Friday, November 5, 2010

Finally A Cinematic Harry Potter Winner! Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix Delights.

The Good: Great themes, Good character development, Excellent acting, Most of the special effects, Mood and pacing.
The Bad: Editing, Romantic subplot.
The Basics: As Harry Potter struggles to convince the adults around him of Voldemort's return, he raises an army to protect Hogwart's from threats within and without!

For those who might not have been keeping up with my reviews of the Harry Potter Saga films in advance of the impending release of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 (I have my preview screening tickets already! Yea!), I have not been a fan of the cinematic Harry Potter. Having only seen the films - life's too short for me to read the books - I have been underwhelmed by the stories, characters and much of the acting in each one. So, it might surprise some when I happily laud Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. With a decent sense of consequence and tension throughout, my biggest beef with this film is in its editing.

Who would have guessed?! The truth is, though, the editing in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix is just terrible. The movie constantly cuts out shots that show the chain of custody of important objects as well as a sensible and realistic sense of movement for people from one place to another. So, for an immediate example that comes instantly to mind, at one point in the film, Hermione is standing before a child giant who hands her a set of bicycle handlebars with a bell on them. Hermione rings the bell and is seen holding the handlebars and the film cuts to a reaction shot of the giant holding the same handlebars and ringing the bell back to her. The giant taking back or being given the bell back is missing and while it might not seem severe, the sheer number of cuts like that where there are pieces missing - as well as an annoying tendency for the scar on Harry's forehead to wander from the corner of his brow to the center of his forehead - become not only noticeable, but distracting. Still, as my partner noted early on in our viewing, I enjoyed this much more than any of the prior installments.

Alone, contemplating the death of Cedric in an abandoned playground, Harry Potter is confronted by his cousin, Dudley Dursley who begins to taunt Harry. The weather changes abruptly, signs Harry realized foretell of a Dementor attack and he and his cousin are assaulted by a pair of Dementors. After incapacitating his Dementor, Harry saves his cousin, in violation of the laws of magic. Before his new school year begins, he is dragged before a wizard's tribunal where the Ministry Of Magic prepares to prevent Harry from using his magic again. Despite taking up his defense, he finds Dumbledore is particularly cold to him and that the Ministry Of Magic is in deep denial of the return to power and corporeal form of the evil Lord Voldemort.

Harry learns of the Order Of The Phoenix, a secret society of witches and wizards that fought Voldemort and the Deatheaters the last time Voldemort was in ascendancy. While Harry works to keep Voldemort out of his head, Hogwart's falls under the influence of Umbrage, a conservative professor from the Ministry bent on a traditional approach to learning magic. Fearing her approach will lead to the slaughter of the current generation of magic-users at the hands of Voldemort, Harry begins to raise an army. This puts Dumbledore even more on the outs with the Ministry and Umbrage takes Hogwart's, leaving Harry Potter disconnected from his assets, leading a rebellion as Voldemort hunts a prophecy in the Department of Mysteries!

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix is a fairly tight fantasy-adventure film bogged down by the few attempts to add things like romantic subplots to the mix. Harry Potter has his first kiss with Cho Chan, despite having much more time on-screen with both Ginny Weasley and the flighty, somewhat crazy young witch, Luna Lovegood. Unlike the burgeoning romance between Hermione and Ron, which is much more muted in this installment than its predecessor, Cho Chan is thrown at Harry Potter with so much fanfare that one struggles to recall any scenes they are in where there is not an express purpose of implied young sexual tension (Harry Potter are fifteen in this installment).

Outside that and the editing, though, the film is wonderful. Truth be told, I hated large tracts of the movie, but it was my emotional involvement that makes me praise the movie. Umbrage does exactly what elements like her do in situations like this; they exploit the fear of those who rely upon their authority and use it as a means to assert power and control. This takes the form in the film of edicts pounded into a wall of Hogwart's with new rules. I found myself cringing at the punishments Umbrage inflicts upon the students and there is a noble subtext urging young people to report abuses by adults in authority positions which is probably the first real public service I've yet seen in one of these films.

Umbrage's rise to power at Hogwart's is difficult to watch, though its message is quite timely. With a mix of McCarthyist scare tactics and Bush-esque fear-based power grabs and authoritarian decrees, Professor Umbrage worms her way to the top in a way that is frighteningly familiar. Of course, it makes the message of Harry raising an opposing force all the more noble, dangerous and heroic. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix is about the traditional fight for right and freedom against evil with a real sense of danger to it.

Beyond that, it is just fun to watch (when it is smooth in its effects and editing). The old guard Order Of The Phoenix is made up of recognizable faces like Lupin, Sirius Black and MadEye. While seeing the prior films in the series enhances one's appreciation of who the characters are and what the struggle against Voldemort means, all of the important details are recapped sufficiently to prevent those who come just to this film from being lost. In fact, I urge viewers to pick this film series up here; the essential problem from the finale of the last film is almost instantly recapped: Lord Voldemort has returned to a physical body, at the expense of a Hogwart's student, but only Harry witnessed the event. Devoid of the problematic elements - most notably a time travel adventure that pointedly failed to prevent this series of events - Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix contains all of the essential information to begin the series here.

Even better, the film forms a pretty solid cadre with the new blood for the Order Of The Phoenix. The new character, Luna Lovegood, enters quite easily into the mix and accompanies Ginny and Neville (who have more screentime and Neville actually has a pretty decent character, complete with relevant backstory) with the big three (Harry, Hermione and Ron) on the bulk of the adventure. With the death of Cedric, there is an air of potential danger throughout the film and the fact that Luna reveals that she and Harry can see a new mystical creature because they have been touched by death is legitimately creepy.

Moreover, peripheral characters in the film are given enough room to finally live up to some of their potential. Harry Potter and Snape finally share a real scene in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix that has Snape doing something more than simply scowling. Here, Snape works to protect Harry and in the process, reveals his backstory as the victim of Harry's dead father's bullying. Finally, Snape is more than just a sneering professor who looks angry, but always seems eager to exonerate Potter and his friends!

Moreover, the acting in this film is spot-on. After a break for a film, Emma Thompson pops back as the confused prognosticator Professor Trelawney for a few delightful scenes and Maggie Smith is given more substance as Professor McGonagall. Smith plays perfectly off Imelda Staunton's Umbrage with a cool professionalism that make the scene where they square off delightfully icy.

The big three do quite well as well. Rupert Grint does more than either bug out his eyes or look ticked off. Similarly, Emma Watson has an intelligence and spontaneous quality that puts her up with Anne Hathaway as this generation's best chance of producing a knockout talent who is able to hold the public's attention her entire life. Watson plays off Grint and Radcliffe perfectly.

For his part, Daniel Radcliffe rises to the occasion perfectly, making Harry Potter from an apprentice into a leader. He plays perfectly as a young man on the threshold opposite Gary Oldman's Sirius Black and plays strong and mature before all of the younger performers as the character takes a leadership role. Radcliffe is quite easy to watch and he has a strength and professionalism to him that works wonderfully throughout the entire film.

On DVD, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes as a decent two-disc set, though there is still no commentary track. There are, however, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and programs on the translation from the books to the movie that are enlightening and entertaining if nothing else.

For those looking for a more impressive fantasy adventure film, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix is the one we've been waiting for, overcoming the hype to actually be wonderful in its own right.

For other films in the Harry Potter franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire


For other film reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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