Monday, August 27, 2007

DVD Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars

Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, one of the most famous detectives in all of literature. Part of the sleuth's success was due to a group of street kids known as the Baker Street Irregulars. They were often Holmes' eyes and ears during an investigation. The new BBC production Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars centers on these six kids and their relationship with Holmes.

As the film opens, the Irregulars' leader, Jack (Benjamin Smith), disappears while eluding an unknown assailant. The evidence suggests that he might have drowned in the Thames. His sister, Sadie (Mia Fernandez), doesn't want to believe he's gone. Eventually, she convinces Sherlock Holmes (Jonathan Pryce) to take on the case. He agrees but only on the condition that the Irregulars help him solve the murder of a Scotland Yard inspector. No sooner does Holmes begin to sift through the clues that another policeman is murdered. Soon the evidence points to Holmes as the culprit and he is placed under house arrest. It's then up to the Irregulars to gather the evidence necessary to clear Holmes' name, rescue Sadie and Jack, and at the same time foil the sinister plot of Holmes' one-time acquaintance (and possible love interest) Irene Adler (Anna Chancellor).

The filmmakers have done a terrific job of capturing the essence of Sherlock Holmes and yet focus on the Irregulars who up to now have only been considered minor supporting characters in the novels. The film focuses on the relationships between the kids and Holmes. In a sense, they are the only family they have. Holmes, for better or worse, is a father figure (and on balance a fairly respectable one) and in the end demonstrates that he wants to take care of the children after he is gone. After Jack and Sadie disappear, it's up to Finch (Aaron Johnson) to take matters into his own hands and pull the Irregulars together to clear Holmes' name. It's clear from the interaction between Finch and Holmes that theirs is much more than simply a business relationship. Finch sees Holmes as a mentor and proves that he has learned much from the master as the story unfolds.

The casting of this movie was perfect. Jonathan Pryce does a marvelous job as Holmes. He shows that Holmes is brilliant and at the same time very human. This is perhaps the first time that we see Holmes vulnerable to the charms of a woman. It's clear that Irene Adler gets under his skin and that it's difficult for him to send someone to jail that he clearly cared for. Anna Chancellor is marvelous as Irene Adler. She is both incredibly charming and yet evil at the same time. There is no doubt that her character is fully capable of cold-blooded murder and would not hesitate to kill anyone who would stand in her way. Michael Maloney was the perfect choice to play the inept Inspector Stirling. Stirling's detective skills are dubious at best and he clearly depends on Holmes to save his career on more than one occasion. Bill Paterson's Dr. Watson is perfectly understated and a great sidekick for the brilliant Holmes.

The film will certainly provide ample material for discussion between parents and children since the Irregulars are far from heroic characters. They will lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their goals. But they also show a great loyalty to each other and to their boss. When one of them is in trouble, the others don't hesitate to come to their rescue.

Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars is a great family-friendly introduction to the world's greatest detective. Although the heroes of the film are flawed there are still elements of their character to be admired. Hopefully this won't be the last last we see of the Baker Street Irregulars.

This article orginially appeared at Blogcritics.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

DVD Review - Patrick Henry: Quest For Freedom

"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" - Patrick Henry, address at St. John's Church, Richmond, VA, March 23, 1775

It's one of the most famous speeches ever given. But the average person probably knows little about the speech itself or the man who gave it: Patrick Henry.

American Animation Studios founders John Derrick and Doug Zanger set out to make the History's Heroes DVD series to tell stories just like this one. The series will tell stories of American heroes that most schoolchildren would otherwise miss. Patrick Henry is just one of those heroes.

The movie features Boomer, a wise-cracking bald eagle that not only helps to tell the story but inserts commentary during key events to help the targe audience (kids age 8-12) understand what's happening and what's being said. The humorous moments are few and far between. However, the character is used effectively to interpret Henry's trademark oratory.

The video tells only a little about Henry's life and abruptly ends after his famous speech. But it does a gret job of helping the audience understand why Henry's speech was so important. War with Great Britain was an almost certainty in 1775 but Virginia was reluctant to join the colonists' quest for freedom. As a result of Henry's stirring oratory, Virginia threw its support behind the move for independence.

The filmmakers have done a pretty good job of telling at least part of Henry's story. There are, however, glaring omissions, such as the fact that he served five terms as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution. He was also was of the key proponents of the Bill of Rights.

The film also suffers technically as the animation is not as smooth or sophisticated as most young viewers have become accustomed to through a steady diet of feature films from Pixar and Dreamworks. The characters sound too "Southern": more like the Beverly Hillbillies than real Virginians. Despite these flaws the film is still enjoyable and serves its primary purpose: to teach young viewers about history through entertainment.

The filmmakers should be applauded for this admirable first effort in the History's Heroes series. Educators will no doubt find the films useful whether in the classroom or in a homeschool setting. Hopefully the production quality will continue to improve with further releases so that History's Heroes can become an essential part of history classes everywhere.

This article originally appeared at Blogcritics.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Huckabee's Moment?

Mike Huckabee's second place finish in the Iowa straw poll has given him a boost in both the polls and the media. But can Huckabee build on this momentum to move himself into the GOP's top tier? National Review's Jim Geraghty thinks there is a chance he could:

Suppose you’re an undecided Republican voter, with mixed feelings about the big-name Republican presidential candidates. You respect John McCain, but he doesn’t look like a viable option — which is just as well since he bugged you with his crusade for speech-limiting campaign finance reform, and lost you with the immigration deal with Ted Kennedy.

