Contact

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This film, based on the late Carl Sagan’s novel about a young scientist’s efforts to make contact with intelligent life beyond our world provides a sharp contrast in tone to slam-bang shoot-’em-ups like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Sagan, a scientist who consulted on the space program and hosted public television programs about the universe, raises important questions about the connection (and sometimes obstacles) between science, business, politics, and notions of God. If he does a better job of asking them than answering them, that is at least consistent with the scientists creed that the only sin is to be afraid to ask the right questions — and to be open-minded about the answers.

The movies’ heroine is Ellie, played by Jodie Foster. Devastated by the loss of her parents by the time she was eight, she yearns for contact with extraterrestrials, but shies away from contact with anyone on earth. Having been hurt by feeling, she relies entirely on science, on what can be proven. After a one-night-stand with Palmer Joss, a charismatic divinity school drop-out (Matthew McConaghey), she leaves, to continue to listen for whispers from the universe, despite short-sighted bureaucrats who cut her funding. When she finally hears something, the government steps in (including President Clinton, appearing courtesy of the same kinds of computer tricks director Zemeckis used in “Forrest Gump”). The message is to build a machine, apparently to be used to go to the source of the message.

Joss turns up as an advisor to the President who is assigned to the panel that will select the person who will make the trip. He does not believe that Earth should be represented by an atheist. And he does not want to lose Ellie again. Ultimately, she does make the trip, and finds that she is profoundly changed by it. She finds herself asking others to believe what she says without evidence, on the basis of faith. This is a thoughtful movie, and it provides a good opportunity to discuss how we know what we know, whether on the basis of faith or on what we can prove. Kids may want to talk about whether the reactions of the people in the movie to evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence are what they would expect. Why do some people object so strongly to communicating with creatures outside our world? What do scientists think about God and what do theologians think of science? What is the role of government? What do they think of the way the extra-terrestrials shaped their communications to reassure Ellie?

NOTE: Parents should be aware that there is one episode of sabotage that results in violence, in addition to the one-night-stand (Ellie and Palmer shown in bed together), and some strong language.

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Based on a book Drama Romance Science-Fiction

Isn’t She Great

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Hard to imagine myself saying this, but it would have been better if Jacqueline Susann had written this movie. It would have been dumb and unbelievable and even grotesque, but it would not have been boring.

The tag line for the movie is “Talent isn’t everything” and indeed, that is its theme. Bette Midler plays Jacqueline Susann, sensationally untalent-ed but best-selling author of the very sensational “Valley of the Dolls.”

Susann has just one goal in life — to be famous. She wants “mass love.” And that’s the problem with the movie. It has clever dialogue and bright direction, but it wants us to love Jackie as much as her adoring husband does (the title is taken from his favorite comment about her). We can feel sympathy for her. She has an autistic child and becomes very ill with breast cancer. It’s fun to see her triumph over her stuffy editor’s urgings on grammar, consistency, and taste. And it is always nice to see someone’s dream come true.

But this dream is so selfish, so trashy, so empty that we just don’t like or believe her. The movie’s point of view seems to be that a fantasy of fabulousness wrapped up in Gucci pantsuits and manicured poodles is enough to engage us. Jackie herself would never have created a character so shallow — not a female character, anyway.

Parents should know that in addition to a sour moral vaccuousness, this movie includes explicit sexual references.

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Biography Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story

The Truman Show

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is an insurance salesman who gradually realizes that everyone around him is part of an elaborate “show,” and that every aspect of his life has been orchestrated and broadcast throughout the world. Truman’s “ideal” suburban community is an elaborate set, his wife and best friend are actors. Sponsors pay for the show by having the participants praise their products. And all of it is presided over by Christof (Ed Harris), who leans into his microphone to give direction: “Cue the sun!”

