As a child of the 1970s and '80s, weaned on such seminal serials as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I have always been baffled by my reaction to the Harry Potter mythos. Mine is not a feeling of love or hate but utter ambivalence over the fantastical universe of pubescent sorcerers, wizened minders and nefarious spirits, all with Tolkienian names and wands full of spells and whistles.
My indifference is compounded by the fact that my exposure has been to the movies, not to the books, which I have not read. Harry Potter mania, however, starts with the books, and the films are merely faithful and reliable reenactments. The movies do not stand out as unique works of art, independent of the novels, so it becomes harder for non-fanatics like me to have fully developed responses. On the other hand, viewers of Jaws, The Godfather and The Da Vinci Code need no familiarity with the books before judging the quality of their respective film versions.
Because I am an outsider to the culture of Harry Potter, I turned to the expertise of Laura Boyes, an Indy contributor and film curator at the N.C. Museum of Art, and her 18-year-old daughter, Adrian, for help in understanding Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment in the film series. They attended the press screening with me, and both are among the millions of Potter devotees who have read all the books, seen all the films and made plans to queue up outside a local bookshop at midnight, July 21, for the unveiling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Adrian: For me, the movies are an afterthought. When the first one came out, I was determined not to see it because I thought it would ruin my vision of the book. However, now I enjoy seeing the movies as another way of reimagining the books.
Laura: The unique thing about Harry Potter is that reality and fantasy exist in the same space, unlike The Lord of the Rings and other series. Hogwarts is this magical place, but Harry always returns home to London and his family.
Adrian: That creates a connection between the book and the reader. I read the first Harry Potter 10 years ago, and since then, like Harry and his friends, I have gone through school and everything else a teenager has to deal with.
Laura: There's also the continuity of characters and the actors playing them. They have grown up along with their readers, making them easier to relate to.
While a plot summary is unnecessary for insiders, and probably difficult to follow at this point for outsiders, it does bear mentioning that The Order of the Phoenix is the first Potter book written after Sept. 11. While cinematic post-9/11 allegory nowadays is as ubiquitous as the Geico cavemen, the analogy this film draws is unmistakable and astute. With Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) now free and amassing his evil army, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) issue a call to arms that becomes the target of a smear campaign waged by Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), who refuses to recognize Voldemort's return.
Fudge also orchestrates the assignment of Dolores Umbridge (a sensational Imelda Staunton), a pink pastiche of prim but quite improper bureaucracy from the Ministry of Magic (or MOM, appropriately), who acts as Hogwarts' new instructor of Defence Against the Dark Arts, an ironic post in that she also disbelieves the existence of encroaching danger. Amid a flurry of false allegations against Harry and Dumbledore, Umbridge is eventually installed as Hogwarts' new headmistress, and under her autocratic rule the school becomes an Orwellian micro-society devoid of free thought or association. Add to that Umbridge's nasty opinion of non-humans and "half-breeds."
At first blush, it appears J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg—taking the reins for the first and apparently only time from Steve Kloves—might be guilty of mixing metaphors by separating out those who advocate war against external evildoers from fearmongers on the home front. Instead, theirs is the very British perspective, born of centuries of bloodshed, that readiness against barbarians at the gates is both moral and distinguishable from rank xenophobia and the indiscriminant, opportunistic suppression of civil liberties. When the Weasley brothers incite a mischievous yet explosive insurrection against Umbridge's regime, it is noteworthy that the "W" (for Weasley) they emblazon across the sky is only one letter removed from "V" (for Vendetta). It is likewise no coincidence that Dumbledore's pet phoenix is named Fawkes.
This is Harry Potter at its most subversive and jingoistic, with nocturnal aerials down the Thames flying conspicuously past Britain's landmarks of history and institutes of power, and Harry's declaration that the difference between us and them is that "we have something worth fighting for." Some might decry this as an unwelcome intrusion upon their favorite literary-cum-cinematic escape. I found it a revitalizing reprieve from the incessant array of banal curses and secret passageways. In a way, it is also in keeping with the series' overarching theme.
Adrian: What I really like about Harry Potter is its delineation of good versus evil. There are no gunfights where the hero might kill innocent people just to get the villain. Instead, you're on one side or the other, and you have to mean it.
