LITERATURE: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling, 2003)

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Published by Bloomsbury, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth instalment of the British fantasy franchise. Following the return of Lord Voldemort, Harry is left feeling alone after returning to Hogwarts. Most of his peers believe him a liar, due to the Ministry of Magic ensuring that the newspapers say that Harry has lied of Voldemort’s return. With senior Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge now also gradually taking over Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione realise that the students need to learn to defend themselves against Death Eaters, so they set up Dumbledore’s Army, a secret society in which Harry teaches some of his peers defensive magic.

PROS

  • J.K. Rowling fills this novel with lots of detail, from the point of the spells which Harry teaches Dumbledore’s Army, to the interior design of the Ministry of Magic. Her attention to detail makes it possible to for one to visualise in their mind’s eye the wizarding world which she has created.
  • This novel boasts the introduction of many new characters to the franchise, several of whom are brilliant. Dolores Umbridge is a deliciously sadistic antagonist; while Luna Lovegood is such a well realised soul, whom you cannot help but like. J.K. Rowling also provides a welcome return for Remus Lupin, explores in greater depth Harry’s relationship with Sirius Black (his godfather), and fleshes Neville Longbottom out into a brilliant character.
  • There are several quite exciting, and/or suspenseful moments in the narrative. These include a chilling encounter with Dementors, Harry venturing into the Forbidden Forest to meet Hagrid’s half-brother (Grawp), and the breathtakingly detailed climactic duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort.
  • While it does feel slightly tacked on as an afterthought, the climax has a good message about how there will always be something worth fighting for, even in the bleakest of times.

CONS

  • J.K. Rowling’s writing style is the worst that it ever has been, which reflects the fact that she took some time out from writing in the three years before this novel’s publication. Her writing style is very verbose, and does not flow at all well, meaning that it is far from as engaging as that of the previous four books.
  • A lot of this book’s content could be cut, and by that I mean the narrative. At 766 pages (original UK edition), this is by far the longest Harry Potter book, and a number of things which happen in the (supposed) climax, among other parts of the narrative, could easily be removed. It ultimately feels as though J.K. Rowling went for as much filler as possible, in order to surpass the length of The Goblet of Fire.
  • There are great new characters, such as Dolores Umbridge, but there are at least as many poor new characters introduced. Such examples include Zacharias Smith (who serves no real purpose), Mundungus Fletcher (who is one-sided), and Marietta Edgecombe (whose conception was kind of unnecessary, as the subsequent film adaptation proved). As for Dumbledore’s Army, while I have always appreciated the fact that so many of Harry’s peers were willing to believe him, the list of members feel almost like a tick-list of very, very minor characters.

VERDICT: 5/10

LITERATURE: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling, 2000)

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Published by Bloomsbury, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth instalment in the British fantasy franchise. Harry, Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their fourth year, and this year Hogwarts are hosting the legendary Triwizard Tournament, with participants from Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang being selected by the legendary Goblet of Fire. Despite competitors having to be over seventeen, Harry is chosen at aged fourteen. Now he must participate against students older and more experienced than him with magic in three highly dangerous tasks.

PROS

  • J.K. Rowling’s imagination stands out clearly, as she creates the Triwizard Tournament with such meticulous detail, and it is clear when reading that she put a lot of time and thought into them. Her writing style flows far better with this book than it did her previous ones, and the tasks make for exciting reads.
  • Harry and Ron in particular prove to be well realised, realistic depictions of teenagers. Harry and Ron both experience their first real crushes (by which I mean ones that leave them feeling truly smitten), while Harry loses his cool more than he once did, and Ron, likewise, is far more prone to bad moods than in previous films.
  • J.K. Rowling expands the amount of detail brought to the Wizarding World, by providing more details of its history and politics, making it an even more well realised fantasy world than before. She also introduces several new creatures in great detail, all of which are quite interesting to visualise.
  • Several good new characters are introduced, including a highly enjoyable expansion of the Weasley family; while Dobby the House-Elf is a welcome return. Meanwhile, Cedric Diggory, the other Hogwarts competitor, who had a minor role in The Prisoner of Azkaban, is fleshed out well into quite a multilayered individual.

CONS

  • This instalment is twice the length of The Prisoner of Azkaban, and unfortunately there are a few points where it feels like J.K. Rowling is just providing filler. Namely, while Hermione’s campaigns do show a different side to her character, they do not really serve much to this instalment’s narrative, and could easily be cut altogether.
  • Many supporting characters from the previous books are not utilised to their full potential; while a key row between Harry and Ron is unfortunately only really explored and realised at a surface level.

VERDICT: 8/10

SHORT FILM: Lou (2017, Dave Mullins)

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Lou is a short film from Pixar Animation Studios, which was released theatrically alongside Cars 3, after premiering at the 2017 South by Southwest Festival. The lost-and-found box in a kindergarten is home to Lou, a creature made from assorted unclaimed items. When Lou sees a boy called J.J. being a bully, Lou decides to teach J.J. a lesson, which will go further than just showing J.J. the error of his ways.

