ONE TRUE THING - RONIN - RUSH HOUR
A MERRY WAR - PERMANENT MIDNIGHT - SIMON BIRCH

ONE TRUE THING

In a departure from his usual fare ("One False Move," "Devil in a Blue Dress"), helmer Carl Franklin directs Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger and William Hurt in the taut family drama "One True Thing." Zellweger is Harvard grad Ellen Gulden, an up and coming New York journalist who strives to be as good as her father, George (Hurt), the head of literature at a small, suburban college and National Book Award winner. As Ellen faces the first real challenge of her brief career, her father
tears her from the city to care for her mother Kate (Streep), who's about to undergo cancer surgery. Ellen has been estranged from mom for years and undergoes a metamorphosis as she learns the true natures of both of her parents.

Laura LAURA:
Director Carl Franklin ("One False Move," "Devil in a Blue Dress") display his versatility with "One True Thing," a mother-daughter relationship film adapted from the novel by Anna Quindlen.  The film is an assured Hollywood production featuring two great performances by its leads, Meryl Streep as Kate Gulden and Rene Zellweger as her daughter Ellen.
William Hurt gives a fine, if more mannered performance as George, the emotionally controlling college English Lit professor.

"One True Thing" is a multi-layered tale of a family, principally a daughter, facing the traumatic event of a matriarch's impending death.  Ellen is an independent, modern, ambitious NYC journalist who idolizes her writer father and disdains the homemaker, 'arts and crafts' life of her mother.  When her mother must have surgery for cancer, George calls upon his flabbergasted daughter to come home and care for her because 1) his class schedule is too heavy, 2) Kate 'wouldn't like a stranger in the house,' and 3) Ellen can work from the house and freelance.  Ellen becomes determined to do just that, however, after her editor implies that she's angling for a promotion by 'threatening' to take leave to nurse her mom.  Gradually she comes to learn that her mom's life has much more meaning and requires more effort than she'd ever imagined while her father is not at all what she'd built him up to be.  In one of the film's best scenes, Kate confronts her daughter with the fact that she herself knows all about her husband and that Ellen better reconcile herself to the facts because he's all she'll have left.

Meryl Streep is simply outstanding, reinforcing Ellen's idea of her when she dresses as Dorothy Gale for a surprise birthday party for George where guests have been asked to come as their favorite literary character. Streep allows the audience to gradually come to know her strength and intelligence along with Ellen.  Kate's being is symbolized by a mosaic table she's been working on for years by using broken dishes and pottery to form a whole craftwork.

Rene Zellweger, all apple cheeked and beestung lipped, is turning into one of our finest young actresses.  She lets the audience know what she's thinking by just watching her face.  We see the hurt and confusion when her Dad criticizes her writing and the barely surpressed pride when she's acknowledged as an honorary 'Minnie,' her mother's social group which she previously scoffed at, at the town's annual Christmas tree lighting. Her rage is palpable when she explodes at her visitting boyfriend when too many drinks allow her pent up frustration and stress to come roaring forth.

William Hurt is imperious and self-satisfied as the former National Book Award winner who's never been able to sustain that earlier promise. He scoffs at his birthday party guest ('How do they get their literature from Disney?') in collusion with his daughter.  His ego is bolstered when the American poet laureate joins his family for Thanksgiving and we see the light literally drain out of his eyes when the man dismisses his current book title and professes not to recall having read an early draft. Hurt's performance is deflated slightly by a tendency to occasionally let us see his actor's gears turning and a mishandling of the film's last scene when he can't garner enough emotion to sustain it.

The film features wonderful location cinematography that evokes a gentrified New England small town.  A framing device, where Ellen recounts the events leading up to her mother's death (assisted suicide is suspected) is dark and close up while childhood flashbacks are shown with a desaturated color that evokes old home movies.

The film's biggest drawback is that it can't escape the fact that its story recalls TV 'Disease of the Week'/"Terms of Endearment" roots.  However, the book was a cut above its maudlin material and the film, with its complexly written and acted characters, and fine production values, does too.

B

Robin ROBIN:
I have to admire director Franklin and his outstanding cast and crew in bringing to the big screen what is really a made-for-TV-disease-of-the-week story. The sheer force of the filmmakers' collective wills propels "One True Thing" from its mundane roots to high film drama suited to the big screen.

