Thursday, July 5, 2007

Areya and Steph Review Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!

They're here!!! My review as well as my mother's review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are finished! For those who don't know, my mother Stephanie and I were fortunate enough to attend an advance screening of the fifth Harry Potter film, conducted by MySpace.Com and Black Curtain Screenings. They held these advance screenings on June 28th in 8 cities across the country, and Pittsburgh was one of them!!! Well, our detailed reviews are now finished and provided below for your reading pleasure. We also reviewed the film together on Episode 23 of our podcast, The Falcon and the Dove! Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will be released July 11th in the United States.

My (Areya's) review has a few minor story spoilers in the first four paragraphs. My mother's (Steph's) review is spoiler-free.

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Latest ‘Potter’ Film is Intense, Character-driven, and Best One to Date
By Areya Simmons (Dove)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth installment in the billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise, and moviegoers will not be disappointed.

The film begins in a suburb in Surrey, where the country is experiencing a summer drought. Harry and his spoiled cousin Dudley are then unexpectedly attacked by two Dementors, soul-sucking creatures who guard the wizard prison Azkaban. Harry saves himself and Dudley, but then has to go to a hearing at the corrupt Ministry of Magic for using magic outside of school. Not long before that, Harry meets the clandestine resistance that is the Order of the Phoenix, which has now re-gathered in the light of Lord Voldemort’s return. At their headquarters, Harry soon learns that the Ministry is in denial of the Dark Lord’s return and is leaning on the wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet, to paint Harry as a disturbed liar and smear Dumbledore as a power-seeking fool who wants the Minister’s job.

Problems continue when Harry returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his fifth year. The Ministry appoints Dolores Umbridge, a twisted bureaucrat, to teach the students a theory-centered course of Defense Against the Dark Arts, which leaves the students woefully unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead. Therefore, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione decide to take matters into their own hands by teaching their fellow classmates how to defend themselves, at the risk of expulsion. They name their underground group, much like the Order of the Phoenix in miniature, ‘Dumbledore’s Army’, since that is the Ministry’s worst fear.

Meanwhile, Harry is haunted by vivid and disturbing dreams which give him an alarming insight into Lord Voldemort’s thoughts and emotions. Headmaster Dumbledore and Professor Snape determine that this is because of a certain mind connection between Harry and Voldemort through Harry’s scar. To avoid catastrophe, Snape tries to teach Harry how to close his mind to Voldemort’s influence. Harry, feeling as though his mind is being taken over by Voldemort, seeks the advice of his godfather, Sirius Black.

As Professor Umbridge’s hold on the school tightens, more rights are taken away from the students, and teachers even start to get fired. Dolores will do anything to get her way. But even as the ‘High Inquisitor’ gains more power and control, more students begin to rebel. In the end, all of the individual subplots come together in a thrilling climax that will leave audience members breathless.

This film is a particularly inspirational chapter in the Harry Potter series. Director David Yates tells a gripping story while delving into a number of serious issues that are eerily comparable to real life problems. Of all of the Harry Potter films to date, this is probably the most diverse in terms of style, setting, and atmosphere. David Yates, scriptwriter Michael Goldenberg (Contact; Peter Pan), and the producers had the immense task of adapting an 870-page novel (the longest in the book series) into a 2 ½ hour film. Although many of the book’s subplots needed to be cut in order to make the film work, the filmmakers succeeded in leaving in the important parts and maintaining the essence of the novel, a great achievement in itself.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a lot more dark, gritty and raw than its predecessors. There is a lot of real, human emotion, even in the climactic action-packed scenes. This film is also the most character-driven of the five films released so far. Gone are the childlike, whimsical moments of the first two films, and in their place, a different kind of joy is integrated into the film. This movie is about resisting corruption, in more ways than one. The kind of enjoyment that an audience member will garner lies in the fact that these young characters know that they are doing the right thing, even if it means breaking the rules and possibly getting punished. There is a silent intensity about this film, preserved from the book, that draws you into the story and never lets go.

There is also a sense of truth and authenticity in this film that fans and non-fans alike will all appreciate. There are lovely touches sprinkled throughout the film that hint at something more going on underneath the surface. Just one of these fine touches is a large sign that Harry sees in the Ministry depicting corrupt Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Anyone who saw the 1941 film Citizen Kane or the 1984 Apple commercial illustrating ‘Big Brother’ will understand this moment.

