Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

I’d been told in advance that the third film is where the series gets good, and indeed the attachment of director Alfonso Cuarón should surely have been a good hint of this — even if I still at heart feel that this year’s Gravity was overpraised, it’s undoubtedly a visual tour de force, though even of his contemporary work, I recall enjoying his Great Expectations (1998) a great deal upon its cinematic release, primarily for its stylish visuals (if not its Gwyneth Paltrow turn). Something of the same trick has been conjured up here. In just about every respect, this is a far stronger film than the previous two, and it’s the first I can even imagine wanting to revisit.

I don’t want to get carried away with praise for Cuarón’s visual sense, as some of the credit must go to the trio of actors at the film’s heart. More time has passed between this film and the previous one, as between that and the first, and the three actors are both visibly more mature and just better at acting. There’s less childish screechiness and more nuance, and finally Emma Watson’s swotty know-it-all persona seems grounded in a genuine sense of self-confidence and learning, and she is thus rewarded with a more significant role than she had in the previous film. Nuance is something that can also be observed in the guest roles, and in fact Gary Oldman’s escaped criminal Sirius Black (the Azkaban prisoner of the title) and David Thewlis’s teacher Remus Lupin both effectively play on an expectation of one-dimensionality that comes from earlier guest acting turns (from say Branagh and Isaacs, both of whom were enjoyable but hardly suggested any depth of character), and lead to genuinely memorable surprise twists to their characters.

The script too seems tighter and more controlled, relying less on its characters rehashing events in exaggerated exclamations (except perhaps in one late scene when Harry exclaims “You were right Hermione!” and then describes exactly what we’ve just seen, though perhaps that was a self-aware joke at this very propensity in the first two films). Important plot devices are effectively foreshadowed without too much clunky exposition, and the physics of the film seems more believable (albeit yes, it’s still predicated on magic, after all). That said, there’s still plenty of plot — almost too much at times — which leads to occasional stretches where it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on, such as when one of those aforementioned character twists takes place and suddenly you’re wondering who this Peter chap is after all. Undoubtedly a lot of this must make far more sense to readers of the books.

But as I suggested earlier, ultimately it’s the film’s visual sense which has most improved, and for this it must surely be the director who can take the credit. The first two films made far too much use of very ostentatious crane shots, all swooping and gliding in dramatic show-offy ways, and although the camera here is hardly at any point still, it nevertheless feels more organic to the action. There are some really very well-handled transitions, such as one glorious shot following Harry’s pet owl that takes us swiftly from summer into winter, though that’s just one example. Elsewhere the set design has an inventiveness that recalls similarly fantastic films by Cuarón’s Mexican compatriot Guillermo del Toro, like the Monstrous Book of Monsters, itself a monster, or the wraith-like demons who stalk the castle grounds (these Dementors also allow for some tentative social critique, providing a strange little hint into the existence of an autocratic police state, as despite their professed task of hunting down the criminal Sirius, the students are warned that the Dementors can still pose a danger even to those who are not lawbreakers). Finally, there’s even some genuine levity amongst the darkly-tinged drama, such as the jaunty Knight Bus ride, the broad comedy of Emma Thompson’s Divination teacher, or the sight of Alan Rickman dressed as a fashionable old lady.

This, then, is a film that brings the Potter world alive in a way that finally makes some cinematic sense. The series is opened out with a sense of wonder that hints at a darker, more adult world to come, appropriate to its ageing (though still adolescent) stars. It’s also the first of the films to make me genuinely want to know more of the story and the characters, and that’s not something I’d have considered saying ten years ago.

Next: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Michael Seresin; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 December 2013.

Gravity (2013)

I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).

Of course, there’s already a backlash but that’s to be expected. A lot of the criticism seems to focus on the science, and not being a scientist I cannot contribute to such arguments, save that if you’re obsessing about these things and then writing off the film as a result, you probably don’t understand much about art. The film certainly works as an immersive experience. It’s the first film I’ve seen in the IMAX format, and it impressed me. Even the 3D impressed me, and that’s a gimmick I tend not to have much time for. I suspect it may have been the fact that Gravity builds far more deliberately and quietly than most 3D films, with slower, more fluid camera movements reducing the ocular strain that usually accompanies the format (given that big budget movies tend more towards speedy, fast-cutting action). As a film, it has more confidence in its script and its images to create tension than in artificially engineering such feelings through throwing things at you, and I welcome that.

More persuasive are criticisms regarding the screenplay and characterisations. Not so much about the way it builds from a quiet opening through to the first act disaster that threatens the crew of a space mission working on the Hubble telescope — that much is done superbly well — as the actual dialogue which at times shades towards the mawkish. Then again, by the time we get to the worst of it (when Ryan encounters Matt in the space station’s landing craft), it feels like this has been somewhat earned by the film: Bullock’s character has, to say the least, had to deal with a lot of stress by this point. It also points to the way the film is a generation away from those films of the 1950s and 60s that expressed a wonder at the vastness of creation; the key take-home feeling of this film, via Bullock’s character, is relief at being spared the terror of this final frontier.

Then there are the characters. Clooney’s in particular seems a bit thin — he’s basically playing his usual ‘type’, bantering on with an easy charm and totally unflappable — though in a sense his calmness is like a decoy to the terror that hangs over the mission from the outset (there are more astronauts initially involved than just Ryan and Matt, but they don’t get any screen time). After all, from the pre-credits title informing us that nothing can live in space, to the precarious work they’re doing and the news of approaching debris from a satellite accident, the film frontloads the suspense. Added to this is the sound of Ed Harris’s recognisable voice from mission control, which for the movie-savvy amongst us is rarely a portent of good news.

The next paragraph may be classified as containing spoilers, although I’ve tried to be as oblique as possible. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re concerned.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr Ryan Stone, is possibly more problematic, as she’s loaded down with a sentimental backstory of the type that doesn’t trouble Matt’s experienced (male) astronaut. She too is basically a ‘type’, a mother-figure (after a fashion), tethered to the Earth by her experiences and her innate nature. If there’s some mythological heft to it, then it’s a mythology that trades on age-old tropes of woman-as-life-giver-and-nurturer. That said, the film problematises these links a little bit. If there’s a feeling at times that being in space is like being a defenceless baby in a womb (and maybe part of that is just my own flashbacks to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another formative space-set event film), space is instead clearly presented here as deadly and hostile, and Ryan is frequently untethered and terrifyingly afloat. And in recounting her backstory, her own status as mother has, it turns out, been undercut by gravity, the very force which is denying her safety in space. Her survival then is never assured, and the ambiguity even extends to the film’s final sequence, which seems to rehearse the ‘ascent of man’ and suggests a rebirth, or perhaps a new set of challenges to her survival.

Whatever the deeper meaning that one takes from it, the film is nevertheless assured at the visual level. The special effects and the cinematography is transporting and rather demands the immersion of the cinema; whether it will work in quite the same way at home on smaller screens remains to be seen. In that sense, this is a return to proper ‘event cinema’ status. It may eschew a lot of the extraneous noise of your standard big-budget big-screen spectacular, but it still trades on many of these ideas, aided by canny marketing and hype. However, it boasts an excellent performance by Bullock (far stronger than her recent work in The Heat to my mind), a clipped running time (all blockbuster films should be this concise) and those incredible space-set special effects sequences. The possibility of space travel may seem further than ever from our current generation, but if this film has any effect then it’s to make us rather more comfortable with that reality; the only terrors that await us are in the darkened auditorium of a cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s depressing, or a great thing. But for 90 minutes it tends a bit more towards the latter.

Gravity film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield [IMAX 3D], London, Monday 18 November 2013.