7/16/2007

Harry Potter 5 OK; IMAX 3D Not

Posted in Reviews at 9:44 am by Stephen

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a perfectly decent film, but it’s probably the lowpoint in the film series. As the least cinematic of the novels — at least until its amazing climax — it must have been a tough book to adapt, but the screenplay by Michael Goldenberg does a nice job of cutting the source material. Credit must also be given to editor Mark Day, as it feels like half the movie is told via (very well done) montage.

I made a point of catching the flick in the IMAX format, which features that climax in 3D. As much as I enjoyed the film, I am sorry to report the 3D format is a bust. While there are a few “Wow!” moments, for the most part they are not worth the loss in image clarity that results from it. I found that the process of converting the traditional cinematography into 3D is hardly perfect, as many times we see images that do not resolve correctly using the polarized 3D glasses (often there is a bit of a double vision effect).

That’s a shame because I otherwise enjoyed seeing the movie in the larger IMAX format, which uses a recent method of converting normal 35mm film to the special IMAX 70mm format. This means you can blow a normal movie up to be projected on the gigantic IMAX screens and it looks quite good. There are some quality issues with this — the film had a sort of digitally sharpened feel to it, as though somebody had pushed the unsharp mask filter in Photoshop a little too far — but I think the spectacle of seeing movies so large is probably worth the quality trade offs. Of course, if the studios would just shoot their movies in 70mm to begin with, we could avoid much of the issue.

Getting back to the movie itself, there isn’t too much more I have to say. The movie lacks the headstrong energy and sense of style that was so delightful in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), when the studio let director Alfonso Cuaron really run wild. David Yates, who has directorial duties this time around, has mostly experience with British television, and seems to have been hired mainly to bring the film in exactly as expected.

As I predicted back in our summer movie preview in Episode 31, Yates seems to be mainly a traffic director, as the cast and crew certainly know their roles and the movie feels consistent with the others in the series. This is to say it’s fun but not truly dazzling, and I imagine those who aren’t fans of the books probably don’t have too much to be interested in.

That’s actually worth a special note — while I mostly liked the screenplay, the lack of explanation for the film’s central MacGuffin here is baffling. If you go into this movie without already knowing the story, I have to imagine you will come out and immediately rush to Wikipedia to have some idea of what was going on. I am not really sure why the climax and denouement in the novel are given such short shrift, especially because they are so vital to setting up the events in books six and (presumably) seven.

Anyway, if you’re a Potter fan, you’ll be able to see the movie and enjoy it, but don’t expect anything too spectacular. If you’re not a fan, just go read the books already.

P.S. If you want to comment, you should do so now, as I am liable to close comments on this thread the instant the calendar rolls over to July 21 and possibly sooner. All of those who have at least an Acceptable on their OWLs can surmise why.

7 Comments

  1. Sam (405) said,

    July 16, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    I would say that Stephen’s assessment that the fifth Harry Potter movie is “ok” is generous. The film is a mess. It is a mess that contains certain joys, true, but mostly for fans of the novels, who will also be those most annoyed by the film’s narrative incoherence.

    I understand that things must be trimmed and changed when a lengthy book is adapted for the screen. I’m not one to complain that such-and-such plot element was altered or removed, except when the change doesn’t seem to buy anything, such as Faramir kidnapping the hobbits in The Two Towers. Certainly I have no complaints along these lines with the first four Harry Potter films; I’d even call the first two borderline great films, loath as I am to pay Chris Columbus a compliment like that.

    But Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix trims its story to the point of incoherence. Even having read the book, I’d have had trouble following the narrative had I not reread it merely a couple weeks earlier. A good memory for faces will help. Professor Lupin, who last appeared in the third film, shows up again for this one, but if anybody ever spoke his name, I missed it, so good luck figuring out who he is, let alone what he’s doing in this movie. New characters, like Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt, and introduced so fleetingly and given so little to do that it’s a wonder the movie bothered including them at all.

    Much has been made of entire subplots vanishing from the film, such as Ron’s mishaps on the Quidditch Pitch. I’m ok with that (except that it leaves Ron with nothing to do but dress the set). The main problem is with plot elements that *do* remain in the film, but which are covered in such a rush that none of it gets a pay-off. When Arthur Weasley is attacked in the Ministry, the film is too busy to give Ron and Ginny a split second for the import of the terrible news to hit home. If we are to care about a movie, the emotional charges like this are exactly what cannot be cut. But no, it’s a quick cut to Dumbledore’s office, and then all of a sudden Snape is giving Harry private lessons for some reason. Besides the emotional charge, what’s the significance to the Arthur Weasley plot turn? The questions it raises: where was Arthur Weasley when he was attacked, and why was he attacked? The film never wonders. The whole episode is therefore bereft of purpose, and it should have been cut entirely or expanded to significance.