Mitt Romney’s wowed you in the debates, but you can’t forget that while you agree with all his positions, he had strikingly different ones not too long ago. And you would prefer a nominee who has won more than just one political race in his life.

You love Rudy Giuliani’s crime-fighting record and 9/11 leadership, but the thought of a non-pro-life Republican nominee gives you pause, and the messy home life troubles you a bit.

You were very excited about Fred Thompson, and nearly fainted with anticipation when you saw his smackdown of Michael Moore. But lately you feel like you’re playing a character in Waiting for Godot, and you’re wondering if he got lost somewhere on the way to the announcement.

Those still shopping for a candidate could do a lot worse than former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who with the second-place finish in Ames is not merely now a “top tier” candidate, as Newt Gingrich recently declared, but arguably belongs in the middle of that first tier.

Huckabee has several things going for him. He's a successful former governor (Arkansas). He's striking the right tone in his responses to quetions on foreign policy. He has solid conservative issues that will give him appeal beyond the Republican base. He's also got a great sense of humor that has served him well in the debates.

His biggest negative has been that up until now he's been in the second tier among GOP candidates. But with the increased media attention after his strong showing in Iowa more voters may begin paying attention to him. That could dramatically change the face of a race that was already starting to narrow down to two or three candidates.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

300 vs. 756

This has been quite the week for baseball milestones. First, Tom Glavine won his 300th career game against the Cubs on Sunday night. Then last night, Barry Bonds finally broke Hank Aaron's career home run record by hitting number 756. Ironically, the two achievements and the athletes themselves could not be more totally different.

First, there's Barry Bonds. The whole sports media complex spent weeks waiting for him hit the magic home run. ESPN was starting to become the San Francisco Giants television network as they were showing practically every one of their games in the hopes of being able to televise the magic moment. Countless articles have been written (and will continue to be written) about whether Bonds' achievement is legitimate given the rumors of steroid use by the new home run king. There will be many debates in the coming years and nothing less than Bonds' place in baseball history (and ultimately a place in the Hall of Fame) will be at stake. Sure, he may get in but the whispers about performance-enhancing drugs will dog him for the rest of his days. Although he will hit at least a few more home runs before the end of the season (likely his last), Alex Rodriguez has already hit 500 home runs at age 32, earlier than anyone else in baseball history. Assuming he stays healthy, he could break the record in a few years. Plus, he's a much more likeable guy than Bonds and will likely be more accepted as home run king if (and when) he breaks the record.

On the other end of the spectrum is Tom Glavine, who when he went 7-17 in his first full year with the Atlanta Braves in 1988 (for the record, he was 2-4 as a late-season call-up in 1987), few writers would have ever imagined that he would have reached the pinnacle of success for a starting pitcher. 300 wins had only been achieved 22 times before in baseball history and only four other left-handers had accomplished the feat. On Sunday night, Glavine accomplished what was once thought impossible. Ironically, he may be the last pitcher to achieve that feat for years to come. But most impressive is his work ethic. He's become a better pitcher in the past few years than he was at the beginning of his career. He continues to work at being a better pitcher and all without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. True, he hasn't received the attention that Bonds has this week. Glavine will enter the Hall of Fame with no hints of cheating, no whispers of drug use. In the end, he will be remembered as not just a member of the elite 300 win club, but one of the classiest guys ever to play the game.

Glavine credited much of his success to his family who encouraged him to work hard and pursue his dream of being a major league pitcher. If I had to pick a player for my child to look up to as a role model, I'd take Tom Glavine over Barry Bonds any day.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Money Talks

During this presidential election cycle, political reporters everywhere have been devoting a lot of time analyzing the quarterly fundraising figures of each party's presidential candidates. The theory is that the candidate who has the most money is likely to hold an edge in the upcoming elections. While it's been widely reported that Democratic presidential candidates our doing a better job of fundraising than their Republican counterparts, there is another aspect of fundraising that is being overlooked.

If you had to venture a guess, which national party has raised more money: Democrats or Republicans? If you guessed the Republican National Committee, you would be correct. (Hat tip: Rich Galen)

National parties are required to report their fundraising figures on a monthly basis while presidential candidates report quarterly. According to the Federal Election Commission, Republicans raised just about $6.6 million in the month of June while Democrats raised just under $4.2 million in the same period. So Republicans had a good month in June.

But when you look at the total raised so far in this election cycle, the results are even more dramatic: Republicans have raised almost $45 million so far while Democrats have only raised about $28 million. Republicans have more cash on hand: close to $16 million as opposed to just under $5 million for Democrats. So clearly, the RNC has a substantial financial advantage over the DNC.

How do you explain this discrepancy? The Democrats' edge in presidential fundraising seems to be driven by two factors. First, after being out of the White House for almost eight years, Democrats are very motivated to win the Presidential election. Second, the Democratic nominee is likely to be one of three candidates: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. Most of the money seems to be flowing to these three so it's a safe bet one of them will win the nomination.

On the flip side, the Republicans are motivated to recapture the Congress. Democratic inepititude in passing meaningful legislation has helped fueled the Republican cause. The presidential nomination picture is more unsettled that the Democratic picture and that's having a negative effect on fundraising. Rudy Giuliani remains the frontrunner despite plenty of reasons that Republicans have for not supporting him. Mitt Romney has the social conservative credentials but can't seem to make much headway. John McCain's campaign has imploded as he's gone from frontrunner to also-ran. Meanwhile, many Republicans wait for Fred Thompson to officially get in the race.

Democrats have an advantage in presidential fundraising that may or may not last depending on how the nomination process progresses. But they'll have to work overtime to level the playing field at the national party level. If they can't then they may win the White House but lose the Congress.