Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Contact (1997) [PG] ****

Science-fiction stories about extraterrestrials typically involve aliens traveling to Earth, or humans traveling to another world and encountering aliens. Contact is unique in that an alien intelligence twenty-six light years away receives our earliest TV broadcast, and then transmits it back to us along with instructions for assembling a machine that can travel interstellar distances virtually instantly.

While the interstellar journey and alien contact are fascinating, Contact uses them to reconcile the argument between science and religion over the existence of God. The position of science is that physical proof is required before God's existence can be accepted. The position of religion is that since God is not physical, there can be no direct physical evidence of God's existence, and we must accept it on faith. The way Contact reconciles these two positions is by having a scientist experience interstellar travel in the machine, meet an alien intelligence, return to Earth without any evidence, describe the subjective experience, and then endure the disbelief, ridicule and contempt that inevitably follow whenever an unbelievable personal experience is shared.

This is exactly what happens whenever someone has taken an inner journey and experienced a religious conversion or a spiritual awakening. As anyone who has ever attempted to share such an experience can attest: For one who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary; for one who has not had the experience, no explanation is possible. Whether you agree with Carl Sagan that human beings are the result of natural evolution on Earth, and that human consciousness is the culmination of that evolution, or you believe that human consciousness is the foundation of the human species, the divine spark that makes us unique in the universe, I predict you'll find Contact interesting and intellectually stimulating. 

Labels: drama, mystery, sci-fi, thriller
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 62/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=68, viewers=64)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Men in Black (1997) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli.

Have you ever seen a tabloid headline like this: Woman gives birth to son of six-headed alien? Men in Black, the new science fiction comedy from cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty), postulates that such stories are not the result of fertile imaginations, but accurate representations of the truth. You see, ever since the 1960s, Earth has become an intergalactic hideout for aliens in need of a place to lie low for a while. Currently, there are over 1500 visitors, most in New York City (based on personal experience, that number may be low), and their ranks include such high-profile names as Sylvester Stallone (he obviously had trouble mastering the language), Newt Gingrich (guess what he looks like in his natural form), and Dennis Rodman (who knew?).

Men in Black is Will Smith's second consecutive motion picture close encounter of the third kind. Here, instead of engaging in ship-to-ship dogfights with creatures ripped off from Alien, he's using Series 4 De-atomizers to blast giant cockroaches. As Jay, he's the latest recruit of the ultra-secret sixth division of the INS (the Men in Black of the title) -- a group of government workers in charge of licensing and regulating the presence of non-Earthborn aliens. His partner, Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), is a venerable agent who knows the ropes and is willing to give lessons. Together, the pair goes in search of an intergalactic assassin (played in human form by Vincent D'Onofrio) whose unauthorized activities on Earth could result in the planet's destruction.

In many ways, Men in Black is the movie that Mars Attacks! wanted to be, but wasn't. This is a snappy, clever, often-funny motion picture that provides the perfect blend of science fiction-style action with comic dialogue. The screenplay, credited to Ed Solomon (and based on the Marvel comic book by Lowell Cunningham) has a sly, sophisticated edge that many blockbuster scripts lack. Sonnenfeld's direction is crisp and the editing is tight, resulting in a film that clocks in at a mere ninety-five minutes, which proves to be a nearly-perfect length.

That's not to say that the movie is of masterpiece status, or even light on flaws. There are plenty of minor problems along the way, and the ending is somewhat rushed and anticlimactic. On the whole, however, viewers are less likely to remember the glitches than the clever one-liners, subtle parodies, and effective use of visual effects to integrate aliens into everyday existence. Men in Black's deliciously unconventional spirit lends a refreshing twist to a premise that has fueled numerous conspiracy theory movies and one currently-popular television series.

The chief pleasure of Men in Black isn't being dazzled by the special effects, but enjoying the deadpan performances of Tommy Lee Jones (whose offhand attitude towards the most bizarre events would make Jack Webb proud) and Will Smith. This is a rare case when the multi-million dollar, computer-generated creatures don't upstage their real-life co-stars. Smith and Jones are a fine pair, and the film's focus on them never wavers. However, while the two leads can't complain about screen-time, the supporting players have all been short-changed. Linda Fiorentino, who gets third billing, is vastly underused, appearing only peripherally throughout. Vincent D'Onofrio (as the bad alien's human host) and Rip Torn (as Zed, the leader of the Men in Black) don't fare much better.

