FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Fantasy Action Violence

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: J.K. Rowling

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman & Jon Voight

Five years after the eighth HARRY POTTER film concluded the beloved fantasy franchise, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world has returned in FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. This is the first in a five-part series that’s been penned for the screen by none other than Rowling herself and that will likely bring excitement to anyone who grew up with HARRY POTTER. Though this first film in the spin-off series suffers from a few narrative problems, this big-budget fantasy is sure to be please hardcore POTTER heads and those who simply want another cinematic dose of wizarding entertainment!

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The year is 1926 and the place is New York. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an awkward young wizard with a briefcase full of magical creatures. While other wizards and witches seem content with exterminating fantastical beasts, Newt wishes to save the dwindling species and document their existence in a book (try to guess what it’s titled). However, through an accidental twist of fate, some of Newt’s creatures escape and begin wreaking havoc across New York. With the help of Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), non-maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and psychic Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt rushes to recapture his escaped creatures before they or potential wizards/humans are harmed. Meanwhile, dangerous dark magic is also loose on the streets of New York and that sort of off-and-on connects to the main plot.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM doesn’t simply repeat the magical mystery/chosen one formulas that were used in the HARRY POTTER franchise, and instead offers fans and newcomers something fresh in Rowling’s wizarding world. The change of setting to roaring 20’s New York adds a lot of atmosphere and shows us how the magic community functions in America. Small creative background details offer chuckle-worthy visual gags, but the intricately fleshed-out and effects-heavy world simply dazzles before the viewer’s eyes. Though it’s loaded with tons of CGI (like all of the HARRY POTTER films), every frame of the movie looks convincing. FANTASTIC BEASTS more than delivers in sheer spectacle.

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The titular beasts themselves are indeed fantastic. These creatures range from whimsical and cute to potentially threatening and dangerous. Newt Scamander’s quest to document their existence and ensure their survival is likely to appeal to animal lovers everywhere, whilst also feeding into the HARRY POTTER meets JUMANJI storyline. Eddie Redmayne has had hits (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, THE DANISH GIRL) and misses (JUPITER ASCENDING) in his filmography, but serves as a rock solid lead here. Redmayne’s Newt is far from courageous “chosen one” Harry Potter…and starts off instead as quirky and awkward. Harry was a Gryffindor and Newt is a Hufflepuff. It shows, but offers a new kind of magical hero: an ordinary guy who wants to save magical creatures from mankind and wizardkind alike.

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Katherine Waterston makes a serviceable sidekick and heroine to go with the story’s eccentric protagonist, though a love-interest angle between them comes off as forced and unbelievable. Far more enjoyable to watch is Dan Fogler’s stint as a perplexed non-maj (an American Muggle) trying to avoid getting his memory wiped and helping Newt save the day. Alison Sudol makes the most of her scenes and has a fantastic subplot with Fogler. Ron Perlman also makes a brief vocal appearance as a sadly underused goblin gangster.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS’s major problem is a subplot that seems out-of-place and unfocused from the main story, even though it does finally form a connection during the final third. The villains and potential antagonists feel like afterthoughts. I’d argue that this subplot was included purely for the purposes of setting up future installments in a very noticeable, borderline distracting fashion. Colin Farrell does what he can to salvage the blatant sequel set-up as a hard-to-read Auror. Ezra Miller slumps his shoulders and cries, contributing next-to-nothing to the main storyline and giving a would-be emotional story arc that feels half-assed. Jon Voight shows up as a news reporter and doesn’t do much. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton seems primed to be a hateful antagonist…and then sort of fades away from the proceedings. This subplot was messy and though it does distract from FANTASTIC BEASTS’s main story, it doesn’t damage the overall movie too badly.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is better than three of the HARRY POTTER films (GOBLET OF FIRE, HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, and DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1) and reaches the level of SORCERER’S STONE on Rowling’s Wizarding World totem pole. Though BEASTS suffers from noticeable narrative stumbles and a sloppy subplot, it more than delivers in being spectacularly entertaining, giving us a new batch of interesting characters, and making the viewer excited for future installments to come. FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM has satisfied a cinematic craving that I didn’t realize I had until this film concluded. Bring on more magical adventures!