PROS

  • As ever with Pixar, the animation is rich in colour and detail. The anthropomorphic Lou is very creative in design, and is executed in quite a unique, charming way.
  • Playground bullying is a tough theme to execute on film, but director/writer Dave Mullins did it well, in a way which could be related to by many. The narrative does not depict J.J. as a monster, rather by showing J.J. flashing back to his past the narrative shows clearly that bullies do so from a place of hurt, having previously been bullied themselves. Not only does Mullins tell bullies that they should atone for their deeds, but he also tells victims that there is more to a bully than meets the eye.
  • The narrative is accessible as it tackles the issue of bullying in a serious manner, yet it also has some moments of amusing slapstick, plus a truly heartwarming conclusion.

CONS

  • It is rare that one will hear/read me saying that a short film is too short, but while the themes and character arcs are executed very well, Lou does feel somewhat constrained by its six minutes long running time.
  • While the slapstick moments are well executed and do serve a purpose, they are quite predictable, and not that altogether exciting or amusing.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Cars 3 (2017, Brian Fee)

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Cars 3 is a sports/road trip film, and the eighteenth theatrical animated feature from Pixar Animation Studios. The latest generation of hi-tech sports cars have hit the racing circuit, and ageing racing champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) realises that his days are limited, following a bad crash when racing Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Lightning starts to do training with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), determined to not let his career end. However, can he prove that he does not need to get upgraded with new technology in order to win?

PROS

  • Like with every Pixar film, the animation is gorgeous. We are offered a rich colour palette, filled with lots of wonderful background detail and texture. The glean on the bonnets of cars, the beauty of nature, it is lovely to look at.
  • The narrative has some good messages (even if they are not handled especially well) about how there are more important things in life than your career and your reputation. Meanwhile, the narrative as a whole is far more enjoyable than that of Cars 2, with some decent jokes, and some rather exciting racing scenes.
  • Lightning McQueen is not one of the all-time great main Pixar characters, not least due to his love of reputation, but he has some true redeeming characteristics, such as his desire to help Cruz when he learns more of her backstory, and his dedication and respect for his late mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). Cruz is a well realised new character; meanwhile the screenwriters learned from their mistake with Cars 2 and kept Mater a supporting character, enjoyable in small doses.

CONS

  • The narrative does tread a lot of the ground covered by Cars eleven years ago, not least how Doc Hudson has a big role in helping Lightning change. This does not work as well as it did last time, as the use of the late Paul Newman’s voice, taken from deleted scenes from the first film, does feel quite odd (for lack of a better word).
  • There are some poorly realised new supporting characters, including billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion); while the return of Chick Hicks (Bob Peterson) proves unwelcome. Meanwhile, returning supporting characters, such as Sally (Bonnie Hunt), are quite underused.
  • Several scenes that are slapstick heavy are not that well executed, ergo not particularly enjoyable, which is a bit of a problem for slapstick.

VERDICT: 6/10

TELEVISION: House, M.D. (2004-2012)

NOTEThis is Post 100 on this blog. One hundred posts into blogging here, and I have loved every minute of it.

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House, M.D. (commonly referred to as House) is an American medical drama, with the Fox Network airing a total of 177 episodes. The titular House (Hugh Laurie) is the Head of Diagnostic Medicine at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, and has a number of doctors working for him over the course of eight years. House takes the most complicated medical cases, loving a puzzle, and while the misanthropic doctor will more often than not solve the puzzle before the patient dies, his methods are unique (to say the least).

PROS

  • Hugh Laurie steals the show regularly as House, his dry wit perfect for the cynical doctor, yet also brings a moving sense of vulnerability to House, as he struggles with constant pain in his bad leg.
  • The relationships between House and the rest of the ensemble are well defined, as are relationships between them. Most memorable are the on-off romances between Chase (Jesse Spencer) and Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), and between House and his boss Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein).
  • For the most part the cast give good performances, each getting moments to shine. Among them are some genuinely moving moments, in particular in the final season when House’s best friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) must confront his own mortality, following a cancer diagnosis.
  • The screenplays are very well written puzzles, which the viewer solves along with House, full of great detail and nuances, not least the meticulous details of the human body. In the early episodes especially, there was always real suspense as to whether or not House could solve the puzzle in time, the conditions made even more memorable by effective work from the make-up department.

