Unexpurgated Reviews


July 13 and 20, 2001

by Edward Jay Epstein

Once upon a time in America, at least up until the dawn of the 1950s, more than two-thirds of the population went to their local movie theater on average once a week, Hollywood studios made virtually all their money from this audience, and, consequently, they made films with a narrative structure that this vast movie-going public could follow. There was a beginning, middle and end, rising and falling action, a climax and denouement. Times are somewhat different now. Less than 10% of the population goes to movie theaters in an average week, and studios make most of their money not from theatrical releases but from the sale of ancillary rights for video, television and toys, forms less demanding of a story with a narrative structure.

Just how far movies have separated themselves from storytelling is evident in Sony's animated film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." It is directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who previously directed 10 installments of the computer game "Final Fantasy." Set in 2065, in New York City and in a crater where the Caspian Sea is now, the film concerns a small group of human heroes, played by computer- generated images, who battle a larger group of aliens, played by computer-generated images. The human team is led by the beautiful and brilliant Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na), who, to rid her body of an alien invader, has to find something called the Eighth Spirit. In lieu of any sort of story, there are contiguous action bumps, with Dr. Ross and company zapping the aliens with epileptic flashes of light and noise for the benefit of humankind.

These computer-generated simulacra are amazingly lifelike in their movements (though the drivel they speak does not even rival the wisdom found in fortune cookies). The animators' true-to-life creations rate high on the Wow scale, but to marvel over their technical wizardry -- or, for that matter, to try to criticize it -- misses the point. "Final Fantasy," although packaged as a movie, is in reality a clever 106-minute promo for Sony's PlayStation II games. Its purpose is to sell an audience of kids on a game machine through which they, like Dr. Ross, can deal with their fantasies and other adolescent impulses by deploying a cast of human-looking simulacra.

Last year, Sony made almost 37% of its total profits -- out of an earnings base that included CDs, consumer electronics, insurance, movies and television programming -- from a single product, the PlayStation. Its movies, on the other hand, generate little, if any, corporate profits from their theatrical releases. So why not use movies as a platform, just as fashion designers use runways, to promote and publicize their PlayStation games?

'Legally Blonde'

For a slightly older audience "Legally Blonde" will be more rewarding. At least it has the semblance of a story, adapted by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith from Amanda Brown's novel and directed by Robert Luketic. Its premise is that a beautiful blonde, who looks, walks and talks like a Barbie doll, is clever, but, because of her looks, no one takes her seriously. In a Beverly Hills variation on Judy Holliday's Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday," Elle Woods, brilliantly played by Reese Witherspoon, is assumed to be mindless by everyone she knows or meets, including her sorority sisters, parents, mall salespeople and even her boyfriend. When her boyfriend jilts her for a brainier classmate he gets to know at Harvard Law School, Elle decides enough is enough. She applies to Harvard and aces the entrance exams. Although the students and professors in Cambridge also jump to the assumption that Elle is a Beverly Hills ditz, she proves them wrong -- by using the skills she acquired in beauty spas and shopping malls -- and becomes the valedictorian of her law-school class. The moral of the tale is that knowledge of hair styling and designer shoes can be more important than logic when it comes to career advancement. Now that is a fantasy that can "play" in Hollywood even without a PlayStation. It is also a fantasy that will offend nobody. All sex, nudity, violence, logical distinctions and other adult distractions have been assiduously airbrushed out. Nevertheless, thanks to Ms. Witherspoon's artful portrayal of a winning, if beachless, Gidget, I found "Legally Blonde" very enjoyable.


Larry Clark's "Bully" takes a darker view of youth. Rather than winding up as valedictorians at law school, its Gidgets become murderers. When the film begins, these well-tanned and scantily dressed young people aimlessly cruise the beaches, shopping malls and video-game salons of Hollywood, Fla. Their only pursuits are surfing, drugs, video-games, unprotected sex and sadomasochism. The thread Mr. Clark follows in his examination of this vacuous culture is a brutal murder that actually took place in Hollywood in 1993.

The bully, Bobby (Nick Stahl), punches around his muscle-bound best friend, Marty (Brad Renfro), and forces Marty's girlfriend, Lisa (Rachel Miner), and her friend, Ali (Bijou Phillips), to have sex with him. Afterwards, Lisa, Ali and Marty decide to murder Bobby. They recruit others, people with no motive at all, into the scheme. None of this makes much sense, but presumably neither did the real-life murder. Mr. Clark's interest, as in his earlier film about nihilistic adolescence, "Kids," is not in a conventional plot, but in producing a you-are-there, no-holds-barred, warts-and-all peek into the doings of a band of morally bankrupt teenagers.