Grade: B+

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Macdonald, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & David Thewlis

Though the decision to split HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films still seems like a mistake on Warner Bros.’ part, this eighth (and final) film in the HARRY POTTER saga is cinematically spectacular final installment nonetheless. Sure, Part 2 understandably feels like the second half of a better whole, but that narrative flaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact in dipping quality that 2010’s Part 1 saw. Details from the previous films come into play, major plot revelations about certain characters come to light, and the HARRY POTTER saga comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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After narrowly escaping the clutches of Death Eaters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes (dark magical objects that contain pieces of his soul). Their magical scavenger hunt takes them into the dark vaults of Gringotts Bank and then to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With only three Horcruxes left and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) determined to kill “chosen one” Harry, Hogwarts will become the battleground for a massive confrontation. Prophecies will be fulfilled, truths will be revealed, deaths will occur on both sides and a final battle will decide the fate of the wizarding world.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is the exciting second half of a cohesive whole. This leads to some narrative issues as viewers will have to be fresh off DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 to fully appreciate Part 2 picking up mere seconds after that far lesser film concluded. There are only two major settings in this movie: Gringotts and Hogwarts. Gringotts Wizarding Bank was briefly glimpsed in THE SORCERER’S STONE, but Part 2 treats the viewer to a more in-depth look at the Goblin-run bank’s treacherous vaults filled with curses, elaborate security precautions and a show-stopping set piece that delivers excitement early on. As for Hogwarts, old places and familiar faces come into play as Harry desperately searches the corridors for a hidden chunk of Voldemort’s soul.

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In terms of spectacle, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 delivers action that fans wanted to see on the big screen since the series began. There’s a massive battle featuring damn near every major character and supporting actor from the previous films, even Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson pop in just to reprise their professors in the final conflict. The special effects and make-up work are just as solid as ever, though director David Yates occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top during final Harry vs. Voldemort fight. Though a tense wand duel throughout Hogwarts is stellar, a scene of Voldemort and Harry whizzing through the air like Superman is silly to say the least.

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There is no need to recap this final film’s many performances, because we’ve seen all these characters and cast members before. Nothing has changed in their greatness. However, I will say that there’s a sense of maturity in seeing these beloved characters and the series as a whole grow throughout the years. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching the conclusion to this eight-film-long franchise, be it from sheer nostalgia or fantastic storytelling. Voldemort’s speech to the tearful wizards and witches of Hogwarts is affecting. Two major plot revelations bring about the yearning to rewatch previous entries and cast a new light on the series as a whole. However, the titular Deathly Hallows once again feel like a throwaway subplot that’s merely there as a cheap plot device. Also, Alan Rickman’s Snape story arc delivers one of the most emotional sequences in the entire series.

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Would HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS have functioned better as one big three-hour film? I think so and it might have stood next to PRISONER OF AZKABAN as the best film of the series. Part 2 and (to an annoying degree) Part 1 both have scenes that could have been excised for a tighter, better film. I feel this finale could have functioned better as one long seventh movie. Still, in spite of being the second half of a whole story, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 stands as one of the better films in the long-running fantasy series. Plot points are wrapped up in emotional ways with revelations that cast a new light on previous movies. We get to spend one last time with a large cast of beloved characters. The battle at Hogwarts also stands as the series’ most epic moment. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is a deeply satisfying final installment to an unforgettable cinematic saga.

Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence, Frightening Images and brief Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton & David Thewlis

Confession time: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is probably my least favorite book in the series. It’s an underwhelming conclusion to a groundbreaking fantasy series. However, the material seemed like it would make an exciting film. Enter the Warner Bros. execs who upon realizing they only had one HARRY POTTER adaptation left to milk for cash decided to keep the blockbuster train rolling for two more films. Though many fans seemed initially disappointed by the studio’s route, that didn’t stop this seventh film from becoming the third-highest grossing HARRY POTTER title in the franchise (behind the eighth film and the first film). DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t a bad movie. It’s better than a majority of split book adaptations (e.g. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1), but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that this is still half a story being stretched into over two hours.

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In the aftermath of Dumbledore’s death, the wizarding world has become dark and hopeless. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is tightening his grip on the Ministry of Magic and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is taking over Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chosen one Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is Voldemort’s prime target, which has led secretive rebel group Order of the Phoenix to stage a complicated rescue mission. After some casualties ensue and Voldemort’s Death Eaters find the Order’s location, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) venture out on their own to track down Voldemort’s secret Horcruxes, magical objects that contain pieces of his soul. These dark magical objects must be destroyed in order to kill the Dark Lord…and the trio kick off their deadly scavenger hunt by hunting down a cursed locket.

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While the HARRY POTTER series had been progressively getting darker and darker through the previous six films, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 ranks as the most depressing installment of the series. Part of this might be attributed to the “To Be Continued…” ending, while another reason easily comes from major character deaths that might shock those who haven’t read the material beforehand. However, I feel the main reason that DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 succeeds in being a suspenseful installment is because Harry, Ron and Hermione become fugitives. The corrupt wizard government no longer offers any safeguards towards the chosen one and is actively following Voldemort’s agenda. The lack of a safety net and danger coming from all directions offer a feeling of dread that the series has previously never seen before.

