Sunday, August 12, 2007


"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

I haven't been entirely untouched by the Harry Potter phenomenon. I read the first book, and enjoyed it thoroughly as a good brisk read with some genuinely moving moments. I started the second book, and put it down when I found myself wanting some kind of literary Fast-Forward button. On the advice of my great friend Kent, I've started reading ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and have been getting good fun out of it. I'd seen the first film in the theatre, largely out of curiosity, and mostly enjoyed it, but had missed the second one because I just didn't care. I finally saw it on DVD, and still didn't care.
I saw the third film, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, when it got a lot of glowing reviews, and I agreed with them all: it remains the best of the franchise, hands down, no question, period full stop. It is still the only film in the franchise to aspire to being anything other than a sort of cinematic Cliff's Notes. Alfonso Cuaron manages to capture the funky energy of Rowling's world, the messy little details and and the more than healthy respect for transgression, the willingness to occasionally do the wrong thing for the right reasons. I keep remembering the glorious charm used to activate a certain magical map: I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I keep wanting to slow the film down and look in the shadows for the little things that might be lurking (and they are there: at one point a tiny electric train can be spotted running through a big piece of astronomical machinery). Like the similar flourishes in CHILDREN OF MEN, these aren't slapped on to the movie in a desperate bid for attention; they feel completely integrated to the story, and help keep things interesting. This is no mean feat: the story is, when you think about it, pretty damned unwieldy. But Cuaron pulls it off, scoring some real triumphs along the way. A scene of panic in a room full of living paintings is particularly wonderful; there hasn't been anything like it in the series before or since. I mean really: Cuaron's film even features fascinating end titles.

Cuaron's film also features some of the most moving moments in the series, especially those featuring Daniel Radcliffe's scenes with David Thewlis and Gary Oldman. And any film that has glorious actors like Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman onscreen at the same time, turning into animals, is my kind of movie.

My hopes were high for the next film,HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, or as I've come to think of it, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF NYQUIL. There's the occasional bit of largely computer-generated energy (one big scene involving a dragon is particularly impressive), but mostly it just lies there onscreen, never more lifelessly than during the big scene at the end showing the regeneration of Lord Voldemort, as played by Ralph Fiennes, who herewith wins my vote as the Least Terrifying Villain In Film History.

Rant: the Lord Voldemort in this film is a big fat pussy. He prances around in a Martha Graham shroud, with his head all shaven and his bad teeth and no nose, and I just sat there wondering what the fuck everybody was so scared of. This little nancyboy has the entire magical world so terrified that they daren't even say his name aloud? Why didn't Indiana Jones come along and just shoot him? He's a near total-waste. Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West would kick his sorry little ass. Darth Vader would pinch his fingers together and say "I find your lack of nose disturbing." Dr. Mabuse would glance at his watch and fire Voldemort for being late. Hannibal Lecter would eat him for a mid-morning snack. Tony Soprano would snap that pencil neck. Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestley would purse her lips over that outfit, and little Voldy would just evaporate. Lady Kaede in RAN would have Voldemort's head and balls, not that I really believe he has any, on a plate in nothing flat. A certain little boy in CITY OF GOD would etc. etc. etc. etc.

Who's to blame for this sorry state of villainy? Surely the director, one Mike Newell, who seems to be able to create engaging romantic comedies but is just out of his depth at getting fear flowing. Think about it. Compare this big scene in GOBLET OF BOREDOM with anything in Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS films, and you'll see the difference. The comparatively minor scene in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING where the hobbits are attacked by the Nazgul on Weathertop is far more upsetting than this would-be apocalyptic moment, upon which a lot of the future of the franchise depends. It just flat out doesn't goddamn work.
So I was not looking forward to ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. I had made up my mind to wait for cable. But I literally had nothing else to do one Saturday afternoon, so I decided to check it out. I had a free pass, so why not?

ORDER OF THE PHOENIX puts the focus back where it belongs: the characters and what they do and why. Gary Oldman and David Thewlis make a more than welcome returns, with Oldman getting some particularly good scenes as Sirius Black. But the biggest impression is made by the sublime Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge. Umbridge is the teacher you had in grade school who worked very hard to appear very very sweet and couldn't be trusted in any way whatsoever, you know you had her, possibly as a guidance counselor. She's monstrous and marvelous, far more threatening and dangerous than Fiennes' flouncing Lord Whoopdedoo. A child sitting near me said about Staunton's character: "I hope she dies."

The Big Scenes are suitably big and effective, and the climactic battle between Fiennes and Michael Gambon almost makes up for the lackluster climax of the previous film. But the biggest scene of all, the biggest and most dangerous conflict takes place inside Harry Potter's head as he struggles to deal with the growing influence of Lord Voldemort's supposedly EVIL presence within him. That director David Yates manages to make this both convincing and effective makes me relieved that he will be doing the next entry, but not as relieved and excited as I'd be if Alfonso Cuaron were at the helm.

"Mischief managed."