Saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Wednesday night. Been working off an on on this review since then. Said entirely too much.

I’ve so far been rather disappointed in the Harry Potter movies since they’re mostly just illustrations of some scenes from the book and on their own, make terrible movies. I’ve been particularly bitter since Goblet of Fire came out and it was terrible, what with Goblet being my favorite of the books so far. I was concerned about this movie, given the flaws and problems with the previous ones, particularly since of the series so far, Phoenix is, hands down, the weakest of the books. Rowling’s decision to make Harry emo for a book is understandable, actually makes sense given what he’s been through and his age, but still left us with an unforgivably annoying protagonist for the longest chapter of the whole series.

Phoenix the movie fixed that, and I think was by far the best of the movies they’ve made. It was nearly entirely coherent without knowledge of the book, though there were glaring leftovers that I think they should have chucked, but more interestingly, it was the least faithful of the movies; at least in terms of direct one-to-one translation. It’s as if knowing that the book they were working from was flawed, obviously and uncontrovertedly (Rowling herself has said that Phoenix needed some more work, particularly in the cutting department) finally freed the filmmakers to get down to the business of making a movie. It’s pretty late in the game for them to get around to it, but I’m glad they finally did.

They did a really great job of setting up a sense of Harry’s isolation and general misery at the beginning with wide shots of dried out fields. Harry’s sitting on a swing in a small playground by himself, wistfully watching a family and their small child, and so in the first 45 seconds or so most of the critical state-of-mind information leading up to the Dementor attack comes out. I found the movie rendering of the confrontation between Dudley and his gang a little awkward, but the actual dementor attack itself was fantastic. Harry pulls his wand on Dudley and suddenly the sky comes over dark and cloudy. Dudley’s gang members flee from what appears to be an imminent tornado, and then the first of several downright cool things in the movie happens. You get a shot of Dudley and Harry running together. There’s absolutely no hint of it in the books, but as they dash off into a storm-drain/tunnel type thing, there’s actually a sense that they’re cousins, and when the situation gets so big they’re both in trouble everything else falls to the side as because they’re running to the same house.

The dementors have always been well rendered, appropriately creepy, and generally fantastic appearance and deed. They looked different for this movie, but they stayed at the same standard and if anything, looked much less like wring wraiths for which we can only be grateful. I’ll take a moment to nitpick here and whine a bit; not once in the movie do we get a shot of Harry’s patronus that clearly shows it as a stag. The later DA scenes with different patronuses show us other people’s quite well, but never Harry’s. Given how much this movie played on themes of family and longing for it, I feel like that was a slip.

Nitpick aside now, the movie makes its first real mistake at the end of the dementor attack when Mrs. Figg shows up. The word squib is never used, Mundungus fletcher is never mentioned, and while we do find out that Dumbledore has been having people secretly watch Harry, I think it might have been better to cut her out entirely and have the rescue party show up right then. The Dursleys’ only appearance in the movie mostly only serves as an opportunity for Harry to receive his expulsion notice. They could have done that on the street just before Tonks, Moody and the rest of the gang dropped in. Most of the important undercurrents in her testimony at Harry’s hearing later are completely gone, so she wasn’t really useful there, either.

The broom trip to London was spectacular. They dispensed with a CGI trick for the invisibility charm in favor of gorgeous shots of people on broomsticks flying through London. Quidditch isn’t even mentioned in the movie, so this is the only broom flying action we get, and it’s the best so far. I didn’t catch any glaring CGI people looking like cartoons in their broom, which right there sets the scene miles ahead of the Quidditch scenes of the previous movies.

We run into the other manifestation of the chronic problem the movie had when Harry gets to Grimauld place. If you recall from the book, it takes him a whopping three minutes to start shouting at Ron and Hermione, and he doesn’t stop until Fred and George apparate in to suggest some good old fashioned eavesdropping. Well, Harry didn’t actually shout, the scene was far too short to build any sense of tension or hostility, but nobody changed the Weasly twins’ dialog. “We could hear you from upstairs Harry.” “Tell us how you really feel, mate. Don’t hold back, let it all out.” In the books it’s funny and apropos; in the movie it makes no sense. They did that in several places, most cringingly in the post-first-Cho-snogging scene. The bit where Cho cries doesn’t appear, the kiss itself went from appropriately awkward to Joss-Whedon-must’ve-directed-it-because-it’s-Buffy-gross quickly, and then we get a whole scene where Hermione psychoanalyzes Cho. Frankly, Cho should’ve been cut too, but I’ll get to that when we get there.

