FEATURE | Simon Birch
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Grading from A-F

Cookie-Cutter teen scream flick. Seriously lacking in substance and originality, Urban Legend rides the coat tails of "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." At the very least, "Scream" offered something new, "Urban Legend" basically offers a way to waste an evening.

Hands down, without contest the best drama since "Schindler's List." Speilberg and Hanks join Oscar winning forces to produce a disturbing, yet realistic, journey through the horrors of war, which is often-times forgotten in cinematic depictions of WWII. "Saving Private Ryan," is great, if for no other reason, because it makes you think of important aspects of humanity usually left alone: mortality, morality, compassion and tragic human ferocity.

While "Saving Private Ryan" is the best drama of 1998, this twisted love story is easily the best comedy in years. From start to finish the Farrelly Brothers prove that bathroom humor and grotesque physical gags have univeral belly laugh appeal. And to top it off, the laughs are carried by the perfect vehicle: a formidable plot.

The only movie in recent memory that was worse than this Wesley Snipes bomb was 1997's comic book spin-off "Spawn." I couldn't even in good conscience recommend spending the $3.00 to rent this movie. "Blade" is good only for it's purely unintentional humor at the plot's and actors' expense. This is yet another reason why they should refund ticket prices.

--Kevin Ridolfi





Rating: B-
Starring Joseph Mazzello, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn, Ian Michael Smith, Dana Ivey and Ashley Judd. Written and Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Suggested by the novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving. Rated PG. Running time: 114.

Rating: A
A novel by John Irving. Inspired the movie "Simon Birch."

ASHLEY JUDD stars as Simon Birch's mother

ROB GALLO| There's a power magnet in Hollywood drawing movie-makers and movie-goers towards movies based on best-selling or popular novels.

I'm no different than the countless others attracted to this cinematic personification of type. When I read a book I have a mental picture of the characters and the events of the book, but a good movie has the ability to tie all of those pictures together into a more tangible medium. Unfortunately, over the years, I have found that movies are usually an inadequate substitute for the book itself.

Thus, it was with a mix of fear and anticipation when I heard that John Irving's 1989 bestseller "A Prayer for Owen Meany" was being transformed into a movie. "Simon Birch" is a movie that, while good in its own right, just cannot compare to the book upon which it was based.

The premise of the book and the movie are the same. A very small and squeaky voiced child -- Owen Meany in the novel and Simon Birch in the movie -- believes that he is "God's instrument," and that he was put on earth for some higher purpose. Both the book and movie chronicle the efforts of Owen/Simon to figure out what God's plan for him is.

The movie stars Ian Michael Smith, an 11-year old dwarf, in his acting debut as Simon Birch. The cast also includes Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn and Jim Carrey in a bit part as narrator. The acting, especially that of Smith and Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park), as Simon's best friend Joe, is excellent. However, there is just not enough material for the two child actors to work with. The movie does maintain much of the humor of the book, but its dramatic effect is limited by the restricted time frame upon which the movie is premised.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson's ("Grumpy Old Men" and "Grumpier Old Men") main goal seems to be to make the audience cry. But the method in which he accomplishes it -- and he does accomplish it -- is through movie gimmickry which detracts from the overall movie. Sad music is played, slow motion is used, tears well up in the other actors eyes; all to make us cry. It is not that the movie is bad, it just could have been so much better.

Irving's novel presents several obstacles to a successful screen transformation. First, it is heavily religious, which does not equate to big box office dollars, and therefore had to be toned down. Second, the novel is very political, addressing the politically turbulent sixties, the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra scandal. These events are either dated or hard to mesh together during a two hour movie. In addition, Irving's novel is over six hundred pages long, taking place over the course of almost three decades. The movie is one hundred fourteen minutes and condenses Simon's life into one year. This is simply not enough time to get to know the wonderful quirks and history of the main character.

These problems could have been lessened had a major director taken on the project and worked closely with John Irving. However, Johnson is not that director. Don't get me wrong, Simon Birch does get at the important themes of the book, but it is an inadequate substitute for the book. Most movies are -- especially when they take on ambitious novels. However, successful transfers, such as "Forrest Gump" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" show that it can be done. Simply put, it was completely frustrating -- and will be to almost everyone who has read the book -- to see a movie with such good actors, based on such a great book fall so far from expectations.

ROB GALLO of Wethersfield, CT, is a staff writer and the movie guru of Renaissance Online Magazine.

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