Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

dir. David Yates

Settling in at Hogwarts for a year of preparation for the high-stakes OWL exams, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, looking clean-cut and gawky, with Equus pecs) is thoroughly distracted. He suffers from nightmares, indicated by a sweaty montage of clenched jaws and hokey surrealist imagery. He's being persecuted by the judicial arm of the Ministry of Magic, a solemn assembly of men and women in robes and Renaissance hats. And he has a crush on a girl, who, as it turns out, couldn't be more starry-eyed and obliging.

There's a lot of adolescent angst and contrived psychic turmoil in the fifth and longest Harry Potter novel, but director David Yates seems more preoccupied with how many crucial plot points he can cram into a feature film. The death of a dear friend is so abrupt and confusing it seems unreal; a long-awaited first kiss is so sizzle-free the camera takes time off to measure the inch or so of air between the adolescent bodies. (Potter's verdict? "It was wet.")

Much more enjoyable is the introduction of two new characters: the truly moony Luna Lovegood (the acting debut of a Harry Potter fan with the equally remarkable name Evanna Lynch) and especially Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Dolores Umbridge (the amazing Imelda Staunton), outfitted in pink, with a sinister hiccough-giggle. You'll recognize at least one of your high-school teachers in Staunton's perfect amalgam of condescension, good manners, and of course, sadism with fascist overtones. Dolores Umbridge is such a great villain that Harry's band of rebels gains in stature just by standing up to her. If only that could be said for the bad guys in the final battle scenes. Unfortunately, their entrances are always heralded by a small avalanche of ash, and you can't really tell who's fighting whom. ANNIE WAGNER

Rescue Dawn

dir. Werner Herzog

If you've seen Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly then there is no need for you to see Rescue Dawn, Herzog's dramatization of that 1997 documentary.

General criticism: Rescue Dawn is Herzog minus cinema, minus any magic, minus a sense of cosmic wonder. What we see on the screen is a politically complex story that's been boiled down to the pulp of a simple story about survival, about how one man defeated all the forces of nature. More specific criticism: Beneath the surface of its jungle adventure, Little Dieter Needs to Fly had the historical depth of World War II—the horror of which led the hero, like a sleepwalker, into the nightmare of the Vietnam War. None of this historical and psychological depth is in Rescue Dawn, and by the end of the film we have no idea why anyone needs to fly, needs to go to war, or needs to incinerate villages with napalm bombs.

The film begins as Dieter, a German-American pilot played by Christian Bale, receives an order from his commander to bomb enemy bases in Laos. He takes off, flies, is shot down, captured, and uses his wits to escape from a POW camp in the middle of the jungle. With the kind of photography that gives the imagination little excitement or joy, we see a very thin Dieter hiding under massive leaves, leaping over livid bushes, running around poisonous plants, swimming against the deadly pull of a waterfall, tearing leeches off his chest, and eating a live snake. Dieter will do whatever it takes to live. That is the sole point of a movie that could easily have been about the most relevant issue of our day: American imperialism. CHARLES MUDEDE

Joshua

dir. George Ratliff

The dedicated horror-movie fan (as Stephen King once mused back when he was still bearded and cool) often functions as kind of a strung-out cinematic prospector, accustomed to wading through scads of god-awful stuff looking for just enough of a nugget—an unexpected jump, or a cool monster, or maybe even an especially gnarly severed head—to get by until the next one. When something of genuine quality comes along—a Ginger Snaps, a Session 9, a Descent—it can be sometimes hard to discuss it rationally without going total fanboy overboard.

So, take this with a grain of salt, maybe, but, man, Joshua, the first narrative feature from documentarian George Ratliff (Hell House) is really, really holy jeez awesome. Featuring standout performances from Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, Ratliff's supremely assured bad-kid movie is a creepily black comedy that eschews huge campy shocks in favor of a bunch of little nonchalant stings that add up to something fierce.

