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Imelda Staunton

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No Alice Aforethought.

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. And why this film was stinking rot, and so darn bad it stings… Sigh. Well, if you were going to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the box office numbers seem to indicate that you probably already have. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to report that — Mia Wasikowska, some of the art direction, and perhaps a scene or two notwithstanding — this Alice is a thoroughly woeful enterprise, and just an aggravatingly bad adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world. If you hold any fondness for the book, trust me, you’ll leave Mad as Hell.

I say Lewis Carroll’s “world” because, as you probably already know, this is not a straight-up adaptation of (the often-combined) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Rather, this movie takes up Alice’s tale as a teenager on the threshold of womanhood (Wasikowska), who, while weighing the pros-and-cons of betrothal to a rich, haughty, and very Burtonesque suitor (Leo Bill), finds herself Down the Rabbit Hole and back once again in, uh, “Underland.” So, in other words, at best this iteration of Alice already feels like reading somebody’s random Lewis Carroll fan-fiction on the Internets.

Worse, the fan in question seems to have really dug The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, to the point of just grifting liberally from Narnia to write this sequel-story. Now, Alice is basically a Pevensie-ish “Daughter of Eve” prophesied to free Won…uh, Underland from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Note the picture of Alice at the top of this post, brandishing the sword and armor on the battlefield(?), and standing next to Hathaway the White like she’s at Minas Tirith — Does that look anything like Alice in Wonderland to you?

So yeah, all the playful word games and off-kilter logic puzzles of Carroll’s book, and your usual Alice adaptations for that matter, have been thrown out the window here. Instead, we are left with…well, basically your average dumb summer movie. The Mad Hatter has become a major character, for seemingly no other reason than to accommodate the presence of Johnny Depp. We are told Alice is destined to slay the Jabberwocky early in the second reel, which means we spend the rest of the film just sitting around waiting for this prophesied shoe to drop. And — spoiler alert — when our heroine finally accomplishes the deed at the Big Battle and puts the dragon (and by extension the audience) out of its misery, she even gets to throw in a John McClane/Schwarzenegger one-liner. (“Off with your head!)

Put simply, this is just a blatantly stupid movie, and looking back on it, I can think of only one or two grace notes worth mentioning. As you might expect from most any Tim Burton production, the art direction is quite impressive at times (The 3-D, on the other hand, is muddy, and really doesn’t add anything to the experience.) So, for example, the design of the Red Queen’s soldiers is rather appealing, but these flourishes still aren’t really enough to keep things moving along. There’s one very brief scene involving frog and fish servants of the Red Queen that made it seem like the overall film would be much more fun and imaginative. And, while Wasikowska herself is actually quite solid throughout the movie, this Alice only manages to capture some of the real Wonderland magic in the Eat Me/Drink Me sequence early on.

Otherwise, tho’, hoo boy. While Tim Burton and the screenwriters clearly deserve the lion’s share of the blame for this fiasco, there’s more than enough Terrible to go around. (For his part, Depp is strange as usual, but is neither a plus nor a minus, really — Just don’t get me started on the breakdancing scene.) Somehow, someway, Crispin Glover, a.k.a. the one-eyed Knave of Hearts, seems like he’s overacting even when surrounded by talking dogs, rabbits, and pigs. But even he isn’t as lousy here as Anne Hathaway, who is high-school-production-bad. (I should know — I was in one.) As the White Queen, I couldn’t tell if Hathaway was trying to riff off of her Princess Diaries co-star Julie Andrews, or whether she was just totally lost amid the CGI, Natalie Portman-style. Either way, this isn’t a career highlight.

So, to sum up, Alice in Wonderland is pretty much just a travesty. (Or, to quote the lady of the hour: “Of all the silly nonsense, this is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to in all my life.“) One way or another, and just like Alice, Tim Burton has managed to accomplish an impossible thing here. He’s taken a beloved children’s classic that seemed very well-suited to his strengths, and somehow managed to suck all the magic out of it.

The Dark is Rising.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates’ take on the fifth installment of J.K. Rowling’s (soon-to-be-completed!) series, is, I’m happy to report, a somber, suspenseful return to the increasingly dire matters at Hogwarts, and well in keeping with the higher standard set by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell in the past two movies. While I think Newell’s Goblet of Fire remains my favorite film outing thus far, this one is right up there in my estimation, and given how much less Yates had to work with, that’s rather impressive. (For all its girth, Book V felt basically like a holding action to me — the wider narrative arc didn’t progress all that much from the end of Goblet to the end of Order, and the story suffered from a wham-bang action climax that didn’t really work on paper (it comes off better on-screen.)) Indeed, Yates’ Order not only captures my most prominent impressions of the book — Harry’s burgeoning teenage moodiness, the growing sense among the students of grim times ahead and important events already set in motion — but also significantly streamlines and distills Rowling’s most-sprawling tome into two-and-a-half hours of sleek, well-paced cinema. No mean feat of magic, that.

