Friday, July 13, 2007

Movie of the Phoenix

For this review, the Emma Watson Eyebrow Alert is Orange (elevated, but not that often).

Order of the Phoenix has arrived in theaters, and off we went (the Ladybug and I), having read all the books like the big ol' geeks we are.

Things get off to a cracking start right in, with Harry on the swings in a park that seems like it was stolen from Kansas - muted colors, huge prairie skies, and a quick-moving darkness with the promise of a storm. All of it is quite well done, up to the small touches, such as Dudley's (and his gang's) reactions when Harry jumps up to confront them.

From there, however... well, it's like many of the Potter movies: they don't always pick the best stuff to leave in or take out. It really has nothing to do with the plotlines. This book is 850 pages of single-spaced, nine-point type - they will NEVER fit it all. That just means that when you make a change, do it right, and respect the characterizations. The stuff you need to leave in is the stuff that matters later.

So, for example, when you take out a scene make sure that you haven't damaged your characters. (Small spoiler) In the book, there is a lot of Snape and Sirius going back and forth, with Lupin struggling to mediate. With the exception of ONE overheard remark, that vanishes entirely from the film; and without it, where does Sirius get his motivation? It's not that Gary Oldman is bad in the movie - he's quite good, I thought - but the filmmakers could have taken a little more trouble. They also could have mentioned, at least in passing, that Hermione and Ron were made prefects.

Another omission - which isn't really a spoiler since it stems from the previous film, but be warned - S.P.E.W. The whole idea is dropped. I can see the temptation, since it's the sludgiest part of the fourth book, but it proves increasingly important in books five and six. The casual arrogance of the wizarding world in most matters is important to the overall plot: it really underlines why Fudge refuses to believe in the return of Voldemort, it shows how the Dark Lord unites his own followers, it explains why the Order fights an increasingly lonely battle against the Death Eaters. In this movie, they pick a poor solution (which is in Spoiler Vision, since it's a big thing) - they just drop the idea entirely. Are you wondering how Dumbledore is going to win the trust of the elves, centaurs, and giants in their fight? Keep wondering. The elves are barely even an afterthought, even Kreacher; the centaurs get one scene; Hagrid and Grawp are a human-interest sideline. You don't even see Firenze in the film. In its way, the movie is just as arrogant as the wizarding world, by pretending (as the wizards do) that they are the only ones (magical or otherwise) who matter.

What they leave in, however, is for the most part well-done. Daniel Radcliffe does good work here. I got a very good sense of his frustration and struggle; just when Harry feels most at home in the wizarding world, that world speeds up and he feels dragged along, until he decides that it's time to start doing something more than hang on for dear life. As a result, the scenes with the DA are excellent. It's the first conscious step into the adult world for all of them, and as his peers rally around Harry, he rallies as well, and I could see that growth. And three key cast members turn in great performances as well:

1. Evanna Lynch: an excellent choice for Luna Lovegood. She captures her shrewd, spacey personality and never seems over her head. It must have been tricky to show such a character in mortal peril (such as during the fight in the Department of Mysteries), because one has to look detached without making it seem as if one knows it's all CGI whiz-bangs - and she does it.

2. Imelda Staunton: the key performance for me in the entire movie. Reading the book, I felt like it would be difficult for an actor to convey the saccharine disdain of Dolores Umbridge, but she nails it. Even in scenes where I felt the script left out an important point, she carries the day - especially in the Dark Forest. She's more menacing than the dragon from the last movie.

3. Alan Rickman: each of these movies seems to take a turn neglecting a major character, and Severus Snape was odd man out in Goblet of Fire. He comes roaring back here. This is the kind of thing the fans have been waiting for since he hit Kenneth Branaugh with the expelliarmus jinx in Chamber of Secrets - I can't be as detailed as Sheila would be, but there wasn't a weak moment with him on the screen.

Alas, it's not all pumpkin juice and chocolate frogs. Helena Bonham Carter looks like Cruella DeVil and hams it up on autopilot. (At least she didn't require any makeup to play Bellatrix.) The campaign against Umbridge by the Weasley twins and the other students is eviscerated. I'm also not sold on the use of the Daily Prophet headlines as a transition device; after a while it just felt like the writers gave up and did it to get the movie finished.

This movie's Disappearing Act goes to the horribly underused Emma Thompson and Maggie Smith. You'd think that if one had an Emma Thompson and a Maggie Smith at one's disposal, one would be inclined to make good use of it. But there are at least two major scenes that are entirely missing, and one other that was mis-handled. The most damaging omission requires more Spoiler Vision: where is the career counseling? The movies seem all too content to pretend that the characters don't matter after the end of The Deathly Hallows, which is really starting to tick me off, not only as a fan but as a writer. Great characters live on even when their story is not being told, and a smart writer respects both the character and the fan by providing them with the foundation for that future. This movie doesn't do that. I got the impression that the movie itself doesn't care what happens to its own star, which is usually fatal to the whole suspension of disbelief. Do not dispel, as I've mentioned before. It is vital to know that Harry wants to be an Auror, and that McGonagall is defying Umbridge by promising all her efforts to further that desire; it explains both of them in a way that forty pages of omniscient narration couldn't.

The big flaw, we may as well meet head-on, out loud (as it were). I'm sure Michael Gambon is a fine chap and a good actor, but he just isn't Dumbledore. At no point whatsoever in these three movies have we ever gotten the impression that this is the only wizard the Dark Lord ever feared. (In this film there are the following Spoiler Examples: His escape from Fudge and the Aurors in his office is lame, and his appearance at the Ministry isn't much better: the film gives him no role in defeating the Death Eaters. Even his fight with Voldemort, which is well-done, omits the symbolic and important destruction of the fountain. And his tense interview with Harry in his office lasts THREE LINES in the movie, which is outrageous.) It's not just that the films are limiting Dumbledore's scenes the way they've done with everyone else, it's the manner in which Gambon has gone about them. Dumbledore has a gentle air which never spoils his gravitas. He is supremely comfortable with himself and others, and as a result permits himself both doubt and whimsy without any defense mechanism: no hiding, no bluster, no panic; no need to raise his voice for fear that he won't be heard, and no fear about what other people think or say about him. This is not a routine man, but Gambon is routine in his portrayal. As a result he makes Dumbledore seem an ordinary, crotchety oldster. They should have just stuck some age makeup on Ewan McGregor and been done with it.

All told, however, I don't want to put anyone off seeing the movie. There are some wonderful moments, and enough of the important stuff happens. All in all, solidly done, and in honor of the O.W.L.s:

Radcliffe - E (exceeds expectations)
Watson - A (acceptable)
Grint - A
Lynch - E
Staunton - O (outstanding)
Rickman - O
Gambon - D (dreadful)
Effects, set pieces, and such - E
Plot and writing - P (poor) (too much left out)

Overall - A for Acceptable.

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