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Early HP Prisoner of Azkaban reviews: it looks great!

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Early HP Prisoner of Azkaban reviews: it looks great!

Old 05-28-04, 10:15 AM
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Early HP Prisoner of Azkaban reviews: it looks great!

Harry discovers the dark side
(Filed: 28/05/2004)
The mood changes dramatically as the boy wizard grows up in Alfonso Cuarón's visually stunning adaptation of JK Rowling's third magical adventure
Each time a new Harry Potter book appears you see them everywhere. Children and teenagers poring earnestly over JK Rowling's new stories, so deeply absorbed it would take an act of God to distract them. Radiating fervour, they give the impression that they keep reading because they have no choice. What a challenge for filmmakers intent on adapting Rowling for the big screen: how to replicate that sense of urgency on the audience's part.

'Finally, a film that does justice to Rowling's soaring imagination'
It must be said the efforts so far have fallen short. The first two Harry Potter films, The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, were dutiful rather than inspired. American director Chris Columbus served them up as dollops of efficient, action-packed, effects-heavy studio entertainment. They did a serviceable job, and made a lot of money (they are among the 10 highest-grossing films of all time). But it's been hard to imagine Harry Potter films providing indelible, life-altering memories for audiences in the manner of, say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy - or Rowling's books, for that matter.

Until now, that is. The third in the Potter series, released on Monday, has a new director, the Mexican Alfonso Cuarón, and it marks a huge stride forward.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is far more visually striking than its predecessors. Finally, here is a film that does justice to Rowling's soaring imagination.

In fairness, Cuarón has a head start: this is easily the best story of the three books filmed so far. Harry, back for his third year at Hogwarts, learns of an escaped prisoner on the loose. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a fearsome wizard who may have had a hand in the deaths of Harry's parents, is on the run from Azkaban jail and now seems intent on killing Harry. To guard the school against this threat, Azkaban's intimidating guards, the Dementors, are posted around the grounds, but they terrify Harry more than Black himself.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is pivotal in Rowling's cycle. It's the point where the trickery and fun of wizardry give way to an acknowledgement of its dark side. Similarly, its viewpoint shifts from childlike wonder to adolescent unease; Harry finds himself musing increasingly about his dead parents.

Happily, the film's young leads are up to this delicate task. Daniel Radcliffe may not be quite ready for Hamlet yet, but he carries off an air of worried introspection with assurance. His companions figure more prominently. Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley is as much loyal friend as mere comic foil. And Emma Watson pulls off a good trick - Hermione Grainger evolves from irritating swot into a rigorously bright if impatient young woman.

All three characters get the chance to assert themselves in various ways. Hermione actually lands a punch on the nose of a fellow Hogwarts pupil, the hateful Draco Malfoy, prompting wild cheers from the girls in the audience.

Harry devises a subtler revenge in a marvellous opening scene. Finally losing patience with his bullying, insulting Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) at Sunday tea, he puts a spell on her and makes her swell up to the size of a barrage balloon. Obviously, this is a scene to be played for broad laughs, but Cuarón also invests it with a dreamy surrealism; the sight of the inflated Marge floating in the Dursleys' back garden has an almost serene beauty.

It's a foretaste of things to come. When the action shifts to Hogwarts, Cuarón is like a kid let loose in a toy store. He clearly relishes its cloisters, its nooks and arcades, its giddily ascending staircases, and he allows his camera to swoop and pan and zoom as if at will. And there's a visually arresting sequence when the train taking our heroes to Hogwarts is suddenly stranded on a viaduct bridging a rainswept Scottish glen. Once stopped dead, it eerily begins to freeze over. Thus does nameless dread enter Harry Potter's teenage world.

The virtue of a director with a fresh pair of eyes is evident. When Cuarón was appointed, a few eyebrows were raised. He is, after all, best known for the splendidly raunchy Mexican coming-of-age film Y Tu Mama Tambien. But The Prisoner of Azkaban is a rites-of-passage story too, and Cuarón has sensitively handled a few of its themes before, notably in A Little Princess (1995), which deals with a child pining for a lost parent.

This third Harry Potter film benefits from a transfusion of new blood in the acting department, too. David Thewlis is the enigmatic Professor Lupin, Hogwarts' new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, whose quiet conversations with Harry inject a welcome change of pace into the story. Emma Thompson does a terrific comic turn as the divination mistress Sybil Trelawney, a vague bluestocking with jam-jar glasses and a formidable fright wig. And Michael Gambon steps discreetly into the role of Dumbledore.