Functionally within the series, OOTP is the book where we establish just how high the stakes are. Voldemort is back, he’s ready to be bigger and badder than ever, and last time they were losing right up until the little incident with Harry. Most of OOTP is there just to establish that very thing. The movie doesn’t really get around to dealing with that until toward the end, and it’s a secondary theme to Harry’s concern that he’s not really one of the good guys, that maybe, just maybe, he kinda wants to be Voldemort. It’s a theme from Chamber of Secrets that the movies totally dropped the ball on, but it replaced the emo Cedric-died-my-life-sucks theme, and it’s brilliant. The beginning bits in Grimauld place are slashed down to the bare basics, the reunion scene, the eavesdropping scene, and the dinner where Sirius let’s us all know that Voldemort’s after something he wants, but we aren’t going to tell you what because then we wouldn’t have a movie. I think it was a mistake to cut the scene with Mrs. Weasly and the boggart. It would have established the desperation involved for people going against Voldemort much earlier since their attempt to use the old photo of the original Order members failed, but it would have also been the perfect opportunity to tie in the whole family longing theme they toyed with. Sirius walking in on Molly weeping over Harry’s dead body would have been beautiful, watching in turn from Harry to Ron, Ron to Mr. Weasly to the twins, perfect. They could have used the time they got from cutting out Mrs. Figg to do it.

One of the repeating motifs for info dumps the movie used was quick shots of the Daily Prophet, complete with headlines that shifted for Potterian puns. They were highly effective, both for providing the specific information the articles are about, and reinforcing just how very out of whack the Prophet/Ministry dynamic was. They often zoomed into a black and white picture of fudge which, since it was already moving, takes over as a full screen full color press conference clip very nicely, then back out to the paper which did a fantastic job of touching base with Fudge and public opinion outside Harry’s circle at Hogwarts. My favorite use of the papers comes after Bellatrix LeStrange’s breakout from Azkaban when you see her in prisoner garb, chained to a wall, and snarling at the camera. My sis found it cheezy, so ymmv.

The whole of Harry’s introduction to the ministry and his hearing was visually amazing. Right as they sink into the entrance hall they fall into a positively huge crowd of people rushing to work, people apparating in, and popping in from huge fireplaces via the floo network. The fountain was stunning, the flying memos was great, and the hallway with the department of mysteries and the tribune was exactly what it ought to have been, a shiny black that Lucius Malfoy and Fudge nearly sink into in their black robes, though Lucius’ hair and face contrast so well that he’s unmissable, even though the shot of the conversation is quick. The tribunal itself was properly huge and overwhelming, with different sections of judges in different colors which does a good job of indicating that there’s some sort of power structure/rule thing going on without wasting special time explaining it. The chair Harry sat in could have been scarier, I think it should have been, but the real failures of the scene were Mrs. Figg, as I already mentioned, and Dumbledore himself. I’ve hated the way they’ve done Dumbledore since the first movie and while they refrained from making him cheezy in this one, they’ve still failed to capture anything of what Dumbledore is; an amazingly wise and powerful wizard who isn’t downright frightening only because he’s also a kindly old man with a wicked sense of mischief. Hate hate hate hate hate how they keep screwing up my favorite character particularly since at this rate I’m not going to be upset by the movie when he dies in HBP. That’s a serious problem.

Luna Lovegood. Amazingly well done. Without the extended scene in the train to introduce her as the slightly off one they still get the point across, and her unexplained comments about nargles become a nice running joke throughout the rest of the movie. They also setup a fantastic scene between Luna and Harry where she explains about the thestrels. I’d say the treatment of the thestrels and Luna were some of the better book-to-movie adaptions in the whole series. The only problem with Luna is that she came off as better played than Harry, Ron or Hermione who are decently convincing on their own, but don’t hold up against her. Le sigh.

Umbridge’s speech during the feast doesn’t forebode as much as it should, Hagrid’s absence isn’t as shocking either. In fact, Hagrid was more or less useless throughout the whole movie save the exposition about Dumbledore trying to recruit the giants and Voldemort beating him to it. Unfortunately, he was so busy holding a random piece of meat during that scene that it was hard to feel worried about the giants. I’d have nixed him in favor of more time spent exasperating Umbridge after Dumbledore leaves.

DADA class did not fail to establish her as a right nasty piece of work, or to send the “this is too close to truth to accept as good fiction” type shivers down my spine as her approach to the subject gets explained. I again wish Harry had actually yelled during his confrontation. I think perhaps Radcliff was aiming for a controlled performance that would tune down the angst. We wound up with something rather flat and distant. Harry mentions to Sirius at Christmas that he feels angry all the time, but I wouldn’t have thought so from watching him.

