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Who’s your daddy: (l-r) Grant and Hoult in About a Boy.

Father Figure
By Laura Leon

About a Boy
Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz

It practically screams Hallmark, what with its conceit of a cold, insensitive man becoming decidedly more human through his encounter with a sweet, sensitive 12-year old. I nearly couldn’t make it into the theater. But then again, it’s directed and co-written (with Peter Hedges) by those guys who did American Pie, so how schmaltzy could it be? If anything, I figured I was more likely to be grossed out than overcome by saccharine.

Ultimately, it’s a good thing that Paul and Chris Weitz adapted Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy, and that they retained its English setting. This combination of elements somehow keeps the movie from being too cute, and too commercialized. The result is charming, and I mean that in the most positive way.

Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is 37, living on the plentiful royalties from his father’s one-hit Christmas ditty, immersed in nothing but his own care and maintenance. Dividing his days into half-hour increments, he blocks three units on hair styling, three on exercise (billiards), two on lunch and many on dates. He stumbles upon the notion that single mums make for great affairs—they’re needy, but too guilty to commit to anything long-term—which is how he inadvertently meets 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a preteen mess of uncool looks and behavior. The boy divides his time between trying to survive the taunts of schoolyard bullies and helping his mother, Fiona (Toni Collette), overcome her emotional breakdowns. In Will he sees not so much a rescuer as a much-needed addition to his insubstantial support system.

Of course, Will doesn’t want anything to do with Marcus, or Fiona, whom he deems a “granola suicide.” But upon witnessing students’ cruelty to Marcus, this narcissist grasps something that Fiona, for all her good intentions, can’t fathom. Reluctantly, he allows Marcus into his life, going so far as to buy him a cool pair of Skechers (which get stolen) and a rap CD, knowing that these minor items can mean so much more to a boy (and to his cool quotient) than Fiona’s well-meaning advice on vegetarianism. Will tries, for a time, to capitalize on Marcus as a sort of accessory for the well-groomed single man-about-town, but succeeds only in proving to himself what a shallow being he is.

Throughout About a Boy, the Weitz brothers maintain a sweet, uncloying tone that, combined with thoroughly winning performances by its leads and a very snappy sense of humor, makes you root for the characters in spite of your initial misgivings. How many movies can you name for which the heart-stopping climax involves whether somebody can be prevented from singing “Killing Me Softly” in front of a high school audience? For that matter, how many movies of similar ilk aren’t predicated on transforming a lead character’s life via a credit-card-busting shopping spree? About a Boy is actually shocking in its avoidance of market-driven clichés: Marcus will never be as good looking or with-it as Will, Fiona will never forsake her earthy-crunchy mien, and in spite of his nifty gadgets and accessories, Will really isn’t all that interesting.

How We Suffered

The Son’s Room
Directed by Nanni Moretti

In The Son’s Room, director, co-writer and star Nanni Moretti takes his audience deep into the shallow, placid minutiae of one middle-class family’s life. They live in a pretty Italian port town in which even the commercial docks and container ships are picture-perfect. They eat. They sleep. They gently parry each other in minor, nearly tensionless conflicts. They sit down in the evening to discuss the day each has had. The father, Giovanni (Moretti), is an imperturbable psychoanalyst as reserved with his patients as with his family. The mother, Paola (Laura Morante), works in an art gallery and still finds time to cook lovely family meals. Daughter Irene (Jasmine Trinca) is a basketball player with a pothead boyfriend, and son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) prefers scuba diving and pop music.

After a half-hour of this, especially once the whole family joins in a pop-song sing-along in the car, it’s clear something terrible is going to happen. In fact, it had better. There is only so much bland happiness the average moviegoer can be expected to endure. So the bad thing happens, and as a result, the family is deeply wounded. From this moment on, the movie becomes a study of pain, dissolution, and the ways people attempt to find healing.

This is when Moretti’s method starts to become clear. We’re no longer watching Dad serve the lasagna, plate by plate, to everyone at the table while discussing a missing fossil. We’re watching the family’s horror as a workman solders the metal lining of a coffin shut, and then screws, with a noisy, whining power drill, every screw into the wooden lid of the box with terrible finality.

