Movie-Hype (#706) – HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIXI so much wanted to see this fifth Harry Potter movie in IMAX 3-D. Had I done so I am without doubt that I would be lying on the ground here writing to you that HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (hereafter known as PHOENIX) was unequivocally the best of the five films so far. As it was it may be anyway, but as I sat watching a small part of me couldn't help thinking, Man, what would this be like in IMAX 3-D? (And since I brought it up, let me say this: if you have the opportunity, take it. Hard to imagine a film better served by that experience.)
Trying to figure out where to begin on a Harry Potter movie is like trying to figure out how to talk about a wonderful day at a world-class museum. There is just so much to say. Do you go through it chronologically, start with the best, or start with what you liked least and build up?
Let us start with the good.
Director David Yates, a virtual unknown in America, confidently helms PHOENIX without a hitch. I am looking forward to him handling the sixth film, which will be only the second time the cast has had the same director two films in a row. My sister described Yates's style as "blended," which is a good word for it. There are pieces of all four previous Harry Potter films (both literally and figuratively), but a bit of his own magic too. We do not dwell on Hogwarts anymore like in the early movies, but touches of it are still there. The different energy of AZKABAN peeks around at us at times, as does the exotic mystery of GOBLET. When you direct an installment in a series like Harry Potter, you are trying to make your mark (which would be especially tempting for a director getting his first big shot), but I think you have to be respectful to what came before. Yes, each movie should stand alone, but if you are not going to follow some of what has already transpired why make the films in the first place?
Also new to the Harry Potter world was screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, who replaces script 1-4 writer Steven Kloves (although Kloves will return for HALF-BLOOD PRINCE). I really like what Goldenberg did here. In my GOBLET OF FIRE review, I said that book was longer than the first three put together, and making a movie would be tough. Well, PHOENIX is even longer, which means you are cutting and cutting and cutting to get anything approaching theatrical run-times. That is a lot tougher than it sounds. After all, what gets cut? (And yes, I have mentioned it before, but can I just say again that were money not the central driving factor, Harry Potter would be much better served in long-form television?)
Gone is Quidditch and Ron's storyline, which might disappoint fans but is completely understandable. After all, the movie audience has seen it, and in sequels you move upwards or backwards. Gone too is most of the Dursley home life, and virtually all class time or dorm time, but at the risk of being flippant, again: been there, done that. Harry's interview is cut out very effectively, as was all of Neville's family scenes and prophecy connection, which made me sad but I understood. (You non-readers just skip on as you neither know nor care what I am talking about.) I do wish the giant statues could have fought, but cool as that would have been, you would have lost the emotional impact of the ending.
I guess what I'm saying is that—with a few exceptions, which I will get to—massive chunks of the story were trimmed, re-worked or flat-out cut without too much loss to the story, and that's impressive.
Previous reviews have seen me gush on and on about the cast, so I will confine my comments today to new characters and just say that uniform excellence again abounds. (Actually, I will go one better than that. I think the two strongest behind-the-scenes components of Harry Potter are the set designs, which almost always live up to my book-imagination, and the casting. Besides the three leads (who at the beginning seemed so weak but have grown into their roles in applaudatory fashion), every single character has been cast perfectly, don't you think? Every time we know we are going to get a new character, and he/she shows up; BAM—perfect!)
I want to talk for a moment about things that disappointed me or I did not like, but before I do, I want to be clear: I am not trying to be negative. PHOENIX was a bloody great movie. However, this is what you pay me for….
While perhaps impossible in a movie format, I was disappointed so many of my favorite supporting characters were so little used. Do not blink if you are a fan of Professor McGonagall, Hagrid, Draco, Lucius, Professor Lupin, or the bumbling Trelawney. I was also majorly disappointed not to get more of Sirius, Dumbledore, Ginny and especially Snape, who continues to effortlessly steal any and every scene he is in. (Seriously: Alan Rickman is the most underrated British Actor of our generation.) I look forward to these characters getting much more time in movie six. (I hope!)
