Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

You know, for being a normal (albeit magical) kid, Harry Potter sure does get into a lot of trouble.  Every school year, there is some deadly threat that rears its ugly head, and it always seems to target Harry.  Up until this point in the series, that felt like an abstract coincidence.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film in the series, changes up the formula a bit; this isn't about the dreaded Lord Voldemort trying to return in some overcomplicated fashion; he's back, and he has a mad-on for killing Harry.
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The story picks up a few months after the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself returning to school under more scrutiny than ever before; since he was the only living witness to Lord Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) return and was then immediately sent on summer vacation in the muggle world, a lot of people are doubting his claim.  The wizard government and newspapers have taken the stance that Harry is a spotlight-loving glory hound, content to lie and frighten the masses for attention.  This is mirrored in the student population at Hogwarts, too.  Before, Harry was a kid with a burden; now, he's a teenager that is actually being conspired against.  Cue some teenage angst.

Harry and his friends (that believe Lord Voldemort is back) want to learn more about protecting themselves from evil wizards, but the Ministry of Magic sends a new teacher to Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), to prevent that from happening.  She starts off small, by assuming the teaching role of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes and forbidding magic in the classroom, and works her way up; as the story progresses, she gains more and more power, forbidding more and more things, until the wizard school is a joyless, um, normal private school.  But Harry knows that he needs to learn more magic to fight Voldemort and his evil wizard posse.  He would like to join the official anti-Voldemort club, the Order of the Phoenix, like his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and his idol, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), but he is told that he is too young.  How can Harry and his friends learn to protect themselves if the nasty Umbridge won't allow them?  If Harry is at school, and that school is Voldemort-proof, how does the bad guy plan on getting to Harry?  And what is up with the creepy waking dreams Harry keeps having about Voldemort?  As luck would have it, this film tries to answer those questions.
Seduction of the Innocent?

As per usual in the Harry Potter series, the main child actors are getting better.  This was definitely the most varied performance by Daniel Radcliffe to date, and he managed to come across as a hell of a lot more likable than his character did in the book.  Rupert Grint keeps getting uglier as he grows up, but he's less melodramatic this time around, so it seems that he's getting better at acting.  Emma Watson turns in another quality performance, although this part is probably her weakest in the series.  The returning adult cast is of the same quality as they always are; none have particularly large roles, but they're all solid.  That means that Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, and Emma Thompson all played their parts well enough.  Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman had slightly more important roles in this film, and I enjoyed the charm and spite that they respectively brought to their parts.  This film also gave us a longer look at Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, and he definitely enjoys playing the bad guy here.
Finally!  A Harry Potter spin-off!

The new cast members were great, but that's kind of typical for the series.  Helena Bonham Carter looked the part of a half-crazed evil witch, and I loved her childish taunting.  Her character design was pretty awesome and, despite the relatively short amount of time she is onscreen, she is quite memorable. 
This is what Tim Burton wakes up to.
Imelda Staunton was also excellent in her part.  When I heard that she was cast in this role, I assumed that she would be great, because she plays subdued but evil characters quite well.  I was right.  She hits every insincere line perfectly, forcing the audience to hate her abuses of authority at least as much as the Potter bunch do, if not more. 
The Devil Wears Pink

This is the first Harry Potter that was directed by David Yates, who only had television credits before this.  I have to say, this is a very impressive directorial film debut.  Yates doesn't do a whole lot that is too fancy with the camera or special effects (although I do like the subtle reddening of Harry's scar when he thinks of Voldemort), but he manages to get very good performances from the entire cast and made a compelling, two-and-a-quarter-hour movie from an 870-page book.  Bravo, good sir!  What impresses me most about this film is that it is based on my least favorite book in the series; the book has Harry acting like a pissy teenager (which he is) that bitches and moans for 800 pages.  Yates let the frustration and anger of Harry show, but he did it in a way that kept Harry as a likable character and didn't make me want to slap the magic out of him.

For me, this is one of the best Harry Potters in the entire series.  The acting just keeps getting better, the big-picture storyline finally starts to heat up, and we get to see just how cool adult wizards are.  I like the tone of the movie, I like the washed out colors in it, and I really enjoyed the Voldemort vs. Dumbledore fight.
Wizard fight!
This feels like a step away from the childish wonder that anchored the first half of the film series; there is an important character death, there is no quidditch, and Harry's love life seems hopeless.  Instead, this is a movie that focuses on small victories in the lives of its characters, and it shows just how well Harry and his classmates stack up against real witches and wizards.  It might not be as much fun as some of the other films, but it does a good job balancing the comedic and dramatic.  If I had to pick one Harry Potter movie to get someone interested in the series, I would probably choose The Order of the Phoenix for its balance of character development, cool special effects, and tangible threats.

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