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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 6, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Azkaban, Dance, Tomorrow, and Helen

Because the first two Harry Potter movies hewed closely to the storyline of J.K. Rowling's books, and because the performers were so engaging, I was satisfied with them.

I knew that I had never much liked Chris Columbus's films, but these weren't bad. In fact, they were good. It almost made me think Columbus might not be such a wretched director after all.

Then I saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I realized that compared to what could have been done, the first two movies were hollow.

This movie actually feels magical. Director Alfonso Cuarón creates a Hogwarts Academy that feels like a truly ancient building, and he  shows us a wild, untamed north country of England that makes the magic come to life.

It's not just the photography, though. The script, while true to the story (except for the compression necessary to fit a long book into two hours of running time), adds clever details that make Hogwarts come to life. Since Steve Kloves wrote the previous two movies, I have to conclude that it was Cuarón who made the difference, though.

We get to see kids having fun with each other. They move through a school building that shows its great age. Birds fly through many a scene; there's a sense that the whole place is teeming with wildlife. Magical creatures aren't made cute; nothing is tame.

Nothing is safe. And that's exactly right: That's the world children actually live in. To children, all dangers are real, even those that adults dismiss as trivial. For the first time, a Harry Potter movie is truthfully about children, not just for children.

And something else has happened. The kids have learned how to act.

Perhaps it comes from a couple of years of hanging around with some of the finest actors in Britain.

But I suspect it's also the director's touch. Whereas Chris Columbus is noted for getting the worst performances of his actors' careers, Cuarón may soon have a reputation for getting the best.

Even the actors playing the Weasley twins, Fred and George, who were abysmal in the earlier films, are charming and believable.

When a director knows how to use them, British actors can create characters that entrance us with only a few moments of screen time. As a result, it doesn't feel like you're racing through the story (though this film covers an astonishing amount of story in a short amount of time). We hardly see Gary Oldman as Sirius Black until near the end of the film -- but in that short amount of time, Oldman makes us utterly believe an astonishing set of transitions.

Joined by David Thewlis as Professor Lupin in a gentle and loving performance, Emma Thompson in a delightful comic turn as the spaced-out Sybil Trelawney, and Alan Rickman in a more measured performance as Severus Snape, these actors show us the difference between British and American acting styles. They disappear into their role; they revel in small parts with great potential.

Even Michael Gambon, facing the thankless task of following the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, did not try to match the star-like twinkle of Harris's performance, but made it his own, so that by the end, when we do get a glimpse of wryness and irony from him, it came as a surprise instead of being so obvious you wonder why everyone else doesn't catch on.

But the glory of this movie is the performances of the children. Daniel Radcliffe has truly grown as an actor, and perhaps as a person, too, since the Harry Potter we see is capable of showing pain (though not, as yet, tears); and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger has learned to take command of a scene and make it real. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley is a delight, though his role is largely limited to doing flustered "takes." And Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy showed himself capable of playing something other than mere snideness.

Seeing this movie made me wish I could see what Cuarón and Kloves might have done with the first two books. The good news is that Kloves is signed on to write adaptations of the next two books as well.

The bad news is that Cuarón is not.

But I won't let that grieve me now. This is a wonderful movie, richly imagined and beautifully performed. The Harry Potter franchise has grown up into being good art, not just decent adaptation.

And for those troubled by the omissions, just remember that the movie doesn't erase the book. So what if there's only one quidditch match shown, or if the Firebolt broom isn't as big a deal here as in the book. You can go back and read it to your heart's content.

This is what film adaptation ought to be: faithful to the truth of the story, without being enslaved to it.

If you have small children, though, be aware that the dementors are genuinely frightening, as are a few other aspects of this movie. Don't bring nightmare-prone younger kids. As the students at Hogwarts grow up, so do the movies.


Our daughter has taken dance lessons at Greensboro Dance Theatre for a long time, and we've been delighted with the progress she's made and the pleasure she gets out of what she learns there.

Chance has taken me out of town during the annual concert for the past several years, but this year I was determined not to miss it. I'm glad I went.

Naturally, a lot of the younger dancers are performing for their loving relatives who really don't care whether the movement is precise or even particularly dancelike -- but that's to be expected of beginning students. It's still better than listening to stringed instruments or trombones when the players are young enough that they haven't actually learned to control the pitch of their instruments.

Even the very youngest dancers were given charming costumes and interesting things to do. What pleased me especially was the progression to demanding choreography with the more advanced students, until you get to students who don't seem to be students at all -- they are performers.

There were some who were outstanding, especially the seniors, who were given solos, and the recent graduates who were now teaching or co-teaching.