It will become evident to any informed filmmaker watching this movie that David Yates was inspired by a number of other directors. Being a relatively unknown director, as well as the fourth director to enter this franchise, most people will not know what to expect from this film. It is not your typical summer blockbuster. All of the characters, even the minor ones, are three-dimensional and have their own stories. Although it is heavy with information, the story is fairly simple to follow as long as you have seen the previous four films or read the books. Even though it is compressed, it does not feel rushed, something that the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire struggled with.

This franchise is fortunate enough to have such a talented ensemble telling its story. All of the actors, young, old, and new, really become their individual characters in this film. The younger actors are getting better and better with each installment, and with this one in particular, they seemed to feel comfortable within their roles.

Being a filmmaker myself, I strongly appreciate great cinematography. All of the technical aspects of this film were top notch. The sets, mattes, lighting, visual, and special effects all blend seamlessly, and every single corner is filled. The editing and camera angles were very unique, but never took me out of the narrative. The editing, in particular, served this installment well. Since there are many flashbacks in this story, one needs to be careful with how it is edited. Editing could very well have been the difference between making this movie work and having it completely fall apart. I am pleased to say that the latter did not occur. Furthermore, the ending was more than decent. Although it is far from the Disney-like fairytale happy ending, it is satisfying in its own bittersweet way, as it should be.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a film that can stand on its own two feet but still feel a part of those that came before it. The fact that most of the teen actors have remained constant throughout the films contributes to that sense of continuity. It is a wonderfully-made film, all around, and I give it 4 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that this film will not be fully appreciated by everyone immediately, and it may take months or even years for it to receive the recognition it deserves. The book it is adapted from has probably been the most misunderstood episode in the popular series, even by its fans. Therefore, the film has its work cut out for it to win fans and regular moviegoers over. However, some fans I spoke to following our advanced screening said that even though the book was their least favorite, the film was their most favorite. This is quite peculiar, indeed, since the film, although the shortest of the adaptations so far, is pretty close to the book.

There is no doubt that this film will be successful, with such a loyal fan base behind it. The question is whether it will sustain over the long-term. Ten days after it is released, the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will arrive and find its way into the eager hands of fans, some who have been waiting ten years to read it. I think that most of the fans who plan to both see the film and read the book will go to the movie theatre first. There may be a slight decline in box office sales when the book comes out July 21st, but I have a feeling that the people who are just the typical moviegoers will take their place at the cinema while everyone else is at home reading. The success of this film (and for that matter, the last two) may also depend on how the book series ends, specifically whether the hero will survive or not. That factor, however, is something that I will not dare predict, as the consequences either way will be momentous. In the meantime, enjoy Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. David Yates is returning for the sixth film, ‘Half-Blood Prince’, and I am sure that moviegoers will welcome him with open arms.

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Harry Potter’s 'Phoenix' is best film yet; Yates Triumphs in Bringing Complex Book to Life
By Stephanie Simmons (Falcon)

It seems like it would be a pretty tight spot. Imagine you are a director who has critical acclaim, but no blockbuster experience. Now, you have been tapped to direct not only a major blockbuster movie with a screamingly large budget, but it’s probably the most successful film series in history; a series of adaptations of beloved books. You are not the first director, but the fourth. The last one didn’t fare so well in the eyes of fans and critics, and oh yeah, your adaptation is from a book over 800 pages long and must be compressed into under three hours. Whew!

For David Yates, it was no worries as he along with David Hayman as producer and Michael Goldenberg as screenplay writer have done a stunning screen interpretation of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. There are kids, animals, and Deatheaters, oh my, along with a host of formerly introduced characters, and important new ones. That was a lot for one plate, but the film is a four-star getaway complete with competent acting, magnificent special effects, and a compression of a complex storyline that even the most HP challenged can follow. Does it include everything from the book? Of course not; that would be a 13 and a half hour film. It includes all the important factors, introduces key characters, and captures moving moments. Unlike some previous adaptations in this series, lines from the book are spoken verbatim on most occasions. Yates clearly communed with director extraordinaire and Academy Award nominee, Alfonso Cuaron, which provided continuity in key scenes lacking in some of the other films in the series. This humble move filled in the corners of the backgrounds, and made a thoroughly engrossing world where one could believe the veil truly thin between our world and Harry’s. Yates' film influences are diverse and show their faces in large as well as subtle ways.

