Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez

Featured attraction

Alaska, where talented writer-director (Lone Star) John Sayles has set his twelfth film, is a place people often go either to get away from something or to find themselves—sometimes both. If you wander too far away in bad weather there without proper gear, the elements can kill you in minutes. But if you stay inside too long, you may just go "shacky wacky," as the locals put it.

In Limbo, an intriguing if overly deliberate character drama, Sayles's characters come up against both themselves and the elements. Mastrantonio plays a singer and single mom who heads north, teen daughter (Martinez) in tow, looking to change her luck. Strathairn plays a fisherman who has put his emotional and professional life on hold. Just as these two embark on a tentative romance, Limbo abruptly shifts gears, depositing mother, daughter and beau on a deserted island where they must depend on each other and their wits to survive.

Mastrantonio and Strathairn both do wonderfully complex work here. She shows off a lovely singing voice while he continues to demonstrate why he's the thinking woman's sex symbol. But Limbo always seems a trace too self-conscious, as if Sayles had gone through his script with a yellow highlighter making sure all the symbolism (watch for fish references) is in place. (R)

Bottom Line: Lovely performances but not quite up to full Sayles

Lena Headey, Douglas Henshall, Penélope Cruz, Elizabeth McGovern

In the same way you might have been given a do-over for a botched volleyball serve in a high school gym class, so the hero of this charmingly eccentric romantic comedy gets a do-over when he messes up with his girlfriend.

In fact, Twice Upon a Yesterday is itself something of a do-over of last year's Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow. Set in London, it opens with its hero, an unemployed actor (Henshall), traveling back in time to rectify the swinish behavior (including two-timing) that caused his longtime sweetie (Headey) to ditch him and hook up with another man. For a while all is bliss with the now reformed Henshall acting the model boyfriend, but he soon learns the hard way that you can't mess with fate. Or, as the fetching young Spanish woman (Cruz) who will play a role in his future tells him, quoting Cervantes's The Adventures of Don Quixote, "Don't look for this year's birds in last year's nests."

Twice has an agreeable cast, is snappily directed by Spanish-born Maria Ripoll (it's her first feature film) and reveals London's lively Notting Hill neighborhood to be a far more multiethnic enclave than it appears in the enjoyable new Julia Roberts movie that bears the nabe's name. (R)

Bottom Line: Charming romantic fable puts love on rewind

Julian Sands, Saffron Burrows

Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas)—presumably to make sure the audience doesn't miss the point here—spells it all out in the title. (Imagine if Saving Private Ryan had been called Carnage and Valor in World War II Normandy.) He also cuts away from his main story from time to time to show us scenes depicting nothing less than the fall of Adam and Eve. They look like jeans models without the jeans.

The actual story follows—or more accurately, lumbers after—Sands as he matures from an unhappy boy into a family man who falls for a spiritually restless Italian beauty (Burrows). If Figgis had kept his focus on this relationship, which in the end delivers quite a jolt, he might have had a movie. As for Adam and Eve, the whole of mankind already knows how that turned out. (R)

Bottom Line: Bad apple

>NOTTING HILL London swings when Julia Roberts's visiting Yank movie star pairs up with Hugh Grant's bookstore owner in a pip of a romantic comedy. Both stars are in top form. (PG-13)

ELECTION In a smart satire, Matthew Broderick plays a high school teacher determined to keep a go-getting student (Reese Wither-spoon) from winning a student election. (R)

THE THIRD MAN To mark its 50th anniversary, director Carol Reed's classic thriller with Orson Welles as slimy Harry Lime is in theaters again. Dig that zither music. (No rating)

>Christian Bale

A decade ago, Christian Bale wanted to bail out of stardom. In 1987, at the age of 12, the Welsh-born wildlife conservationist's son was handpicked by Steven Spielberg out of 4,000 auditioners to star in Empire of the Sun. The resulting media attention was "horrific," he says. "I was almost crying in interviews and running away during press conferences, pretending I was going to the toilet and just disappearing."

Now 25, the actor—who plays Demetrius, Calista Flockhart's obsession in A Midsummer Night's Dream—has happily readjusted to fame, a process that began in 1994 when he starred as Winona Ryder's love interest in Little Women. "He swept everyone away," says Ryder. Recently, he has carved out a niche in low-budget fare such as '98's Velvet Goldmine and this year's Metroland.

His next major role, as a serial killer in American Psycho, may have some fans heading for the exits. But the actor, who lives in L.A. with three cats and two dogs, hopes at least a few will stand by him. "Who wouldn't like having girls you don't even know compliment you?" he says. "It's a great ego boost."

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Tom Gliatto.