Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)

Harry Potter has begun to truly grown up and with him the film series, for better or for worse, has outgrown the limiting drama of school life and childish make-believe into the realm of disenchantment. The awed faces of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his cohorts at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have matured and become suspicious of adult authority, hardened by successively twisted Defense against the Dark Arts teachers and the full return of the big baddie, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). At the conclusion of the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Harry watched a fellow student die at the hands of the Dark Lord, a repetition of his earliest trauma of watching his parents die at the same hands. This Freudian complication also serves to further distance Harry from the reigning adult world when the Ministry of Magic deems the student’s death an accident and resolutely denies the return of Voldemort. In the opening scene of Order of the Phoenix, Harry practices his wizardry in a life-or-death situation against the wraithlike Dementors in the Muggle (non-magic) world, breaking the rules of the Ministry and in the process severing all ties to its bureaucratic regime. With an ultimate evil out there, practical application in the real world trumps theory in the classroom, and this is comically played out when the pink-suited iron fist of Dolores Umbridge (the sweetly sinister Imelda Staunton) rules over Hogwarts as an instrument of the Ministry. Magical standardized testing and overzealous punishments are her specialties, and the educational parallels with our current world become all too clear, as do surprisingly conservative jabs at contemporary politics; the Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) tests, although based on British secondary exams, could be called “No Wizard Left Behind,” and the Ministry’s collective head in the sand concerning the ultimate evil causes Harry to go it alone with his young “coalition of the witching.” But although Umbridge’s autocratic rule concerns much of the film’s plot, her fate and that of her administration are poorly handled, betraying a kind of weariness for Hogwarts hi-jinks and a stronger fascination for Harry’s psychological development.

Despite being the eponymous hero of the series, Harry has thus far had to share major screen time with his fellow students and teachers, and Daniel Radcliffe has been clearly overshadowed by various British acting heavyweights and modern luminaries including Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, and Emma Thompson; Order of the Phoenix somewhat changes that. Fine supporting turns by Staunton and Evanna Lynch as the dotty, pale outsider Luna Lovegood are tempered by the unfortunate interchangeability of nearly everyone else but Radcliffe, with recognizable faces like David Thewlis and Helena Bonham Carter shown then discarded. However, this film is finally Harry’s showcase and provides Radcliffe an emotionally dark dimension that has been hardly hinted at. Already angered by the Ministry’s worthlessly stringent rules and its denial of Voldemort’s return, Harry is betrayed not once but thrice by his male authority figures: headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) disappears in a fiery puff in a vain attempt to distance himself and thus keep Harry safe; adoptive uncle Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), for all of his honesty and warmth in comforting young Potter’s confusion, is dispatched in slow-motion during a climatic battle; and, in a despairingly touching scene, Harry lashes out at the mind-reading Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) with a taste of his own medicine, discovering that Harry’s assumedly angelic father was really a bully while at Hogwarts. Sour disappointment at the duplicity of adulthood strikes much deeper than special effects, and Radcliffe makes the most of these crucial emotional low points, highlighted by quickly cut nightmares. But all hope is not lost, for Harry’s first kiss and burgeoning leadership skills offset his myriad disillusionments. The title thus makes sense as the beginning of a young man's rebirth from destruction by personal tragedy. As the only Hogwarts student with any experience in using magic outside school walls, he takes it upon himself to prepare his friends for the inevitable attack of the Dark Lord, gathering a force of young people against what has amounted to a betrayal by the adult world, whether symbolized by Umbridge’s management, Harry’s father figures, or the series’ literal cavalcade of teachers-turned-Voldemort pawns. Harry is now beginning to take up the burdensome mantle of responsibility for his world’s future, and Radcliffe’s portrayal is equally up to the task.

However, the force of his growth is diminished by the film’s leaden plot threads, chief among them the aforementioned Zero for Conduct-esque school revolt and a muddled quest for a prophesying object at the Ministry of Secrets. Overused narrative shorthand, like animated newspaper stories, weakens the already obviously compressed storyline’s flow and coherence. Even the titular Order of the Phoenix, an assemblage of wizards and witches out to defend Harry and oppose Voldemort, only serve as a climactic deus ex machina. Unlike the imaginative style of the so far high point of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, everything here (except for the opening scene that almost feels like a different film) is treated with the same visual stasis that prevents momentum and vitality. The proceedings at times seem perfunctory, and the admittedly solid computer effects have become workmanlike and fail to impress any more. Magic is unfortunately now the norm, no longer brightening the eyes of Harry, his compatriots, or the audience, supplanted instead by the gloomy concerns of Harry’s young adulthood. If only the series could capture that same spark of heroic sorrow that momentarily flash in Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes when he realizes the illusory magic of growing up.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 2

11. The Conversation (74, Coppola)
A paranoid masterpiece, one that rewards multiple viewings and features a career high performance from Gene Hackman. The morality of observation is meticulously probed by the team of Coppola, Hackman, and sound editor Walter Murch, not to mention by Bill Butler’s surveillance-like cinematography. Hackman’s Harry Caul is one of cinema’s great voyeurs, a troubled professional whose personal obsession grows with each passing moment of the film. A watershed in 70s American cinema, a movie-bred auteur whose commercial success allowed him to craft an intelligent, European-style art thriller.
Alt to the Alt: Blow Out (81, De Palma). As indebted to The Conversation as Coppola’s film is to Blowup.