CONS

  • Like any procedural drama (in this case medical), especially one that lasts for more than one or two years, this series gets incredibly predictable, due to the fact that it is undeniably formulaic. As a result, the programme is rarely as suspenseful after the first three seasons as it was in those early years.
  • Due to the turnover of supporting members of the ensemble, there are characters who serve nowhere near as much to the narrative as a whole. Most notable for this are Masters (Amber Tamblyn), who is frankly very irritating, and Park (Charlyne Yi), who really has little to do whatsoever.
  • A few ongoing storylines do not get a wholly satisfying conclusion, such as House and Cuddy’s on-off romance, Hadley’s (Olivia Wilde) struggles with terminal illness, and Masters’s pursuit of advancing her medical career.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Shults)

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It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film, which premiered at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, Oregon, before being distributed by A24. A highly contagious disease has swept the world, and in a bid for survival, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have secluded themselves in a country home. When they (reluctantly) take in Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), all seems to be going well. However, how long can this dynamic last before paranoia overwhelms them?

PROS

  • The screenplay by director/writer Trey Edward Shults is a consistently engaging piece of writing. It is an interesting exploration of the lengths to which people will go in order to survive, and (through Travis’s nightmares) the horrific psychological impact which traumatic events can have on teenagers in particular.
  • On a technical level this is beautiful filmmaking. Cinematographer Drew Daniels uses close up shots well to bring the viewer into the characters’ psychological journeys, and also uses shadows brilliantly, in order to dark, chilling imagery.
  • The make up department also do a very good job, as the infected people who are depicted over the course of the narrative are given a shocking look, with horrific skin conditions. Meanwhile, the use of blood makes for some particularly vivid imagery.
  • The film features a good ensemble cast, with Joel Edgerton giving an authoritative turn, and striking up a good chemistry with Carmen Ejogo. Arguably, the best turn is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who gives a very nuanced turn that conveys how badly the recent events have impacted Travis.

CONS

  • While their performances are good, both Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner are quite underused, and their characters’ relationships with the rest of the ensemble are not explored that much. This is particularly apparent in the rapport between Kim and Travis.
  • In the final fifteen minutes of the film, there are a number of moments which prove to be quite predictable, ergo they lose their shock value.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, Matt Reeves)

Caesar, with a shotgun and Nova behind his back, on a horse with the film's logo and "Witness the End July 14" at the bottom.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the third instalment in Fox’s reboot of the science-fiction franchise. Seven years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, man is at war with ape, and Caesar (Andy Serkis) is drawn even deeper into the conflict after The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) kills his wife (Judy Greer) and eldest son (Max Lloyd-Jones). Caesar, along with his most trusted friends, leaves the apes to find The Colonel and kill him, in the hopes of bringing an end to the conflict. Along the way, Maurice (Karin Konoval) adopts an orphaned human girl called Nova (Amiah Miller), who has been rendered mute by a mutated form of the Simian Flu virus that all humans carry.

PROS

  • War for the Planet of the Apes is a far more clever war film than most, as there is not actually a vast amount of battle, rather a prominent focus on internal conflict. It is these internal conflicts that flesh out the characters so beautifully into multilayered individuals. Caesar must question how much his approach to the conflict between man and ape has been defined by the the impact of Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) actions towards him seven years ago. Meanwhile, loyalties are tested on both sides during the course of the narrative.
  • The visual effects in this film are genuinely flawless. The motion capture apes are beautiful creations, filled with vast amounts of small details, their fur textured wonderfully, and their eyes are very expressive, feeling wholly real. These creatures merge perfectly with the rest of what is in the frame, so suspending disbelief is ridiculously easy. The production design team did a great job in creating very detailed sets, with The Colonel’s military base being a grim prisoner of war camp, which one cannot forget in a hurry.
  • The film’s ensemble cast is unanimously excellent. Andy Serkis, a.k.a. the King of Motion Capture, steals the show as Caesar, with his expressive performance shining through, bringing real emotion and depth to the apes’ leader. Karin Konoval brings great warmth to Maurice, and has a wonderful chemistry with Amiah Miller, who emotes perfectly as Nova. Woody Harrelson brings surprising depth to The Colonel, while also being convincingly sadistic. The most surprising addition, however, is Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, who never once gets annoying, and who makes this traumatised chimpanzee a character whom the viewer can really sympathise for.
  • Writer-director Matt Reeves, and his co-writer Mark Bomback, create a brilliantly tense narrative, as it becomes clear early on that nobody is safe in this conflict, due to the humans having no qualms in taking out ape civilians, including women and children. The film, however, is most tense when Maurice and Bad Ape must co-ordinate an escape from The Colonel’s camp, after countless apes are taken prisoner. With excellent use of near-silence, the sense of time being against them, and excellent use of shadow, this makes for great drama. The action, meanwhile, make for gritty sequences that one cannot forget in a hurry, due to their technical brilliance.
  • Michael Giacchino’s score is nothing short of magnificent, the perfect score for such a narrative.

NITPICKS

  • While it was wholly logical, given what had been happening in the moments leading up to it, there is a point in the final few minutes which feels slightly too convenient.

VERDICT: 10/10