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JUNE 7, 1999: 

Instinct

The only instinct this Jon Turteltaub movie touches on is Hollywood's compulsion to cobble together failures from imitations of past hits. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Gorillas in the Mist, George of the Jungle, and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs are just a few of the sources purloined. Anthony Hopkins adds facial hair and new-age psychobabble to Hannibal Lecter as Dr. Ethan Powell, a primatologist whose years of dwelling with gorillas come to an end when he murders poachers and is put in a psychiatric prison. Mute, feral, and explosively violent, he becomes a case study for ambitious young shrink Dr. Theo Calder (Cuba Gooding Jr.); naturally the two wind up undermining the despotic system that oppresses the prison's lovable psychotics. Tedious and silly, Instinct offends mostly because of what it leaves out. Flashing back to Powell's crime in the jungles of Rwanda, the film goes to great lengths to arouse compassion for the endangered primates -- themselves, in fact, special effects. The million human beings slaughtered in the recent genocide are never mentioned -- but then, Hollywood's instinct has never been for the reality principle.

-- Peter Keough


Limbo

For a while it looks as if John Sayles might do for our largest state in Limbo what he did for the second-biggest in his masterpiece Lone Star. Set in contemporary Alaska, this independent veteran's latest deftly establishes the social, cultural, and personal details of his setting and characters; then he takes it all on a detour to nowhere. David Strathairn is lean, melancholy, and even sexy as Joe Gastineau, a former golden-boy fisherman who fell from grace with the sea after a fatal accident. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gives her best performance yet (and demonstrates a decent set of pipes) as Donna De Angelo, an itinerant aging lounge singer between boyfriends and gigs and saddled with a bright but resentful daughter. The two hit it off, but just as it seems they might get their lives jump-started, Joe's shady brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) shows up asking a favor. What follows is either an exercise in self-deconstruction or a lesson in how not to write an ending; with Limbo, Sayles shows how high, and low, he can go.

-- Peter Keough


Loss of Sexual Innocence

"Loss of Attention Span" might have been more apropos in view of this film's paucity of plot, languorous pacing, and fever-dream visuals. But writer/director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) does manage to keep eyelids open with his elliptical collection of cinematic short stories about the ironies, humiliations, and outright tragedies that feast upon innocence, sexual and otherwise. At the center of it all is Nic, whom we meet at various stages in life. Beaky Julian Sands lends an air of self-absorbed detachment to the adult incarnation, whose monotonous prick of a personality is laid bare by Figgis's unswerving voyeurism.

That's not to say the film shuns pretension. Oh no: Adam and Eve (Femi Ogumbanjo and Hanne Klintoe) pad about, Blue Lagoon-style, in a finger-wagging allegory that parallels what can only half-heartedly be called "the main story." Indeed, whereas Figgis's attempt to fathom the complexities of character is refreshing in this age of easy archetypes, his infatuation with such top-lofty symbolism quickly erodes this Loss's gains.

-- Alicia Potter


Six Ways to Sunday

Music-video auteur Adam Bernstein wrote and directed this moody, lethargic tale of a teenager headed to hell in a handbasket. Eighteen-year-old Harry (indie up-and-comer Norman Reedus) spends his days flipping burgers and his nights keeping his protective, housebound mother (Deborah Harry) company. When hophead homeboy Arnie (Adrien Brody) hooks him up with some small-time Jewish gangsters, the young goy learns he has a talent for breaking noses. He starts earning big bucks, then falls for his new boss's crippled maid (Nadja's Elina Löwensohn). For some reason, Harry's mom, a former lounge singer, has no problem with his being a hired killer but is livid about his girlfriend.

Based on Charles Perry's novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, this film has a hip, neo-noir look and some impressive acting that's dimmed by molasses-slow pacing, clumsy dialogue, and heavy-handed Oedipal content. Reedus is like Leo DiCaprio's dark twin, and Brody is electrifying, but Ms. Harry's performance is dull as dishwater and redeemed only by the Blondie songs on the soundtrack.

-- Peg Aloi


The Dress

Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam (a cult favorite in Europe) has crafted a provocative twist on an old conceit: the way human beings can be connected by the inanimate objects that pass through their lives. This unsettling meta-odyssey begins in an anonymous cotton field, whence the material for the title garment comes. The dress's manufacture, sale, and series of owners weave an engaging plot wherein the synchronicity that damns and blesses mundane existence becomes a character in its own right. We go from a crotchety textile manufacturer to a perverse, psychotic fashion designer with a pig fetish and on to a middle-aged matron, its first owner. Blown off the lady's clothesline, the dress lands in the lap of Johanna, a pretty artist's mistress, who is stalked by a recalcitrant rapist who fancies himself a great lover. Johanna donates it to charity, a teenager buys it, the rapist recognizes the dress and stalks her. And on and on. Warmerdam avoids pat sentimentality in favor of serendipity, for better or worse. Metaphor be damned: in the end, the dress is simply an object that underscores the tenuous and unacknowledged commonality of us all.

-- Peg Aloi


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