A big hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Hamlet 2 often careens out of control but when it connects the theatre fills with laughter. This is a story of a very frustrated high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who decides to stage his own play--a musical sequel to Hamlet featuring original songs he has composed (titles like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Gay As the Day Is Long”). Yes he’s aware everyone died at the end of Shakespeare’s immortal classic but the failed actor-turned-teacher has found a way to bring them back to life by using a time machine(!) In any event he’s desperate to save the Tucson school’s arts program which is being cut and he thinks this is the answer. Certainly it’s better he figures than his usual productions which have the students re-enacting live stage versions of popular movies such as Erin Brockovich that are regularly panned by the ninth-grade drama critic. Of course the non-PC nature of the show causes lots of outrage from school officials and community leaders but with the help of ACLU attorney Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) Dana remains steadfast in his determination to go on with the show. Coogan is brilliantly loony and wildly funny in a hit-for-the-fences interpretation of the character. He’s definitely taking chances turning off the audience with his off-the-wall approach to playing this desperate loser who has to resort to teaching bored kids. It’s Coogan’s energy and fresh approach that make the movie work better than it has any right to. Poehler who also scored recently in Baby Mama is hilarious as the take-no-prisoners lawyer who comes to Dana’s defense. Catherine Keener is droll perfection as his bored wife who is having an affair with their boarder Gary underplayed nicely by David Arquette. In the good sport category Elisabeth Shue turns up as…Elisabeth Shue now a local nurse after her movie career supposedly hit the skids. She’s actually very funny spoofing herself and the whole aura of the successful Hollywood star. The students are all first rate including Dana’s star pupils Rand Posin and Epiphany Sellers played amusingly by Broadway’s Spring Awakening cast members Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole respectively. And special mention to The Ralph Sall Experience for their hilarious musical parodies. Director Andrew Fleming lets the gags fly with abandon and gets much of the broad bits to actually work. He and screenwriter Pam Brady forge a close collaboration that results in a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio on the laugh meter; anyone expecting subtlety has wandered into the wrong theatre. Working with a wonderful group of actors with plenty of improvisational experience certainly has helped here and Fleming’s film has the look and feel of a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. The actual staging of Hamlet 2 is rather inspired with the multitude of wacky musical numbers cleverly presented. The Southwestern high school that Coogan’s character is stuck in is spot-on although Tucson residents probably won’t appreciate the numerous jokes made at the expense of their town.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
As Love Actually begins we are told that perhaps the world isn't such a dire and hateful place that "love actually is all around." Around London anyway. The film explores no less than seven different romantic scenarios within the bustling British capital--all of which interconnect and eventually resolve on Christmas Eve. There's the newly elected dashing Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) who is smitten with his secretary the earthy Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); Karen (Emma Thompson) whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) has strayed with his seductive secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch); Sarah (Laura Linney) the American wallflower who has a crush on her colleague Carl (Rodrigo Santoro); Jamie (Colin Firth) who falls for his pretty Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz)…there are lots more but you get the gist. As love goes things may not get tied up neatly in brightly colored packages for everyone but there's still enough good cheer to spread around.
Showcasing some of Britain's finest actors Love Actually doesn't have a bad banana in the bunch. Floppy-haired Hugh Grant turns in an endearing performance and proves there isn't a romantic comedy he can't handle. He has an uncanny knack for connecting with any actress he happens to be romancing; in this case it's the adorable McCutcheon best known for the hit British TV drama EastEnders. Rickman and Thompson are quite good as the couple whose long-term marriage is beginning to crack; Thompson especially does a nice job trying to hide her pain while being a happy mom. Linney too shines as Sarah who glows with excitement when she finally gets what she so ardently wished for. Veteran stage and film actor Bill Nighy (Underworld) however steals the show as a carefree aging rock star desperate for a comeback. His Billy Mack smacks of Mick Jagger Keith Richards and Rod Stewart all rolled into one.
"I'm worried that we don't have the word 'massacre' in the title " writer/director Richard Curtis fretted to Entertainment Weekly referring to how horror-loving American audiences might not take to his new romantic comedy that is already a huge hit in Britain. True perhaps a romantic comedy starring a multitude of A-list British actors might not bring in the required masses. But who cares about the money (did I just say that)? Curtis who has written some of the best romantic comedies of the last decade including Four Weddings and a Funeral Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary steps behind the camera for the first time here and is able to give each story a unique point of view from the lovesick to the wacky. There actually may be too many stories in Love Actually but it's a small gaffe. Love Actually is a refreshing good old fashioned warm and gushy movie that takes your mind off the bad things for the holiday season and Curtis should feel confident about his directing debut.
Will Will Truman get lucky? Will Chandler and Monica tie the knot? Will Dawson and Pacey make up? And what's up with "Popular"?!
Those are some of the questions that have been posed and that will be answered during the fall season of television.