Perhaps most shocking was how little we see of Hermione and Ron. I have warmed to Ron a bit, and of course have been in pre-love with Hermione ever since I laid eyes on her; their triumvirate with Harry has always been the backbone of the movies. However, and I do not think this is exaggeration, if you are not on screen with Harry; you are not in the movie. It is about that simple. There are strengths and weaknesses to that, but I did wish for more of their burgeoning relationship with each other. Sigh. Maybe next time.
For the second movie in a row, I was disappointed John Williams was not scoring the film. (I do not want to sound like a starry-eyed girl here, but let us put it this way: John Williams has not taken any quizzes from me lately.) Some little things also bothered me. For example, most of the gang cannot see the ghostly thestrals (think "Casper the friendly horse), but they fly on them to London without two seconds of thought. Another oddity: flying a broomstick low to the ground in London cannot possibly be a good idea, but early the film several characters do just that, skimming along the Thames right by the Parliament building. It is almost like a shameless plug to England fans. (Although, it did look freaking cool, so I will forgive.)
And Kreacher the house elf (given just a few moments of screen-time, and that most likely to set up his importance in the next too films) looks too much like Dobby! I realize house elves probably look similar, but I bet dollars to donuts that 75% of the non-reading audience (and 45% of the book fanatics) thought Kreacher was originally Dobby. They should have made him a completely different color, or given him a pirate hat and eye patch.
Speaking of house elves, this brings up an issue I have with every one of the films, but maybe it is just me. I have not seen a Harry Potter movie I did not read the book to first. As per my rule, I try VERY hard to judge the movie for itself. I get many things need to be cut, and you will not see me whine as others might. That said, sometimes so much is cut or abridged that I truly wonder if non-readers can follow what they are supposed to.
Case in point: the prophecy is treated as it is nothing. It is probably one third of the book, but treated like a fortune cookie riddle here. Do non-readers grasp what they are seeing? Is it important? Another bother for me is the Harry/Cho storyline. Yes, the kiss is there. (And what a kiss! It goes on forever, and afterwards Cho says, "I guess you ARE a parseltongue!" Okay, she didn't actually say that, but it would have been cool, n'est pas?) However, leading up to the kiss we get a stolen glance or two at best. Harry Potter's reality has always mirrored what it is like for kids to grow up, and I wish more time could have been spent on romance.
I guess what I am trying to say is that these movies should be clocking in at LOTR-range. I realize the running time is with small kids in mind, and I can grudgingly accept that, but PHOENIX is a good ten to twenty-five minutes shorter than the other films! That time could have been used to flesh out the prophecy (and set up the ending some), as well as the romance, and more Harry/Snape time.
(Actually, now that I think about it, the LOTR comparison has given me an idea. You know how Jackson made those much longer director's cuts? What if Warner Brothers released two cuts of the film in theaters: one for kids, with around a 130 minute run time (and maybe just a touch of the violence diminished), and cut for older people, say around 175 minutes, with fuller exposition and maybe even a little T&A! This idea is so brilliant that you just know no one will even try.)
(I just thought of another amazing idea so good they will not use it. Could they not do a "Previously, on Harry Potter" at the beginning of the films? Who would complain about a chance to reacquaint with characters and storylines? And if that sounds too "TV," they could work it in like the beginning of FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, with some cool-ass narration. Can we PLEEEEEEEEEEEEASE make this happen?)
Okay, so enough nitpicking. Here is what is not good or bad, but simply KICKASSINGLY AWESOME:
That Kiss. Worth every penny.
The Occlumency sessions. For non-readers, I will not spoil it, other than to say that it is an incredible interaction with Snape and Harry, who have arguably the best chemistry of anyone in the films.
