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A beautiful story of discovery and self-discovery
"Contact" is a beautiful story, about how a young astronomer is driven by her own painful past to embark on a voyage of discovery: Discovery about the universe, and discovery about herself.
The astronomer, Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, was always fascinated--even driven--to make contact with beings in the universe, ever since as a young child she desperately tried--without success--to contact the spirits of her own beloved but recently deceased parents via a ham radio set. Ever since, she's wanted to know just who or what is out there. She begs for research funds and time slots on radio telescopes, hoping to detect some message from space.
She meets a young religious leader, Palmer Joss, who has wondered about the same questions. He found his answers in God; while Ellie, dissatisfied with that, keeps looking for scientific answers. They have a close but questioning relationship, symbolizing how scientific cosmology and religion may be driven by similar impulses but come up with different answers.
Suddenly an alien message from space is received on Ellie's radio telescopes. Washington DC tasks Ellie with the job of decoding the message. That starts Ellie on a path of learning and discovery of which she could never have dreamed. What happens to her, and what she finds, certainly made me think, long after the movie had concluded.
Many have compared "Contact" to "2001: A Space Odyssey." But the big difference is the personal treatment in "Contact." In "2001," it was all about the voyage of discovery of the human race; the characters were flat and one-dimensional. In "Contact," how scientific discovery changes Ellie Arroway personally, is just as important.
The only significant gripe I have with this movie is the Forrest Gump-like splicing of actual footage of President Clinton and some other celebrities of the 1990s into some of the scenes. Sagan's novel, on which the movie is based, had a totally fictional U.S. President to make the executive decisions. The movie would have been better that way; because now that Clinton has been out of office for 11 years, the movie wouldn't appear a bit dated.
But if you can look past that one flaw, the rest of the movie is definitely well worth watching. And its message is worth pondering.
The first--and so far the best--"global warming" movie
The Earth's climate is heating up--and humans have to figure out how to cope with it.
The movie was made in 1960, at the height of the Cold War--so in the movie, nuclear weapons, rather than greenhouse gases, are the culprit. But most of what you see transpiring could happen just as easily as the greenhouse effect increases. (Someone could really do a superb remake of this movie today, blaming CO2 instead of nukes.) In this movie, there are no jaw-dropping special effects, just ordinary folks struggling to cope with the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. As seen through the eyes of newspaper reporters, who report the facts to their readers--and try to figure out what it all means.
A taut script, excellent acting, taut direction, good characterizations, and docudrama-like realism all keep the tension at a high level.
I tried and failed to love this show
I wanted very much to love this show. I'm mathematically inclined, and I was glad to see a show that tried to show young viewers how math could solve so many real-world problems.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the show was spoiled by several of its elements:
The "background" music is too persistent and way too loud, often drowning out the dialogue.
Diane Farr mumbles and slurs her lines, to the point that some of her lines are just incomprehensible. Combined with the overly loud music drowning out all the dialogue, this is a show I must watch with closed-captioning, so I can read what she's supposed to be saying.
The character relationships are just not interesting enough. How many times can we watch Charlie Eppes kvetching about his dad or arguing with his dad. Don Eppes, the FBI agent, is a more interesting character, suggesting that the writers have a better idea how to portray an FBI agent as a dimensional character than they do a mathematician.
And worst of all, some (but by no means all) of the "math breakthroughs" that Charlie Eppes is supposed to be making, are just exercises in logic that any good sleuth familiar with modern computer graphics and map displays could invent.
Great premise soon lapsed into cliché
The premise of a wormhole that can take the Sliders to any alternate reality was terrific. No limit to the number of possible stories.
What wasn't terrific is the cliché of what happened once the Sliders got there--even in the generally heralded Season 1.
A typical episode: The Sliders land on some new world. Initially things don't look so bad to them. But soon they find out that The World Isn't That Great After All. They end up running afoul of some Bad Guys (seems that they just can't stop meeting up with Bad Guys), who want them killed. So they escape, flee, and manage to slide out of there Just In Time before they're killed. It seems like the last third of nearly every episode is about the Sliders Chased By The Bad Guys. Evidently with very few exceptions, the only way to motivate the Sliders to slide again was to have them Chased By Bad Guys.
Why can't the Sliders land someplace where they're not in any physical danger, but they just are appalled by the customs or the society or something there? Why can't there be alternate worlds which are truly so nice and tempting that the Sliders are tempted to stay there, rather than return home to their friends and families? And have to make a difficult choice between love of their families on Earth Prime vs. a life in paradise on Paradise-Earth? The writers had an opportunity to do that with the Season 1 episode "Luck of the Draw." The episode would have been fine if Wade and Rembrandt each fell in love with a lottery winner, and tried to save the two winners before they were killed. It wasn't necessary to put Wade and Rembrandt in physical danger themselves. Doing so just added to the feeling that all episodes had to end with The Sliders Escaping From Mortal Danger.
Other sci-fi series--Star Trek included--showed more creativity here. Besides all the episodes where Our Heroes Are In Mortal Danger, there were plenty of other episodes where Our Heroes had important decisions to make or an important problem to solve, or they tried to interact with local inhabitants and failed, or they were tempted to stay there and decided not to, etc. But all this seems beyond the reach of Sliders' writers.
Starts out great, then decomposes later
The best part of "Knowing" was the first part: In 1959, a schoolgirl seems to be hearing voices. They command her to ask her teacher to create a time capsule (good thing the school principal said yes), and to write down a series of numbers and put them into the time capsule (good thing the teacher said yes). This part is creepy, gripping, and suspenseful--we're waiting to find out what this all means, and what happens when the time capsule is eventually unearthed.
