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The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Simone, more 

CL's capsule reviews are rated on a four-star rating system.

IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SUCK: Rosario Dawson, Randy Quaid and Eddie Murphy are trapped in the inanity known as The Adventures of Pluto Nash
  • IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SUCK: Rosario Dawson, Randy Quaid and Eddie Murphy are trapped in the inanity known as The Adventures of Pluto Nash
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THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH This Eddie Murphy comedy has been sitting on a studio shelf since circa the time the wheel was first invented; it cost $100 million to make; it wasn't screened in advance for critics; and it grossed a paltry $2 million on its opening weekend. A review at this point might seem rather anti-climactic, but on the mere chance that there's somebody out there still intrigued at the prospect of seeing the diverse likes of John Cleese, Pam Grier and Burt Young all gracing the same film, I'm here to say it ain't worth the time, cost or deterioration of brain cells. The sad thing about this abysmal effort, set on the moon in the year 2087, isn't that it's terrible; it's that it's terrible without even being enjoyable in a bad-movie sorta way. Even the gang from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have trouble finding much to riff off in this turkey, which is unremittingly dull more than anything else. Murphy plays the title character, an entrepreneur whose wildly successful moon-based nightclub becomes the focus for a shady gangster interested in muscling his way into the business. After his club gets destroyed, Nash takes it on the lam, dragging an aspiring singer (Rosario Dawson) and a horny robot (Randy Quaid, annoying but trying hard, bless his heart) along with him. Imagine if the Total Recall sets had been placed in a fire sale, and you'll get an idea of the film's drab visual scheme. As for the comedy quotient, I counted exactly two laughs, which breaks down to $50 million per chuckle -- definitely not a sound return on investment. *

SIMONE Certainly the oddest picture to come out of Hollywood this summer, Simone stars Al Pacino as Viktor Taransky, a self-important but sincere director whose precarious community standing tumbles even further when his leading lady (Winona Ryder) walks off the set of his latest picture. All seems doomed until an inventor (Elias Koteas) provides him with a computer program that allows him to "create" a new lead for his film: an artificial being named Simone (an uncredited turn by model Rachel Roberts) that he's able to digitally insert into his movies. Soon, Simone turns out to be an international sensation, meaning Viktor has to work overtime to prevent anyone from discovering that this actress isn't even a real person. The extent of each individual filmgoer's charitable assessment of the picture will eventually determine their overall enjoyment, as Simone can be viewed from more than one angle. Is it an obvious and overblown comedy blissfully unaware of its own ludicrous plot twists, or is it a sharp satire that beautifully skewers our society's desperate need to worship at the altar of stardom? In other words, is writer-director Andrew Niccol aware that the movies Viktor makes look truly awful, and that Simone has no more personality or acting ability than your average bland supermodel (in which case the movie's mocking our susceptibility to manufactured goods), or does he mean for us to take the components of his film seriously (in which case he's as clueless as the masses he derides)? Considering Niccol wrote the razor-sharp The Truman Show, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the result is still only partly successful, with some solid laughs scattered throughout a herky-jerky piece that remains more clever in theory than execution. **1/2

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AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER Where the difference in quality between, say, Jaws and Jaws: The Revenge, or Psycho and Psycho III, can only be measured in light years, the three films in Mike Myers' Austin Powers series have been remarkably consistent, each one alternately soaring and sinking for the same reasons. In relating the groovy adventures of the 60s-era secret agent who finds himself transplanted in today's modern society, star-creator Myers and director Jay Roach will feature a great gag and then repeat it until it's run completely into the ground. This modus operandi alternates with the pair likewise taking a terrible gag (usually scatological in nature) and milking it for what little it's worth and then some. If we must compare, this third entry is better than the first but not as sharp as the second, with the high points consisting of a terrific opening sequence featuring several surprising cameos (including a few Oscar winners), the addition of Michael Caine as Austin's spy daddy, and an expanded role for Verne Troyer, again stealing all the scenes as the diminutive Mini-Me. Myers, as usual, has plenty of opportunities to mug it up, playing not only Austin but also his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil, returning villain Fat Bastard and a new criminal mastermind known as Goldmember (the least funny of the lot). How much you enjoy this will depend on your acceptance of the film's ratio of hit-to-miss nyuks. **1/2

