CONTACT - A SIMPLE WISH - BOX OF MOONLIGHT
GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE - WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY

CONTACT

"Contact" is based on the book by and co-produced by the late astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan. Jodie Foster is Ellie Arroway, a scientist determined to make contact with alien lifeform via satelite sweeps of outer space. Shunned by the scientific community and about to be revoked of her satellite time, she succeeds in locating a prime number signal from the distant star Vega. Further investigation reveals a blueprint for what's believed to be a transporter and Ellie is determined to be the person chosen to make the potentially perilous journey. Her romance with religious scholar and presidential advisor Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) underscores a deep division between science and spirituality and threatens her appointment as the world's first interstellar astronaut.

Laura LAURA:
"Contact" is the first really intelligent big budget Hollywood film of the year, a movie that dares to question the meaning of life. Director Robert Zemeckis ("Who Shot Roger Rabbit?," "Forrest Gump") has crafted a film that manages to be a drama, romance, thriller and special effects extravaganza with no one aspect overwhelming the others. In his last film, "Forrest Gump," we began the journey with a feather wafting through the air. This time around, we travel through galaxies to arrive within the eye of a child.

The story (screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg) is complex and thought provoking. Ellie is a fiercly independent and highly intelligent young woman with a soul scarred by the loss of mother at childbirth and her father (David Morse) to heart disease when she was but 10 years old. She's willing to risk her professional standing by pursuing what she believes could be the most important discovery to humankind in history. She'll take a lover on her own terms (her intellectual pursuits come first), and yet is feminine enough to show up at a White House reception looking drop dead gorgeous just for him. Foster is completely believable as the courageous scientist and gives another great performance, although Arroway has enough of Clarice Starling about her that a number of scenes strongly recall "The Silence of the Lambs."

The other characters in the film are equally interesting. Matthew McConaughey gives a restrained performance as the deeply spiritual Palmer Joss, a man who would have been a priest had it not demanded celibacy but who can love a woman who declares herself an atheist for lack of scientific proof of God's existence. Palmer challenges Ellie's empirical beliefs in an astoundingly intelligent way - he asks her if she loved her father, knowing fully well that she adored him, and then simply asks her to prove it!

John Hurt is the Howard Hughes-like S.R. Hadden, Ellie's mysterious benefactor. Is Hadden Ellie's intellectual colleague or is he, as suggested by James Woods' National Security Advisor, an elaborate prankster? Hurt plays the role with enough impish glee that one could believe either although one hopes for the former. Tom Skerritt is David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, who admires Ellie but disparages her career choices. He's quick to jump on the bandwagon and take credit when she's proven right, however. William Fichtner portrays Ellie's blind colleague Dr. Kent Clark and Angela Bassett is an Ellie-supportive presidential advisor. The only performance which doesn't really work is that of James Woods who pulls out his old bag of tricks in lieu of creating a new spin.

Zemeckis and his editor show the initial discovery and its subsequent additional revelations in a truly thrilling way with Foster madly driving across the desert after she detects the signal hurling instructions to her assistants over her cell phone. In a brilliant (and somewhat humorous) touch, the discovery of a visual image within the signal turns out to be a broadcoast of Adolph Hitler, an inventive way of suggesting the signal may be threatening while also teaching the audience that this was the first broadcast image generated by Planet Earth.

The film succeeds in both portraying how man's foolishness and evil tendencies destroy things that would benefit all in a moment of viscerally thrilling disaster that recalls the Challenger explosion and man's ability to experience wonder and awe at the beauty and enormity of the universe. The final climax is a 90's nod to Stanley Kubrick's '2001' gorgeously shot in otherworldly color with a heightened sense of reality.

"Contact" is simply a terrific movie which feeds both the mind and the body. As repeated several times throughout the film, "If there isn't other intelligent life out there, it'd be an awful waste of space."