The principles, Streep, Zellweger and Hurt, are outstanding. Streep, in the role of the failing Kate, gives a sensitive and powerful performance worthy of an Oscar. Marvelous Meryl is a brilliant actor capable of great depth, subtlety and skill in her acting and gives a heart-rending performance here. We first meet Kate, dressed up as Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz," when Ellen comes home for her father's surprise birthday party. Her mom sets the theme for the festivities, asking all the guests to come garbed as their favorite literary figures, in honor of George's scholarly position. (This scene sets the stage for a wonderful costuming job, throughout the film, by Donna Zaskowska). The disease that ravages Kate quickly envelopes her, but her spirit remains high until the very end. Streep is so incredible, she makes the film fill the big screen.

Renee Zellweger, known more for her lighter, romantic fare such as "Jerry Maguire," gives a solid, almost dour, performance as a serious young woman who grew up idolizing her father and denigrating Kate and her housewifely ways. Ellen undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis as she takes on the burden of helping her steadily declining mom over the months spanning the holidays. Living, as an adult, with her parents during such a traumatic period opens Ellen's eyes in several ways. Her clouded, childhood-long view of her mother and father is shattered as she grows to finally understand just how good, kind and caring a person Kate really is. Meanwhile, she also finds out what a selfish, self-centered, unfaithful, hypocrite of a man her father George turns out to be. Ellen comes through her ordeal a changed, fuller, matured person, mainly because of Kate.

William Hurt is the consummate professional and gives George all the nuance the character deserves. George is a fraud, copping quotes from such literary luminaries as Eugene O'Neil as his own. When Ellen finds out about his continued infidelities and literary shams, the early idol turns out to be a very flawed human being, but still her father. She loves him still, but as equals, by film's end.

Supporting cast is background fodder only. Tom Everett Scott ("That Thing You Do") plays Gulden son Brian and is here merely to turn on the record player occasionally and show he is the son of the dreamer, Kate, compared to the driven Ellen, who is more like her ambitious dad. The rest of the cast are there for color only.

The screenplay by Karen Croner (writer/director "Gas, Food, Lodging") adapts the Anna Quindlen novel into a solid, interesting narrative. The dialogue and interaction of the principles is taut and gripping, keeping the viewer interested through it's two plus hour run time. Again, the made-for-TV style story is overcome by the quality of the writing - both the source material and its adaptation - and acting.

Director Franklin uses his behind-the-scenes crew to great effect. Production designer Paul Peters ("Made in Heaven") does a wonderful job of creating the small college town feel, with its visually imaginative holiday settings, as the backdrop for the story. One scene, when the members of the community decorate the town's Christmas trees, is a visual pleasure. Costume, as I noted, is exquisitely done, particularly Streep's festive garb. Camera work by Declan Quinn ("Leaving Las Vegas") is beautifully crisp in the more opulent settings, but gets murky on the tighter in-the-home sequences.

I wouldn't recommend "One True Thing" as entertainment for the 17-24 male headbangers, but it is good date entertainment if you appreciate a finely crafted and acted film. The mother/daughter focus of the film is going to attract a definite and solid demographic. I'm a guy and I give "One True Moment" a B.


RONIN

The end of the Cold War has changed world priorities on all levels. Personal allegiance to a nation is a thing of the past and money now reigns supreme world-wide. Six strangers, from around the globe, are gathered in a musty warehouse outside of Paris by a beautiful, enigmatic Irish woman who makes the team a deal - a big payoff for the taking of a mysterious, heavily guarded briefcase. Sam (Robert DeNiro), Vincent (Jean Reno) and the rest - all experts in covert operations, munitions, explosives and surveillance - agree to take the job. The team doesn't know, as the operation goes steadily awry, that they face suspicion, mistrust and betrayal in John Frankenheimer's "Ronin."

Robin ROBIN:
"Ronin" is a throwback to those films of international intrigue that were so popular in the 60's, including director Frankenheimer's own "French Connection 2," which brought Popeye Doyle into the thick of the heroine trade of Marseilles. The helmer returns to France once again, with his group of modern day warriors without masters - the Ronin. The story, by J.D. Zeik, compares the plight of the professional covert operatives, following the fall of Communism, to that of the medieval samurai warrior legend of the 47 Ronin. The lord of these legendary warriors was betrayed by another powerful lord and murdered. The warriors' shame at failing to protect their liege forces them to wander the land, selling their services to whoever will pay their price. Like the 47 Ronin, Sam, Vincent and their cohorts are, too, wandering the globe looking for a buyer of  their unique, lethal talents.

