Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 20, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter had attracted a number of interesting directors but had trouble making them stay. Chris Columbus seemed like the guy at first but eventually couldn’t handle the seven film commitment. Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell would only stick around for one entry each. Enter David Yates. A director whose background was mostly in television, Yates would stick through the next three Potter films and beyond. (This seem to foreshadow the role television directors would play in the franchise-heavy future of blockbuster film making.) “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was Yates’ first stab at the genre and obviously somebody thought he did a good job.

In their fifth year, Harry and friends are now undeniably teenagers. Fittingly, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a tale about a very specific form of teenage rebellion. Tyrannical forces begin to take over Hogswart, rooted in the Ministry of Magic. To the viewer, it’s obvious that this new faction is affiliated with Voldemort’s dark wizards. The screenplay certainly makes this apparent. Yet most of the authority figures are clueless. So Harry and his friends organize secret classes, to teach combative magic. It’s an interesting decision to correlate traditional teenage acts against authority with a literal, underground rebellion. It also leads to a bunch of fun sequences of Harry training other kids to do offensive spells.

Rowling invented a perfectly hateful character to be the face of this new oppressive regime. Dolores Umbridge is a little old lady. She dresses primarily in pink. She decorates her office with pictures of mewing kitty cats. She almost never raises her voice. Umbridge is also a complete fascist. She slowly chips away at the students’ rights, replacing them with repressive new rules. Anyone who challenges her authority is eliminated, in the most humiliating fashion possible. Umbridge isn’t above violence either, essentially inflicting torture upon those that fight her. Imelda Staunton embodies the utterly despicable character, illustrating how fascism can slowly sneak in and take over a reasonable system. A message that is more relevant now then when the film was new.

“Order of the Phoenix” also grapples more directly with the series’ thematic concerns. Harry’s connection with Voldemort forms a serious portion of the story. The villain crawls into the hero’s head, drawing attention to how similar they are. This points towards Harry’s connection with death. How his story begins with death, how those around him keep dying, and how those deaths weigh on his mind. This is made explicit when two creatures, visible only to those who have firsthand experiences with the dying, appear. Memories are another important theme in “Order of the Phoenix.” Harry receives training from Snape to prevent an enemy from entering his mind. During these sessions, we get a glimpse at the thoughts that dominate Harry’s minds. And the thoughts that dominate Snape’s as well, seeing the truth that Potter’s dad was a bully… And Snape was his frequent victim. Because we often write our own history.

The fifth “Harry Potter” film is pretty action packed, which leaves only a little room for smaller, emotional moments. Such as Harry getting closer to Cho, the pretty Chinese girl he’s been making eyes at for two movies. This mutual attraction climaxes with the two under the mistletoe, probably one of the sweetest romantic moments in the whole series. Neville continues to gain confidence during the training session, a rewarding moment. Harry is further humanized as his reputation at Hogwarts is tarnished by some nasty rumors. Seeing the young hero a little pissed off is interesting. (This works better then the somewhat awkward attempts to insert humor midway through the film.)

As a visual stylist, David Yates isn’t as strong as Newell or Cuaron. He mostly apes their styles, covering Hogwarts in gloomy fog. When he displays an eye of his own, the results aren’t always satisfying. At one point, Yates even degrades into some incoherent shaky-cam. Yates’ best feature as a director is how he refocuses on production design. A key location is a secret room inside Hogwarts, accessible only to those who really need it. The climax of the film is set within the Ministry of Magic, among endless shelves of objects, featuring an abstract set. The cubic floors are a nice touch.

“Order of the Phoenix” doesn’t have the kind of neat creatures that the other “Harry Potter” films do. The closest we get are a species of skeletal horse-like monsters, visible only to certain people, and a juvenile giant. While the horse-things are kind of neat, the baby giant is one of the film’s weakest elements. Instead of focusing on cool monsters, “Order of the Phoenix” doubles down on the bitchin’ wizard duels. The highlight of the film is the confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore. For the first time, we really see what two powerful wizards fighting to the death looks like. Huge sparking bolts shot from wands. Voldemort conjures up a giant serpent made of flames. Dumbledore counters with an orb of spinning water. Shattered glass is weaponized and then rendered into sand. It’s neat.

Since being introduced, Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black has mostly been utilized as either a nutcase or a stately father figure. “Order of the Phoenix” gives him a little more to do, getting a juicy scene devoted to his family history and even a fight scene just to himself. Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eyed Moody also has a little more screen time, Gleeson’s committing fully to the role. Jason Isaacs’ Lucius Malfoy previously appeared as just a selfish dick weed, a bully. He graduates to full-blown villain here, a servant of the evil wizard. Helena Bonham Carter makes the showiest appearance as Bellatrix LeStrange, a wild-haired and psychotic witch. Carter mostly vamps for the camera. On the heroic side, there’s the beguiling Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, an eccentric student that hides hidden depths.

Where does “Order of the Phoenix” fall in the hierarchy of Potter films? From this point on, the series would become more serialized, making the individual films less likely to stand out. The fifth movie’s plot is almost entirely devoted to building on what came before, causing events to blur together. It doesn’t have the memorable set pieces of the earlier pictures. It’s still pretty good but this is probably the “Potter” flick that I forget the most about in-between viewings. The world doesn’t agree, as “Order of the Phoenix” would become one of the highest grossing films in the franchise. [7/10]

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