12. The Crowd (28, Vidor)
Although silent, King Vidor’s social commentary speaks loudly against group conformity and the clash of the individual with society. The average American is portrayed by unknown James Murray, and the fluid camera movements follow his life, with all of its shrinking expectations, disappointments, hopes, dreams, twists, and turns. Lacking any sentimentality or escapism of any kind, the film shows what it’s like to be a part of the faceless mass of American life, the crowd. Vidor would later produce and direct a kind of sequel, the landmark Depression-era Our Daily Bread.
Alt to the Alt: Greed (24, von Stroheim). A much more epic silent depicting the power of avarice on ordinary people. Worthwhile even in its butchered form.

13. Dead Man (95, Jarmusch)
Rips down the Western mythos and resurrects a fascinating hallucination in its place. From a skeletal Johnny Depp’s connection to poet William Blake to Crispin Glover’s brief but indelible monologue, Jim Jarmusch’s evocative and absurdly violent American fable touches on 20th century industry, Native American folklore, the classic presence of Robert Mitchum, and the ironic, philosophical chit-chat that is Jarmusch’s verbal bread and butter. An immersive experience.
Alt to the Alt: One would be hard pressed to find a similar film to Dead Man, but Little Big Man (70, Penn), while not as uproarious as its source novel, uses lighter humor to mine some of the same themes.

14. Dog Day Afternoon (75, Lumet)
With humanizing performances and an empathetic screenplay by Frank Pierson, Dog Day Afternoon chronicles a bizarre bank robbery that gets engulfed by the media. As the most likeable crooks ever, Pacino and Cazale lend depth to Sal and Sonny, two men over their heads and forced by circumstance to do what they do. Even when clichés threaten to derail the “bank robbery goes awry” plot, Lumet’s sensitive direction and the lead performances shine through.
Alt to the Alt: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (74, Sargeant). Although structurally more like Reservoir Dogs or Inside Man, this underrated thriller exudes its sense of place and time in a similar way to Afternoon.

15. Dressed to Kill (80, De Palma)
A derivative mix of Argento and Hitchcock with De Palma’s inimitably stylish camera movements, Dressed to Kill is a violent, meta, sexual thrill ride with interesting and surprisingly effective performances by Caine, Dickinson, and Allen. Probably De Palma’s most absurdly playful and self-referential film up to that point, the director would follow in this vein through Body Double and Femme Fatale.
Alt to the Alt: Sisters (73, De Palma). One of De Palma’s most effective thrillers, with a rollicking if somewhat incoherent climax.

16. Duck Amuck (53, Jones)
Among the greatest animated shorts of all time, Chuck Jones’s ahead of its time meta-work playfully investigates the very nature of cartoon logic and freedom. A vocal tour-de-force from Mel Blanc as the most human and fallible of Warner Brothers characters, Daffy Duck, makes each viewing as riotous as the last. Kudos also to Mike Maltese and the stellar animation team for transforming backdrops, inventive and unexpected challenges to Daffy’s ego, and the ingenious if retrospectively inevitable ending.
Alt to the Alt: Rabbit Seasoning (52, Jones). The best of the real Bugs/Daffy crossover vehicles, this one contains the immortal line, “Pronoun trouble.”

17. Eating Raoul (82, Bartel)
Roger Corman protégé Paul Bartel scripted, directed, and starred in his pet project Eating Raoul, a deadpan, almost whimsical black comedy about sex, morality, and cannibalism. He and Mary Woronov are the aptly-named Blands, who only want to start their own restaurant but find themselves caught with a cadre of swinging couples in their apartment building. The movie is defiantly laid back and un-PC, although some of it shock may have dissipated since its release.
Alt to the Alt: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (79, Arkush). This Bartel/Woronov vehicle isn’t nearly as black as Raoul, but it still has that charming DIY aesthetic. Not to mention the Ramones.

18. Eraserhead (77, Lynch)
Disturbing but undoubtedly unforgettable, David Lynch’s feature debut is a black-and-white surrealist nightmare vision with no light at the end of the tunnel. The bleak industrialized landscape houses the claustrophobic existence of Jack Nance as he struggles with fatherhood, work, and just plain living in this world. The opening salvo of a divisive but iconoclastic career.
Alt to the Alt: Few American films are as fiercely bizarre and experimental as Eraserhead. So I’ll just recommend the collective works of Deren, Brakhage, and Anger.

19. Eve’s Bayou (97, Lemmons)
Meandering but lovingly crafted and acted depiction of mid-century Louisiana. Director and writer Kasi Lemmons guides an impressive cast of women (and Samuel L. Jackson and Branford Marsalis among the men). Its episodic structure captures the daily goings-on of the Batiste family, including youngest daughter Eve’s coming of age with her father, the family history, and their cultural foundations. Even the overly melodramatic events build in resonance through Eve’s eyes, no small thanks to lead actress Jurnee Smollett.
Alt to the Alt: Baby Doll (56, Kazan). Even sweatier and even more Southern.

20. Evil Dead II (87, Raimi)
With an irresistible excess and what should have been a star-making performance from Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi’s sequel/remake of Evil Dead ups the ante on gore, stylized camera moves, and physical humor. Once again evil spirits haunt a cabin in the woods, and it’s up to a newly badass Ash Williams to save the day. Along the way he encounters laughing mounted animal heads, a bitey Deadite, and his own rebellious hand. It’s a breakneck comedy/horror hybrid too insane and imaginative to be ignored.
Alt to the Alt: Dawn of the Dead (78, Romero). More socially conscious, although it’s really just as fun of a zombie picture.