Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

  • Title:  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Director:  Alfonso Cuaron
  • Date:  2004
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Fantasy, Children
  • Cast:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Julie Christie, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Dawn French, Robert Hardy, Julie Walters
  • Format:  Widescreen, Color
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of  times.” — Professor Dumbledore

Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book, and so far it still remains my favorite Harry Potter movie. The book opens up the Wizarding World even more by introducing the Wizard town of Hogsmeade just outside of  Hogwarts. The movie doesn’t spend as much time in Hogsmeade, I would have liked to see more, but it’s still an important part of the plot. The danger and sense of  evil is also much stronger in this film.

The director has changed, but the film is still beautifully shot, just gorgeous, especially the way quick-acting frost is used to visually signify the appearance of a Dementor.  This film also introduces a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (later revealed to be a werewolf), whom I really, really liked.  And we find out about Harry’s Godfather, Sirius Black, who’s accused of betraying Lily and James Potter to Voldemort and causing their deaths.

However (spoiler alert!), the core of the film is the discovery that Sirius wasn’t guilty of killing Peter Pettigrew, and it was Pettigrew who actually betrayed the Potters to Voldemort.  Still, Sirius has spent all that time in Azkaban, the Wizard prison, and only escapes at the beginning of this film.  Even at the end, he’s on the run for his life, because no one will believe Harry, Ron, and Hermione that he’s innocent.

Also, this film is the only one with time travel.  Hermione over-loads herself with a triple load of classes, and uses a time turner to attend classes held at the same time.  She and Harry are able to use the time turner to save Buckbeak, the Hippogriff, and Sirius.  Harry also conjures a Patronus for the first time, saving himself and Sirius from the Dementors.  (It’s cool – we see the scene from Harry I and Harry II’s perspective).

This film is also the last time the look and feel of the Harry Potter films is still innocent and young.  After this, the films get progressively darker (as do the novels they are based on).  Highly, highly recommended for children eight and up.  Later films are better for the over-thirteen crowd.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of  Fire

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

  • Title:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Director:  Chris Columbus
  • Date:  2002
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Fantasy, Children
  • Cast:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Harris, Robert Hardy, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I fashioned a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would fear to speak when I became the greatest sorcerer in the world.”  — Tom Riddle
“Albus Dumbledore is the greatest sorcerer in the world.”  — Harry Potter
“Albus Dumbledore’s been driven out of this castle by the mere memory of me.”  — Tom Riddle
“He’ll never be gone, not so long as those that remain are loyal to him.”  — Harry Potter

“It is not our abilities that show us what we truly are – it is our choices.”  — Professor Dumbledore

Chamber of Secrets” previously was my least favorite of the first four Harry Potter films, but upon re-watching it today, I actually enjoyed it very much.  Like, “Sorcerer’s Stone”, also directed by Chris Columbus, this film has a sense of whimsy, and is beautifully shot.  The film begins with Harry looking at the photo album containing pictures of his parents, given to him at the end of the previous film.  However, it also opens up the world that Harry is learning about, the “Wizarding World”, by bringing us to Ron’s home and to the frightening Knockturn Alley  (I love the wordplay in that almost as much as “Diagon Alley”).  However, besides a good mystery (e.g. What is the Chamber of Secrets?  Where is it?  What’s hiddened there and who opened it?) that is better than the one in the first film – there’s more of a sense of danger.  Students are being attacked, including Hermione.  Ron’s own sister is kidnapped – though the book goes into greater detail of how Riddle uses his diary to en-trance Ginny into doing his bidding.

Still, another successful, enjoyable, and fun movie appropriate for all ages.  The young actors playing the students are all quite brilliant; and the established British actors playing the teachers bring gravitas to the film.  Kenneth Branagh appears in this one as Gildroy (as in gilded) Lockheart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — and a man who’s all talk and bluster with no skill at all.  I highly recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it
Rating:  5
Next Film:  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

  • Title:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Director:  Chris Columbus
  • Date:  2001
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Fantasy, Children
  • Cast:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Julie Walters, Zoë Wanamaker
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“This boy will be famous.  There won’t be a child in our world who doesn’t know his name.” — Professor McConagall

