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Gazing into the Abyss: Michael Rawdon's Journal


Escape from Chris Columbus

About an hour through watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which, I hardly need note, is based on J.K. Rowling's novel) I had this sudden thought: "Can this director go back and re-make the first two films? Please?"

Alfonso Cuarón completely overshadows Chris Columbus (director of the first two films, ...Sorcerer's Stone and ...Chamber of Secrets). While it helps that Azkaban is the best-written book of the five in the series published to date, Cuarón has an eye for visuals and interpretation which Columbus' unimaginative adaptations entirely lacked.

First of all, Azkaban clocks in at about half an hour shorter than the first two films - about 2 hours and 30 minutes. The story felt streamlined and, well, adapted, turned into a film rather than a simple projection of the novel. While the plot of the novel was complex and loses something in translation, I don't think it really loses anything important. The ritual of Harry's escape from his Uncle and Aunt's home was mercifully short, but handled with the appropriate portentousness as the remainder of the film is quite dark - both literally and figuratively.

The most effective transformation is of the school of Hogwarts, which feels like more than a generic (if large) castle in a generic location: Instead, the castle is set against a beautiful backdrop of the English countryside, with stunning green hills, a dank forest, and changing weather. The courtyard looks interesting, Hagrid's house is now across a bridge, down a hill, and on the edge of the forest. Even the Whomping Willow had some unexpectedly funny moments (it's used as a marker for the turning of the seasons). Even if the film slowed down for a moment (and it rarely did), it was pretty to look at. (To be fair, this discontinuity with the earlier films didn't sit well with Debbi. By contrast I was happy with anything which improved on the earlier films.)

The acting felt stronger than in the first two films. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) and Emma Watson (Hermione) both distinguished themselves and felt like more than young actors being directed around a set. (I admit I'm less impressed with Rupert Grint's turn as Ron.) But the real acting award goes to David Thewlis and Professor Lupin, who brings a real feeling of class and emotional depth to the film. His scenes with Radcliffe and with Gary Oldman (as Sirius Black) are the best of the film. Returning key actors Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) also do well, in lesser screen time. Alas, Emma Thompson's turn as Professor Trelawney was dreadfully disappointing; the fact that she looks like an aging hippie rather than an exotic elf is rather sad. They shoulda got Cate Blanchett to play her like she played Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, thus making Trelawney's ineffectiveness more incongruous.

The film's special effects are thrilling without feeling ostentatious. Of special note is Harry's ride on Buckbeak the Hippogriff, about as exciting a moment as the whole movie series has seen. The Dementors also impress - and they have to, given their crucial role in the plot.

While no one will mistake Azkaban for classic cinema, the story feels more mature than its predecessors, with the booger jokes and annoyances like Dobby the house-elf happily absent. Harry is moody without being glum (a cue the future books would do well to pick up on), Hermione is smart without being a pest, and the crucial sequence to tie everything up at the end comes off without a hitch.

Overall, Azkaban captures the magic of the Harry Potter books and jettisons most of the unfortunate baggage, resulting in a tight and fun film. The adaptations of the fourth and fifth books will require every ounce of creativity and integrity a director can muster to keep them from being bloated incomprehensibilities, and it's too bad Cuarón won't be doing the next film. Still, producing one small gem among this flawed film franchise is high praise indeed.


I've been AWOL for another week in this journal. I know, I know. As always, I've been busy.

Well, this weekend I was practically sick. With what, I don't know. Yesterday around 5 pm I got downright exhausted and just about fell asleep on the couch. We took the rest of the evening off, other than a short trip to Target. Fortunately I was not under the weather earlier in the day for the film, which we saw with Subrata for his fiancee Susan's birthday, and the subsequent late-afternoon dinner. Also fortunately, I felt much better this morning, after a deep night's sleep.

I finally got my car's mirror replaced on Tuesday. It ran about $300 all told. Argh. The only redeeming feature was the amusing sales advisor I had: He came over to my car and asked what I was there for. I pointed to the mirror and he said, "Aw, what did you go and do that for?" After I explained that it was from backing into my garage he said, "Have you strapped the garage down so it can't jump out at your car again?" And when he called to let me know it was ready, he said, "Michael, you can see in three directions again!" Funny guy!

My eBay auctions came off pretty well. A few sets sold for about what I expected, one sold for somewhat less, and one sold for quite a bit more. All told I'm pretty happy with the outcome, and have ordered some new CDs from The Laser's Edge to celebrate. Or something.

I also finished the revision pass on my novelette, and will probably print out copies to hand to a few people for review. I'm pretty happy with it, but will try to be stoic when I receive the inevitable criticism. Now I need to start making progress on my next story, which is started, and I'd like to finish the first draft by the end of the month.

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