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  • The Hobart Shakespeareans

    The Hobart Shakespeareans (2004)

    December 16, 2010

    How do you get kids hooked on education? Just one way is to teach them how to appreciate Shakespeare, and teach it the right way. The Hobart Shakespeareans is a documentary that can roughly fit into the category of inspirational tales of a teacher inspiring his students, but the methods that Rafe Esquith uses are something in themselves. While he's just one guy, the impact he's made on the lives of underprivileged kids in his classroom is undeniable. It's not the final answer to educations' many problems, but it does prove the point that some teachers ARE worth paying proper salaries to, and supporting them properly. Imagine what schools would be like with a dozen Rafe Esquiths in all subjects, paid a living wage? Well, you might wonder after seeing this excellent film.

    The documentary follows Rafe Esquith as he takes a group of kids that are economically challenged, or are immigrants that would be destined for failure in many schools, and he turns them into - well, you have to see it. This isn't a slick, glossy documentary, but a behavioral essay on film.

    Esquith sets the bar high by teaching the kids and getting them to produce the plays of Shakespeare as both a teaching, teamwork, and learning experience. He's simply an energetic guy that loves his subject, and obviously loves teaching. His message isn't revolutionary: You can make a difference, and that being nice, working hard and doing your best works. He really spends a lot of time with these kids, and lets them see another world beyond the neighborhoods they come from.

    He's also teaching the right way, getting the kids to not just read things, but experience them. The clips of the performances don't do it justice, or show the amount of work that they put into these shows. The rich kids I know that go to theater camps are positively lazy by comparison. His success attracted the attention of some major stage and screen actors that give cameos in the film.

    It's an inspirational story, well worth watching, wether you're a teacher, a parent, or a student.

  • Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith 3D

    Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith ... (2005)

    October 24, 2010

    The Prequel trilogy was very shaky from the start, but someone must have sat down and re-watched the old trilogy with Lucas to try to recapture some of the magic they had. The resulting thrid film leading up to the slide of Anakin Skywalker to the dark side was the best of the three prequels, and went most of the way to getting back to the original trilogy level of interest and excitement.

    For once, the technical wizards won out, and the opening space battle set the right tone. It's quite a complex sequence, and Hayden Christiansen channels Mark Hammell for a while. However, we're soon immersed in the larger strategic plot once more once Dooku is dispatched. The 'cutting of hands' continues, and becomes almost a cliche for these films. The love story is still weak, and even some help by some skilled writers brought in to re-work the Anakin/Padme scenes couldn't bring it above schmaltz. The one Padme scene that actually works is with Ewan Mcgregor when he comes to tell her the bad news about her husband. That's the only small intimate scene that works well.

    The action is good, and the pacing is better than the other two films as they tie up a lot of plots and loose ends. Since the action switches between multiple locations, you almost have to have watched the prior film a short time before this one to use all the information they give you in the previous two.

    However, the real problem I had with this film's whole premise -- how Anakin becomes Darth Vader -- is that the fear of personal loss seems token compared to what a Jedi is supposed to believe. Yes, Padme's his wife, and we'd do aything to save people we live if we could, but the leadup to it was all wrong. In my view, it should have been more of a surprise that she was going to die, and that would have invoked more passion in a short time that would have justified his need to find a 'cure for death'. Either that, or he needed to have learned about the powers of the Dark Side on his own rather than through a surrogate who's not even supposed to be a Jedi, just a politician. It really undermines the whole premise, and to me it seems sudden and unjustified.

    I think Padme's death was also lame. I know they didn't want it to be a violent one, since kids will see this film, but an emergency surgery when she's clearly dying from -- some outside action, would have been better. Especially if it was made more clear that he was responsible for killing her. I don't read the comics or the 'additional backstory' published because I don't believe that's a good way to tell a movie's story. Maybe there's lots of 'backstory' I missed on this, but I'm reviewing the movies, not the additional material.

    In the end, the man is transformed and we get back to the beginning of the Empire. They managed to tie up most of the loose ends they created in writing a prequel, and it was a pretty good film for sheer scope and looks. Acting was better, too. I still think more of a charismatic Anakin would make his fall more shocking, but they got us there, and that was the whole point.

  • Glory

    Glory (1989)

    October 21, 2010

    Slightly sanitized, but still compelling and well scripted, Glory traces just one of the many black regiments formed as part of the Federal Army during the Civil War. Produced by Edward Zwick, the film features standout performnces by Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher. Their white officers, portrayed by Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes fare less well in terms of their depth and believability, but they don't hurt the film too much because its a great story, well told.