Robert De Niro leads a solid ensemble cast in a high tech story with a low tech feel. Sure, they have global positioning gear, remote controlled explosives, night goggles and teflon-coated bullets, but, mostly, "Ronin" is an old fashioned chase 'em and shoot 'em up. De Niro is a reluctant action figure, but bellies up to the bar quite well here as the cryptic Sam, who has hit hard times following the collapse of his clandestine world. He's an old-fashioned working-class spy who is trying to get a piece of the brave new world. De Niro puts a darkly humorous spin on Sam's general attitude that helps flesh out the man and adds to the depth of the story.

The rest of the ensemble cast are suited to the action and story. Jean Reno ("The Professional") is his usual terrific self, with his Vincent playing well off of De Niro's Sam. The two are cut from the same cloth and  quickly grow to rely on each other as they escalate their efforts to steal the enigmatic brief case. Stellan Skarsgard ("Breaking the Waves"), as the former East Bloc spy, gives nuance to his character, Gregor, a man with dubious loyalties. Natascha McElhone ("The Truman Show") is convincing as the team's controller who is the only link to the secret boss of the operation (Jonathan Pryce, "Tomorrow Never Dies").

The script (with David Mammet getting a pseudo credit as Richard Weisz), is simple: hire six experts to get a "prize" at whatever cost. The prize of the story - the briefcase - remains its enigmatic self throughout the film, with its contents forever unknown. This is ambiguity is a plus in "Ronin," and is actually a decent bit of slight of hand, keeping the viewer interested in the proceedings, but telling us nothing. The mounting effort as each attempt to bag the bag goes awry is reminiscent of the 1972 Peter Yates/Robert Redford heist film, "The Hot Rock," minus that film's comedy.

Techs are solid all around. Great locations, rapid fire editing during the action scenes, solid cinematography, action choreography, etc., all lend to the feel I think Frankenheimer wanted to capture,

The screening we attended was a disaster, but we did get a chance to see an  old master get back in the saddle again. I give "Ronin" an enthusiastic B.

Laura LAURA:
"Ronin," which are legendary masterless Samurai, are represented in the post-Cold War modern age of John Frankenheimer's espionage thriller by the likes of former CIA and KGB dinosaurs no longer necessary in today's political climate.  The film, where loyalities and betrayals occur in the quest for a macguffinish metal case (its contents are never revealed), harkens back to the international thrillers of the 60's.  Frankenheimer's own "The Manchurian Candidate" was a superior offshoot of this genre, but "Ronin" owes more to his "French Connection II" with its European locations and terrific car chases.

Robert DeNiro is Sam, a former CIA agent turned mercenary.  This is new terrirory for DeNiro and its nice to see him get out of the psycho typecasting rut ("The Fan," anyone?).  He's a cool professional with a dry sense of humor and he underplays the role neatly.  He forms a bond with Frenchman Vincent played by the great Galle Jean Reno ("The Professional," "Godzilla").  The two are a wonderful pairing, particularly in a teeth-gritting scene where Sam instructs Vincent how to surgically remove a bullet before allowing himself to pass out.

Natasha McElhone ("Mrs. Dalloway," "The Devil's Own") is the mysterious Irish woman, Deidre, who assembles her crew in a seedy Parisian bar/front.She's a no-nonsense leader of startling beauty and McElhone illicits interest in her character by hinting at a complex background and intelligent depth.  Jonathan Pryce is the maniacal Seamus who's running the operation behind the scenes.  Stellan Skarsgard ("Amistad") is Gregor, a German explosives expert who turns out to be a loose cannon.  Sean Bean is Spence, purportedly a former British military officer who's quickly outed by the sharp Sam when his unprofessional actions belie his background.

Frankenheimer stages some magnificent car chases, actually breathing new life into the cliche.  His stunt drivers plow through Parisian tunnels at 120 mph and a pursuing police car is startling used first as a decoy and then as a skillfully evaded obstacle.  Another chase along a narrow mountain road recalls a similar scene in Hitchcock's "Family Plot."  Unfortunately Frankenheimer has his cars take out one too many produce stand in market squares, but these cliches can be forgiven due to the overall exhilaration of these masterfully executed action scenes.

