NOTE: If you are not a member of the HARRY POTTER cult of personality, not only is it my duty to tell you that what follows will barely make a lick of sense, but it is an article of my wonderment why you even clicked on this review in the first place.
Why does such an imaginative and energetic series of books bring about a franchise of middle-of-the-road movies?
Money. When you have something set up to make gobs of cash aimed at youngsters, you can’t get too wild. Drives the grosses down. Confuses the kids and weirds out the adults. This is why the Harry Potter series of films hasn’t really been all that great, with three long and expensive sighs of indifference and one admittedly good one (Alfonso Cuaron‘s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) that still had moments of playing like an advertisement for itself. â€See the pretty colors? I bet you want the toys that go with it, huh?â€
Both the book and the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix mark the time when author JK Rowling and the folks at Warner Brothers stopped fucking around with being cute and started taking it as seriously as the fans did. This isn’t some kind of non-threatening Goonies peril these kids are in, but rather actual dangers that result in one dying and not coming back. The genius of the books has finally caught up with the movies, wherein they actually grow with the kids reading them from year to year. Complex ideas and shades of gray are brought in. For example, I never thought a kids movie would actually tackle Stalinism before I saw THIS one.
It’s the fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and stress has finally caught up with Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Worn out from the constant attempts on his life by the returning Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and besieged by bad dreams when he saw a kid die last year, Harry acts, well, like a complete ring-meat most of the time. He blows up at his friends and generally acts all taciturn and moodyâ€¦ Or it could be because he’s fifteen and practically everyone was a tool at that age, myself included.
I would say that “all is not well at Hogwarts,â€ but it so very rarely is. The Ministry of Magic, combating the idea of the return of Lord Voldemort, decides to prop up Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton of Vera Drake) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. No silly wand waving in this class, because according to the Ministry and their media pogrom of disinformation, there’s no evil threat to defend against. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) call bullshit and get Harry to teach a few of the kids how to defend themselves in secret. And the most fun phase of being a teenager takes occurs: Rebellion.
The David Yates-redirected Phoenix may be the first entry in the franchise where acting and technique can be discussed by the film-savvy fans of the novels and not just what was left out of the given book. Black Hawk Down cinematographer Slawomir Idziak bathes the film in steely gray and pallid, ill green. Editor Mark Day, who hasn’t done a lot of film work, makes a splash in a big way, providing dream sequences that bring to mind Dark City. And all of this is under the banner of Yates, who is the only non-established director the series has had to date. Unlike previous directors Chris Columbus, Mike Newell, and Alfonso Cuaron, who were content to not take seriously what they saw as a “kids movie,â€ THIS motherfucker has something to prove.
To all you fans of Ron Weasley, I’m sad to say that Rupert Grint doesn’t get a whole lot of face time in this one, but what’s there is choice. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger is starting to remind me a little of Keira Knightley, only without the impossibly gleaming white teeth that could chew through an engine block. And Radcliffe as Harry is proving to be a more complex and intriguing actor as the years go on. That these kids are going to be good in other projects post-Potter is no surprise. That I would actually pay to see them, however, is.
While it is more of an observation than a criticism, I could only imagine how the Harry Potter films have crippled the English film industry. It seems practically every actor in the British Isles has been co-opted for the bi-annual Harry Potter shoot. Nevertheless, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, and Alan “The Jesusâ€ Rickman all acquit themselves well with their relatively little screen-time. A side bit of praise must be given to Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, who I suggest had a little bit of Errol Flynn in him in his younger days, had he not become the greatest badass the screen has ever known, playing Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Sid Vicious.
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge is quite possibly the most grating and intolerable villain I’ve come across in quite a few years of going to the movies, and that winds up being a strength. Officious and cheery, while hiding psychosis and a loyalty to her career that even Dwight Schrute would find terrifying and obsessive. She’s like the Christian Bale character in American Psycho: Perfectly composed in every way. Unlike one Mr. Bateman, however, we get to see Umbridge get her comeuppance and OH SWEET LORD is it gratifying.
And I must make mention of a newcomer to the series, Helena Bonham Carter as Voldemort’s henchwoman Bellatrix Lestrange. She imbues her character wi–OH MY GOD, SHE’S FUCKING HOT!
Anyway, Phoenix is not without its drawbacks. Even though I had no complaints about this, 870 pages has been pared down to 138 minutes. At least one of your favorite moments of the book is missing. Debate which one amongst yourselves. And though the first hour is intriguing in a way, setting up the political turmoil and what Harry is going up against, plays a little too much like a dusty Star Wars prequel for comfort, though Lord knows it’s not NEARLY as bad as I made that sound.
And perhaps the biggest problem could be a strength. For all you non-Potter fans out there, in order for this one really good movie to make sense, you have to sit through four mediocre movies to get to it.
***1/2 out of 4