The Ministry of Magic is a hall full of neo-Gothic architecture and 'Citizen Fudge' (an Orsen Wells tribute I am sure) aka Cornelius Fudge displaying himself in huge HD perspective in the main atrium letting you know instantly that his ego has far overrun his wisdom, and fear and control are the order of the day. The crowd is Metropolis-like, and there is lavishness, yet coldness to Harry’s Proceeding that makes one think of The Inquisition. Without words, Yates relates a world from Jo Rowling’s imagination that terrifies us, so we know how it must feel to Harry. Even Hogwarts initially offers little relief, as it is taken over by a virus in pink polyester whose rigidity, intolerance, and willingness to actually torture young minds becomes nearly all consuming to everyone there, especially Harry. She walks on two legs, and her name is Dolores Umbridge. She unwittingly becomes an aide to the rising Dark Lord Voldemort, along with Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic with his paranoid behavior and short-sighted direction.

There is quiet introduction of characters that will surprise later on in the series, so their presence is necessary in this film: the slightly accident-prone Tonks (never call her by her first name), a House-elf serving the House of Black (fans of the books know this one well), and a Celtic delight in Evanna Lynch portraying Luna Lovegood. She and Harry can see the mystical, morbidly beautiful Thestrals, which the students will later need to ride (rather than brooms) for a major showdown at the Hall of Prophecies inside the Ministry. Onyx and glass play a huge role, as well as a snake, and channeling by Professor Trelawney.

You have probably already noticed that I am not giving a synopsis of the contents of the film. That is deliberate. If you haven’t read the books, but have seen all the films, I want you to be able to enjoy the film without having that enjoyment spoiled by my telling you critical spoilers you don’t need to know at this point. If you have read the books, you don’t know what is included (unless you have read spoiler reviews), and I don’t have to tell you how good it is as a tale; you simply need to know if the film is worthy of your attendance. Let me assure you that it is.

This film is actor driven, not special effects driven, and that is why it is so good. Yet, the special effects (delivered in spectacular form by ILM, Rising Sun Pictures, and Cinesite) are complimentary to each and every frame, and it’s been a long time since I have said that in a review. Guierrmo del Toro's “Pan’s Labyrinth” was perfect in its beauty and its horror; “Order of the Phoenix” has similar impact in the use of its effects.

This is not a film for young children, unless they have read the books. I would say age 9 and up because there are scary scenes (besides the pink in Umbridge’s office of terror), and parents should gauge their children and their viewing accordingly. It is an emotional coming of age for most of the principle teens, and that should be considered with respect to what you may want your children to see. I would take my own daughter at age 9; I would not have wanted her to see this film at age 8. You decide.

What is most impressive about this film is how it all works together. The director’s influences are apparent in the attention to detail of every frame, with organic POV in camera angles and placement. So many special effects-laden films these days show unnatural points of view of their shots; Yates was very careful to make sure that the captured angles have an authentic feel. You are there, but not intrusive. You are enveloped in the frames from a natural perspective for the characters. Sirius’ home looks like they just revived it from a sleepy grave, and that is exactly what it should look like (pay close attention to the family tree on the tapestry he shows Harry). Gary Oldman is a very good Sirius Black, and demonstrates his loyalty and compassion as a Godfather in this film. Harry is torn between his good thoughts, and the possible interference from Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, but it may be Harry’s heart that may be the most lethal to his enemy, not his wand. Hermione’s transformation from follower to co-leader is also impressive.

The tone of the film is dark, but the times depicted are dark. This is not a morose film, though; it is inspiring. In our world, there are fear mongers, hypocrites, control freaks, and close friends; so there is in Harry’s world. They don’t always make the best decisions in their world; neither do we. That is what makes the story so appealing to so many people: authentic experiences and challenging scenarios to overcome. The visual telling of this tale should inspire the young aspiring directors who someday want to do a film with this budget. Alfonso Cuaron once said that the only difference between a small, independent film he directs and a larger blockbuster is the money. That is why his films like “A Little Princess”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, and “Children of Men” are so impressive. Clearly, David Yates subscribes to the same approach, giving “Order of the Phoenix” an intimate feel. I also sensed some Michael Apted in his frames, and he is one of my favorite directors. He also has his Hitchcock, Robert Altman, and Sydney Pollack moments in this film as well. He is going to direct “Half-Blood Prince”. I am relieved and delighted in his selection; he has done a stellar job with this one. I wish him all the best with his future endeavors. The film is the best of the series; kudos all around.

1 comment:

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