Star Wars Episode II:

and Chris Weitz

There’s a moment near the beginning of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, when Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) rush to stop an attempted assassination of the lovely Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), former queen of Naboo and current Galactic Republic senator. With two slashes from their light sabers, they fry the huge deadly wormlike creatures unleashed in the senator’s bedroom, then pause and look around the darkened chamber. Suddenly, Obi-Wan senses movement and, without thinking, hurls himself through a window—out into the night hundreds of stories high—to grasp the back end of the assassin’s flying pod.

That flying leap is everything Episode I: The Phantom Menace was not—impulsive, rousing, warmblooded—and it indicates that Attack of the Clones is not going to be as chilly and tedious an affair as George Lucas’ 1999 return to the Star Wars franchise. Here is a Jedi acting like the hero he’s been trained to be instead of a talky mentalist. Here is action at full throttle, Obi-Wan—swinging from his tough handhold—and Anakin zipping through the night-sky traffic in a stolen vehicle on an exhilarating chase amid skyscrapers, in a sequence that has the old-fashioned visceral kick of a roller-coaster ride, not the frantic, cerebral thumb-combat of a video game. And here is Lucas the control freak looking back to the flesh-and-blood adventure serials that inspired the first three Star Wars installments rather than diddling with the novel precisions of the computer screen, as he did in the fourth.

He doesn’t sustain this level of gut-thrill, but Attack of the Clones, for all its tangled exposition and horrible acting, is something a Star Wars movie hasn’t been in decades: entertaining. It’s 10 years after The Phantom Menace, and young Anakin is a pouty hunk still under the supervision of a now-bearded Obi-Wan. They are recruited to protect Padme from threats against her life, but the hotheaded Anakin has decided, even before he meets her again, that he has been in love with her since he was a talentless tot in the person of Menace’s Jake Lloyd. Meanwhile, a group of separatist planet-states that may be in cahoots with the (as-yet-unmanifested) Dark Side is becoming more of a hassle than the senate and the intergalactic peacekeeping cabal of Jedi knights can control. It’s the Balkanization of the universe, and let’s just say—to mix political metaphors—that Chechnya is not using the Force for good.

Attack of the Clones is split between love stuff and fight stuff, with some good thinky stuff in between. Amid Naboo’s magnificent faux-Venetian pleasure gardens, Anakin and Padme feebly fight the raging tide they hold inside in dialogue sequences that would make a cat laugh, if cats didn’t have better things to do than watch Portman spoil her beauty with every poorly delivered word. Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) stalks around the senate chamber, which looks like the lobby of a swank minimalist hotel, trying to control a fractious group that includes computer-generated statesmen, Jedi representative Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, one of the few actors who knows how fun indulging in all this deadly serious trivia should be), and a lost-looking Jimmy Smits, who seems to have escaped from a dinner-theater production of The Merchant of Venice and has maybe two lines.

This installment fills in some juicy back story for the later films, sending Obi-Wan to a storm-tossed planet where a clone army is being fitted for white helmets and teasing out the strains of arrogance and hair-trigger wrath in the young Anakin, who impulsively touts the glories of dictatorship to a surprised but not entirely repulsed Padme. (She rebuts him with boilerplate pro-democracy statements, but one gets the sense it’s Lucas talking back to one too many critics who called him a fascist.) And to the inevitable delight of fanboys, we meet a young Boba Fett and learn what grudge the future bounty hunter holds against the Jedis and all who sail in them.

The dialogue remains Lucas’ weak point: He can’t let a suspenseful moment pass without a lame wisecrack, the political wrangling is boring when it’s not confusing, and many talky scenes are stuck in the same mire that burdened Menace, thanks to awkward camera cutting and horrible blocking of the characters. But he approaches CGI as a vast playground, and Attack of the Clones romps through the imaginative possibilities of the technology with none of his previous see-what-we-can-do-now? remoteness. The various planetary climates are beautifully evoked, from deserty Tatooine to flowery Naboo to the eternally rainy home base of the clones. And the action sequences—airborne chases, a fun and nervy gladiatorial contest, the climactic multi-army clash—are grounded in the story and not the gadgetry. Thanks, George. Now will you please kill Jar Jar?

Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz, who co-directed American Pie, prove that they can harness a young-single-Hugh Grant-in-the-city romantic comedy with the finesse of any British-born smoothie. About a Boy is a sneaky charmer adapted from the Nick Hornby novel of the same name; their script puts the book’s dueling third-person narration into the mouths of the characters but leaves the story in London, where sleek yuppie self-satisfaction bangs up against earnest hippie melancholy with a frisson of class anxiety.

Grant stars as the vapid one-man island Will Freeman, 38-year-old set-for-life layabout who is using his free will and huge inheritance to buy himself expensive household gadgets, watch crappy game shows, and date beautiful women to whom he won’t commit. When Will stumbles onto the realization that there’s a whole city of young single mothers desperate for a sympathetic ear and needing physical reassurance, who are themselves too messed up to commit, he thinks he’s found the perfect con: Meet, flatter, roll in hay, part with bitten lip, and move on. So Will joins a single parents’ group and makes up a son and a harpy of an ex-wife—the impulsively fabricated details of whom make for heavy mental lifting—and finds blond Suzie (Victoria Smurfit) and angelic little Megan. They embark on a very funny picnic during which Will, in a postmodern Caesar haircut at once flattering and desperate, gleefully discovers that the Peter Pan-ish sensibility he puts to work entertaining toddlers comes more naturally than the caring grimace he affects for his dates’ single-mom sob stories.

Enter Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), son of Suzie’s friend Fiona (Toni Collette), a well-meaning earth mother suicidally depressed by the pressures of raising a 12-year-old with no support. Fiona has fashioned her child into the kind of geek school bullies dream of—earnest, naive, free from the coruscating irony that passes as a sense of humor in more sophisticated folks. Marcus fixes on the trendy, aimless Will as the perfect antidote to his mother’s unhappiness, so he drops by regularly after school until Will begins to see a connection between the playground hazings the boy endures daily and his own unmoored existence.

About a Boy is directed with sympathy and verve; the dialogue ricochets between the characters, and pudgy, pissed-off Marcus is never treated as an object of pity. Grant is more relaxed than he’s been in ages, playing Will as a man who imagines he’s one step ahead of the game and never realizes he’s woefully behind. The film is a life lesson for smug singles disguised as a romantic fairy tale: Who ends up with whom isn’t as important as the fact that connections are made and communities built, and the definition of “family” stretches as far as anyone who helps construct a bulwark against urban loneliness. CP