A-

ROBIN:
"If it is just us, it's an awful waste of space." This is the tagline for "Contact," the latest film out of Hollywood to deal with man's first encounter with intelligent, extraterrestrial life. Based on the 1985 best-selling novel by the late Carl Sagan and directed by Roger Zemeckis, it stars two-time Academy Award-winner, Jody Foster ("Silence of the Lambs," "The Accused"), as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a gifted astronomer with the unshakable belief in the existence of life on other worlds. Ellie begs, borrows and steals time on the government's Very Large Array radio telescope system, listening, always listening, to the cosmos, hoping for some sign of life.

"Contact" tells the story of what might happen if there really is a close encounter with an alien culture. It does this in a plausible, methodical manner, with the first message from space being basic and unmistakable - all prime numbers between 2 and 101. Also sent in the aliens' message to earth is the first television broadcast to emanate from this planet - Adolph Hitler presiding over the start of the 1936 Olympics. The world-wide impact of this historic message causes an uproar of international proportions, with fear and prejudice ruling the minds of many on earth.

Ellie, and other minds of reason, decipher the rest of the message from the Vegan star system, finding the blueprint for a device designed, apparently, for travel to that distant star. Ellie, as the first to hear the alien message, lobbies to be the one to make the trip into the unknown in the alien-designed vessel. She has to overcome the jealous rivalry of her once-mentor, Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), getting her chance only when a religious fanatic destroys one of the two, gigantic, multi-trillion dollar machines built for the journey, killing Drumlin and everyone else at the site. This opens the door for Ellie's journey and leads to the heart of "Contact."

Jody Foster, one of America's great film actors, proves herself, once again, to be a capable and assured film veteran. Her Ellie Arroway is a strong-willed, highly intelligent, and obsessively driven character. Her emotional blind spot is her inability to believe in God, because the empirical evidence she values so highly points away from this existence. Foster plays Ellie as a together and assured character - someone to be admired as a role model. Foster makes me believe this woman would lay her life on the line and journey into the unknown to find the truth. She is a gifted talent.

Unfortunately, the character-type of Ellie is extraordinarily similar to her Oscar-winning role as Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs." Both Ellie and Clarice are educated, professional, single-minded and capable individuals. Both were profoundly influenced by loving, caring fathers, who opened their young eyes to the world around them. And, both lost this influential parent at a young age, affecting them into adulthood. This mirroring of the two characters - both played by Jody, of course - are too close to go unnoticed. This is one derivative aspect of "Contact," and there are others.

The supporting cast - a good collection of seasoned character actors, including Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, David Morse, Angela Bassett - are not given Jodie's depth of character development. Mainly, they are drawn as symbols, with each symbol providing an individual psychological piece to the total picture.

McConaughey, as religious scholar Palmer Joss, plays Ellie's love interest, but, primarily, her alter ego as he takes the side of faith in the belief of God versus Ellie's dedication to empirical evidence. Their relationship is nearly chaste and on more an intellectual than emotional plane.

James Woods approaches the comical as the president's National Security Advisor who symbolizes the sociological caveman. He represents the suspicious militarist who immediately suspects alien treachery and deceit at the outset of this momentous event.

Tom Skerritt, as I said, plays mentor-turned-rival, with John Hurt representing the mysterious, wealthy, Howard Hughes-type benefactor to Ellie.

The caliber of the supporting cast helps flesh out the symbolic nature of their characters, but cannot fully mask this two-dimentionality.

The story, by Sagan, is an interesting cut at man's first encounter with alien beings. It is enigmatic as to whether the contact actually takes place, but is totally positive in expressing Ellie's ultimate belief in God.

The execution of the story tends to derive from other films, like "Silence of the Lambs," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Forest Gump," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," diminishing the originality of Sagan's tale..

Production-wise, this is one of the best crafted, visually and technically, films to come out of Hollywood this year. There are lots of F/X, but, as I like, they are an integral part of the story.

I have mixed feelings about "Contact," but that mix is to the positive. It is a good sci-fi yarn and I give it a B+.


A SIMPLE WISH

"A Simple Wish" stars Mara Wilson ("Matilda") as eight-year-old Anabel Greening, a little girl with a simple wish: have her dad, Oliver (Robert Pastorelli), get the lead in a big Broadway musical and live happily ever after. Answering Anabel's request is the newly-ordained fairy godmother, Murray, played by Martin Short.