A word of caution for those who expect to see Independence Day 2: despite the attempts of certain marketing campaigns to link the two, they're vastly different in scope and intent. Men in Black is an outright comedy (in fact, some of its satire is directed at movies like last year's box office champ), not a pastiche of worn sci-fi/adventure elements, and there's no big space battle to be found. In fact, from the opening credits to the closing ones, our heroes stay firmly rooted on terra firma. Those accepting Men in Black for what it is will likely agree that this is one of 1997's more satisfying big-budget offerings.

Labels: action, comedy, sci-fi

Tomatometer (critics=92, viewers=79)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fools Rush In (1997) [PG-13] ***

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, as the saying goes. Alex Whitman (Matthew Perry) is a construction project manager, based in New York City but managing construction of a new nightclub in Las Vegas. One evening as he's sampling Mexican cuisine for the nightclub restaurant menu, he meets the beautiful and exotic Isabel Fuentes (Salma Hayek), a nature photographer who grew up in Old Mexico. After a passionate night of love Isabel disappears; three months later she shows up at Alex's home and tells him she's pregnant, and the baby is his.

At first Alex is speechless, but after he and Isabel spend an evening with her warm extended family, he realizes she's the best thing that's ever happened to him, and he proposes marriage. Isabel's father is furious, and Alex is simply afraid to tell his parents in Connecticut. As they get to know each other, Alex and Isabel recognize that they have little in common besides their passionate attraction to one another; but they are determined to make their marriage work. Then, based on a tip from an old girlfriend who still has designs on Alex, his parents show up unannounced. At first they mistake Isabel for Alex's housekeeper, and that's when the real fun begins.

The smart, inventive screenplay is full of cultural clashes and memorable dialogue. Salma Hayek is warm and sensual, Matthew Perry is engaging and funny and the two have incredible romantic chemistry together. The soundtrack is delightful and the supporting cast is outstanding, especially Jon Tenney as Alex's co-worker Jeff, Siobhan Fallon as Isabel's girlfriend Lanie, Carlos Gomez as Isabel's old boyfriend Chuy, Suzanne Snyder as Alex's old girlfriend Cathy, and Jill Clayburgh and John Bennett Perry as Alex's parents. You can be sure that true love will triumph in this great date movie! Ignore the film critics' negative reviews. If you enjoyed Tortilla Soup, I predict you will love Fools Rush In.

Labels: comedy, cross-cultural, drama, romance, wedding
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 37/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=48, viewers=60)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Breaking Up (1997) [R] **

Monica (Salma Hayek) and Steve (Russell Crowe) can't live without each other, and yet, when they are together for more than a few days they drive each other crazy. Monica is afraid of losing Steve. She clings to him; she practically smothers him while they are sleeping. Steve feels he is drowning in Monica. He is terrified that he is losing his identity, and if they break up he won't know who he is. He can't commit; he can't even bring himself to stay the night with her. They hate themselves and each other for generating the manic hypersensitivity that drives them apart. But their sexual relationship is so incredibly magnetic and powerful that it pulls them back together, and up out of the depression that follows the mania. This cycle goes on and on, building in intensity until they have to get away from one another or risk destroying one another.

Hayek and Crowe are terrific together, and since this is basically a two-person stage play, they are on camera alone or together the entire time. We may not like what they are going through, and we may not be able to understand it, but we have to acknowledge that what Monica and Steve are feeling is real and does happen in human relationships.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Gattaca (1997) [PG-13] *****

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) has dreamed of space travel ever since he was a boy. However, since he had been conceived naturally, Vincent is genetically imperfect, an In-Valid or De-gene-erate in a world of elite Valid humans who have been created from carefully selected genetic material, and so are virtually defect-free. With In-Valid DNA, the only way Vincent can enter Gattaca, the launch site for interplanetary spaceships, is as a janitor.

So Vincent hires a DNA broker (Tony Shalhoub) who introduces him to Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law in his first film role). Jerome is a Valid, a man with virtually perfect DNA; however, he's a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, the result of an automobile accident. Jerome rents his identity to Vincent, and provides him with samples of his Valid bodily fluids so Vincent can pass the daily substance tests at Gattaca. Vincent becomes Jerome and succeeds as a navigator at Gattaca, despite having a congenital heart defect that could kill him at any time. He's scheduled to depart on a mission to Saturn's moon Titan when one of Gattaca's directors is brutally murdered and a team of police investigators, led by Vincent's Valid brother Anton (Loren Dean), descends on Gattaca and begins an investigation that threatens to reveal Vincent's true identity and jeopardize his place on the mission to Titan. At the same time, Vincent finds himself falling in love with Irene (Uma Thurman) a beautiful Valid co-worker who, coincidentally, also has a heart defect.

