Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Ministering to the Magic

Our afternoon at the cinema yesterday was a great success. Skylar pronounced The Order of the Phoenix the best of the five Harry Potter films and I wholeheartedly agree. Adapting any novel into a picture short enough to please the multiplexes is a difficult task, but when the book is nearly 900 pages long, as The Order of the Phoenix is, it seems like an overwhelming undertaking. That director David Yates and his crew managed to make a movie that will be entertaining for people who haven't read the books without overly disappointing those who have is therefore highly impressive.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle, whose recommendations I trust more than his rejects, didn't like the film much. Interestingly, he criticizes the opening scenes for being too slow, while, if I were to nitpick, I'd complain that the second half moves too quickly from incident to incident, losing the sense of gravity it works hard to cultivate prior to the start of the school year at Hogwarts. For example, the pacing of Harry's trial at the beginning gives the audience time to register its importance -- as well as to reflect on tie-ins to the "Muggle" reality of show trials -- whereas the final scene with Sirius builds a little too rapidly to have maximum impact.

As always, the "grown-up" actors, most of them longtime British luminaries, highlight their younger collaborators' shortcomings. But the gap is closing in the case of Daniel Radcliffe, who has clearly learned a thing or two. Emma Watson, whom I like, doesn't get to do much in this one, however, and appears to regress as a consequence. On the other hand, Harry Potter newcomer Evanna Lynch does a very nice job as Luna Lovegood, a character the filmmakers wisely foreground, given the link between her outsider status and Harry's.

Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is the economical way that it makes the two main points in the book not related to the Harry-and-Voldemort story arc: 1) that the bureaucratic exercise of power in the name of propriety and decorum can lead to consequences just as severe as the actions of people who self-consciously pursue bad ends; and 2) that the objectivity of the media is an illusion that serves the interests of those who are engaged in that bureaucratic exercise of power. With judicious use of the swirling newspaper headline montages favored in Studio Era classics and the repetition of certain scenes, but each time with a difference, such as the nailing up of Dolores Umbridge's latest decrees, Yates & Company distill an awful lot of paper -- even J.K. Rowling admitted that The Order of the Phoenix could have benefited from more vigorous pruning -- into brisk sequences.

Although I did want the film to slow down more in the second half, I understand why it had to be cut down to its current length in order to accommodate the demands of theaters with tight schedules. This may be the first Harry Potter film, however, for which a director's cut wouldn't just be a way for fans of the books to see more of their favorite scenes. From the reviews I've read, it would seem that its current size was arrived at very late in the game, since some of them mention scenes -- Ron riding a thestral he can't see was one -- that weren't in the final cut we saw. Unless, of course, the people who wrote those reviews were confusing their own memories of the books with what they saw on screen. A look at the cast on the Internet Movie Database suggests, however, that the former is the case, since there is a listing for Chris Rankin as Percy Weasley, a key character from the book who was never mentioned in today's version. I suppose the inevitable DVD special edition will have to prove what's in that pudding.

Luckily, however, the sequence that Skylar was most looking forward to, Harry's first kiss, was permitted to play out without ellipses. Come to think of it, that's richly ironic, since the scene in the book hinges on a sort of ellipsis! But it was beautifully portrayed and the post-kisseal conversation between Harry, Ron and Hermione may have been the highlight of their cinematic interaction throughout all five films. It certainly made Skylar gleeful, which was what I was hoping for. As you can tell from this photo of her taken after the film, she was one happy Bean.

The occlumency training scenes between Harry and Snape were very effective. Alan Rickman is always great in the role, but this may be his best performance yet. The montage sequences documenting first Harry's memories and then, in their final scene, Snape's were also very well done, one of the better cinematic representations of stream of consciousness I've seen, in fact. It was heartening to hear members of the audience clap when Rickman's name came on during the credits at the end of the film. Perhaps they were trying to indicate that they believe Snape will turn out to have been good at the end of the seventh and final book. The Order of the Phoenix is pulling for him, I'd say.

My favorite aspect of the film, though, was the beautiful cinematography of the Polish master -- he was behind the camera for the much-praised "colors" trilogy -- Slawomir Idziak. This is the first Harry Potter film that has completely pleased me from the standpoint of visual aesthetics. Almost every shot was a treat to see. And, because the framing was so good, special effects that might have seemed gratuitous in a less polished film serve The Order of the Phoenix's "art part" beautifully. I especially enjoyed the two scenes where Ginny casts spells that reveal her special gifts. The numerous overhead shots were also highly effective.

As much as I liked the film, though, I have to admit that it might not appeal to those with less-than-fervent interest in the world of Harry Potter. I mean, you could appreciate it for its style, but that would only work for someone who inclines toward "cineastery." The filmmakers manage to hint at depths that a feature-length movie simply can't attain by including numerous unexplained details, such as Luna reading her father's tabloid, which otherwise goes unmentioned, upside down. The effect reminded me of Children of Men, interestingly, which suggests that the latter may have benefited from its director's own foray into Potterland for The Prisoner of Azkaban. Still, although I'd like to believe that such filmic texture would make the film less flat for non-fans, I suspect that I'm being guilty of wishful thinking. Alright, then, time to go dream myself into the body of a serpent. . .
Tags: daughter, everyday, film
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