Not So Wild About This Harry

Like the pollen count, Harry Potter is back-a sure sign that summer is here and the kids are on the loose again, with time to waste and allowances to burn. In their third year at Hogwarts, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), the 13-year-old wizards who turned J. K. Rowling into the richest author in Great Britain, battle new dangers, threats, monsters and computerized special effects with more guaranteed box-office success. Some Harry Potter cottage-industry acolytes are calling The Prisoner of Azkaban , the new installment, Harry’s best adventure yet. I found it the silliest, as well as the most contrived-and confusing-of them all. In my opinion, the broomsticks are running out of fuel. Clearly, I am neither the right age nor the target audience for this magic marshmallow fluff. But if the novelty has worn off for me, a lot of this stuff is still fun for grownups as well as children. So go, take the moppets in your menagerie, and check your brains at the popcorn stand. For two hours of escapist hugga-mugga, Harry & Co. will take your mind off the calamitous real world of a truly terrifying election year that is scarier than anything on the screen in The Prisoner of Azkaban .

So here’s the skinny: After breaking the rules of the Hogwarts witchcraft academy by using magic off-campus to blow up a particularly cruel aunt like a balloon and send her floating away like the Goodyear blimp, the post-pubescent Harry shows off his newly acquired temper, escapes from another grim summer with the horrible Dursleys, and runs away from his foster home. Picked up by the purple Knight Bus, a wildly unnavigable triple-decker rescue vehicle for stranded witches, Harry finds a safe haven at the Leaky Cauldron, the secret inn where his classmates Ron and Hermione are waiting to be dispatched to Hogwarts for a new school term which promises life-altering challenges.

It seems that a dastardly mass murderer called Sirius Black, the only fiend to ever escape the medieval prison of Azkaban, is on the loose. He’s the monster who allegedly led the arch-villain Lord Voldemort to Harry’s beloved parents, and who is believed to be responsible for their deaths. Now he’s on his way to Hogwarts Castle to kill Harry, too. This forces the school to play reluctant host to hundreds of ghoulish Dementors, the faceless guards of Azkaban who are circling the school on the lookout for the escaped prisoner. The Dementors are capable of unspeakable tortures before erasing all happy memories from the brains and sucking the souls from the bodies of their victims. Shudders and chills galore await Harry, but many pleasures are in store as well: the Hogwarts glee club, singing chants under ceilings of floating candles; flying broomstick games; oil paintings that come to life and scold noisy intruders who keep them awake at night; ghosts that walk through the walls and ride through the dining hall on horseback; giant snapping spiders on roller skates; cobras that turn into jack-in-the-boxes.

There are many old (and a few new) friends and foes on hand to make sure that every day is Halloween. Julie Walters returns briefly as Mrs. Weasley, Ron’s jolly mom, and on the faculty Maggie Smith is back in her pointed Margaret Hamilton hat as Professor Minerva McGonagall, as well as Alan Rickman as sour, pinch-faced Severus Snape, and Robbie Coltrane as the gentle giant Hagrid, who has now been rewarded for his good deeds and promoted to a teaching position. Since the death of Richard Harris, the role of kindly headmaster Albus Dumbledore is being played by Michael Gambon. Harry also has two new instructors: Emma Thompson, as a loopy, myopic Divination instructor named Sybil Trelawney, who teaches them how to read tea leaves, and David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, who teaches a course in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The cameo role of a tavern keeper in the nearby town of Hogsmeade is played by an unrecognizable Julie Christie, and when the kids finally come face to face with the dreaded Sirius Black, he’s none other than Gary Oldman. All proving, of course, that in England, if you’re a star who lives long enough to be famous enough and old enough, you are inevitably doomed to end up doing walk-ons in Harry Potter movies.

Meanwhile, the visual effects treat the eye and tickle the funnybone. Harry befriends a humongous magical creature called a “Hippogriff” that is half-horse and half-eagle. Hermione develops a running-gag trick with a magic mirror that allows her to reverse time and be in two places at once, and Lupin teaches Harry an advanced spell to protect himself from the vicious assaults of his enemies by chanting the words “Expecto Patronum!” But as the plot thickens, so does the confusion. The petrifying Sirius Black turns out to be Harry’s own godfather, and nothing is as it appears to be, including Ron’s pet rat Scabbers (the rodent-faced actor Timothy Spall, it seems, was cast for a reason that has nothing to do with talent). The awful Severus Snape reveals an unexpected compassion that saves Harry’s life, while friendly Professor Lupin has a monstrous secret that almost causes Harry’s death. Sirius Black has a long-lost brother, and there is also a werewolf on the prowl who is slaughtering the villagers in the moonlight ….

