Provocative 'Limbo'; patchwork 'Instinct'

American movies didn't make a big showing at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but of the few that did appear, some were commendably thought-provoking. One was "Limbo," by John Sayles, a leading light of the non-Hollywood "indie" movement.

Although he's directed a dozen pictures during his two-decade career (see interview, page 17), he has never seemed a natural-born filmmaker. There's often an awkward touch to his camera work and editing, and his stories rarely flow as gracefully as they might. What distinguishes his best pictures is their social commitment - see "The Brother From Another Planet" and "Men With Guns" for good examples - and the clear sense of language that reflects his experience as a writer.

"Limbo" wears these qualities lightly, but they're crucial to the picture's success. The setting is Alaska, and the heroine is a single mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) working to raise her teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez) while pursuing a new boyfriend (David Strathairn).

While these sound like ingredients of a standard domestic drama, Sayles makes an unusual choice by probing the inner lives of the characters rather than the larger-than-life emotionalism that a more commercially minded filmmaker might stress. When the story turns melodramatic - complete with life-threatening danger - it poses a slew of ethical and emotional problems.

"Limbo" has stilted and unpersuasive moments, but its determination to explore bedrock human values places it among Sayles's most worthwhile movies.

'Instinct" stitches together such a patchwork of tried-and-true story ideas that it might have been titled "The Silence of the Gorillas."

Looking like Hannibal Lecter with a beard, Anthony Hopkins plays another demented scientist: Ethan Powell, a primate researcher who's been arrested after killing some park rangers in Africa, where he spent years observing a gorilla colony. Now he's incarcerated in an American prison for the criminally insane, where he refuses to speak with the authorities.

Enter an ambitious young psychiatrist (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who believes he can break Powell's silence and learn the secrets lurking in his heart of darkness.

Hopkins and Gooding are gifted actors, and "Instinct" gives high-octane scenes to each of them. Still, its borrowings from other, better pictures are so constant that a cloud of dj vu hangs distractingly over the whole project. Call it Hollywood's instinct for popular ingredients, or kleptomania by filmmakers who couldn't find ideas of their own. Either way, even Hopkins and Gooding don't have the charisma to overcome it.

*'Limbo' and 'Instinct' are Rated R; both contain violence and vulgar language.

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