The detention scene with Umbridge was fine. At the beginning Umbridge says to Harry, “Deep down inside you know you deserve to be punished.” At the time it felt off, a little too much like she was about to pull out chains and riding crops, but as the movie flashes on more and more instances of Harry dreaming while Voldemort calls to him, darting glimpses of the department of mysteries, and fleshes out Harry’s concern that he’s becoming Voldemort, the line makes sense. It’s perhaps what plants the idea in Harry’s head.

The middle of the movie is practically montage after montage. It begins with Filch nailing a framed version of educational decree 23 on the wall. From there, several quick cuts of Umbridge in her class, and questioning Prof.s Trelawney and Snape, proceed. It was effective for showing her increasing power, particularly as shots of Filch nailing more and more decrees with ever taller ladders get dropped into this and several of the montages to follow.

The scene in Hogsmeade where Harry convinces people to join the DA lacked a punch. This is the scene where it becomes clear that Cho and Marietta are being combined into a single character which becomes a problem since, while we can understand Cho standing up for her lame friend, Harry Potter having a crush on a lame traitor is very uncool, throwaway lines at the end to indicate that veritaserum was used on her notwithstanding. Did I mention how very gross the kissing scene between those two got? Seriously, my sister and I had time to have a conversation about how long it was going on before it was over.

Anyway, the DA leads to a positively great montage in which Harry conducts DA lessons with ever increasingly good results while Filch tries to bust them. Filch is made a fool of as he becomes increasingly obsessed, the Inquisitorial squad is formed, students are questioned, but the DA hangs together and the the Room of Requirement has their back. It’s fun, it crams a lot into very little space, and it does it without feeling like we’re being rushed through important stuff which gives it a double bonus since these movies always rush through everything. The twins betting on how Ron fares at stunning against Hermione is funny and reminds the audience about the twins, important for their grand exit, and Harry striding through the room and correcting people throws back to Lupin and the boggart scene in POA very nicely. It might have been nice to see Harry growing into the role, getting better and more confident as he went, but there was no delivery on any kind of character development via acting there, so no dice. The montage ends just before Christmas break, the twins get told to bugger off so Harry can see about a girl, Cedric gets mentioned, mistletoe grows out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, nargles are mentioned, then there’s a kiss. Reasonable time for a first kiss passes and the audience starts cheering and clapping. By the time the audience is quiet again the kiss is still going on. That’s when the conversation between little sis and me started. Come on, if anything in the movie could afford to be rushed, they had a good thirty seconds they could have bought by cutting that down to reasonable size.

I’ve already mentioned the tragic after-scene with Ron and Hermione. Not bad enough to harp on again.

The movie rushing really starts to become a problem with the next scene, Harry’s dream of the snake biting Mr. Weasley. The dream itself is so fast, though longer than the other clips of Harry’s dreams so far, that there’s no suspense, and consequently, very little shock and horror when Mr. Weasley goes down. It skips straight to the scene in Dumbledore’s office wherein the role of the portraits is completely unexplained, Harry’s momentary possession by Voldemort when Dumbledore makes eye contact is just kinda weird, and Snape drags Harry from the room for an occlumency lesson right then. Mini-montages of Harry’s memories, but I don’t think the occlumency lessons contributed anything to the film. Harry’s secret desire to keep seeing the department of mysteries in his sleep never comes up, since the tension between Snape and Sirius never comes up, and Snape’s hatred for Harry’s Dad comes out of nowhere right before Harry winds up in Snape’s memory, nothing really happens as a consequence of those revelations, and seeing clips of Harry’s past run together three or four times before the big climax at the end weakened the impact of that technique at the end, I think it’s safe to call their insistence on including this bit from the book damaging to the movie. Sure, people would have been upset at them for leaving it out, but there’s still no Peeves and they’ve survived so far.

Mr. Weasely is miracle cured by Christmas Eve, just in time for a toast to Harry. That scene only functioned as a good segue into the scene between Sirius and Harry that follows. I squirmed when they left out any mention of the Black family tree before school started at the beginning of the movie, but it turned out okay because here it is, during the Christmas bit. Instead of a wall hanging it’s a mosaic that covers the walls in the room which, visually, was fantastic. This is the scene where Harry confesses to having been the snake, and his concerns that maybe he doesn’t live up to Dad because maybe he’s just a little too much like Voldemort. The familial connection between Harry and Sirius comes across loud and clear, and Sirius’ departing line, “When this is all over we’ll be a proper family” fits so perfectly that it both gives away that Sirius is going to die by the end, and make you feel sorry about it. It would have been nice to have gotten more practical information in the scene, i.e. all the pureblood families are related and there are half-bloods in all of them out of sheer necessity so the bad guys are all hypocrites. I’m also concerned about the fact that neither Regulus, nor the mysterious-locket-we-all-know-is-a-horcrux never got mentioned, but those are minor concerns for the whole series and don’t effect this movie on its own. The fact that the war is a pure-blood vs, everybody else war gets massively ignored, but that never really bothered me.