    I suppose this is an example of my problem with the film as a whole. The previous four movies, and all the books, are wonderful mysteries. Director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg, both new to the series, are so preoccupied trying to fit content into the running time that they forget that what makes the stories compelling are the mysteries behind them. The formula is hardly difficult: one mysterious clue after another turns up, and eventually the pieces fit together and form the solution. If you’ve made the decision to include Arthur Weasley’s attack but fail to realize this plot element as a piece of a larger whole, you’ve missed the point.

    Here’s another example: there is a scene in which Harry is captured by Dolores Umbridge and shouts a message to Snape that only he should be able to understand. Umbridge asks what it means, and Snape claims ignorance. In the book, this scene is absolutely laden with wonderful possibilities. Did Snape understand or not? If he did, how will he act on the information? Harry and Snape’s relationship of mutual hatred and suspicion is one of the best aspects of the novels, and I understand that the films would have to simplify it. But the movie plays the scene at face value and provides no payoff for it whatsoever. Again, I was confused why the scene was included at all.

    One plot element does get treated as a mystery of sorts. Why won’t Dumbledore look at Harry? But that’s a bust, too: the answer is never supplied.

    A movie can’t do everything, but it’s gotta do something. Throwing some great performances together in a lacklustre script devoid intrigue and real relationships doesn’t cut it. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the longest of the books, but it’s the shortest of the movies. There was room for an extra half hour, and it could have worked wonders.

    There are, as I say, joys to be found. Imelda Staunton is a scream as the delightfully wicked Dolores Umbridge. The movie actually gives her some screen time, and it pays off. In particular, her inspection of the other Hogwarts teachers is fantastic, although my absolute favorite scene in the book is her inspection of Professor McGonagall, which didn’t make the film. (Of the regulars, McGonagall, played by the incomparable Maggie Smith, gets shafted the worst.) Snape continues to be my favorite character, and Alan Rickman playing him is fantastic. The DA meetings are nicely done, the Weasley twins leave Hogwarts in style, and much is made of Harry’s first kiss. I liked Filch posting the many decrees of Dolores Umbridge, and I liked Helena Bonham Carter’s brief turn as Voldemort supporter Bellatrix Lestrange. But as I list out such goodies, I can’t help but notice that they’re all isolated moments, individual scenes here and there, and that no matter how many of them there are, they add up to a whole that is disappointingly unaffecting.

    If I may say so, I believe this film refute’s Stephen’s speculation in our Summer Movie Preview episode that the director of a Harry Potter film need only direct traffic. No; here everybody gets everything right, and it still doesn’t work. The director needs to know what the story is and work with the writer to get a script that tells it. And he needs to know what each individual scene is about and film it in a way that brings the essence of each scene alive. Cuaron did that in his film. Newell did that in his film. Columbus was hit or miss, but the stories were simpler. Here, David Yates gets the words but not the music, and he stumbles over the words.

  2. Stephen (221) said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    If Sam thinks I’m being overly generous, well I think he’s being overly harsh. But first a minor point: I don’t think it’s fair to list a whole swath of story problems and then blame Yates for them. I would be very, very surprised to learn that he had any real control over the script. I know normally we tend to blame the director for everything, but given the level of control other people (not to mention Rowling) have over this franchise, I don’t think the script was much under the control of Yates.

    The things that Yates likely had control over — the look of individual scenes, the acting, etc. — is all done very well. I disliked a few decisions (hated the shaky cam flying at the begining and the lame Evil Dead Effect shots for the Dementors or the dragon fireworks), but by and large it was a very well shot and put together film.

    That said, I really feel like Sam is reviewing the movie he wished would have been made and not the one that was. No, the movie does not have the emotional impact of the book. Yes, the plot is less coherent than the novel (which by itself is very little criticism, since the novels are amazingly well plotted).

    But I think the plot of the movie stands on its own. There’s some stuff that’s not entirely clear, e.g. the attack on Mr. Weasley, but I feel it’s pretty clear within the limited context of the film. We’ve already established that he works there, is a member of the Order, and that Voldemort is prowling about looking for the MacGuffin. I too would have liked to see more made of it, but I doubt it was horribly confusing for those who hadn’t read the books.