Herein is a critique of the fall seasons of 10 TV series that Hollywood.com staffers watch on a weekly basis:
"Will & Grace," NBC, Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET
Is "Will & Grace," the as-of-late-sometimes-hilarious sitcom about a gay man named Will Truman (Eric McCormack, who looks tan and really sexy this season), his best gay friend Jack McFarland (the always funny, over the top Emmy winner Sean Hayes), his best female friend Grace Adler (Debra Messing), and her lush of a socialite "employee" Karen Walker (Emmy winner Megan Mullally), falling from, er, grace this season? "Will & Grace" sadly has been spotty since its Emmy win for Best Comedy. McCormack has said that Will will date this season and have a number of boyfriends. The guest spot a few weeks back by Patrick Dempsey as one of those alleged future boyfriends was funny, and the exchange among Dempsey, McCormack and Hayes in Banana Republic (dancer-actor-singer-choreographer Jack is now a Banana Republic sales associate, headphones and all) was witty and pretty and ... well, you know. But last week's much-hyped guest spot by Cher was totally disappointing. The writing was weak for most of the episode, guest star Camryn Manheim was wasted and Cher appeared in only the last few minutes. What we needed was a half hour of "Jack & Cher." Here's hoping that Will hooks up with Mr. Banana Republic. Life is about the Banana, after all. Go, girlfriend. Grade: B-
"Friends," NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET
Some shows grind to a halt after two characters get together, but the pairing of Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) and Chandler (Matthew Perry), who are set to wed this season, has created more hijinks than ever. They have created the funniest storylines of the season: Monica consults an elaborate wedding binder she's been keeping since 4th grade, only to find out that her parents spent her wedding fund on a beach house. Chandler keeps having embarrassing moments with his future father-in-law (Elliott Gould) and finds that he can't smile in photographs. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) compete for maid of honor (Phoebe wins, but lets Rachel do it because it means more to her). Meanwhile, the non-wedding-related storylines have fallen to the wayside: Rachel has hired a cute younger assistant she can't date; Joey's pilot gets canceled, and Phoebe just found out that her grandmother's secret cookie recipe is from Nestle Tollhouse. Ross (David Schwimmer), other than a memory-lane kiss with Rachel, is so far unlucky in love. But, in the funniest episode of the season, he finds an unlikely snuggling partner in Joey when the two accidentally nap together -- and like it. Grade: B+
"The West Wing," NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET
This Emmy winner started its second season with a bang -- quite literally. After the cliffhanger from the end of the first season, wherein President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) were shot, the two-hour opener took viewers from the present to the past. The episode cleverly gave the audience the background of why Bartlet first got on the campaign trail and showed how his extraordinary staff was assembled, all while juxtaposed with the assassination crisis. And the show doesn't seem to be stopping, creating scenarios that mirror the current social and political climate -- including some controversial racial conflict. The cast is still outstanding -- including Emmy winners Allison Janney as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg and Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler. Guest spots by the likes of Timothy Busfield and John Laroquette added heart and intensity to the behind-the-scenes storylines. But the heart of the show remains Sheen as the wise and truthful President Bartlet, and given the current real-life situation in the political world, Bartlet would be considered a godsend. Grade: A
"Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET
Though "Everybody Loves Raymond" does not tend to build upon storylines episode to episode, it has shown some resourcefulness this season. Bringing in guest stars such as Robert Culp as Debra Barone's (Emmy winner Patricia Heaton) dad was a nice touch, especially when it led to a hilarious dispute between in-laws. But the show has been quite hit-or-miss lately. Ray (Ray Romano) developing a fear of germs, for example -- interesting but not funny, especially for a character who already has three young children. Just a breakdown of logic there. Ray's brother Robert, the divorced cop (played with deadpan precision by Brad Garrett), has also been curiously underused thus far. Grade: B-
"ER," NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET
The best thing America's top drama -- for the past six seasons -- has done so far is not add any new characters. Drs. Greene and Corday (Anthony Edwards and Alex Kingston) have gotten engaged; Dr. Kovac (the very hunky Goran Visjnic) is feeling guilt over a guy he accidentally killed during a mugging; and Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) is back from rehab and peeing in a cup whenever he's asked. Dr. Chen (Ming-Na) is pregnant by a doctor at another hospital; Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle) lost his surgical attending position and is now "demoted" to an ER post; and there are hints that Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) is mulling a lesbian relationship. Oh yes, and they treat people, too. The strongest episodes are still the medical-oriented cases, especially the 22-week-old "miracle baby" who survived nearly an entire day. Medical student/nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) is emerging as the emotional core, letting us miss Sherry Stringfield and Julianna Margulies a little less. What's left to do is to use more of Michael Michele, who plays pediatric resident Dr. Cleo Finch. "ER" is not consistently great, but it still keeps our pulses pounding. Grade: B