The new characters. I might have been frustrated at how little we see of them, but they rock the freaking Kasbah. You will not call anyone a bitch more fervently than you do Umbridge. Rarely have I so wanted to reach back like a pimp and slap the ho. Tonks is only with us for a few minutes, but makes the most of them. (How can you go wrong with a name like Nymphadora?) Kingsley Shacklebolt gets one line in the entire movie, but he got the biggest applause. Luna Lovegood might be hotter than Hermione, and if that is not an endorsement, I do not know what is.
And can I just say that Bellatrix Lestrange rocks my world? (Remember these names. You will agree.)
Dumbledore's Army. Every minute felt right and natural, new and exciting, yet comfortable and familiar. Watching Harry take on a true leadership role, out of choice, not necessity, was a treat. I am still in awe.
The outfits. Most natural fit yet.
The creatures. The aforementioned thestrals, the centaurs, and Grawp, a very cool giant. (Although tell me he does not look like a mutant Alfred E. Newman. Okay, a more mutant Alfred E. Newman.)
Speaking of Grawp, his moment with Hermione. I do not want to give it away, but suffice it to say I HAD SOMETHING IN MY EYE!
That Harry was not a jerk. This sounds strange, but in Book #5 Harry series-long rising anger finally reaches a point I like to call "insufferable boor who needs a good thrashing with a stick." When the early scenes of Harry's isolation were rushed I was worried, but it turned out to be a good thing, as Harry never becomes much of a jerk. Frankly, what works (if annoyingly) in the book would not have here. Nobody wants to root for SuperAss.
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Every moment with him crackled. That man makes a grand entrance, and a grander exit. The dude just has presence and flair. And since I am on the subject, let me take a moment to air a disagreement I have with half my friends, who think that Michael Gambon's performance sucks compared to Richard Harris', who died after the first two films. I will grant you that Gambon plays Dumbledore with less of a twinkle in his eye and more gravely, and in the books he's all a-twinkle. But people, you must understand. That twinkle is for the kids to be reassured. These books have always been part allegory, and Dumbledore was supposed to in some ways represent a kind grandfather or even Santa Claus, to let kids know things were going to be okay. I get that (even if you do not). But for the movies—especially from AZKABAN on—that would not work. Invincible characters are not interesting to watch. And, if you think about it, if Dumbledore really had everything under control, so much of the chaos of the first few books would not have happened! (Again, this is why I believe Dumbledore is in many ways a representational figure.) I suppose non-fans are getting bored so I will move on, but I want to come back to this someday more in-depth. Maybe a Harry Potter philosophy column?
The quiet moments. My favorite memories of the series are often the quiet reflective moments, cold and raining (or snowing), watching Harry look out a window, taking the camera in and out of those windows. This movie gets those moments so perfectly. Another moment they simply nail is "after the kiss." There may not be a better scene in the entire series than Harry trying to explain to Ron and Hermione what his first real kiss was like, and their VERY different reactions. Worth the movie right there.
The ending. I am not talking about the Hall of Mysteries; that was rushed and unexplained. (And what is with all the globes?) I am talking about after that. Again, I do not want to give plot points away, but the external fight and then the internal fight were amazingly good. There was real pathos here that overshadowed more serious events that had just happened. All innocence was lost at the end of GOBLET OF FIRE, but you really see the possibilities with the end of PHOENIX. (I only wish J.K. Rowling had the guts to make Harry go over to the dark side by the end. Well, maybe I don't wish that, but part of me does.)
Well, I am not out of words, just ability to type them. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX was an excellent film, something I think I realize more writing this than even I did watching it. In fact, I would say it is a better film (in relation to the others) than the book is. Obviously, no one jumps in with the fifth movie, and those already in were not waiting for my say-so, but I tell you the truth: there are moments here so grand that they are worth watching the first four movies just to get to #5. Can you ask more of a movie than that?
[Tomorrow: more about that night. Also, I can't help patting my own back. Is Applaudatory not a great word? I just made it up!]