BLOOD WORK Viewing the latest Clint Eastwood picture is akin to watching a jogger who makes the mistake of sprinting out in front at the start of a marathon, only to run out of steam somewhere along the way and limp across the finish line. For a good while, Blood Work looks as if it might be Eastwood's best picture in years, with the star-director-producer playing an FBI agent who suffers a heart attack while pursuing a serial killer known as "The Code Killer." Settling into retirement, he ends up with someone else's heart inside him, and is thus forced back into action when he learns that his new heart belongs to someone who was murdered. Watching an undying screen icon like Eastwood acknowledge his own frailty and mortality adds a special resonance to this picture ("Are you taking your pills daily?" asks his doctor, played by Anjelica Huston. "Yeah," he growls back, "all 36 of them"), and Eastwood's own engaging performance makes the most of the sharp dialogue to be found in Brian Helgeland's script (based on Michael Connelly's novel). But heading into the final turn, the movie turns preposterous, wasting not only a solid supporting turn by Jeff Daniels (as Eastwood's boozy neighbor) but also serving up a routine climax that goes on forever. **1/2

BLUE CRUSH This surfing flick is one of those movies that could reasonably be advertised as having "something for everyone." Teenage girls will enjoy seeing a film populated by heroines of a like age, while teenage boys will enjoy beauteous blonde lead Kate Bosworth decked out in skimpy bikinis. Women will enjoy the movie's "you go, girl" sensibilities, while men will enjoy beauteous blonde lead Kate Bosworth decked out in skimpy bikinis. And beach folk (my camp) will enjoy the gorgeous footage of the ocean while mountain folk will enjoy beauteous blonde lead Kate Bosworth decked out in skimpy bikinis and wonder exactly why they're mountain folk anyway. If nothing else, Blue Crush certainly had all the makings of a late-summer guilty pleasure, but even guilty pleasures have to rise above a pedestrian script on some level, and this eye-candy never quite makes the climb. The cinematography by Don King (billed as "water camera operator") is spectacular -- viewers are placed on top of, in the middle of, and under the waves -- and, as Bosworth's best friend, Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) continues to impress with her gruff, take-no-prisoners attitude. But the story of a high school drop-out (Bosworth) who has to decide between following her dream by entering a big surf competition or following her fantasy by shacking up with a hunky NFL quarterback (Matthew Davis) is a narrative wipe out almost from the start. **

THE GOOD GIRL A sterling example of the sort of "introspective cinema" that previously brought us the terrific Ruby In Paradise, The Good Girl is a bracingly candid study of an ordinary woman and the difficult choices she must make as she tries to figure out exactly how she wants to spend her remaining decades on this planet. Jennifer Aniston, in a smart career move that should do more for her big screen aspirations than inanities like Picture Perfect, is just right as Justine, a not especially bright 30-year-old working a dead-end job at the Retail Rodeo store. She's married to a house painter (John C. Reilly) who spends his free time smoking pot with his hayseed of a best friend (Tim Blake Nelson). Justine sees an opportunity for escape once she begins an affair with a passionate (and possibly disturbed) 22-year-old co-worker (Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhaal), but once her illicit activity causes numerous complications (as inevitably it must), she begins to find herself cornered and must make a series of hasty decisions that could potentially hurt rather than heal her situation. Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White (the Chuck and Buck scribe who also appears here as a religious security guard) smartly earn our empathy by bouncing humor off the situations rather than the characters (the potential for condescension is enormous but rarely taken), and the result is a movie that manages to be both charming and troubling. ***1/2

ROAD TO PERDITION The screen version of Road to Perdition may be paved with good intentions, but that may not be enough to appease fans of the acclaimed 1998 graphic novel penned by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner. And yet, I doubt most will mind the liberties taken by director Sam Mendes (in his sophomore effort following American Beauty) and scripter David Self (Thirteen Days) as they bring this stark story to the screen. Renowned for its involving storyline and eerily atmospheric black-and-white imagery, the Perdition novel tapped into near-mythic elements on its own pulp level, yet the movie not only manages to reproduce that sentiment but also to improve on it, adding additional levels of portent to its weighty tale of family dysfunction in the gangster era. In one of his finest, most subtle performances, Tom Hanks stars as a soft-spoken mob hit man who, along with his 12-year-old son (Tyler Hoechlin), hits the road seeking revenge after his wife and other son are murdered by the rash offspring (Daniel Craig) of his employer (Paul Newman). This is that rare film that improves on its source material, thanks partly to the three-dimensional tweaking of Newman's crime lord and the addition of a new foil for Hanks' hit man: a crime scene photographer (Jude Law) who doubles as an assassin-for-hire. Conrad L. Hall's cinematography is outstanding, yet even the visual panache takes a back seat to the absorbing father-son dynamics that resonate throughout the picture. ***1/2