    Great camera work, nice authenticity. There are a few liberties taken with the actual unit history, but it doesn't matter. By the time you get to the climactic final action at Fort Wagner, you're hooked, even though you know this isn't going to go well. Though Matthew Broderick is probably the weakest player here, he still has some nice moments, which redeem him. The fatalism that he puts into his formerly positive character is interesting to see, such as when he turns over his letters to the reporter just before the action.

    It really kindled interest in black history month, and contributed to a resurgence in civil war studies that look at both sides. Like Saving Private Ryan, it's a war film that had fairly broad appeal, and that's why it had a lot of impact.

    It's also a film that you can watch again, and still catch interesting moments in it. Good bombastic musical score, too. I don't know how those soldiers could have charged that breastwork without the music in the movie, but history shows that they did.

  • Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones 3D

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

    October 15, 2010

    Episode Two continues the story of the origins of Darth Vader and the chronicles the beginnings of the Clone War. It's a decade or more since Anakin left home, and we get a new actor in his place as a young and inexperienced padawan. The Republic is more unstable, and things are changing for the Jedi, too.

    This movie needed a better title. The movie is constructed like a detective story for Obi-Wan and Anakin, and that almost works. It's not so much the Attack of the Clones, but the sort of "The Clones Just Kinda Show Up" and surprise, they're actually helpful - at first. The movie starts putting the pieces together at a very slow pace, and while its interspersed with some action sequences, it grinds along in low gear. There's several interlaced subplots, and none of them get a satisfactory treatment because there's too much ground to cover. You have to tell the political subplot as the looming threat to the peace and security of the Republic; you also have a blossoming romance; and a mystery to solve. You also get treated to some sumptuous new visuals and yet more costumes and alien races. It looks great the first time you see it on a big screen, but it's a complex mechanism that once again collapses under the weight of all that exposition and lame dialogue.

    The best performances come from Ewan Mcgregor, and Yoda finally kicks into high gear as well since he switched from puppet to CGI presentation. Once again, there are too many characters for the average somebody to keep up with or care about. Samual L Jackson is a good actor, but why do we need more Mace Windu? He doesn't do more than lead the cavalry charge at the end of the film. These dangling secondary characters ultimately hurt the flow of the film. Everybody demands screen time from Lucas' already overtaxed script. The script itself is pretty sub-par. Hayden Christiansen is just wretched as Anakin. He's not so much cocky and obnoxious as sullen and child-like obnoxious. I disliked him from the moment he opened his mouth. There was never a more unlikely and poorly handled romantic couple as Anakin/Padme. Their scenes are excruciatingly bad, and I don't believe their love for a new York second. This cuts the rug out from under the whole character of Anakin. I think if they'd played him as a Han Solo type, cocky and overconfident, but a 'sunny' individual, it would make the fall from grace much more believable. Instead, we must endure the 'rebel teen angst' problem. When I saw this film, I was well out of my teen years, and it wasn't interesting because I've seen it done better elsewhere.

    Natalie Portman finally gets into an outfit she can move in, near the end, and it helps her whole energy level. She's actually pretty cute beating up the bad guys and shooting guns, but it's too little, too late. She can't save the horrible romance scenes.

    Christopher Lee does his Saruman-like best as Dooku, but he's not around enough to make a difference. There was an opportunity lost with that character. He truly could have been a good guy that was just as baffled as his Jedi brethren as to who was behind it. That would have been interesting. But that's not how it ends up.

    Once again...not enough robots. The team of R2D2/C3PO don't do anything much, and the levity is sadly lacking in this grim trudge through various subplots. The action sequences are long and drawn out, not sharp and short. There's no tactics, just a bunch of fights, no forethought and no one except Obi-Wan is using their heads.

    It's dull and lifeless as a film, because there's just too much to cover. As I said in my Phantom Menace review, these movies needed to be a 12-episode miniseries on HBO or similar network to cover things adequately. Then the romance could have developed naturally, and the teaming of the characters would have been created, rather than everybody splits up on their own missions.

    I love the whole Star wars universe, but again was disappointed. In short, it was all a grand and epic failure, with a big budget.

  • Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

    Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

    October 11, 2010

    After a long hiatus, the Star Wars franchise was set to be rejuvenated by Lucas and his talented team of effects wizards. The result, however, was a movie that dwelt too much on a convoluted plot, and not enough on character development. Whereas the original trilogy dealt with a small group of misfits banded together to fight an evil scourge, the characters in these three films took the whole thing far too seriously.

    Coupled with some very pedestrian dialogue, the whole movie seems to sag under the weight of Princess Amidala's costumes. Enough has been said that a set of prequels was a bad choice to start with, so I won't go into that here. However, these films set up a premise and a backdrop that was better suited for a TV series that had 20 or 30 episodes like an HBO miniseries. That would allow ample time to develop the characters, and reveal the story of the plot slowly over time. Try to do 'The Sopranos' as a series of films and you get the idea.

    There's nothing wrong with the mythology or the look of the film. It's glossy and pretty, and brings back some of the old favorites. So, for effects and action (when it happens) the movie is a B+.

    However, the situations that the characters are put into are not designed for them to show any real skill or talent that would make us like them. Some characters, like Jar-Jar Binks, were introduced in place of others. There's no reason why the droids were introduced so late in the movie, and their old wife bickering is completely left out. They were some of the most beloved characters int the original trilogy, but they are wasted here. Binks could have been made palatable by eliminating the bad accent. In fact, the accents border on politically incorrect for most of the weird aliens.

    The movie almost redeems itself with the accidental-on-purpose discovery of Anakin on the backwater world, but once again, the action is muted, and the villains are mis-employed: They should have been trying to find another secret weapon -- Anakin.

    Maul is a great villain: You can only wonder if he'd been assigned to find the 'chosen one' from the very start of the film, in order to recruit or eliminate him. That might have been an interesting scenario, and set up tension for action during Episode 1 and later films.

    The cast does their best, but even they seem lost in CGI-world, or in the folds of their voluminous robes. Young Jake Lloyd is terrible, but as a child actor, he's not asked to carry any scenes except the pod race, which is for the best.

    It's a movie of 'what if?' they had done things differently, with a different director and some plot rearrangements. We can only wonder...

  • Secretariat

    Secretariat (2010)

    October 09, 2010

  • The Namesake

    The Namesake (2006)

    September 23, 2010

    A finely crafted film, with a kind of realism to it that you rarely find in dramas of its kind. This heartfelt search for identity and worth is moderately paced, and reveals its story and emotions slowly and carefully. The parents, perfectly played by Tabu and Irffan Khan provide a lot of heart to center this film.

    Gogol's struggles with his own identity are well played, and the love stories are a little predictable, but hone close to the truth. Those are the only parts of the film that I felt were a little contrived, but the scenes themselves are never overdone, and there are some painfully true moments of emotion coming off the screen. Kal Penn does a nice job as the young man stuck between two cultures.

    I never read the book, so I probably would haven enjoyed it even more, but it's worth seeing, if you want a thoughtful look at life, love and family.

  • The Pacific

    The Pacific (2010)

    September 07, 2010

  • 'Breaker' Morant

    'Breaker' Morant (1980)

    September 01, 2010

    In many ways, this film single-handedly put Australian films on the map way back in 1980. A courageously told anti-war film, Breaker Morant contains some great action, tense courtroom drama, and terrific performances by the three leads, including one of the great courtroom speeches by Jack Thompson as Major Thomas, the defense attorney.

    The film also raises interesting moral questions when warfare was becoming more and more brutal, and the first real guerilla war was being fought. The real question of good vs. evil can start with the events depicted here, and its clear from the start that its not easy to decide what's the right choice in warfare.

    It's also an era that not many people know anything about, and that makes it even more interesting to watch today. In this era where guerrilla warfare and terrorism are commonplace, it would be good to remember the lessons of Breaker Morant and his fellows.

  • Nanny McPhee Returns

    Nanny McPhee Returns (2010)

    August 25, 2010

    It's good to see Emma Thompson writing things again, and Returns is just a very simple storyline with over-the-top characters and fun visuals. It's really more subtle than it appears, because Nanny McPhee the character really lets the kids and the grownups do most of the heavy lifting in this one.

    Emma Thompson has some great moments, and the character is indelibly imprinted in your mind by about half-way through. The kids are actually very good for the types they represent, and although it might feel a little labored in places, it clips right along to a satisfying conclusion. There's even a few moments of real emotion amidst all the hyperactivity.

    If you have pre-teen kids, or a brother or sister, they'll like this one. The humor is just their speed.

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