Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Order of the Phoenix" is best Harry Potter adaptation to date

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

directed by David Yates
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, with brief appearances by Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham-Carter, others

As an unabashed Harry Potter addict, I have a somewhat peculiar relationship with the Harry Potter movies. I always feel compelled to see them, I’m nearly always vaguely disappointed in them, but I don’t ever really blame the filmmakers for my disappointment. This is because I just don’t think J.K. Rowling’s brand of fantasy translates particularly well to film (see my reasons why in my review of the last Harry Potter movie). In the end, I’m usually able to appreciate the merits of the movie while feeling very little of the gut reaction I had to the book.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that I really liked the fifth and latest adaptation, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” At the same time, I came away with a distinct sense that only people who’d read the book could really appreciate the film, while faithful readers would be aggrieved at how much was cut. Not me. Much as I’ve come to like Order of the Phoenix, I still maintain that as a narrative it desperately needed judicious editing. Rowling’s books are highly readable because of the warmth of her humor, the believability of her characters, and the inventiveness with which she constructs her fictive magical universe. They are generally not remarkable for tight plotting or construction (the one shining exception being the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, which still holds a slim margin as my favorite of the series). Book 5 displays her rambling, shambling tendencies at their worst, mainly because she let them balloon to such immense length (something close to 900 pages) without advancing the overall narrative arc of the series very much, and spent far too many pages showing us how pissed off her hero was by making him a royal pain in the ass who yelled in all-caps. What saved Phoenix was its revelation of more complex moral shadings and emotional vulnerabilities in her characters that were only hinted at in the previous books.

And that proves to be the crux of the film adaptation helmed by franchise newcomer David Yates. With the help of veteran Harry Potter-streamlining screenwriter Steve Kloves, who pares down the plot so much that non-readers may find the movie simultaneously choppy and slow, he gives us for the first time a Harry Potter movie of unexpected emotional depth. “Order of the Phoenix” moves away from the wide-eyed delight of Harry’s introduction and acclimation into the magical world to enter much darker territory. Voldemort, Harry’s nemesis and the most evil of all wizards, has returned to full powers, is amassing allies, and, most terrifyingly of all, appears to have pervaded Harry’s subconscious mind. Yet the Ministry of Magic (the wizarding world’s government) stubbornly plays ostrich, denying the return of the “Dark Lord,” and sending one of their bureaucrats (Imelda Staunton) to take over Harry’s school, Hogwarts, and ruthlessly stomp out all signs of dissension on this point. The result is a fairly hellish and psychologically harrowing year for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), the sole bright spots being a brief romance (but a seriously long kiss) with his crush, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and his training of a group of renegade students to defend themselves against the “dark arts” (essentially, nasty spells designed to kill or incapacitate you).

I haven’t seen Yates’s TV work, such as the well-received “The Girl in the Café,” but from what I’ve read, he has a good instinct for the forces that connect human beings and pull them apart. That instinct is amply in evidence here. The theme he hammers home particularly effectively is Harry’s alienation from everyone around him: his mentor and strongest protector, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the headmaster of Hogwarts, is strangely, heartbreakingly distant, his schoolmates shun him for his conviction that Voldemort is back, and even his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are put off by his moods, his prickliness, and his own self-isolating tendencies. At the same time, Yates brings a new focus on the bond that draws Harry to his godfather and guardian, the unjustly condemned Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and to his fellow student and new friend, the spaced-out Luna “Loony” Lovegood (newcomer Evanna Lynch)—bonds rooted at least partly in a shared sense that they, like he, are outcasts.

The film also goes easy on the special effects, to which I say: bravo. I don’t know whether it’s my own limitations or the limitations of current technology, but even the most state-of-the-art CGI, applied to bring to life such overtly fantastical elements as witches and wizards riding broomsticks, elves cleaning house, and pictures with moving subjects (elements I loved and relished reading about in the books) have never looked anything but fake, even hokey, to me. Yates keeps the CGI to a minimum—I’ve heard he plans to do the same with the next installment, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which he’s also directing—but uses it to good effect in the requisite final showdown at the end. That showdown, which in reading the book gave me a distinct “haven’t we been here already?” feeling, is nicely streamlined here and packs a surprisingly strong emotional wallop.

A lot of that is also due to the fact that Daniel Radcliffe seems to have finally learned how to act. I read a rather disarming comment from him in an Entertainment Weekly article that “Phoenix” was the first movie he could watch himself in without wincing, or something to that effect. It’s true; in fact, he’s underselling himself. Though he’s surrounded as always by some of Britain’s finest thespian talents—Staunton, in particular, is fabulous as the “grand inquisitor” whose ridiculous pink togs and saccharine giggle only underscore her thinly veiled sadism (though she’s nowhere near physically repulsive enough for the part)—the movie’s heart and soul really belongs to his Harry, and for the first time, he really succeeds in holding his own amid his older and more distinguished co-stars. His anguish becomes the viewer’s, and his aloneness lingers like an echo. No previous Harry Potter film has managed to create that effect. I hope it’s one we continue to see in the next (and final) two films.

GRADE: B+


ALSO SAW:

TALK TO ME

directed by Kasi Lemmons
starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer, Vondie Curtis-Hall

“Talk to Me” deals with a little piece of social and cultural history—the career of D.C. radio and talk show host Petey Green, an ex-convict who attracted thousands of fans with his potty mouth and his irreverent, outspoken social commentary that tapped into what it meant to be black during the civil rights era and its bitter aftermath. But it’s really about the relationship between Green (Don Cheadle) and his producer, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who walked the fine line between placating his uptight white boss (Martin Sheen) and giving freedom to a new voice that he knew would strike previously untouched chords. (In some ways, “Talk to Me” plays like the serious, non-satirical obverse of Spike Lee’s corrosive “Bamboozled.”)

Strong performances by Cheadle and Taraji Henson as Green’s brassy but fiercely loyal girlfriend, and a solid one by Ejiofor anchor the film; the direction, by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) is workmanlike rather than inspired, and the historical background never really quite registers with the resonance one would expect. But as a vehicle for Cheadle’s rising star (or, for that matter, Ejiofor’s), it works beautifully. By turns comic, serious, and vulnerable, Cheadle’s depiction of Petey is compelling, and—for such a flamboyant personality—surprisingly subtle. The same could be said for Henson, who’s really quite spectacular but may end up being unjustly overshadowed by her better-known male co-stars. Ejoifor, meanwhile, plays a good foil as the well-spoken, more soberly tailored, upwardly mobile black man who’s more complicated than he initially appears. “Talk to Me” isn’t groundbreaking filmmaking, but it’s a remarkably nuanced portrayal of not only a tricky and exceptional man, but a tricky and exceptional friendship. That’s something one doesn’t see enough of in films today, and for that alone it deserves commendation.

GRADE: B/B+

1 Comments:

Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

I have to disagree with you. I would probably place ORDER OF THE PHOENIX as the second best Harry Potter movie. For me, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is still the best. Both movies are excellent, yet have their flaws.

POA had failed to explain how Remus Lupin and Sirius Black knew about the map given to Harry by the Weasley twins. But OotP is flawed slightly further its failure to close certain plot points - namely the estrangement between Harry and Cho, any discussion on Snape's memories of James Potter, Kreacher's appearance in the movie or Lucius Malfoy's fate. The movie's pace seemed too fast and many of the character barely made an appearance before disappearing into the background.

But despite these flaws, I still believe that OotP is a very good movie . . . and the second-best installment in the movie franchise.

1:20 PM  

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