious of the shy guy. The gay guy suffers from a lack of confidence about his relationships and the red-head reunites with an old lover, only to find out a disturbing secret. In fact, there are plenty of secrets being kept by many of the characters. Mrs. Madrigal, in particular, has a good one.

The program as a whole creates a kind of sexual fairyland where straights, gays, transsexuals and pedophiles are all busily swirling around each other, often in a cloud of pot smoke. In the end, it seems like everything at 28 Barbary Lane is possible and that nothing should be shocking- not even the accidental death of one of the characters. While the characters are certainly vivid, their self-absorbed actions often reveal a lack of depth and the relative naivety of the time just before AIDS called off the party. Olympia Dukakis, however, does an exquisite job of creating Mrs. Madrigal as a woman of heart and mystery. Without her, this would be a shallow production indeed. (3 DVDs, two episodes on each, 300 minutes.)

The Scent of Green Papaya ***

Quiet, slow and entrancing, “The Scent of Green Papaya” is a unique viewing experience for its beauty as an art piece and for its gentle story. There’s plenty of class consciousness, hard times and even abuse in the life of a Vietnamese servant girl. But then again, there is also awesome, simple beauty in daily living and this seems to bless the girl as she grows older. Because of its striking quietness- sure there’s some cool music in there, but not much else- this movie sets such a dignified and very purposeful tone that it is almost uncomfortable to slam bang Western movie tastes, but worth the effort to explore another culture, notably lacking in outright violence.

Directed by Anh Hung Tran…1993…104 min…featuring Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Man San Lu, Thi Loc Truong, Hoa Hoi Vuong.

Demolition Man **

The jokes fall flat as a cop from the past tracks down a crazed criminal from the past- both alive and loose in a dull, bland future.

Directed by Marco Brambilla…1993…115 min…featuring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Denis Leary.


Captives ***

A young female dentist, fresh from a hurtful divorce, embarks on an illicit affair with a prisoner. It’s a rough and dangerous romance, marked by pent-up passions and ruined by circumstances. Dramatic and serious, even guttural as one lovemaking scene occurs in a public restroom.

Directed by Angela Pope…1994…100 min…featuring Julia Ormond, Tim Roth, Siobhan Redmond, Colin Salmon, Mark Strong.

Nobody’s Fool ***

This slice of life movie builds a rich assortment of characters whose interactions make up the quirky character of a small New York town. The main character is Sully, played by Paul Newman, who has not been very good at commitments in the past, but resolutely accepts watching out for his aging landlady, his estranged son whose marriage is falling apart and a young, timid grandson along with the general tumult of his personal life. Jessica Tandy in one of her last roles. Bruce Willis. Melanie Griffith. 1994.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles ***

Vampires get lonely- that becomes clear as a vampire tells his story to a human journalist in this highly stylized blood fest. This particular vampire was “made” to provide a companion to an older ghoul. The two of them “make” a young girl into a vampire to provide a companion for the second one. Regrets fill their unending days and sadness settles around them like a blanket.

Add to this is the guilt of what these vampires must do to survive and it is no wonder they accept a kind of numbness as a general state of mind. That numbness is reflected here by matter-of-fact violence in between scenes of inner torment. Most of the adult actors here seem kind of silly- Tom Cruise plays his character with comic abandon and Brad Pitt plays a sad sack of the first order, though Stephen Rea does create a truly nasty French vampire- but Kirsten Dunst fascinates as the young girl vampire- someone who will never grow beyond her immature body while she grows old inside.

Directed by Neil Jordan…1994…123 min…featuring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater, Thandie Newton, Kirsten Dunst, Stephen Rea.


Waterworld ***

The apocalypse in this world occurred with the rising of the oceans, covering all of the land. The surviving bands of humans live on top of the water in boats and floating villages where dirt is gold and pirates run rampant.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds…1995…135 min…featuring Kevin Costner (as the Mariner,) Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dennis Hopper, Jack Black.