All things Neville dealing with his parents in this film were awkward and suffered from negligible acting. Since the information didn’t come out in Goblet they slip it in while Neville talks to Harry and looks at the pic of the original Order. It was great, however, compared to Neville’s one line during the fight at the ministry, delivered to Bellatrix’s question about his parents’ health, “Better now that they’re about to be avenged!” Neville really is that corny in the books, though he’d never say, “I’m proud to be their son, I’m just not ready for the others to know yet,” but there isn’t enough Neville in the movie to know it and so it’s really just corny during a scene that can’t support it.

Bellatrix’s escape. Oh dear sweet gods of villainy, Helena Bonham Carter might not have stolen the entire movie, but that’s only because she’s only really in the second half and the chick playing Luna stole the first half. Even so, I think she might have pulled it off. She’s in her cell, then this whole section of the roof blows away. Is she scared? Does she make a dash to escape? No. She stands there cackling in the middle of a north Atlantic rain storm while Dementors circle the prison. She cackles, and cackles, and my brain goes, “Oh, this is a real bad guy. Like, an actual character.” She was badder than Lucius Malfoy or Voldemort, and I utterly adored her. Between Voldemort’s Return of the Jedi Palpatine style lightning and Lucius’ general snottiness the rest of the major bad guys were a little unreal, a touch cartoony. She was Tim Burton style odd dropped in among Warner Brother cartoons and worked up some major creepiness out of it. I think she should knock off Voldemort and just run around cackling and calling Harry names for the next two movies.

The scene where the DA is finally discovered works, decently well. The scene afterwards, in Dumbledore’s office doesn’t. It’s too rushed, Dumbledore continues to not be Dumbledore, and the whole thing goes down as a very rapid, “Oh well, that sucks, guess I better hop my Phoenix and scoot.” Though I will agree with Kingsly Shackelbot’s evaluation of Dumbledore’s exit, “You might not like him, Minister, but you have to agree; Dumbeldore’s got style.” Completely off the cuff comment not remotely like anything in the book, and perhaps consequently, the best line in the scene.

This is where they really polish Umbridge, begin to ignore the actual details of the book, and start getting really good. It’s a montage again, with Filch nailing up more decrees and swinging his super-tall ladders at the students when he isn’t fawning at Umbridge’s shoulder, large groups of students doing bleeding-hand-style detention, and the invocation of an ever increasing desire to just smack the smiling nutcase in the pink fuzz dress until her head spins. It ends with Harry walking up on Fred and George comforting a small crying kid. Umbridge leaves the great hall where the detention has been going in, and the Weasley twins rise. “You know, I’ve always felt our futures lie somewhere outside the realms of academia.” And then they smile too, and if only you’d seen more of their mischief you’d bounce with glee at the thought of what they’re planning. I’d read the book, I bounced anyway.

When you see Harry during the O.W.L examinations, I doubt anybody who hasn’t read the book is going to have a clue why he’s there or what’s going on. They get mentioned at the beginning of Umbridge’s first class, Hermione mentions, “We aren’t getting prepared for our Owls,” during the rant that precedes the Hogsmead scene, and that’s it. Doesn’t matter too much, except for the bit where it’s sloppy movie making. Anyway, Harry’s vision of Voldemort and Sirius profits mostly on the set. Dark, with creepy glowing orbs all around, you get the sense of dark and creepy. Unfortunately, Sirius has been such a minor character both in this movies and ones preceding it that a quick flash of him about to be tortured doesn’t give the audience the emotional jab needed to make sense of Harry’s consequent freaking out. Maybe they left it out for ratings purposes, but not even getting a good scream from Sirius that lasted even as Harry wakes up undercut a lot of potential there. But before you get time to dwell on that, the Weasley twins attack.

It starts with one loud bang, followed by another, and another, coming closer. Close up to Umbridge with a giant clock pendulum swinging behind her actually, for the first time in the whole movie, leads to some suspense about what’s going on. Then the Weasley’s burst into the room, dropping their fireworks everywhere and creating mayhem before flying off, a giant sparkling W hanging over the school. It was awesome.

