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Galactic Tourists


    Photo © 1997 Warner Bros. By Francois Duhamel

    Contact, adapted from Carl Sagan’s best-selling novel, stars Jody Foster as an astronomer who receives a mysterious message from an extraterrestrial source.

    CONTACT (A-3, PG) is adapted from Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, filtered through director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). Radio probes get a “call” from space aliens, who invite us to send a single visitor. Wrangling, dispute and chaos follow. Ultimately, maverick scientist Jodie Foster takes the spectacular ride.

    In the manner of its much more intellectual 1968 predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Sagan-Zemeckis film is no space opera but serious in its philosophical goals. It imagines superior and benign aliens out there, but is ambiguous on the big questions about God and the meaning of life. The meeting with the alien, while touching and prettily staged, risks more confusion. In the end, Contact argues that science and religion are not in conflict but simply different ways of knowing the truth.

    Matthew McConaughey, as an ex-seminarian and skeptic Foster’s friend and lover, is a sympathetic spokesman for faith. Those who believe “contact” with God is already pretty well established will be underwhelmed. The $95 million special effects and explosions are dazzling. Flawed but worth chewing on; satisfactory for mature audiences.


    ULEE’S GOLD (A-3, R): As a stoic, widowed Florida beekeeper, Peter Fonda (at 57) is reminiscent of the quiet strength of his father. Peter is caring for his sometimes difficult granddaughters because his son is in prison. And Helen, his daughter-in-law, is drugged-out in Orlando. Peter leaves his demanding business to try to save Helen’s life and fight some bad guys.

    The story is suspenseful and coolly underplayed. Writer-director Victor Nunez uses it as an excuse to provide examples of compassion and self-sacrifice, and also to describe the swampy backwater and its people with an acute and sensitive eye. Beekeeping works superbly as a metaphor for tradition and decency vs. the fast money of the new Florida. For audiences, it’s all pure gold. Recommended for mature youth and adults.


    MEN IN BLACK (A-3, PG-13): Jones (Tommy Lee) and Smith (Will) are agents for a super-secret agency (MIB) that keeps a high-tech eye on the 1,500 or so space aliens already on the planet (among them, some famous names from Elvis to Newt). Originally in a comic book, this satiric idea is a delight in the hands of producer Steven Spielberg and friends, and challenges the talents of makeup genius Rick Baker, who creates multi-specied varieties of galactic tourists.

    It starts with the premise that every rumor about alien visits and paranoia about government secrecy is true: The interstellar highways seem positively crowded. The MIB guys are sort of secular guardian angels for the human race. In the film, they’re after a bad-guy bug from another galaxy and chase him around most of the photogenic locales in New York, but the story is an afterthought to the jokes. Sci-fright redeemed by wit and genial heroes; O.K. for mature youth and adults.


    MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING (A-3, PG-13): Julia Roberts is at her best, among pretty people in a posh, silly and superficial romantic comedy. She works to break up the wedding of a college pal (Dermot Mulroney) she suddenly realizes she’d like to marry. Her competition is equally luminous Cameron Diaz, who is rich and squeals a lot but is very, very nice.

    Gimmicks include much on-target satire of upscale pre-wedding rituals by writer Ron Bass (Rain Man) and Aussie director P. J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding), key scenes where characters sing and dance with spirit (if shaky legs and voices), a bright nonsexual palship between the heroine (a food critic) and her gay editor (Rupert Everett). Imperfect but surely a summer brightener; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.


    THE NEW SEASON: The ritual fall opening for network television occurs this month. Audiences dropped eight percent in 1996-97—about the same as each of the previous two years. People instead are watching cable or videos, or perhaps playing cards in the kitchen. But don’t take up a collection: NBC’s estimated operating profit this year will be $1.1 billion.

    To stop the erosion, the networks weed out the “tired” shows, those with plummeting ratings. Others are soft but hang on because they have loyal core audiences. Consider Home Improvement and NYPD Blue (ABC); Friends and Frasier (NBC); Dr. Quinn, Murphy Brown and Chicago Hope (CBS); Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place (Fox). All of these dropped between 10 and 15 percent last year but return.

    Sometimes, moving days and time slots perks up a series. The big winner last season was Touched by an Angel (CBS). Moved from Saturday to an hour earlier on Sunday, it increased its audience by 23 percent and became a Top Ten hit. So this year four female-oriented sitcoms will suddenly show up on Monday (football night) on NBC, which is desperately trying to find major hits to replace cash cows like Seinfeld, likely to retire soon. Some 18 network series will switch times this year in hopes of making magic.

    Sixty-five sitcoms are scheduled for prime time! It’s hard to tell the difference between many of them, much less find a favorite. Among the 40 or so series making debuts, experts predict only one hit—Veronica’s Closet, with Kirstie Alley. It was selected mainly because it follows Seinfeld just before ER on Thursdays.

