Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

"Very fun." -- J. Bottum, Editor, FIRST THINGS

"Too modest" -- Elinor Dashwood

"Perhaps the wisest man on the Web" -- Henry Dieterich

"Hat tip: me (but really Cacciaguida)" -- Diana Feygin, Editor, THE YALE FREE PRESS

"You are my sire. You give me confidence to speak. You raise my heart so high that I am no more I." -- Dante

"Fabulous!"-- Warlock D.J. Prod of Didsbury

Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Movie: Order of the Phoenix

This movie is an impressive work of compression: it tells a long story in a short time without feeling rushed. This is in contrast with the Goblet of Fire movie, where, following a brilliant opening scene, one had the sense of being yanked by the collar from incident to incident. (Quick! 600 pages to go and we're already ten minutes in!) Also, in GoF, the decision to play to the groundlings by lavishing time on the Triwizard events came at the expense of plot and character elements.

You may have heard by now that OotP is the longest of the novels and the shortest of the movies. Director David Yates achieves this largely through good use of montages. Some of these are hat-tips to the noir cliche of the spinning newspaper that freezes on a headline. Here it's the Daily Prophet; instead of spinning, we pass and penetrate from one front page to another; and instead of fonts of the 1940s, we see those of the 1890s, complete with elaborately seraphed capitals and pointing-finger icons, in keeping with the notion (adopted in all the Potter movies) that the wizarding world is about a century behind muggles in technology. (And btw, Yates did not omit Arthur Weasley's fumbling fascination as Harry guides him through the LondonTube.)

An example of well-done compression: Molly has not put a sealing charm on the kitchen door at Grimmauld Place, so much of the later dialogue over how much to tell Harry (including "He's not James, Sirus" -- "You're not his mother" -- "I'm as good as!") is transferred to a brief eavesdropping scene -- cut short when Crookshanks eats the Extendable Ear.

Another example of effective compression: Harry's dream about the snake attacking Arthur; cut directly to Ron and McGonagall supporting Harry's weight in a hallway sprint; cut directly to Dumbledore questioning Harry about the dream; then Dumbledore calls in Snape and orders the occumency lessons to begin immediately. The gain is that we understand right away the importance of those lessons, and that they really are Dumbledore's idea, not some nefarious notion of Snape's. (The loss is the omission of the Snape-Sirius confrontation at Grimmauld Place.)

Arthur's encounter with the snake is included, b/c it's essential to the mystery of the Harry-Voldemort mental connection. The St. Mungo's scenes are omitted. The loss here is that we don't meet Neville's wonderful "Gran," nor (directly) Frank and Alice. Perhaps that scene was unfilmable, though I doubt it. Anyway, Yates makes up for this with a moving scene in which Neville, alone with Harry, looks at his parents in the photo of the old Order (which, if I'm not mistaken, is spellotaped to the Mirror of Erised, so who knows what Neville is seeing), and confides the story to him.

The Snape's Worst Memory scene is way too short, esp. after all the hype about the teen actors brought in to play the young James, Snape, etc. (Is there a "director's cut" waiting here?) Alan Rickman fans will not find themselves shortchanged: his bellow of "Your father was a swine!" is worth the price of admission. But shouldn't we have been enabled to come to that conclusion ourselves?

Speaking of Rickman, the "He's got Padfoot" scene is executed perfectly.

Speaking of the screenplay -- and this is the first Potter movie not scripted by Stephen Kloves, though I understand Kloves is returning for the last two -- it uses an unusually high number of lines directly from the book, which to me is a virtue. I was especially glad to hear:

RON: Thanks, Hermione! If I'm ever rude to you again --
HERMIONE: I'll know you're back to normal.

Hermione in this picture is still sometimes given to frowny-facing, as the plot requires, but she gets in more smiles than in GoF, and even some giggles. And she still calls her redheaded swain "Ronald" whenever he's being bad.

Where writer Michael Goldenburg does introduce new dialogue, it's good. For example, in the Hall of Prophecies:

BELLATRIX: He knows how to play, itty bitty baby Potter.
NEVILLE: Bellatrix Lestrange!
BELLATRIX: Neville Longbottom, is it? How's Mum and Dad?
NEVILLE: Better, now they're about to be avenged!
LUCIUS MALFOY: Now let's everybody just calm down, shall we?

And this -- Snape to Harry, alone, in their first occlumency scene:

SNAPE: In the past it was often the Dark Lord's pleasure to invade the minds of his victims, creating visions designed to torture them into madness, extracting the last exquisite ounce of agony; only when he had them begging for death would he finally [*patented Rickmanian pause here*] kill them.

This movie also uses silence well. More than once, evident progress in the Harry-Cho relationship is followed by a wordless view of unsmiling Ginny. But the best such moments are the sequence of them in the "detention with Dolores" scene. The fact that this is not detention but torture unfolds amid killer silences. And Imelda Staunton deserves all the rave reviews she's getting.

I liked Michael Gambon much better here than in PoA or GoF, in part because OotP requires a more active, crisper Dumbledore than Richard Harris would have been. But I still want to know: after Harris's passing, why not Paul Scofield?

This is the last Potter movie in which Gary Oldham will have a major part (we assume -- "No spell can awaken the dead, Harry" -- no, but flashbacks can do wonders!), and I'd say he gets compensated for the shafting he took in the GoF movie. Included in his many good lines is the one, straight from the book, about how "the world is not divided into good people and Deatheaters." This is said, of course, re Umbridge, but I think it will become important re Snape.

Of Evanna Lynch's Luna, there cannot be enough said in praise. She is pretty, gentle, melodious of speech, precociously wise, secure, understanding, and joyful. Though it's regrettable that the Harry-Nick dialogue about death is missing, the closing scenes are nonetheless buoyed by a perfect rendition of the Harry-Luna dialogue, as she posts notices asking for the return of her stuff. Notice how she takes his hand in this scene: it's altogether boy-girl, but without (I thought) the least inference that she's trying to horn in on Cho or Ginny or whomever. (Minor criticism of the movie here: there was no reference to the source of Luna's great personal security amid the teasing she takes for being "loony" -- i.e., her good relationship with her dad.)

So which is the best Potter movie? I'd say it's now a tie between OotP and PoA; I still think Alfonso Cuaron (PoA) was the best director the franchise has had. GoF goes to the bottom, though it has many fine moments. The colorful, playland quality of the first two was appropriate for them, but the later books are -- all together now -- "darker." In fact, Yates uses the contrast to illustrate the overthrow of the Umbridge regime: the colorful world of the first two movies returns momentarily as the wall-lamps are re-lit. This is also, I think, the first movie in the series to make extensive use of footage from several of the earlier ones, including the very first (we briefly see eleven-year-old Harry in that red cable-knit sweater we all remember from Philosopher's Stone).

Whether the OotP movie will make any sense to you if you haven't read the books, I don't know. I saw the first three movies before I had read any of the books. The first two were candy; I was OK with PoA until the Shrieking Shack scene; after that I couldn't have told you what was going on even over a veritaserum martini. As it happens, most people have read the books, and box-office take of OotP reflects this.