Unfortunately, Greensboro Dance Theatre may be too successful now to put all their students in one showcase. The program lasted nearly four hours. And folks, I wouldn't sit through four hours of the Joffrey Ballet or the Alvin Ailey Modern Dance Theater.

There's simply a limit to how long any audience can be expected to sit still -- especially when so many of the performers are young enough that you have to love them personally in order to enjoy watching them dance.

Making the duration even more painful was the excruciating loudness of the music during most of the show. Finally, near the end, they turned it down to manageable levels -- but through most of the evening, the sound level seemed to have been tested on dead people. If they got up to try to flee the theater, the music was loud enough.

I understand that they had it set so the performers could hear the music backstage. But for that, you use backstage monitors. You don't make the audience endure a blasting like that. It physically hurt. That noise level can cause real damage.

But I chalk that up to inexperience.

What I really wish is that they would separate the performance of beginners who are merely cute from the performance of the competitive dance companies and the more advanced students who have actually reached the level of art. I'd pay for the latter; and parents will gladly sit through the former for the sake of seeing their own kids perform.


What did you really think The Day After Tomorrow was going to be? It's a disaster flick, folks. All kinds of stuff goes wrong, everybody's in danger, lots of people die, but our heroes figure out clever and courageous things to do and they're able to save the people we care about most.

It's almost a rule in disaster movies that the dialogue must be humiliatingly bad, and Tomorrow accomplishes that.

Here's what's particularly good about the movie: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, and Ian Holm. These are actors whose ability to be real on screen is so powerful that it trumps the dialogue and makes us care. (Sela Ward and Emmy Rossum are also good, but the women in this film are given very, very little to work with.)

Especially notice Gyllenhaal. He's cursed by having an unspellable name and a face that looks way too much like Tobey Maguire's. Maguire is a very good actor, and he absolutely sells the Spider-Man franchise. But Jake Gyllenhaal is better, and eventually we'll all learn how to spell his name.

Here's what's unusually bad about The Day After Tomorrow: While the science is not completely stupid, the political stuff is offensively dumb.

There's the standard lie that Leftist idiots tell about our current administration -- that it's really run by the Vice-President. And the more subtle lie that this is an administration that ignores danger and refuses to take decisive action -- which is the opposite of the truth, considering that they're getting crucified for taking action too quickly and too decisively.

But that doesn't offend me -- it just proves that people in Hollywood can't see much with their heads ... er, in the dark. It will date this film and make it a laughingstock in only a couple of years.

No, the really offensive thing is that the crucial "message" moments are idiotic even in terms of the science they've taken such pains to explain to us.

When the astronauts look at the post-disaster Earth and say "the air has never been so clear," my wife and I both laughed. Visible smog has nothing to do with global warming. Carbon dioxide is invisible.

And then when the President says, at the end, that this was all caused by our wasting natural resources, all I can think is, Didn't the writer of that speech read the rest of the script? The disaster didn't happen because we ran out of stuff.

Dumb dumb dumb.

But it's a disaster movie, and they're supposed to be dumb. Compared to Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno or Armageddon or Independence Day, this movie is just fine. You'll enjoy it for the cool effects you've never seen on screen before. Just ... leave your brain at home, it'll only get in the way.


The trailers for Raising Helen made it look like it was going to be another gee-isn't-Kate-Hudson-cute movie.

She is cute.

But this movie is about two families that were orphaned at an early age, and who had the responsibility for raising them. You cry as often as you laugh.

At first it seems like the movie is being cruel and unfair to Joan Cusack's character -- the sister who's the good mom. They make her a dork and show her getting upset about trivial things.

As the story unfolds, however, we realize that she's strong in the ways that matter -- and Helen (Kate Hudson's character) isn't.

This film gets a lot of things right: The fashion biz, the way teenagers push the limits.

It made only two big mistakes. One was casting Spencer Breslin as the boy. He has an exaggeratedly cute face and he does fine with funny lines, but this script needed an actor with skills he just doesn't have. The result is that some key scenes fall flat.

The other mistake was the way the Lutheran pastor who falls in love with Helen was written. John Corbett does his best in the part, but as a general rule, there should be some hint that a pastor has some faith in God and takes his calling at least a little bit seriously. I'm not talking about constant piety -- that's the opposite cliche. But they work so hard to make him a regular guy that they forget to make him a man of faith.

What, exactly, would he do with Helen as a pastor's wife? Oh, yes, that would work.

But those are quibbles. The core of the movie is in the relationship between the two adult sisters -- Cusack and Hudson -- and Helen's relationship with her two new daughters, played by Hayden Panettiere and Abigail Breslin. Those relationships work very well indeed. As a result, so does the movie.

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