by Scott Renshaw
After having read the first four Harry Potter novels in their entirety, I never made it through J. K. Rowling's fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . There was nothing particularly wrong with the storyâ"Rowling was in full command of her characters and her universe, but the sense of magical discovery that permeated the early stories had been all but swept away. In its place was the tale of a 15-year-old Harry whose defining characteristic was that he was just so... well, so freaking angry .
It took director David Yates' adaptation for me to grasp the magnitude of my not-getting-itâ"as well as how much Yates did get it. After the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) naturally has plenty to be angry about. He witnessed the death of classmate Cedric Diggory at the hands of the revived Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and has spent a summer alone in Surrey without any news of what is transpiring. When he finally does return to the wizarding world, he discovers that the Ministry of Magic has rejected his version of events, launching a media campaign insisting that Voldemort's return is a fiction conjured up by Harry, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and those loyal to him, the Voldemort-battling veterans of the Order of the Phoenix .
Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, taking over for Steve Kloves, who adapted all the previous films, has to wrangle a lot of material into what turns out to be the shortest of the Potter films. He's wise enough to spend plenty of time with Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic operative sent to Hogwart's as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to keep an eye on things. Imelda Staunton brilliantly plays Umbridge as a tittering but nasty bureaucrat/ideologue, and part of a sly political allegory about paranoid institutions willing to do anything to protect their own power. It's part of the tension that makes the Potter world of Order of the Phoenix so much darker: Harry's growing realization, part of any teen's maturation process, that authority figures aren't inherently worthy of respect.
But Yates and Goldenberg prove most effective at streamlining the story into an exploration of Harry's evolving sense of family. The opening shot finds Harry alone in a playground swing, taunted by his hated cousin Dudley, one of his few blood relatives; his greatest fear is the loss of his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the one person he truly considers family. But as Harry is forced by Umbridge's nonchalance to lead a clandestine study group in real magical defense, his classmates, including best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), rally around him. Harry's bitterness comes also from his sense of isolation, but only because it takes him so long to understand that a family isn't defined by bloodâ"a reality the disowned Sirius understands, and that Harry comes to understand better as he learns unpleasant truths about his own father.
This is, of course, also an adventure, and Yates, despite a resume drawn largely from BBC television productions, proves more than capable of handling the big moments. Production designer Stuart Craig works wonders with the massive entry hall of the Ministry of Magic and its crystal ball-filled Department of Mysteries, while the climactic wizard duel demonstrates the kind of sharp, cleanly defined choreography that should have Michael Bay begging to take notes. If Yates and Goldenberg prove clumsy anywhere, it's in their attempt to pack in elements from the bookâ"spacey student Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch); Hagrid's dim-witted giant half-brother; the Black family's surly, racist house elfâ"without really having enough time to develop any of them. The Potter faithful are a demanding bunch, and the filmmakers occasionally seem unsure how to combine the story they want to tell with the story they think they're expected to tell.
Yet with an unexpected directorial flair, Yates has managed to take a blockbuster fantasy and craft a dark coming-of-age drama. That's the story Rowling was trying to tell in the first place, the one I resisted until the film was able to strip it down to its essentials. The final image of Harry, a lovely bookend to the first shot, finds him a bit more at peace. But when the result is such a rich narrative, the angry Harry can returnâ"should he need toâ"any time he wants. m
Movie Guru Rating:
A Dynamite Release
June saw MGM complete its long-overdue stateside re-release of the major films of Italian director Sergio Leone with the simultaneous reissues of A Fistful of Dollars , For a Few Dollars More , and A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker ), all of them in deluxe extras-laden two-disc editions. It's likely that you've already seen the Dollars movies, uber-violent, stylized shoot-'em-ups that, along with Leone's already-reissued epic The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly , practically defined the spaghetti western genre, and made leading man Clint Eastwood an international star. But 1971's A Fistful of Dynamite , though less commercially successful and heretofore more difficult to find on video or DVD, is more complex that any of Leon's preceding films, and rates as an equally formidable cinematic achievement.
James Coburn is John (a.k.a. Sean) Mallory, an explosives expert and former Irish revolutionary on the lam. Rod Steiger is Juan Miranda, a salty Mexican bandito whose â“gangâ” is comprised of various members of his extended family. When the two run across one another during Juan's hijacking of a stagecoach, they agree to join forces on a daring raid on the great bank of Mesa Verde. But it soon becomes clear that John has ulterior motives: The ongoing Mexican Revolution has captured the Irish dissident's imagination, and he's cast his lot with the insurgents.
Action abounds as the trigger-happy Juan becomes an unwitting participant in the Revolution, and John lobs sticks of dynamite at his enemies with gleeful abandon. Yet Dynamite , fraught with moments of both unbearable sadness and madcap humor, is at its explosive heart a movie about the bond of friendship forged between these two unlikely characters, wittily drawn by Coburn and Steiger. As is always true with Leone films, the soundtrack by legendary film composer Ennio Morricone is unfathomably rich, operatic in its evocation of the director's grand vision. Morricone's output has always been as unimpeachable as it is prodigious, but his collaborations with Leone arguably rank as his best and most passionate works.
â" Mike Gibson
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