The previous Star Wars film, 1999's Episode One: The Phantom Menace, has become the most successful of the entire series. Ironically, it is also considered one of the most disappointing—and even despised—adventure movies of all time. Three years have passed, and we now have Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. In this chapter, young Anakin Skywalker starts giving in to his foolish impulses, rejects the counsel of his teachers, and responds to the temptations that lead him on the path of the Dark Side. His primary weakness is his infatuation with the beautiful Senator Padme Amidala.
Most critics are thankfully saying Attack is not a clone of Episode One. But does that mean Lucas has found his "space legs" again? That's a matter of heated debate.
Those religious press critics who have spoken reflect the same spectrum of opinions that the series has generated since 1977. Most are thrilled with the action and effects. Some express reservations about the quality of the writing and the acting. And a few are worried that the messages about belief in the Force are not sufficiently Christian.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) joins the chorus lamenting the film's weak dialogue and acting. But he has much more to say: "If [Clones] doesn't quite recapture the charm of the original trilogy, it does combine more enjoyable characterizations and dialogue and better paced storytelling with even more dazzling imagery. [Lucas] may have the tone-deaf ear for dialogue of a dime-store pulp novelist, but he's still got the visionary eye of a technological Tolkien, and the worlds he creates are pure magic. When Lucas creates visuals like these, he's doing something quite simply unmatched by anything anyone else in Hollywood is doing, or has ever done."
Greydanus also highlights ethical lessons of the film: "While Lucas's story doesn't touch upon the underlying moral issues of human dignity and the sacredness of human life in its origins, the progression it shows from the optimistic promises of cloning technology to the dehumanizing reality that actually follows remains an evocative metaphor for the false hopes of human cloning experimentation. Whatever Lucas's intentions, his story resonates with the prophetic warning of John Paul II that 'man must be the master, not the product, of his technology.'"
He goes on to praise the film's recognition of celibacy and marriage both as valid, honorable institutions, while the pursuit of dangerous liaisons is portrayed as "living a lie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "I don't think I was alone in wondering if perhaps the steam had gone out of the Star Wars franchise. Nor do I think I'll be alone in celebrating George Lucas's return to form in the highly exhilarating and enjoyable Episode II." He explains, "Clones … has more of a psychological depth to it as it begins to lay out the course of a good man who turns bad. We see the bad seed planted as Anakin Skywalker receives some 'advice' from a false counselor. 'Trust your emotions,' he is told. This … opens Anakin's heart to the temptation of disobedience as he rejects his understood moral code to act out of passion rather than reason."
Lisa Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) start with raves for "incredible fight scenes … collectively speaking, among the best that have ever been done." Then come the complaints: "The first half of this movie is not very convincing. The acting by … Christensen and Portman … and the scripting of their characters' dialogue is also unbelievable and poorly done."
Rice and Snyder also caution readers that they should beware of false messages: "Star Wars II seems to have abandoned the positive, theistic orientation that the first episode seemed to be moving toward at times. Apparently, George Lucas has decided to slightly reinforce the Buddhist leanings of the saga, where the heroes (and villains) engage an impersonal, illogical, spiritual, and transcendent 'Force' in a mystical, partially occult way."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) offers a few cautionary words about the "theological hodgepodge … reflected in The Force." He also calls Clones "a wild, satisfying adventure" that lacks "the carefree, organic quality of the earlier films. You wish the young actors would just relax, have fun and stop treating the material as sacred."
The mainstream press avoids discussion of the film's "theological hodgepodge," focusing instead on issues of craftsmanship. Those who enjoy Lucas's imaginative environments and who value Lucas's effective, efficient visual storytelling give the film rave reviews, even as they note its familiarly mundane script and wooden performances. But others are unmoved by the sights and sounds, condemning the film for Lucas's failings as a writer and for his work with the cast.
