Archive for Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Harry Potter” explores the dark side

June 2, 2004

Harry Potter's voice has changed.

That's not just because actor Daniel Radcliffe turned 14 during the
filming of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Conceptually,
the third picture in the series also has undergone a transformation
that makes the project deeper and more resonant.

The latest adaptation of J.K. Rowling's beloved novels features the
same principal cast, same screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and the same
production studio, yet it looks and feels utterly different thanks to
a new director. Gone is capable gun-for-hire Chris Columbus, with
artsy Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón taking his place.

The man responsible for the sexy coming-of-age drama "Y Tu Mamá
Tambien" delivers a darker, scarier and grittier effort. Those who
feared the franchise might grow as stale as "Batman" or "Alien" need
not worry, as Cuarón proves there is still a little magic left up
Potter's sleeve.

This is especially noteworthy considering the plot structure is
nearly identical to the first two movies/books.
1. Harry is mistreated at home by his resentful relatives, who in
turn get their comeuppance thanks to some supernatural incident.

2. Harry then takes a trip to Hogwart's using a unique form of transportation.

3. He meets the new instructors, who inevitably include the latest
Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

4. He gets sucked into a mystery that centers around him.

5. Joined by friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson),
he breaks rules but never REALLY gets in trouble.

6. He relies on a magic item that gives him powers beyond what the
other students can muster.

7. The mystery resolves in an unexpected way, with the good guy/bad
guy roles somehow reversed.

In "Prisoner of Azkaban," Gary Oldman plays the escaped wizard of the
title, who is reportedly on his way to Hogwart's to murder Harry.
Attempting to recapture the fiend are the spooky Dementors, who look
like a cross between Ring Wraiths and the Ghosts of Christmas Future.

New faculty includes the pensive Prof. Lupin (David Thewlis) - those
familiar with Latin may guess from what affliction he suffers - and
eccentric Prof. Trelawney (Emma Thompson), a New Age witch whose
divination practices include reading tea leaves.

Just follow the chart above for how all this progresses.

Credit Cuarón for being able to put his own mark on a picture so
potentially formulaic. He does this by toning things down rather than
amping them up.

The look of the film is muted and somber (it was shot by "Midnight
Express" cinematographer Michael Seresin). And it's also more
contemporary. For instance, the kids wear street clothes much of the
time rather than their stodgy choir robes.

The special effects are superior to the rest of the series because
they are so restrained. There are actually entire conversations in
which no CGI gimmickry calls attention to itself in the background.

Even the inevitable Quidditch match - which has always been the least
compelling aspect of the movies - is shot during a rainstorm. This
gives the sequence some tension that the "game" itself doesn't have.
(On a sporting note: What's the point of even trying to score if all
you have to do is catch the little flying ball in order to win?)

All this doesn't mean Cuarón's debut is free of glitches.

The episodic pacing causes the story to bog down in its second act.
While the threat of Oldman's wizard Sirius Black hangs over Harry's
psyche, there is little in the way of an immediate danger to give the
tale momentum.

Even Harry's ongoing nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) does little in
this chapter. Unlike the three main kids, Malfoy has not matured as
appealingly. (He has the disaffected look of someone who is
straddling the fence between a skate punk and a heroin addict.) He
also has only two modes in the flick: spiteful bully or scared
weasel, with seemingly no transition between the behavior.

Fortunately, all is redeemed by the movie's ending. The climactic 20
minutes of "Prisoner of Azkaban" represent a tour de force of adventure
filmmaking.

A lot of movies have explored the idea of how the past and future
might intersect and result in alternate realities - "The Terminator"
and "Back to the Future" trilogies come to mind. "Prisoner" is so
clever at manipulating this time-juggling concept that it levitates
the series to another level.

The final revelation hinges on Harry comprehending his own emotional
psyche rather than just slaying another computer-generated monster.
It's a scene of pure inspiration, and it's the first moment in the
"Potter" anthology that can genuinely be called "magical."

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