Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (Fox). Dreadful early reviews for the most anticipated movie of the year. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls the film "a chance for gifted actors to be handsomely paid for delivering the worst line readings of their careers … it is not really much of a movie at all, if by movie you mean a work of visual storytelling about the dramatic actions of a group of interesting characters." The Chicago Sun-Times'Roger Ebert, a defender of Episode I, says the special effects "didn't pop out and smack me with delight, the way they did in earlier films. There was a certain fuzziness, an indistinctness that seemed to undermine their potential power." How about the two romantic leads, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen? Scott: They're "timid and stiff, and uncertain of their diction. They alternate between the august tones of high-school Shakespeareans and the suburban soap-opera naturalism of Dawson's Creek." Ebert: "There is not a romantic word they exchange that has not long since been reduced to cliché." (For a rare positive notice, try Harry Knowles' review over on Ain't It Cool News.)—B.C.
Unfaithful (20th Century Fox). The big story here is Diane Lane, who draws raves for her portrayal of a suburban wife who cheats on her husband. "One comes out of the theater talking about her acting once fate and guilt douse the lights on her character's afterglow," says USA Today's Mike Clark. Aside from Lane, though, reviews are mixed. Some critics find the documentation of post-affair fallout compelling—a "sensational sex-and-its-consequences melodrama," says Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly—while others don't. "Lane's finely emotional presentation is ... one of the few things about [ Unfaithful ] that feel recognizably real," complains Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. (If you're worried that your own spouse is pulling a Diane Lane, click here to find a private detective who will "follow your significant other in a very discreet manner, anywhere he or she travels.")— B.M.L
The New Guy (Columbia). Reviews are so bad for this gross-out "geek-conquers-all fantasy" (Steven Rea, the Philadelphia Inquirer) starring the gangly DJ Qualls of Road Tripfame, it's a competition among critics for the most derogatory comment. The finalists (in no particular order): Rea ("I can't recall a film that cared less about plot and narrative than this mess. It's almost an expressionist meta-parody, except that, well, it's not"); the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington (a "truly awful movie, made from one of the worst scripts in memory"); New Times Los Angeles' Robert Wilonsky ("[B]est watched through squinted eyes and slotted fingers," it's "an ugly-duckling tale so hideously and clumsily told it feels accidental"). (Click here for the film's Web site. Maybe it's funny.)—A.B.
The Lady and the Duke (Sony Pictures Classics). Solid notices for this latest release from talky French auteur Eric Rohmer. Based on the moral that "a friendship can survive anything" (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker) and set during the French Revolution, the film "stars Lucy Russell as a Scottish aristocrat who uses her wiles on Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), to further her own political and sexual agenda" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). Critics laud Rohmer's characters—"at once entirely real and utterly of their time"—and his substitution of a set for a painted background: He "manages to evade both the stuffy antiquarianism and the pandering anachronism that subvert so many cinematic attempts at historical inquiry" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here for a comprehensive Rohmer fan site and here for Anne Applebaum's take on this year's French Revolution.)—A.B.
The Piano Teacher (Kino International). Whip-snappingly strong reviews for this French film about "a hard, taut, unmarried music teacher (Isabelle Huppert) who bullies her students at the Vienna Conservatory, comes home to a claustrophobic, sadomasochistic relationship with her old mother (Annie Girardot), and gets off on porn, peeping, and self-mutilation" (Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). "Huppert, whose masklike face seethes with rage, gives a classic account of repression and sexual hypocrisy." And though "[t]his is a genuinely shocking movie (one scene of self-mutilation is hard to take)," it's "supremely intelligent too and there isn't a trace of sensationalism" (David Denby, The New Yorker). Upsetting but wise, the film's "saddest message may be that art and life are not the same and should not be confused" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). (Click here to view the trailer and here for David Edelstein's contrarian take.)— A.B.
The Seal Wife, by Kathryn Harrison (Random House). Mostly strong reviews for this novel about a Caucasian man who moves to Alaska to run a weather observatory and becomes romantically involved with a silent Aleut woman. Despite a lukewarm notice by Gillian Flynn in Entertainment Weekly (the characters remain "coldly remote"), People's Joyce Cohen raves: "[Its] startling story twists are borne along by prose as austere and powerful as Alaska's icescape." And the New York Times' reliable Michiko Kakutani agrees, saying that by taking on "the subject of passion and its capacity to warp or derail a life," Harrison "not only makes us understand the destructive consequences of sexual obsession, but also makes us appreciate its power to shape an individual's sense of self, its ability to inspire and perhaps even to redeem the past." (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.