Many scorn the film's romance plot as derivative and dumb. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) declares, "These two fall in love not because romance sparks but to suit the needs of subsequent movies." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) adds: "Padme and Anakin [are] incapable of uttering anything other than the most basic and weary romantic clichés, while regarding each other as if love was something to be endured rather than cherished."
Ed Gonzalez (Slant) faults the flat conversations: "Lucas' toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around." Roger Friedman (Fox News) says that Yoda "literally saves Episode II from quicksand," but then complains, "What's completely missing … is any jauntiness or sense of fun, camaraderie or purpose. This second generation of Star Wars characters all sound like Keanu Reeves delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet."
"Mr. Lucas seems to have lost his boyish glee," agrees A.O. Scott (New York Times). "[Lucas] … has lost either the will or the ability to connect with actors, and his crowded, noisy cosmos is psychologically and emotionally barren." And Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "Here we are again: not entertained, not nearly enough, by an installment … that exhibits a chill, conservative grimness of purpose, rather than an excited thrill at the possibilities of cinematic storytelling."
But when Schwarzbaum says we, she's not speaking for a large portion of her peers. Some of Episode One's strongest naysayers come away impressed this time. Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat magazine, writes, "I have been one of Episode I's most outspoken critics for the last three years. [It's] … one of the greatest disappointments in movie history." He agrees that Clones' dialogue is "cringe-inducing." But in spite of this, he's full of praise. "Clones is epic, entertaining, romantic and funny—it is a true Star Wars film. When I walked out of the screening, all I could think of is that I want to get right back in line to see Clones again."
Todd McCarthy (Variety) turns in an rave: "Virtually everything that went wrong in Menace has been fixed, or at least improved upon … The exposition and sense of storytelling are clearer and more economical, all the main characters have significant roles to play, the detailing of the diverse settings is far richer, the multitudinous action set-pieces are genuinely exciting, there is now the dramatic through-line provided by a love story, some of the acting is actually decent, and even the score is better."
"Clones is much better," agrees David Denby (The New Yorker). "Digital invention is becoming grander, wilder, more free-spirited. Lucas and his computer artists have a ball with the climactic scene … The mayhem is delirious fun."
Two weeks ago, David Poland (The Hot Button) wrote, "George Lucas takes a movie world obsessed with CG and big images and tops every single film ever made going away. The story moves in surprising and clever ways as well as in obvious and expected ones." This week, he insists, "No film has ever come close to [Clones'] visual complexity and beauty."
What do the film's fans have to say about the weaknesses? "If it can be easily faulted for cardboard characters and clunky dialogue," writes Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune), "then it should be recalled that these are defects of the entire series—which takes most of its cues from the old Flash Gordon serials, as clunky and cardboard as they come. This is visual storytelling of a high order, and though we've heard and seen it all before, it has never been with quite this childlike awe and incredible elaboration. The movie keeps topping itself, not dramatically, but with one pure, explosively delivered, ripely detailed action set-piece after another. This is a landmark film, for technological bravura … if nothing else. Clones celebrates a certain youthful spirit in both moviemaking and movie watching; because it's as much phenomenon as movie, audiences will either ride with or reject it. I was happy to take the ride."
After I stay up for the late-night showing on Thursday, I'll post my opinion of the film at Looking Closer. Admittedly, Episode One suffered from bad acting and poor writing. Then again, so did 1993's Return of the Jedi. But I have to wonder—isn't griping about bad dialogue in a Star Wars film a little like pointing to artificial butter flavoring on movie popcorn? You can state the obvious, but why belabor the point? Lucas's work in screenwriting and directing actors has always been substandard, and critics should indeed acknowledge that. But shouldn't they give more credit to his grasp of visual storytelling and his vision for harnessing technology and using it to free his imagination? These talents seem sorely undervalued and even ignored. Further, it is a rare wonder, the way that moral and spiritual truths are powerfully illustrated and communicated by the Star Wars stories. Like the Arthurian legends he so clearly reveres, Lucas is giving us an alternate history rich with parables.