"Dawson's Creek," WB, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET
Last year ended with Joey (Katie Holmes) sailing into the sunset with Pacey (Joshua Jackson), leaving her best friend/soul mate Dawson (James Van Der Beek) weeping and alone. It's a good choice because Holmes and Jackson have decidedly better chemistry, and although they dispense the same amount of SAT-filled sentences (meanwhile Pacey is flunking school) as Joey and Dawson, this new couple have snappier arguments/flirtations. This season: Joey's repairing her friendship with Dawson, who's trying to move on by taking pictures and finding a new confidante in Pacey's older sister (Sasha Alexander), particularly after his parents discover that they're having another baby. Pacey and Dawson take (very small) steps toward reconciliation after the former's boat is swept into a storm and the latter risks his neck to save him. Jen (Michelle Williams) is temporarily ostracized from the group -- and from best friend Jack (Kerr Smith) -- when she lets the already medicated Andie (Meredith Monroe) try Ecstasy at a rave, causing her to collapse and nearly die. But it's Andie who gives the fractured group a chance to heal again when she announces that she's leaving Capeside to spend the rest of the year in Italy (she already got into Harvard early, dontcha know). In her tearjerking farewell, she implores her friends to make up, and it looks as if they will. Grade: B+
"Frasier," NBC, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET
In the early '90s -- in its third season -- "Seinfeld" began to structure its episodes around the supporting characters, not the title character. Suddenly, the same seems true about "Frasier." While the love affair between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) seemed to be the hook to get viewers back into the show early this fall, it remained the hook throughout most of the season. And it worked. Their relationship has spawned a number of morose storylines thus far, with ex-wives and ex-fiancees plotting against the likable couple, but Frasier himself seems to have been pushed aside, stuck with adequate conflicts such as his displeasure with his wealthy new boss. But it still works. And Niles pretending to still be married in social circles is surprisingly hilarious each time. Grade: B+
"Spin City," ABC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET
No, you can't blame Charlie Sheen alone for "Spin City's" decline in popularity. It really comes down to the writing. Only one episode of "Spin City" this fall has been impressive -- the one where Sheen and Heather Locklear lock horns on the set of "Live With Regis" -- but little else has proven to be much of a surprise. Sure, Sheen's character, the deputy mayor of New York, is narcissistic, and yes, he has a tainted history with drugs, but didn't we already expect that? It's not Sheen's fault that this sort of cliched writing took place. It's not Locklear's fault that she has little chemistry with him. And it's not the viewers' fault for wanting to change the channel - even though it means the certain demise of one of their previously most beloved shows. We miss ya, Mike. Grade: C-
"Popular," WB, Fridays, 9 p.m. ET
The WB's "Popular" is one of the most underrated and funniest shows on television. It's sad that it's been relegated to a Friday night spot. The show boasts a fabulous ensemble cast of pretty people vs. Everyday people, although the two sides have been mingling more and more. School stud turned social pariah Josh Ford (Bryce Johnson) has hooked up with tree-hugger Lily Esposito (Tamara Mello) after the pair rescued a gay chimpanzee from the L.A. Zoo. It's a lame pairing, but player-player Josh has already hooked up with the rest of the ladies on the show, so I guess Lil' Lily was next. Alarming this season: Instead of funny gags such as kidnapping Gwyneth Paltrow's personal shopper and competing ruthlessly for Homecoming Queen, "Popular" has turned to Very Special Episodes. Harrison John (Christopher Gorham) is battling leukemia, Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) has cried ... twice(!) ... over her fall from popularity, Carmen Ferrera's (Sara Rue) mother is an alcoholic, and both reigning Homecoming Queen Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) and Mike "Sugar Daddy" Bernadino are battling eating disorders. Not very funny stuff. This season has been more about tears over sadness and struggles rather than laughter. As Mary Cherry (the always hilarious Leslie Grossman) would say, let's get some laughs back, hon. And pronto! Grade: B-
"Ally McBeal," Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET
After a disappointing third season, David E. Kelley's series was in need of some serious spice. Kelley tried everything to raise ratings, from a lesbian lip-lock to some full-blown musical mishmash, but nothing could save the sinking show. In a final act of desperation, Kelley brought in a fresh-from-the-cell Robert Downey Jr. Little did Kelley know that the criminal element would bring such critical success this fall. As a cute, clever attorney named Larry, Downey's straight but sarcastic delivery is the perfect foil for Ally's (Calista Flockhart) high-strung hysteria. He steals every scene with his flawless timing, then punctuates even the simplest sentence with that trademark sexy smirk. Downey may have been sent in to rekindle the spark, but his presence has set the show on fire and made "Ally McBeal" a must-see on Monday nights again. Grade: B+
Reviews by Jason Alcorn, Kit Bowen, Tracey Pollack, Ellen A. Kim and Don Chareunsy.