It's clear now that there is more room for directorial expression in any James Bond movie than in all of the Harry Potter franchise -- you can't play the auteur when Warner Bros. suits are watching like hawks over the most profitable series and followers of the J.K. Rowling saga are sitting through the pictures with books in hand ready to cry "rape" if one tiny detail gets changed. The sensuous fluidity imbued by Alfonso Cuarón in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a relief, especially after Chris Columbus's stodginess in the first couple of entries; movement is not the type of enchantment the projects run on, however, so Mike Newell accordingly restored the authoress' complacent coziness and lugubrious whimsy to their static glories in Goblet of Fire. The newest chapter, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is supposed to be the "darkest" one so far, once again showing that, in a time when reviewers cluck over the gloomy souls of Batman, Spider-Man, and Jack Sparrow, "dark" becomes second only to "love" as the most abused word. Life in magic-free England is drab and sweltering, pubescent Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) feels "angry all the time" and is kicked out of Hogwarts after waving his wand at a pair of marauding Dementors -- the director, Peter Yates, pastes on the chiaroscuro, but under it is the summer-camp flatness that's always been the franchise's trademark. Though the Ministry of Justice grants him admittance back on appeal from Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), it appears bent on stamping out the young hero's warnings about evil Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes): "A lie," proclaims new taskmaster Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who comes terrifyingly decked in pink to discourage "progress for the sake of progress."
Dolores's "educational reform" basically boils down to cheery fascism, with Hogwarts pupils systematically disarmed, instructed to bury their heads in the sand, and sent to homeroom torture chambers for asking questions; Harry and friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Gint) rebel by offering clandestine teaching sessions within the school's walls, a junior version of the titular order of resistance headed by Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Political allegories in Harry Potter? If nothing else, the budding student uprising (along with Gint's increasing resemblance to Malcolm McDowell) finally sheds a bit of light onto the whole enterprise as a feeble sweetening of Lindsay Anderson's if..., packaged for audiences who like their "magic" as a Disney Channel show, complete with Very Special CGI wrapping. Just for the record, Harry has his first kiss with boring Cho Chang (Katie Leung), is stared down by the Noseless One in nightmares, and discovers that his dad used to push Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) around during their schoolboy days, which adds to the "darkness," I suppose. Is this why the world comes to a halt when a copy of the latest book disappears? You can have it, just give me the centaurs with their greenish shadows, Helena Bonham Carter cackling in a crater on the side of Azkaban, and the legion of British thesps waffling through. Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffith... and Evanna Lynch, whose abstracted lilt makes her Luna Lovegood the one juvenile with a touch of individuality. There's two more chapters left? Forget Harry Poindexter, follow Luna and leave the rest of this nonsense behind.
Wondrously, Transformers morphs from Army-enlisting ad to toy ad (on its way passing through a panoply of car ads, computer ads, beer ads) without ever becoming a movie. The Hasbro cartoon should be a faint blip on the I Love the '80s radar, but now is the time to cash in on digitally-resurrected nostalgia (hellooo, TMNT), so the inimitably crass Michael Bay is aboard to choreograph the hot, robot-on-robot action. Seriously, this is surely the most apt instance of a machine directing machines since Kubrick filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey -- helicopters, jets, automobiles, and bare midriffs (female flesh is no less metallic here) parade before the camera, and that's before the first mecha-giant emerges out of a yellow Camaro. The vehicle beckons the teen hero (Shia LaBeouf) towards it, but the pop-critique of Carpenter's Christine is the farthest thing from the project's insect-brain, not when it's busy coming up with a million hyperventilating ways to mince images into bits. The huge robo-scorpion in "the Middle East, present day," Anthony Anderson doing his black-fat-guy "comic relief" routine again, the suburbanites-gawking-in-awe parodies of Spielberg (who produced -- why, Steven?), Jon Voight drawling "we're at a Def-Con Delta here, people": Each seems to exist in a trash-compacting vacuum, with Bay's patented tumult denying viewers the basic pleasure of properly seeing the effects on display (thinking back, I can't even recall what dueling behemoths Optimus Prime and Megatron look like). Fanboys are bound to decry deviations from the original, but to this infidel the biggest crime of Transformers (and of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, too) isn't the desecration of any beloved childhood memories, but simply the perpetuation of bad cinema.
A palate-cleanser: Black Sheep, the funniest killer-animal joke since that bunny leaped at the jugulars of King Arthur's entourage in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jonathan King's brisk, rambunctious splatter-comedy gives fangs to fuzzy sheep and lets the cast sweat as the slightest "ba-a-a-a-a-a" is heard; the hero (Nathan Meister) is traumatized by the bleating critters, his brother (Peter Feeney) is a Frankenstein-rancher whose genetic futzing has led to zombie ewes roaming the green fields of New Zealand, feasting on engineering scientists and eco-chumps alike. A fine, gory time is to be had -- it's ultimately about little more than its director's cheeky ingenuity trumping genre restrictions (and a tight budget), but then again, look at what happened to Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi after they reached "respectability." Its rough edges are in any case sharper than anything in 1408, a flaccid yarn that has John Cusack trying to stay alive in the haunted hotel reservation of the title, "an evil fucking room." Repressed horrors are unleashed, but there's no need to prop the film against its various predecessors (The Tenant, The Shining, Barton Fink, Spider) to see the staggering lack of imagination. Mikael Håfström directed, and after Derailed anything is an improvement; Stephen King provided the basis, which explains why he now writes mostly for Entertainment Weekly.
Reviewed July 20, 2007.