This week's SNL kicked off with a spoof of NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music. This cold open was what the show does best. Featuring a reprisal of Kristen Wiig's creepy character Dooneese, it was enjoyably self-indulgent and cameo crazy (Fred Armisen even stopped by). Cast favorites Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam capitalized on their chemistry as Maria and Captain Von Trapp. Opening with a piece this strong is a no-brainer. This sketch gets two tiny thumbs up.
When actor Paul Rudd was slated to host with musical guest One Direction, it raised two questions: Will One Direction play a comedic role on SNL? And how will the upcoming release of Anchorman 2 influence the show? These questions were immediately answered with One Direction already on stage with Rudd for his opening monologue. Having a history of being upstaged by SNL's musical guests, Rudd wasn't going to let a boy band keep him down. Instead he unveils his man band, composed of Anchorman 2 costars Will Ferrell, David Koechner, and Steve Carell. This builds to Rudd, his man band and One Direction all killing it with a heavily harmonized rendition of the classic "Afternoon Delight." Are we crying tears of joy yet?
The first 10 minutes of SNL featured appearances from five comedic giants, not including the host. This felt like the start of the best episode yet, that is, until it wasn't. Such an exciting start created a gap between the opener/monologue and subsequent sketches that could not compete. Instead of setting the tone for a great show, SNL shot their wad. Rudd is amusing to watch do almost anything, but instead of capitalizing on this they relied on it to carry weaker sketches like one where Rudd plays a soon to be divorcee who can't escape his song. The sketch was one of the few to not be released online (you can find it on the full episode), but it had a lot of angry chair-dancing as the only joke. Rudd's charm was more effective in the sketches "Michelangelo Unveils David," and the movie trailer parody "White Christmas," the most well-written pieces of the night.
Weekend Update would have been a stronger point if it wasn't for the character "Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy" amounting to almost no comedic gain. The short segment affected the momentum but did not totally derail the Update desk. Jebediah Atkinson (Taran Killam) returned, a hilarious critic character from the 1800s who debuted three weeks ago, to rip apart seasonal Christmas classics ("Charlie Brown, there's a pube on your forehead!"). This character is so enjoyable it makes sense to bring him back, even when the original appearance had more topical context (a retraction from that week from a Penn. newspaper).
This week's SNL ultimately amounted to an above average episode that could've been amazing. With Wiig, Armisen, Ferrell, Koechner, and Carell, along with Rudd and an already excellent cast, this episode had so much to work with that was not fully realized. Even when the Anchorman gang returned for the "Bill Brasky" sketch, the piece only landed because the people performing are so inarguably hilarious. Without that there wasn't much beyond four to five for the same character performing side by side. Comedy is the most impressive when a lot is accomplished with very little, but unfortunately the week's SNL did the opposite. Still, the cameos and high points alone make this episode worth watching.
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.