Apollo 13 ****

This is about the trip to the moon that didn’t happen- the harrowing tale of an aborted moon mission and the engineering lengths taken to get the astronauts back alive. A true story!

Directed by Ron Howard…1995…140 min…featuring Tom Hanks (as Jim Lovell,) Bill Paxton (as Fred Haise,) Kevin Bacon (as Jack Swigert,) Gary Sinise (as Ken Mattingly,) Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan.


Sling Blade *****

A foreboding psychological drama. “Sling Blade” is a tour de force production by writer/director/star Billy Bob Thornton about Karl Childers, a mentally handicapped man hospitalized since the age of twelve for killing his mother and her lover in a fit of rage. Years later, Karl is finally released, unequipped and even unwilling to go into the world as a free man. Fortunately several people, including the hospital head and the owner of a fix-it shop in Karl’s old hometown, offer Karl assistance and encouragement. Karl meets a boy who immediately takes to him as only the innocence of childhood can- despite Karl’s obvious differences, the boy treats him squarely. Unfortunately the boy and his mother are under the power of a mean-spirited boyfriend who enjoys and abuses the control he has over the mother, the boy and finally Karl, who moves into the mother’s garage. This all becomes a recipe for crisis and Karl responds in the only way he knows how.

This movie unfolds in a slow, static way and has elements of a classic tragedy. What I mean is that the characters are drawn so sharply to be not exactly realistic, but archetypal, resonating like characters in an ancient Greek play. A lot of this has to do with the excellent acting of Billy Bob Thornton, who creates a riveting and unforgettable character when playing Karl. This is not acting by a star, but acting by an artist who has become his character. But then add the performances of country singer Dwight Yoakum as Doyle, the boy’s mother’s lover, and John Ritter, the mother’s gay co-worker, who Karl finally trusts. Both actors contribute with very strong roles, as does JT Walsh, who appears in the beginning and ending of the movie as another inmate in the hospital. The soundtrack also underscores the artful intentions of this production. While dark, festering and uncomfortable, “Sling Blade” is fascinating and effective. (135 minutes, Buena Vista 1996.)

Beyond Silence ****

This is a special movie for several reasons. The subject- the relationship between two deaf parents and their hearing daughter- sets it apart immediately because much of the dialogue between the characters happens in sign language. There are plenty of quiet spaces in the movie where anywhere else, someone would be talking. But here, the silence doesn’t mean that nothing is happening or that nothing is being said.

That “Beyond Silence” is unusual to begin with is supported by a cast of actors who work harder than most to convey the complex emotions that collide between family members in this situation. That complexity allows the characters to love each other and be fed up with each other simultaneously, making this a mature and realistic production. Both actresses who portray the central character Lara, at different stages of her life, are just excellent in balancing the innocence of a youngster with the responsibilities of a caregiver. They are both riveting images on the screen too.

But more, “Beyond Silence” takes on some other weighty subjects, such as the power of music, which becomes a crossroads for Lara’s family. So many teenagers complain that their parents do not understand their passions and in “Beyond Silence,” this is symbolically emphasized.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching “Beyond Silence” because it sounded like just another weepy family drama (see “Extraordinary Measures” below.) But I was completely taken by surprise by the emotional depth of the movie, which allowed for heartbreaking moments as well as joy. I learned something about hearing-impaired people and their relationship to the world too.

Directed by Caroline Link…1996…109 min…featuring Sylvie Testud (as Lara,) Tatjana Trieb (as Lara as a child,) Howie Seago, Emmanuelle Laborit, Sibylle Canonica.

Eye for an Eye ***

A distraught mother matches wits with a rapist and murderer after he sodomizes and kills her daughter, then walks free thanks to the justice system. Kiefer Sutherland plays the bad guy with a snarling authenticity, but the focus is on Sally Field’s portrayal of the mother- nervous and somewhat stunned all the time, yet still able to find the moxie to learn to shoot a gun, then use it.

Directed by John Schlesinger…1996…101 min…featuring Sally Field, Ed Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Joe Mantegna, Beverly D’Angelo, Phillip Baker Hall.

A Time to Kill ****

This movie aims fully at the raging emotions of racial relations in the “new” South. This swings from white trash red necks and poor blacks to swaggering lawyers. A young black girl is brutally raped by two drunk white guys, prompting the girl’s father to seek revenge. This polarizes their community and beyond as hatred rears its ugly head from all directions. The movie is jammed full of major actors, but manages to go beyond the star power to tackle the issue itself. Despite working well worn dramatic territory, it is nonetheless effective at creating a strong emotional response.

Directed by Joel Schumacher…1996…149 min…featuring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Oliver Platt, Charles S Dutton, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Patrick McGoohan, Ashley Judd.

Independence Day ****

War of the Worlds all over again- but with a colorful cast of characters, intersecting stories. Goldblum and Smith have good chemistry. Bill Pullman plays a complex character as the President. The space ship special effects are grandiose.

Directed by Roland Emmerich…1996…145 min…featuring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Vivica A Fox, Harry Connick Jr.

Escape from LA ***

Same thing as Escape from New York- only this time it’s the President’s daughter and it’s in the last bastion of chaos in America- the island of LA. Being shot in a submarine, hang-gliding, surfing, it’s all the same to Plissken who relentlessly moves forward despite plenty of distractions. LA is a landscape of motorcycle gangs, hustlers and weird mutated plastic surgery addicts- plenty of tongue in cheek. Plissken gets the final dark chuckle on everybody.

Directed by John Carpenter…1996…101 min…Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell.

Primal Fear ****

A hot shot lawyer takes on a high profile case- an altar boy accused of brutally murdering a priest- but gets a surprise as a result. Actor Richard Gere has arrogance down to a science, offering nothing new here, but Edward Norton creates a memorable character as the alleged killer.

Directed by Gregory Hoblit…1996…129 min…featuring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Terry O’Quinn.


Fifth Element ***

Though plenty goofy, this movie is still plenty fun. A future-era cab driver gets drawn into a fight against a destructive menace approaching earth. This includes falling in love with a “supreme being” with orange hair. Full of vivid characters and sporting some great special effects- like a “car” chase scene through a busy, multi-level city- the movie is purely for thrills. The scene of the diva character performing is the movie’s single most moving and effective moment. Bruce Willis. Milla Jovovich. Gary Oldman. Chris Tucker. Directed by Luc Besson. 1997.

The Edge ***

A billionaire joins his model wife and posse for a photo shoot in the wilderness then ends up being lost with his wife’s lover after their plane crashes. It becomes a fight for survival not only because of the predicament, but also because a man killing bear has picked up their trail and continues to stalk them. Anthony Hopkins plays the rich man with a shyness that disappears when their lives are at stake.

Directed by Lee Tamahori…1997…117 min…featuring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle Macpherson, Harold Perrineau, Bart the Bear.

American Perfekt ****

A quirky psychological thriller- or is it a spoof? There are times during “American Perfekt” when you can doubt the sincerity of the characters, but it is such a good ride otherwise, this can be overlooked. It all starts out with a ditzy woman who gets stuck out in the middle of the California desert. She gets picked up by a suave, charming psychiatrist and things just keep getting stranger as they develop a quick relationship. For the psychiatrist, everything hangs on the flip of a coin- including the lives of the people around him. You really don’t know where you’re going with this one- or even know where you end up- but at least it’s a mind twisting challenge.

Directed by Paul Chart…1997…100min…featuring Amanda Plummer, Robert Forster, David Thewlis, Fairuza Balk, Paul Sorvino, Joanna Gleason.

The Postman ***

A rebellion against a tyrannical regional warlord begins with a drifter posing as a post man.

