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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The plot finally thickens in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, or at least builds up enough momentum to pull off the most amazing magic yet for the wildly popular franchise: It is genuinely engrossing.

Devoted readers of the J.K. Rowling novels may disagree, but this is the first installment in the soon-to-be series-of-seven that doesn't seem like just another spinoff capitalizing on the money-minting Harry Potter brand name. Instead, Phoenix feels like a real movie, albeit a chapter in a larger narrative that is only now starting to develop into something interesting and substantial.

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That's not to say a lot actually happens. Yes, a major character dies, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) gets his first kiss and wise old Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) pulls a Yoda and finally picks up his lightsaber wand. But Phoenix is still light on major incident, a recurring problem with the four previous films, which have seemed much too long for their bite-sized plots.

The hardcover version of the novel ran 896 pages, but judging from the movie (at 138 minutes, the shortest Potter yet), either the publisher used a giant font or Rowling has made like Stephen King and done away with the editing process altogether.

Or maybe screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates (previously best known for his work in British TV), both newcomers to the series, knew what to cut, condensing what must have been a horribly padded tale into its trimmest, tightest form possible.

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As it stands, Phoenix now centers on Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at the Hogwarts school. She is an officious busybody with a sing-song voice and fascist style who imposes her will on students and faculty, and she quickly takes charge of the school and everyone in it.

Meanwhile, Harry suffers from nightmares involving the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) -- dreams implying that the link between the two enemies, who are destined to square off by series' end, may be stronger than anyone had imagined.

The roster of characters in the Potter universe has grown with each installment, and Phoenix introduces a couple new ones, including an intriguing new student, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who forms an immediate bond with Harry over their mutual dark pasts, and a new witch in Voldemort's camp, played with wonderfully unhinged glee by Helena Bonham Carter.

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But it's the familiar faces that help make Phoenix the best Potter movie yet. Director Yates, who is expected to return for the next installment, continues the shift away from set design and toward performance that Alfonso Cuarón started in the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Radcliffe, originally cast for his striking similarity to the character as illustrated in the books, has proven himself more than worthy of the role, giving Harry's growing angst and unease a surprisingly painful, vivid edge that typifies the picture's general mood. This is the darkest Potter film to date, and not just because so much of it takes place in shadows.

And even if the script doesn't provide Radcliffe much time to play off co-stars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (as Harry's best pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger), the actors have grown comfortable enough with the roles -- and each other -- that their interplay carries the likable aura of warm banter among old friends.

That's important, because if the tone of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is any indication, there are dark days ahead for Harry and his gang. It's too bad Rowling is releasing the seventh and final book July 21, since knowing how the saga ends will rob the remaining two films of a lot of their magic. But at least for now, Phoenix does the trick.

Viewing log

Monday July 9

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Sunday July 8

* John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997)

Dead Silence (2007)

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