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Stephen Fry

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A Hobbit Will Rise.

Also in this year’s Comic-Con cache, a few posters and the teaser for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. Eh…I dunno. As y’all know, I’ve been a big booster of PJ’s Middle Earth from jump street, and I thought well of the first Hobbit, tho’ the second showed signs of strain.

But this looks tonally off to me — The Hobbit just isn’t Return of the King, and, while I know the Battle of the Five Armies is the bulk of the material remaining to be covered, I’m still going to be depressed if two-thirds of the running time here is Pelennor Fields II: Prequel Boogaloo. Fingers crossed.

Defective Detective.

With our protagonist’s chief arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, emerging from the darkness for his curtain call, Guy Ritchie’s lazy, loud Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows should be The Dark Knight to the first film’s Batman Begins. It is, only to the extent that Ritchie et al have continued to make of Holmes a Victorian-Era Batman, cursed with observational and deductive skills so overpowering that he can basically see the future and single-handedly beat up crowds of thugs like it’s Arkham City. Otherwise, unfortunately, they’ve made a hash of it. In short, this is more like the Iron Man 2 to the first film’s Iron Man.

When the better-than-expected first movie appeared during Xmas 2009, the Guy Ritchification of Sherlock Holmes seemed like an innovative approach to Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythos, one that found room for 21st century action movie conceits within the material of the original stories. But, perhaps in part because that approach is no longer fresh this time, or perhaps because Stephen Moffat’s team has managed to rejuvenate the character more traditionally on BBC, A Game of Shadows is much less entertaining — I found the first hour almost unwatchable. The best thing you can say about it is that it gets better as it goes along.

A Game of Shadows begins far too frenetically, with Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to intercept his love interest from the first film, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), as she delivers what very well could be a parcel bomb on orders from the dastardly Professor Moriarty. (Jared Harris, the best thing here by far.) Plenty of worthwhile action movies begin with this sort of in media res setpiece, going back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and including the first film (when Holmes and Watson, iirc, prevent some sort of satanic ritual perpetrated by Mark Strong’s Big Bad.) But here, the tone and pacing feel off from the start, with Ritchie-being-Ritchie, an endlessly mugging Downey, and the bombastic soundtrack all trying to oversell us on the antic mischief at hand.

Game of Shadows continues in this unfortunate vein for most of the next hour, lurching frantically from setpiece to setpiece — Watson’s bachelor party, Watson’s honeymoon on a train, a Roma camp, the Paris Opera — but never establishing any compelling interest in the goings-on. (Along the way they pick up mysterious gypsy Noomi Rapace, who adds very little — although it’s not really her fault.) Seriously, this first half of the film is close-to Van Helsing-bad.
It doesn’t help that Holmes’ powers of deductive ass-kickery only seem to have strengthened during the interstice between films: In terms of extra-sensory fighting style, he might as well be Daredevil at this point. In terms of problem-solving — for example, when he finds that secret door in the Paris catacombs — he’s Professor X, doing more mind-reading than solving puzzles. (Also, despite the fact that he’s meant to be the world’s greatest detective, I’m not sure Holmes asks anyone a single question over the entire course of the movie.)

All that being said, the movie does begin to pick up in the back end — right around the time Holmes and Watson stop by a German munitions factory. (There are still some groaners to be had later. I’m looking at you, epipen.) This is mainly because, for one, all the nameless goons get left behind and the supervillains of the piece, matching our heroes in absurd power, move to the fore: Moriarty seems to have Joker-in-TDK-like levels of prescience, and his #2, Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), becomes, for all intent and purposes, Deadshot. For another, the movie wisely borrows dramatic heft from staging its final act at Reichenbach Falls — and, indeed, it’s the battle-of-wits between Holmes and Moriarty atop those fateful falls that makes for the most engaging scene in the film.

Still, it’s a real slog to get to Reichenbach, with only Harris’s mannered malevolence as Moriarty offering any respite for much of the way. (Well, Law’s not bad, either, but by design he takes a back seat to the more manic and off-kilter Downey. And Stephen Fry, in a dream role as Mycroft Holmes, is unfortunately wasted.) Holmes fans will know that the story much of this movie was drawn from, “The Final Problem,” turned out to be not-so-final after all. If A Game of Shadows is what we can expect from the rest of this franchise, here’s hoping this film is more successful at bringing the curtain down on this iteration of Holmes. Mr. Cumberbatch, you are needed.

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.

Prince of Thieves, Queen of Hearts.

In the trailer bin, Russell Crowe grunts, growls, and generally looks very Maximus-ish in the new trailer for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, also with William Hurt, Mark Strong, Max von Sydow, Oscar Isaac, and Cate Blanchett (nee Sienna Miller) as Maid Marian. And two colorful new trailers for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland suggest Tim Burton might have gone pretty far afield from the original Lewis Carroll tome, and that Johnny Depp might get Willy Wonka-annoying here after awhile.

Update: But does he know the street value of that mountain? It’s The Hangover meets Back to the Future as John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke travel back to 1986 in a Hot Tub Time Machine, also with Lizzy Caplan, Crispin Glover, and Chevy Chase. Um, yeah.

Mandela and the Madhouses.

As with the other day, I can’t seem to make Quicktime happy at my workstation here. Nonetheless, it appears Matt Damon has gone from exposing his conjoined twin’s involvement in the WMD fiasco to ending apartheid in the new trailer for Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Busy fella.

Also in today’s trailer bin, two second looks at worlds gone mad: Mia Wasikowska finds Through the Looking Glass is still crazy after all these years in trailer #2 for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, also with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Crispin Glover, Timothy Spall, and Christopher Lee. To be honest, it looks a little too Burton-y to me, if such a thing is possible for a property like Alice.