Another terrific scene takes place on location at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes (standing in for Nice) where Sam and Deidre pose as tourists so Sam can set up an elaborate ruse in order to photograph the group in posession of the hunted case.

What "Ronin" lacks is a sense of purpose.  The film feels like a cool-headed game of chess with no stakes.  Even so, it's still entertaining to watch these modern Ronin group and regroup as they dash around Europe in pursuit of their meaningless goal.

B


RUSH HOUR

When Consul Han leaves Hong Kong to take over the Chinese Consulate in LA, his eleven year old daughter loses her best friend and bodyguard Detective Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan).  To make matters worse, the criminal element that've plagued Lee in Hong Kong follow Han to LA and kidnap his daughter.  Han calls for Lee to assist in the investigation, but the FBI don't want a foreignor butting in, so they call on the LAPD to get someone to divert Lee's attentions.  The LAPD is only happy to rid themselves of hotshot Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker, "The Fifth Element") and a new buddy cop duo is born in "Rush Hour."

Laura LAURA:
"Rush Hour" is another subpar film starring Jackie Chan that remains entertaining mostly due to his amazing talents.  Here he's paired with Chris Tucker ("The Fifth Element") who, while he has some amusing moments, makes one wonder how much better and more deserved a pairing with Eddie Murphy might have been for Chan.  To give Tucker his due, the two have great chemistry and seem to be enjoying themselves working together.

Tucker's got a mouth as fast as Chan's moves and some of his fast flying foolishness is priceless ('I'm Michael Jackson - you're Tito.'). On the flip side, not only is Chan's English improving, but here we get to hear him sing, first "Surfin' USA" much to Carter's chagrin ('don't ever touch a Black man's radio!') and then "War," a comic highlight as the song turns into a dancing duet.  The consumately adorable Chan has plenty of opportunities to flash his amazing stunt talent as well, leaving the upper tier of an open bus to hang off a street sign, drop through the roof of an RV, exit onto a taxicab roof and slip into the passenger seat and making it all look easy.  He disarms people with his flying feet and takes on three bad guys while protecting priceless Chinese vases from breaking.

The film's weakness comes from some inplausible story bits (multiple cop cars approach a suspected hiding place for the kidnapped girl with sirens blaring!) and choppy pacing.  The film would play much better with some judicious editting.

The film's supporting cast is noteworthy, but overshadowed by their stars.  Elizabeth Pena ("Lone Star") is an LAPD explosives expert who both helps and is exasperated by Carter.  Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty") is the Hong Kong Chief of Police who has a secret agenda.  Chris Penn is a black market arms dealer.  The young Julia Hsu shows pluck as Soo Yung, but must rid herself of an unfortunate awareness of the camera.

"Rush Hour" has more going for it than against and I wouldn't mind seeing another Chan/Tucker pairing.  However the great Jackie Chan deserves an A list director in a Hollywood film while he's still young enough to pull off his awe inspiring stunts.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
I anticipated "Rush Hour," with hope, for three reasons: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. Chan is a true world-class movie star who is every bit dedicated to giving his audience the best action/comedy entertainment he is capable of, and he is capable of a great deal. Chris Tucker, whose loud and brash performance in Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element I, for one, enjoyed, is a comer. His comic ability and timing, here, are going to get him star billing. It's too bad that the rest of the film, especially the script, is a big step behind its stars.

Helmer Brett Ratner, who's debut film was the Chris Tucker-vehicle "Money Talks," does not break any new ground with this, his sophomore effort. He is burdened by a leaden, cliched script that involves the L.A. kidnapping and ransom of the Chinese consulate's 11-year-old daughter (Julia Hsu) and a scam to rip off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Chinese historic arts and treasures. Of course, these plots are here just to introduce our main characters: Hong Kong Detective Inspector Lee (Chan) brought into the case by the girl's father (and Lee's friend), and LAPD detective James Carter (Tucker) assigned to keep Lee far away from the case and out from under the feet of the FBI, who think they're in total control of the situation.

The screenplay, by Jim Kouf ("The Hidden"), pays little attention to the details of the overall story and concentrates mostly on the two principles. The cliches, such as the usual, ham-handed handling of the kidnap case by the FBI (if the Feds are so gawd-awful stupid, why do we keep 'em around?), or the bad guy gloating by the scene of his crime just to be chased by the good guys, make for ho-hum story telling. The screenplay should blend with the action and humor and not be mere background.