The attempt to use the floo network for the Sirius rescue mission and Hermione’s trick on Umbridge aren’t really worth talking about except for me to say, “How did Neville, Luna and Ginny get involved?” The complete lack of any demonstrated obstacle for getting into the hall of prophecy bugged me, what with it being too obviously easy, but everything from Lucius’s entrance to the appearance of the Order members was great. The way they did the Death Eater masks, the falling shelves of prophecies, all great stuff. The special effects were top notch. Things begin to stumble with the entrance of the members of the Order since it looks like they come flying out of the arch Sirius falls into when he dies. Since different effects are used for their appearances and disappearances than what the Death Eaters use it looks like they’re doing something different. I’m fond of Sirius’s slip-up and calling Harry James, though I think it was motivated more out of things that went on in the book and weren’t presented in the movie. The movie tried to fix the problem from the book of Sirius’ death happening too fast to pack a real emotional wallop but didn’t quite succeed. Harry running after Bellatrix didn’t have the right sense of desperation or rage at all, but Bellatrix laughing as Voldemort appears was fantastic. Also, while it makes absolutely no sense at all for Voldemort to show up at the ministry in the book, the Death Eaters even explain why it would be idiotic for him to come, it feels right for him to be there in the movie. His fight with Dumbledore was okay, though the moments where they’re just throwing red and green light at each other looked like Palpatine having a seizure. The part that was really great was Voldemort’s possession of Harry. As I mentioned earlier, it was weakened a bit by doing the same sort of thing during Occlumency lessons, and Dumbledore sucks, but what seemed to happen in the movie was entirely different, and much more interesting, than what happened in the book. If you recall from the book, Voldemort possesses Harry hoping that Dumbledore will kill Harry in order to kill Voldemort. It would have been awesome if Dumbledore was as he should be, and Harry could act. Given what we had, it would have been painful to watch. Instead Voldemort seems to be trying to convert Harry, or perhaps drive him mad with despair. Either way, you wind up with this very nice moment where Harry wins, not by blocking Voldemort from his mind, but by pulling up the parts of his life that make him happy. It’s the same thing he does to make his patronus work, and it’s nice to see it extended to this kind of defense. Actually, I think Rowling ought to take a cue from the movie guys on that one.

The denouement’s of the books are often my favorite parts, what with the great Harry/Dumbledore one-on-one time. Not surprisingly, they’re my least favorite parts of the movies. They should have just cut it this time. They summarize a bit of what Dumbledore says in the book, but there’s still no rage from Harry. No throwing Dumbeldore’s stuff. No shouting. No confession from Dumbledore that he’s made a huge mistake, not because he was missing data, but because he cared for Harry too much and tried to shelter him. The ambiguous “Neither can live while the other survives” line from the prophecy doesn’t get interpreted past, “So one of us has to kill the other,” so we don’t even get the horror at being either a murderer, or a murder victim. Just two guys, sitting in chairs, reciting mediocre dialog. I was still loving the possession by Voldemort scene though, so it didn’t hurt too badly until I thought about it later.

Like I said. Best one so far, almost a good movie on its own.

2 thoughts on “Yea, I shall drive 7 hours to NY during the day, and still see it opening night!

  1. I don’t really like the whole notion of these Harry Potter movies since they end up emasculating the books and giving the viewer a diluted experience. If I had not read the books but only seen the movies I would not have a clue to understanding why the books are both well written and actually fun to read.
    In any case, I felt that they did a very good job with Umbridge through out the entire film, with a very evil use of the colour pink! (Her specialized outfit for the Hearing was great.) I feel that she alone could have forced them to rename this movie “Harry Potter and his first hand experience with Stalinism.” Her way of being dealt with at the end maybe seemed a bit too similar to the way it was done in the books, without a real good denumont that feels right.
    I actually liked the Dumbledore-Voldemort fight even before the possession of Harry. Compared to some of the rather lackluster Jedi Lightsaber duels, this was actually interesting from a visual perspective.
    At the end of the day however, its still an imperfect adaptation that at least for me feels lacking in what the books have. The movie will probably end up serving its much greater purpose, increasing Harry Potter awareness so that everyone remembers to buy the books this Saturday.

  2. The movie will probably end up serving its much greater purpose, increasing Harry Potter awareness so that everyone remembers to buy the books this Saturday.
    That’s more or less my whole reason behind always going opening weekend. I adore the books, J.K. Rowling single-handedly got my sister interesting in reading, and I’d like to contribute to the HP franchise making tons of money and setting lots of records any way possible.
    I think I forgot to mention in my review how much I liked the action scenes compared to a lot of the ones I’ve been seeing lately. No bullet-time nonsense, but everything was paced so that it was actually possible to tell what was going on (a major problem I had with some of the action in Transformers).

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