    There are a few arcs that work really well, such as the rise, fall, and eventual triumph of the DA. Harry’s coming to terms with his place in Hogwarts, first as the usual outcast and then in the relatively new role of leader (though both of these are less interesting than in the book).

    As I said in my review, I think the MacGuffin is really given the short shrift, but on the other hand, it functions as a MacGuffin in the film, while in the book it’s more meaningful. As simply a MacGuffin, I think it’s pretty mediocre. And that’s how I feel about the whole movie — it’s pretty mediocre. It only seems really bad if you compare it to the book, but anyone who’s read the book has access to the missing information.

    Most of these complaints seem like they’re really about missing texture, and I agree that this is the lowpoint of the series (though I feel the same way about the novel). But a film without much nuance or texture isn’t necessarily bad, just not particularly good. As a summer blockbuster I feel it’s a fine entertainment.

  3. Sam (405) said,

    July 17, 2007 at 9:42 am

    That said, I really feel like Sam is reviewing the movie he wished would have been made and not the one that was.

    I cannot disagree with this statement more emphatically. I’m actually disappointed you used it. Look, I gave rave reviews to the first four Harry Potter films, all of which are terribly inferior to the novels. But take the movies on their own terms, and they’re excellent entertainment. What makes you think I’m not giving the fifth movie the same fair shake?

    Taken on its own terms, the fifth movie is superficially entertaining and then best forgotten. It left me unmoved and empty. It doesn’t get a pass from me on those terms just because it happens to be a summer blockbuster.

  4. Ric (21) said,

    July 17, 2007 at 10:45 am

    IIRC, the reason that Dumbledore was ignoring Harry *was* explained, albeit in perhaps a single line of dialog.

    Also, I think the Weasley attack was necessary to show that Harry was indeed seeing actual events. And to that end, it was sufficient.

    My major disappointment is incredibly petty and not limited to this movie: Since the (cliche alert) “untimely demise” of Richard Harris, Michael Gambon is playing Dumbledore. I think Gambon is *absolutely* wrong for the role. The playful fire that Richard Harris had is completely lacking in Gambon. Not to go too fanboy on y’all, but Ian McKellen *had* that playful fire in LOTR and would have done wonderfully in the role. Perhaps it was jut a scheduling conflict. :)

    Finally, what the HELL happened to Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley) between the last film and this one? He looked twice as heavy and like he’d fallen hard off the wagon. Ouch!

  5. Sam (405) said,

    July 17, 2007 at 11:14 am

    As much as I love Richard Harris as an actor, I thought he was equally wrong for the role of Dumbledore and equally missing the necessary lively sparkle in the eyes. Gambon is actually growing on me, though. I liked him better in this one than in the others. Maybe that’s improvement, and maybe it’s just familiarity.

    I had the same thought about Richard Griffiths. I’m sure it wasn’t the actor, though, and more like the makeup department going to town. It was startling to see him that way but kind of an interesting interpretation of the character. (Minor note: he wasn’t in the last film, so it’s been three years since we saw him. At first, I wondered if the extra time since we last saw him was why the change was so startling, but probably not.)

  6. LaZorra (60) said,

    July 17, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    I got dragged to a midnight showing of this movie by about 20 people from my film production class last week. The reviews ranged from “Okay” to “Gag me with a spoon.”

    I myself had no previous exposure to Harry Potter, books or movies. I figured that I didn’t really need too much prior knowledge, because a movie is a movie, right? Even if you’re not totally sure of all the characters, you should still be able to follow the general storyline, right?

    Wrong. Moments were great, but as a whole — my goodness, it was confusing! I felt like a plot point would just start to be developed, and then would never lead anywhere. I really wanted to know more about the Prophecy (like, for instance, what the hell one was) since that seemed to be the most important point of the plot, but that was bust.

    The movie did, however, get me to start the books (just finished the first one today) because I wanted answers to all the questions it raised in my mind.

  7. Sam (405) said,

    July 18, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Wow, yeah. The movie is impossible enough to follow when you do know the story of the first four episodes. But if it made you read the books, then that is a spectacular thing. The books have been some of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in years. It’s such a wonderfully realized world with great characters and great humor.

    The best part is that seeing the fifth movie probably didn’t even spoil the fifth book for you.

    P.S.: Did anybody actually say “gag me with a spoon”? Because if so, that’s awfully fantastic.