Published at: May 23, 2004, 9:16 p.m. CST by headgeek
Past couple of weeks of film going have been fairly lackluster. I liked TROY – but didn’t love it. Felt the changes regarding who lived and died, the fate of Paris and Helen and a score that kinda just left me a tad annoyed, took the joy out of seeing an epic film done on a grand scale… I missed the Gods, I missed the mythology of it. Having cynical characters using the myths of Gods and “signs” to motivate others may be what we think of these ideas today, but for me… when I read the classics – the Gods were alive and real. Also… there’s just something about changing multi-millennia-aged stories for Hollywood Happy Endings that just kinda pisses me off.
Then earlier this week I saw SHREK 2, which I thought was fun, but ultimately unsatisfying. Puss and the Gingerbread Man rule the earth… but Shrek and Donkey and Fiona… Well, they annoyed the hell out of me. I didn’t really care for them, and could feel myself brighten everytime Antonio’s Pussy purred a line, or feigned innocence over a …. Well you know. However, most of the film felt like a series of loosely connected skits without a story that I cared about. Maybe, it’s that instead of having Shrek and Fiona ever have a scene of them in love, sharing dreams and thoughts… and the wispy notions of love for one another… they always defuse any and all scenes with the cheap and tawdry easy joke, as a result… I never care about the greater story. It’s enjoyable. I liked the movie, but it isn’t the whole ball of wax.
Like VAN HELSING – I had a blast with the 9 year old monster wet dream of Stephen Sommers, but fully acknowledge that I wish to god he knew how to slow down, and let a scene just play. Stop playing a million things going on at once and simplify the action. Just because the Computer can make more independent elements moving in a scene… doesn’t mean you move them. Sometimes, simplicity is the most beautiful thing of all… Magic can be unleashed with the slightest little effort of the upturned palm… ahem Mr Elfman, pardon me.
That’s my way of leading into the first genuinely great Summer 2004 film.
Alfonso Cuaron’s HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN.
In a magic world of real magic, it’s the little things that could be done that terrify, dazzle and enchant. Combining the magic of the really real, the nearly real and power of pixels, Cuaron brings to life J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter in a way we have yet to see fully before.
I’ve liked the Columbus “Potter” flicks, but that muggle family that Harry lives with at the beginning in his films were always overbearing to the level of cartoonish. In Cuaron’s film, it’s the same actors… playing a scene that seems very much like the scenes we’d seen in the previous two Potter pics, but there’s something else here. There is fear. This muggle family, they’re not mean for mean’s sake, they’re terrified of Harry. He’s something they don’t understand, he can ruin their lives with a scowl, they reason that they must treat him as beneath them, because… if they dare let on with their fear… He would lord over them, rule them… it’s the fear of absolute power. And at the beginning of this film, you see that abuse of power come in play. In a way, it reminded me of that Twilight Zone episode, that Dante did for the film… the one where the boy could do whatever he imagined, and the family that he was forcing to care for him. Harry Potter isn’t a safe kid to be around, he has too much going on inside him, an awful lot of pain and he can explode… anyone he wants.
This opening creates a genuine tone shift from the absurd, to the oh so real. This is an element that is continued with regular clothing and more honest emotional moments. There’s a scene between David Thewlis’ Professor Lupin and Harry on this gabled bridge at Hogwart’s, that really touched me. It wasn’t played broadly, but sweetly. In Thewlis’ face you saw such affection for Harry’s parents, while Potter had his back to Lupin, we could see the sadness upon his… Hearing about his parents, hearing how loved they were is so wonderful, yet painful at the same time. He can only know them through the words of others… cryptic descriptions about eyes and faces… of natures and laughs. He’s truly an orphan in this world where everyone knows his story, but him. There’s such a haunt about Harry… I love it. Daniel Radcliffe is fantastic in this edition!
