As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Breaking and Entering is sometimes contrived as films of this sort tend to be but is executed smoothly enough by screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella to succeed on some levels. Will (Jude Law) is an architect whose office in the seedier King’s Cross area of London is ransacked by thieves. He tracks one of them down and encounters Amira (Juliette Binoche) a Bosnian immigrant single mother with whom he becomes infatuated. Their illicit relationship ultimately has unforeseen consequences for all concerned including Will’s girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) and Amira’s son Miro (Rafi Gavron). There aren’t many laughs but the film does try to offer an insight into what drives – and impedes – its characters’ emotional impulses Law is good Binoche is better than good and Wright Penn is better than usual. If there’s one element that elevates Breaking and Entering to a higher level it’s the performances. Vera Farmiga who played the only female role of any consequence in The Departed delivers a scene-stealing turn as a resilient Bosnian streetwalker while the always-welcome Ray Winstone turns up (all too briefly) as a canny cop. Given the success of Paul Haggis’ Crash and the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu it’s no surprise that other filmmakers are adopting the same attempting to cure (or at least address) various social issues by having disparate characters whose seemingly random interactions have consequences (both good and bad) for all concerned. Minghella an Oscar winner for The English Patient does have a knack for bringing out the best – or at least the good – in his actors even those in smaller roles. At least Breaking and Entering is more comfortably paced than Minghella’s last film the picturesque but lugubrious adaptation of Cold Mountain.
The Illusionist is also a bit sluggish sort of like a complicated magic trick building to its climatic conclusion. It starts at the turn of the century when mysterious stage magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) arrives in Vienna and begins performing his astounding illusions. He arouses not only the curiosity of the people who believe he has otherworldly powers but of the ruthless Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) an unsavory fellow who’d like to prove the man a fraud especially after he witnesses a budding attraction between his beautiful fiancé Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) and the magician. What Leopold doesn’t know is that Eisenheim and Sophie were once childhood sweethearts—and now that they’ve reunited a dormant and forbidden love affair has been rekindled. Now it’s up to Vienna's shrewd Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to uncover the truth charged by Leopold to intensify his efforts to expose Eisenheim. With Uhl doggedly pursuing the man behind the magician Eisenheim prepares to execute his greatest illusion yet. The stars of The Illusionist all shine. Yes even Ms. Biel who may not be of the same caliber as her cast mates but certainly doesn’t embarrass herself either as the aristocratic Sophie with a feisty spirit. Norton who has always prided himself on choosing his projects wisely is sad and wonderful as The Illusionist’s regal and masterful purveyor of chimera. Oscar could come calling. Gold might also be in Giamatti’s horizon who seems unable to turn in a sour performance in whatever he does (even if its swimming with water nymphs). As the steadfast policeman Uhl Giamatti takes the brilliantly juicy part and runs with it. He really comes alive when trying to figure out Eisenheim’s trickery but is continually baffled by it at the same time. Sewell (The Legend of Zorro) plays the bad guy once again. Guess he doesn’t really care to try something new so long as he gets the job done. The reason The Illusionist feels like an independent film despite its opulent art direction and period costumes is because writer/director Neil Burger is a newbie. And it’s obvious the story is something close to his heart. Taken from a short story called “Eisenheim The Illusionist ” Burger has cleverly interwoven an intimate murder mystery with a grand and romantic saga of two lovers torn apart by class struggles all within the frame work of magic. It’s a brilliant first effort. Burger’s inexperience does show up at times especially in how the film plods a bit in the beginning but once it gets going you’re hooked. It’s also interesting to note there are TWO 19th century period movies about magicians coming out in the same year. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians is due out in October. Magicians and their tricks can certainly be cinema worthy it’s just funny to see how those Hollywood execs all think alike: “Hey did you hear about that new guy doing a movie about a turn of the century illusionist or whatever? Let’s do one too!” “OK and let’s release it two months after the first one!” “OK!” Oy.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.