Jackie is, of course, funny, charming, strong, good, kind and capable as Inspector Lee. Chan is always a pleasure to watch, especially in his martial arts wizardry and amazing physical comedy. Chan's timing and humor hearken back to the likes of his inspirations, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, both of whom also did their own stunts and action choreography. My main complaint about Jackie's performance in "Rush Hour" is there aren't enough of his patented fights and stunts. You do get to see a pool hall brawl and a fight where he also saves priceless art works. But, as always with Jackie, I want more. His dramatic finale stunt is reminiscent of the perennial scene from the classic Douglas Fairbanks silent film, "The Pirate." Yeah, Jackie!

Chris Tucker is loud and he is brash, and he dominates the verbal side of the film's comedy. He works well with Chan and the two show  good buddy chemistry on the screen. Tucker also handles the action scenes pretty well, too, but the actor says it's hard to screw up when you have Jackie Chan say, "Just follow my lead." Following Tucker's perf in "The Fifth Element" as the scene-stealing DJ Ruby Rhod, "Rush Hour" may well propel him to film comedy stardom. His James Carter character riffs Eddie Murphy's performances in "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop," but in a good way, using a formula that works.

Supporting cast is perfunctory at best. Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty") as the numero uno bad guy does nothing to lend any menace to the proceeds - he seems to be stealing back the art treasure that, if not for the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, would still be his. This muddled plot line is another example of the weak script. Only little Julia Hsu, as the plucky little kidnap victim, made any impression on me. This lack of characters, especially the bad guys, hurts the film and makes it rely, totally, on the stars to carry it through.

Production value are fair. High marks go to the stunt coordination, led by Terry Leonard ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"). Stunts are the raison d'etre for action flicks and you get a goodly share (though not enough for me) here.

I'm only giving "Rush Hour" a C+, but with qualifications. For the Chan-fans out there, you'll enjoy it, especially with Tucker's rapid fire humor added to the mix..


A MERRY WAR

Adapted from George Orwell's ("1984," "Animal Farm") 1936 semi-autobiographical novel, "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," "A Merry War" stars Richard E. Grant ("Warlock") as Gordon Comstock, a star advertising copywriter who's first foray into legitimate poetry results in a Times of London review stating that his slim volume "shows exceptional promise." This praise results in Gordon throwing aside his middle class life in favor of that of the starving poet, a condition Gordon expects to be short-lived at worst. This decision has repercussions on Gordon's long-time and patient girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter, "Mighty Aphrodite"), who has hopes of a nice bourgeoisie life with her literary boyfriend.

Robin ROBIN:
"A Merry War" is an interesting throwback to the films, particularly British, of the 40's. The low key pace and subtle story telling makes for a less than excitable film, but one that is somehow compelling to watch. Grant is right on as the aspiring poet and literary power who sees himself as the suffering artist, even while enjoying the fruits of his middle-class life. The brief success of his freshman publication clouds Gordon's mind to the point where he feels his talent must propel him to literary stardom. All he has to do is forsake his mundane life and commit himself to the suffering life of a poet. Unfortunately for Gordon, that life. without money, is a lot harder to cope with than he expected. As Gordon steeps in the "honesty" of the unwashed masses, he takes on his cloak of poverty with manic intensity. Richard E. Grant is totally in control, even if his Gordon is the exact opposite. It's a good performance by an under-rated, talented actor.

The lovely Bonham Carter, as Rosemary, is Gordon's work colleague and long-standing girlfriend who has put up with his erudite aspirations, even supporting him, but really wants to have a nice, normal, middle-class existence. This is a departure for Carter, who has been mired in the corseted post-Victorian Merchant/Ivory period works for which she is re-known. She plays a less-than-glamorous white collar graphics artist with the same elegance she has displayed in her previous works. I have always liked Helena Bonham Carter and enjoy her performance here. She is a beautiful and talented actress and lends just the right nuance to her Rosemary.

The supporting cast is a perfect fit, complementing the stars nicely. In particular, Julian Wadham as Ravelston is convincing as Gordon's publisher and friend. The rest of the cast is populated by colorful assembly of character actors. And, of course, the Aspidistra of the original novel makes its presence known first as the "sign of respectability," then, later as the object of Gordon's torment as his life unravels. Finally, by the end, the popular potted plant regains its respectability in Gordon's eye.

