Blog Archives

S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 23, 2002:

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.

I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.

The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.

Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.

At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?

This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).

Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.

My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.

Re-View Grade: C-

Kajillionaire (2020)

If you’re not familiar with quirky writer/director/performance artist Miranda July, she specializes in a special kind of weird that borders on surreal and also a surprising emotional poignancy. It’s been 9 years since her last feature film, The Future, and she’s back with what might be her most narratively focused and accessible yet still wonderfully weird movie yet. We follow a family of grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the parents) and their day-to-day struggle to con, skim, or steal enough money to get by to the next day. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is their only child, and her role in the family is thrown into question when a new member joins their team. Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) has connections to a raft of senior citizens so desperate for attention that, if they all pose as Melanie’s family, they should be able to con these old folks of possessions they can resell. From there, the movie becomes a push-and-pull relationship between Old Dolio and the influence of her shifty family, and she questions her place in this fringe unit and whether her parents actually love her or see her as another means to get a score. Kajillionaire is loose in plot but populated with interesting characters who feel fully realized by July’s writing. She’s so good at studying human behavior and capturing it that the quirky details all feel so genuine and meaningful. Even Old Dolio’s name is a reminder of her parents’ opportunism and problematic parenting skills. She was named after a homeless man who won the lottery under the hopes that he would be grateful and put her in his will (he ended up spending his fortune on experimental cancer drugs). That’s the difference with July. A silly name could just be a disposable oddity, but for her it’s a reflection of a character’s worth and history. There are moments in the movie that achieve a level of artistic transcendence where every piece is humming beautifully together, like one moment where a dying elderly man off-screen directs the grifter family to pretend to be like his own flesh-and-blood family. They play pretend at domesticity, each assuming a doting role, and the tranquil scene of a fake family feels beautifully attuned. The moments stand out more than the whole but July’s empathetic appreciation of human fallibility keeps her from ever condemning Old Dolio’s scheming parents too much. Even the very end finds a way to turn betrayal into a message of humility. Wood (Westworld) drops her voice several octaves, wears baggy clothing, and looks extremely awkward when it comes to human contact. Rodriguez (Annihilation) is the voice of the audience and her test of how far she’s willing to excuse the selfish behavior of this clan of cons. Her burgeoning friendship and maybe more with Old Dolio is a rewarding enterprise for the characters and the audience. Kajillionaire is a gentle little movie that plays at a low-key range of human emotions yet it can still be deftly funny and surprising and heartfelt on its own unique terms. With Miranda July, she makes weird entrancing and human.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March is that rare political thriller that pulls the curtain away to come to the stolid conclusion that our entire political system is incontrovertibly stuck in the muck. This is a deeply cynical movie that posits that politicos are just about spinning truth, cutting backroom deals, attaining power and influence, and living to fight another day. Even the ones who champion integrity have plenty of salacious skeletons in their closet. So while Ides of March is in one way a liberal reductive fantasy, casting co-writer and director George Clooney as an Obama-style change agent, and Clooney can assert all the rabble-rousing missing from the current occupant of the White House, it still sticks to its deep-seated cynicism. There is nobody that looks good by the film’s end. Ryan Gosling stars as a magnetic campaign director trying to push his guy over the top by winning the all-important Ohio Democratic primary. As the primary gets closer and the race gets tighter, Gosling has to cover up potential scandals while skillfully using his intimate knowledge of them for opportunistic deal making. The film moves at a great clip, the dialogue is intelligent, the characters are rich and ambiguous, and every one of the sterling thespians gets at least one big scene to stretch their acting muscles. The film has plenty of intriguing twists and turns, as the pieces all fall into play for one final power play. If you’re a fan of smart political thrillers, then do not beware The Ides of March.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler came out of nowhere to be hailed as one of the most stirring dramas of the year. Who would have possibly guessed that a movie that stars Mickey Rourke in spandex would be one of the best films of 2008?

