Weekly DVD/Video Picks

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999) Eagerly anticipated after a 16-year hiatus, the first installment in a new trilogy of Star Wars “prequels” has justly been both praised and derided. No Star Wars film is more flawed — and no film has taken us to imaginary worlds at once so boldly conceived and so grandly realized.

Character design is worthy of the legacy of Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt, from Vader forerunner Darth Maul, cutting a satanic figure as a horned, red-skinned Sith lord tough enough to fight two Jedis at once, to obese, spluttering Boss Nass and pratfalling Jar-Jar, to a host of wacky creatures intended, like Ewoks, to appeal to kids. Unfortunately, these kid-centric elements aggravate other problems. Why is the tone so serious and weighty, the dialogue so formal and devoid of lighthearted banter?

Despite its flaws, The Phantom Menace remains an enjoyable film, one that establishes the foundations of the Star Wars universe for the rest of the films.

Content advisory: Stylized sci-fi battle and combat violence.

Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002)

Though it still doesn't recapture the charm of the original trilogy, Attack of the Clones improves on its predecessor, The Phantom Menace, combining more enjoyable characterizations and dialogue and better-paced storytelling with even more dazzling imagery in its continuing tale of the lad who grows up to be Darth Vader. Once again, spectacle is paramount, and Clones offers a more satisfying look at the astounding worlds only glimpsed in Phantom Menace. There's a lot of action, of course, including two sequences (a dizzy aerial chase scene and a big coliseum sequence) that, more than anything in Star Wars history, evoke the series’ matinee inspirations, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

Clones also offers intriguing moral implications. Marriage and celibacy are both depicted as valid institutions (the Jedi are celibate, and there is a wedding, complete with two witnesses), and the film even touches, on its pulp level, on concerns about human cloning that promise great benefit but end in dehumanizing reality.

Content advisory: Stylized sci-fi battle and combat violence.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Who but Ernst Lubitsch could have pulled off a winning romantic-comedy classic starring Jimmy Stewart that dares to include tragic undercurrents as a frank subplot involving adultery, attempted suicide and the collapse of a marriage?

The delicacy and sureness of the “Lubitsch touch” may never have been more crucial to the success of any picture than The Shop Around the Corner, a delightful film with an excellent ensemble cast and a classic mistaken-identity premise that has inspired a number of lesser films.

The shop in Shop is Matuschek & Co., a retail shop inexplicably set in Budapest, where the largely American cast have names like Kralik (Stewart), Klara (Margaret Sullavan) and Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Head clerk Kralik is Matuschek's right-hand man, but he gets off on the wrong foot with the unemployed Klara, who's looking for a job and surprises Kralik by getting herself hired by Matuschek. From the get-go Kralik and Klara rub the other the wrong way in person — yet they soon connect anonymously via a lonely-hearts ad, and unwittingly discover that there's more to the other than meets the eye.

Content advisory: An offscreen extramarital affair; a thwarted suicide attempt; romantic complications.