Directed by Kevin Costner…1997…177 min…Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Larenz Tate, Olivia Williams, James Russo, Tom Petty, Peggy Lipton.


Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City Episodes 1-6. **

Six more episodes of “Tales of the City” continue the adventures of the characters living at 28 Barbary Lane, and those connected to them. The sexual high jinks continue mixing storylines about gay love, transsexuality, prostitution, sexual exposure and heterosexuality. Mary Ann continues to be a pivotal figure. When her former boss leaves her some money in his will, she takes a gay friend on a cruise to Mexico. There she meets a new lover who reacts oddly to everyday things and admits to having amnesia. This trail of mystery leads Mary Ann and her boy friend through a process of discovery that touches on sick ritualism.

Meanwhile, the ties between Mrs. Madrigal and the red head lesbian become clearer, even while she leaves San Francisco in an unfocused search for her roots. She finds them and more, bringing Mrs. Madrigal’s mother- a snarly proprietor of a whore house- back to Barbary Lane for a reunion. The gay resident has a medical scare- NOT AIDS- and his doctor lover helps him recover. Mrs. Madrigal’s dead lover’s family continues to add to the story with illegitimate twin babies and a look inside a private club for rich aging women.

There’s more in this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collection of episodes. But more plot complications do make for a better production. Once the mysteries begin to unravel about the character’s pasts- as set in motion by the original six episodes- it becomes clear that there isn’t much else left to say about them except that they have all found some kind of acceptance with each other, indicating a more expansive definition of the word “family.” Even though some characters- like “Mother Mucca”- keep things lively, this set of episodes is less original and more derivative. Mrs. Madrigal, played with distinction by Olympia Dukakis, is less self-assured here and has much more explaining to do, lessening her influence as a strong character. (2 DVDs.)

Rushmore ***

Light school-age romantic comedy. Tenth grade overachiever Max Fischer, played with spunk by Jason Schwartzman, has accomplished plenty- as editor of the school newspaper and founder of several school clubs. But when he sets his sights on developing a relationship with a new teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams,) he goes too far in his efforts to impress her. He begins building an aquarium without the permission of the school. His expulsion from Rushmore, a swanky private school, does not dampen Max’s spirit, although Miss Cross’ affair with a married steel tycoon (Bill Murray) comes close. (DVD, 1 hr. 33 min., Touchstone 1998)

Evidence of Blood ***

A mystery writer returns to his home town for a friend’s funeral, and guess what he finds- a mystery. Actually it ends up being mystery on top of mystery as he unravels dark layers of both family and community history.

Directed by Andrew Mondshein…1998…109 min…featuring David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, Sean McCann, Jackie Burroughs, Marnie McPhail.


Tea with Mussolini ***

A light, heartwarming drama. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, a memoir of 1930s Florence and the story of the upbringing of a boy named Luca, who comes under the care of English and American expatriates living in Florence, Italy during the onset of World War II. Joan Plowright plays the central caregiver with grandmotherly gentleness and wisdom. She is part of a group of English women, nicknamed the “Scorpione” for their sharp tongues. Cher plays a swaggering, generous American art collector whose plight becomes a concern for them all. Maggie Smith is masterful as the widowed English Lady who has a personal audience with Italian dictator Mussolini himself in order to assuage fears that war will occur. While much of the film has to do with the shrinking confidence of the women, they finally act in accord without concern for safety when Nazi invaders threaten to blow up the towers of the town they have been imprisoned in. The filming is luscious with generous attention to the wealth of artwork and architecture in Italy.

Limbo ***

In the opening sequence of director John Sayles new film, “Limbo,” a crowd of slippery salmon push past each other, struggling even just to move across the full screen.

That’s exactly how it is for the people in the Alaskan fishing town of Port Henry- they crowd together in thick clumps, just trying to survive on civilization’s frontier. The residents are beset by closing canneries, dwindling catches and psychological problems that result in alcoholism and suicide. Some will do anything to survive- from the arrogant developer who wants to turn Alaska into “one big theme park” to the charter boat operator who is willing to transport anything. Of course, it doesn’t help that cruise ships dump blue-haired tourists right into the middle of their lives, guides steering the curious around the locals like they weren’t even there.