Randy “The Ram” (Rourke) was one of the biggest professional wrestlers in the 1980s. His pay-per-view battle with “The Ayatollah” in 1988 is legendary to wrestling aficionados. But nobody ever stays on top forever. Twenty years later, Randy is a self-described “old broken down piece of meat.” He’s barely staying afloat working at a supermarket during the day. On weekends he adorns his old tights and fights in wrestling bouts at VFW halls, where small numbers still flock to see the scripted carnage. Randy is fighting against the ravages of time and is determined to stick it out with the profession that has both made him a super star and also left him broken and lonely. He can relate to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a 40-something stripper that gets disrespected by customers because of her age. Randy seeks out his teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to attempt to be a father for the first time in the girl’s life. Then a wrestling promoter wants to stage a twentieth anniversary rematch between Randy and “The Ayatollah” (who runs a successful used car business in Arizona now). The opportunity means Randy has one more shot in the limelight before his health sidelines him for good.

There isn’t a note in The Wrestler that feels misplaced or a moment of drama that feels false or contrived. The scenes of emotional revelation feel genuine and aren’t delivered with deliberate emphasis, like Randy’s moving speech where he tells his neglected daughter how rotten of a father he was, which he accepts bitterly, but he pleads to fashion enough understanding just for his little girl not to hate him. The Wrestler skews against convention and ends on its own terms, following the fated trajectory of its tragic hero. This isn’t a generic or sentimental tale of uplift and redemption. Randy is eager to make amends for a lifetime of bad decisions but he is also keenly aware that he has little to offer and that the outside world has little place for him. The Wrestler is a tender tale about a man trying to find his place in a world no longer familiar to him. Randy tells Cassidy at one point that the only place he ever truly feels pain is outside of the ring.

The film skillfully explores what is fake and what is real in the wrestling world. The matches may be predetermined but the injuries are very real. These muscled warriors are essentially pro stuntmen with some charisma and their bodies are their offering to the screaming masses. They give everything they have for the crowds but what do they get in return once the applause dies down? After witnessing the bloody aftermath of an especially brutal match, which included Randy being lacerated with barb wire and having a staple gun decorate his back, it’s easy to wonder why any sane person would subject themselves to this kind of punishment and for so long. Cassidy is in another profession that tends to grind up and spit out its star attractions. She reaches out to Randy not out of romance (a lesser film would have demanded she fall in love with the big lug) but out of a desire for human companionship, for something real. These two characters are both at a crossroads and must come to grips with the cold realization that the world has passed them by.

The script by Robert Siegel came alive for me in the details. I love discovering that Randy endures shame that his real name is the more effeminate-sounding Robin. I love that the film shows a scene where a batch of old wrestlers sit next to folding tables and hawk tapes of their greatest matches that no one wants to relive but the old timers. I loved that Randy’s long walk through the bowels of the supermarket to greet his “fans” at the deli counter mirrors his entrances to wrestling bouts.

Astonishingly, Darren Aronofsky directed this movie. The film departs sharply from Aronofsky’s highly artistic yet stylistically mannered previous films, like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. He strips away the style pyrotechnics and follows a no-frills docu-drama approach. This dynamic helps accentuate the raw and harsh reality of the film. It’s the most relaxed direction the man has ever done. He’s able to churn the myriad of emotions and broken dreams into a powerful character study that never feels manipulative. The Wrestler feels remarkably intimate and emotionally bruising.

