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JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Contact

D: Robert Zemeckis (1997)
with Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerrit, Angela Bassett, John Hurt, James Woods


Matthew McConaughey assures Jodie Foster all will be well in Contact, if they'll just quit playing the Spice Girls in outer space.

Contact may be the most thought-provoking video of the year, and not necessarily for the reasons you think. Shrouded in litigious controversy, you've got to respect any filmmaker that has the guts to cast pretty boy Matthew McConaughey as a "spiritual advisor" and -- even more startling -- Rob Lowe as an American conservative leader. Adapted from Carl Sagan's book (and released shortly after his death), Contact is an epic, 2.5 hour space story on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it's nearly as compelling. In this post-modern fable, we are asked to choose between science and religion, with the focus on the question: When aliens send us plans to build a space-travel device, who will be the one to go for the ride? While Contact's worm holes lead to some inevitable plot holes, the movie still bears viewing, especially for Foster's earnest (and Golden Globe-nominated) performance as the one who first receives the incoming signal. But perhaps Contact's most curious and unintended puzzler comes from its dazzling opening sequence: If we really are beaming Spice Girls tunes into space, what are the aliens going to think about that?-- Christopher Null


This Is Not a Test!

D: Frederic Gadette (1961)
no cast credits

A sheriff's deputy gets a call on his radio to set up a roadblock on a remote mountain road, and stops several travelers. As news continues to come in on the police radio, they find out that the country is under atomic attack and they are stuck between two likely H-bomb targets, with all possible escape routes choked off by people fleeing the cities. There's a truck driver, a jaded hipster playboy and his girlfriend, a Denver Pyle-type farmer with his luscious granddaughter, and a city wuss (very reminiscent of the bald guy in Night of the Living Dead) with his wife. The cop (who has a face like an Easter Island statue) takes iron-fisted control of the group, feeding the hipster a shotgun butt when he tries to leave. They take shelter in the back of the 18-wheeler (conveniently loaded with canned food, water, and supplies) and wait for the world to end. This Is Not a Test! is mainly talk and exposition, but it advances the plot forward as quickly as the ICBMs on their way to wipe out the characters. The acting ranges from pretty good to plain awful; there are continuity errors aplenty and an obviously shoestring budget, but the seedy production values only add to the aura of doom and desperation that overwhelms this picture. Actually, the budget constraints, confined setting, and limited cast of characters makes it seem more like a filmed play at times. The literate, well-reasoned script has all the characters trying to decide how to live out their last moments on earth while the cop rides ruthless herd over the lot, eventually throttling the city lady's poodle to conserve fresh air inside the trailer, then tossing it aside like a rag doll. Also surprising is the total lack of propagandizing; I don't think the Russians are mentioned by name once. It's a thought-provoking viewing experience that definitely transcends the budget and talent limitations that it comes saddled with, and is way better than most Cold War end-of-the-world dramas. A must for all doomsday completists.-- Jerry Renshaw


Anima Mundi

D. Godfrey Reggio (1992)

What hath Koyaanisqatsi wrought? Well, Powaqqatsi for one thing, and Anima Mundi for another. Of course, there's nothing wrong with those groundbreaking visual smorgasbords -- nothing, that is, except the god-awful music of Phillip Glass. As with predecessors K and P, Anima Mundi is dense with arresting images. Here, director Reggio's expert eye is turned towards the wild kingdom, as he attempts to capture the animal soul under the auspices of the World Wildlife Fund's Biological Diversity Fund (and nary a panda in sight!). The footage here -- of ostrich, mantas, springboks, and more -- is truly stunning, a complex visual orgy that reveals the sublime patterns and geometries that grace the natural world. Unfortunately, this fine optical feast is saddled by the synthesized score of Glass -- a digital papfest that grows ever more tiring until it verges on the obnoxious. Call me a heathen, but I liked Anima Mundi best when I turned down the Glass and turned up some good ol' Flatt & Scruggs. Leapin' lemurs! Now we're talking.--Jay Hardwig


Laura

D: Otto Preminger (1944)
with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price,
and Judith Anderson

"You have rarely met a girl like Laura. Few women have been so beautiful, so exotic, so dangerous to know." I'll say. These are the words that open the original theatrical trailer for the 1944 Laura, starring Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt, a plucky and earnest young adwoman who one day at lunch steels up the nerve to approach Waldo Liedecker (Webb), a witty, snitty twit (a newspaper columnist, of course) to ask him to endorse an ad for a certain brand of writing pen for which Laura has designed the ad. He declines; she insists; he declines; she runs off only to be hunted down by Liedecker days later as he apologizes for his previous rudeness and decides to endorse the ad. Liedecker takes an initial liking to Laura that turns into love, so he wines and dines her and introduces her to all the right people, all of them right except for Shelby Carpenter (Price), an overgrown Kentuckian of dubious social provenance who also falls in love with Laura. A murder ensues, which is roundly assumed to be the murder of Laura until... well, from here on you'll have to see for yourself. Feminist theorists and activists criticize the patriarchal practice of referring to a male character or figure by his last name and a female one by her first, and that's a justified grievance, but in the case of Laura there's little else to call her by; say it often enough after viewing and you, too, regardless of gender, may be hypnotically mesmerized like all of Laura's men. --Claiborne Smith


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