> Volume 4 > Number 35

Volume 4, Number 35

This Week's Reviews:  Simone, Serving Sara, Tadpole, K-19: The Widowmaker.

This Week's Omissions:  FearDotCom.

Capsule Reviews:  The Adventures of Pluto Nash, The Master of Disguise.

Andrew Niccol

Al Pacino
Rachel Roberts
Catherine Keener
Evan Rachel Wood
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Jason Schwartzman
Jay Mohr
Daniel von Bargen
Winona Ryder
Elias Koteas




America's Sweethearts
Roth, 2001

Death to Smoochy
De Vito, 2002

My Wife is an Actress
Attal, 2002

Notting Hill
Michell, 1999

Toy Story 2
Lasseter, 1999



"We've become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions, been tired of pyrotechnics and special effects."

Christof, Ed Harris' megalomaniac television director in The Truman Show, establishes the idea behind his creation at the beginning of the film with those words. The same statement could certainly fit in the commentary coming from Viktor Taransky, Al Pacino's megalomaniac film director in Simone. In one film, the star character is a real person in an artificial world -- in the other film, the star character is an artificial person in a real world. Though decrying special effects, both directors are forced to use them. Oh, and both are from the imagination of writer Andrew Niccol.

Though in a different world -- one that does not include showbiz -- Gattaca, Niccol's unfortunately forgotten directorial debut, also dealt with similar issues of identity as Niccol (the screenwriter) in The Truman Show and Niccol (the screenwriter and the director) in Simone. This is a filmmaker who has found his philosophical question and will not stop filming incarnations of its central quandaries until everyone is on the same page as him.

Simone (Roberts) is the savior for the career of down-on-his-luck filmmaker Viktor Taransky -- with rise of this star, Viktor is able to step back into the limelight. Compeltely made of computer code and inserted into movies and interviews at Viktor's whim, Simone is the perfect performer for a director continually brought down by the haughty actors who have ruined his career.

But then the big problem arises: what do you do when the world loves the artificial creation and you cannot let the masquerade continue? Viktor has been able to get his job back, receive the acclaim he has long desired, and rekindled the interest of his ex-wife (Keener), but all of it came in the form of a woman made out of 1s and 0s. Being badgered by tabloid reporters (Vince and Schwartzman) seems simple compared to keeping from destroying people's love for an actress who never even existed.

What marks Simone from the rest of the Niccol oeuvre is that it is Niccol dealing directly with comedy. The screenplay he delivered for The Truman Show was more dramatic than the end product Peter Weir created and Gattaca was most certainly a dark drama with very little humor. Trying his best at satire does show that Andrew Niccol does not quite have the ear for Preston Sturges' art as he does in establishing his identity crises.

More than anything, Simone misses the biting humor that it needs in a Hollywood on Hollywood satire. It has become all too common to see anti-Hollywood films falling under the burden of populist cinematic ethics. For every success like Bowfinger, there's a dud like Hollywood Ending -- directors seem to have trouble trying to complain about their industry and shed all their studio clothing. One would think that Andrew Niccol would have no problem showing the indie version of this type -- ŕ la The Player -- but he seems unfortunately too willing to recant some of his most sardonic moments in what can only be seen as a fear that going too far will mean the impossibility of a future contract with Warner Bros. or Paramount.

The character of Simone, a "synthespian" or computer generated actress, could have been more enticing a character instead of the flat and uninteresting pawn that she turns out to be. Niccol may have intended this -- she is, we should remember, the creation of a computer programmer (Koteas) -- but the retrogressive way Niccol establishes her as a popular icon comes in a form that is both implausible (a pop concert projected on the Taj Mahal?) and boring (an Oscar winning performance in what looks like an extended car commercial?). Simone, as both a character and a pivot for an entire film, is simply uninspired.

Where Niccol's work on Simone fails, though, the writer gains ground with his Dr. Frankenstein, Viktor Taransky. Pacino is as wild-eyed here as he was as Satan in The Devil's Advocate. Desperately trying to find a way to destroy his ever-destructive creation, Viktor is a hilarious vision of the feral side of the most artistically numbing art directors. He's like Michelangelo Antonioni and John Cassavetes put together in a Charlie Kaufman screenplay.