The Wrestler is built to be a one-man show and it’s a terrific show. Rourke’s performance is invigorating and the former Hollywood bad boy channels his own personal history of regret and missed opportunities. The line between character and individual is noticeably blurred. Rourke’s busted and mangled face tells a long history for Randy. The physical shellacking that the 52-year-old Rourke takes is brutal, and you realize that he throws his body into the performance with wild abandon for a man his age. I cannot imagine this film working or having nearly the poignancy with Nicolas Cage in the lead role, which is what was originally planned (Cage might have had a more bizarre haircut). Rourke is the role. It is a perfect marriage of actor and character. The character of Randy is the latest in the long film tradition of the noble loser that must fight to reclaim his victory, which makes for a deeply empathetic experience. Randy is a gentle giant, courteous even to the people that insult him and his glory days. You will feel the man’s every high and low. When he’s working at the deli counter and begins to have fun, joking around with customers, you’ll feel his sense of revelry too. When he’s lonely and invites a neighbor kid over to play an old 8-bit Nintendo video game featuring Randy, you’ll feel the same ache of sadness to connect. When Randy screws up, you’ll feel the same angry disappointment. When Randy is out shopping for wrestling props and playfully involves others in “testing” them, you’ll feel the man’s amusement and sense of peace. Other actors might have given in to the setting and played Randy as a caricature, but Rourke plays with subtlety when he could have gone big. He’s reflective and somber and has a well of repressed anger buried deep within. It’s a performance for the ages and cements Rourke’s cinematic comeback.

The Wrestler is a rich and engrossing character study that aches and wheezes with the pain of real life. Randy is a man that’s lived a hard life, by design, but at his core he is a kind and decent man. The film takes after its star and proves to be quiet, unassuming, brutally honest, and deeply affecting. Rourke bares his own tortured soul by playing Randy, and his performance is unquestionably one of the best of the year. This is a surprising, heartfelt, and equally heartbreaking movie that finds many truths through the self-dawning of its title hero. It’s not the wrestling matches that I’ll remember most, no sir. I will remember the small interludes, like Randy dancing with his daughter, the beer he shares with Cassidy as they lament the 1990s, the love and brotherhood backstage between with the wrestling opponents, Randy delighting the kids in his trailer park by pretending to fight them. Randy may not find solace or stability outside the ring but the people around him prove that Randy was bigger than “The Ram.”

Nate’s Grade: A

Across the Universe (2007)

Julie Taymor is a one-of-a-kind artist. She made her name developing Disney’s The Lion King for the theater with highly elaborate and inventive costuming and staging. She then turned her vision to film and directed two strange yet visually splendid entires, 1999’s Titus and 2002’s Frida. Her latest is Across the Universe, a film constructed around actors singing Beatles songs. Hey, everyone likes the Beatles, so what could go wrong?

It’s the late 1960s and Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled from Liverpool (where else?) to Princeton to find his father. He makes friends with troublemaker Max (Joe Anderson) and they elect to travel to New York City and find their voice in these tumultuous times. They get a rather spacious apartment and their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), is a redheaded rock singer. Joe’s little sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who just lost her boyfriend in the Vietnam War. JoJo (Martin Luther) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) find their way to this apartment and into the increasing group of young, music-minded kids in the midst of a social revolution. Lucy fall hard for one another but their relationship is strained because Max has been shipped off to fight in Vietnam and Lucy is joining an increasingly violent radical resistance group.

I can’t decide whether it is clever of simply lazy to structure a whole screenplay around 30-some songs by one band. Many of the tunes are used for pointless reasons like “Dear Prudence” is reduced to coaxing a character out of a closet literally, though she is gay so perhaps there’s a double-meaning there, but it’s still lame. In fact, the entire character of Prudence is pointless and grafted onto the story with no real care or precision. She disappears and then miraculously pops up again, with happy girlfriend in tow, and then that’s it. But what really chafes is that when Taymor uses the Beatles’ songs to tell the bulk of her story that means that little feels authentic. Lucy and Jude spout their love songs so quickly after their first encounter. Their romance doesn’t feel believable and, more importantly, it doesn’t feel worthy of our time and interest.

Across the Universe is dripping with Baby Boomer nostalgia and the film leaves no cliché left unturned in its account of history. This jumbled melting pot of every late 1960s cultural event feels as shallow as a junior high report on the subject. Everything from the Watts riots, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to the Columbia protests and LSD activist Ken Kesey and his colorful bus are elbowed into a story that feels empty and crowded at the same time. Across the Universe is a tad overextended and even goes to the trouble of climaxing with a rooftop jam similar to the Beatles’ last public performance together.