Then there’s Weasley and Hermione. Rupert Grint’s comic-timing and face reminds me in an odd way of a young “DEAD END” Huntz Hall… a pug-ish Skid row kid that’s always the butt of the jokes… be they by others or simply the joke of existence itself. He’s a warm heart, a great friend and he is the perfect release valve for the frightening. He defuses a scene effortlessly and that is true magic. Then there’s young Emma Watson. Every now and again you see an actress so young and gifted that she makes one take pause. As she continues to mature in this series, I think there will be not a single boy or adult male that doesn’t have a schoolboy crush on her. She’ll punch a prick in the prow, she’ll turn back the ages and work wonders for the sake of her friends. She’s thankless and gifted. She’s a miniature adolescent Grace Kelly on a series of REAR WINDOW adventures and one can’t help but envy the boy with the cast on his leg exasperated by her every entrance, statement and movement. She is a lady of the highest order. And the scene between Emma Thompson’s aloof Professor Trelawney and herself – is such a cold bitch of a scene. I feel like we missed a moment after that. I’m not sure what, but having not read the book, I just sense there was a moment between Ron and her after that scene that explains their outing together alone at the Shrieking Shack.
Next – let’s talk about magic. I love the universe of this series, and know that the glorious day that I finally crack open these tomes and discover the nuanced telling of the tale by type, that I’m in for a very wonderful treat indeed. When Harry first arrives at the Leaky Cauldron… watch the busboy cleaning a table, that’s magic, it’s the effortless style with which magic is unleashed here… a flourish of a rag, the twist of a wrist… As Lugosi might’ve said, “You must be Hungarian,” indeed. Then there’s the creeps that crawl in on Harry… the fear of Sirius Black… just a constant reinforcement of his treachery, his powers and his intent. The concern from all involved, the way he seems to just come and go… at will and unseen. Waiting for the moment to strike. When you see all the magical safeguards… the Dementors and their whole wispy willies sensation they give as the air chills and the dew cracks as new borne ice. The cold portent of something foreboding coming. It’s priceless. Really great magic. Then there’s that Hippogriff, possibly my favorite critter, oddly it isn't ILM, but rather the brilliant work of Framestore CFC. The combination of the animatronic and the pixels… it soars and glides and feels real. It has moments of stillness, of calm… it isn’t constantly hopped up on speckled eggs and doing the standard erratic C.G. freak out, look at me deal. The Hippogriff is calm and cool and everyone would want one, truly a magical creature.
Then there’s what Cuaron has done with John Williams… it seems that he’s pushed Johnny Williams into more experimental and antiquated instrumentations… It feels less LONDON PHILHARMONIC, and more chamber-music-ish, in fact much of the music feels like the light sounds creaking from the corner speakers whilst reading a volume of forgotten lore… this is of course the music to hear in a magic castle with ghosts wandering the halls in plain sight, with black hell hounds on the prowl and werewolves howling in the distance. This is the source inspiration for some great Williams’ phrasings and my favorite score of his since CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.
The work by Gary Oldman is superb, but I'll leave that for you to discover, same with that of Michael Gambon, who plays Dumbledore as less of a wiley old fool, and more of a mysterious and curious force in Harry's life, someone very sure of what is going on. His little speech about letting the children dream was priceless.
Lastly, we have Alfonso Cuaron. Throughout the film, he startled me with cinematic devices, emotional directions and stylistic flourishes. Perhaps my favorite is his CG Werewolf… the limbs elongated like some hauntingly beautiful lupine Lynne Ward-like creature had he ever carved one. It’s unlike any creature I’ve seen – yet there’s something in its eyes that I believe. It may not be particularly real, but then… it isn’t real, right?
Cuaron really has such a light touch to this story, in the end it all feels so easy, so elegant and so effortless that I was left with a goofy smile and a dream as I heard the final incantation before the light last left the projector and I was returned to my theater. He understands magic more purely than anyone I’m watching make films today. The misdirection, the naughty nature of it and finally the pure joy of magic… it’s all here, thanks to the greatest wizard to help Harry along his quest for whatever it may eventually be.