I have no objection to Mr. Clark's uninhibited voyeurism -- what are movies if not vehicles for voyeurism? -- or to his sexually-explicit photography. His avowed purpose, after all, is to show this youth culture stripped of all its protective romantic myths. My problem is that the lack of narrative structure deprives the film of any suspense, and without suspense the film eventually collapses from its own heat like a soufflé that has been in the oven just a few minutes too long.

'The Score'

"The Score," which was directed by Frank Oz and boasts Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, is a welcome reunion of method actors, but hardly an original heist thriller. The premise is that a master thief (Mr. De Niro) has to team up with an unknown younger thief (Mr. Norton) to pull off his last job. His motive in taking this engagement is that, even though he already lives in luxury, he wants to retire with even more loot. To succeed, he has to break into a vault and steal a scepter guarded by multiple burglar alarms and television cameras. If this sounds a mite familiar, it may be because there have been scores of similar deluxe capers, including Jules Dassin's classics "Rififi" (1955) and "Topkapi" (1964).

Unfortunately, "The Score" lacks a crucial element of the heist subgenre: ingenuity. Unlike William Wyler's "How to Steal a Million" (1966), in which the hero uses a clever bird-releasing ruse to fool the alarms, the burglars in "The Score" simply use an unexplained black box that turns off the alarms when the script calls for it. The rest of the mechanics of the caper were too murky for me to follow. And the starry cast's method acting doesn't clear it up, or even make you care if the robbers succeed in enriching themselves.

VIDEO TIP: If you enjoy seeing Robert De Niro steal, watch him do a better job of it in Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995)

July 20, 2001

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Oscars to films that successfully expand works taken from other media, it might not be worth giving in most years. It is no mean feat to restructure a work of art in a different kind of time and space without compromising it. Julie Taymor managed to do this brilliantly with Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" (1999), as did Carlos Saura with Bizet's opera "Carmen" (1983) and Roger Vadim with Jean-Claude Forest's comic strip "Barbarella" (1968). Now 2001 has a successful transfer to which I would happily award this Oscar: John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Mr. Mitchell co-wrote, directed and stars in the film re-creation of his off-Broadway play of the same name. But here he opens it up with flashbacks, fantasy musical numbers and animation interludes. The movie takes the form of a comic voyage of discovery. The hero, Hedwig (Mr. Mitchell), "an internationally ignored" transvestite musician, is in search of his "missing part." In this case, the artist's trauma is literal as well as metaphoric. The surgeon botched Hedwig's sex-change operation, accidentally leaving behind an "angry" inch of flesh that makes it impossible, except in his music, for Hedwig to realize his transsexual fantasies. His rock band, appropriately called "The Angry Inch," acts like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.

What makes this unlikely quest so utterly amusing is that it spoofs the pseudo-Freudian concept, found in many Hollywood films such as "Lust for Life," "Immortal Beloved" and "The Music Lover," that great art proceeds from great pain. Hedwig's odyssey takes him from Communist East Germany, through seedy trailer parks and strip malls in middle America, to New York City. While the level of social satire does not rise to that of Barry Humphries' ingenious creation Dame Edna -- but, then, what does? -- it is hysterically funny. Each juncture in the trip is brilliantly reinforced by the neo-punk music of Stephen Trask, who collaborated with Mr. Mitchell in both the play and film. This extraordinary flight from the humdrum is not to be missed.

"Jurassic Park III," on the other hand, exemplifies how Hollywood can stomp a brilliant concept beyond recognition -- for the best of reasons: tie-ins with toy makers, theme-park owners and fast-food merchandisers, who, in turn, provide vast infusions of advertising for the film concept they have bought in to.

The concept of Michael Crichton's book "Jurassic Park," which spawned the film trilogy, is that unanticipated consequences proceed from the best-intentioned scientific research. The latest installment in the Steven Spielberg-Universal dino-franchise, directed by Joe Johnston, replaces that original concept with the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fairy tale. To wit, a young scientist, Billy (Alessandro Nivola), steals the giant's eggs from his lair. Only, in this version, the giant is a dinosaur, and his lair is what remains of Jurassic Park II on some Pacific island. Both Billy and the giant dinosaur have their respective support groups. Billy's support group, all of whom are signature characters in the Spielberg-Universal saurian enterprise, includes a daring young boy, Eric (Trevor Morgan), his parents (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni), whose splitting marriage must be repaired during the chase, and a wise paleontologist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who knows his way around big lizards. The dinosaur's support group is other dinosaurs.

