CONTACT (1997) – Jodie Foster makes us believe

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After seeing Jodie Foster wasted in piffle such as Sommersby and Maverick, I worried that the gloriously intelligent actress of The Accused and Little Man Tate was gone for good. Happily, she made her triumphant return in a vehicle worthy of her extraordinary gifts: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, the movie sports what was then the latest in cutting-edge special effects (including a visit from Pres. Bill Clinton, a la Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump). But it hardly matters, because as Ellie Arroway, Foster is the movie’s best special effect. Whether she’s in a love scene or on a trip to outer space, there’s not a moment where you don’t believe Foster is really living it.

Ellie has been sending radio signals into space since she was a kid — first on ham radios, then later on satellite dishes. She’s not sure where or why she’s sending them — she’s just driven to do it. But as an adult astronomer, she’s thwarted at every turn by David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former mentor. When Ellie’s work yields nothing, Drumlin shuts off her funding; when Ellie’s signals start getting replies, he hogs all of the credit.

We’ve read for years about smart females who know the answers in math class but, when they raise their hands, are overlooked in favor of the male students. Those males grow up to be David Drumlin. Drumlin is dashing, knows just enough to get by, and has all of the smart answers (just not the right ones). And for a while, the story appears to be a contest between the outspoken woman and Mr. All-American.

But Contact never gets that cliched — its twists are fresh and entirely plausible. It even takes on some philosophical issues, and happily, it does not cop out on any of them. Suffice to say, the outcome is a refreshing antidote to no-brainers such as Men in Black (which was released shortly before Contact), where anything alien exists only to be zapped.

And for once, Zemeckis’ ensemble work overshadows his effects stunts. Foster, Skerritt, McConaughey, James Woods, and Angela Bassett all shine. Among the movie’s many surprises, one of its nicest was the movie debut of young Jena Malone. As the young Ellie, she makes you see how the ache in this inquisitive child’s heart turns her into the ultimate stargazer.

Contact makes you believe in its miracles — or at least, in the miracle of Jodie Foster’s intuitive acting. Pragmatic Ellie comes to experience a revelation. And thanks to Foster, so do we.

 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – An empire of movie riches

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IMHO, in the Star Wars universe, The Empire Strikes Back is the one that sticks. Twenty-five years after its first release, I re-viewed it with my then-8-year-old son as part of our “prep” course for the final Star Wars entry Revenge of the Sith. And everything that originally was emotionally satisfying to me remains intact.

Until I saw Empire, I hadn’t fallen for Star Wars the way millions of moviegoers had. It seemed passable as a “Flash Gordon”-type time-killer, but not worth falling all over. But Empire is the real deal. Right from the opening scenes, it has a different tone that its chipper predecessor. The “Rebels,” far from cheering over their initial victory in the first movie, are now hunkered in an endless snowland, trying to continue their battle and stay alive at the same time. Then our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), gets womped by the love child of the Abominable Snowman, and suddenly we realize that the good guys are going to have to deal with some real issues.

This movie has it all: eye-popping scenery, fully developed characters who feel both joy and pain (who can forget Chewbacca’s wail every time his friends have a major setback?), and most memorably, believable romantic dialogue between prissy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford). SW creator George Lucas has been roundly criticized for the stilted romantic talk in “Episodes II and III”; he would have done well to go back and study the simple yet effective repartee in this movie.

This is also the movie that introduced sage Yoda, who at this point was not the animatronic whiz of the “prequel” trilogy but was initially a senior-citizen Muppet with Frank Oz’s hand up his behind. But even with that drawback, Yoda was as believable and powerful as his later, more youthful CGI version. (That scene where he pulls the spaceship out of the pond is still goose-bump-inspiring.)

Of course, this “galaxy far, far away” is nothing without uber-villain Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse), and Empire makes the most of the good- and badwill built up by the Man in Black in his first outing. He finally gets his own theme song (“The Imperial Theme”), and it only does him justice. And if, by some miracle of ignorance, you don’t know the major plot twist in this movie, it will blow you away as quickly as Luke loses a major appendage.

The best element of this movie is that it takes time for the “little” moments, such as when Han Solo can’t get the Millenium Falcon running until he hits the “dashboard,” or that great moment where Han’s carbonited body slams into the frame with hands up, as though he’s trying to break out of his enforced prison. (Funny thing is, before he got frozen, his hands were bound behind his back. But when that body slams onto the screen with such urgency, logic takes wing.)

Any box-office smash that can leave so many major plot points hanging at movie’s end has to be some kind of triumph. Until Anakin Skywalker devolved into Darth Vader at the end of SithThe Empire Strikes Back was truly the gold standard for this series.

 

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., May 21: UNKNOWN WORLD (1951)

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You gotta love any movie that starts right off predicting the imminent demise of mankind. In this case, the predictor is brilliant scientist Dr. Jeremiah Morley (Victor Kilian, a quarter-century away from his memorable TV turn as “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s” flasher-grandfather). Since nuclear war is right on the verge of destroying us all, there’s obviously only one solution: Drill a hole straight to the center of the Earth and look for an alternative living environment there. (We all remember how well that drilling-to-the-Earth’s-core idea went in Crack in the Earth, don’t we, #SatMat-ters?)

The crew for this journey consists of Dr. Morley, five other male scientists, and the inevitable token female scientist (Marilyn Nash, slumming after having appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux). And the machine that they’re traveling in, the Cyclotram — how surprisingly phallic it is for 1951!

Anyway, it promises to be quite a journey, so join us this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EDT at Twitter.com!

 

 

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., May 14: I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958)

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Y’know, there are two ways of looking at I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

One of them is the way that it was obviously intended to be looked at — as the story of young newlywed Marge (Gloria Talbott), who can’t fathom the extreme personality change that occurred in her husband Bill (Tom Tryon) the moment they got married. Bill completely lost all affection for Marge and for his own pet dogs, whom he previously adored. (Needless to say, the movie’s title gives you a clue as to wherein the problem lies.)

Of course, if you’re a cynical male (especially a cynical male newlywed), the other way to look at the movie is: Sheesh, she fell in love with me because I was so different from everyone else she’d dated, and now she criticizes everything I do. I can’t please this woman to save my life! To hear her tell it, you’d think I’d been invaded by an alien life form or something!

Whichever point of view you take, join us this Saturday at Twitter.com at 4:30 p.m. EDT for a movie that makes you realize that even the worst day of your own marriage isn’t quite so bad as you’d thought.

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Apr. 30: THEM! (1954)

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After two weeks’ hiatus from #SatMat, I am tanned, rested, and ready to show another B-movie gem. This week, the gem is Them!

Atomic testing seems to have done for 1950’s movies that the Nazis did for 1940’s flicks: Provide the most convenient, generic villain you could ask for. Just plug it into any plot hole, and voila — instant drama! In this instance, atomic bombs set off the in the New Mexico desert appear to have turned ants into genetically mutated monsters. (When you think about the Southwestern desert, are ants the first thing that come to mind? Wouldn’t giant snakes or scorpions have been more likely?)

As if the premise weren’t delicious enough, the casting is to die for. James Whitmore is the first actor to appear on-screen, as a cop who sets the movie’s entire plot in motion. James Arness, as a fair but firm FBI agent, was seen by John Wayne in this movie, which led to Wayne helping to cast Arness in TV’s long-running Western “Gunsmoke.” Add Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus himself from Miracle on 34th Street) as an avuncular entomologist, and you’ve just died and gone to B-Movie Heaven!

So join us on Twitter.com this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EDT, and bring plenty of snacks…but don’t leave a lot of sugar lying around!

 

#SatMat Twitter Live Movie Tweet for Sat., Nov. 14: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

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The wonderful thing about the magnificent sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it’s about so much more than it’s about.

On the surface, it’s about Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from a planet a few million miles away, who comes to warn of the Earth’s potential destruction if its inhabitants do not give up their aggressive ways.

It’s a simple enough message, but right from the start, poor Klaatu can’t catch a break. He tries to give a peace present to nearby soldiers, who respond by shooting him. He tries to tell the President’s rep to arrange a meeting between all world leaders, but the leaders won’t agree to such a meeting unless it’s on their home turf. Then he tries to move among the citizens to learn their ways and gets sold down the river by a macho guy who wants to impress his girlfriend (Patricia Neal), who ends up siding with Klaatu.

What the movie is really about is fear of strangers. It was, after all, made at the beginning of the Korean War conflict and during HUAC hearings, both of which were intended to root out “reds” or “pinks” (i.e., people who don’t think like us). And whenever Klaatu tries to speak of his belief in non-aggression, he gets shot down, figuratively or literally. The movie’s message is more timely than ever: Why are we so afraid of peace, anyway?

Michael Rennie was a British actor, unknown in the U.S. at the time of filming. He was chosen so that, instead of seeing a famous movie star come out of a spaceship, you’d see a believable alien. Rennie, Neal, and everyone else in this fine movie pull off the acid test: Sci-fi motifs and dialogue that could have been laughable in other hands (watch Plan Nine from Outer Space if you’re ever looking for a hoot) are completely plausible here.

Kudos are also due to Leo Tover’s glistening cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score, both of which contribute considerably to the movie’s heightened atmosphere. Don’t watch this one alone, or in a paranoid state.

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Sept. 12: STRANGE INVADERS (1983)

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There’s a new and wonderful Live Tweet on Twitter.com named #SatMat. It takes place at 4:30 p.m. EST every Saturday and is devoted to Saturday-matinee-type movie fare.

In a momentary lapse of taste, the good people who run #SatMat have allowed me to choose the movie for Sat., Sept. 12. I have chosen Strange Invaders (1983), a little-seen but truly cult-worthy science-fiction movie that is both a send-up and tribute to the rich genre of 1950’s sci-fi.

Paul LeMat (American Graffiti) plays Charles Bigelow, a divorced etymology professor. Charles is asked by his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid of Mommie Dearest) to watch their daughter for the weekend, as Margaret must go back to her hometown of Centerville, Illinois to attend her mother’s funeral.

When Margaret doesn’t return for several days and cannot be reached by phone, Charles takes it upon himself to drive to Centerville and find Margaret. But when Charles gets to Centerville, he can’t help but wonder: Why doesn’t anyone know where or even who Margaret is? Why do the townsfolk still dress like they’re in the 1950’s? And what have they done with Charles’ dog?

This is stylish sci-fi heightened to an almost burning crisp. What saves it from campiness are co-writer and director Michael Laughlin’s heartfelt respect for some initially one-note characters, and (to the last actor) the cast’s delightfully deadpan performances of those characters. Besides LeMat and Scarwid, that excellent cast includes Nancy Allen (Blow-Out), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), a very touching Michael Lerner, and Fiona Lewis in a brief but memorable turn as the most assertive Avon Lady you’ll ever see.

I appreciate having the opportunity to blog about movies that people might never otherwise learn about. Do yourself a favor, and schedule 90 minutes this Saturday for, by turns, a funny, scary, and riveting science-fiction movie that…well, they don’t just not make ’em like this anymore, they hardly ever make ’em like this at all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qegTbAKMsg #SatMat