Sunday, August 05, 2007

HP5: the review

I went to the 12:35AM showing of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (hereinafter HP5). The movie has been out for at least a week here, maybe two, and the theater wasn't crowded. I suspect everyone was out watching "D-War," the new Korean sci-fi flick that dares to aim high with massive special effects involving an enormous serpent (or two, or three, or more).

I've already reviewed the book version of HP5. The book is my favorite of the seven; for my money, it's the most emotionally intense chapter of the saga because it deals with a perfect storm of teen angst, castle intrigue, and the long-awaited battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore, the two most powerful wizards of our age.

While HP5 was my favorite book, up to now my favorite movie has been HP4... and I'm sad to say that that remains true. HP5 doesn't measure up to the previous film, and I recommend it only hesitantly. While the special effects weren't bad (though they were, on occasion, inconsistent, with the giant Grawp being the most egregious example of lame F/X), the main flaw in this film was the near-complete lack of character development.

HP5, the book, is over 850 pages long in the American version. As children's books go, it's an enormous novel-- the largest in the series, in fact. The movie version of HP5 probably should have been a bit longer to reflect the complexities of the novel and to give us time to appreciate the large cast of characters in this particular adventure.

The blame for HP5's flatness lies squarely on the director. As always, the cast for the Potter movies has been more than capable; I can't fault them for anything. As other reviewers have remarked, the main characters have grown up on screen, and it shows: their acting chops have improved immensely.

Because the movie attempted to stuff over 850 pages of narrative into a two-hour time frame, we in the audience barely had time to connect with the characters. The loss of Sirius (I'm assuming this isn't a spoiler, as the book came out over four years ago) wasn't nearly as wrenching as it could have been, and all other interactions felt more perfunctory than sincere. Neville Longbottom got a good moment or two, and that was about it. Even Harry's best friends, Ron and Hermione, felt strangely distant in this film, and as a result, so did I.

The editing and pacing of HP5 were jerky, uneven, and at times distracting. What's more, the departures from the novel, while a dramatic necessity given the truncated running time, were sometimes quite startling-- the most notable change being the person who betrays Harry's secret Defense Against the Dark Arts class. If you're like me, you'll shake your head in wonder (though I suppose the change makes a certain amount of sense).

On the bright side, the movie included some moments that foreshadowed later events, including some shots of Ginny Weasley looking at Harry as Harry walks off with another girl. Also on the bright side were the performances by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, and Helena Bonham Carter as the beyond-insane Bellatrix Lestrange. All four took to their roles quite naturally. Natalia Tena, who played Nymphadora Tonks, was quite cute but barely registered: like almost everyone else, her scenes were little more than cameos.

I'd like to say something positive about Imelda Staunton, who played Dolores Umbridge, but there's little to say. This isn't Staunton's fault; she played the role as well as she could. Bear with me as I try to explain what was wrong.

Readers of HP5 know that Umbridge is one of the principal villains of the novel-- a woman who, despite not being a servant of Voldemort, is cruel simply by nature. She represents all that is wrong with Big Government and is a satire of the stultifying nature of education: for her, class is about rote memorization and theory, not about practical application (I wondered whether my fellow audience members, all Koreans, were catching this).

But Rowling's description of Umbridge is vivid in its hideousness. In the book, Umbridge is like a huge, walking toad with beady eyes and a high, girlish voice. While Staunton does her best to convey Umbridge's hateful presence to the audience, I'm afraid she's, well, just not ugly enough to satisfy the requirements of my imagination. The filmic Umbridge simply didn't do it for me. Staunton is far from hideous-looking; I'd venture to call her handsome.

And that, when it comes down to it, is my main disappointment with this film: the overall lack of imagination in portraying the events of the book. I can understand the sundry compromises a movie has to make to meet its running time, but movies give us a chance to see something truly stunning, and with the power of CGI these days, it's hard to settle for anything less than brilliant. A few examples of where things fell short in HP5, the movie:

1. The climactic battle inside the Department of Mysteries, which begins as kids versus evil grownups, turns into good grownups versus evil grownups, and ends as Dumbledore versus Voldemort, was little more than standard action fare in the movie version. The book had floating brains that could attack with thought-tentacles, a spinning chamber whose doors led to different rooms, a workshop full of Time Turners (Book 3 featured a Time Turner, which Hermione had used to take two classes at the same time), and spells like "Sectumsempra" (not named as such in HP5, but it was used to wound Hermione internally). The book also featured a sequence I had hoped would make it on screen: the baby-headed Death Eater. None of these things appears in the movie version. None. What we get instead feels like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" warmed over.

