SIMONE (A-3, PG-13) is a funny satire of Hollywood,
with Al Pacino as a frustrated director whose career is
plummeting because of pampered, neurotic, uncooperative
actors. So, using a new technology bequeathed to him by
a dying computer nerd, he creates Simone, a virtual beauty-and-charm
composite of many great actresses, who meekly does everything
he wants for free. She becomes an overnight superstar.
The scheme is partly Pygmalion,
but mostly Frankenstein. Pacino’s
Viktor Taransky doesn’t fall in love with Simone. (He’s in love with
his ex-wife.) But Simone’s allure sends everything out of control. The public
thinks she’s real and the movies are improbable hits.
Viktor hides her nonreality,
fending off tabloids, TV, agents, studio bosses and even family. Some wacky
bits are at the movie’s comic heart: fake phone calls, contrived press conferences
and talk-show appearances. When Viktor has to, he can’t turn off Simone, who
takes on a life of her own.
Amazingly, the idea is credibly
and imaginatively realized. This film by Gattaca writer-director Andrew
Niccol (who also scripted The Truman Show) redeems a dreadful year for
movie comedy. Recommended for adults and mature youth, especially smart pop-culture
SIGNS (A-2, PG-13): is another movie phenom by M. Night Shyamalan (The
Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). This ambitious, young (31), promising
Philly-based writer-director bends toward the supernatural. Now he uses the
crop-circle mystery in this thriller about a worldwide alien invasion as experienced
by a besieged Bucks County (Pennsylvania) farm family.
Adding depth to the terror is
the father, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). He has recently quit the Episcopal ministry
and abandoned his faith because of the cruel death of his wife. He repeatedly
reminds people not to call him “Father” anymore. “There’s no one watching out
for us,” he says. “We’re all on our own.”
The flick doesn’t quite solve
the difficulty of how to attach the faith-lost-and-regained plotline, rooted
in the old and quite serious Problem of Evil question, to the how-do-we-repel-the-space-monsters
problem, also old but serious only in movies.
In the alien arena, the suspense
is high but the action is slim. Graham’s family includes his two young children
and brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former baseball star. All they know
about world events comes from TV and visits by a friendly cop (Cherry Jones).
But there are plenty of signs that the unseen but sensed extraterrestrials are
hostile and moving in on their farm.
Shyamalan is skilled at low-tech
scare stuff, using little more than actors looking past the camera to something
unseen, or wind blowing through a dark cornfield, growling dogs or the kids’
spooky stares and whispered fears. He disappoints when fact must finally replace
imagination in the climactic confrontation. Still, much is achieved with almost
zero onscreen horror or violence.
religious side, while the ending is positive, it’s not necessarily knock-your-socks-off
theology that will work for everyone. What helps Graham’s hope is very good
luck and his restored sense that good and bad luck both happen for a reason,
that perhaps indeed we are not alone. In any case, Shyamalan remains
a movie guy to keep an eye on. O.K. for adults and mature youth.
BLOOD WORK (A-3, R): As actor and director, Clint
Eastwood (now 72) has evolved into one of the few American
filmmakers whose name on a movie is a guarantee of good
or at least solid work. Like Woody Allen, he keeps busy
(seven films on varied subjects in the 10 years since Unforgiven),
usually novel adaptations cast with strong actors.
His latest effort is in that
mold, a Los Angeles police story based on Michael Connelly’s clever 1998 novel,
with Clint cast age-appropriately as a retired F.B.I. profiler who’s just had
a heart transplant. (He still chases and battles bad guys but holds his chest
while he does it.)
The heart belonged to a young
Latina mother killed in a robbery. Her sister makes a plea that’s hard to resist:
to pay back the life-giving donor by finding the culprit, who turns out to be
a wacko game-playing serial killer. The heart donation remains central to all
This clearly fresh twist on a
familiar genre mostly involves just old-
fashioned, brainy sleuthing, low-key humor and minimal hi-tech effects. (Clint
doesn’t even use a cell phone.) The locales, especially the Long Beach harbor,
are well used.
Jeff Daniels offers key support
as a chummy marina neighbor, and newcomer Wanda De Jesùs impresses as the anxious
client and eventual love interest. Such well-tooled genre movies used to
be common, now are rare as low taxes; satisfactory for mature audiences.