The distressingly blank Jacob Kogan plays the title character, a 9-year-old Brainiac whose equilibrium with his uncomprehending folks is upset with the arrival of a newborn sister. Before long, a series of unsettling incidents has the increasingly paranoid family checking every shadow in their posh New York apartment. Throughout, Ratliff and cowriter David Gilbert's script offers a disarming mixture of the outré (li'l Joshua turns out to be a, gulp, Egyptian embalming enthusiast) and mundane, with especially good freak mileage generated by those wonder-twin gizmos of today's new parents: baby monitors and Handycams.

The final result is that all-too-rare kind of movie that can get you nervously giggling at your own unease. The spooky cool aura generated is so potent, really, that it even manages to make the Dave Matthews song over the end credits seem supremely creepy. Dave Matthews, people. ANDREW WRIGHT

Read Andrew Wright's interview with director George Ratliff.

Introducing the Dwights

dir. Cherie Nowlan

Two things work in Introducing the Dwights: one, the performance by Brenda Blethyn as Jean, a comedian, cafeteria cook, divorcée, and mother of two young men; and two, its focus on the social world of a working-class Australian family. There are no rich people in this film, nor does it show the very poor; all we see are those stuck somewhere between the bottom of the middle class and the top of the underclass. The film offers no direct critique of this type of social reality, or exploration of its politics, but gives us a taste of its type of laughter. In its laughter, we hear the subversive element of the working class—its rejection of stable social codes, family values, and Christian sexuality. These are the subjects of Jean's jokes, which she performs for audiences in C-list clubs and casinos. The laughter is the only relief she and those in her class have from their imprisonment in low-paying jobs, broken marriages, and debt. The moment she tells her jokes to those in a station higher than her own, the laughter is not returned. There is dead silence. This is as political as the film gets.

The rest of Introducing the Dwights is about Jean losing her youngest son, Tim (Khan Chittenden), to a beautiful young woman, Jill (Emma Booth). Tim falls in love with Jill and begins to break with his family. The value of this part of the movie would have been zero had Blethyn not carried it with a strong performance. Jean's failures, incestuous jealousies, heavy drinking, cherished memories of her youth, and fear of death are all pretty standard stuff for a middle-age, working-class mother. But Blethyn revives the exhausted personality, gives it a second life, a second chance. After her performance, however, the final burial of this type of character is called for. Please, do not bring her back to life again. CHARLES MUDEDE

The Long Goodbye

dir. Robert Altman

Of all the things that made Robert Altman great, one of the most distinctive—maybe even the thing that made him Altman—is how it's virtually impossible to pick a high point. If pressed, however, I'd have to cast a vote for 1973's The Long Goodbye. The director would go on to bigger, grander things—you can feel him here start to get a handle on the sense of woozy Americana that he would knock out of the park with Nashville two years later—but he would never again make a movie with quite the same wobbly unpretentious grace. Just writing about it now makes me want to blow off my deadline and watch it again.

Altman and scripter Leigh Brackett keep just the barest bones of Raymond Chandler's classic gumshoe novel—private dick Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) investigates the shady disappearance of a friend—and proceed to drench it in 1970s California bong water, stranding their hero in a world of hot tubs, all-night supermarkets, and smiley face moral decay.

There's too much good stuff to list here (Sterling Hayden's magnificent beard deserves an essay of its own), but perhaps the best is the all-too-rare sense that anything can happen. Everywhere you look, there's something delightfully weird going on, from the way that John Williams's title tune gets revisited as doorbells and wind chimes, to the villainous turns from the diminutive frames of Henry Gibson and Mark Rydell (the latter's bit with a Coke bottle still manages to put modern torture porn to shame), to how Gould's constant under-the-breath muttering serves as his own commentary track. Somehow, out of such random elements, Altman and company fashion a state of slouching, freeform Zen that no one else has ever really duplicated. ANDREW WRIGHT

Broken English

dir. Zoe Cassavetes

What's yr take on Cassavetes? According to the press notes for her film, Broken English, the daughter of the late filmmaker likes his work because "He had a gift for showing people in pain and I have always been attracted to those themes as well." Uh, super. It's not that this is a false interpretation, exactly. It is in fact defensible—but does it really make you want to watch his daughter's debut movie?