But enough. Only a cad would spoil the fun by revealing more. I will simply say that despite its obvious treats, the writing has never seemed flatter or farther away from the magic world created in the literary imagination of J. K. Rowling, while Hogwarts has never looked more like a phony, overdesigned Disney theme-park attraction. Maybe this is to be expected. Steve Kloves, the writer, is from Texas, and the director, Alfonso Cuarón, is from Mexico. It’s kind of sad to see special talents like Mr. Kloves-the man who wrote such brilliant and perceptive films as Racing with the Moon and Wonder Boys , as well as writing and directing one of my all-time favorites, The Fabulous Baker Boys -and Mr. Cuaron, the director of Y Tu Mamá También , squandering their gifts for originality this way. If the loot they’re raking in will finance worthier projects in the future, then all is forgiven. But how long can they keep it up? With hairy legs and an early sign of whiskers, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is no longer an owl-faced adolescent. He’ll be shaving soon, and Emma Watson’s Hermione is developing a bust. If they don’t hurry, they’ll need a potion at Hogwarts for the control of raging hormones. Yet two more Harry Potter s are in the works. Apparently, there’s no magic more powerful than the lure of money.

Mother Love

Family dysfunction is not patented exclusively by neurotic teenagers. It can travel from generation to generation with relish. The Mother , a fascinating and restorative new British film by Roger Michell, the director of such sneak surprises as Persuasion , Notting Hill and the underrated Changing Lanes , and written by Hanif Kureishi (who also scripted the memorable My Beautiful Laundrette ), is a valiant attempt to separate nurture from nature. May (Anne Reid) goes to London to visit her son, Bobby (the excellent Steven Mackintosh, who played a transsexual in Different for Girls with a naturalness that was haunting), and his wife, Helen (Anna Wilson Jones), whose frenetic lives leave little time for their mother or each other. Meanwhile, Bobby’s confused, frustrated sister, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw) is a single mother struggling for independence, identity and self-value, who shows more need for a mom than her brother. When her husband and the children’s father dies suddenly, May cannot face going back home to her old way of life and the future years of loneliness and depression that stretch before her in front of the television set. So she stays in London, where Paula welcomes her mother’s offer to share baby-sitting responsibilities-just as long as she can treat May as a nanny, without closeness or personal attachment. But as she eases into her new life in the city, it is May who undergoes an emotional, creative and sexual awakening, finding herself attracted to Darren (Daniel Craig), the building contractor who is renovating her son’s house. Darren is not only 30 years younger than May, but he is also her daughter Paula’s lover. Problems ensue that shatter conventions and force the entire family to re-invent itself.

While the placid and prosaic Anne Reid skillfully nuances the transformation of a woman in the grip of a midlife crisis from self-sacrificing caregiver to clear-eyed romantic eager to make up for the years wasted on an unfulfilling marriage, the rest of the distinguished cast members brushstroke conflicted emotions in subtle shades of chiaroscuro. Mr. Michell’s direction reflects an intuitive sense of the absurd that complements the realism in Mr. Kureishi’s remarkable screenplay. The Mother is such a vivid and convincing picture of how the mother and her children are forced to readjust to renewed bonds of unwelcome closeness that the family’s dysfunction grows more ambiguous, and it becomes impossible to distinguish the villains from the heroes. An intriguing study of the interlocking patterns of human lives that also makes for a superb movie, mature and well-observed, that dwells in the viewer’s memory long after the final frame fades.

Rising Star

Pianist Bill Charlap’s reputation as the fastest-rising young icon on the jazz scene is more than justified on his sensational new CD Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein (Blue Note). Utterly without the pretentious genuflecting that often accompanies tributes to the composer, who shifted with equal ease between classical music and jazz, Mr. Charlap celebrates Bernstein with grace, energy, vitality, heavenly harmonic structures, and a thrilling variety of colors and tempos that are accessible to civilian listeners unfamiliar with jazz, without sacrificing any reverence to the composer of concertos, ballets and Broadway musicals. The 12 spectacular cuts range from the hip, finger-snapping coolness of West Side Story to “Lonely Town,” the moody ballad from On the Town . On “Glitter and Be Gay,” the operatic pyrotechnics of Candide -usually associated with Barbara Cook-find daring, driving new textures; and although “Ohio,” from Wonderful Town , is always a duet for two voices, Mr. Charlap’s roots (his mother is the great singer Sandy Stewart) shine through. In his chords, and in the supportive work of his swinging trio (Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums), there seem to be two voices at work, sometimes three, forming perfect upper-key counterpoint to Charlap’s deft left hand.

High points for me are the two exquisite ballads, “Lucky to Be Me” and “Some Other Time.” Forceful yet pensive, his rich craftsmanship takes you in directions you didn’t know these songs could go. Whether in a single line reading or driving in clusters of chords, he thrills and amazes, leaving you wanting to listen to each fragile interpretation all over again. The contrapuntal riff that culminates from his investigation of the challenges inherent in “America” is a rangy romp that leaves no tempo unexplored, and as far as the title tune goes, I predict that if Mr. Bernstein were alive today and still able to listen to the ossified “Somewhere” one more time, this is the version he would treasure. Like his previous collection of Hoagy Carmichael songs, this Bill Charlap CD is something to cherish. Play it in bed. Play it around the barbecue grill all summer. The result will clear your sinuses.