Taymor is a talented visionary but sometimes she lets her creative impulses take over her better judgment. The movie ultimately feels like 30-some music videos strung together by a flimsy boy-meets-girl story that will sink or swim depending upon the song-by-song visual follies. Sometimes Taymor excels with the sublimely surreal like some underwater canoodling to “Something,” Uncle Sam reaching out from a recruitment poster to the tune of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and a spectacular rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” where Max and other war vets cope with their trauma while multiple Salma Hayeks tempt them in sexy nurse outfits. But then Taymor gets a little too carried away with her runaway train of an imagination and her visuals can become simplistic (splattering strawberries = blood shed) or just way too funky, like a truly awful animated excursion where the wonderful Eddie Izzard speak-sings “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a creepy circus ringleader. What does “Come Together” have to do with pimps and prostitutes and Joe Cocker as a bum? The worst moment may be when Taymor decides to visualize the parenthetical of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by having underwear-clad soldiers hauling the Statue of Liberty over the jungles of Vietnam while they sing, “She’s so heavy.” I’m also uncertain about the flagrant jumps into theatricality like the synchronized acrobatic dancing; it’s a bit jarring at times.

The cast is rather strong from a vocal standpoint and they recorded their performances live instead of within the confines of a recording studio. Wood has a particularly pure voice. Sturgess and his throaty pipes remind me of Ewan McGreggor in Moulin Rouge. Fuchs gives a favorable impression of Janis Joplin. Bono is great in his limited time on screen and hums one dandy version of “I Am the Walrus.” There isn’t a weak singer in the bunch and simply listening to them is one of the highlights of the film, but then I could accomplish this by plugging in the soundtrack. The new arrangements of the Beatles songs are a bit lackluster; they seem too bare and stripped down into vanilla ballads. “Something” sounds exactly note-for-note like how the Elliott Smith version sounded that hauntingly played over the closing credits of American Beauty. I seriously thought that Across the Universe just lifted Smith’s version.

Inherently goofy and occasionally garish, Across the Universe is a misguided trip through the back catalogue of the Beatles. There is a moderate level of fun with the concept and the quirky visuals, but the film plods on and on and eventually the appeal of the gimmick is long exhausted. The singing is strong and the visuals have a sense of whimsy when they work, but in the end the Beatles already had one failed movie constructed entirely from their songs (1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) and now they have one more for a new generation of fans.

Nate’s Grade: C

Running with Scissors (2006)

Ever since author James Frey imploded into a million little pieces, the memoir has come under intense scrutiny. At issue is the validity of the written word, whether these people are being honest as they recount their tortured yet inevitably redemptive lives. What is the difference between nonfiction and memoir, and does it implicitly imply personal bias? Running with Scissors is the 2002 best-selling book detailing the bizarre childhood of Augusten Burroughs. It’s a book with lots of out-there claims but they’re all held in check by Burroughs’ tart observation and witty writing. When translated to the silver screen, Running with Scissors loses credibility without the author’s voice. I doubt many people going in cold will even believe what they’re seeing.

In the 1970s, Augusten (Joseph Cross) is a gay teen growing up in the care of his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and his deeply delusional, bipolar, wannabe poet mother (Annette Benning). When their marriage hits one of its many slags they seek out a therapist, Dr. Finch (Bryan Cox). He has a room he dubs his “masturbatorium,” a resemblance to Santa Claus, and a family just as whacked as he is. His oldest daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), helps him in his practice and thinks that pets talk to her, even from beyond the grave. Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is the rebellious daughter who likes to play doctor via electric shock therapy. Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) is the matriarch of this cracked family that also enjoys eating some dog kibble here and there. When Augusten’s mother signs over adoption papers he becomes the reluctant newest member of this dysfunctional family.

