Unexpurgated Reviews


July 13, 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)

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