Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pottermania! Episodes Four and Five ("Time is making fools of us again.")

Thanks to circumstances unseen, i'm combining Episodes four and five on this one post. I'll have Half-Blood Prince up later in the afternoon and hopefully, ET and I will give a detailed review on Deathly Hallows - Part I later tonight, but for now, here's Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won't be remembered for being the first entry that was slapped the PG-13 rating by the MPAA, of the first time a Brit director, Mike Newell, helmed the series, or even how narrow escapes and tragic losses become a part of the theme for movies 5-7 Part I. Nope, when people talk about Goblet, it will be because the film marked the first appearance of Edward Cullen, before he makes the move to Forks, Washington and falls in love with Bella Swan.

Unlike the first three movies, where the most exhilirating sequences have either come from a Quidditch match, killing a basilisk, or fighting off a swarm of Dementors, Goblet of Fire is an action picture from start to finish. As Harry enters his fourth year at Hogwarts, the school plays host to the Tri-Wizard Tournament (think of a cross between the Olympics and any varsity high school team you remember watching in your high school days), a series of three dangerous tasks that challenge the magical abilities of the witch or wizard competing. The catch? You have to be 17 or older to compete, which, for the first time during his time at Hogwarts, Harry may be able to have a quiet year without having to put himself in mortal danger, which, of course, is not going to happen. He is chosen as a fourth champion for the games, alongside Fleur Delacour (Clemency Posey) of Beauxbatons, the famous Bulgarian Seeker Victor Krum of Durmsrang, and Hogwarts own Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson). Harry is expected to get past a nasty Hungarian Horntail, a lake filled with killer mermaids, and a maze that changes frequently and without warning, the Cup waiting somewhere in the midst of the danger. These actions sequences are thrilling, rousing spectacles which helps the series get in touch with its inner-Indiana Jones.

As the film progresses, Harry stares down two great villains: one being the resurgence of the sinister Lord Voldemort (Ralph Finnes), with means to finish Harry off and take over the Wizarding World. His dialogue in the graveyard with the Death Eaters and Harry is downright chilling, as only Finnes can deliver, playing a voliatle protagonist before with chilling demanor as Amor Goeth in Schindler's List). The other lurks into the halls of Hogwarts, and into the life of Harry: adolescence. Attraction of the opposite sex has taken hold of many of the classmates, Harry, Ron, and Hermione in particular. It's funny to hear Harry admit that he'd rather go another round with a dragon than try and ask out Cho Chang, or any girl from the Beauxbatons academy for girls; also equally stunning to see Hermione all dressed in pink and heartbreaking to see her crying after the dance after her and Ron have "words".

In the first two movies, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets feel like we're watching something off of the Hollywood assembly factory - sure it beats most of the fantasy films that have tried to cash off of the success of the Potter movies (I'm looking at you, Narnia, Percy Jackson, and Twilight) - but it still felt bland and the typical, run-of-the-mill blockbuster. Azkaban ditched the assembly-line feel and gives the viewer an indie-art house vibe to match the darker undertones and surprising maturity. Goblet deftly combines the Hollywood blockbuster with a genre-bending feel. The influences the movie pays homage to - from Indiana Jones, to John Hughes coming-of-age movies, to the mystery and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller - are unmistakable and are blended together so well, that the end result makes it the most exciting and enjoyable Potter picture of the series.

Order of the Phoenix, the fifth chapter in the Harry Potter series, took some major heat from the critics. At 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is the weakest reviewed movie of the lot, which is saying something, with the fact that there hasn't been a godawful movie of he bunch. In their criticism has been the performance of debut director David Yates and the uneasiness he had with translating the longest book in the series into one of the shortest movies, at a running time of 139 minutes. Fair point, and it is for this very reason why Order of the Phoenix comes off a missed opportunity: Rowling's 5th novel was an excellent and subtle meditation of the world, post 9/11, disguised as a more somber coming-of-age tale of friendship and morality.

The arc of the story - Fudge, the Mister of Magic, doing everything in his power to silence Harry and Prof. Dumbledore from warning everyone that Lord Voldemort has returned again, beveling it's all a ploy by the Hogwarts headmaster to take his job - draws lines to Nixon and how his increasing paranoia for the competition lead him to have goons break into the DNC headquarters of the Watergate hotel in '72, and Bush Jr. and his band of thugs altering the voter count in Florida back in 2000. The lengths Fudge is willing to go in order to shut the pair up - from placing Dolores Umbridge in charge to act as a mole for the Ministry, to BS-ing stories of mass breakouts from the wizarding prison Azkaban and random disappearances of various citizens - highlights the incompetence of a president who is clearly in over his head. And the way Umbrdge slowly acquires power through Educational Degress, threatening staff with firings for disloyalty to the Minister of Magic, and harsh techniques used on students who step out of line or simply for questioning the actions of a few, this highlights certain members of the Bush Administration and their lockstep followers personified: Cheney and his baseless disregard for the rule of law, Rumsfeld and Gonzalez giving the green light on torturing enemy combatants to extract information on terrorists, and right-wing pundits calling the opposition un-patriotic and un-American for criticizing a sitting president. These themes are present in the film version, but they only skim the surface, instead of being a big part of the story.

However, what the filmmakers lacked in bringing that arc of the story to a more central role, the movie makes up for in remembering the heart of the story, which is Harry's inner conflict with his emotions, and Voldemort trying to access his mind and manipulate his dreams (so this is where Christopher Nolan found his inspiration for Inception...), and the overall growing pains he goes through, transitioning from the boy in the closet we first see in Book One, to a young man facing down the Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries with his friends from Dumbledore's Army. Speaking of DA, that's the plot of movie five in a nutshell: Umbridge has been sent to the prestigious school to as a mole at the request of the ministry and does her best to keep the students in the dark by teaching them nothing about Defense of the Dark Arts. Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to create an alternative group as a means to teach students how to defend themselves against dark wizards, Voldemort and the Death Eaters, in particular. Probably the best thing about this installment is the villain herself - Imelda Staunton is nothing short of brilliant as Umbrdge, a cross between Cheney and Margaret Thatcher, all parts wicked and pure bitch. Another Brit newcomer to the series, the lovely Helena Bonham Carter, plays Bellatrix Lestrange, You-Kno-Who's right hand woman. She has little screen time in this one, but she plays her like the seductive, insane loyalist that J.K. portrays her as. Best of all is the action sequence in the Department of Mysteries, in three parts: the first between the members of Dumbledore's Army - Nevelle (Matthew Lewis, no longer used as comic relief), Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and the eccentric Luna Lovegood (a delightful Evanna Lynch, sp?) squaring off against Bellatrix, Lucius, and the rest of the Death Eaters; the second when the Order shows up to aid Harry and friends; and lastly, the fight between Voldemort and wise old Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). All three action sequences are captured by Yates almost in a verite-like style and the end result is an exciting and very somber 40 minutes, in which Harry loses his beloved godfather in the firefight.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may not be the best in the series, but it does toe the line on the dark cloud that is slowly coming, and the performances - both by the young actors and the veteran British cast - continues to be a hallmark of the series.

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