Anabel's wish turns complicated as Murray bumbles the effort, turning Oliver into a bronze statue in the middle of Central Park. Further snarling matters is the wicked ex-fairy godmother, Claudia, played by Kathleen Turner, whose mission is to control all the magic in New York, and needs Murray's magic wand to do so.

ROBIN:
"A Simple Wish" is, simply, the worst kids' movie that I have seen this year. Drawing on the old fairy godmother tales, like "Cinderella," the comic and magic possibilities seem obvious. The makers fail to capitalize on the obvious. For instance, there is a setup that could have, should have, culminated in a grand battle of magic between the good fairy godmother, Hortense (Ruby Dee), and evil fairy godmother, Claudia, with bumbling, but stout-hearted, Murray, ultimately, saving the day. Nope. Doesn't happen. Instead, there is an insipid wrestling match between Murray and Claudia. That's about it.

The rest of the film simply meanders along. It doesn't have heart, although, it pretends to. It doesn't have any real humor - from the silence of the screening crowd, they weren't attentive, they were comatose. Any humor, like the, literally, frog-in-the-throat scene is base. There is no wit in the writing, just lame slapstick.

Martin Short has proved himself a talented supporting actor - note his performances as the outrageous Franck in "Father of the Bride" and the ditzy Hollywood agent in "The Big Picture." He has not proved himself able to carry a film (see "Clifford"), himself, and fails in "A Simple Wish." His Murray is more annoying than amusing. This is a major problem.

Mara Wilson is a lovely young actress with lots of warmth and wonder in her demeanor. She was terrific in last year's kid classic, "Matilda." The makers fail to capitalize on Wilson's charms, leaving her as a near background character.

Special F/X are quite good and varied. But, as I keep saying, F/X, alone, do not make a film and they do not make "A Simple Wish." The tools are there, but the creative writing talent isn't. For instance, after Murray screws up, turning Dad into a statue, the point is made, strongly, that the spell has to be reversed by midnight or dad will be a statue forever. Then, as the clock strikes twelve, it's decided that time is an arbitrary thing and we can just ignore the earlier restriction. This is just plain bad writing.

I simply wish I didn't see it and give "A Simple Wish" a D.

Laura LAURA:
Veteran director Michael Ritchie ("Downhill Racer," "The Candidate") brings Universal's children's film "A Simple Wish" to this summer's film slate. Disney's "Hercules" need not fear the competition.

"A Simple Wish" stars Mara Wilson ("Matilda") as Anabel, a young girl who asks for a fairy godmother so that she can wish for her struggling single parent dad ("Murphy Brown's" Robert Pastorelli) to win a role in a Broadway musical. What she gets is Murray (Martin Short), a bumbling male trying to break into the all female realm of fairy godmothers. Having just barely earned his magic wand, Murray's on his first job which would be challenge enough except he's also faced with saving the North American chapter of fairy godmothers from the evil Claudia (Kathleen Turner, camping it up in an outrageous wardrobe), who's managed to put all the fairy godmothers under a spell and made off with all the magic wands save Murray's. To make matters even worse, Murray's initial attempt to enchant Anabel's dad results in the New York horse carriage driver being turned into a bronze statue in Central Park.

The original screenplay by Jeff Rothberg ("Bogus") feels like a short children's book that's been stretched way too thin. The idea's not bad, but the resulting film is deadly dull. It has some nice touches - a horse turned into a rather charming mouse, a precocious heroine, and some nifty special effects, but the good parts never add up to a satisfying whole.

Martin Short has been exceptional in small supporting roles ("Father of the Bride," "The Big Picture") but has never been able to carry a film ("Clifford," "Pure Luck"). His Murray is a one-joke affair. Robert Pastorelli has a thankless role (even his singing is dubbed). Mara Wilson is engaging, but never projects the true terror one would believe a child facing losing her only parent would. Kathleen Turner is fun as the witch who's turned her familiar (a dog in this 'gender' bender film) into a human sidekick (Amanda Plummer, in an amusingly canine performance). Other stars, such as Teri Garr and Ruby Dee are simply wasted here.