The supporting cast is almost needlessly talented. One wonders at the logic of giving Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and Julie Christie a combined screen time of some 60 seconds. It's Roman Abramovich-style casting: hire big stars, then let them cool their heels on the bench.

One could also argue 141 minutes is simply too long. Even an ingenious narrative twist in which the film's final quarter readjusts the previous half-hour seems a plot too far. Still, this is the best Harry Potter film to date, and its moral seems clear - hire other directors who can add spice, grit and quirkiness to Rowling's stories. Cuarón clearly wanted to make us feel we'd experienced a proper movie. He succeeded.
This is my second favorite of the books (Goblet of Fire being the best, IMO) and it's great news the movie looks good. I thought the second film was a vast improvement on the first, looks like the trend is continuing.

Last edited by Hiro11; 05-28-04 at 10:18 AM.
Old 05-28-04, 10:17 AM
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Here's another one:
May 27, 2004

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban
PG, 140 mins

I CAN’T HELP feeling sorry for the Dursleys. They are the fat Little Britons who look after Harry Potter during his holidays, and they barely survive the first five minutes of a single adventure.
Take Aunt Marge. The old bat pops in for a good groan, and an angry Harry inflates her like a Monty Python balloon. She floats off into the night sky and is last spotted clutching a smokestack near Sheffield. Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) is increasingly wary of his weird, impulsive nephew. One more insult and Harry might splatter Vern over his brand-new conservatory like sandwich spread.

This is the reassuring prelude to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: the in-laws still hate him. The refreshing riposte is that Harry no longer gives a damn. Adolescence has bitten him, and it’s a sharp and pleasant surprise. Dangerous, too. Harry has discovered a taste for magic that verges on the reckless, and the Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón (best known for Y Tu Mamá También), explores the urge brilliantly.

Cuarón’s appointment to this franchise is the most inspired Hollywood gamble of the year. He is not a proven director of blockbusters or indeed sequels, but any misgivings about his ability to bring home the lucrative bacon evaporate frame by lavish frame.

The change of mood and purpose is palpable. Hogwarts is a far richer and darker retreat than Chris Columbus’s gothic fairground. The portraits are more animated; the spooks more sardonic; the rivalries more poisonous. Yet the absurd humour of Michael Gambon’s headmaster, Dumbledore (a homage to Richard Harris) and Alan Rickman’s ever-marvellous Snape is a masterclass in oral joy. The atmosphere is that of an English Catholic public school, run by eccentric bachelors with a benign but questionable interest in the spiritual wellbeing of their pupils.

Harry, as ever, is the heroic source of pride and prejudice. A Prince William among wizards but a poodle to his peers, he is stalked by an escaped lunatic wizard, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, who emerges far too late in the film), and haunted by soul-sucking wraiths. His first getaway, in a triple-decker London “knight bus” driven by a myopic nutter called Ernie (who gets his instructions from Lennie Henry’s shrunken head), is the most sublime piece of road-rage I’ ve seen.

But there are lovely shades of Sondheim about Harry’s adventures in the woods around Hogwarts. Hermione (Emma Watson) hides her hormones behind books, and Ron (Rupert Grint) cowers behind his inadequacies. But it is David Thewlis’s wonderfully smooth tutor, Professor Lupin, who unpicks the seam between the world of imagination and real adolescent anxieties in a film-stealing performance that uses nothing more sensational than words.

It’s this tension between friends and teachers that gives the film its gripping shape. The camera work is a sensual feast. Cuarón favours wide-angle lenses, and you could spend weeks drooling over the artwork in a single scene. If there’s a weakness to his film, it lies in the fiendishly ornate plot and the director’s blind faith in our ability to follow it.

The difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe is the film’s potent theme. But it becomes a maddening handicap when the story starts galloping around the final hairpin bends like a Hitchcock thriller.

The rare interest of this series is how the characters — and the films themselves — grow and mature before your eyes. I’m astonished how sensitively Cuarón filmed The Prisoner of Azkaban, and now I’m fascinated how Mike Newell will tackle the next.
Old 05-28-04, 10:28 AM
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Man, I hope I can find the time to take out of my moving next weekend to see this.
Old 05-28-04, 10:39 AM
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this is my fav. book from the series (so far) and i cannot wait to see it!

got some free passes for tuesday, baby!

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