An Old Dog No Longer Barks

Hold on to your No-Doz: Another Star Wars is here. Episode II-Attack of the Clones is as exciting as a rancid Yoo-Hoo. These horrors don’t go away; they just keep coming back, like penicillin-resistant viruses. This $120 million installment (cheap by series standards) looks and sounds like the four that came before, except that it’s noisier and stupider than the last-and twice as boring.

From his secluded Skywalker Ranch in the California redwoods, George Lucas has built a billion-dollar empire putting comic books on film. Grown-ups with the arrested development of 12-year-olds have been sleeping in the street waiting to get into Episode II-Attack of the Clones . When they do, they laugh all the way through it. They know, despite the hype and secrecy and marketing hysteria, what the rest of us have known for years: None of the money, power and fame that have made Mr. Lucas a legend in his own mind and an éminence grise in Hollywood can turn him into a good director. He knows everything about technology and not a damned thing about how to tell a story coherently. After fanatic fans and jaded critics alike declared Episode I-The Phantom Menace a bomb, it piled up $431 million anyway. So welcome to the fifth of the six installments in this Saturday-afternoon kiddie jamboree of silly sequels and prequels with Flash Gordon space guns, a matinee serial told backwards. As Jar Jar Binks, the insulting black stereotype and most obnoxious character in the Star Wars galaxy, might say, “The Force done be left me years ago.” But that won’t stop this feeble blaze of clanking puppets and flying Frisbees from lining Mr. Lucas’ pockets with enough revenue to rebuild the World Trade Center.

Since I snoozed through whole chunks of this drivel, the best analysis of the soporific “plot” I can come up with is this: 10 years after The Phantom Menace , there’s still a lot of gibberish about trade federations, warring androids, rechargeable laser swords and the mysteries surrounding the Sith. Much unrest in the galaxy. The former Jedi and evil renegade, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, from the cheesy old British Dracula movies, who wreaks havoc from a flying motor scooter), has led the separatists away from the Republic, and there aren’t enough Jedi left to protect it. So a secret army of clones has been assembled like General Motors parts on the planet Kamino.

Backed by the Trade Federation, Commerce Guild, Intergalactic Banking Clan, Techno Union and Corporate Alliance, Dooku has crossed over to the Dark Side with the aid of a villainous bounty hunter, Jango Fett. Are you still with me?

Meanwhile, the former Queen of Naboo has grown up to become the blank-faced, cleavage-baring Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), and the whiny little Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has turned into a pouty, arrogant, rebellious Jedi trainee under the patient tutelage of our old friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Assigned to guard Amidala after an assassination attempt, Obi-Wan’s apprentice falls in love and disobeys orders at the same time, chasing off to Tatooine, Naboo and Coruscant for fun and frolic. It’s so easy to see why he’ll eventually turn into Darth Vader that when Obi-Wan says, “Why does something tell me you’ll end up being the death of me?” the audience roars with laughter. The exposition scenes would lull even children who aren’t suffering from attention-deficit disorders to sleep. The dialogue is sub-mental, but Toronto commercial pinup Hayden Christensen, as the reckless, lovesick and corruptible Anakin, and Ms. Portman, as the monotonous, gooey-faced Amidala, are so relentlessly wooden they make the moronic script by Mr. Lucas and Jonathan ( The Scorpion King ) Hales sound even worse than it looked on paper. Without a coherent narrative or riveting dialogue for caulking to hold the silly digital effects together, the movie just hangs out, like the moppets at the popcorn machine. In the first Star Wars trilogy, there was always an amusing toy or unexpected scene to talk about later. I couldn’t remember anything in Episode II-Attack of the Clones 10 minutes after I lumbered through the exit door.

Clearly, the Lucas fantasy is an old dog that no longer barks. Now they’re just beating it to death. With nothing but blue screens in the background, the actors play to a blank wall, then get upstaged by the high-definition computer-generated action figures superimposed later, in postproduction. Even a pro like Samuel L. Jackson, reappearing as Jedi counselor Mace Windu, looks bewildered, then catatonic. Sensing disaster from recycled droid wars and a love story out of Her Highness and the Bellboy , Mr. Lucas drags in new characters I can’t spell, pronounce or identify, as well as old familiars like the clanking C-3PO; the chirpy little automaton R2-D2; the scrap-metal Stepinfetchit, Jar Jar Binks, with his incomprehensible Jamaican patois; and even old Yoda, the 800-year-old wizard who dispenses dopey wisdom on a whoopee cushion and looks like an animated subway rat on a high-carb diet. This time Yoda joins the fray, tossing away his cane and grabbing his rechargeable light saber to fight off 79-year-old Christopher Lee, who is actually swinging knives at empty spaces. Is it any wonder the movie looks like it takes place in an asylum? The fun has even gone out of Yoda. Still the voice of Frank Oz but no longer a hairy, wiggly-eared puppet, Yoda has been reduced to a digitally processed, squinty-eyed Mickey Mouse with glaucoma. Dreadful acting, a funereal pace and a lot of old toys wheeled in just to remind you what it was you liked about Star Wars 25 years ago don’t say much for the future of a worn-out idea that has woefully run out of jet fuel. The young lovers land on a conveyor belt dodging giant staple guns, the three stars are sent to a Roman-style forum to be executed by whatever unused monster was left over from Jurassic Par k, and it’s a fight to the death with those damned neon hockey sticks. Haven’t we been there before? Even the title is a fake: There is no attack of the clones. At the end, thousands of them march into spaceships to launch a clone war, but they’re only paving the way for (oy vey!) next year’s Star Wars: Episode III . The prospect fills me with as much anticipation as a margarine shortage.