Production values are fine, featuring some lovely matte paintings, nice art direction and funky wardrobe. The kids at the screening I was at were quiet throughout - maybe they enjoyed it, but I was bored to tears.

C- 


BOX OF MOONLIGHT

In "Box of Moonlight," the third indie feature from Writer/Director Tom DiCillo ("Living in Obliviion"), John Turturro stars as Al Fountain, an uptight, utterly humorless electrical engineer who's managing a large installation job away from home. Al's having a bit of a mid life crisis - he see things happening backwards. When his job's halted earlier than expected, Al makes an uncharacteristically spontaneous decision to take a few days off to visit a childhood memory, Splatchee Lake. His journey is radically altered when he meets up with Bucky (Sam Rockwell), a young man who's 'off the grid.'

Laura LAURA:
"Box of Moonlight" is a hit and miss affair, better than DiCillo's first effort, "Johnny Suede," but not as good as his second, "Living in Oblivion."

The basic premise has become a bit of a cliche - a troubled individual meets a simple soul who gives him a new perspective on life. John Turturro's quite good as the friendless man who doesn't understand his wife's humor and is a strict disciplinarian with his young son. He's a perfectionist on the job and while he takes the time to thank his crew for a job well done, he can't loosen up enough to socialize with them. Turturro stiffens his body movements to accentuate the rigidity of his character.

Fantastical elements begin to creep into the story when Turturro's Al sees the water a waitress is pouring recoil back into her pitcher. When he rents a car from Circle Rentals, one just knows he'll end up back where he started. He consistently finds cards for a phone sex service slipped under his door, although no one's in the hallway when he looks.

After a disconcerting scene where Al finally finds the Splatchee Lake of his childhood's become an environmental disaster where a strange man with an ax tries to help him find Jesus, Al comes across Bucky in a broken down car with a ceramic deer sitting in the front seat. Bucky persuades Al to tow him home and then to stay the night in his open air trailer ("I only bought half - got a good deal on it.") What initially begins as one of those nightmares where you can never make progress eventually turns into a friendship as Al continues to spend the days leading to the Fourth of July holiday with Bucky.

Sam Rockwell's quite charming as the simple Bucky who claims to be living off the land but actually supplements his livelihood by stealing lawn ornaments, his electricity and car parts. While the actor is good, the character's disregard for other people's property is a bit unsettling. Bucky manages to convince the dour Al that pro-wrestling must be real because who'd watch something that was faked? He also 'captures' moonlight in an old wooden box which he then keeps Al from opening in order that the moonlight not get away (as well as to hide a rather obvious secret). Bucky also manages to pick up two women (Catherine Keener of "Living in Oblivion" and Lisa Blount) to share their 4th festivities.

Al eventually makes it home (a rather modest home for an electrical engineer) a more relaxed individual. However, it's also disturbing that part of his metamorphis included cheating on his wife, the only person pre-Bucky who really supported him.

DiCillo's technical production is superior here to his two previous films. However, if he's going to write a light-hearted, fantastical road/personal journey he should have considered toning down some of the more unsavory aspects of his two main characters.

C

ROBIN:
Writer/director Tom DiCillo, in his third film effort, brings us "Box of Moonlight," starring John Turturro as Al Fountain, an electrical engineer on a job and away from home. It's obvious from the start that Al is a troubled individual - his marriage is turning cold, his son isn't the achiever that he wants, and, Al just wants to be, but isn't, accepted as one of the guys.

This is the state of things at the start of "Box of Moonlight," but changes happen rapidly when Al and his crew are suddenly pulled off the job and told to go home. Al decides he needs some time alone and tells his wife he's still working the job. He searches for a happy place from his youth, but, instead, finds Bucky, also known as "Kid," a unique individual who will have a profound effect on uptight Al.