Parker Posey stars as a hotel guest-services manager named Nora Wilder. She's almost as privileged and vapid as her occupation makes her sound. She is also, inevitably, unfulfilled, because she hasn't got a man. After a series of dating misadventures, Nora meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud, last seen suffering from brain cancer in Time to Leave), an attractive, persuasive Frenchman in a hat. Nora and Julien have some good times, but when Julien says he's returning to Paris, Nora has a massive anxiety attack and gulps down a bunch of pills.

Most of the rest of the movie consists of Nora making herself feel bad. If you're a sadist like Zoe Cassavetes, you might find this fun. I was fixated on the awful dialogue and HD digital photography—a technology that persists in being ugly, better adapted to bringing out the gloom in a dingy hotel than capturing the incidental glamour of a city night. There is almost nothing of the father in the daughter's plodding, flavorless filmmaking. ANNIE WAGNER

Brooklyn Rules

dir. Michael Corrente

It's impossible to watch a contemporary mob story without thinking of The Sopranos. And it's impossible to think of The Sopranos without realizing that whatever you're watching instead sucks. But Brooklyn Rules—from the pen of Sopranos writer and executive producer Terence Winter—doesn't just suck by comparison; it stands tall and proud, high-fiving itself on a pillar of suck.

It's 1985, and Mikey Turner (Freddie Prinze Jr., spraining his brain on a Brooklyn accent), a good Italian kid raised among the sandwiches and wise guys of Brooklyn, is interested, according to the press notes, in "making the literal and figurative move across 'the bridge'" to Manhattan. He's pre-law at Columbia, he's got a blond girlfriend (Mena Suvari, all forehead), and he even sometimes wears penny loafers—much to the chagrin of his best-pals-for-life, hapless Bobby (Jerry Ferrara) and dandy Carmine (Scott "Not as Hot as My Dad" Caan). But for all his careful enunciation and Manhattan pretense, Mikey still plays by... BROOKLYN RULES! (I.e., he'll punch you.) Ka-pow!

Carmine, a bit of a hood, draws his reluctant friends into a swirling world of mafia clichés and severed ears, under the direction of local mobster Caesar (Alec Baldwin—isn't he renowned for his huge puffy Irish head?). I could almost forgive the dull plot and shitty dialogue, if it weren't for Mikey's incessant voiceover narration. "Aside from the tension that gripped the neighborhood," he chirps, "that Christmas was shaping up to be the best one in a long time." Really? "When you have friends—real friends—it doesn't matter if they're here or there, living or dead. No matter where you go, you always take them with you. In your heart." REALLY?

Brooklyn Rules is so irretrievably dumb, so much less thoughtful than the worst Sopranos episode, it makes you wonder how Terence Winter is associated with that show at all. Is he, like, a Make-a-Wish kid? God, I hope he didn't wish for more wishes. LINDY WEST

Manufactured Landscapes

dir. Jennifer Baichwal

Landscape painting has never been about nature on its own terms, preferring to answer the desires of the viewer over those of the mute object. Even so, the photographs of Edward Burtynsky come as a shock. A gorgeous river of red-orange nickel tailings cutting through a coal-black bed; a painterly, ghostly clear-cut beside a uranium mine; the egotistical hulk of the half-built Three Gorges Dam cutting through the Yangtze River mist. Their beauty, though undeniable, is utterly hubristic. If I had to box the appeal of these images into a phrase, I'd say Burtynsky's photographs constitute a kind of human sublime. Your awe at sheer human achievement is made piercing by the knowledge of the ecological holocaust it entails.

Obviously, a documentary about these photographs would have to be fairly heady, and director Jennifer Baichwal excels at painting a fierce yet subtle portrait of the artist. There's no fawning here. Burtynsky is allowed to speak, to assert the meaning of his pictures—but we also hear the superficial observations of his public at a gallery show. Meanwhile, Baichwal follows Burtynsky to the exotic sites he chooses and pans past his frames or zooms in to details to reveal the people living there at the source of his aesthetic pleasure. The photographs themselves are packed with tension, but Baichwal always adds yet another layer, introduces another quandary. Manufactured Landscapes is a deeply fascinating film. ANNIE WAGNER

Read Annie Wagner's interview with director Jennifer Baichwal.