Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter 5 & 7

Tonight, around midnight, I'm going to be swept up into the final round of Harry Potter hype and hysteria, as I stop at Borders to (try to) get hold of a copy of J. K. Rowling's seventh and last novel about the boy wizard. After surviving the stampede, I then plan to join some friends in an all-night read-a-thon, fortified by junk food and booze. Hopefully I'll be able to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by breakfast time tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I suppose it's time to share my thoughts about the fifth Harry Potter movie, which I saw a couple weekends ago. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is an exception to my current boycott of sequels, such as Live Fast or Die Hard and The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Rather, Order of the Phoenix is not a sequel, but part of a planned series, and is based on a book I already know and enjoy.

The fifth book of Harry was famous, or perhaps infamous, for showing the young hero in an unattractive light. In the book, the "boy who lived" goes through an angry phase that led fans to dub him "Caps-Lock Harry." He does a lot of moping, arguing, and yelling at his best friends, and in a climactic temper-tantrum he chews up a good deal of Headmaster Dumbledore's office. But he does have a lot of reasons to be upset. Many of those reasons carry over into this movie, which simplifies and streamlines the plot of the book and, more successfully than in any of the previous Potter films, reshapes it for maximum cinematic effectiveness.

In this movie Harry survives an attack by soul-devouring dementors, attempts to silence him about the return of the dark wizard Voldemort, the malice of the sweetly sadistic Professor Umbridge, private lessons from the equally unpleasant Professor Snape, a cooling of his friendship with Headmaster Dumbledore, and a series of dreams and visions fueled by his mental connection to Voldemort - which the Dark Lord will, inevitably, exploit in order to lead Harry into a trap. Harry longs to join the Order of the Phoenix, an organization dedicated to fighting Voldemort and his Death Eater followers; instead, Harry organizes a secret defensive-magic club at school. All these things, plus encounters with furious centaurs, a dozy giant, and a poisonous house-elf, and loads of thought-provoking politics, lead Harry to bring five of his school friends on a rescue mission that turns into a life-and-death battle.

I would like to say more about what happens in this film, but after several tries I realize there is no way to do it without going way too long. I might just point out some of the best parts of this film. It does a wonderful job with the key elements of the story: Harry's relationship with his godfather Sirius, the perky villainy of Dolores Umbridge (perfectly personified by actress Imelda Staunton), the progress and friendship of the students Harry coaches in defensive magic, the government's infuriating effort to suppress Harry's story about the return of Voldemort, the otherworldly "differentness" of Luna Lovegood and how Harry comes to accept it, and the climactic trap/chase/battle involving Harry's friends, the Order of the Phoenix, the Death Eaters, the death of someone close to Harry, and a terrifying duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. There are also some exciting new creatures: the graceful/grim thestrals, a dozy giant, a herd of furious centaurs, and a spiteful house-elf.

However, there are a few lapses. The special effects aren't altogether convincing (particularly the scene in which the giant called Grawp picks up Harry's friend Hermione). Some story threads were left lying loose (e.g., the whole point of Kreacher being in the story is left out, but Kreacher himself isn't). Some opportunities were missed (such as revealing that Umbridge set the dementors on Harry). Some things happened too easily (e.g., after Harry & friends must take an elevator to the Department of Mysteries, how is there suddenly a doorway that leads directly from the Death Room to the atrium?).

On the other hand, there are also some brilliant touches. My favorite is Harry's parting shot at Umbridge ("Sorry, Professor, but I must not tell lies"), arguably screenwriter Michael Goldenberg's most inspired invention. The motif of zooming in on newspaper headlines is transformed from melodramatic cliche to offbeat charm by the added quirks of moving pictures and self-changing headlines. The editing of the "Umbridge as High Inquisitor" and "Dumbledore's Army" montages gives a convincing impression of the passage of both time and events without allowing the film to bog down in either.

As always, there are so many high-quality actors in the film that most of them only contribute to a moment or two, but these moments add so much - from Richard Griffiths' loathesome, yellow-toothed grin of triumph and Helena Bonham Carter's fanatically evil cackle, to Maggie Smith's poignant horror at being accused of disloyalty and Emma Thompson's myopic seer in distress. The non-speaking character of Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis) elicits a laugh each time he is on screen, while David Bradley's Filch achieves even more in his more extended, yet also silent, role. I'm not terribly impressed with the acting work of David Thewlis (Lupin), who seems unable to control his hand movements while speaking; but he is surrounded, and outnumbered, by the likes of the sensitive Gary Oldman, the chameleonic Brendan Gleeson, the weightless Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon with his aura of authority, Jason Isaacs with his sneer of disdain, Alan Rickman with his singsong astringency, and Robbie Coltrane with his big, childlike gentleness.

The kids in the cast, too, have grown in their effectiveness; I think particularly of Bonnie Wright (as Ginny), whose performance consists mostly of "reaction shots" in which, for the most part, she shows us the unhappiness of a girl with a crush on a boy who has a crush on another girl. Rupert Grint's best moment (as Ron) is his injured look when his best friend snaps at him for no reason. Emma Watson (as Hermione) has a little more success than in the past in portraying a bossy know-it-all with a heart of gold; her most "genuine" moment is the nervous stammer with which she begins her speech welcoming the raw recruits of Dumbledore's Army. The Phelps twins (as the Weasley twins) are fun as usual, but one can't help but giggle evilly when they decide that their future lies outside the realm of academic achievement. Matthew Lewis gets to show us a bit of Neville's courageous side (though the movie shrinks back from clearly stating that his parents went insane). But the medal for "most improved" young actor goes to Dan Radcliffe as Harry, since for the first time in this series, he never once made me feel like hiding my face in embarrassment. Perhaps it helps that no fake crying was required of him.

The movies have never impressed me nearly as much as the books, but Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix comes as close to being a completely satisfying film, for a fan of the books like me, as any part of the series so far. I look forward to seeing what the same director, David Yates, does with the sixth movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

IMAGES: The UK adult cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Alan Rickman as potions master Snape; Harry (Dan Radcliffe) doing detention under Umbridge (Imelda Staunton); Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams) and Harry using the "visitors' entrance" to the Ministry of Magic; Harry and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) encountering a thestral in the forest.

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