A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 513 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – July 26th, 2011

Now, here we have the first true adaptation of the Potter books. I’ve been looking forward to this one for several reasons, not the least of which is because it’s the first movie to take the books and look beyond the literal descriptions from the pages and create its own world based on the world of the books. But I do have some problems with it too. In short, it makes a much better movie to review than the first two. And thank goodness. A full week of reviewing the books as moving illustrations would get frustrating. This is a movie review blog, not a book review blog. And much as I like reading, I don’t enjoy writing book reviews for movies. It seems silly, really.

The third movie had a change in directors, from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron. And I honestly think this was a good thing overall. For one, while Columbus made very pretty movies that were very much the books made real, he never departed far from them. Cuaron did some editing and some worldbuilding of his own. I like that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Movies and books aren’t the same medium and what works in one medium isn’t necessarily the best way to go for another medium. In the case of the Potter stories, there is an epic amount of worldbuilding done in the prose of the books. And that simply makes for an overstuffed movie. There has to be a way to pare it down and still have the story work. And for the most part, I think that was done here. And I’m so glad it was done in time for this story.

A few months ago the assistant director where I work came to me and asked me for a recommendation. There’s a book club meeting where I work, intended for adults but reading all children’s books. Most of what they’d chosen were so-called classics. Older stuff that might well be excellent, but is hardly what kids today are reading and aren’t really indicative of what children’s literature is today. So she wanted to pick a Harry Potter book and wanted my opinion on which one would be best. I told her, without hesitation, Book 3. The first one is likely to have already been read by many adults. The second is fluff. And starting with the fourth they’re huge tomes that start to get incredibly dark and interdependent. Apparently she asked several other people the same question and got the same answer and reasoning from them all. Book 3 is where things start to get dark and there’s lots to discuss. As such, it’s my favorite of the books and so far it’s my favorite of the movies.

The story isn’t really the same sort of “Voldemort tries to return” plot as the first two and the fourth. It’s more setting the stage for later events, but it’s a good story on its own as well. It follows Harry’s third year at school as he learns that a notorious killer, Sirius Black, has escaped from prison and is likely on his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry. He meets the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor (the position being somewhat like the drummer for Spinal Tap), Remus Lupin and learns a new spell from him, the Patronus charm, which will protect him against the Dementors – the wizarding prison’s sinister and spectral guards. He obtains a magical map that shows every nook and cranny at Hogwarts, passwords to secret passages, and the positions of everyone in the building. The Marauder’s Map is one of my favorite magical items in the stories and the movie version of it is wonderfully done. Andy and I purchased a version of it when we went to see the movie exhibit in Boston a few years ago. And by the end of all of this we have time travel, secret identities and Harry learns that he has a godfather who does not, in fact, wish him harm.

Back when these movies were still being made I remember wondering who they would get for the character of Sirius Black. He’s supposed to be somewhat disheveled and desperate and I always pictured him with Rufus Sewell’s face. I was a little doubtful when I heard that Gary Oldman had been cast, but from the first view of him in his wanted poster, laughing/screaming hysterically, I knew it was right. Sirius is one of my favorite characters, so I really wanted to see him done right and Oldman certainly does a good job here. I’m not quite as taken with David Thewlis as Remus Lupin (easily even with Sirius when it comes to my favorites) but it’s mostly his mustache that throws me off. Thewlis’ performance is spot on. I just want him to shave.

Really, though, the performances are all well done here. I continue to be impressed by the casting for these movies. The performances are wonderful, including Emma Thompson as the ditzy Divinations professor, Trelawney. And they are essential for the movie to work. What’s also essential is that the world feel truly realized. And this is where I feel this movie breaks away from the first two. The sets for Hogwarts here feel expanded and gorgeous. Sure, there’s no mention of a giant clock or a covered footbridge in the books, but personally, I feel that the additions here work spectacularly. They’re beautiful set pieces and they feel like organic parts of the school. I especially like the clock. Sure, it’s a bit on the obvious side, but aside from it being in a variety of scenes, it’s never pointed out explicitly by any character. And time plays such a huge part in the climax of this movie that it all works out well for me. There’s nothing cheesy like obvious shots of the clock face showing us when certain events are happening. It’s just an omnipresent thing in the background, always there, looming. I don’t ask for subtlety in these movies, so that works for me.

What doesn’t work as much for me are some omissions that I’m not sure of the reason for. Now, this might seem minor to some, but it frustrates me that there’s no outright mention of who Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are. Yes, there are implications, with the moon for Lupin, and I think they actually do refer to Peter Pettigrew as Wormtail, and you see the stag and Harry thinks it’s his father. But I recall it being a key point in the book that the Marauder’s Map was made by Lupin, Black, Potter and Pettigrew. That this is when you realized that the four of them were friends and connected and animagi. There’s a moment when Snap catches Harry with the map and Lupin interrupts them, asking if Snape really thinks one of the men who made the map gave it to Harry. And that’s not really here. The moment is, but not the meaning. And I always liked the meaning and it’s just frustrating to lose it. It wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of exposition, especially since Harry does have a little heart-to-heart with Lupin after the climax. There are a few little omissions like that, where it’s not necessarily a horrible loss, but it makes things not quite as deep in a story where I prize the depth.