Fast forward to 2009, when it's unearthed. A schoolboy gets a hold of the numbers. His astrophysicist father (played by Nicholas Cage) figures out what the numbers mean--they're references to all the disasters that will have taken place since 1959. Too bad this list of disasters didn't include the second half of this movie.
Because as the plot moves forward past this point, it gets extremely jumbled, with plot elements that are introduced and seem important (like the camera keeps focusing on them), but are never explained. There are too many plot holes to list here. And the connection between the sci-fi elements and the obvious Christianity allusions seems weak; it's as if the producers started out with a straightforward sci-fi/thriller plot, and then decided to overlay Christianity on top of it.
Also, the plot seems far too derivative; it is reminiscent of "The DaVinci Code," "Signs," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," with even some "Chariots of the Gods" stuff thrown in.
The acting is mediocre; Nicolas Cage seems miscast as the astrophysicist plunged into mysticism and horror; and there isn't much chemistry between the characters.
All in all, "Knowing" was a disappointment. It's as if the producers had exactly one good idea--the premise of the numbers placed by the schoolgirl in the time capsule--but didn't know quite what to do with it.
The Time of Their Lives (1946)
Perhaps Abbott & Costello's best movie
This movie is unusual for its absence of the usual Abbott & Costello routines and shtick. Instead, it has a genuinely engrossing plot, good acting, a few scary moments, and even decent special effects.
The story opens in 1780. Lou Costello plays Horatio Prim, a Revolutionary War tinker loyal to the Revolutionary cause; and Bud Abbott plays Cuthbert Greenway, a butler who has wronged him. Mr. Prim and a friend, equally patriotic Melody Allen (played by the delightful Marjorie Main) are mistaken for traitors by General Washington's army and killed. They return as ghosts, cursed to walk the earth near where they were shot, unless they can find some evidence to prove their innocence of the charge of treason.
Centuries pass without any success, and now it's 1946. A new family has built a house on the premises, including Dr. Ralph Greenway (also played by Bud Abbott), a descendant of the original Cuthbert Greenway. Mr. Prim and Ms. Allen try to enlist their aid in finding evidence to prove their own innocence--and free them to go to heaven.
Except for those aforementioned scary moments, the movie is warm and even touching rather than good for belly laughs, with a cute twist at the very end that will leave you smiling.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Man vs. incurable illness
Scott Carey, a formerly healthy man, happily married, contracts a strange debilitating illness. He becomes increasingly disabled; what he could do yesterday, he can't do today; and what he can do today, he may not be able to do tomorrow. The doctors try everything in their power to cure him, but fail. Carey becomes increasingly bitter and angry, yelling at his wife; even going outside the marriage for female companionship. Yet, in the end, as the illness progresses and Carey approaches possible oblivion, comes a quiet acceptance--and an existential insight as to his own place and purpose in the Universe.
This story could have been about any life-threatening disabling illness: Cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, any. But the SF part is that the "disability" here is tiny size--Carey continues to shrink away, day by day, till he's only the size of an insect.
The set-piece battles: Carey vs. cat, Carey vs. spider--are of course what sold the movie. And they are beautifully done. But it's the philosophical dimension, watching a man struggling to cope with this medical catastrophe that has befallen him--that sets this SF movie above most others.
The only negative note was that the interaction of Scott with his new female friend was, frankly, unrealistic. She was supposed to be a midget, but female midgets just don't have the same figure as a life-sized actress playing a midget inside a giant set. It would also have been nice to let the romantic angle develop a bit more--just to the kissing stage. Even in the 1950s, you could show a married man having an affair.
With great acting and writing, you don't need much else.
It's episodes like this that remind us that Rod Serling was able to produce terrific fantasy and science fiction without fantastically expensive special effects and elaborate sets. Just a poignant yet intriguing script and great acting by some of Hollywood's biggest stars (Cliff Robertson in this case).
That's all it took to produce this terrific time-travel story of the meeting of two eras, when Chris Horn (Cliff Robertson), a wagon master heading west in 1847 with his wife and desperately ill son, accidentally stumbles into the year 1961. Horn's initial shock at the changes wrought in America in over a hundred years, soon turns to a determination to use the medical advances of the 20th century to save his son's life, back in the 19th century.
La decima vittima (1965)
A biting satire of modern entertainment
Not till "Network" did any movie skewer modern entertainment as well as "The Tenth Victim." It actually predicted the modern fad of reality TV, long before anyone ever heard that term.
"The Tenth Victim" is about what we would now call a futuristic reality show: Human "hunters" are assigned human "victims" to murder. The victims must find a way to turn the tables on their hunters and kill them instead. And whoever achieves ten successful kills in a row wins the grand prize of $1 million, and becomes an instant celebrity.
A Huntress, Caroline (played by the delectable Ursula Andress), decides to make some extra money by even doing a product placement for some tea company in her next kill. Her assigned Victim is played well as a cynical fatalist by Marcello Mastroianni. But complications ensue when they get to know each other better.
And now, after single-elimination shows like "Survivor" and "Amazing Race" and "Fear Factor," this entire concept doesn't sound as bizarre as it did back in 1965. We've almost caught up to it.
Viva Laughlin (2007)
Fun--in a train-wreck sort of way
Viva Laughlin is fun to watch, but only in the same way that the movie "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is fun to watch: It's such a train wreck, you can have fun seeing how bad it gets: The premise is uninteresting. The characters are uninteresting. Most of the musical numbers are lamely choreographed without flair or style. The dialogue is hilariously bad, replete with clichés and bizarre mixed metaphors.
The one bright note (pun intended) in Viva Laughlin is Hugh Jackman's delightfully cheesy interpretation of a gangster-businessman and his rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil." Unfortunately, that character is not a regular character so he would not appear that often.
The other major actors are just awful--and so is the show.