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Save this movie I could not: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Not With a Bang
By Shawn Stone

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Directed by George Lucas

Watching the final installment of the Star Wars series this week was the most thoroughly demoralizing moviegoing experience I’ve had in the last couple of decades.

Of course, the movie sucked, just like the last two: If one expected anything else from George Lucas at this point, then one is a moron. But that’s only part of it. After all, there have been many movies worse than Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (though few with as cumbersome a title). Assorted box-office hacks have had entire careers triumph, crash and burn in the time it has taken tardy Lucas to tell the story of Jedis and Siths and droids and freaks. As much-loved epic sagas go, there have been grander failures, like Francis Coppola’s The Godfather Part III or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix Revolutions. What makes the Star Wars disaster so painful—and there’s no more appropriate description for the three “prequel” films—is that the whole mess could have been avoided if Lucas weren’t such a self-absorbed doofus.

Unlike the Matrix trilogy, which had a storyline obviously cobbled together, as fast as possible, after the first flick was a hit, Lucas had plenty of time to work out the arc of his galactic saga. Unlike Coppola, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford Robert Duvall for the final Godfather film, Lucas has had all the money he would ever need to make whatever he wanted.

Unfortunately, Lucas’ inner geek did him in. First, there’s the matter of his certifiable digital insanity. Lucas has said that he finds it freeing to work with completely computer-generated special effects. Unfortunately, in Revenge of the Sith (as in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones), this makes the entire picture seem as unreal and uninteresting as watching someone else play a video game. Nothing is grounded in reality.

And the “freedom” hasn’t done any favors for Lucas’ endearingly simplistic world view or visual sense. The first Star Wars film didn’t have any red in its color scheme because Lucas was afraid fading film stock would turn red to brown in a matter of years. Sith is awash in the color as a painfully obvious representation of evil. The future emperor’s pad is red. The planet where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes, spiritually, Darth Vader, is a hellish, volcanic red. OK, OK George: We freakin’ get it.

The dumb design wouldn’t be so annoying if the script weren’t awful. But it is. Like Phantom Menace, it’s a solo Lucas effort; why not hire someone who could actually write dialogue? (And not the fellow who cowrote Clones, whose other best-known cinematic credit is The Scorpion King.) It’s hard to fault Christensen for his abysmal performance with lines like “Join me, Padme, and together we can rule the galaxy.” Ouch.

The problems with the script are more profound than just tin-ear dialogue. Lucas has forgotten how to introduce characters, or build tension, or structure parallel action . . . in short, how to write a screenplay.

This movie seems to have pleased the hardcore fans, probably because it’s dark and slightly less awful than the last two; these kind of folks will accept any crumbs from the master’s table. It will be interesting to see if the public buys it, too, or whether Revenge of the Sith enjoys the empty theaters it deserves.

The Attention You Deserve

Look at Me

Directed by Agnès Jaoui

Look at Me is an acutely ob - served ensemble piece regarding a famous writer, his unhappy daughter, her voice teacher, and the teacher’s writer-husband. And the famous writer’s second wife. And the daughter’s journalist boyfriend. But though these talented Parisians, who spend most of the film jostling for attention from each other, are sensitively and realistically presented—Look at Me was voted Best Screenplay at Cannes last year—they are only marginally interesting and barely likeable. Cowritten by two of its stars, Agnès Jaoui and her ex-husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri, this dawdling French film comes off like a mundane and diluted Woody Allen film (wan shades of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy, without the sex). More than once, its writer characters complain of the boorishness of the party they’re attending. But they themselves are the biggest boors, a fact that the audience will discern long before the other characters do.