Within the crowd of struggling humans is an ex-fisherman named Joe. Played by David Strathairn, his is a hard luck story- he blew out his knee after a stellar high school basketball career and his fishing business was ruined by a mysterious accident. He’s not happy, but he gets by, working a series of odd jobs including being a fix-it man for an area guest lodge.

That’s how he meets Donna, a singer with just as many men-problems as Joe has bad luck. Joe is working a wedding at the lodge. Donna is singing with the band hired for entertainment. Joe meets her just after she breaks up with her boyfriend- on stage- and he ends up helping her move her stuff out of the boyfriend’s house. This begins a tentative romance that seems tender and fragile in the rough and tumble town environment. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Donna as a tough, but emotional woman who can’t seem to stay in any one place for very long.

Ironically, Joe has already met Donna’s teenage daughter, Noel, played with a superb intensity by Vanessa Martinez. Noel is a brooding, insecure girl, tired of her mother’s rootlessness while becoming determined to take control of her own life. She works for a restaurant, earning her own money, and helps cater the same wedding event that brings Joe and her mother together. Martinez’s character elevates the film from just another boy-girl story and adds the depth necessary to make the story a study of human nature, not of adult relationships.

The pivotal scene in the film, however, features only Mastrantonio and Strathairn. When Joe successfully convinces Donna to “do something” with him, he takes her to a shallow channel where the salmon are pushing upstream. The water is so shallow and there are so many fish that many are dying in their efforts. Despite the harsh reality of the scene, the sight of the fish is awe-inspiring. What Donna and Joe learn about the strong will to survive ends up being tested soon afterwards.

While the turn of events become dramatic, what makes Sayles’ film interesting is not so much the story, but what the characters end up revealing as a result. Thanks to Joe’s slimy half-brother, Joe, Donna and Noel are cast out into the Alaskan wilderness to fend for themselves. During the day, they work to find food and tend a signal fire. By night, they huddle around a fire, Noel reading from a diary she finds in a rotting pioneer house. In the process, they shed the outer layers of fear and insecurities of their “civilized” lives and open up to each other on very basic, primal levels.

The abrupt ending of Sayles’ stark, spare production supports the idea that the action cannot overshadow the character’s emotional discoveries. Despite the towering immensity of the Alaskan landscape and the realities of hard lives, “Limbo” is about the human heart. This is a rough gem of a film, recommended for what lies beneath the surface.

Mansfield Park ***

Class-consciousness has a pretty suit on in this production of “Mansfield Park,” based on the Jane Austen novel. It’s all very gentile among the family members that rule the great estate, Mansfield Park, but underneath simmer deep passions and fearful prejudices. Connections and family define the hierarchy, not personal worth or intelligence, and this makes things frustrating for everyone concerned. Those of lower stations have little hope of improvement and those in power hold on for dear life, always scheming and maneuvering to “secure” their situation. This creates sheep-like contrition and selfish arrogance- an atmosphere that makes the affairs of the heart difficult to sort out, which is what the basic action here is centered around. The troubles of rich people may fascinate for a short time, but ultimately they are kind of trivial.

Directed by Patricia Rozema…1999…1 hr. 52 min…featuring Frances O’Connor (as Fanny Price), Jonny Lee Miller (as Edmund), Alessandro Nivola.

The Matrix ***

The shocking revelations of a machine-run world existing in various levels of reality. Humans are used as living batteries while their minds are being programmed to believe in a different life. In between are rebels who work to free the human race.

Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski…1999…136 min…featuring Keanu Reeves (as Neo,) Laurence Fishburne (as Morpheus,) Carrie-Anne Moss (as Trinity,) Gloria Foster (as Oracle.)