Potter in the Rye

New director, newly pubescent star make Prisoner of Azkaban almost grown up

click to enlarge A NEW THRUST: Puberty raising its pointy little - sword, er ... wand, in the latest Harry Potter movie. - MURRAY CLOSE
A NEW THRUST: Puberty raising its pointy little sword, er ... wand, in the latest Harry Potter movie.

Despite all the rumors, the spectacle of puberty raising its pointy little head isn't quite the whole show in the new Harry Potter adventure, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Young Harry's hormones get a bit of a workout in this latest installment, to be sure, but the teenage angst beginning to swell in Harry's hairless chest pales before all that luxurious darkness infusing the film itself.

In a nutshell, Harry Potter hasn't quite come of age in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but it sure looks like the franchise has.

Director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) replaces the reliable but hardly inspirational Chris Columbus this time out, and the results are, for the most part, extremely positive. Good as they were, Columbus' two previous Potter films exhibited a glossy, almost antiseptic quality that's been largely replaced by a grittier, wittier, more palpably dangerous feel, both in its drama and its comedy. Columbus' smoother, Spielberg-lite approach was alright in its way, but Cuaron displays a meatier respect for the macabre that makes us feel the magic of J.K. Rowling's world like never before.

As for Harry himself, now a strapping 13-year-old in his third year at Hogwarts, the boy's increasingly complicated nature sets the stage for a slightly more grown-up sort of movie. Throughout Azkaban, Harry displays flashes of anger that frequently make it seem as if he's on the verge of losing control, shouting at adults, abusing the magical by-laws and, in the film's opening scene, running away from home. Small wonder, what with the boy attempting to deal with the death of his parents and the various slings and arrows of life as a teen wizard — not the least of which is that pesky Voldemort, who's still trying to kill him.

If there's a real flaw here, it's that the movie tends to meander a little too much, teasing us with nuggets of plot and subplot that don't gel until the last half-hour of this 135-minute film. These are problems that can be traced right back to the source material, however, and if you're in the camp that thinks of Rowling as the James Joyce of fantasy, you're unlikely to be bothered by any of this. For those of us who frequently find Rowling's books have more in common with those of Stephen King — overpadded opuses where things often happen simply to extend or complicate the story — then Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban may feel considerably less than perfect.

Still, there's much that's absolutely brilliant here. Cuaron fills the screen with fantastic sights and wonderfully morbid little details like talking shrunken heads and self-stacking chairs, and he isn't afraid to use silence to score a suspense scene or to show us a character with a neck full of raging boils and zits. It's nice to see Daniel Radcliffe and company aging naturally as Potter and his crew, but the new faces here — a veritable who's who of the creme de la creme of British thespianism that includes David Thewlis, Michael Gambon and Gary Oldman — raise Azkaban to even greater heights.

The movie ends without the obligatory Final Cataclysmic Battle between Cosmic Good and Evil, but with all this going on you hardly miss it. For that matter, we never even get to see the prison referred to in the film's title — but, as Prisoner of Azkaban and all the news about that other prison at Abu Ghraib make clear, there's still a lot to be said for the power of imagination.

Also opening locally this week is I'm Not Scared, an oddly engrossing import that, despite its relatively low budget and grounding in so-called reality, is very nearly as filled with magic as Harry's latest romp.I'm Not Scared is no wizard's holiday by a long shot and there's nary a special effect in sight, and yet the film sometimes seems to be fairly brimming with things both fantastic and frightening. This particular brand of magic is as strange as it is familiar, something more disturbing and yet considerably closer to home than all the spells and transfigurations in Prisoner of Azkaban. The enchantments in which I'm Not Scared specializes become all the more wonderful and horrible in that they belong to the real world, specifically as it is seen through the eyes of a child.

Judging by the skeleton of the plot alone, I'm Not Scared sounds a bit like a pared-down version of Stand By Me. Out in the middle of nowhere, a boy discovers a terrible thing that he first takes to be a dead body, although it turns out to be something even worse: a child chained like an animal and left, barely alive, in a dark hole.

There's an unsettling but distinctly childlike sense of wonder that permeates this story of an adolescent encounter with the Other, making it play a little like a grown-up E.T. — although in this version the alien is us, and we're not particularly benign. The boy in the hole is a grim souvenir from the grown-up world, the sort of out-of-the-blue reminder that forces children to put aside childish things and prompts filmmakers to make movies about loss of innocence, coming of age or whatever you want to call it.

Despite being set in rural Southern Italy in the late 1970s, I'm Not Scared might just as well take place now or anytime or anywhere. Squint your eyes just so and the golden fields of wheat through which the film's young protagonists run could be cornfields out in the Midwest. For that matter, the rigid hierarchies and solemn, secret games of the Italian children are dead ringers for those of kids everywhere, particularly in the curious way that they mimic the often-cruel behavior of adults. As with the games played by the Spanish kids in The Devil's Backbone or the French children in Jeux Interdits, grown-up corruption is just a shot away, no matter how playful the pastime may appear on the surface.

And just as in those other children's-films-that-are-not-really-for-children, experiencing everything from a child's perspective in I'm Not Scared means that the smallest details take on enormous psychological and emotional weight. The captive child is initially seen as a grotesque monster, a terrifying cross between a naked mole rat and the ghostly hermaphrodite from Fellini's Satyricon. The movie's principle father figure is a jut-jawed macho man with a cigarette holder protruding from his clenched teeth like a hot-to-trot erection (and drooping even more symbolically when he's been humbled). Mom is a smoldering, silent beauty seen as a blur of breasts and open legs when her young son perceives her as being threatened by another man.

The bad news is that the film solves its own mysteries a little too quickly and, by its last half hour, degenerates into a fairly conventional thriller, complete with melodramatic, crowd-pleasing finale and a cloying soundtrack. Before that happens, though, I'm Not Scared goes a long way towards convincing us that child abuse is the ideal subject for the ultimate horror flick. And, as with most truly effective horror flicks, the scariest thing of all is that there are no obvious monsters here, no gods or devils — just people who make good and bad choices, and who occasionally get trapped by their own mistakes.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected].

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