Pacino hams up the place with his crazed performance, giving one of his best comedic roles in recent years. Though I'm still surprised at what he was able to pull off earlier this year in Christopher Nolan's terrific Insomnia -- another character meant to show Al Pacino's disheveled side though in a far more taxing setting -- this is certainly a role that seems against type and yet destined property of Pacino.

Thanks to Pacino and the film's innate and entertaining absurdities (especially during Simone's recorded acceptance speech for her Academy Award win), Simone is a slightly enjoyable film. Even as Niccol desperately tries to find some interesting way to end the film (which he fails to find), the movie succeeds in bringing some form of marginal entertainment. It may not be as impossible to miss as the life of Truman Burbank, but at least it reminds us how artificial that life -- like all cinematic lives -- really is.

Reginald Hudlin

Matthew Perry
Elizabeth Hurley
Vincent Pastore
Bruce Campbell
Cedric the Entertainer
Jerry Stiller
Amy Adams




Ramis, 2000

Dr. T & the Women
Altman, 2000

Say It Isn't So
Rogers, 2001

Three to Tango
Santostefano, 1999

The Whole Nine Yards
Lynn, 200

Serving Sara


The media blitz that has followed Matthew Perry in his attempts to publicize the release of Serving Sara again shows the way the media has turned much of the film industry into the greatest filler for gossip columnists. And, like so many of the much-gossiped celebrities to attempt career resuscitation in the wake of a controversy, most of the interviews on morning and late night shows has been more about Perry's addiction problems than about the movie. All the well: Serving Sara is such a forgettable little film that I doubt Perry could even remember anything pertinent to say about it.

And while Larry King gets to grill him about his personal problems, the filmgoers are left to simply review the public problems that he has incurred. The film could be among the least funny comedies to come out in 2002, painfully reminding us that Perry really has nothing tangible to stand on when Friends comes to an end this season. Like the movie, his future seems to be murky from the get-go.

Matthew Perry is a likable guy, which makes all this even more disturbing. Among the six actors on Friends, Perry and Lisa Kudrow have proven to be the only ones with any real comic timing. Unfortunately, they seem to be less likely to find good work once the show comes to an end (a similar fortune that befell the terrific cast of Seinfeld: who would have thought that the most film work would go to Newman's Wayne Knight?). While Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston have found success in features (Cox with the Scream films and Aniston with The Good Girl and cult favorite Office Space), David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, and Kudrow have spent little time courting film audiences. Perry has tried, but with very little success.

One wishes that Serving Sara might meet the acceptable level set by The Whole Nine Yards, but instead the film turns out to be more along the lines of Three to Tango and Fools Rush In. His comic timing has been cut by a darker side that Perry has said was intentional. The problem is that his caustic comments don't have any real bite because they are not funny. At no point do they ever meet a level above schoolyard quarrels -- the main foil to Perry's Joe, Vincent Pastore's Tony, would fittingly comeback with a "I know you are, but what am I" if not for the fact that his character has been established to be even lower than that level of debate.

Unfortunately, that type of humor seems to run wild in a movie that could have been deliciously funny and sexy. Perry should not have been toned down to the point of lethargy and Elizabeth Hurley, constantly relegated to sex vixen mode, should use her looks for more than a flash to get a free hotel room. This is the same actress who helped Mike Myers in crafting one of the finest spy spoofs by walking around nude with the occasional object obscuring her private parts. But Serving Sara is, alas, the product of Jay Scherick and David Ronin, not Mike Myers.

During all this mess, Bruce Campbell is left to play a nondescript villain, Vincent Pastore is a neverending ethnic joke, and Cedric the Entertainer plays the closest thing to a minstrel act since Bamboozled.  The cast is pretty impressive and yet the end product is absolutely repulsive.

Some of the early criticisms of the film come in an indictment of its subject. Joe is a process server, which one would never consider to be the opening for a laugh riot. But good writing could have made this into just that -- film history has been littered with dozens of fine comedies about industries that are seemingly unfunny. Just look at Office Space.