DiCillo, with film number three, takes both a step back and a step forward with "Box of Moonlight." Technically, "Box of Moonlight" is superior to his second film, "Living in Oblivion." Photography, set design, locale, etc., get good grades for competence. This is the step forward.

"Box of Moonlight" falls back, in comparison to "Living in Oblivion," with its writing. The main character, Al, is so stiffly drawn, you wonder why his wife and son don't dump him, he's such a passionless person. Turturro carries this unbending nature through most of the film with only hints of developing flexibility by story's end. Al is a tightly wound person, but we find no real reason why. Turturro plays Al with an intensity that is his trademark, like a coiled spring.

Bucky, played by newcomer, Sam Rockwell, is a real find. Bucky, or "Kid," is a unique individual who has a true grasp on his love of life and living. He's the analog to Al. Where Al is tight, Bucky is loose. While Al worries, Bucky enjoys. Rockwell plays the role with exuberance and flair. He reminds me of a young Michael Keaton in "Night Shift," but, with a 90's temperment. Bucky shows the same high speed imagination and non-stop movement as Keaton's character, but more laid back. Rockwell makes an interesting debut. He's a young talent to watch.

DiCillo, in his script, tends to telegraph the emotional ebb and flow of Al. He obsesses with his son's lack of mathematics aptitude, so you know he'll get over it. He repeatedly denies the boy's request for a gift of fireworks for the 4th of July, so, in the end, you expect the request to be granted. There are a number of plot developments that you figure out early on, which takes any wonder from the film.

"Box of Moonlight" is not a really likable film. There is a negativity in Al's "rebirth" and Bucky's life-style that makes the film seem sordid. It does have one enjoyable and likable character in the Kid. Rockwell is almost worth the price of admission - for a matinee, anyway. I give "Box of Moonlight" a C+.


GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE

He's strong. He's brave. He's not the brightest bulb in the circuit. He's "George of the Jungle," starring Brendon Fraser as the navigationally-challenged title character in the live-action remake of the 1967 kids' TV series by animation legend, Jay Ward.

ROBIN:
Directed by TV veteran Sam Weisman ("Family Ties," "Moonlighting"), "George of the Jungle" brings us into the mythical jungle world of the title character in a special way. George, an orphan raised by apes (the inevitable, but cute, music video is used in the film's opening, telling us the story of how George came to be), becomes the legendary "white ape," sought by the beautiful, wealthy heiress (is there any other kind?), Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann). Leslie is pursued in her pursuit by her wealthy fiance, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Hayden Church), who only wants to marry the beautiful Ursula and live in the lap of luxury.

This is until, of course, Ursula meets George and his jungle companions.

Using a combination of studio shoots for the huge jungle tree house sets and location shoots in Oahu, Hawaii and San Francisco, Weisman and company have done a wonderful job of capturing and recreating the humor and goofy charm of the original series. They bring to life all of George's cartoon friends - Ape, the talking primate and George's mentor, voiced by John Cleese; Shep, George's pachyderm pal who thinks he's a puppie; and Tookie Tookie, the toucan, who proves himself to be a true hero by film's end - combining animatronic and live animal characters. Ape and Shep are the best of the blend.

Brendon Fraser is perfect as George, both comically and physically.

The supporting cast - Mann, Church and Richard Roundtree (yeah, "Shaft," can you dig it?), with bad guys, Max and Thor, played by Greg Cruttwell and Abraham Benrubi - all contribute in keeping the cartoon series' roots intact.

There are the requisite "watch out for that....oops!" gags throughout the movie. Stunt work, with all the swinging vines, is notably well done. One stunt is especially impressive with George swinging along the Golden Gate Bridge! Great gag.

In keeping with Jay Ward's unique style of humor, the always present narrator of Ward's animation series (remember "Rocky & Bullwinkle?") returns to amuse with narrative like, "Don't worry! No one dies in this story. They just get really big boo-boos!"

This is off-beat, goofy, entertaining summer fun. The kid in me gives "George of the Jungle" a solid B.

