Surely the most at-once annoying and unintentionally-entertaining fun to be had in the reading of movie reviews this year has been had in the watching of "political subtext-hunting" in films that have no real plausible political dimension. Already this year we've seen Iran flip-the-hell-out over feature-length abs-n-stabs epic "300" because they thought it was a work of American pro-war propaganda, only to find themselves in essential agreement with American "conservative" critics (inanity.. now in stereo!!!) who were falling over one-another in a rush to declare the film a rallying cry for the Bush war policy. And as if that nonsense wasn't a veritable BUFFET of sad absurdity, last week a full-scale Blogfight broke out when "Transformers" first-draft story writer John Rogers over at Kung-Fu Monkey... http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/07/hey-libertas.html
What's fun about this is that the silliness goes in both directions: For every nutbag "conservative" who LOVES "300" because he thinks it's "on his side," there's a nutbag "liberal" who HATES "300" because he thinks it's on "the other side"... and BOTH of them have decided this based on the "compelling evidence" that it's an action movie about a leader who marches himself and his men into an unpopular war. If THAT'S all it takes now for an otherwise apolitical movie to get either enshrined or condemned as "pro-war/pro-Bush," I'm a little scared to imagine what'll happen when such enshriners/condemners get a load of this 5th "Potter" installment, which revolves around the boy wizard and his compatriots trying to beef up the war-readiness against He Who Must Not Be Named despite the interferance of (of course) cowardly beaurocrats and their media conspirators who insist that the Bad Guys don't exist and that the whole thing is just a fearmongering push for political power. Stupid, you say? Of course it's stupid, but so is locating the same message (and then getting all happy or bent out of shape over it) in a Grand Guignol splatterfest like "300" or a junkpile like "Transformers," and yet people are STILL going on about both.
MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
The "Harry Potter" films, now numbering 5 with two more to go including the final book in about 9 days, are now officially starting to feel much less like a rapidly-released series of movies and more like a TV series with especially-long seasonal hiatuses. The good news is that, even if it feels like a TV show, it's still a good one. At it's worst (or, at least, most formulaic or obligatory-feeling) moments, it has the tinge of Roger Moore-era James Bond: Less and less consistently innovative, but still consistently entertaining (read: No "Moonraker" just yet, and "Prisoner of Azkaban" equals "The Spy Who Loved Me.")
Now decidedly past the halfway point of the overall story, "Pheonix" carries the weight of serving as a kickoff to a climax - and feels like it: Story points are coming to a head, "this has to go somewhere" is starting to look like "somewhere" and a general air of immediacy has finally overtaken the proceedings (despite the fact that we're still basically tracking another semester at Hogwarts.) Head-baddie Voldemort, (Ralph Feinnes made up to look like offspring of Sinead O'Connor and Skeletor,) ressurected at the end of the previous film, is "putting the band back together" i.e. his evil "wizard supremacist" club called Death Eaters.
Following an uncharacteristic "real world" attack by the nasty Dementors, Potter discovers that The Order of The Pheonix - the collection of "good guy" grownups, most of whom we've already met, who helped counter the baddies before - has reformed. He's keen to join, but easier said than done: The less-than-spine-filled officials of the wizard government are insistant that Potter and Hogwart's headmaster Dumbledore are fabricating the reports of rising evil to cull political power in their favor, and are hard at work undermining both of them. To that end, they've installed at Hogwarts a lackey/enforcer in the form of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton from "Vera Drake,") a petty tyrant who insists on rigid rulemaking, textbook-adherance and seems to derive a sexual (or at least reeeeaaally inappropriate) satisfaction from inflicting (literal) pinprick-tortures on her young charges. Still fearing an impending attack by You Know Who, Harry opts for the "Red Dawn" route: Organizing his fellow-students into a paramilitary squad and helping them hone their wand-fu in a series of secret training sessions which are almost begging the soundtrack to momentarily morph into "Eye of The Tiger."
First things first: Aside from Michael Bay, Staunton's Umbridge is 2007's most abundantly hateable movie villian so far. It's a terrific bit of "will someone PLEASE kill this bitch already?" wickedness and obnoxiously-upbeat condescension - altogether the creepiest spin on "Matronly English Cat Fancier As Sadist Control Freak" since Judi Dench in "Notes On A Scandal." She flat-out deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this turn - and I'd LOVE to know who came up with the subtle bit of "stair choreography" when she engages in a stare-down with Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall, an exchange that plays out like the Lee-vs.-Norris of Thatcheresque verbal sparring.
I'm fairly comfortable in saying I enjoyed this "Potter" the most out of the series thus far. I'm not certain that it's the asthetic achievement that "Azkaban" was, but it's just as solid on the story front and the actual goings-on are more on-target for my tastes: I dig the bold mash-up of the series' whimsical occutremants and what's eventually a big-scale action flick - right down to a final battle that manages to take the sight of rival teams of garishly-costumed British character-actor mainstays shooting fireworks at eachother from their ruler-sized wands and invest it with the energy and edge of a Hong Kong handgun melee.
It's also nice to see the various supporting characters still back in form, year after year. Definately nice to see some more fun with Brendan Gleeson's "Mad Eye Moody" and Gary Oldman's "why, yes, I AM the coolest guy in the room" turn as Sirius Black. And I'm really, really hoping to see a lot more of Helena Bonham-Carter as baddie Belatrix LeStrange.
I've still got my nagging issues with the series (one in particular, the lack of clarity or consistency as to how "aware" the Wizard and Muggle 'worlds' are of one-another becoming more glaring here) and I'm still at a loss to discern WHY the adults keep hiding vital information from Potter when it ALWAYS turns out a lot of trouble would've been avoided by just telling him on day one. But considering what has to be an amazingly difficult undertaking year after year it's still a wonder that the series is still as solid as it is. When all is said and done, this is going to be a monumental achievement even if a brick or two is out of place.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
Oh! Hey, since this is on topic and since every other blog (especially Geek Blogs) has done so by now...
BOOK SEVEN PREDICTIONS (in no particular order):
1.) He's not dead. But he might lose his powers and/or connection to the magical world.
2.) Snape is good, or at least not as bad as it would seem, and a high candidate for a martyr.
3.) Either Ron, Neville or both are as good as fragged.
4.) At least one long-term "bad guy" has to go good. My money would be on Draco - going "good" and then getting pwned to prove it would be a decent way to finally kill the little shit while still making him more well rounded than "guy who's been asking for this since book 1."
5.) At least one long-term "good guy" probably has to go bad, though probably not by their own choosing (this is why supervillians with mind-control powers HAVE mind-control powers.) Best candidate: Hermoine. Because she'd probably stand a fighting chance against Harry even without his reluctance to fight her, because it'd really throw people, because it'd be a HELL of an "undercard" to Harry-v-Voldemort, and because she's got Fantasy Fiction's Mother-of-ALL-Villian-Exploitable-Weaknesses: Pride and ambition. Just ask Boromir. Or Anakin Skywalker.
Please make all betting-pool-percentage checks payable to cash.