THE NUN’S STORY
THE NUN’S STORY (1959) sits in limbo as an almost-forgotten
film when it comes to making lists (of best movies, of best
Catholic movies, even of best Audrey Hepburn movies). That
may have something to do with its detached realism in describing
the struggles of an educated Belgian girl, daughter of a
prominent surgeon, to hang on to her vocation as a novice
and nursing sister in Europe and Africa in the decade leading
into World War II.
by the great Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, High Noon) and adapted by
playwright Robert Anderson from Kathryn Hulme’s novel, the film offers no easy
shots for admirers or critics of the preconciliar Church. The life of a nun,
at least in this order at that place and time, offers an affecting closeness
to God but demands perfect obedience and a purging of the worldly spirit, “in
a way...a life against nature.”
Yes, the order and its self-negating
rules, from petty matters like mirrors and daydreaming to being encouraged to
deliberately fail an exam (out of humility) or to refuse help to the anti-Nazi
resistance (nuns must be nonpartisan), often seem absurd and cruel. But it’s
also clear that Hepburn’s luminous Sister Luke, despite her self-sacrifice,
courage and intense love for God and suffering humanity, is never able to surrender
her will and intellectual pride.
This supernatural love story
is convincing and visual, whether inside the convent in Ghent, in the Congo
clinic or at a grim hospital for the insane. Peter Finch is fine as a dedicated
but unbelieving doctor who befriends her in Africa, but this Story belongs
to women, with Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock and others all providing
memorable convent portraits. Nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture;
far from typical Hollywood nun flicks, often acclaimed as the best U.S. film
ever about Catholic religious life.
ONE TROUBLE with living in a cynical pop-culture
age is that we need to experience goodness. If we touch
it in our daily lives—at home, at work, even in our parish—we’re
very lucky. Sometimes it’s found in the larger world of
news—in stories of love, courage or self-sacrifice.
We used to have it more often
in our imaginative lives (books, plays, TV, movies). Audrey Hepburn’s Sister
Luke (see above) is a prime example. Consider also Forrest Gump and the
gentle, good-hearted characters in classic TV series like M*A*S*H
or Northern Exposure. There’s a thin line, of course,
where one person’s goodness becomes another’s sentimentality. It has to be artful,
convincing, moving goodness.
The quality seems to have been
banned from the Tube currently. (It’s something to watch for in the new season.)
Dog Eat Dog (NBC) may be the model for our times. Mostly we get wisecracks,
irony, arrogance, greed. No doubt ER’s Nurse Carol Hathaway character
had some of it (the series lost it when she left). Kim Delaney’s compassionate
lawyer on the canceled Philly also shone much too briefly.
The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin
has wisely given some of it to his fictional president, although Bartlet is
not consistently saintly, and the show’s resident consciences have been Richard
Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and the late, lamented Mrs. Landingham (Katherine Joosten).
Our standards may have shrunk
so far that goodness is an endangered species, too strange to be recognized
by our writers, too unlikely to be credible in our fiction. But we’ll be waiting,
and know it when it comes.
WHAT’S HAPPENING lately on NBC’s money-minting
franchise Law & Order? For one thing Vincent
D’Onofrio has run off with the Law & Order: Criminal
Intent series by creating as fresh and oddball a detective
character as anyone on TV since Columbo. He plays
dumb to entrap upscale, over-confident perps. He bores in
on them, quietly, reasonably, head cocked. But mostly he’s
just curious—something more than just the facts, ma’am.
Producer Dick Wolf’s fourth and
latest L&O spinoff, Crime and Punishment, is edited from actual
recent trials in San Diego. The “drama-mentary” is something like going to the
courthouse and sitting in on a trial. But it’s better than Court TV as entertainment
because all the dull parts have been cut out, possibly along with other stuff
relevant to the truth.
The audience follows prosecutors
as they confer, talk to victims and witnesses, prep their strategy. All L&O
series prefer cops and prosecutors. We hear the defense, but (a fault) only
in court. We wait outside while the jury deliberates, so we know little of the
reasoning behind the verdict. That limits, but doesn’t destroy, social and educational
values, which are high.
Most C&P cases, being
real trials, are depressing. The crimes are ugly, the defendants guilty and
poor, the families scared, angry, vindictive. The judges tend to throw their
The lawyers, with strong or weak
cases, work hard. They almost always achieve a point right around doubt.
So this is a flawed human system,
but better than most. A prosecutor puts it uneasily and too well, after a guilty
verdict: “Justice is probably done...this guy had plenty of chances.”