Gary Winick

Aaron Stanford
Sigourney Weaver
Bebe Neuwirth
John Ritter
Robert Iler
Alicia Van Couvering
Peter Appel
Adam LeFevre




The 400 Blows
Truffaut, 1959

The Graduate
Nichols, 2002

The School of Flesh
Jacquot, 1999

Linklater, 2001

Wonder Boys
Hanson, 2000



"Is the world really waiting for another academic?"

I'd dare say that the last thing the world needs is another crass, pseudo-intellectual movie. Gary Winick's Tadpole seems to be driven by the simple idea that acting as erudite as possible means that it will be stimulating to the smartest filmgoers, those most offended by the action-driven films that litter multiplexes in the summer. Unfortunately, the film seems only driven by its ability to drop Voltaire quotations at every turn, making it the wannabe filmic equivalent of a J.D. Salinger novel without the deep glance into the human condition.

The main problem lies in the film's protagonist, Oscar Grubman (Stanford), an intelligent 15-year-old from a historian father and a French mother. He could be one of the most pretentious characters invented in recent years: quoting Voltaire at every turn, offending interested girls because of their pop interests, and reminding onlookers that he can use any 50-cent word (both English and French) for any occasion. Worse still, the film seems to condone the way Oscar acts, as if we are meant to regard his (un)pleasantries as precocious.

Oscar is established from the beginning as a teenager who sees intellect above his own hormonal urges, chastising his school chum Charlie (Iler) for even considering an attractive schoolmate as a possible girlfriend for Oscar. He tells Charlie that the reason for his disinterest is in the girl's hands -- they lack the qualities of a worldly woman. In other words, she's not smart enough for him.

Arriving in Manhattan for Thanksgiving, Oscar has other plans in dealing with his heart: he will tell his stepmother Eve (Weaver) that he is desperately in love with her. But before Simon and Garfunkle can finish singing "Mrs. Robinson," Oscar ends up in the bed of his mother's best friend Diane (Neuwirth). He is distraught: what will Eve do if she learns that he slept with Diane?

The frank and adult way that screenwriters Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller deals with this quandary is of some interest, but they have no real ear for characterizations. Eve and Oscar's father Stanley (Ritter) are one-dimensional pawns in the story, characters that have less important things to do for the story than the aggravatingly overused Voltaire quotes that appear as inter-titles. The film's most defined character, Diane, finds even worse treatment since her character is absurdly forgotten whenever she poses no threat to Oscar.

This is a movie that seems to think that its main character can carry the entire story, but Aaron Stanford and the screenwriters cannot give anything to Oscar Grubman that does not make him less distressingly pompous. The highfalutin in exhibit for this film is only a reminder of what can come when filmmakers lose sight of the accessibility of the characters in lieu of making them seem incredibly clever. The filmmakers even throw in a scene in which fortysomething women gush over him because he can speak about Victorian poetry from his undeveloped body (though 25, Stanford is believable as a 15-year-old).

I know that I have a tendency of throwing out the occasional posit from academia in my conversations, but I like to think that I never do so as a painfully obvious way to downgrade anyone else. Oscar Grubman is a character that truly got on my nerves throughout every frame of this possibly rewarding movie. His comments were shrill, pompous, and derogatory -- he is the type of affected intellectual that gives the academic bourgeoisie a bad name. To answer his question, I like to think that the world is not looking for another ostentatious academic if he or she is anything like Oscar.

Kathryn Bigelow

Harrison Ford
Liam Neeson
Peter Sarsgaard
Peter Stebbings
Sam Spruell
Christian Camargo
Joss Ackland




Hart's War
Hoblit, 2002

Men of Honor
Tillman, Jr., 2000

The Sum of All Fears
Robinson, 2002

Thirteen Days
Donaldson, 2000

Mostow, 2000

K-19: The Widowmaker


The character of Jack Ryan is best known as a part of the Harrison Ford gallery of performances and yet the best known film in the Jack Ryan series is The Hunt for the Red October, which used Alec Baldwin as Ryan. K-19: The Widowmaker may seem like Ford trying to play the submarine Ryan thriller, but in actuality it is more of like Das Boot than The Hunt for the Red October.