The production is solidly led by helmer Robert Bierman ("The Vampire's Kiss") with high standards achieved in crisp cinematography (Giles Nuttgen), 30's looking production design (Sarah Greenwood) and period costume (James Keast).

"A Merry War" is an entertaining, intelligent alternative to the usual Hollywood fodder, giving the viewer a look into a very different work by the author of the classic "1984."  I like this little movie and give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
"A Merry War," adapted by Alan Pater from one of George Orwell's earlier novels "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," places its focus on the relationship between 'free man and poet' George Comstock (Richard E. Grant, "The Player") and his patient and supportive girlfriend Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter, "The Wings of the Dove").  The original work, which spends about 70% of its action inside Comstock's head, is about the artist's struggle amidst a world ruled by money and social standing (an aspidistra is a leafy green plant considered a stamp of middle class respectability in 1930's England). The change in the film's title represents the war between the sexes, a mostly good natured one between George and Rosemary, while retaining the original work's themes as well.

Richard E. Grant perfectly captures the lunacy of Comstock, an infuriatingly egotistical man who rejects his good paying job as a top ad writer to pursue poetry after he's called promising in a London Times review (which we later found out was written by his publisher!).  He's constantly railing against the fact that 'everything's about money' while secretly desiring entry to the upper stratospheres of society (his wealthy publisher describes him as 'lower upper middle class').  While Grant superciliously continues to descend to the depths of poverty, he manages to keep the audience's sympathy, which makes Rosemary's loyalty believable. He's also funny, especially in his ever changing relationship with an aspidistra which eventually becomes the object of his scorn ('You verdant bastard!').

Bonham Carter is a smart, no nonsense, hard working graphic artist who support's Comstock's ludricous choices while hoping he'll eventually wake up.  The two have great chemistry and are nicely balanced opposites.

Support is also top notch.  Jim Carter is Comstock's envied publisher ('He can have sex on Thursday afternoons!  Why can't I have sex on Thursday afternoons?) with a real affection for the floundering young man. Liz Smith is marvelous is Mrs. Meakin, Comstock's eventual landlady who cheerfully informs him that there isn't a bathroom for miles around. Bill Wallis, the crisp eating Cheeseman and Comstock's lowest class boss, displays a common man's philosophy.  Harriet Walter is the other important woman in Comstock's life, the hard working waitress sister who funds the entertainments Comstock professes to need when he can no longer afford them.

"A Merry War" features fine performances from all concerned, witty dialogue, golden hued cinematography (Giles Nuttgens), terrific costumes (Michael Johnson) and art direction(Sarah Greenwood and Philip Robinson), but plays in a rarified air that may not appeal to a non-literary audience. Director Robert Bierman, who captured one of Nicolas Cage's most hypnotizing performances in "Vampire's Kiss" but didn't fully succeed in creating a good film, has more even success here, though he still lacks the ability to pace his material in a way that fully involves the audience.

B-


PERMANENT MIDNIGHT

Based on the autobiography by Jerry Stahl, "Permanent Midnight" stars Ben Stiller as the man who made $5,000 a week writing such television fare as "Alf" and "Moonlighting" while engaging in a $6,000 a week heroin habit.

We first first meet Stahl post rehab working in a fast food joint where he's picked up by Kitty (Maria Bello, "ER") another recovered abuser. From her motel bed, Jerry recounts his rise and fall in Hollywood, his marriage, birth of a daughter, and divorce as well as his outrageous drug-fueled exploits.

Laura LAURA:
Ben Stiller is a talented guy as can be seen in his comic performance in "Something About Mary" and his comic/dramatic performance in "Our Friends and Neighbors" this summer.  However, he can't quite make his character work in "Permanent Midnight."  I just didn't care about Jerry Stahl which makes "Permanent Midnight" a very long 87 minutes.

Stiller is upstaged by his formidable supporting cast.   Elizabeth Hurley has never been better as Sandra, the British television executive who marries Jerry in order to obtain a green card and inexplicably falls for the guy.  We believe her frustration with his drug abuse and her fierce protectiveness of her daughter.  Even better are Peter Greene ("Clean Shaven") as Gus, one of Jerry's drug taking buddies; Owen Wilson ("Anaconda"), Nicky a writing pal and recreational drug user; the wonderfully wry Janeanne Garofolo as Jana, an agent eager to sign up Jerry; Maria Bello as Kitty, Jerry's new love whose candor allows him to open up and most surprisingly, Cheryl Ladd ("Charlie's Angels") as a mediocre TV star who tries to give Jerry a chance as he's plunging to his lowest depths.

