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Star Wars: Episode III
Yes, fanboys, it’s better than the last two. It’s pivotal. It’s menacing. Hell, it’s rated PG-13! Butand really, you knew there had to be a “but”a nonswooning evaluation of Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith isn’t likely to hail it as one of the better installments of George Lucas’ sacred series. Cosmic wisdom suggests keeping in mind something Anakin Skywalker is told before he finally decides to change his name and attitude: “’Good’ is a point of view.”
After nearly two decades of anticipation since Lucas announced his plans for a second Star Wars trilogy, anyone remotely interested in the way Darth Vader came to be will find gratification in the final thirdnot of the trilogy, but of Sith itself. The rest of the movie’s 140 minutes are filled with what Lucas once unsettlingly called “Hamburger Helper.” The director has even estimated that only 60 percent of his original story is addressed in its last installment.
It’s a more substantial chunk, certainly, than the 40 percent supposedly split between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, though the filler remains a snooze. Battles against alien purple skies are frequent but too CGI-slick to elicit much excitement. Political talk is still paramount, only now it’s laced with none-too-subtle Bushisms such as “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” At least the stuff is more tolerable than Lucas’ love talk, woodenly cooed by Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his new wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), in the subplot that leads to the birth of Luke and Leia. (A typical exchange: “You are so beautiful.” “It’s only because I’m so in love.” “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”) John Williams’ score swirls constantly in the background, desperately trying to compensate for exchanges that sound penned and acted by droids.
The most satisfying part of the Dark Lord’s long-awaited transformation, then? Good riddance to bad brooding. Christensen’s Anakin was smackworthy as a petulant teenager in Attack of the Clones, and his disposition only goes from sulky to stiff in Sith. If it weren’t for the fact that the character finally stops saying “It’s not the Jedi way” at about the movie’s midpoint, it’d be pretty difficult to tell Good Anakin from Bad; once the galaxy’s coolest medical helmet slips on and the voice of CNN starts coming out, it’s quite a relief knowing there’s no going back. Even afterward, however, everyone from Portman and Samuel L. Jackson to all the lesser names in support just keeps talking. Like. This. The film’s only semipassionate performance is supplied by Ian McDiarmid, whose Supreme Chancellor Palpatine continues to show how delicious evil can be.
Ironically, it’s the nonhumans who deliver the most expression here. Yoda, of course, is back with his ungrammatical singsong, C-3PO still spews loafer-light eloquence, and R2’s blips, though no longer sarcastic, at least sound as cheery as usual. But the old-school characters who helped lend the original trilogy its sense of fun are given limited screen time in SithLucas keeps even the much-ballyhooed visit to Kashyyk, home of the Wookiees, brief, the better to deal Very Seriously with the Very Serious topic of Darth Vader’s birth. (On the plus side, Jar Jar is momentarily seen but not heard.)
Finding out why Anakin chooses his descent into darkness is, of course, the only real reason to see Sith, a movie whose conclusion is so foregone that there are already three other movies about it. So Lucas can’t really be blamed for presenting the story with generous heft. But would it kill the guy to write a joke again? Just as in Menace and Clones, there’s nothing similar to Leia-and-Han bickering here or a quirky interplanetary dive or, well, anything resembling three-dimensional life a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a climactic puzzle piece, Sith can’t help being at least somewhat thrilling. But it’s also a final nail, a signal that the burial of the playful spirit of Episodes IV through VI is now complete. Somewhere, Chewie cries.
Back on this planet, Mad Hot Ballroom luxuriates in a milieu so far from the Dark Side your face may get sore from smilingdepending, of course, on your tolerance for sweetness. Marilyn Agrelo’s debut documentary chronicles fifth-graders from three New York City public schools as they participate in a semester of ballroom-dancing instruction, a now-mandatory program first introduced 10 years ago and run by the nonprofit American Ballroom Theater. Many of the kids are minorities and underprivileged. All are reluctant to take another in their arms and gaze into each other’s eyes. But, by golly, don’t all of them turn into tiny Freds and Gingers, shakin’ what their mamas gave them and driving the adults around them crazy with their perfect-postured cuteness.
Granted, it is an odd and entertaining sight. Mad Hot Ballroom seems to begin in the middle of the students’ instruction, when they’ve already got some basic moves down but are still learning the finer points of particular dances. (“Mer-en-gue!” one class obediently repeats.) Agrelo’s camera gives equal time to classes in Washington Heights, Bensonhurst, and Tribeca as they learn about proper style (“Do I look good?” teacher Rodney asks as he sloppily untucks his shirt) or which parts of their bodies should be moving (“Upstairs the people are sleeping. Downstairs, there’s a party going on!”).
In between classes, Agrelo interviews the kids, soliciting awww!-inducing quotations about how girls are stupid but the boys kinda like them anyway, or how infuriating it is that the boys are supposed to lead but they don’t know what they’re doing. One gigantic-headed tyke, a boy named Cyrus who could pass for Art Garfunkel’s son, gets a whole lot of screen timeprobably because his fluffy-chick look is made even more adorable by his very serious and well-spoken personality.
Ballroom doesn’t shy away from some weightier ramifications of the dance program, such as the distraction it provided after 9/11 or the behavioral improvements witnessed in students whose lives are otherwise lacking in structure. But mostly the documentary is all about the big prize. Agrelo films the classes right up to the citywide competition that is held at the end of each semester. Only a few students are selected to participate, and then, obviously, fewer still get to advance, and the young’uns aren’t always graceful handling the agony of defeat. Buckets of tears are shedespecially by Allison, a young teacher who seems to cry pretty much whenever she speaksbut even when the contests get fierce, Agrelo stays focused on the smiles. And there are plenty of them: smiles from the instructors, smiles from the parents, smiles from the kids when they know their school is kicking butt.
The biggest problem with Mad Hot Ballroom is that it lingers on these scenes too long, with each of them only showing more of the same. Yes, the kids are very good. Yes, it’s great to see them accomplish something that most adults can’t handle. And yes, to be a little red-state about it, it’s terrific that these preteens seem to care more about swinging than gunning each other down. Of course, if Agrelo had bothered to show us her subjects somewhere besides the dance floor, there’d be no need to make such assessments. As things are, the kids are all right, the grown-ups are happy, and the rest is unblemished, unindividuated brightness. CP