I'd like to hear from you as well. Do you think the Force is a dangerous idea for moviegoers? Do you think Clones stands up to the series's best films, or sinks as low as the worst? Has Lucas lost it? And what, if anything, is meaningful about this particular episode? Send me a note.
(NOTE: If you plan to see the film, pay attention to where it's being shown. Several critics are exhorting viewers to seek out a theatre with a digital projection system. Alas, theses theatres are only available in certain cities. Jeffrey Wells raves about the digitally projected version: "It's roughly analogous to watching a well-mastered color film on a regular television, and then seeing it again on high-definition TV—the latter is obviously the way to go. Ideally, everyone should see Attack of the Clones this way. If you're near a big city that has a digital-projection theater showing Clones, make a point of seeing it there. Trust me—it's worth whatever the extra effort may be.")
The Lady and the Duke, while not boasting the most realistic special effects, delivers groundbreaking work, using digital technology to create cityscapes, landscapes, and interiors that look just like paintings that you'd see hanging in the Louvre. When the characters come to life in exterior scenes, it is difficult to see where the Paris backdrop (rendered by painter Jean-Baptiste Marot) stops and the real props begin. It is as though 18th-century museum art is waking up and moving about. It's a fresh and exciting effect.
Lucy Russell stars as Grace Elliott, an imperiled English gentlewoman who risks her life by remaining in Paris during the French Revolution. Revolutionaries warn her that she may not be spared on these mean streets that are already awash in blood. A barbaric mob is working its way from house to house killing aristocrats and shouting "Vive la Nation!" But Grace trusts that she'll be protected by her flirtatious friendship with Philippe, a high-ranking Duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus of Delicatessen) who insists, "I'm more French than bourbon!" Her romance with the Duke gives her not only safety, but the possibility of political influence. When a politically incorrect fugitive shows up at her door, Grace's Christian faith leads her to conceal him from the bloodthirsty hunters. Can she save the criminal? Grace thinks so. But she wants even more than that. She wants to persuade the Duke to use his political clout to prevent the execution of France's imprisoned King Louis XVI. The shadow of the guillotine looms over all of her risky endeavors, and every move she makes places her and her household of reluctant servants in danger.
Director Eric Rohmer is famous for his small-scale, intimate French comedies about love, sex, temptation, and faith (Claire's Knee, My Night at Maud's, Autumn Tale) rather than his period pieces (The Marquise of O, Perceval le Gallois). The comedies recall Shakespeare's own romantic capers with their mix of matchmaking, rumor-mongering, and misunderstanding. This film, however, is a more serious affair: a grim and ponderous two hours. His technique is recognizable; the film is short on action and long on exposition-heavy dialogue. We catch only glimpses of the violent conflict outside. But this is a film about the way that a hushed and private conversation shared over cups of tea can, in a few short hours, affect the behavior of a riotous crowd, and about how one person's action can change history.
By the end of the film, my nerves were raw and my admiration for Grace had grown considerably. She's one of the most courageous, kindhearted, and Christlike big-screen heroines we've seen since Susan Sarandon played Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. She has a few questionable habits—she plays at tarot cards (only half-seriously) and has led a life of questionable romantic liaisons—but her faith is clear in her speeches and in her selfless actions. Rohmer's rich, ambitious film is going to be on my short list of the year's best films.
"The Lady and the Duke is an engaging historical drama," says Bruce Donaldson (Movieguide). "Grace openly credits the resolve, mercy, and bravery shown both her friends and enemies in the face of a revolution gone wild to God and her faith in Him."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops complains that the film is unusual. "[The film] requires the audience's full concentration, which becomes tiresome as the film drags on past the two hour mark. … This visual style is somewhat ingenious, but instead of enhancing the main story, it detracts because it is so jarringly different from the usual."
Rohmer said in a recent interview, "I didn't make this film for any political reasons. I don't use it to defend any party, royalist or anti-royalist. On the other hand, I would like to help cultivate a taste for history in audiences, both old and young." It just might work. I know I'll never look at paintings of 18th-century France quite the same way again.