The trouble with translating a book is that you lose the author’s voice and commentary. Running with Scissors maintains the horrifying living conditions for Augusten and the stable of oddballs, but lost is the author’s snappy humor that carried him through this tumultuous time. It’s definitely weird but it’s far from engaging. Without the wit and dark humor from Augusten’s voice we’re left with a series of loosely bandaged scenes about crazy characters and crazy anecdotes, little of which contains further importance. This is a fan of the book talking here, and I’m afraid that the film adaptation has heightened some of the weaknesses of the book, namely the loose storyline. When pieced together as a film, Running with Scissors can become slightly tiresome and overly reliant on background details. The film treats its wild, kitschy production design and 70s nostalgia as a character on par with anyone. It makes for great production design, true to the spirit of the book, but also serves as a narrative distraction. Too much attention seems to be put on getting things to look right than getting the screenplay to feel right.

Without the author’s voice the results lose credibility. It’s funny to see a Christmas tree up year round, and it’s funny when Dr. Finch is convinced God is communicating to him through his bowel movements, but it all just comes off as another joke like the art direction and nothing more. When fully added together without any sense of pathos, it all seems like a joke. The subplot involving Augusten’s sexual relationship with a much older schizophrenic patient (Joseph Fiennes) seems mishandled without much insight. Running with Scissors presents all examples of dangerous, sometimes illegal, behavior and doesn’t bat an eye, nor does it pass judgment. While this may irk some and seem irresponsible it’s just another case of little mattering. Running with Scissors, as an adaptation, presents little of consequence.

Director Ryan Murphy also adapted the screenplay and knows a thing or two about dysfunction and trashiness, having created the risky TV show Nip/Tuck. His adaptation has a blunted feel, but it also seems too broad. Then again, maybe only fans of the book would notice. He has a good feel for his actors and can stage some nice shot selections, but man, someone needs to slap his hand away from the AM radio. Running with Scissors is crammed with so many popular 70s tunes that it becomes a crutch, with Murphy hitting the soundtrack button whenever he needs some kind of character catharsis. It doesn’t work and comes across as indulgent and simplistic. There are so many zippy classic pop songs you may think Elton John is owed a writing credit.

The acting is one of the elements that help give life to this adaptation. Benning has been generating Oscar buzz for her deeply self-involved portrayal of a mom held hostage by her illness. Benning digs deep and displays a comic range of absurd behavior and wild paranoia. She’s all over the place and you can’t help but loathe her, that is, if you ever take her seriously. But then, once overly medicated, she gives an entirely secondary performance as an emotionless zombie, and we feel a sliver of sympathy, a true surprise. It’s a good, meaty role, however, I actually think Clayburgh gives the more Oscar-worthy performance. In a lot of ways she’s resigned to her fate and yet manages to be the gauzy heart of the picture. She tells me more with her wrinkles than Benning does in her gesticulating outbursts.

The rest of the cast work admirably. Cross is our focal point of the story and does a fine job of, essentially, gawking and looking perplexed. He’s like a blank, gangly canvas, and I wonder what else Cross is capable of than a performance built around indignant reactions. Wood is developing into a lovely adult actress and has some of the best foul-mouthed lines. It’s just nice to see Paltrow in a movie again. Baldwin has transformed from leading man into incredibly versatile supporting actor that excels as comedic lunkheads. Cox remains one of my favorite character actors of all time. There’s nothing this man cannot do. The actors all do a good job of filling out their zany characters while leaving their own imprint.

The issue with Running with Scissors is that when you strip away the author’s caustic voice, then the movie strains credibility, even with the knowledge that it?s based on a personal memoir. The movie gets all the wackiness but misses out on some of the finer points and humor that helped save Augusten from his unorthodox housing. The story feels dulled and stretched too broad, and yet it still manages to be intermittently entertaining despite these flaws. The actors range from good to great and the art direction is fantastic, even if Murphy expects it to do more work than his screenplay. Running with Scissors isn’t as nervy, engaging, or provocative as its source material. Then again little else is. Consider the film Running with Safety Scissors.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Thirteen (2003)

No one said being a 13-year-old was easy. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, a dead ringer for a young Jennifer Garner) is a straight-A student living with her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter, nominated for an Oscar). Her family fights to get by with Melanie’s at-home hair salon. People, usually accompanied by wee kids, stroll in and out of their house like it was a bed and breakfast. Melanie’’s previous boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) has sobered up and settled back into her life, despite Tracy’’s wishes.

Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the film with the director) is that cool girl at Portola Middle School. Tracy desperately wishes to join Evie’s inner sanctum of friends, enough that she’ll steal the pocketbook of a stranger to impress Evie. Tracy is taken under Evie’s wing and learns how to flirt, dress, dance, kiss, and terrify her mother. Melanie’s concern is a slow simmer, but she can’t ignore all the signs of what is happening momma’’s little girl. The girls revel in bared midriffs, body piercing, and gallons of shiny make-up. Evie lives with her guardian Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), herself a sad woman ravaged by booze and pills. When she tells Melanie that Brooke beats her, the maternal instincts overpower her concern. She invites Evie to stay with her family. Evie even calls Melanie “mom.” More disintegration of Tracy follows.

Thirteen does exhibit a rare maturity in the displaying of teenage emotions, namely the pull to belong. It also pays incisive attention to our consumer society marketing teen sexuality and the implicit effects. Thirteen creates a more realistic teenager by showing the vulnerability that’’s inherent in growing up.

Wood gives a strong performance as her character descends from goodie-good to teen vamp. Her square jaw and lanky frame are physically perfect at displaying a natural young awkwardness. She looks like a teenager I’’d see on my block, not what Hollywood is trying to tell me. Wood gets a tad drunk on her character’s emotions, like a scene where she tries to scare her mother by lurching forward and cooing, ““No bra. No panties.””

Hunter’’s depiction of Tracy’s mother is out to lunch about her daughter. This makes the character seem earnest yet stupidly naïve, and after the 200th request of “we need to talk” is met once again with a closed door, the audience begins to think that Melanie has some deep-seated issues herself.

The direction by first timer Catherine Harwicke starts off as annoying with self-gratifying camerawork. The handheld camera swoops in and out attempting to establish a fluid realism. She also utilizes muted or exaggerated colors to express Tracy’s highs and lows. What started as self-congratulatory direction actually warmed me over, and I began to take notice of how lovingly Hardwicke stuffs her frame and utilizes lighting. It seems like she could have a career ahead of her as a director.

Though the acting is strong and the direction grows on you, Thirteen never really rises above its ilk of “cautionary tale.” It’’s your basic story set-up of good girl meets bad influence, gets bad, distances family and old friends, experiences highs and then crashing lows, usually capped off with some kind of lesson learned. This is Thirteen in a nutshell. Tracy’s change from good girl to pubescent trash occurs at an unbelievably fast speed.

You could make an argument that the film is trying to be daring and shocking, but this whole “”what’’s wrong with kids today”” routine has been done better in lesser films, like Larry Clark’’s Kids. Even though Clark has a fixation for lingering on nubile bodies, his film portrays wayward teenagers and their hedonistic behavior without the constraints of trying to frame sympathetic characters. Thirteen hedges its resources; it can’t be fully shocking if it keeps trying to make us like the characters, thus giving glimpses of remorse and doubt. In today’s world, I don’t think it’s shocking anymore to see 13-year-olds engaged in drugs and sex, especially after witnessing kids killing kids in the brilliant City of God earlier last year.

Thirteen is a noble effort but fails in any attempt in functioning as preemptive wake-up call. The acting is quite capable (Wood appears to be headed for junior star status) but the film is ultimately unimpressive. Perhaps the only way to be shocked by this movie is if you’re a negligent parent with a disposable income. It would be worth a rental, but there’s nothing overpowering enough in the film to justify full movie ticket price. While I was watching Thirteen I kept recalling a piece of dialogue the grandfather in Fargo said: “You let him go to McDonalds at this hour? They do more than drink milkshakes, I guarantee you that.” In the end the message of Thirteen is simply this: one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

Nate’s Grade: C+

S1mone (2002)

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit like a crack addict (my apologies to Chris Rock). His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of very funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

%d bloggers like this: