(film reviewed in 9/02)
Every season has one genuinely good film that goes largely overlooked by audiences. This Summer, that film would have to be writer/director Andrew Niccol's "Simone", a thought-provoking and well-acted film that only suffers from the film being a bit too overlong. Director/writer Niccol is largely known for writing the Jim Carrey vehicle "The Truman Show", but should receive more notice for his directing debut, 1997's "Gattaca", a film that I consider a whisper away from perfection.
Al Pacino stars in "Simone" as Victor Taranski, a director who had his rise to fame in the 70's and now is depressed to find himself in an era where more concern is geared towards financial statements than quality films that are about something. To top things off, the star (Winona Ryder) of his latest film has just walked off the set after her ludicrious demands weren't met. His ex-wife, who's now the studio head (Catherine Keener) reveals that, after this episode, his contract will likely not be renewed.
When everything's fallen apart, Taransky is visited by a computer engineer (Elias Koteas) who he watched be booed off the stage at a convention nearly a decade ago. He's about to pass away, but he's recently finished "Simulation One", a virtual reality program that can create a digital actress or actor. Taransky doesn't accept, but the program finds its way into his hands thanks to the fact that the computer engineer left it to him in his will. Curious, Taransky starts work and - 9 months later - finds that he's actually been able to remove the Ryder character from the entire movie and replace her with Simone (model Rachel Roberts in her debut).
Taransky wanted nothing more than the movie to be completed. While he clearly doesn't predict success, Simone becomes an enormous hit. Instead of revealing that she's a digital creation, Taransky goes ahead with the cover-up, leading to bigger and bigger methods of deception to try and hide the truth from a population that has fallen for the "actress".
Niccol clearly was on the right track with the idea behind "Simone", but it seems as if the screenplay was in need of some tightening before cameras rolled. The film's theories about real vs. fake and several other topics are fairly well-stated, although they tend to become muddled as the movie starts to become overlong in the last act. While an interesting story, it's also a rather slight one; while I was never bored, a good 20-25 minutes of editing could have helped the story run cleaner.
On the other hand, I was greatly pleased to see that Niccol's visual style that he started in "Gattaca" continues here. Niccol and cinematographer Edward Lachman ("Erin Brockovich") wonderfully attempt to recreate the same clean visual style that Slavomir Idziak and Niccol did with the director's earlier film. Again, especially with the studio lot sequences, scenes are washed with a pure light and subtle yellowed tone. There's also Niccol's tendency to present conversations in front of vast, empty surroundings (similar to a lot of scenes in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and "Royal Tenenbaums"), which surprisingly actually brings the viewer closer in and clearly represents the state of the character's situation and emotions. From a technical standpoint, the one element that came up as rather disapointing was Carter Burwell's score; while I've often praised the composer's brilliant, brilliant work in the past, his score here didn't sit well with me and often either didn't add much to the scenes or came up in scenes where score didn't feel necessary.
"Simone"'s performances are mixed, if largely pleasing. Pacino contributes one of his most low-key performances in recent memory, but still manages to offer a lively character. Evan Rachel Wood, as Taransky's caring daughter, is also a highlight. Keener does fine with a character that isn't particularly written with much depth. The oddest duo are Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters after Simone. While the two actors provide fine performances, the characters really don't have a great deal of point in the story and I almost felt as if their characters could have been deleted entirely. Winona Ryder contributes a nice minor few moments as the demanding actress and Rachel Roberts is fine in her scenes as Simone (although a concert sequence where she sings "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" is too cutesy.)
"Simone" is a flawed movie - it becomes a bit scattered as a result of its extended running time and not all of the characters or possibilities with the stories are realized. The film also never quite figures on whether it wants to be more of a comedy or a drama. However, it's a movie that's well-acted, shows some ambition despite elements that are a bit predictable and has scenes that are certainly thought-provoking and should encourage discussion after the film. As it's likely playing for the last week in theaters, "Simone" should be considered for viewing either at a matinee or when it arrives on DVD, likely later this year.
VIDEO: "Simone" is presented by New Line in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (this is a film whose marvelous compositions would be ruined in full-frame/pan & scan). This isn't quite up to the standard that the studio has set with most of its recent transfers, but it's certainly a very nice effort that's only a few steps short of excellent. Sharpness and detail are stellar, as fine detail is consistently visible, with no instances of softness.
The presentation's only real problem is the presence of some mild edge enhancement, which becomes slightly distracting, but never too bothersome. On the positive side, no pixelation or other artifacts were spotted at any point. Also, the print seemed in excellent shape, with no specks, marks or other faults.
The film's lovely, warm color palette looked well-rendered here, with no smearing or other faults. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Not without a few minor concerns, but this is a very nice effort.
SOUND: "Simone" is presented by New Line Home Video in both Dolby Digital 5.1-EX and DTS-ES 6.1 (this is a discrete 6.1 soundtrack). This is not the most aggressive soundtrack, but there are several scenes where the surround speakers do open up the film's soundtrack to provide an enveloping experience. Audio quality is fine, as the dialogue and sound effects remained clear, while the score remained lively and rich. While there didn't seem to be too much detail to the film's sound, there were still moments where it shined nicely.
EXTRAS: The main supplemental area offers 19 deleted scenes. While it's unfortunate that these scenes come with no optional commentary, it's nice that New Line has taken the extra step and allowed viewers to watch them within the film itself. By chosing this option, a logo comes up during the point in the film where the scene would be. Clicking on it shows the scene, then takes the viewer back to the point where they left off.
Other than that, two short featurettes ("Cyber Stardom" and "Simulating Simone") are offered, along with the film's teaser and theatrical trailers (both in 5.1).
Final Thoughts: "Simone" starts off with a fine exploration of an interesting subject. Unfortunately, it loses focus towards the end and starts to head off in a different direction, but certainly never falls apart completely. The performances, direction and cinematography are also largely first-rate. "Simone", while not without some flaws, is an interesting work that remains both thought-provoking and entertaining. New Line's DVD doesn't offer much in the way of supplements (director Niccol still hasn't offered a commentary on one of his films, unfortunately), but the audio/video quality is solid. Recommended.