Giovanni can no longer bear to listen to his neurotic patients. In a nicely drawn reversal, one man who has been suicidal becomes physically ill, giving him a reason to live; Giovanni is not pleased. Paolo is compelled to talk about the tragedy at odd times and in inappropriate places. Their breakdown is calibrated with the same close attention as their happiness was.

The question is, does this technique play out well over the course of the film? Partially. Just through sheer directorial doggedness, we follow these people, and are drawn to their story out of an intellectual curiosity about what their ultimate fate will be. Yet at times, it seems like there’s no there there. The family is not intrinsically interesting. The plot does include the minimum number of narrative twists to be officially certified as a “story,” but Moretti’s insistence on making everything “real” means too many scenes are bloodless and random. Is it entertaining, or rewarding? Yes and no.

Does the family find again the peace of the bland they enjoyed so quietly? Whether or not you care by the end of film is the measure of how well Nanni Moretti ultimately succeeds.

—Shawn Stone

Old Stellar

Star Wars: Episode Two: The Attack of the Clones
Directed by George Lucas

The good news: Ewan MacGre- gor, Christopher Lee, the art direction and special visual effects, some battles, Natalie Portman’s action costume, minimal screen time for Jar Jar Binks, and C3PO gets decapitated.

The bad news: plotting déjà vu, other battles, John Williams’ score, cartoonish aliens, Natalie Portman’s early hairstyles, Jar Jar Binks doesn’t get his ears lopped off and his throat cut, C3PO still doesn’t shut up.

This episode of the most commercially successful movie serial of all time ranks high in its digital visuals and is far better than the numbingly dumb Episode One (which surely would have spawned no series had it indeed been the first one produced). But that comparison is faint praise. All of Episode Two looks splendid, and several sequences produce a sense of awe that the original Star Wars introduced. The story, however, is moribund and gives the title an unintended meaning. Too much has been cloned from previous Star Wars films and other films of the genre. At least on his first time out, George Lucas was inspired, he says, by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and had something to draw from. This time out there are few exciting twists and a scarcity of inventiveness in the conflicts—certainly not enough to compete with the best of sci-fi action films.

The superficially complicated, but actually simplistic, story involves a plot to assassinate former queen, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), who is now a senator in the Republic. She is protected by the Jedi knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (MacGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen), mentor and student, respectively. Not only must Anakin deal with his growing disaffection for Obi-Wan, but he must also deal with his growing love for Padmé, an emotion forbidden by the Jedi code. Sound familiar?

There is also the matter of a separatist movement that is threatening the Republic, and the Republic’s disturbing reliance on cloned warriors (shown in a nifty shot that suggests Nazi forces) to help the Jedi turn back the evil tide. There’s interesting material here, but it doesn’t get sufficiently exploited.

Of the visuals: There are stunning backgrounds and environments that are cloned, stolen or inspired by Maxfield Parrish paintings, and there are remarkable cityscapes with airborne traffic in the grand tradition of Metropolis and Blade Runner. The former is the setting for some very silly and boring love scenes; the latter is used to terrific effect for the film’s best action, a dizzying chase through the congested airways between the skyscrapers. Here, there is simultaneously a sense of sweeping lateral movement and vertiginous vertical drops; unfortunately, this happens early in the film. All that will rival it later are two sequences: a gladiatorial pitting of Padmé, Obi-Wan and Anakin against three nasty creatures, and a flashy laser fight between Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) that is cut off too soon. But it is satisfying to see Lee join the ranks as one of the series’ most worthy villains, and it is fitting that his character should serve as a predecessor for Star Wars’ best villain, the totalitarian Moff Tarkin, who was played to perfection by Lee’s former colleague in horror, Peter Cushing.

Again MacGregor does solid work and manages to make us believe that his younger Obi-Wan could grow into the Obi-Wan that was played by that other old master, Alec Guinness.

In some places, the spacecraft and architecture make the later, supposedly more advanced Star Wars look less sleekly futuristic. But I’m sure there are legions of fans who can explain this away with the same ease that they can justify why the ambling, cane-assisted Yoda can turn into an airborne dynamo.

—Ralph Hammann

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