2. Where was the screeching picture of Sirius Black's mother? Where, for that matter, was Kreacher's deep, bullfrog-like voice? And didn't Kreacher have a crucial role to play in the book? How did they manage to cut that out of the movie?

3. Harry's possession by Voldemort could have been handled much more viscerally. This was also true of the final conversation between Harry and Dumbledore at the end of the story. A lot was revealed during that conversation in the novel; the movie version of the exchange was all too brief, and none too emotional.

4. Why were the members of the Order of the Phoenix flying low through London? Shouldn't they at least have cast the Disillusionment charm to make themselves invisible, as happens in the book? While those scenes over the Thames did provide me with a sort of retro thrill (I wonder if anybody else found themselves recalling the romantic river flyover scene from "Superman: The Movie"), they didn't make logical sense. As an adult watching the movie, I was thinking, "What the hell!? All the Muggles can see them!"

5. The appearance of 12 Grimmauld Place was poorly handled and nothing like how I envisioned it. This was a major failure of imagination.

I could go on, but you get the idea. HP5, the movie, wasn't a successful adaptation of its novel; the movie version of HP4 was, by contrast, a worthy adaptation of its source material. And in my opinion, it really does come down to the director: Mike Newell, the Brit who helmed HP4, had a good sense of the story; he knew where to make the cuts, where to combine scenes, and how to maintain characterization. He also wasn't afraid to stay with a particular scene long enough to play out its drama, even if the scene in his movie differed radically from the book (I'm thinking specifically of the scene where Harry is chased by the dragon in the first trial of the Tri-Wizard Cup; in the movie, that entire chase scene is an invention; in the book, the dragon never breaks free of its bonds). HP5, alas, was a jumpy, jittery, staccato mess, with the emotional intensity tuned too far below that of the book.

One last note: tonight's viewing was in one of the Yongsan CGV Cinema's IMAX theaters. Not just IMAX, mind you, but IMAX 3D! As it turned out, though, the 3D was limited only to about fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie; we were warned by an announcer that "green glasses" would appear on the screen to alert us that the time had come to don our funky plastic eyewear, and that the appearance of "red glasses" would mean we should remove our 3D glasses to enjoy the film in normal 2D. I reveled in the IMAX screen's expansiveness, but laughed along with the audience when the "green glasses" flashed across the bottom of the screen. That was corny as hell. I'm not sure the 3D glasses really improved the overall experience that much; this wasn't that suspenseful a movie, and 3D is all about things leaping out at you.

So: do I recommend HP5? As I said, I do so only hesitantly. It's watchable, but coming as it does after a nicely put-together HP4, it's a disappointment.



Sean said...

My review is short:

I looked at my watch several times.

Anonymous said...

The Harry Potter movies also suffer from having to be compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy that were all handled by a true fan in Peter Jackson or Spider-Man by another fan in Sam Raimi.

This last Potter Movie was nonsensical for those, like myself, who did not read the book. The viewing experience was somewhat akin to tooth extraction.

I am trying to read the last two books, but I am finding them to be huge let downs after growing up reading J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robert A. Heinlein. Interesting and diverting, yes, but hardly masterpieces. And, every generation is know to have its own popular versions of "pet rocks" and "pop rocks." In music, I had Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, then came boy bands who morphed into Chistina and Britney, and who have since given way to the younger Duff girl.

Unknown said...

My daughter, the resident HP expert, didn't care for this movie at all, especially the ending. She also mentioned that they never touched on a lot of the stuff in the book.

Anonymous said...

As good or as bad as HP5 may be, it has got to be head and shoulders above D-war. I don't know if you've seen it, but D-war is a disaster that ends with it's own horrific brag piece about the director who dealt up that POS. A sorry excuse to show some computer special effects. :( I reccomend that you give it the big SKIP, if you haven't already made that mistake...

--M. Miller