There are exactly four good scenes in "Permanent Midnight."  Jerry shoots up in his bathroom while Sandra's giving a party and begins a bad trip when he believes Mr. Chompers (an obvious Alf lookalike) is trying to get him. Jerry comes screaming and tumbling out of his bathroom while Nicky blithely passes his antics off as Jerry's loony comedy.  Jerry pitches the clueless Fred Willard, the producer of "Mr. Chompers," on his take on the character as a modern day Tom Joad, while high.  Jerry and Gus smoke crack in a vacant high rise office and fling themselves repeatedly at the floor to ceiling windows while Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" plays on the soundtrack Jerry, entrusted with his daughter when Sandra must respond to a work emergency, roams LA all evening in search of a fix to finally shoot up in the front seat of his car with his daughter beside him, only to be pulled over by cops and his daughter delivered to social services.  Only in this last scene does Stiller manage to truly evoke the harrowing effects of heroin.

The production, shot on location in LA, presents a low rent version of Hollywood where television stars eat fast food takeout in cheesy offices and people live in modest homes.  One never gets a sense of any real Hollywood glamour.  The most striking aspect of the production is it's title credit where "Permanent Midnight" is written in elaborate script with the blood being shot out of a junkie's used needle.

C


SIMON BIRCH

Simon Birch, from his first moment on earth, had been proclaimed, by the doctors, a miracle. His is the smallest recorded birth in the history of Gravestown Memorial Hospital and young Simon is convinced that he is "an instrument of God," destined to be a hero. Unfortunately, the highly intelligent, but diminutive Simon has a strong sense of right and wrong, causing him to question authority at the highest levels, and suffer the consequences, in "Simon Birch."

Robin ROBIN:
"Simon Birch" is suggested by, not based on, the wonderful John Irving novel, "A Prayer For Owen Meany," (so, fans of the novel, don't go to see "Simon Birch" and expect a straight transition from print to film). Where "A Prayer For Owen Meany" spans a couple of decades,  "Simon Birch" covers only a year's time. As such, the scope of the film can only be a subset of that wonderful book. This is why Irving insisted on the "suggested by" credit. That said, you can look more at the film as a standalone story, not an adaptation, and newcomer writer/director Mark Steven Johnson does a solid job of telling an interesting, humorous and sad little story about a very special little boy.

What Johnson really tells is a story about two best friends - Simon, the small town's outcast who is physically tiny but intellectually intimidating, and Joe, the bastard son of the enigmatic and independent Rebecca Wenteworth, who had the boy after a fling with an unknown suitor on the Boston & Maine railroad. The boys' asocial qualities, at least as far as the town folk are concerned, drives them together as youngsters, forging a real bond between the two that helps them survive their sometimes cruel world. One scene of childish adult cruelty has Sunday School teacher Agnes Leavy (Jan Hooks) keeping Simon in isolation and belittles the boy and his family as not belonging as members of the close knit town. The punch line of the scene has Agnes get her comeuppance by Rebecca in spades. Rebecca loves Simon as if her own and believes in his destiny.

Little Ian Michael Smith makes an interesting debut as Simon. Smith is very professional and confident before the camera. Joseph Mazzello ("Jurassic Park") is perfect as Simon's best friend, Joe, protecting his pint-sized friend, while respecting his amazing mind.

Best of all in "Simon Birch" is Ashley Judd as Rebecca. A fresh, fully developed performance by Judd, the strongly defined character given her by writer Johnson, and the luminous quality given to Rebecca by cinematographer Aaron E. Schneider ("Kiss The Girls"), all combine to give Rebecca a rich fullness that stands out in the film. Rebecca is someone who every boy wants for a mom and every man for a wife. Her tragedy, in the film, is that much more pronounced because of this rare combination.