In "JP-III," these are not just big, cold-blooded beasts. They are smart monsters, much smarter in fact than humans. This is not so far-fetched. Why shouldn't there be high-IQ beasts? After all, much of how we're accustomed to think Jurassic Period dinosaurs looked is pure conjecture. The realistic pivtures are pure dino-fraud. For all we can tell from fossil fragments they could have been polka-dotted, and swished rather than stomped when they walked. So, in "JP-III," the pursuing dinosaurs are not only intelligent enough to converse with one another -- one even uses a cellphone -- they are also skilled at maintaining social relationships.

For his part, Mr. Johnston is smart enough to move the action at a mercifully quick pace, without spattering the screen with excessive blood or body parts. And he makes the escape as exciting as "Jack and the Beanstalk" can get for young audiences. Since I don't want to give away the fully predictable ending, suffice it to say that, despite the incessant roar of subwoofers, the cerebral dinosaurs turn out to be as cuddly as many of Mr. Spielberg's other infrahumans. And, I predict, they will have a great future in Universal's theme parks and at Toys "R" Us.

'America's Sweethearts'

There are only human monsters in "America's Sweethearts," but they are mostly cuddly, too, although harder to merchandise as dolls. The concept here is a bit like the Land O'Lakes butter logo, in which the Indian maiden holds a box of butter showing an Indian maiden holding a box of butter, and so on forever. In "America's Sweethearts," a Hollywood studio is the equivalent of the Indian maiden, a studio obsessed with the manipulation of its audience makes a movie about a studio obsessed with the manipulation of its audience, and so on forever

. "America's Sweethearts" is a comedy directed by Joe Roth, the former head of Disney Studios. Its highly intriguing premise is that the success of a very expensive Hollywood film depends on the studio's ability to fraudulently manipulate the entertainment media. The corollary of the premise is that the entertainment media are willing partners in this fraud on the public. Not only is Mr. Roth himself presumably knowledgeable about this subject, but his distributor, Sony, recently demonstrated its own expertise in this area by inventing imaginary critics to supply quotes for its film ads.

In "America's Sweethearts," the studio head (Stanley Tucci) needs to divert the media's attention away from an $86 million film that he thinks is a turkey. The idea his PR man (Billy Crystal) comes up with is to take members of the film press on a junket and focus their attention on the personal lives of the film's stars, Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), a married but bitterly estranged couple. To decoy the journalists away from the film itself, the PR man orchestrates a fake romantic reconciliation between the neurotic Eddie and the abrasive Gwen. In "reality," Eddie falls in love with Gwen's sister/assistant, Kiki (Julia Roberts).

Mr. Roth comes close to blending these elements into a successful screwball comedy a la Preston Sturges. He certainly demonstrates great directorial skill in pacing the gags -- as when Gwen's Doberman eats her window-washer -- and he squeezes funny bits out of most of the well-cast bit players. Squeezing a versatile performance out of the film's linchpin, Julia Roberts, is another matter. For the story to hold together, Ms. Roberts must be not only cute (which she always is) but also neurotically funny enough to steal away her sister's husband while retaining the viewer's affection.

To date, the only director who has extracted such a versatile cute-neurotic performance out of Ms. Roberts is Woody Allen in "Everyone Says I Love You." (He paid her only a fraction of what she earned in this film, demonstrating yet again the inverse relation between performance and compensation.) Mr. Roth, unable to achieve this feat, is left missing a crucial screwball heroine. Without her, the comedy wobbles out of kilter around the prosaic idea of a hero preferring a cuter (and nicer) heroine to his wife. Nevertheless, "America's Sweethearts" is amusing enough, especially with its uniquely credible premise of a media fraud, to recommend.

'Ghost World' In case you've seen enough of solipsistic Hollywood frauds, Terry Zwigoff, who directed the documentary "Crumb," provides an alternative universe. The super-cool, if sociopathic, characters he humanizes from Daniel Clowes cult comics toy with conventional alliances -- soul mates, room mates, sex mates--but lack the urge to merge. Instead, the heroes, Enid (Thora Birch), Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Seymour, (Steve Buscemi), are fated to be eternal outsiders. Their vision, and epiphanies, provide a supremely fascinating film.