Ashanti, by Ashanti Douglas (Universal). Tempered approval for this 21-year-old rookie, famous for singing the infectious chorus to Ja Rule's hit "Always on Time." Some critics call her "dulcet" voice (Steve Jones, USA Today) "the perfect radio-ready R&B instrument" (Kris Ex, Rolling Stone). Yet others imply she takes the easy way out. "Ashanti made her entrée into R&B the new-fashioned way: by lending coy hooks to jagged-edged rappers." And "[s]he doesn't stray too far from formula [here], duetting with Ja Rule on 'Leaving' [and] using an El DeBarge sample made famous by Biggie Smalls on 'Foolish.' But she should aim higher. Her voice is supple and pretty but rarely rises above a whisper, making it a background instrument even when it's [her] turn to shine" (Jon Caramanica, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for an Ashanti interview. Buy.)— A.B.
Alice and Blood Money, by Tom Waits (Anti-). Solid reviews for both of Waits' new albums. Written as theatrical scores for a collaboration with stage director Robert Wilson, "these records bloom on their own," says David Fricke in Rolling Stone. Critics appreciate the "deliriously out-of-time jazzbo noir world" (Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly) of Waits' musical genre-hopping, which ranges from "Weimar Republic cabaret to bluesy scrap yard symphonies, sentimental, nostalgic parlor ballads to clattering cartoon soundtracks" (Richard Cromelin, the Los Angeles Times). Also praised are Waits' lyrics, which demonstrate "a gift for language that is alternately haunting and hilarious" (Billboard) and his famous pipes. "Waits' ravaged voice surrendered all pretensions to melody ages ago; his throat is now pure theater, a weapon of pictorial emphasis and raw honesty," says Fricke. (Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2 of an extensive 1999 interview with Waits. Buy and.)— B.M.L.
Trey Anastasio, by Trey Anastasio (Elektra). Reviewers are shocked to find that they like this solo effort from the Phish guitarist. "Trey Anastasio is, against the odds, a pretty rad album," says Spin's Will Hermes. The album's best features seem to be its focus—"closely packed with urgent horn breaks and friendly guitar solos, Anastasio's new songs are less diffuse than his old roomy improv workouts" (Marc Weingarten, Entertainment Weekly)—and a "supertight" eight-piece band (Arion Berger, Rolling Stone) that creates "an ebullient musical Mardi Gras" (Weingarten) in which Anastasio's "juicy string-bending is just one flavor among many" (Hermes). While the record will almost certainly please Phish fans, Berger says it "may also entrance dabblers whose only contact with Phish is their incarnation as a Ben and Jerry's ice-cream flavor." (Click here for one of the notoriously comprehensive Phish fan Web sites. Buy.)— B.M.L.
Title TK, by the Breeders (4AD/Elektra). Business 2.0's Michael Hogan sums this record up perfectly: "Fans have been waiting since 1993 for the Breeders to release a new album, which explains the irresolute title (it's not a typo)." Here, "[h]ard-living twin sisters Kim and Kelley Deal resurrect their special brand of melodically seductive indie rock." And critics are equally enthusiastic. "This is hot, scratchy, burdened un-rock, and one horribly sad album: Despite the frequent jokes in the lyrics, Title TK is almost painfully intimate. Kim's girlish (or is it boyish?) voice grinds sweetly, weariedly, sloppily inside your brain" (Arion Berger, Rolling Stone). Plus, the band's "timing is oddly fortuitous; with bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes, indie-rock ideals have swung back into vogue" (Ethan Smith, the New York Times). (Click here for audio and video of the band. Buy.)— A.B.
The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones, by Old Dirty Bastard (D3). Incarceratingly bad reviews for this third album from rap's favorite con. "With a real life more chaotic than any of the ones depicted on his crazed recordings, this Wu-Tang Clan member must have patched together his third album in between trips to rehab and prison." Worse, "he seems like a guest on his own project": "[A] bevy of cameos from less charismatic rappers and the collection's B-level production create their own set of tribulations—for listeners" (Soren Baker, the Los Angeles Times). Sure, "[t]he record does indeed feature some of ODB's "inimitable fever-pitch rhymes over some intermittently catchy tracks." But "the album as a whole is a scrapped-together mishmash of disconnected rap snippets, gratuitous guest appearances, and questionable production" (Troy Carpenter, Billboard). (Click here for a Web site devoted to freeing ODB from jail.)— A.B.