The films that Kathryn Bigelow seems most indebted to are U-571 and Crimson Tide, but more than anything, the striking part of the film is that it is nothing like what Bigelow has done in the past. This is a woman who has made a rush of simple action films like Point Break and Blue Steel, culminating in the interesting but forgotten sci-fi film Strange Days. While her poorly chosen moments of solipsist remains (especially in an interlude involving young lovers), the new film has an ironclad (no pun intended) narrative that feels like the kind of passable entertainers from Philip Noyce.

K-19 was the name of a submarine in the Soviet navy that, in 1961, was embroiled in a nuclear problem that could have brought an end to the world. Thanks to the butting heads of two dueling captains, the vessel was cared for in a haphazard way. Even more damaging was its cargo: a nuclear reactor that was ready to explode and set-off the beginnings of nuclear warfare if the crew made the wrong decision.

Wrong decision, though, is not part of the vocabulary for career officer Captain Vostrikov (Ford). He has just been given a crew that loved its previous leader, Captain Polenin (Neeson). Just to heighten the division between the men and their chief, Soviet flack (personified by Joss Ackland's grumpy old soviet) has put Polenin on the ship as second in command.

When the ship is in trouble and help is desperately needed, the two men must find some way to work together and rouse the men to understand the weight of their actions. American ships are nearby, but help from them would be a smack in the face for the Soviet military. Vostrikov sees this as a choice that can only be dealt with in direct action without really having the power to make the men follow; Polenin, on the other hand, has their devoted support.

There are a couple moments late in the film that show mutiny at an odd, duplicitous level. Both men make moves that seem oddly out of place -- not really knowing the true story behind the occurrence certainly helps in suspension of disbelief. The pat climax, though, is most hurt by a series of sudden character changes that seem odd when there has been no real movement of their temperament in the picture.

The films becomes overbearing towards the end as Bigelow tries to show heroics that cannot be grasped by a motherland-only ethos for the Soviet government, but it remains so taut and stimulating through much of its second half that the sermonizing is forgettable in retrospect. She seems to think that her tale is along the lines of Oskar Schindler's story, but it is, alas, a story that is built more on machismo than existentialism.

Vostrikov is a fascinating character to learn about and Ford does a credible job trying to give him more depth than simply woefully playing The Police's "Russia" to understand the possibility of Russo-American equality. There's no question that the real Vostrikov dealt with a problem that had worldwide ramifications, but it is far more involving to consider how he tried to save the world, remaining in his blinded belief that the motherland (and the corrupt people in power) could never be in the wrong.

The strength is in the people, which is unfortunately less on Bigelow's radar than the claustrophobic tension that she sees more audience friendly. The characters are never established quite as well as, say, John Ford did with Mister Roberts. This is a story that seems destined for a cinematic realization, but I'd counter that a fictionalized feature was the wrong route: after looking at what George Butler did with Ernest Shackleton's story, a documentary on K-19 could have been just as jolting and informative without seeming near as pompous.

Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for The Adventures of Pluto Nash and The Master of Disguise (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre).  Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."

The Adventures of Pluto Nash

(Dir: Ron Underwood, Starring Eddie Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Randy Quaid, Joe Pantoliano, Jay Mohr, James Rebhorn, Luis Guzmán, Pam Grier, Peter Boyle, and John Cleese)



With the exception of Bowfinger, Eddie Murphy has been without anything that might be considered a career turnaround -- The Adventures of Pluto Nash keeps in line with this digression. The space comedy died a decade ago and this film proves to be more tedious than the grounded (both literally and metaphorically) Men in Black II. Murphy fans would be better pleased by renting Eddie Murphy Raw for the umpteenth time.

The Master of Disguise

(Dir: Perry Andelin Blake, Starring Dana Carvey, Jennifer Esposito, Harold Gould, James Brolin, Brent Spiner, Edie McClurg, and Maria Canals)



Dana Carvey has proven to be one of the finest impressionists seen on Saturday Night Live with perfect imitations of Ross Perot, John McLaughlin, and Strom Thurmond. This makes it all the more depressing that The Master of Disguise, a film built around his chameleon artistry, is so unfunny. Given that the biggest stretch for Carvey is in the form of a human turtle, the disappointment should have been completely apparent to everyone involved once the script hit his or her desk.




Reviews by:
David Perry