Skip to main content

Who wants to watch me take off Snivelly's trousers?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(2007)

(SPOILERS) The beginning of the homogenisation of Harry Potter, assuming you didn’t think he was a wholly homogenised product to begin with. And by that, I’m not necessarily levelling a charge –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is qualitatively second only to Prisoner of Azkaban at this point in the running – but rather pointing out that David Yates has been the appointed ship’s captain ever since, even into the new prequel quintilogy. It means you’re going to get a reliably similar result, fine if you adore what’s on offer, so if you’re looking for a different take, spin or insight into the source material, your luck’s out.


My biggest criticism of Yates is probably an obvious and oft-levelled one; that he enforces on the series a rather drab, monotone digital colour grading in post, lending each scene an undifferentiated wash effect, except in as much as the wash may be green, or brown or blue (often green). Some may consider the results atmospheric, but I tend to see them as rather bland, the sort of thing you witnessed with the Underworld series and hoped it stayed there. This clearly isn’t down to the cinematographer, as Yates only used Slawomir Idziak on this movie and would work with someone different for each of his subsequent excursions (counting Deathly Hallows as one movie).


If you can get past that, and the effect is cumulative, rather than instantaneous with Order of the Phoenix, Yates brings to the series a tonal confidence and visual acuity that reaps dividends, albeit David Heyman might have overstated the value of his eye for the political, honed via TV, focussing on material that is earnest in its intentions but no less crude for all that in its content (one can forgive Emma Watson for interpreting Order of the Phoenix’s message in light of the 7/7/05 attacks, as she was young and doubtless prone to such seizures, although her commentFacing the fact that authority is corrupted means having a non-conformist approach to reality and power” is curious within that context).


The political dimension is a lesson on the dangers of groupthink and – an evergreen to those who believe it miraculously materialised in the Trump era – fake news, as the real danger approaching fast in the rear-view mirror is obnoxiously disdained and denied by the Ministry of Magic (a continually marvellous Robert Hardy; his performance has been one of the resounding pleasures of revisiting these movies, and it’s only a shame that Fudge’s admission of error and banishment from the series at the end of this chapter is both perfunctory and permanent), to the extent that a new totalitarian impulse is enforced over Hogwarts at the imposition of new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), getting her hooks in and supplanting Dumbledore.


Honestly, Voldemort may be a vision of evil, but Umbridge, thanks to Staunton’s Mary Whitehouse-by-way-of-Joseph Stalin prim-and-proper nightmare performance, is possibly the most sublimely disturbing creation in the Potter-verse. She isn’t a subtle character, and there are still frankly unlikely crowd-pleaser moments – her running screaming from the Weasely twins’ phantom snake – but Staunton breathes twitchy, prissy, sadistic life into Umbridge, and that her means of detention torture (“I must not tell lies” lines tattooed onto the detainee’s hand) leads to her own comeuppance (Harry parrots the instruction back at her when she asks him to explain to a mob of centaurs that she means no harm) is satisfyingly neat.


Michael Goldenberg (Contact, the 2003 Peter Pan, one of those chewed up by Green Lantern) was responsible for cutting down longest book in the series, and I can’t say I noticed anything that felt short-changed this time. Indeed, there are areas where there might have been further pruning (despite the running time being relatively spruce). The picture starts off incredibly well, a hot oppressive afternoon turning nightmarish as Harry is confronted by Dementors (disturbing, but not quite as well envisaged as in Prisoner of Azkaban; you notice this in other aspects too, such as Sirius in the fire being a basic superimposition, rather than Order of the Phoenix’s CGI coals, or revisiting the series’ surprising capacity for crappy CGI, with Hagrid’s half-brother Grawp, who would have looked at home in the first movie) and saving his blinged-up cousin from death, leading to his trial for magicking in the presence of muggles.


Subsequent elements of mystery – why is Dumbeldore shunning his pupil – are well-sustained, but others that are apparently significant but turn out to be disposable. The bottled prophecy is the very definition of a McGuffin (the reasons for attaining it are sketchy, its value nebulous, and it ultimately amounts to nothing). Meanwhile, as indebtedness to Star Wars goes, the vision of torture that entraps Harry is about as The Empire Strikes Back as it gets. And, of course, there’s too little Sirius Black. In a way, like Prisoner of Azkaban, this is a good thing, showing that Rowling (or the adaptors) recognises the power of a mythical hero as much as they understand the need to pull someone down who assumes such status. Like Boba Fett, Black is cooler the less you see of him, and killed off rather ignominiously before you can see more of him.


