Today in Movie History: July 11

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that Harry Potter had on movie culture: we’d never seen a level of quality established and maintained for a single franchise of that length before. (Even James Bond had to deal with a couple of stinkers in the same period of time.) Without The Boy Who Lived — and more importantly, without the reliably solid bar for quality his movies set — our current movie landscape would likely look very different.

Two of the better entries in the Harry Potter franchise opened on this day. The first, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, set Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals against the obsequious Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, never better), embodying every Owellian high school teacher you ever had in one infernally smiling package. The second, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, brought the saga to a richly satisfying conclusion as Harry finally faced down his nemesis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). (It also contains one of the saga’s most heart-wrenching moments as we finally learn the true motives between Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape.) Both films were directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four chapter in the cycle and brought a sure and steady hand that the saga benefited from immeasurably. Order of the Phoenix opened today in 2007; Deathly Hallows, Part 2 opened today in 2011.



Today in Movie History: November 16

Ask anyone what their favorite Steven Spielberg movie is, and few will say Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But ask them what their top five Spielberg films are, and most people would likely find room for it. It’s as strong a film as he’s ever made — an early sign that he could do far more than just scare people with Jaws — and while it occupies a curious nether region among his masterpieces, none would question its placement among them. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.

There were two other films fighting for the pole position, and the one that just missed out is Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows: one of the brightest lights in the French New Wave and certainly one of the most heartfelt as well. The autobiographical tale covers the unhappy childhood of a young Parisian boy, ignored by his parents and tormented at school. It was shot on location and highlights the perceived authenticity championed by the New Wave without the attendant showiness. It opened in the United States today in 1959.

The third film vying for the podium never quite had a shot, but considering it kicked off one of the biggest franchises of all time, it certainly makes an effort. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was hobbled by the reality of having to establish an entire universe all by its lonesome. It takes care of the heavy lifting so the rest of the saga can get down to business. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened today in 2001.

And on a much slighter, but definitely crowd-pleasing note, today was the day Macaulay Culkin sent those pesky burglars packing in the original Home Alone. I’m not a huge fan, but for slapstick fun, it’s hard to knock it, and it’s earned its status as a holiday staple. It opened today in 1990.

I’m going to close with a pair of personal favorites. The first, Heavenly Creatures, was a calling card from director Peter Jackson, previously best known for some truly weird genre films coming out of New Zealand. This one — about an infamous murder case in which a pair of girls bludgeoned one of their mothers to death with a brick — displayed a poise and maturity that caught the world’s eye and set the stage for the director’s eventual triumph with The Lord of the Rings. (It also marked the feature film debut of one Kate Winslet). It opened in the U.S. today in 1995.

The second, Night of the Comet, is an odd bit of post-apocalyptic zaniness from the Reagan era, in which a comet wipes out almost all life on earth… except for a couple of Valley girls, a nice Hispanic due, and a whole lot of zombies who chase the three of them through LA. It opened today in 1984.






Today in Movie History: November 15

The original silent version of The Phantom of the Opera is actually quite a flawed film in many ways. Poor scene direction, shoddy camera placement and the like put a damper on what should have been something incredible. Luckily, that’s not the purpose of the exercise and all those flaws fade to insignificance the moment Lon Cheney’s haunted, terrifying Phantom takes the screen. The film opened today in 1925.

It’s times like these when we need the Marx Brothers more than ever, and today saw the release of one of their very best: A Night at the Opera, which sets the boys loose on an ocean liner and similar fancy-schmancy locales and lets them do their thing. In a world as crazy as ours has become, the insanity on display here feels like a welcome tonic. It opened today in 1935.

The Harry Potter franchise was already off to a roaring start when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets emerged to cement what eventually became one of the signature film franchises of the early 21st century. Chris Columbus returned for a second round behind the camera, but — with the basics of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe already laid out in the first film — he had more room to play here. It remains one of the better films in the saga, and showed some of us skeptics that this was more than just another fantasy series. It opened 15 years ago today in 2002.

I will never claim to be a fan of The English Patient — you give Fargo back its Best Picture Oscar right now! — but Anthony Minghella certainly found an interesting story to help counterbalance his usually turgid and self-important directorial style. It’s one of those films that ages well, but never feels quite as good as everyone keeps telling you. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close with The Lord of the Rings… not Peter Jackson’s justly celebrated trilogy, but the ambitious animated feature from Ralph Bakshi. It’s hobbled by a shortened running time and the fact that it stops abruptly at the end of The Two Towers, but while it remains a failure, it’s a fascinating failure to be sure. And the late John Hurt’s voice work as Aragorn is well worth celebrating. It opened today in 1978.