A thought-provoking story and outstanding performances (including a sensitive and subtle portrayal by Carrey) make this is a very worthwhile movie for families to watch together. Teenagers will relate to Truman’s sense (correct in this case) that he is constantly being watched, and that the world is organized around him. While the satire may be above the heads of younger children, there is a still lot to discuss. They may enjoy the clever Free Truman! web site created by Paramount to further perpetuate the illusion.

Younger school-age children will be interested by the fascination that Truman’s “real” story has for a world-wide audience with an insatiable hunger for something to watch on television, at the same time rooting for him to find a way out and wanting him to stay so they can keep watching him. Families can talk about how Truman figures out that something is wrong and whether it was fair for Christof to raise Truman that way. They can also talk to children about why television is so interesting, whether they would want to watch someone who did not know he was on television, and what Truman will think of the messier reality he finds when he leaves the set.

Families who enjoy this movie may also like “Ed TV” (not for young children) the story of a man who agrees to have his entire life broadcast on television.

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Drama Satire

Dance With Me

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Former Miss America Vanessa Williams and Latin Superstar Cheyanne star in this story of a Cuban man who comes to Texas in search of his father and brings a new spirit to the people who work at a run-down dance studio. Children may not notice the creakiness of the plot and all audiences will be beguiled by the Latin dancing and the joy it brings to the dancers.

Cheyanne plays Rafael, who leaves Puerto Rico after his mother’s death to take a handyman job in the dance studio owned by John (Kris Kristofferson). Williams plays Ruby, a dance teacher determined to win the international championship. Rafael’s sweet nature endears him to everyone, even Ruby, a single mother whose past has left her reluctant to trust anyone.

Parents should know that the movie contains discussions of out of wedlock children (a key part of the movie involves John’s learning for the first time that he is Rafael’s father and Ruby was deserted by her dancing partner when she became pregnant with his child) and some mild profanity. The movie provides a good opportunity to discuss the importance of dreaming — and of working hard to achieve your dreams.

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Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family

Life is Beautiful

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This Oscar-winner for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film is a “fable” is about a father’s love for his wife and son in the midst of the Holocaust. Writer/director Roberto Begnini stars as a Chaplinesque character who charms a beautiful teacher by creating a world of gentle magic around them. The first half of the movie is their sweet love story, with only faint foreshadowing of the tragedies that lie ahead.

But then Begnini and his wife and child are sent to a concentration camp. To protect his son’s life, he teaches him to hide from the guards during the day. To protect his son’s heart, he constructs an elaborate fantasy that they are participating in a very difficult contest to win the ultimate prize, a real tank. And his son finds that this make sense, and he goes along with it.

This movie inspired a lot of controversy from people who said that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Holocaust, and that it was wrong to set a comedy, even a gentle bittersweet one, in a concentration camp. But the movie is never less than respectful of the suffering during the Holocaust, and of the impossibility of any kind of real portrayal of that experience. Even “Schindler’s List” is not a portrayal of the Holocaust. That experience is fundamentally incomprehensible. The best we can hope for from art is that it gives us glimpses. This movie gives us such a glimpse, but it is really about love, and the indominability of humanity even in the midst of inhumanity.

We often see in life and in movies that people react to extreme adversity by magnifying whatever sense of control they have left — think of Mrs. Van Dam’s focus on her coat in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” absurd in light of the fact that they never go outside, so she has no real need for a coat, but important because somehow she has chosen the coat as a place to locate her sense of herself as not having lost everything. In “Life is Beautiful,” the father focuses on his special talent for creating a feeling of magic to protect his son from the worst reality of the Holocaust, the sense of utter betrayal. Very importantly, he gives his son a sense of control, by letting him think that he has made the choice to participate in the contest. And knowing that he has kept his child’s faith intact gives him a sense of control, and purpose, that keeps him going.

This is an excellent movie for families to watch together, to discuss not just the historical framework but challenges that parents face when they see their children learn about tragedy and unfairness.

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Classic Comedy Drama Family Issues Romance Tragedy
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