Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date.
Chris Columbus' first two entries -- both underrated -- focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe.
With only one to two years separating each Potter flick, it's been easy to spot the relative growth of Radcliffe (as well as costars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) as he sprouted from wide-eyed tyke to troubled teenager. Yet between the last film (Goblet of Fire) and this new one, it's startling to note how the actor and the character seem to have aged multiple years, a testament to the maturity and intensity that Radcliffe brings to the role.
Villainy abounds in The Order of the Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry's every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry's issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it's no wonder the lad can't keep those roiling emotions in check.
In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he's on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. Because of this slant, this emerges as the most dramatic of the five films, with perceived betrayals coming from both memories (a flashback involving Harry's dad and professor Severus Snape, again played by Alan Rickman, is startling in its implications) and mortals (Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?) only serving to drive the nail into Harry's splintered psyche even deeper.
Fortunately, Harry's friends won't leave him alone -- even when he's surly toward them -- and he receives a much-needed support system from best buds Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) as well as a seemingly spacy blonde named Luna Lovegood (newcomer Evanna Lynch, wonderfully embodying the most interesting of the new characters).
In this manner, the film echoes The Empire Strikes Back: The mood is grim, the heroes are reeling, and the villains are on the move. But with a little help from their friends, not to mention a strong belief in the "force" of good, these kids may yet save the day.
FOR OVER A decade, John Waters had been unleashing some of the most outrageous movies ever made before deciding to tentatively test the waters of mainstream cinema -- or at least as mainstream as this flagrantly maverick filmmaker could attempt.
His tepid 1981 offering Polyester was met with a stone wall of shrugs, even with the gimmick of being presented in Odorama (patrons were given scratch 'n' sniff cards that, if memory serves, stank like sour milk no matter what number was scratched off). But his 1988 offering, Hairspray, was another story: An instant critical and cult hit, it eventually was turned into a smash Broadway musical and has now been brought back to the screen, with the added songs intact.
A similar screen-to-stage-to-screen journey didn't help the box office flop The Producers, but here's betting that Hairspray meets with more success among filmgoers. It's one of this summer's few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made Waters' original film such a quirky delight.
An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won't let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. And her dream is to become famous, preferably by showing off her dance moves on The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style program that's a hit with the kids. Her obese mom Edna (John Travolta in drag) is afraid her daughter will get hurt, but her dad Wilbur (a warm Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it. Impressing Corny Collins himself (X-Men's James Marsden), not to mention the show's reigning pinup star Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy does indeed land a coveted spot among the cast regulars, much to the disgust of Link's girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her wicked mom Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). Compounding the tension is that Tracy has become friends with the blacks who are allowed to perform on the program once a month (on "Negro Day"), an open-minded attitude that infuriates the racist Velma to no end.
The film's hot-topic issues are all presented in the realm of feel-good fantasy, meaning that reality has no place in this particular picture. But that's not to say the movie is insincere in its intentions, and when Tracy and "Negro Day" host Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) lead a march promoting "Integration, Not Segregation," it's hard not to get swept up in the emotionalism of the piece.
Yet the movie's first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). All of the principals are allowed to belt out at least one number apiece, and their enthusiasm and energy is positively infectious. The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, Travolta, who may have enjoyed returning to his movie musical roots (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) but nevertheless fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply, well, divine in Waters' '88 screen version. (Harvey Fierstein, a more logical choice than Travolta, played the part on Broadway.)
As for John Waters, he stuck around to make sure that the circle was complete. Look for him in a split-second cameo at the beginning of the film: He's the pervert who flashes a trio of housewives on the street.