Director Adrian Lyne has made a career of directing films about lust. Unfaithful follows in kind, echoing 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Lolita in its portrayal of sexual intimacy and the consequences of illicit affairs. And, true to form, Lyne includes his usual soft-porn sex scenes, portraying in romanticized light the behavior that the story itself seems to condemn. This leaves some critics—both religious and mainstream—unsure whether the audience is supposed to be warned by the painful consequences, seduced by the glamorized fornication, or merely confused and poorer by another eight bucks.
Some religious press critics recommend the film for its strengths. At Dick Staub's Culture Watch, a reviewer raves, "The power of this film is in the clear portrayal of the irrationality of the unfaithful act and its irretrievable damage to all parties involved. This haunting movie gets at the emotional dynamics of unfaithfulness, and, if properly absorbed, could be a warning against the momentary pleasures of sin." And David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "We have all been there. We have all made choices that are wrong. And we have all experienced pain in broken relationships our choices bring. This film hits at the heart of the vulnerabilities in all of us. The movie has a sobering feel to it and leaves us facing the human condition in all of its reality."
"This story deals with both sides of the affair," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk), "and [it] shows the hurt and devastation everyone goes through as a result of adultery. Since it has sexual situations and shocking violence, this one is for mature adults only who can handle the controversial material."
Others argue that Unfaithful is irresponsible. A critic for the USCCB also praises Lane's "nuanced performance," but expresses reservations about the film's portrayal of marriage. "Unfaithful leaves the viewer with a sad feeling about marriage and true commitment. Even after the affair is over, [Connie and Edward] seem to be clinging to a past notion of happiness, unsure of how—or why—to move forward." Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporte) says, "I expect the main reason for attending would be to see a great deal of steamy sexual activity. But before you run off to the nearest cineplex, you should ask yourself if that reason is edifying. Is watching other people simulate sex going to help your marriage or strengthen your spiritual walk?" Paul Bicking (Preview) says, "Obscenities and strong profanity are used a number of times and, combined with graphic sexual content and nudity, renders Unfaithful unwatchable."
And then there are those who seem conflicted by the mix of pros and cons. Marie Asner (Phantom Tollbooth) calls the first half "virtually a soft-porn film," but then she argues that "minimal dialogue," Peter Biziou's camerawork, and an effective soundtrack "save Unfaithful." Jan Stallones (Movieguide) agrees that the sex scenes give the film a "seedy peep-show quality." And yet she says the film "is artistically very good. The characters are complex and terrifically performed."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the film itself portrays a double-mindedness. "Diane Lane's riveting turn as an unfaithful wife … carries this picture much further than it would have otherwise traveled. Her performance deserves to be seen. I'm only sorry that I can't say the same about the film itself. The truth that 'a double-minded man (or woman) is unstable in all his ways,' which we can find stated in James 1:8, is vividly portrayed here."
According to the reviews, there's nothing new about The New Guy. It's the latest in the unending stream of mediocre-to-bad comedies that stoop to the lowest, crassest humor to earn laughs. Social-reject Dizzy is the target of his high school classmates, until he gets a lesson in recklessness and cool from a prison inmate named Luther. Eventually, he uses his new talents to resolve conflicts between classmates, and then leads them in a violent charge against their rival school.
The USCCB critic writes, "The film … tries to paste a sappy, feel-good message about accepting yourself for who you are and not trying to impress others. But the only message that comes through loud and clear is that criminals give the best advice on how to succeed in school."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) sums it up: "In a word: drivel. This movie can't make up its mind what it wants to be and so the story completely flops. The acting reeks of late-night infomercials, and the action is about as stimulating as a traffic jam. Need a few more reasons to skip this one?" He offers more. Similarly, Phil Boatwright and Paul Bicking (Preview) condemn "crude sexual material, vulgar language and inappropriate moderate violence."
Next week: In the immortal words of Bill Murray, "Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars … "
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Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.