Fortunately the rest of the movie is just so well put together that I don’t really mind overmuch that it’s missing some bits and pieces. It has a great tone to it and the mood feels right. It just comes together so well for me and I love seeing everything come together when the time travel enters into it. It’s a major plot point for the movie and it could have been so messy but it’s not. My one complaint about it is that they introduce what Andy termed Chekhov’s Candy and then never fire it later on. A pity, really, when everything else fits together so perfectly and feels so well planned. It was fun watching this again and it reminded me just how much I love these stories and this world.


July 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

July 26, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I haven’t watched all the Potter films yet. As of the writing of this review I’ve only seen the first five. This is by far my favorite of the ones I’ve seen though, and it has always been my favorite of the books. Alfonso Cuaron does something wonderful with this movie – he takes a Harry Potter book and rather than trying to simply capture all the most memorable moments on film he adapts it into something more cinematic, more cohesive, and altogether more watchable.

Plotwise this is where the Harry Potter series starts to morph from being a series of children’s books to something cooler and darker. The series grew up with its audience, really, and I appreciate that. In his third year at Hogwarts Harry is in almost constant peril. Right at the start of the movie, when he runs away from the unbearable Dursleys, he is menaced by a mysterious black dog that seems to be hunting him. He is rescued by the arrival of the night bus and whisked off to the Leaky Cauldron where he is warned by Ron’s father Arthur that a madman has escaped from the infamous wizarding prison of Azkaban – the first person ever to escape from there – and is bent on hunting down Harry Potter.

Things get even worse when the supernatural guards of Azkaban, the terrifying dementors, show up on the Hogwarts Express and start haunting the school, supposedly in their determination to re-capture the nefarious Sirius Black. Luckily, Harry has a new ally in the school this year – the mysterious and tortured Professor Lupin. Lupin takes it upon himself to try and teach harry how to defend himself from the dementors. At the same time there’s the seemingly empty-headed Professor Trelawney teaching divination who generally spouts complete nonsense, but sometimes seems to offer up real prognostications which do not bode well for Harry.

Part of the Harry Potter paradigm is that there are mysteries in the books, with clues throughout that hint at what’s really going on, but this book and this movie doe the best job with this. There are so many different mysteries going on simultaneously here and they all blend together so effortlessly. Why is the thing Lupin fears most in the world a full moon? Why is Serious Black so bent on breaking into Hogwarts in spite of the dementors and all the security of the castle? Just how many courses is Hermione taking? Who is Peter Pettigrew, and why, if he was killed trying to protect Harry’s parents, does Harry’s map show him as alive and in the corridors of Hogwarts?

The answers are all tied into the past, into a quartet of best friends at Hogwarts back when Harry’s father was there. Really this is some of the best world building in the series for me because everything in the later books is rooted in the events at Hogwarts when Harry’s parents were there.

It’s odd: I find it difficult to separate this movie from the book. I know that Amanda finds it frustrating that some things from the book that are integral to the plot are glossed over in the movie. As an example – she is irritated that although Messrs Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are mentioned in the movie it is never explicitly stated just who they are. For me, though, this movie is more a companion piece to the movie. That’s part of why it works so well, really. It is an interpretation of the book and not just a straight rote recital.

Which brings me to what Cuaron has done to make this work so well as a movie. He’s given it a wonderfully cinematic feel. He uses visual imagery to help tell the story in ways that Chris Columbus never did. For example there’s the enormous clock tower prominently featured which highlights the importance of time in the story. This is also re-inforced by the quirky and fun transitions through the seasons which are introduced through sort of vignettes with the whomping willow (which also act to keep that dangerous tree front of mind since it comes into play as we approach the finale of the movie.)

And oh, the climax of this movie! All the secrets are revealed and the truth comes out, and then there’s an extra twenty minutes of adventure as everything gets sorted out by Harry and Hermione. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much I love a well written and self contained time loop – and this fits perfectly into that. It’s just so much fun to watch it play out no matter how many times I see it.

As usual for the Potter franchise we get fantastic new actors bringing the characters from the books to life. Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is perfect of course, and I enjoy David Thewlis as Lupin, but for me there’s one thing that sticks out above all others: Crazy Gary Oldman! My God is he the most perfect casting ever. I only wish that he had a bigger part in the rest of the series because he’s just so much fun to watch.

This whole movie is just fun to watch. I think that’s what makes it so great. The earlier movies are pretty and introduce the world. The later movies are dark and powerful. This is the middle movie that is just pure cool. I’d watch it again any time.

July 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment