Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (11/25/12)

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In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during his third year at Hogwarts, Harry learns that a dangerous killer is on the loose and is coming for him.

After leaving Privet Drive for making his aunt inflate like a balloon and fly away, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is picked up by the Knight Bus and taken to the Leaky Cauldron. After reuniting with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and supposed Voldemort supporter, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is looking for him. While on the train to Hogwarts, the train stops and fearsome creatures known as dementors attack the train looking for Black, but greatly affect Harry as well. Harry is protected by the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Harry’s safety is a top priority as everyone is fearful that Sirius Black is on the loose but Harry eventually learns the truth.

Now free from the shackles of previous director, Chris Columbus, the Harry Potter franchise really comes to life with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón gives Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a completely new sense of style when compared to the first two films and also sets a fairly dark tone that would carry throughout the rest of the films. Another change is the actor playing Dumbledore becomes Michael Gambon, who gives the role a bit of mystery and I think is a much better fit. Visually pleasing and easily one of the most interesting plots of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series.

While I wouldn’t say there are any short Harry Potter movies, Cuarón was able to keep the runtime under 2 1/2 hours but still cram all the plot points in the film. I don’t think there is much, if anything, that is superfluous in the film. One thing that bugged me at the time of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was that the students don’t really wear robes in this film, they wear trendy clothes most of the time. A small detail but for some reason it still sticks out to me. Some may not like the departure from PG films to PG-13 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I think the decision makes sense and doesn’t feel out of place in the franchise.

Giving several different directors control over a film in a franchise is risky, both for the director and the financiers. If the director changes too much, the franchise could suffer but the director could be hobbled creatively. If too little is changed, the director will certainly be hobbled and the movie may suffer as a result. I applaud the decision to bring different directors on, and Cuarón seemed like such a crazy choice for an English film, but he really works his magic (I can’t believe that’s the first magic pun I’ve made in these Harry Potter reviews).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the watermark for the Harry Potter series for me. While other films come close, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the perfect blend of story and style. I could even see myself recommending this film for newcomers to the Harry Potter franchise.

I give it 5 Buckbeaks out of 5.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (11/23/12)

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During his second year, Harry Potter must discover what is really happening to students through a revelation from the past in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

After borrowing their father’s flying car, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his twin brothers, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps) rescue Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) from his aunt and uncle’s house. They gather their school supplies for the year with the rest of the Weasley family, including Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and Hermione (Emma Watson), but Ron and Harry miss their train to Hogwarts and decide to take the flying car out again where they wind up crashing in the nearby Forbidden Forest. After being punished for their stunt, Harry begins to hear a menacing disembodied voice seemingly coming from the walls of the school. He soon finds a message, seemingly written in blood, that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and nearby, the caretaker’s cat is hanging, petrified. Soon, students begin getting petrified and Harry needs to find out what the Chamber of Secrets really is.

While Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is miles better than the first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, director Chris Columbus seems almost too focused on pulling in every detail from the books. While it seems strange that I would consider this a negative point, the pacing of the novels lends to suspense, but doesn’t translate to movies very well. Not that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is overly long or uninteresting, but it (along with the first film) almost seem to hung up on ALL the details instead of streamlining and focusing on what’s important. While I don’t think the first film has held up very well, as evident in my review, but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the film that gets the series on the right track.

At the time of making Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it was clear that Warner Brothers had a major hit franchise on its hands and where the first film felt hobbled financially, Chamber of Secrets is a visual treat. The special effects are all quite well done and the film feels like it had a budget that was inline with what was needed to tell the story properly. For most movies, special effects should not be a priority, but in a film with magic and wizards and what-have-you, it sells the reality of the story as best it can.

While Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets is still one of my lesser enjoyed entries of the Harry Potter franchise (book and film), it is a much better film than the first outing. Not only does Chris Columbus seem confident behind the camera, but everyone in front of the camera does as well. The young actors seem comfortable in their roles here and the picture as a whole is all the better for it. It’s hard to recommend any individual film from a series like this, so start at the beginning, but stick with it through this movie to see if you like the Harry Potter films; don’t judge the series by the first film alone, give Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the shot it deserves.

I give it 4 Dobby the house elf out of 5.

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