Jaoui is a skillful, if unimaginative, director, and a good actress. She plays Sylvia, a music teacher who supports her morose writer husband, Pierre (Laurent Grèvill). She also donates her time to an amateur choral group. One of the choristers is Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry), 20-year-old daughter of Etienne Cassard, the famous writer (Bacri). Etienne is rude, callous and dictatorial, but also critically acclaimed and financially set, which is presumably why his beautiful young second wife (Virginie Desarnauts) puts up with him. Lolita has a harder time of it. She assumes that her father is uninterested in her because she is fat (though she’s not at all plain), when actually, Etienne is just bored by fatherhood, which can’t compare to the excitement of agonizing about writer’s block or espying pretty girls at parties.

Lolita uses her father’s fame to attract attention and further her own interests, and is used for her celebrity connection in return, justifying her opinion that no one likes her for herself. She provides Sylvia with entrance to Etienne’s social circle, and the proximity helps Pierre to sell his latest book. Although Pierre is on the wrong side of 30 to be regarded as “the voice of the new generation,” as one TV host calls him, Look at Me gets many other things right, especially Lolita’s pampered but sincere efforts to be more of her own person. But all the interpersonal tug-and-shove serves no end, and the film’s naturalism crosses the line into sheer tedium. No one can accuse the screenwriters of producing dialogue that’s too pithy and witty to be spoken by real people: Within this self-serving circle, almost every conversation is either cranky or insipid. Annoyingly enough, a cell phone call figures into almost every scene. And there’s no purpose whatsoever for characters such as Etienne’s dim-witted lackey and Pierre’s clueless, batty publisher—other than to weary the audience with lesser lights. Not that Etienne is any blazing comet of charisma.

Simmering resentments among all concerned boil over during a weekend party at Etienne’s nondescript country house, but by then, the only characters we can sympathize with are the ones who leave early.

—Ann Morrow

Six Characters in Search of a Better Screenplay

Off the Map

Directed by Campbell Scott

Campbell Scott showed his affinity for the spoken word, and for letting actors carve out distinctive, flawed characters, in the underseen The Secret Lives of Dentists; at times, that film felt like watching one’s own marriage, or that of a good friend’s, in stark, painstaking relief. With Off the Map, adapted by Joan Ackerman from her own play, he once again proves his affection for words and actors, which should be a good thing, given the presence of Joan Allen and Sam Elliott, but which, instead, proves weighty and dead—the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.

Set in the early ’70s in New Mexico, the film depicts Arlene (Allen) and Charley (Elliott) Groden, neo-hippies who subsist “off the map” on VA checks and the meager proceeds of their art. Then one day an FBI agent, Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), stumbles across them, having searched for days, in order to question them on their lack of tax returns for seven years. Turns out that Gibbs is no mere G-man, but a frustrated artist who, like the near catatonic Charley, suffers from depression. A bee sting fells the allergic Gibbs, who, upon recovery, declares his love for Arlene and decides to reinvigorate his latent artistic leanings by living and working within the family. A voice-over narration by Amy Brenneman, as the Groden’s now-grown daughter Bo (played throughout by Valentina de Angelis) provides dreamy, nonsensical yet pretty-sounding accompaniment to what might otherwise or in other hands be called the plot, but which herein is a series of blank nonhappenings.

Time after time while watching Off the Map I couldn’t help but think that I was at an experimental reading of a stage play, and I half expected to be surrounded by intense types, mostly relatives and lovers, who were paying strict attention to the proceedings at hand—as if their intensity could overcome the sheer badness of what was being watched. Admittedly, it is painful to see wonderful actors deliver lines with such intensity, clearly overjoyed with the meatiness of their offbeat characters; Allen, in particular, relishes the chance to doff her usual steely gentility and reach deeper into something earthy and sensual. But these characters have nowhere to go. Neither Ackerman nor Scott have delved deep enough into the story to provide it with, well, a story. The pretexts of meaning—Brenneman’s moony monologues—do little to imbue any depth or meaning. And so, eventually, the characters—again, the only possibly redeeming feature of this movie—are little more than folksy archetypes, and certainly not capable of providing Off the Map with much-needed blood and guts.

—Laura Leon

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