Big Apple Icon

I used to say that Bobby Short was almost as necessary to a New York visit as a trip to the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve changed my mind. The events of 9/11 have elevated Mr. Short, now in his 34th spring season at the Café Carlyle, to first place as a Big Apple icon. He’s more fun than the Empire State Building, and you don’t need a photo ID to get in.

The same friendly staff still greets you, but there’s no question about it: Under the new owners, only a vestige remains of the Carlyle’s former elegance, and after the unceremonious way they dumped the great Barbara Carroll, I join the legions in protest who will never again set foot in the Bemelmans Bar. But in the Café, Bobby Short is a one-man good-will ambassador. Opening with rarities like the Gershwins’ “Oh Gee, Oh Joy!” and the obscure “Do I Hear You Saying I Love You?” by Rodgers and Hart, he makes it clear that this is the time of year when a young man’s fancy turns to love-and a middle-aged survivor’s fancy turns to love songs. Rolling expressive eyes while relishing every line of the Vernon Duke evergreen “Takin’ a Chance on Love,” he’s a little bit of Ethel Waters and a whole lot of Avon Long. But mostly he’s himself, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve Got the World on a String” is full of dreamy Harold Arlen reflection; he’s in a reverie. “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” a tribute to Helen Morgan, recaptures the rapture of that tragic chanteuse, while the racy carnival atmosphere of Cole Porter’s “Pilot Me” turns into a saucy tribute to both Charles Lindbergh and fucking. For people who forget what an accomplished and swinging musician Mr. Short is, there’s plenty of evidence on his new solo-piano CD and in the nine-piece orchestra onstage at the Carlyle, which includes Bobby’s trio augmented by two trumpets, three saxophones and one trombone. The result is a cool, bluesy brass choir that sounds like strings on ballads like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and like a Basie jam session on a fractious free-for-all like “It Ain’t Got a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.” From old standbys like “Sand in Your Shoes” to witty discoveries like Billie Holiday’s first recording (“Yessiree … I wanna be … your mother’s son-in-law”), Bobby delivers the goods. Nothing careless, nothing slovenly, nothing second-rate-just a lifetime of dedication to the classic songs you can still fall in love listening to, all performed in his own inimitable style. Bobby Short is one of the last throwbacks to the saner, happier and less complicated years when music reigned supreme and elegant people ventured out after dark to do more than stuff their guts with pretentious $400 meals in trendy, overpriced restaurants and then head home to fall asleep during Leno and Letterman. Welcome back, Bobby. Stay as long as you can.

Like a Fine Wine

Keely Smith, another keeper of the flame, Las Vegas style, is at Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel through May 25. She hasn’t changed a bit since the raucous years when she and her late husband, Louis Prima, were headliners on the famous Vegas strip. Accompanied by a foot-stomping nine-piece band, Ms. Smith’s chops are in better shape than ever. The blackstrap molasses in her Virginia drawl still radiates charmingly (“You speak and ah heah violins,” she croons on “It’s Magic”), and there’s plenty of barrelhouse, boogie and blues to please every taste. Hip, self-assured, polished and time-resistant, she is, at 69, living proof that age is only a state of mind. Expect the old favorites she performed with Louis Prima and Sam Butera and the Witnesses (“Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “Just a Gigolo”), and watch your surprise when she tackles Sinatra’s seldom-performed “The House I Live In,” which is as patriotic as it gets without a flag. Pianist and arranger Dennis Michaels, who is also married to Keely’s daughter, provides lilting, finger-snapping support. Whether she’s showcasing her sensitive phrasing or kidding around with salty barbs, Keely Smith is a seasoned performer to see and hear, a hearty reminder that everything old is new again-and vice versa.