As a romantic thriller, Gattaca has a taut screenplay, timeless costumes and sets that are simultaneously both futuristic and retro, an evocative soundtrack, outstanding lead performances from Hawke, Thurman and Law, and excellent supporting performances from Loren Dean, Xander Berkeley as a Gattaca doctor, Gore Vidal as a Gattaca director, Alan Arkin as a police detective and Ernest Borgnine as a Gattaca janitorial supervisor. Hawke and Thurman have decent romantic chemistry in Gattaca. The evidence of their locationship on the Gattaca set was a liaison that resulted in Thurman's pregnancy, a marriage to Hawke in 1998, a second child, and a divorce in 2004.

Gattaca reminds us that we stand on the threshold of being able to manipulate our DNA and control our evolutionary future. The question is – should we? If we use DNA engineering to filter out our genetic flaws, weaknesses and diseases, will our future resemble the two-class world of Gattaca? As a note, the name GATTACA is derived from the first letters of the four nucleic acids that comprise DNA: Guanine, Adenine, Thymine and Cytosine. 

Labels: drama, romance, sci-fi, thriller
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 64/100
Tomatometer (critics=82, viewers=87)

Wikipedia - DNA

The Only Thrill (1997) [R] ***

It's 1966 in Texas, and Reece McHenry (Sam Shepard) is an architect and developer with a teenage son. He also runs the second-hand clothing shop that his wife managed before she fell into a coma. One day Carol Fitzsimmons (Diane Keaton) comes into Reece's shop. She's a widow and a dressmaker with a teenage daughter to support, and she offers to work for Reece altering dresses. There's instant chemistry between Reece and Carol and what follows is a thirty-year, on-again off-again love affair, interrupted by Carol's decade long stay in Toronto to care for her dying sister. What Reece and Carol don't know when they begin their love affair however, is that Reece's son Tom (Robert Patrick) and Carol's daughter Katherine (Diane Lane) will, in the near future, begin an equally intense romance. Reece cannot make a commitment to Carol because of his love for his comatose wife, while Katherine's fear of commitment causes her to repeatedly appear in Tom's world, and then flee from him just as quickly. Ironically, by the time Katherine is ready to make a commitment to Tom, thirty years have passed since they first met as teenagers and, as she observes, they are as old as their parents were when they first met.

The lesson in this bittersweet, character-driven, mature romance is that Love is not something we can afford to be casual about, and defer to the future; we cannot save it for a rainy day. We need to reach out for Love, and grasp it firmly with both hands. If you’re a fan of Diane Keaton and Diane Lane, or if you enjoy romantic dramas, films like A Walk on the Moon with Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen, Forever Young with Mel Gibson and Isabel Glasser, or The Bridges of Madison County with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, then you might enjoy The Only Thrill.

Labels: drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=44)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Smile Like Yours (1997) [R] ***

Danny Robertson (Greg Kinnear) owns a commercial elevator construction company in San Francisco; his slogan is: For all your ups and downs. His wife Jennifer (Lauren Holly) is a fragrance chemist who runs a boutique perfume shop, together with her partner Nancy (Joan Cusack). Jennifer's specialty is aphrodisiac perfumes and she likes to show up unannounced at Danny's construction site with her newest fragrance, and have him test it with her in the construction elevator while construction workers and nearby residents try to observe. Danny and Jennifer are in their thirties and her biological clock is ticking, but they are having trouble getting pregnant; it turns out that Danny has lazy swimmers, meaning his sperm have low motility. So they sign up with a local fertility clinic, which takes the spontaneity out of their sex life and ultimately begins to wear them down.

Meanwhile Jennifer is secretly in negotiation with Richard Halstrom (Christopher McDonald), whose cosmetics company wants to market her wildly successful 7th Scent. At the same time Danny is being subtly wooed by Lindsay Hamilton (Jill Hennessy), a construction project manager who wants Danny's company for her commercial renovation project in Seattle. When Danny sees Jennifer get into a limousine with Richard, he thinks she's being unfaithful. And when Jennifer sees Danny and Lindsay get on a plane for Seattle, she thinks he's being unfaithful.

This is a classic feel-good, happy-ending, farcical romantic comedy. Greg Kinnear and Lauren Holly have terrific chemistry. Screenwriting and directing are good, if occasionally uneven, and the soundtrack is outstanding. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Joan Cusack, and there are cameos by France Nuyen and Shirley MacLaine. If you enjoyed Greg Kinnear and Lauren Holly in Sabrina (1995), or you like romantic comedies like Fools Rush In, with Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry, you will probably enjoy A Smile Like Yours.