Laura LAURA:
"George of the Jungle" is a fluffy summer entertainment for kids and adults alike which nails the tone of the original cartoons by Jay Ward of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame. The film even features an amusing narrator who interacts with the characters on screen and the audience! The animated title credit sequence gives us George's history as the baby abandoned in the jungle who, in adulthood, becomes known as the mysterious great white ape.

Brendan Fraser is perfectly cast as George - he's both a naive klutz and a hunky, sweet sex symbol. Leslie Mann is fine as Ursula Stanhope, the equally naive sweet heiress who's surprised by the arrival of her fiance played by Thomas Haden Church (TV's "Wings" and "Ned and Stacy") while on a nature expedition. Church is amusing as the cowardly villain and Ursula's guides quickly grow to despise him, making for some amusing subtitles at his expense.

George's animal friends are also quite good. There's Ape, voiced by John Cleese ("A Fish Called Wanda," "Fierce Creatures"), as an upper-crust intellectual (definitely George's superior in the mental department). Shep is George's 'peanut loving pooch' who's actually a baby elephant enhanced by computer to have puppy-like eyes, a lolling tongue, and the ability to bound across fields. There are also real lions and monkeys who are very well trained and get the occasional computer twitch in order to screw up their faces when George inevitably smashes into yet another tree.

When Ursula ventures into the wilds to see the great white ape, a lion threatens her - her fiance hightails, and George comes to the rescue. George must come to grips with the stirrings he feels on meeting his first human, and a pretty female at that! He gets courting advice from Ape, who can only relate to his own species, with rather amusing results. The eventual showdown occurs when Ursula takes George back to San Francisco, where he has occasion to dangle from the Golden Gate Bridge in a rather spectular stunt.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed "George of the Jungle," not having been a fan of the original cartoon. Good for all ages, provided the adults are in a goofy mood.

B


WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY

"When the Cat's Away" is a French film about Chloe, a young Parisian make-up artist who's looking for someone to take care of her cat while she vacations for the first time in three years. After many references (her friends all refuse with lame excuses), she ends up leaving Gris-Gris with Madame Renee, an old woman with many cats of her own. On her return, Chloe discovers that Gris-Gris has run away from the distraught Madame Renee, who quickly forms a task force of old Parisian women and other neighborhood characters to search for Chloe's cat.

Laura LAURA:
"When the Cat's Away" is an accomplished and strong debut by writer/director Cedric Klapisch. His film's title and the story's setup only skim the surface of what the film's really about. Although not of the masterpiece level of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red," it reminded me of the way that film at first seemed to be about a woman who runs over a dog, but is really about so much more.

It was a brilliant touch to use the search for a missing cat to portray how city dwellers rarely really know the neighborsand how a young woman missing romance in her life can ignorantly channel her void onto companionship with a pet. The film is also about the death of a neighborhood and the displacement of those who embodied it - the old women are gradually being evicted and the gentrification of the area is forcing out the artists. A beautiful old church is being razed while boutiques featuring fetishist clothing open.

Chloe (Garance Clavel) lives with a gay roomate, Michel (Olivier Py), who is another substitute for the void in her lovelife. Michel asks Chloe "Don't you like ambiguity?" while she continues to (timidly) look for Mr. Right. It's rather telling that she's named her black and white cat Gris-Gris (gray-gray). She has several encounters - a mysterious man who she frequently runs into turns out to be the obnoxious drummer of the neighborhood, a man in a bar comes on too strong, the slow-witted foreigner Djamel who has a crush on her, the barmaid who protects her has ideas of her own regarding Chloe. It's not until she helps a nodding-acquaintance neighboring artist move out of his flat (headed to the suburbs), that she hopefully agrees to see him in an appropriately ambiguous ending.

The cast is wonderful, especially considering that most of the support is from non-actors, especially the marvelous Madame Renee (Renee LeCalm), a resident of the neighborhood where the film was shot (she reminded me of my favorite aunt). Garance Clavel has a hybrid look - a long-faced Sophie Marceau - and projects the quality of a lonely soul who learns to become part of the world around her.

First rate location photography and a crisp pace also contribute to the many pleasures to be found in "When the Cat's Away."

B+


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