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It should come as no surprise that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson slip right back into their iconic roles with ease. Though the rising threats cause tensions to erupt between their characters. Much like the film’s dark tone, this isn’t necessarily something completely new in the series but it’s never been executed to this degree. When we see longtime grudges emerge and drama between the three best friends, it’s a bit tough to watch because we’ve come to love these characters for so long. Still, these are the same protagonists, just more mature and grown up. Harry is just as courageous as ever. Hermione is smart and frequently gets the group out of trouble. Ron delivers comic relief that attempts to brighten up the rather depressing plot.

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Other familiar faces return with Dobby (the most annoying character in the series), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), worst teacher ever Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a cameo from Wormtail (Timothy Spall), a hardly glimpsed Ollivander (John Hurt), a psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and many more. Ralph Fiennes has two scenes as Voldemort, while Snape’s presence is mostly regulated to the opening prologue. Series newcomers appear in: Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, Andy Linden as scumbag Mundungus Fletcher, Peter Mullan as Death Eater Yaxley, and Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood’s eccentric father Xenophilius. All four of these characters serve as plot devices and nothing more.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is entertaining and nicely sets up the conclusion to the series, but unfortunately falls victim to an unnecessarily lengthy running time. Perhaps, Part 1 wouldn’t feel underwhelming if this movie wasn’t as long as previous HARRY POTTER entries. There are (at least) 20 minutes that could have been excised for the sake of a tighter running time and a more compelling movie as a whole. The introduction of the titular Deathly Hallows (three legendary magical objects) seems disconnected from the rest of the movie, because the exposition dump functions as an introduction for DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2. Also, this plot point directly contradicts a piece of the series that was introduced in SORCERER’S STONE and I’ve never been able to completely overlook that. This sloppy bit of writing leads me to believe that J.K. Rowling didn’t have the series fully mapped out in her head as she was going along.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t the worst HARRY POTTER film. GOBLET OF FIRE still holds that title and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is 75% filler, but Part 1 is still very much the first half of a plot and feels like it. The long running time certainly doesn’t help matters, but there are memorable sequences that stick out for positive reasons. I love the confrontations that Harry, Ron and Hermione have with various Death Eaters, especially a climactic showdown. There are tense scenarios brought up in visiting the Ministry of Magic in disguise and the completion of the cursed locket storyline. This is also the darkest HARRY POTTER film with a “doom and gloom” atmosphere the whole way through. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is far from the best installment in the HARRY POTTER series, but still remains a solid movie in the decade-long saga.

Grade: B

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary Images, some Violence, Language and mild Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall & David Thewlis

This may be my shortest HARRY POTTER review. The key reason being that HALF-BLOOD PRINCE revolves around one major event in the final minutes and one major discovery that impacts the rest of the series, but that’s about it. Though this film broke records at the time of its release and has gone on to be one of the most well-reviewed entries in the HARRY POTTER series, it feels like filler. It’s well-shot, entertaining filler…but filler nonetheless. This mostly faithful adaptation is the second-worst film of the series, only topping the okay mess that was GOBLET OF FIRE.

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The wizarding and Muggle worlds both face dark times. Frequent disappearances and unexplained tragedies keep making headlines, forcing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to do all he can to prevent Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers from attaining power. Dumbledore tasks Harry with retrieving a hidden memory from new potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), while rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has become a Death Eater and been assigned an important task that he must carry out. To further complicate his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry finds a worn-out potions textbook that gives him new spells and potions tips from a so-called “Half-Blood Prince,” but this book also contains a dark side.

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Of the first six films, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE feels like the most “normal” school year. Nothing much of significance happens until the final third. We do see romance blossom for Ron, Hermione and Harry, which results in lots of annoying teenage angst. If it weren’t for frequently seen spells and potions, you might mistake this for a boarding school drama as opposed to the sixth installment in a fantasy series. It’s not as if these events aren’t entertaining to watch, because are plenty of humorous moments that work and the characters continue to develop. However, it just feels like HALF-BLOOD PRINCE mainly exists for the purpose of connecting ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS.

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Not much can be said about Daniel Radcliffe’s, Rupert Grint’s, and Emma Watson’s performances that hasn’t already been stated in my other reviews. They’re three entertaining protagonists and the only difference this time around is that Harry is finally accepting his status as “the chosen one,” while Ron and Hermione battle hormones. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE further demonstrates the need to pad out its running time by including the most Quidditch drama of the entire series. Dark forces are on the horizon, a crucial character died in the last film and that should be heavily affecting Harry’s emotional state, and Dumbledore is apparently onto secret dark magic that could stop Voldemort…but we apparently need many scenes of teen romance and sports to stretch this movie longer than 150 minutes.

