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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As if thats not enough, Harry and his friends are preparing to take their version of the SATs, the OWLsOrdinary Wizarding Level exams. But Harry is distracted from his schoolwork by his discovery of the Order of the Phoenix, a group dedicated to the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Harry is also troubled by strange dark visions as Voldemort's feelings seem to be filtering into his mind. This prompts him to wonder if there's something of the dark side within himself. Although feeling increasingly isolated, Harry's friends convince him to lead a rebellion of sorts against Umbridge by training a group of students in the techniques that will be needed to defeat Voldemort--if and when he chooses to show up. Plus the term will bring Harry his first kiss.

Harry's first kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (WB)

I have to confess that I attended the screening of HP5 with a quartet of teenage girls who were devout Harry Potter fans. Kelsey (who was celebrating her 16th birthday and whose review of the film will be posted on this site) and her three friends were decked out in Harry Potter shirts including one homemade one that promoted "Harry Potter for President." They wondered why no one in line was in costume, and discussed how they were going to line up at midnight on Tuesday to catch the first show of HP5 (that's how sure they were that they would enjoy the film). Now seeing the film with fans (one of the girls was in tears at the end because it was so sad yet sooooo good!) didnt change my opinion of the film but it was a refreshing reminder of how passionate Potter fans are, and it made the whole experience more fun and memorable. I think thats why Ive always liked going to midnight movies or festivals because youre going with people who are not just going to the movies but rather people who are actively seeking out films. Potter fans, like Star Wars fans and Lord of the Rings fans, are into the whole experience of going to the films and showing your appreciation for them. And that's fun.

My favorite--Alan Rickman as Professor Snape (WB)

That being said, I think this film is an improvement on the series because it focuses more on the characters and less on the effects. I have also liked the films more and more as they have grown darker and further away from Chris Columbus (the Yank who directed the first two films). Columbus was too Hollywood, too focused on the eye candy and creating a Harry Potter product that would sell well. Mexicos Alfonso Cuaron gave HP3: The Prisoner of Azkaban more texture, darkness and meat on its bones; while Brit Mike Newell moved the series competently forward with HP4: Goblet of Fire.

For number 5, the franchise has once again opted for a British director, but this time a lesser known one, David Yates. Yates comes to the films from television, and maybe that background helped make this Harry the trimmest one yet. It clocks in at 138, which while not lean, it at least the shortest of the five films. But as with the others, there's no attempt to recap the story till now. If you haven't been following along, you'll probably be lost. This is a film that's made for fans who need no recap and who would probably be impatient with one. This is not a film that stands alone, it's quite deliberately designed as a middle work in a bigger saga.

One reason I favor this installment is that for the first time I feel that the actors are working with a script that allows them to develop depth. The first film seemed consumed with the idea of creating the world of Harry Potter , employing massive special effects to show moving staircases, magic ceilings, flying on broomsticks and assorted other wizardry. And the other films often felt like exposition to push the story ahead. But in this film I feel like the characters are actually getting to grow and to have conversations that reveal something of themselves and their past. Now maybe I'm feeling this way because Ive accumulated four films worth of experience with these characters and its just now paying off. But I think Yates has made an effort to trim back unnecessary gimmickry in order to make room for scenes amongst the students of Dumbledores Army or a quiet moment between Harry and Sirius Black. Snape even gets some extended scenes and is finally developing into the character that I had hoped he would be. He's no longer a peripheral eccentric presence but rather he is now showing shades of coloring beyond his dour black. And Alan Rickman is one of my favorite actors. His crisp, impatiently clipped delivery gives a sarcastic edge to all his lines. And its that edge that gives him a certain ambivalence as if he could turn either good or bad in an instance.

Lord Voldemort has indeed returned (WB)

But Yates doesn't completely ignore the effects, he just keeps them in check. There's an intense battle amongst wizards at the end and impressive sets for the secret room where Dumbledores Army trains and cold shiny environs for the Ministry. Other effects are well integrated into the story like magically appearing doors, Death Eaters, and flying beasts. Theres also a giant but he looks a little Shreky and as scripted he seems like something thrown in just to help resolve a plot conflict.

I have only read the first book, which charmed me and lay the groundwork for my dissatisfaction with what Chris Columbus did. But since then I have not had time to read any others so I can't say how faithful the subsequent four films have been. But since I am supposed to be reviewing the films, Im actually glad that I dont know in advance whats going to happen or where a character like Snape will end up.

In addition to Rickman, the performers are once again all fine. There's a nice mix of veterans--Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson--and younger talent--Radcliffe, Grint, Watson. Imelda Staunton, who gave a very different performance in Vera Drake, joins the cast as Umbridge and oozes polite unpleasantness. The young actors once again shine. They are and have been the true strength of these films. They have grown up nicely in front of our eyes and are maturing as actors as well.

Director David Yates is on board for HP6 , so that's good news. And writer Steve Kloves (who has done screenplays for all the Potter films--CORRECTION: Kloves wrote all the past and will write the remaining two Potter scripts but he did not write this one) will direct the final installment. Maybe hes saving the best screenplay for himself.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images) improves on the film franchise and moves the story ahead with the characters developing more shadings and interest.

Also check out: Harry Potter: A Fan's Review and an interview with HP costume designer Jany Temime .

Companion viewing: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone , Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets , Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire;