Friday, June 4, 2004

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Okay, so you know how the first two Harry Potter movies kinda sucked? Well, maybe not "sucked" outright. Maybe you even liked them. I sorta liked them. But after you see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, you'll realize... they kinda sucked.

Because Azkaban is friggin' awesome.

From the very first frame--from the creepy Warner Bros.' logo itself--to the very last, the third Harry Potter movie is steeped in an atmosphere its predecessors lacked. Director Alfonso Cuarón replaces the formerly glossy, stuffy cinematic world of Harry Potter with a sense of gritty realism. The first scene, with Harry at the Dursleys (who are now the bastards they are in the book, instead of the cartoonish buffoons that director Chris Columbus made them out to be), is shot in a claustrophobic, handheld style that immediately tells you you're in for something... well, wicked this time around. Even Hogwarts, with its moving staircases and ghosts and talking paintings, feels real. It feels like it could be a castle tucked away somewhere in Britain, in the real world. It didn't seem like a warmly lit soundstage set.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Sirius Black--a convicted murderer--has escaped from the wizard prison, Azkaban. We learn that he may have had something to do with Harry's parents' death, and that he's gonna be coming after Harry next. So the prison dispatches its guards--the extremely scary, soul-sucking Dementors--to Hogwarts to catch Black, should he turn up.

While the film is dark and moody, it still retains its fun and charm. The kids are back to school with new professors--including their new Dark Arts teacher, Prof. Lupin; their kooky divinations teacher, Prof. Trelawney; and Hagrid, who is now teaching a class about Magical Creatures (wait til you see the Hippogriff!). The new Dumbledore, now played by Michael Gambon, is a little more gruff than Richard Harris' Dumbledore, but he works and is easy to get used to. And Cuarón gets some great performances out of all the kids this time around, particularly Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson.

So, if you loved the first two, see this movie. If you hated the first two, see this movie. If you don't know Harry Potter from a hole in the ground, see this movie. It's absolutely, amazingly, stupendously wonderful.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Music Review: Abbie Gardner - My Craziest Dream

I've never been much of a jazz fan. To me, jazz has always seemed like that beautifully decorated room in your parents' house with the elegant furniture you're not allowed to sit on and the knickknacks and antiques that you're not allowed to touch: I appreciate it, but it seems so nice that I've never felt quite comfortable around it. But when my favorite folk singer decided to record a jazz album, I couldn't not buy it. Abbie Gardner's My Craziest Dream is a collection of jazz standards that even the most jazz-ignorant--like me--would recognize. It includes songs like "It's Only A Paper Moon," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To."

I love this album. The combination of Abbie Gardner's warm, accessible voice and the energetic, toe-tapping arrangements of Herb Gardner make jazz an inviting and happy place for me, instead of that distant, intimidating place that my turtleneck-wearing, wine-tasting friends visit. From the jubilant and playful "Them There Eyes" and "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" to the easy, relaxin' "Mean To Me" and "Tuxedo Junction," My Craziest Dream is a such a pleasure to listen to. The album also includes two original bonus tracks--written and sung by Herb Gardner--that fit perfectly with the rest of this collection; they sound like they could have been written in the 30's.

For jazz lovers and the jazz-uninitiated alike, I highly recommend My Craziest Dream.