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by Jim Wunderle

"Simon Birch"

Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson

Starring: Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd, David Strait-hairn, Oliver Platt

Rated: PG

Novelist John Irving has had a couple of his novels turned into motion pictures, including the critically acclaimed "The World According to Garp," and the less successful "The Hotel New Hampshire."

So now, 15 years after "The Hotel New Hampshire," comes the adaptation of an Irving novel, "Simon Birch."

But wait a minute. Faithful Irving readers are no doubt telling themselves they've never heard of such a title in Irving's oeuvre.

You're right. The film "Simon Birch" was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, and as the opening credits tell us, it was "suggested by" the Irving novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

Irving was attached to the project for a while, but he didn't like the direction Johnson was taking with the script, pulled out and got a settlement wherein the producers agreed not to use any of the names from the book or credit the film as "based on" Irving's novel.

That aside, "Simon Birch" is a good movie having never read the novel, it's impossible for me to know how faithful Johnson has kept the story to the book.

In the film, it's 1964 in a New England town. Simon, the smallest baby ever delivered in these parts, is a 12-year-old who is small in stature but gifted in many ways. He's fiercely spiritual and believes God has a special purpose for him.

His best friend is Joe Wentworth, and Joe's mom, Rebecca, is the only parental figure in Simon's life, as his own parents have more or less ignored their "freak of nature" since the day he was born.

As the film plays out to its conclusion (without giving anything away, Simon does have a destiny to fulfill) we're treated to several touching, and a few quite funny, vignettes along the way.

I didn't love this movie. I found it somewhat manipulative at times, but the story is interesting, and the acting, especially from the two main children and the always top-notch Ashley Judd as Rebecca, takes the film to a higher-than-average level.

"Next Stop Wonderland"

Directed by: Brad Anderson

Starring: Hope Davis, Alan Gelfant, Robert Klein

Rated: R

Three weeks in a row, Wehrenberg's Battlefield Mall Cinema has treated us to some excellent "smaller" films: "The Opposite of Sex," one of the best films of the year; "Smoke Signals"; and now "Next Stop Wonderland," an engaging and quirky romantic comedy featuring acress Hope Davis, who, if there's any justice in Hollywood, is going to be a huge star one of these days.

Here she plays Erin Castieton, a young woman who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Erin's meddling mom puts an ad in the personals column of the local paper, and Erin is faced with about 60 responses.

The real plot here, though, involves her nearly meeting the man we, the audience, know would be just right for her. Several times in the film their paths nearly cross, and each near miss draws us deeper into the tale.

The camera style of this low-budget production is the only small drawback.

The hand-held shaky cam gets a little distracting after a while, but ignoring that, I've added "Next Stop Wonderland" to my "Best of 1998" list.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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