SIGNS There's been much discussion about how the unofficial cinematic theme of the summer has been father-son relations (Road to Perdition, Minority Report, Austin Powers In Goldmember), but it seems to me that the unofficial theme of the entire year has been the ability of deceased wives to reach out from beyond the grave to offer guidance to their emotionally floundering spouses. Like The Mothman Prophecies and Dragonfly, the latest yarn from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) is at heart a story about a man, in this case a former reverend (Mel Gibson), whose faith is tested after the loss of his wife but who slowly comes around once he opens his mind to the possibilities of supernatural intervention. Yet since that plotline won't have 'em lining up at the box office, Shyamalan wraps his metaphysical musings around a rickety story about how the crop markings in Gibson's corn fields might be early clues that an extra-terrestrial invasion might be imminent. As long as Shyamalan keeps his film swathed in shadows, it achieves its goal, with the director's understated style and Gibson's strong performance working nicely in tandem with the overall air of ambiguity. But once matters are spelled out in the second half (think Independence Day without a budget), the movies loses its potency, limping its way toward a highly contrived finale that's supposed to tie everything neatly together but instead merely comes off as Shyamalan's latest desperate attempt to one-up the twist ending of The Sixth Sense. **1/2

SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS Until Shrek came along and conquered all, 2001's biggest commercial and critical success in the family film sector was Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids, which owed more to Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss (not to mention the 007 canon) than the standard live-action Disney flicks. Spy Kids 2 is a spirited attempt to recapture the first film's offbeat appeal, but this time the results, while still enjoyable, are decidedly less satisfying. Practically the entire original cast returns for this outing (albeit some in glorified cameos), which finds the members of the Cortez family -- parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and kids Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) -- investigating the mysterious occurrences revolving around an island that's inhabited by a meek scientist (Steve Buscemi) and his mutated creations. If anything, Spy Kids 2 is bursting at the seams with even more gadgetry and more eccentric characters than its predecessor. Rather than building on the sense of wonder and fun, this overstuffing only slows the picture down; for example, did we really need to add the siblings' secret agent grandparents (Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor) to the mix, especially since they're given so little to do and could have easily been excised from the final product? The kids and their parents are still appealing, though, and some of the special effects (such as those animated skeletons) pay satisfying homage to the fantasy flicks of the great FX innovator Ray Harryhausen. **1/2

SUNSHINE STATE Every time it seems as if writer-director John Sayles can't possibly come up with a premise even more brazenly non-commercial than his previous efforts -- this is, after all, the guy who gave us striking coal miners in Matewan and impoverished Latin American villagers in Men With Guns -- he manages to surprise us with a topic that won't interest anyone obsessed with goldmembers but will serve as nourishment to folks desiring some substance in their cinematic diet. In the sprawling manner of City of Hope (one of Sayles' more underrated films), Sunshine State is a multi-character piece that takes a hard look at the people and the politics surrounding a stretch of land in Florida. The fictional Plantation Island is the setting, made up of modest beachfront communities that find themselves at risk of disappearing once developers show up with their eye on turning the valuable property into resorts for wealthy Northerners. Among those involved in the proceedings are a motel owner (Edie Falco) whose exhaustion makes it hard for her to decide whether to fight or sell; an amiable architect (Timothy Hutton) who ends up forming a bond with the motel owner; a failed actress (Angela Bassett) who left town when she was 15 and pregnant and is only now returning for a visit; and a doctor (Bill Cobbs) who's outraged that the historical significance of his African-American community will be wiped out forever once the bulldozers start tearing everything apart. Had all of the vignettes been of equal quality, this might have ranked with Sayles' very best films, but there's still much to admire here, including the uniformly fine performances as well as Sayles' insistence on letting all sides have their say. ***

XXX The troika behind the 2001 sleeper smash The Fast and the Furious -- star Vin Diesel, director Rob Cohen and producer Neal H. Moritz -- has reunited for another disreputable genre flick that's even more trashy yet also more fun than their previous outing. Diesel, staking his claim as the most popular bald leading man since the heyday of Yul Brynner, plays Xander Cage, a modern outlaw and extreme sports enthusiast who gets pressed into serving his country by a sharp government agent (Samuel L. Jackson). Cage's assignment takes him into the heart of an Eastern European outfit scheming to topple all existing world powers and allowing anarchy to reign. The film's tagline is "A New Breed Of Secret Agent," and in that respect, they got it right: With an attitude that's surly rather than suave and sporting elaborate tattoos over most of his body, Diesel's Xander Cage would never be mistaken for James Bond or even Austin Powers. Yet along with a new breed of secret agent, this movie could have benefited from a new breed of secret agent plotline, but instead this magnetic character finds himself competing against the usual assortment of dull Eurotrash villains hell-bent on world domination. Still, the stuntwork is aces, even when at the service of absurd action scenarios -- audiences may find themselves simultaneously gasping in awe and hooting in derision at some of the slam-bang set pieces on display. **1/2

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