Saturday, April 26, 2014

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


I am exceedingly irritated with the American Theater Wing and the Tony Awards committee. I and the remaining contestants on my new reality television show, American Idyll, all impressionable young girls, took the redeye from LAX to JFK Saturday night as I was under the distinct impression that we were to appear on the Tony Awards broadcast last night. Joseph, my manager, had written to them about my exciting television project and the possibilities of their boosting their ratings out of the cellar through my participation, not to mention the experience it would give my young charges in the important category of awards show appearances - a must for all would be divas. The answer, which arrived at Chateau Maine last week, was a somewhat ambiguously worded acceptance of the proposition, suggesting that a duet between Hugh Jackman and I with the girls as backup might be a wonderful way to start things off, using One Night Only from Dreamgirls.

I and my entourage arrived at Radio City Music Hall to find the place completely overrun with lesser talents and, to make matters worse, that we were not to have the promised featured spot, but be relegated to some sort of ensemble appearance along with half the population of Manhattan. I was absolutely mortified and had to retire to powder my nose. Unfortunately, no sooner had I entered a stall in the stage left facility when the door somehow became wedged shut. No one could hear my plaintive cries for help and I was not going to let the Vera Wang I was wearing go to ruin trying to scale the partition. I was discovered several hours later by a kindly janitor who let me out; I was horrified to discover that the opening number was long over and I had trouble getting Hugh's attention long enough to work my appearance in elsewhere. (The girls had made it into the opening number, but seem to have been placed behind some strange puppets and people in rather farfetched green Oz costumes so they could barely be seen.) They did pair me briefly with LL Cool J until Carol Channing's fly away wig caught me in the eye putting me out of commission for several crucial minutes.

The girls were horrendously disappointed by not being more visible so I decided to cheer them up by taking them to a film before we returned back to Los Angeles on the next flight. This was the opening weekend for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and, as I was attended by a horde of the appropriate demographic, off we went to drop a small fortune on admissions, popcorn and Twizzlers. This is the third film in the continuing series, based on J.K. Rowling's novel of the same name, Warner Brother's major franchise for the decade.

In this installment, we start once again with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back with his vile aunt and uncle, Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Petunia (Fiona Shaw). An even more vile relative shows up and Harry, in a fit of adolescent temper, sends her off doing an impersonation of a hot air balloon. This leads to him marching out of the house in a fit of pique and heading off to London on the magical Knight Bus, a purple contraption that defies most of the laws of physics. His transgression is soon conveniently forgiven and it's off to his third year at Hogwarts along with pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). The usual gang of students and teachers are back, with noticeable maturing of the child actors, all of whom are in early adolescence.

Things are complicated when Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the titular prisoner of Azkaban, escapes from that enchanted fortress (how is not explained) and the whole wizarding world believes that he's coming after Harry to kill him, the popular notion being that Sirius betrayed Harry's parents to the evil Voldemort years before. Helping to protect Harry are headmaster Dumbledore (a recast Michael Gambon, seamlessly replacing the late Richard Harris), the giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and the new teacher of defense against the dark arts, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Of course, things aren't what they appear and Sirius is revealed as not so evil, a real villain is unmasked hiding in plain sight, and Harry begins to recognize the strength of his powers as he learns to fight off the sinister dementors, the Azkaban prison guards, with the powerful patronus spell.

The film is absolutely stuffed with plot, and a number of key events happen twice from two different points of view and those who are not familiar with the books or with the other two films might be a bit mystified as to whom some of the characters might be. Director Alfonso Cuaron, taking a very different approach to the material from previous director Chris Columbus (who remains as producer) and screenwriter Steve Kloves, have taken Rowling's novel and simplified it down to its essence. The story moves smoothly from A to B to C and doesn't flag, but much of the richness of Rowling's world has gone missing. This is especially true in the short shrift given to the back story of the novel. Much of the theme has to do with Harry's connecting with the world of his parents whom he never knew and their friends, but those relationships are sketchy at best. Such important details as why Harry's patronus spell takes the shape of a stag are left out and Messrs. Mooney, Padfoot, Wormtail and Prongs, while repeatedly referred to, are never identified.

Cuaron has taken Columbus's sunny palette and moved it darker; the film drips with blacks and silvers and has a hard edge to its colors and textures that wasn't present in the earlier installments. He's reordered the topography of Hogwarts from its pastoral fields to rocky high tor. The whomping willow is now on a rocky promontory and Hagrid seems to have moved into a completely different part of the world than he's inhabited in the past. Cuaron is also interested in exploring some of the more grown up aspects of Harry's world and pulls much more nuanced performances from the young cast then he has in the past. Emma Watson, as Hermione, who was almost a non-entity in the previous films, in particular shines forth, becoming the protagonist for much of the crucial third act of the film. She walks the line between child and woman brilliantly - and is maturing into quite a good looking young lady. Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, is growing in intensity and handles his emotional material with aplomb. Rupert Grint keeps Ron from devolving completely into comic relief with some restraint that was missing under Columbus's direction.

Many of the adults roles have become blink or you'll miss them cameos. Maggie Smith is barely in the film. Julie Christie, as Madame Rosmerta, the pub keeper in the village of Hogsmeade, wanders through a scene or two but who she is or what bearing she might have on the student's lives is completely missing. Alan Rickman has a number of great moments as the oily Snape and Robbie Coltrane continues to charm as Hagrid, especially when dealing with Buckbeak, a mythical hippogriff who gives Harry a flying lesson and who figures prominently in the plot's dénouement. The biggest role goes to David Thewlis as Professor Lupin. He invests him with a good deal of wounded humanity and it's a joy to watch him and Harry in their scenes together. Gary Oldman shows up in the last act, but not enough time is given to his character to really develop him or his nascent relationship with Harry so something slightly pedophilic seems to surround his suggestion that he and Harry become closer to each other. The divine Emma Thompson also turns up as kooky divination teacher Sibyl Trelawney.

I was, in general, pleased with the film. It's well performed and the production values are high. It also moves the series into darker territory where it will need to remain as they film books four and five. The trend that disappoints me somewhat is the tendency to try and squeeze in all of the plot of the novel, and therefore treating things that should have a great emotional impact with a certain superficial casualness. This could conceivably hurt the film versions of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which have both complicated plot lines and deeper themes, in keeping with Harry's maturation. The makers could take a lesson from the makers of The Lord of the Rings and their ability to approach the material as film rather than filmed novel.

Floating aunt. Bus squeeze. Minister of magic in pinstripes. Dementor freeze. Painted Dawn French. Lighting strikes. Executioner. Secret tunnels. Shrieking shack. Werewolf transformation. Time travel.

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