Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Get Lucas a Cattle Prod

Submitted by Melinda Murphy

God help us, the annual summer blockbuster season is here. Have you noticed it comes earlier and earlier?

In the stalwart tradition of an ex-movie critic, I decided to see a few of the new releases. I'm way too fond of my VCR - the relationship is becoming obsessive. So, I returned to big, dark places full of sticky floors and strangers who will not shut up.

It being May '02, I had to get the juggernaut out of the way. Juggernaut is what my favorite comic, Denis Leary, called Titanic. And he was right. Mainstream films are so bloated, so expensive and so over-done, they need a company logo, a dozen lawyers and good lighting just for the press junket. So I gave in and saw Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

The ass-numbing effort reminded me of carnie show rides. When I was 12, I got on a ride, liked it for about five minutes; but when it speeded up, things started swinging at my head and I started sliding out of my seat and then - I just wanted to get off.

The special effects in Attack of the Clones are like that. Things fly at your face and after awhile you just want it to stop before the headache starts. There's either a mechanical whatsit or an enraged creature lunging at the audience every five minutes for two hours and twelve minutes.
I'm not sure if Lucas' mid-life crisis, a hidden drug problem, or enough money to roll around in built the foundation for this film and its depressing predecessor, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

The dialogue? God, what happened, George? Where are the memorable one-liners like "Well excuse me, your worshipfulness?" I had no idea that Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson could be that boring. They do voice-overs on car commercials with more verve.

Character development? There isn't any. I was so annoyed by C3P0 and R2D2 that I hoped one of the angry grasshopper critters would finish them off. C3P0 was cute in the earlier films, but now his plumy Brit accent and incessant whining had me fantasizing about him getting stomped into the stadium ground by an angry whatsit. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen were no better, but it's not their fault. Everybody is wooden and dull; even the computer-generated characters have poor line delivery.

Plot? It's even worse than I feared. While in the first one, it turned out our heroes' struggles were precipitated by a trade dispute (NAFTA in space), this story stumbles from point to point. Politicians vie for power and somebody's lying, though it's easy to forget exactly who (think Watergate). The characters blather on in monotone; an assistant director should have randomly zapped the actors with a cattle prod just to get a screech out of them!

The romantic sub-plot is butt awful. Pull two socks out of a dryer and rub them together - they will have more energy between them than Anikan and the former-Queen-turned-Senator. At one point, they're frolicking - on I forget which planet - running in alpine meadows. For a second I thought I was watching The Sound of Music. Most of the time, Anikan utters forgettable, awkward lines that might as well have been written by one of Lucas' adopted kids; kind of how a fourteen year-old would imagine great love.

The only up side to this mess, is one of the last scenes where Yoda - that's right - Yoda takes on one of the heavies in a light saber duel. I don't think Lucas intended this response, but it was like watching Kermit the Frog do Kung Fu. The kids in the front row were howling with laughter.
Lucas decided that good writing and editing are needless details that would only hinder a story better suited to the Sci-Fi Channel on a Sunday night. Speaking of cable television, one of the characters even makes mention of "spice mining" - is Lucas scamming the venerable Frank Herbert?

Thank God I saw something coherent before I saw Attack of the Clones - the new Hugh Grant vehicle, About a Boy, which is a wonderful surprise, like a torte that tastes as good as it looks. Yeah, it's fluffy but it was fun, not an ordeal that you don't want to run out of water during.
Grant plays a useless, wealthy cad who has frittered away his life chasing chicks and shopping for compact discs. He meets a kid and the kid gradually weasels his way into the cad's life, changing him forever, and helping him develop empathy for someone other than himself. Grant's dead-on in this role, just like he was in Bridget Jones' Diary, and maybe that's not a compliment.

The plot and character development are good. Aussie Toni Collette is brilliant as a screwball London hippie who feeds her kid soymilk and "Ancient Grains" cereal for breakfast, tells him he's "not a sheep" and then sends him off to school in enough wool and organic fiber to make him look like a rainbow-colored lamb. Grant's character meets her through a self-help group that made me laugh out loud - S.P.A.T. or Single Parents Alone Together. The subtle pokes at contemporary life, which earn giggles and some serious laughs, are reminiscent of Fight Club. When Grant's character is doing a voice-over about a frightening ride to an emergency room, he doesn't hesitate to say it was scary "but driving really fast behind the ambulance was fun!" It's exactly this sort of black, poking-at-political-correctness humor that made flicks like The Opposite of Sex a classic.

It's sad that the entertainment biz continually disappoints with warring egos spewing crap like Attack of the Clones, when you consider that the movie's budget was bigger than Zaire's gross national product. Or, better yet - and this has been said before - for what it costs to make one summer blockbuster, Hollywood could produce two dozen independent films.


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