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HALF-BLOOD PRINCE’s shining moments are in its finale (which is deeply affecting and ushers in new level of maturity for the series), scenes of dark forces rising (with a newly indoctrinated Draco Malfoy), creepy bits of Voldemort’s backstory, and Harry’s borderline addiction to the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook. However, these only make up about half of the running time. The other half is spent on interactions between students and, as I’ve already mentioned numerous times, various romances (only two of which actually seem remotely convincing).

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I may sound more bitter than I actually am. Some of this movie’s problems stem from the source material itself. There are many things to like about HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. The scenes are well-acted and funny in the right moments, even if half of them feel like they add nothing to the main story. Jim Broadbent does a wonderful job as Professor Slughorn. The finale is appropriately dark and makes two massive steps in the series, while the titular story arc with the Half-Blood Prince is mostly well-executed. However, the sheer unnecessary amount of romance and school drama detracted from my overall enjoyment of the sixth film, making HALF-BLOOD PRINCE the second-worst HARRY POTTER in the series.

Grade: B

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Michael Goldenberg

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson & Tom Felton

Two years after audiences experienced the worst HARRY POTTER film, David Yates stepped in as a director and proceeded to helm the last four films in the series (as well as 2016’s upcoming FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM). This long-running fantasy franchise’s fifth installment was one of the best films in 2007’s mixed bag summer movie season. I was working at a movie theater when this film came out and still remember going to see it three times on the big screen. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one notch below PRISONER OF AZKABAN (the POTTER’s highest point). ORDER earns its high ranking due to a fast pace, loathsome villainess, and an intricate story that thrives on believable character development.

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Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. People are disappearing and dark magic is becoming more frequent, but the willfully ignorant Ministry of Magic wishes to look the other way. This leaves fifth-year Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as social pariahs in the wizarding world. To make matters worse, the Ministry appoints cruel sociopathic witch Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Frustrated by Umbridge’s unwillingness to teach students how to actually defend themselves, a small band of Hogwarts students form a small resistance force known as “Dumbledore’s Army,” led by none other than Harry. Meanwhile, Harry discovers that he has a frightening psychic connection with Voldemort and attempts to control it.

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ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is probably the most stress-inducing HARRY POTTER cinematic chapter in that enemies come from both sides. In the first four films, Harry was seen as a sort of gifted celebrity by the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts staff. ORDER changes that, because the corrupt Ministry invades Hogwarts and shapes the school to their benefit. Of course, this is being perpetuated by probably the most despicable antagonist in the entire series: Dolores Umbridge. She’s a horrible person and you might have to restrain yourself from attempting to jump through the screen to strangle her. Imelda Staunton plays her to sickly sweet perfection in a performance that reminds me of two terrible teachers I had in school, making the character that much more aggravating on a personal level.

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Besides Dolores Umbridge, two new characters also pop up in murderous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and optimistic oddball Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). The former only appears for ten minutes of screen time, but makes the most of her scenes. The latter is a fantastic new addition to the main HARRY POTTER cast. Lynch was a perfect choice for the role and plays Luna exactly as I imagined her in the books. This character is a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why. To further praise Luna Lovegood as a positive role model, she has the admirable attributes of not caring what other people think and being true to herself.

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Daniel Radcliffe is back in top-form as Harry Potter, becoming outright confrontational in places and slowly evolving into the determined hero he needs to be in order to take down Voldemort. Emma Watson’s Hermione gets a few moments to shine. She passionately hates Umbridge and supports Harry. Rupert Grint’s Ron devolves back into only providing comic relief, but his funny bits alleviate the film’s more depressing moments. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Gary Oldman all receive their shining highlights as well.

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ORDER’s finale delivers lots of excitement and carefully builds upon everything that’s previously occurred. An effects-heavy confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore easily stands as one of series’ best scenes, even if the closing minutes seem a tad too convenient. The running time is also among the shortest in the eight films, which makes the fast pacing even better. The final third’s emotional arcs have serious repercussions for the main characters and the rest of the series. Everything that comes before that point is a combination of magical suspense and uplifting entertainment about standing up for what you believe in…even when all sides seem stacked against you.

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Much like PRISONER OF AZKABAN, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX uses a carefully scaled-down plot to evolve the characters and series as a whole. The performances are solid across the board, with Imelda Staunton being one of the series’ best villains as Umbridge. ORDER functions on powerful ideas of a corrupt government (albeit a magical one) and brewing rebellions. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is just a hair beneath AZKABAN on the HARRY POTTER totem pole. In this series, second-place isn’t bad at all!

Grade: A

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