Movies for the Resistance: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Maggie Smith, and Gary Oldman
Directed by: David Yates
Running time: 138 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2007

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education last week – over the protests of anyone who’s ever been within shouting distance of an actual school – invoked an easy meme-ridden comparison. Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), erstwhile villainess of the Harry Potter saga and second only to Voldemort himself in terms of pure unfiltered loathsomeness, became the easy stand-in for the appointment. And why not? Author J.K. Rowling clearly knew a totalitarian regime when she saw one, and never hesitated to call out the toadies and enablers along with her big baddie. Few of them were as hated (in the best possible way) as Umbridge.

The reasons for that hate should sound familiar. Not just because she’s an authority figure (because who doesn’t hate those?), or even her overt abuse of authority (no shortage of bad guys in that camp). It comes, I think, from her eager embrace of gaslighting and denial.

It starts with her appearance, which marks a huge departure from the book. Rowling described her as hideously ugly, a sort of Peter Lorre in drag whose very presence set the skin a’ crawling. Staunton’s a lovely woman, with a natural smile and a look of supreme benevolence. She appears at Hogwarts in her Jackie-O pink and her collectible plates with kittens on them, all good cheer and tough love delivered with a Mary Poppins giggle. Who wouldn’t want a teacher like that?

Soon enough, of course, she shows her true colors… though only after she’s amassed enough power to make them stick. Students learn useless magic, draconian rules are put into place with no apparent point, and protests and attempts to question her efforts are silenced with ruthless efficiency. Before we know it, the friendly confines of Hogwart’s have descended into Orwellian nightmare.

And yet the cheerfulness remains: Umbridge’s weapon against all manner of challenges. Of course she’s not the eager quisling of the force of ultimate evil! Of course she’s looking after the welfare of ALL the students at Hogwarts! Provided they follow the rules. And ignore the bullying of other professors and students. And jump when she says frog. And…

By watching what she says and comparing it to what she does, the cognitive dissonance becomes too great to ignore. It prompts Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends to form Dumbledore’s Army and ultimately take her down (with a little help from the local centaurs). We’ve seen her methodology find all-too-fertile ground in the real world: how people in power demand that you ignore what’s right in front of your eyes in favor of absolute obedience. Staunton’s Napoleonic stature helps sell it (the showdown between her and Maggie Smith’s considerably taller Professor McGonagall stands as a series high point), but it’s her subtle distinction between appearance and reality that make her such an evil joy to watch.

In my original review of the film, I opined that it marked time a bit, stretching the saga out while waiting for the final throwdown with Lord Voldemort. In retrospect, that may have been unfair. Rowling understood that great evil depends on little evil to grow, and while Voldemort constitutes raw power wielded solely for the purpose of domination, Umbridge plays in political gray areas. She thrives on questions and doubts, on ambiguity and uncertainty. She’s far from the most powerful wizard in this world, but she proves masterful at arguing people out of their best instincts. Those inclined to cruelty flock to her side, but she truly revels in better men and women sufficiently flummoxed to let her enact her agenda over them.

By the time she reveals her true intentions, it’s all but too late. Luckily, Harry and his pals stop her before they can properly attack Voldemort… thanks to waking up to her little reindeer games early on. Rowling understood the need for preventative action, as well as the power that concentrated resistance can wield when it shakes clear of doubt and double-talk. Harry needs to learn how to deal with such foes before the saga can come to an end. But while Order of the Phoenix ultimately allows him a bit of hard-earned wisdom – purchased at great cost – Harry probably isn’t Umbridge’s most tenacious foe. That honor belongs to Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), the school’s resident pranksters who recognize when their moment has come. Humor and ridicule help disperse that noxious cloud and show up the paper tyrant for what she truly is.

It makes a great blueprint for challenging authority, though Umbridge returns in the series finale still holding onto the pretense of legal authority. Even her final fate, however, demonstrates Rowling’s insight not only into bullying, but into a truly fitting form of justice for it. At the beginning of the film, Harry’s monstrous cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) tangles with a Dementor, and is shown (to paraphrase the author) who he truly is for the first time. Forced to confront the real consequences of his actions, he changes for the better, and considering where Staunton’s smiling sociopath ends up once the dust has settled, we can assume a similarly befitting fate ultimately lies in wait for her.

That’s the problem with reality: there’s never a Dementor around when you need one.