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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It opens with a scary act of sabotage and an aerial-hot-rod chase amid futuristic skyscrapers, a happy reminder of the Saturday-matinee serials out of which this saga was born. Mostly, though, the giddiness of the first Star Wars trilogy is gone, replaced by turgid pageantry tricked to life with gargantuan amounts of computer-generated busyness. Apart from campy interjections during action sequences, the tone throughout is solemnly portentous, the diction public even in private, the characters aquiver with a patrician sense of duty. George Lucas is attempting nothing less than an epic saga of the corruption of Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader)—a project more ambitious, in its way, than Lawrence ofArabia (1963). But his grasp of character, politics, and, for that matter, filmmaking remains on the level of Flash Gordon.
The Triumph of Love. Clare Peploe's adaptation of Marivaux's 1732 comedy juggles the language of theater and cinema more buoyantly than anything since Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute. The play itself isn't the thing, but it will do: A midsummer romantic cross-dressing romp, its satiric target is fear of feeling, its aim the conciliation of reason and emotion, its most obvious antecedent As You Like It. Employing a hand-held, 16-millimeter camera, Peploe finds the perfect perspective for every scene: Now she pulls back and the actors play it big, so you can feel their relish for showy theatrical artifice; now she comes in close, using jump cuts creating a nervous intimacy possible only in movies. As a self-serious philosopher and his spinster sister, Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw are the most perfect commedia stooges imaginable. And who would have thought that Mira Sorvino could look like a classically trained actress?
Changing Lanes.Taut morality play about two men who, after a fender bender that leaves each of them compromised, engage in a compulsive tit-for-tat revenge scenario. The point of view is deeply liberal-humanist, with the sort of social conscience you rarely encounter in a modern American thriller: It could be the cornerstone of a Vigilantes Anonymous. Director Roger Michell's tight framing reinforces the high psychological stakes, and the performances are smart and focused. Even Ben Affleck comes through, butting up against his own limitations to convey his character's sudden helplessness.
Human Nature. The title suggests that the picture is going to be a little generic, and there isn't really a plot per se—just a setup and a lot of jokes. But the French-financed film, from a script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), is often a riot, and the psycho-farce sensibility is all there. The struggle here is nominally between civilization and animal instinct, neither entirely hospitable to human nature; but the central characters have been so thoroughly screwed up by parents that it's hard to imagine them comfortable in any realm, human or wild. Dull performances by Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette, but a star-making turn by Rhys Ifans.
Frailty. Bill Paxton's directorial debut is a weird but unnerving little horror stunt, a piece of Grand Guignol religiosity that's like a blend of The TexasChainsaw Massacre and Breaking the Waves. On the proverbial dark and stormy night, a man (Matthew McConaughey) shows up at the Dallas office of the FBI agent (Powers Boothe) in charge of a serial-killer hunt to announce that his brother—who has just committed suicide—is the culprit. He goes on recount the story of his loving dad (Paxton), an auto mechanic who regarded himself as God's executioner, and the tortured relationship between the son who thought his father was nuts and the son who believed with all his heart.
Spider-Man. At its best, Sam Raimi's adaptation of the '60s Marvel Comic (from a script by David Koepp) takes the adolescent yearning at the heart of most superhero sagas and gives it a lovely swing. In part this is thanks to Tobey Maguire, who has a wary, uninsistent presence. He internalizes everything, which is perfect for a character who doesn't have any awareness of his body until a genetically altered spider sinks its fangs into him and he delights in his new muscles and sticky excretions. Maguire has a shy, delicate rapport with Kirsten Dunst as the sexy girl-next-door, but less chemistry with Willem Dafoe, who's awful as the jet-surfing Green Goblin. At key intervals, the movie gives way to a video game in which a cartoon man in a spider suit swings along the avenues. This is the rare comic-book blockbuster that's better in the scenes without special effects.
Y Tu Mamá También. Alfonso Cuarón's terrific new film is a teen sex comedy astride a grave. What's marvelous isn't its uninhibited carnal gropings, its narrator's persistently sociopolitical interjections, or even its storyline, in which two horny teen-age boys embark on a road trip to a beach paradise with a 30ish woman, who ends up teaching them a lesson about the impermanence of life. It's all of the above. It's the weave. It's the way Cuarón demonstrates how a simple love triangle can suddenly blossom into a study of sexual mores, a political allegory, a song of lamentation—and still be breezy and funny and sexy as hell.
Blade II. Just when you thought that television's wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer had used up all the martial-arts ways of vaporizing vampires, here's Guillermo del Toro's savagely kinetic splatterfest to open your eyes. Blade is back, and this time he's helping the vampires fend off an even more demonic race—bald, eastern-European types whose heads spit open to reveal … some gunky sucking stuff. An allegory of blacks and Jews? Hope not. There's no script to speak of, but del Toro devises every battle to wow even the most jaded martial-arts mavens; the dissolutions and implosions are beautiful.
Monsoon Wedding. Director Mira Nair shot this teeming ensemble comedy (set in Delhi) cheaply and fast, but the gorgeous colors and music and swirling silks leave you with a feeling of riches. There is a theme—how an elaborate Punjabi wedding ceremony seems out of sync with the society's increasingly Westernized mores. But don't let that scare you off; it's mostly pitched at the level of Fiddler on the Roof, with lots of singing, dancing, and other conventions imported from the effervescent "Bollywood" genre.