Besides Staunton, two new additions to the cast deserve particular comment. Helena Bonham-Carter summons her goth-trash psycho from Fight Club as Belllatrix Lestrange, a complete fruit loop and slayer of Sirius (another Star Wars nod, as Voldemort is willing to sacrifice her, a devoted minion, in order to ensnare the services of a bigger fish). Evanna Lynch also makes an impression as “Loony” Luna Lovegood, delivering in grandly dippy fashion, with something of a junior Carol Kane air.


Which leads me to the leads. At this point, I think Watson may have peaked with Prisoner of Azkaban, although her scenes of banter with Grint are always highlights – “I’m sure his kissing is more than satisfactory” she recriminates regarding Harry’s fumbling foray –  while Radcliffe shows himself a merely sufficient lead. There’s never a sense he doesn’t need to be supported by the material, even if it would be unfair to suggest he provides other than dedicated competence throughout.


His deficiencies are particularly pronounced in the picture’s least successful – and seemingly endless – episode, where he’s called to teach magic – after Umbridge has sanctioned only its theoretical use – to his fellow pupils and the picture begins to sway listlessly on the spot, unable to sustain itself without someone in command of the situation (even playing someone who isn’t in command of the situation). Contrast that with his scenes opposite Rickman’s Snape, training Potter to protect himself from Voldemort’s influence, and it’s illustration of how a more experienced performer can elevate his junior’s game. Radcliffe is likewise okay with Harry’s “What if I’m becoming bad?” subplot, which only really feels like lip service (to Luke Skywalker), and consequently there’s no chance we’re going to see it as feasible; indeed, the most effective moment comes via his CG-enhanced, possessed visage as Voldemort’s voice takes over.


Perhaps the best, most upturning scene in the movies results from the Snape sessions, as the revered parent is brought crashing down to earth when Harry gains an insight into the bullying Snape received from his beloved departed father. (“Your father was a swine!”) And, unlike other instalments, where a question is left hanging that creates confusion, here I felt the lack of clarity over whether Snape, having been trusted with vital information by Harry (“He’s got Padfoot in the place that is hidden”), actually did anything with it (the novel makes it clear Snape contacted Sirius), was a means to intentionally seed doubts that would become important in the following movie.


Sirius Black: A war? It feels like it did before.

This is the first time we get a proper sense of duelling wizards, and it’s pleasing to see Yates’ dedication to creating a choreography of battle and movement. I’m guessing one has to accept a shorthand compared to the novels, however, such that understanding ability and means must be assumed and wands are effectively used to “laser zap”; we have little insight into the strategies or accompanying spells and counter spells that might be used in an encounter (when Harry and chums are warding off the Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic, before being subdued by them, it seems doubtful that they’re able to consistently conjure without any substantial response from their more experienced attackers). It slightly undermines the effect, as there needs to be a degree of quantification to the rules in such altercations. There’s also a “We all stand together” theme running through this, effectively made good on in the Ministry sequence, but it rather crumbles to basics when Rowling rearranges the furniture to focus on Harry and Voldemort once more (so Harry was right, and he should have gone it alone, for all the good it did?)


Nevertheless, the fight is far and away superior to the CGI ones in the Star Wars prequels (their closest comparisons), while the one between Dumbeldore and Voldemort bears similarities to both The Lord of the Rings and Big Trouble in Little China, of all movies (the conjuring of avatars). Again, though, following Goblet of Fire, there’s a slight sense of also-ran with the climax appearances by He Who Must Not be Named; they needed to go that extra step beyond the moustache-twirling villain who lives to fight another day, and never quite get there.


David Heyman suggested the picture was thematically about “teen rebellion and the abuse of power” and those elements are undoubtedly in the mix, but Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is at its best when it isn’t highlighting its subtext, preaching to the choir being Rowling’s weakness. Still, if it must go for the obvious, having someone like Staunton, who can make her character sharp, funny and unnerving, is a godsend. At the end, Dumbledore delivers one of his accustomed trite platitudes: “Harry, it isn’t how you’re alike. It is how you are not” One might say the same for the remainder of the series, as we’re looking for differentiators beneath the surface trappings from here on out. That said, the next stop would be a surprising winner…



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.