Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-1-800x600The best installment of the franchise so far, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a dark and visceral film full of spectacle, action and strong storytelling.

Harry and friends must now do battle with the new evil Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts (it seems there’s always a new one), Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). She takes over Hogwarts and abuses her authority under Ministry rule to rid the school of any performing of magic. No one believes Harry that Lord Voldemort has returned, and since the school can no longer prepare the kids for the dark times to come, Harry takes it upon himself to secretly train his fellow classmates, under the title ‘Dumbledor’s Army,’ to prepare for battle.

This installment of the franchise is brilliant from beginning to end. The story here is most involving. David Yates comes on board for this fifth film adaptation and works wonders. The events in the film truly take the series to new realms and darker corners, but these characters are just great to watch. Imdela Staunton as Professor Umbridge is an evil delight, and a strong addition to the film.  With the impending battle between Hogwarts and Voldemort drawing closer, ‘Order of the Phoenix’ has the opportunity to have a much more plot-driven film, a suspenseful action-adventure that sees further drama bridging to the final events to come. This is a great film.

-MJV & the Movies

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

gobletJ.K. Rowling’s universe furthers its limitless boundaries, and with ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, the series’ translation to film continues to impress.  Harry’s world represents endless possibilities, part of the series’ undeniable fun and excitement.

This time, the schools of magic are apparently international, spanning other nations and bringing these different institutions together for one slam-bang tournament known as the ‘Triwizard’, in which three 17-year-0ld students are chosen by the Goblet of Fire (much like the magic hat that selects students’ housing) to compete in a Battle Royale of Magic sort-to-speak; not battling each other, but against tumultuous threats, a competition I can’t wrap my brain around. These kids are put in life-and-death situations that test every ounce of their capabilities in the world of magic. With this knowledge, the school has an uproar when Harry Potter’s name spits out of the Goblet as an illegal fourteen-year-old fourth contestant.  He is shunned by his classmates, especially his best friend Ron, which really made no sense to me. Hermione tries to reach out to him, but Harry keeps his distance. His nightmares of the Dark Lord are getting to him again, and whoever or whatever rigged his name into the goblet seems to spell doom for Harry.  It doesn’t help that the Yule Ball is approaching for the youngsters either, forcing the kids to learn to dance and for the boys to ask out at a date. This could prove more complicating for Harry than anything he faces in the Triwizard Tournament.

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This installment finally reaches a pivotal point in this remarkably rich saga. The story in particular finally revolving around the character of Lord Voldemort, which was briskly touched on in ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’, gets into the thick of the encompassing story.  With the Triwizard tournament, and another new director in the british Mike Newell, the movie has a lot more action than the previous films, lending this particular film a much swifter pace, and more exciting and scary threats for Harry. I could’ve done without the snotty Ron Weasley all up-in-arms over his suspicion of Harry somehow sneaking his own name into the cup. So what if he did? I also can’t quite comprehend how these competing international schools would allow such a tournament to go on. I suppose a lot of the magic performed at Hogwarts, including the fast-paced games of Quidditch, could prove about as dangerous. But Harry has to take on giant dragons, save his own classmates from an underwater obstacle course filled with evil creatures, and then has to wander through an endless, isolated maze that apparently can drive its occupants completely mad. This school takes the threats in the previous films quite seriously, so I guess I can’t understand why they would promote such a dangerous tournament where students could easily be killed.  I also wondered what would happen to the students placed at the bottom of the lake in the second challenge. Harry finds Ron and Hermione among others down there, and wants to save more than one student when his task is to save only the sole selected. Would the remaining student(s) die if left there? Such questions puzzled me, but sort of became a bit irrelevant amidst the film’s excitement and proceedings.

The action here is a doozy. And the darker tone and return of Voldemort (played by a deliciously serpentine Ralph Fiennes) really help the series take a great leap forward. The cast again, redundant as it may sound, continue to take the reigns of their characters, though at times I felt a bit annoyed with Rupert Grint this time around. I think that’s solely because of how whiny his character is in this particular film.  Otherwise, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson continue to impress.  Brendan Gleeson is a welcome new addition to Hogwarts as a Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman (my favorite supporting character) may be getting a bit shortchanged, but that is to be expected.  All in all, the film is a marvelously fun accomplishment.  ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is a dazzler, an action-packed installment that continues a thrilling series that miraculously dodges audience fatigue with endless surprise and invention.


-MJV & the Movies

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

chamberThe ‘Potter’ series gets a boost with “The Chamber of Secrets,” Chris Columbus’ second outing at Hogwarts. This time out Harry, Hermione and Ron must discover what’s causing the paralyzing of students at school, a beast or monster perhaps, buried within the mysterious  ‘chamber of secrets,’ and they must act fast as the victims are piling up, or the school will soon be closed.chamber 2

This is a much darker, meatier film than we got the first time around. The story takes interesting turns, and the suspense actually keeps the audience on edge, huge Potter fanatics or not.’The Sorcerer’s Stone’ really strayed from any straight-forward plot mechanics and simply took us into its world and introduced the characters and purpose of magic. ‘Chamber of Secrets’ allows its characters to go further and work within the confines of an interesting story that actually holds some striking interest. And while I griped that the special effects were a bit lacking the first time around, this film steps it up considerably. The Quidditch sequences are much more fluid, the flying car sequences are a treat, and watch out for the dark forest with giant man-eating arachnids– good stuff!chamber 3

I can complain about minor CGI characters or the film’s running time over and over, but it wouldn’t be worth my while. These movies are stuck at 2 1/2 hours roughly, and at least this one makes use of the time. With a production design like this, pitch perfect actors growing into their roles, and a solid story, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ is definitely a worthy installment and an improvement over ‘Part One.’

-MJV & the Movies

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

harrypotter1With the latest installment of easily the most financially viable film series of all time hitting theaters this week, I sought out the previous entries and decided to take a look back at them. I remember missing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in theaters. The books were sparked with early controversy for kid readers, were wildly popular, and I’ve never found my way into one to this day. In the holiday season of 2001, this was undoubtedly the most hyped movie in theaters, and was neck-and-neck with the other geek-fandom opus that was the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ installment. At the year’s end, even after ‘Rings’ walked away with 13 Oscar nominations and major critical praise, ‘Harry Potter 1’ wore the crown of the year’s biggest blockbuster, squeaking past the hobbits with only $3 million more. There’s no point in arguing that the ‘Rings’ trilogy is a better line of films, but Harry Potter has gone on to its sixth entry, with the final two productions in development.  Each flick has averaged around $260 million domestically and nearly $1 billion globally– again, that is per film!  What will Warner Bros. do without this dominating franchise? And better yet, will these films stand the test of time?

It is with this curiosity that I decided to go back to the most successful film of the series, the only one to pass $300 million domestically, the one that kick-started the whole phenomenon. Director Chris Columbus, frequent John Hughes collaborator, has seen his share of success in the industry, with the first two blockbuster ‘Home Alone’ films and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ to his credit — the man knows family films with mass appeal. Granted, his films never have a personal touch or much beyond the syrupy consumer pulp culminating most movies, but he does make enjoyable flicks nonetheless.

‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ is no exception. This is a good, wholesome, enjoyable movie with magic in it, but without a magical touch. I often love origin stories, and so I tend to become engulfed in how things begin, and become less intrigued when a series plays out after all this discovery. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) discovers he’s a wizard of  famously murdered parents and finds his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where dark conspiracies run amok. He meets two pals, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint). The trio embarks on a Scooby-Doo investigation to unveil the secret of a dark wizard named Voldemort, whom Potter seems to have an interesting connection to, and his plot to steal the secret Sorcerer’s stone, which would grant him unearthly power.
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The plot serves and a very drawn out film at over 2 1/2 hours, but of course that’s due to the lengthy book from J.K. Rowling which I haven’t read.   I suppose that doesn’t build my credit in reviewing the film here. As such, the movie should stand on its own terms anyway. And it does.  Columbus’ film can be a bit hokey and a bit too long, but the characters are undoubtedly fascinating. The three young actors work wonders and really do add something magical to some slow pacing and shoddy special effects that don’t hold up quite as well today. I’m mostly focusing on the Quidditch game where the youngsters are flying around on broomsticks playing ‘fetch’ with a fancier title. These effects aren’t too bad, I don’t mean to point fingers at an eight-year-old film, but they are noticeable by today’s standards. The casting overcomes any of these obstacles in the way of the production and light direction.  Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson shine and add a sense of reality to their characters, an amazing feat for being so young.  The film also boasts notable supporting actors including the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledor, Alan Rickman in  scene-stealing over-the-top brilliance as the dark Professor Snape, and the always-intelligible Maggie Smith.
‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’ remains a solid introduction to a fascinating franchise. The film’s action sequences have energy, the characters have believability, the magic in it is fun for kids and adults, and in my book it’s not selling witchcraft and sorcery to kids any more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series would be.  I think any of the early controversial ties go unjust. This is simply a fun mystery movie that is a little choppy, but sets the stage for these characters rather well.

-MJV & the Movies

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