    Some new entries look interesting or like possible fun.

    Nothing Sacred (NBC), an hour drama with Kevin Anderson as a self-sacrificing priest in an unruly parish, and Good News (UPN), a sitcom about a young urban gospel minister coping with his congregation’s problems, appear to be working similar territory. The best news about Good News is that one of its creators is veteran Ed Weinberger (Mary Tyler Moore, Phyllis, Cosby). Nothing Sacred may stir controversy: Any pop-culture approach to priests just now that is not Going My Way almost inevitably will.

    I offer absolutely no hope for Teen Angel (ABC), in which a dead teenager comes back as his pal’s guardian angel. There’s even less for Genie (ABC), in which a divorced mom finds a magical genie to work for her; Sleepwalkers (NBC), where analysts use high tech to enter their patients’ dreams; Rewind (Fox), where adult best friends Scott Baio and Mystro Clark keep flashing back to their confused junior high school days; or The Visitor (Fox), which stars John Corbett as a lost World War II pilot who shows up today with “amazing metaphysical powers.”


    THE MOUSE MOVES IN: Now owner of ABC, Disney offers a revival of the Sunday movie series, Wonderful World of Disney.


    OLD FRIENDS BACK: This includes Kirstie Alley as well as Tony Danza (NBC), Robert Pastorelli (as a police psychologist in ABC’s Cracker), Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch (as mismatched potential in-laws in CBS’s George and Leo), David Caruso (as an ex-cop and prosecutor in CBS’s Michael Hayes) and grown-up Fred Savage (battling his way up the corporate ladder in NBC’s Working). Include Bryant Gumbel: His news-interview show on CBS (The Public Eye) will be good.


    QUALITY WILL TELL (we hope): There are outstanding writer-producers with new entries. Consider David E. Kelley with young woman lawyer Ally McBeal (Fox), Dick Wolf with good-guy ex-con action drama Players (NBC), and (inevitably) Steven Bochco, with both Total Security (ABC), in which James Belushi and James Remar are high-tech security pros, and Brooklyn South (CBS).


    RATINGS OF ALL KINDS: At this writing, it looks as if parents will have plenty of information to cope with both content (sex, violence, language) and age/maturity factors for programs this season. NBC has been stubbornly resisting, but in the end it’s unlikely to want to be out on a limb by itself. Nobody knows whether this system will work or keep heavy-footed politicians from stepping in, or lead (as some fear) to a new blandness on TV. But something had to be tried: The moral slippage, especially in regard to sexuality, has been much worse than the ratings droop.


    A NEWS SHOW ON RELIGION AND ETHICS debuts September 5 on PBS, with $5 million funding from the Lilly Endowment guaranteed for 39 half-hour weekly shows. Called Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, it will cover breaking news, examine issues and include interviews and reviews of religion-related popular culture. Host is veteran NBC correspondent Bob Abernethy and exec producer is Emmy winner Gerry Solomon (Meet the Press). Time will vary locally.


    FINAL BLESSING (NBC) is a sobering but inspiring and comforting documentary examining the spiritual component in currently improving more sensitive care for the dying. This one-hour film, created and narrated by veteran Martin Doblmeier and funded through the Catholic Communication Campaign, explores hopeful trends in hospice care in Dublin, Washington and Montana.

    Among the subjects: a six-year-old disease survivor (so far)—“I don’t know if I’ll grow up or not"—who writes poetry and draws pictures of his “heartsongs”; an excerpt from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s final press conference; a family brought together by the death of a young AIDS victim; a cancer patient who prefers a lengthy road to death because it gives him a “chance to say I love you...and to hear it from friends.”

    Doblmeier’s best moments are observing the gentleness between caregivers and care-receivers. Their dignity pulls us in like the embrace of a friend. Among them is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, famous scholar of death, now 71 and wryly joking about her unwillingness to give up smoking: “I’m still not afraid of death...just impatient that it’s taking so long.”

    Blessing is about “the value of this time of decline,” as Doblmeier says. His images demonstrate how the dying, if given respect and dignity, can draw us to them for healing of our own anxieties. (NBC affiliates aired this film at varied dates throughout the summer.)


    KUDO TO: Monitor Radio, which ended a 15-year run this summer on public radio. This was the one-hour radio version of The Christian Science Monitor, which we always admired in journalism school as a religiously sponsored publication that simply (and mostly reliably) told the news straight.


    VIDEO: Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (with Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen) will be available for rental at video stores on September 16. The video will also be for sale (at $30) by the end of November (available from St. Anthony Messenger Press, 800-488-0488). Actress Kelly has won the lead in a new $30 million, three-hour film of Joan of Arc, which begins shooting in Portugal and France. The writer-director is Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg).

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