` Passion Fish

D: John Sayles; with Mary McDonnell, David Straithairn, Alfre Woodard, Vondie Curtis Hall, Sheila Kelley, Angela Bassett, Maggie Renzi.
VHS Home Video
Encore Video, 8820 Burnet Rd.

Director John Sayles' portrait of a soap star (Mary McDonnell) who returns to her Louisiana roots after becoming paralyzed is tender and bittersweet, if a tad long. McDonnell struggles not only to reconcile her life without the use of her legs and her former star power, but also with the irony that this accident has returned her to the place she tried so hard to escape. The bond between Best Actress nominee McDonnell and Alfre Woodard as her vocational nurse is complex -- the two women form an uneasy truce that eventually settles into wary affection. The beauty of Sayles' film lies not only in his characters, but also in its gorgeous setting, deep in the swamps near Lake Arthur, Louisiana. It's a pleasure to see a film that cloaks itself so genuinely in the humid mystique of Southern Louisiana without New Orleans overkill; I guaran-damn-tee you that dancehall scene at Slim's is authentic as Saturday morning at Fred's in Mamou. (Stellar soundtrack, too.) -- Margaret Moser


Cross Creek

D: Martin Ritt; with Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote, Dana Hill, Rip Torn, Alfre Woodard
VHS Home Video
Encore Video, 8820 Burnet Rd.

Like Passion Fish, Cross Creek's rural charm lies in unforgettable characters -- delicate watercolor portraits in gray and earthy pastels as eerily memorable as the Spanish moss that drapes the ever-present cypress trees. Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has sought refuge in this backwoods setting in Florida's Ocala swamp to spark the muse that has so far eluded her. Instead of finishing the romantic trifle she has started, Steenburgen's Rawlings discovers much richer inspiration in the residents of Cross Creek -- especially the Turners, a neighboring family headed by Rip Torn.Great cast and great acting, but the honors go to Dana Hill as the adolescent Ellie Turner, balanced awkwardly between childhood and womanhood. Her love for a wild fawn and the tragic consequences which ensue became the motivation for Rawlings' best-known story, The Yearling. --Margaret Moser


Balto

D: Simon Wells; with the voices of Kevin Bacon, Bridget Fonda, Phil Collins, Bob Hoskins.
VHS Home Video
Vulcan Video, 609 W. 29th St.

Hooray for Balto! This animated picture meets my number-one requirement for kids' movies -- not too boring for adults, even after the fifth viewing. The characters and comedy are standard issue: Evil Dog, Underdog, Pretty Girl Dog, Dorky Bird Sidekick, and two Loveable Bears. However, the animation is slick, it's action-packed, there aren't any sappy musical interludes, and it's a history lesson to boot. The Iditarod sled dog race traces the route that the real Balto took in 1925, bringing antitoxin to snowbound Nome, Alaska, then in the grip of a diphtheria epidemic. Younger kids may require reassurance that Balto will prevail. -- Kayte VanScoy


Aeon Flux

D: Peter Chong; with voices of Denise Poirier, John Lee, Andrea Carvajal, Paul Raci, Grace Whitefeather, Julie Fletcher, Steffan Chirazi.
VHS Home Video
I Luv Video, 4631 Airport Blvd.

From three-minute animated shorts on MTV's Liquid Television to 30-minute episodes (on MTV, too), Peter Chong has now enshrined his anime icon Aeon Flux in this unedited two-hour video (includes four episodes from the third season, the entire first season, and four episodes from the second season). Aeon Flux, a Monican secret agent out to assassinate head of state Trevor Goodchild with her super-heroine strength, hell-cat mind, and awesome firepower, drives this visually-driven action psychodrama. Subsurface psychological, social, political, cultural, and metaphysical (you name it) commentaries abound. Chong, who originally offered the short to MTV as a series against Hollywood chauvinist propaganda, succeeds in providing plenty of brain candy amidst all the sex, violence, and action. Toss out those Princess Leia and Barbie dolls. Aeon Flux action figures are on the way.

-- Stephany Baskin


Evil Dead Trap

D: Toshiharu Ikeda; with Miyuki Ono, Fumi Katsuragi, Hitomi Kobayashi, Eriko Nakagawa.
VHS Home Video
Vulcan Video, 609 W. 29th St.

In a time when even the best horror films are becoming increasingly overloaded with silly, distracting comic relief, a stylish, assured effort like Toshiharu Ikeda's superb Evil Dead Trap -- a film unwilling to play its grisly shocks for laughs -- seems nothing short of a revelation for the hardcore fright-film fanatic. Although the "story" is little more than a riff on Western slasher films, this 1988 Japanese production's surreal atmosphere and striking, Fulci-esque scenes of mega-violence leave it looming large over its more restrained, more formulaic, competition. A must for serious horror buffs, but all others need not apply: You'll hate it for the very reasons we'll love it. -- Joey O'Bryan

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