"Simone" -- Al Pacino stars as a little-known Hollywood director on his last legs who suddenly finds his way cleared for a huge career surge in this interesting though predictable and implausible moviemaking satire. The film future of Pacino's Viktor Taransky is about to fade to black when his pampered star (Winona Ryder in a cameo) walks out on him in mid-picture, his last chance (his ex-wife runs the studio and she's about to run him out). But all is saved, for now anyway, when he inherits a dying inventor's computer program that allows him to invent an actress out of thin air, a "synthespian." Enter Simone, short for "simulation one," so lifelike moviegoers can't tell she's not real, a gorgeous blonde who does and says just the right things (as fed by Taransky), no fuss, no muss, even does her own stunts and nudity's no problem. She takes over the lead in the beleaguered film -- the other actors are only told that Simone's part will be added later -- and becomes an overnight major star and center of a media firestorm. The more the attention, the harder it gets to hide her and guard the fact that he made her up. But as Viktor puts it, "Our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it." It can be quite funny but falls short of its potential. 2002. 117 minutes. New Line Home Entertainment. Rated PG-13 (some sensuality).
"Time Out" ("L'Emploi du Temps") -- This acclaimed, somewhat haunting French psychological drama tells of an ordinary but problem-plagued businessman who creates an alternate, deceitful existence that ultimately backfires. Vincent has a good job, good pay, the works until one day he's fired. His ego shattered, unable to tell his wife Muriel what happened, he continues to go "to work" but actually spends the day in his car, lying about elaborate ventures including a prospective new job with the U.N. in Switzerland, finding, at first, that he not only enjoys the deception but likes the freedom. A big problem, though, is finding money to live on and that opens the risky door to phony get-rich-quick schemes and a shady partner and before long, it all starts to unravel. Aurelien Recoing, a top stage actor in his first leading film role, is quite believable as the balding, pudgy Vincent, the sort of a man who just fits in, unnoticed, largely unknown to his co-workers or his family and maybe even to himself. Karin Viard plays his wife. 2002. 128 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Miramax Home Entertainment. Rated PG-13 (sensuality).
"Undercover Brother" -- Eddie Griffin is Anton Jackson, a super-cool guy with the mega-Afro and colorful 1970s wardrobe, the brother sent undercover to expose the evil schemes of The Man, a shadowy white man promoting racial divisiveness, in this funny, funky satire of "Shaft" and the so-called Blacksploitation genre. His first assignment, working for an African-American justice organization known as B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., is to find out how a Colin Powell-type presidential candidate (Billy Dee Williams) was convinced to abandon politics and open a fried chicken fast-food chain. With a cast that also includes Dave Chappelle, Chris Kattan and Aunjanue Ellis and Denise Richards as Jackson's love interests, Sistah Girl and White She Devil, Malcolm Lee's film pokes fun at both white and black cultures with a smile instead of a snear. 2002. 86 minutes. Universal Studios Home Video. Rated PG-13 (language, sexual humor, drug content and campy violence).
"Feardotcom" -- There's this computer Web site, see, that gives you an option "to play" with the understanding that if you lose, "you die," and in this extremely violent and unsettling yarn some of those who do play self-destruct within 48 hours, a victim of his or her deepest fear. That's the premise in this dark, creepy horror movie that touches all the buttons, flooding the screen with spooky, graphically frightful images as police try to find the madman behind the deaths. Not for everyone for sure but a movie that'll grab the horror fan and hang on. 2002. 101 minutes. Warner Home Video. Rated R (violence including grisly images of torture, nudity and language).
"Ordinary Decent Criminal" -- Kevin Spacey plays Michael Lynch, a charismatic and clever Dublin crook and sometime Robin Hood, in this so-so crime caper film. Lynch, always one step ahead of the law, manages to divide his time between a relatively normal, happy family home life and a series of spectacular crimes. The cops just can't make anything stick. Lynch is an obvious clone of Martin Cahill, the famous Irish bandit whose story was told earlier, and better, in "The General." 2002. 94 minutes. Miramax Home Entertainment. Rated R (language, some violence and sexuality).
"101 Dalmatians: Patch's London Adventure" -- When Roger, Anita and their canine clan move to spacious Dalmatian Plantation, feisty Patch gets left behind in London in all the confusion but that's fine with him. It gives him the opportunity to see his TV hero Thunderbolt who, it turns out, needs a London guide so he can do something heroic and win back some of his fading prestige. But, here comes the Dalmatian-obsessive Cruella De Vil determined to catch Patch before he gets very far. A fun, direct-to-video romp for kids. 2003. Walt Disney Home Entertainment. Rated G.
Coming up: "The Banger Sisters" with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon as a couple of aging groupies, "The Bourne Identity" based on the Robert Ludlum spy novel starring Matt Damon, Steven Segal's "The Foreigner," "Dinner Rush," where crime's elite meet to eat, and the many sides of Dana Carvey in "The Master of Disguise"... The Vin Diesel thriller "XXX" is the top video rental and seller across the land this week...
While its sequel is attracting some Oscar talk, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" is raking in trophies of its own -- a total of eight at the DVD Premiere Awards ceremony including best new release. Other winners included "A Gentleman's Game" and two Disney works, the expanded "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II"... The Jennifer Lopez flick "Maid in Manhattan" has a March 25 video date...
Two excellent and very different documentaries by Ric Burns are now available on DVD and VHS, a combined release from Warner and PBS. One is "Ansel Adams," a lyrical celebration of the work of the famed nature photographer on the 100th anniversary of his birth. It's also a celebration of America for throughout the moving portrait run the usual Adams themes that he made unusual, namely the strong bond between man and a fragile earth and responsibilities that went with it. The other is "The Donner Party," a powerful tale of horror and ultimate desperation. With narration by David McCollough, comments by historians, still photos and diary excerpts from those among the Donner group, Burns paints a grim but fascinating picture of history's most famous wagon train to California and what terrible things befell those unlucky travelers trapped in the snowy Sierra Nevadas during the winter of 1846.