“You’re the boy who lived.”  — Hagrid

“I can teach you how to bewitch the mind, and ensnare the senses.  I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.”  — Professor Snape

Harry Potter is beautifully shot, with an excellent young and at the time of this film, largely unknown cast  — for the children.  But the film is also rounded out by a who’s who of talented British actors.  However, this first film also has a sense of whimsy that the later, darker films lack.  Not every detail or scene from JK Rowling’s novel is in the film, but the film still is a wonderful adaptation of the story.  And it’s just beautifully, beautifully shot.  Hogwart’s Express is wonderful, and looks just as it should.  The boat ride across the lake is beautiful.  And there’s a lovely scene of Harry walking by himself in the courtyard to fly Hedwig, his owl, in winter, surrounded by snow that, again, is just lovely.

The Sorceror’s Stone introduces the world of Harry Potter – Harry, his friends, the rules of magic, and the teachers at Hogwarts.  In this fantasy series, one must have a talent for magic – that is, witches and wizards are born, not made (and parents can be witches and wizards or non-witches, called muggles). But, just being born with the talent for witchcraft doesn’t mean young witches and wizards know what they are doing — thus they must be taught how to use their gifts wisely.  It also involves the noted alchemist, Nicholas Flamel, who developed the Sorceror’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the original British novel, though it was changed for the US novel as well) which grants immortality.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione, discover how to be students at Hogwarts, have various adventures (a fight against a troll, exploring the Dark Forest, and a series of tests when they confront Lord Voldemort).  Most of the vignettes from the novel are in film, though some are shorter.

One thing I loved about the Harry Potter novels, especially the early ones, is they show Harry enjoying and being excited by school — and not simply because he’s suddenly discovered he’s a wizard.  For the first time in his life, this young orphan is happy and has real friends – something sorely missing from his life when he lives with his aunt, uncle, and spoiled, bullying cousin.  But Hermione, a natural student, also loves school.  The novels, actually, get more into her characterization — showing how her fears of being behind because she’s muggle-born cause her to almost over-compensate.  And Ron, from a large, loving, yet poor wizarding family, has his own issues.  All will be explored more in depth in later books/films in the series.  The school itself is drawn from the traditional English boarding school. However, to me, especially reading the books, it reminded me of college.  I had to keep reminding myself  just how young Harry is meant to be (He’s only 11 here).

Recommendation:  See it!  Especially good for children eight and up
Rating: 5
Next Film:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Billy Elliot

  • Title: Billy Elliot
  • Director: Stephen Daldry
  • Date: 2000
  • Studio: Universal (Working Title Films, BBC Films, et al)
  • Grant Funding: Arts Council of England
  • Genre: Drama
  • Cast: Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jamie Bell (as Billy)
  • Format: Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R2, PAL (Anamorphic Widescreen)

“[Ballet is normal] For girls. Not for lads, Billy. Lads do football, … or boxing, … or wrestling. … Not frigging ballet.” — Jackie Elliot, Billy’s father.

I received Billy Elliot as a gift and knew nothing about it the first time I watched it. But it is, nevertheless an excellent drama, set for the most part in a small British mining town in Northern England (County Durham), in the late 1970s or possibly the early 80s during a major Mine Union strike. Billy is 11, and his life has already been torn apart by the death of his mother. Now, he, his gran, and his father and older brother are merely existing in a flat that’s really only one or two rooms. Both his father and brother are miners, and, because of the strike, there’s very nearly no money for the family.

Billy’s only solace is music, but since the death of his wife, Billy’s father forbids anyone to play her piano or to listen to the record player. For recreation, Jackie sends his son to boxing lessons at the local community hall. Since the lower level’s been turned into a soup kitchen to feed the striking miners, Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class is also moved upstairs to share space with the boxing coaching. Billy, horrible at boxing, watches the girls with envy, and one day goes and tries it out. Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees special raw talent in Billy and teaches him, as well as being tough on him.

Meanwhile, things for the miners are getting worse and worse as the police are called in the escort scabs into the mine to work. Billy’s brother, Tony, is the union leader, and thus, is wanted by the police. His father is doing his best to make ends meet, but he’s a mess since the loss of his wife. Billy’s best friend, Michael, is gayer than a Christmas tree, much to the surprise of the totally straight Billy — who’s also interested in his dance instructor’s daughter, Debbie.