And Leonardo di Caprio is still losing his cool on The Island in trailer #2 for Martin Scorsese’s recently kicked-to-2010 Shutter Island, also featuring Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, and the eminent Max Von Sydow. Eh, this looks better than most January fare.

Next Stop Wonderland(s).

In the trailer bin of late:

  • She’s given up, stop: Mia Wasikowska, a.k.a. Alice, takes a tumble down the rabbit hole anew in our first look at Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, also with Johnny Depp (frontlined a bit much here), Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee, Alan Rickman, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover, Noah Taylor, and Timothy Spall. (Looks like a good start, although clearly there is still much CGI-rendering to do.)

  • In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where naturally Gary Oldman is up to no good, a Mad Maxish Denzel Washington may be carrying the secret to something-or-other in the trailer for the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli, also with Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, and Michael Gambon. (It’s good to see the Hughes, of From Hell and the underrated Menace II Society, back behind the camera. But I’m betting this’ll seem a bit been-there-done-that, coming so soon after John Hillcoat’s The Road.)

  • Kate Beckinsale uncovers something deadly, dark, and dangerous in the furthest reaches of Antarctica in the straight-to-video-ish trailer for Dominic Sena’s Whiteout, also with Gabriel Macht and Tom Skerritt. (It looks like The Thing, with shower scenes. Beckinsale is probably one of my bigger movie star crushes, but lordy, the woman needs a new agent.)

    And, as Comic-Con 2009 is just kicking off:

  • Pushing Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, Peter Jackson talks The Hobbit and Tintin. (Apparently, the script for The Hobbit is three weeks away, and four or five of the 13 dwarves have been front-lined. Spielberg has finished a first cut of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, and The Lovely Bones comes out Dec. 11, with a trailer Aug. 6.)

  • Jonah Hex gets a poster that is sadly devoid of Malkovich. (For what is here, the scar looks decent enough, Megan Fox in anything gives me pause (but I guess she’s a hot ticket after the Transformers sequel made so much bank), and the lettering looks a bit futuristic for the property…unless they’re going post-Crisis Hex.

  • TRON 2.0, a.k.a. TR2N, is now called the much-more-boring TRON LEGACY. But, hey, at least they’re not abusing the colon…yet. (More TRON news, of sorts, in the post below, and, since the weekend is young, undoubtedly more Comic-Con news to come.) Update: The TR2N footage that premiered last Comic-Con is now — finally — up in glorious Quicktime.

  • Down the Rabbit Hole.

    “There is the usual Burton-esque ghoulishness (Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose favorite retort is ‘Off with their heads,’ has a moat filled with bobbing noggins), but Zanuck assures most kids can handle it. ‘The book itself is pretty dark,’ he notes. ‘This is for little people and people who read it when they were little 50 years ago.’

    USA Today obtains some stills from Tim Burton’s forthcoming adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, including some unsettling shots of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne Hathaway as the Mad Hatter, Red Queen, and White Queen respectively. Also in the cast: Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Christopher Lee as the Jabberwock, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Noah Taylor as the March Hare, Matt Lucas as the Tweedle twins, Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts, and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat.

    Deep Fry.

    History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier…History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.” Via Cliopatria, actor, director, and wit Stephen Fry makes a case for studying history.

    Fawkes News.

    Verily, my view on V for Vendetta vacillates. Even with visage veiled, the venerable Hugo Weaving’s voice brings vim and verve to the verbose, volatile, and vindictive vigiliante. Natalie Portman is vivacious enough as V’s volunteer, and varied English veterans (Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt) bring valuable versimilitude to V’s environs. But, various vignettes notwithstanding, this vaunted venture is less vibrant and versatile than I’d hoped. V is too virtuous, and the villains — from a venal vicar to a vainglorious video host — too vile. Vendetta is a viable version of Alan Moore’s violent vision, I suppose, but a vulgarized one.

    If you thought the last paragraph was clunky, be prepared for more of the same in V. Vendetta is an enjoyable night at the movies, and definitely an above-average, smarter-than-usual actioner. And Weaving is amazingly dynamic behind the static mask — It’s hard to think of anyone else who could’ve pulled this off quite as well. But, like the last two Matrix films, V‘s bravura moments — the escape from the BBC, V’s talk with the botanist (Sinead Cusack), the domino scene — are too often interspersed with leaden, expository-heavy scenes where the pacing of the film just goes slack. Particularly egregious in this regard is our Batman-ish introduction to V very early in the film, where even Weaving’s mellifluous phrasing can’t salvage a similarly V-intensive monologue. (Frankly, the whole scene needed a rewrite.) The film does eventually recover from this Act I stumble, but it takes awhile.

    And the larger problem with V for Vendetta is that, for all its pretense of moral complexity, it stacks the ethical deck in favor of our terrorist-protagonist. It’s been awhile since I’ve read the graphic novel, but I remember V coming across as a much more unlikable character. He’s a monster created by monstrous circumstances, and as much a symptom as the cure of his society’s larger sickness. But here, V is too (anti-)heroic and charismatic, even given the second act twist, and the government too Orwellian and depraved by far. Who wouldn’t sympathize with rising up against this Taliban-meets-the-Tories outfit? As such, the subtler elements of Moore’s moral economy have been flattened out, and all the choices have been made for us. But perhaps it’s a problem of medium — what worked well on the page comes across as overkill on the big screen. (Exhibit A: Big Brother John Hurt…I liked him better as Winston Smith.)

    All in all, I’d say V for Vendetta is much better comic adaptation than LXG or, say, Fantastic Four, and on par with the other Vertigo films, From Hell and Constantine. But it’s not a slam-dunk: Vendetta‘s heart is in the right place, but, sadly, something doesn’t quite translate.

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