By the start of Order, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is loose, Cedric Diggory is dead, and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), once more at the mercy of the Dursleys for the summer, is poised on the verge of adolescent rebellion. He hasn’t heard a pip from friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) for months, nor has he heard any news of goings-on in the magical world. So it is with no small amount of surprise and consternation that Harry finds himself first attacked by Dementors one gloomy evening, then expelled from Hogwarts — by authority of the Ministry of Magic — for using his wand to defend himself. Brought back into the magical loop by these events, Harry discovers that many of his former allies, including godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), have banded together to re-form the Order of the Phoenix in preparation for Lord Voldemort’s next move. More troubling, it seems Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is not only not inclined to believe Harry that You-Know-Who has returned, but also views Harry and his mentor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), as a political threat, and has turned the general public and popular press against them both. Finally, to further complicate Potter’s prospects, Fudge dispatches one Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts with a ministry mandate to stamp out both dark sarcasm and Defense against the Dark Arts in the classroom. Thus hemmed in, Harry, Ron, and Hermione find once more they need to take matters in their own hands, and begin to defiantly assemble what they call Dumbledore’s Army, a student organization dedicated to preparing for the worst. But, all the while, Lord Voldemort is up to his own tricks…and what good is Dumbledore’s Army if its young, bespectacled leader is already hopelessly compromised by his still-unexplained connection to the Dark Lord?

As the paragraph above attests, there’re a lot of balls in the air this time around, but Yates, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, & co. do a solid job of keeping everything moving without doing grievous harm to any of the many included subplots. (Several have been excised regardless, such as this year’s Quidditch match. No real loss, imho.) And throughout, what Order of the Phoenix gets most right — in fact, one could argue it’s actually done better here than in the book — is the feeling that things are simmering to a boil. Hermione, Ron, and especially Harry have grown from wide-eyed, trusting children to gawky, hormonal teenagers (and better actors, for that matter), seething with imminent rebellion against the powers-that-be, and their world has similarly gone from a colorful, fantastic, and ever-so-occasionally dangerous realm of magical delights to a gray, ominous land of hidden agendas, political propaganda, fallible adults, and fatal consequences. In the last movie, Harry’s Hogwarts cohort were on the threshold of early adolescence, and had just begun to discover the tantalizing mysteries of the opposite sex. Here, slightly older, they come to another classic teenage rite-of-passage: finding that the world — and, more often that not, the people in charge — aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and that they may even actually be out to get you.

Of course, Yates is helped out tremendously in bringing Order to life by his ever-expanding Dream Team of British thespians. Imelda Staunton, as the main new cast member, is note-perfect as Umbridge. A pink-festooned, unholy cross between the Church Lady and arguably the real You-Know-Who of Rowling’s books, Margaret Thatcher, she’s like something out of a Roger Waters fever dream (and continues the “The Tories are Coming!” subtext I noted in my review of the last movie.) Even with Staunton aside, tho’, Order is packed to the brim with quality actors reprising their roles from the first four films — Oldman, Hardy, Brendan Gleeson, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, etc., and particularly Fiennes and Alan Rickman. They’re all excellent, and frankly it’s good fun just to see so many of them around again to help further flesh out the Potterverse. (Although, having seen Naked and The History Boys since Goblet, I’m slightly more concerned about Harry hanging around the likes of Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths)…what would the Umbridges of the world have to say about that?)

Call to Order.

Ready for another year at Hogwarts? The new teaser for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which I mentioned on Friday is now online.

Phoenix Landing.

The new Fiennes-centric Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix teaser poster is now online. Look for new photos from the film here, for a very brief clip here, and for the teaser — if, like me, you’re not going to see Happy Feet — on Monday. Update: Here it is.

Phoenix Rising.

WB releases several high-quality stills from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, including one of the eponymous Order and several of new headmaster Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). (And, since it’s wartime at Hogwarts now, it looks like the late ’70’s haircuts of Goblet have gone by the wayside as well.) Update: More here.

Vera Draconian.

Imelda Staunton announces she’ll play Dolores Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix, while Ralph Fiennes talks more about Voldemort.

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