The casting for "Simon Birch" is superb on all levels. Unlike films like "Rush Hour," that pay no mind to cast beneath the star credits, the script for "Simon" pays attention to the details of the supporting characters. Jan Hooks, as the mean Sunday school teacher, is almost Wicked Witch Of The West-kind of nasty here. David Strathairn the town's spiritual leader, Reverend Russell. The Reverend sees Simon as his main adversary in the town, while Simon sees a definite conflict between God and bake sales and questions the church leader's priorities. Oliver Platt, as Ben Goodrich, gives a fine performance as a prospective beau to Rebecca, then, after The Tragedy, a true friend to Joe and Simon. Dana Ivey, as Joe's grandma, is outwardly stern, but kind inside, though she cannot fathom Simon.

Tech credits are solid all around with first rate attention paid to Schneider's camera work (not just of Judd) and the period set design by David Chapman ("Grumpy Old Men").

The music used to help convey the early sixties setting are a string of favorite songs of the time, including "Nowhere to Run," "Peter Gunn Theme," "Up On The Roof," "It's All Right," and Peggy Lee's "Fever."

"Simon Birch" is a sweet, sometimes sad, oftentimes funny little movie that has good acting, a nice story and a whole lot of heart. I give it a B-.

Laura LAURA:
Upon hearing that the screenwriter of "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel was adapting John Irving's best novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany," as well as making his directorial debut and that upon his abandoning the second half of the book Irving refused to let him use the original character's name, my expectations for the film were low.  Yet Mark Steven Johnson has created a warm family film.

"Simon Birch" stars newcomer Ian Michael Smith, an 11 year old child of exceptional intelligence and a dimuitive size who's
completely natural in front of the camera.  After being born to parents who are embarrassed by his small size, his survival is declared a miracle by the doctor who held him in the palm of his hand at his delivery (accomplished by his mother's timely sneeze).  Simon subsequently develops an astoundingly sure faith in God and spends his life trying to find his purpose in God's plan.

His best friend is Joe Wentworth (Joseph Mazzello of "Jurassic Park" and "Shadowlands"), the other outsider of Gravestown, Maine due to his bastard birth.  His goal is to identify the identity of his father, which his mother Rebecca, the luminous Ashley Judd, has never revealed.

The story takes place from 1952 to 1964 in the idyllic small town of Gravestown (actually Nova Scotia) dominated by its church and ancient cemetary, classic town center, rolling fields, swimming quarry and stately New England homes.  The prominent home is the Wentworth home, often mistaken for the town's Inn, where Joe lives with his mother, grandmother (Dana Ivey), and grandmother's former maid, now companion Joe and Simon spend their days riding Joe's bike (Simon rides along in a wooden Coke crate sidecar), swimming in the quarry, playing baseball and sizing up girls (Simon declares Joe's mom the sexiest mom ever).

Ashley Judd embodies maternal love, not only for Joe, but for Simon, whose own parents barely acknowledge his existence.  When she brings home a new suiter, Ben (Oliver Platt), Joe treats him warily, but Simon immediately likes him.  Ben is the school's new drama teacher with a natural way with kids and Platt plays the role with an understated simplicity.

Simon's nemeses are the Reverend Russell (David Strathairn), who envies the young boy's faith and Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks of SNL), the Sunday school teacher who hates her job but is obsessed with the married Reverend.

When Simon, who's unusually small strike zone always ensures him a walk to first base, is instructed by Coach Baker to swing, he lets rip with such power that when the baseball hits Joe's mom it causes her untimely death.  Both boys are distraught and Joe's even more determined to discover the identity of his dad, especially when they find that the fatal ball has been taken from the scene - by whom?

This leads the two upon a series of misadventures culminating with Simon wrecking havoc during the Christmas Pageant by grabbing the breasts of Marjorie, who, as the Blessed Virgin leans over the manger, where swaddled Simon is playing the baby Jesus.  In the Reverend's office later he observes that 'sex makes people crazy,' which the Reverend acknowledges while still meting out  punishment by keeping Simon's beloved baseball card collection.

All these strands come together during a tragic accident which recalls "The Sweet Hereafter" by way of "Fearless," an unfortunate distraction which won't be felt by anyone who hasn't seen those two films (especially the former).  Be warned - this is a three hanky affair.

Cinematography by Aaron E. Schneider emphasizes both the golden autumnal glory of nature (which he also exhibited in the forest scenes in "Kiss the Girls") and the icy beauty of a New England winter. The film is bookended in the present day where Joe (Jim Carrey, who also provides the movie's narration) visits the Gravestown cemetary with his own young son.

B-


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