Laura: I've always found it odd that some Christian groups protest against Harry Potter because they say it endorses sorcery and witchcraft, when the books and films are ultimately about the triumph of good over evil, which is something Christians should embrace.
At 138 minutes, Order of the Phoenix is the shortest of the five films to date, and it boasts the strongest cast in the series with a host of regulars at ease in their recurring roles, the return of Emma Thompson and David Thewlis, and the addition of Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter. And then there is Alan Rickman, whose Severus Snape continues to steal entire scenes with a single word.
Even still, this Potter winds up like all the others: a wand-waving showdown against the backdrop of Harry's ongoing Skywalker-esque temptation by the Dark Side. As Laura points out, "In the end, they all trace back to Joseph Campbell." According to Laura and Adrian, the director of this latest film, David Yates, has produced a film afflicted with the same lack of narrative clarity that bedevils other midway-through films in multipart stories. Furthermore, it fails to advance several key plot points found in the source novel, and takes other liberties that meet with mixed results.
Adrian: [Order of the Phoenix] was my least favorite book because of its tone, especially Harry's whininess and the treatment of his romance with Cho Chang. The film does a good job fixing those problems, especially the relationship with Cho. However, at the end of each book are always new clues to Harry's past. This film disregards several revelations found in the book, such as finally learning why Harry was targeted as a threat, even at an early age, by Voldemort.
As I wrote after Goblet of Fire, the Potter series remains less transcendent than merely cozy—at times like a warm bath, at others like an old, worn shoe. I am no closer to fathoming the sentiment behind Adrian's pronouncement that "I love growing up with Harry Potter; he's like a brother to me." When Harry battles Big Brother, however, he becomes a hero everyone can cheer for.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.
Even the most elaborate thrillers of the 1940s contain only two types of conflicts—cops versus robbers and, occasionally, the byplay between men and women. Today's world is not more complex, just more illuminated, and few directors accentuate the real-life subtleties of hard-edged suspense like John Dahl. Nearly a decade removed from Red Rock West, The Last Seduction and Rounders, time spent wandering a wilderness of sporadic television work and a middling World War II epic (The Great Raid), Dahl returns to his neo-noir stomping grounds with You Kill Me, which besets the genre and one of its archetypes with both personal demons and the complex realities of contemporary life.
Ben Kingsley plays Frank, an alcoholic hitman sent by his uncle and Buffalo's Polish mob kingpin, Roman (Philip Baker Hall), to San Francisco on a forced sabbatical. Monitored by a nefarious real estate developer (Bill Pullman), Frank attends Alcoholics Anonymous and lands a part-time gig as a mortician's assistant, activities connected in that they expose Frank to the aftereffects of both his profession and addiction. He also romances the sexy, jaded Laurel, played by Téa Leoni in one of her best and most restrained performances in years.
Dahl navigates this diffuse tableau with his trademark light, breezy touch. He not only integrates San Francisco's iconic landmarks but cleverly borrows such visual tics as having Frank traverse the city's hilly terrain while walking backward (something about developing the calf muscles) as a metaphor for moving forward in life with a clear understanding of the (mis)steps you have already taken. On the other hand, grounding Laurel's attraction to Frank in the fact that he is one of the few semi-interesting straight men she has met does not compensate for the couple's lack of credible chemistry, a May-December romance in which lovemaking takes place off-camera and every kiss—save for one peck on Frank's forehead—is obscured by strategic head-tilts.
Indeed, most of Dahl's and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's (The Chronicles of Narnia) influences appear to be more pop-cultural than cultural. We have already seen black comedies about world-weary hit men—Grosse Pointe Blank and the Pierce Brosnan-starring The Matador—and two major subplots seem to be spun from The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Even a training montage in which Laurel helps Frank recapture his killer's edge echoes her role as a domestic partner-in-crime in her last film, the woeful Fun with Dick and Jane.
The solid supporting cast helps matters even if some of their characters are thinly written, like Marcus Thomas as Roman's not-ready-for-prime time son and Luke Wilson as a gay tollbooth attendant-cum-Frank's AA sponsor. Moreover, while Kingsley is suitably morose, one wishes Frank was more a sexy beast than glum 12-stepper. It is not until Frank returns home to exact some Old World vengeance on a rival Irish mob boss (Dennis Farina) that he and the film finally flash their mojo.
You Kill Me opens Friday in select theaters.