Finally, Jackie Elliot discovers his son is not going to boxing lessons like he thought but to ballet. Fearing his son is a “pouf” (e.i. gay), and not understanding why he would want to dance, he forbids his son from going to the dance school. Billy, however, continues to take secret private lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson. She, then, arranges for Billy to go to an audition for the Royal Ballet School in London that’s being held in Newcastle. Billy has every intention of going, but his brother is chased down, beaten, and arrested by the police and he spends the day at the court house instead.

Mrs. Wilkinson goes to the Elliots’s house to confront Jackie — things do not go well, and Jackie forbids his son from dancing, seeing Debbie, or having anything to do with Mrs. Wilkinson. And the situation deteriorates. Billy continues to dance in the streets, or anywhere he can’t be seen. Finally, at Christmas, Jackie takes the family piano, a piano obviously loved by Mrs. Elliot, we can safely assume, and chops it up with an ax to use as firewood. As the piano burns, he wishes everyone a happy Christmas – which his sons and Nana return, then Jackie begins to cry.

Later, Billy now with only Michael as a friend, ends up at the dance hall. The two are playing around, Michael, in a tutu Billy has given him (we’ve seen Michael dressing up in dresses and make-up earlier in the film). Billy shows Michael basic positions in ballet and then begins to dance. The boxing instructor sees this, gets Jackie and brings him to see. But when his father walks in, Billy dances — first Irish Step, then American Tap, and then Ballet. Jackie is astounded and realizes his son has real talent. He’s also seeing just how hopeless the situation is in their town — that working in the mines is no place for his son. He goes to Mrs. Wilkinson to find out about getting Billy into the Royal Ballet School and finds out it will take about two thousand Pounds.

Not having the money, knowing no one in town who works (or did work) has the money, the next day he goes to the place where the scab workers are picked up. Even though he’s a hard and tough man, the play of emotions on his face as the bus approaches the mine show just how awful he feels — he’s caught between his principles, his eldest son (who’s led the miners out on strike), and his youngest son, and he has no place to turn. Tony, though, sees him on the bus and climbs the fence to get in.  He confronts his father, and Jackie breaks down, saying he’s doing it for Billy. Tony swears they will get the money another way and helps his father away from the mine.

Jackie pawns his wife’s jewelry, and he and Billy go to the audition at the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy and Jackie both feel completely out of place, with their harsh Northern accents and working-class values. At first, Billy is terrified by the audition, he answers questions in mono-syllables, and is nervous and frightened when asked to dance. When he finally does his own dance to music, he does quite well, but he’s afraid that he didn’t do the right thing, that it wasn’t a classical performance. In the locker room later, another boy tries to comfort him (unfortunately reminding him of  Michael’s advances — whereas he accepted it from his friend, from a stranger – he freaks). Billy freaks out and hits the boy. This does not go over well.

The panel of judges bring Billy and his father in — and both can’t answer any questions, they are both petrified. Until one woman asks Billy what it feels like when he’s dancing — and his eloquent answer floors the room. Later, he gets a letter…  he’s in. But, on the same day, the miner strike ends, and the union’s caved. Jackie and Tony go back to work, but Billy will have a chance at a better life. Years later, Jackie and Tony return to London to see Billy’s first performance in Swan Lake. At the theatre they run into Michael – who’s all dolled up.

Billy Elliot is a quiet movie, that often moves one to tears. The performances are excellent, especially young Billy and young Michael, both of whom are struggling with questions of identity in a town where entire families have done the exact same thing for generations. Jackie’s biggest fear about his son doing ballet isn’t, specifically, that there’s anything wrong with ballet — it’s that his son is gay or will be thought of as gay. One doesn’t want to think about what Michael’s going through (and the film doesn’t show it — a missed opportunity, there). The backdrop of the mining strike adds to the feeling of desperation that surrounds everyone in the movie — even Mrs. Wilkinson, who’s long since lost her interest in teaching ballet until she spots Billy. Definitely, a film that awakens empathy to its characters.

By the way – lots of harsh language in this one, typical of British or Irish films depicting the lower classes. After a while, you become immune to it.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 3.5
Next Film: Blazing Saddles