Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Franchise Flashback: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a dark and often scary film, satisfying in most of the usual Potter film ways with top notch design, effects, and costuming. But do I need to say the production design, special effects, and costuming are exceedingly well done? At this point it would do just as well to simply state that it’s a Harry Potter movie as excellence in these areas is now a given. It’d be more surprising if it failed on those counts.

What is surprising this time around, after four consistent improvements, is a backslide. There’s pacing problems again. The movie is rushed, smashing past and glossing over what seems like important points. Other times the film moves a little languidly. This adaptation is perhaps the most awkward of the five, most likely a result of the switch in screenwriter. Steve Kloves adapted the first four books, and has adapted the last two books, but chose to take a breather with this installment, leaving the work to series newbie Michael Goldenberg. Now, I mean no slight to Goldenberg, who surely did the best he could in the time allotted and with the dual constraints of honoring Rowling’s novel and fitting within the context of an already established franchise. His adaptation, though, is just not as polished as it should be. To be fair, he was adapting my least favorite book of the series. On the screen, as well as on the page, the plot in this installment seems like so much wheel spinning. There are great concepts and visuals (we finally visit the Ministry of Magic!) but the plot is merely laying track for the impending endgame of the franchise.

Putting that aside, however, and we are left with the wonderful production, and the continuingly great acting from the cast. It almost goes without saying that the kids are older and even better. Radcliffe brings a great intensity to the angst of Potter’s emotional state; after the events of the last story, he’s surely suffering from post-traumatic stress. Watson and Grint do well, as do the other kids in the cast. The adults are still a wonderful patchwork of British character actors both new and returning, though many of them pop up only long enough to say a few lines and show that, yes, they're still in the series.
Speaking of new, the director is new once again. British TV veteran David Yates does an admirable job with this fantasy universe, even if he’s not taking as many risks as previous directors in the series like CuarĂ³n and Newell. Joining the cast is Helena Bonham Carter as a pure force of unpredictability. I get the feeling the only direction she needed was "crazy witch" and she was off and running.

But the best new cast member in this installment is the new teacher who springs from Rowling’s writing to life: Dolores Umbridge, every horrible teacher you’ve ever had rolled into the worst teacher imaginable, a torturously warped Dahl-like figure of pleasant authoritarian cruelty. Imelda Staunton plays her to such heights of perfection that I still wish she’d gotten an Oscar nomination. (She’s also the inspiration for composer Nicholas Hooper, filling in for the still absent Williams, to create his best piece of music for the film, one that fits Williams established mood and orchestration perfectly).Watch the way she struts across Hogwarts, using spells to pull the student body closer towards her view of proper, which has long been hopelessly warped through years of bureaucratic training to be endlessly shortsighted. Watch the way the smile stays tremulously frozen on her face when confronted with the truth that doesn’t square up with what she is certain is true. And watch the way she pleasantly stirs her tea while torturing a student. And watch her smug satisfaction as she hangs increasingly Animal-Farm-style rules on a wall of the Great Hall.

Speaking of Orwell, the Ministry of Magic, especially leader Cornelius Fudge, is the major factor in the political resonance in this installment. The book and the movie were both released during the second term of George W. Bush, and I vividly recall the political themes really hitting me when I read and watched the story unfold. The erosion of civil liberties, the anti-intellectualism, the close-mindedness and willful ignorance of facts, really resonated with me, so much so that a late scene in the film that finds an oversized banner of Fudge ripped to shreds as a byproduct of battle, and another that sees Umbridge’s rules crash down, were some of the most cathartic political sights in the summer of ’07 for me. These feelings rush back to me as I watch, now tinged with an odd nostalgia. Though it seems strange to be nostalgic for something that happened only two years ago, it’s easy to see that I’m already thinking So that’s how I felt back then.

But for all the positives, the movie’s only serviceable, though still a slick and exciting entry in one of the most solid of all film franchises, especially those that last this long. But then again, what’s the competition at this point, with five released titles? Friday the 13th? Police Academy? I’ll stick with Potter.

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