Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of AzkabanHARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Anyone interested in the distinction between routine direction and inspired direction - anyone who has ever wondered what, exactly, it is that a director brings to a movie - should compare Chris Columbus' first two Harry Potter films with Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuaron; Columbus' films are the work of a by-the-numbers craftsman, and Cuaron's is the work of an artist. (Which isn't to say that everyone will prefer Cuaron's style; many people would rather dine on Big Macs than filet mignon.) Cuaron isn't quite able to overcome the series' built-in limitations - the familiarity of the storytelling arc, the "surprising" character reversals that aren't really much of a surprise, the fact that all three movies are too damned long - but for those viewers, like me, who've never been overly enamored of the Harry Potter film series, Azkaban is as fine an entertainment as you could hope for, a visually audacious work with moments of true magic, and it improves on Chris Columbus' vision tenfold.

You can feel the differences in the way Cuaron is going to treat the material - and in the material itself - right from the opening sequence, which, as in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, features put-upon Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) living with his beastly aunt and uncle (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths). But whereas Columbus brought out the worst in Shaw and Griffiths - making them such nauseatingly foul caricatures that they weren't funny or scary - Cuaron tempers their tendency to mug, and this introductory sequence, culminating in Harry turning his uncle's harridan of a sister into a hot-air balloon, has just the right combination of humor, wonder, and even heartache; when Harry, in a fury, finally escapes his guardians, it carries a sting that Chris Columbus - he who forced us to endure Macaulay Culkin's kid-empowered "Yes!!!"es in the Home Alone movies - could never have managed. For the next 15 minutes, the movie speeds along as if shot out of a cannon; there's a hyper-kinetic ride on a ghostly bus, followed by brisk re-introductions to Harry's friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), and finally, the inevitable return to Hogwarts, where Cuaron's gifts really begin to take focus.

In the first two Harry Potter movies, Columbus was at his best when dealing with the effects-laden fringe moments. Nothing else in Chamber of Secrets, for example, was as enjoyable as the students' dissection of the potted mandrakes or Ron dealing with the screaming letter - the "yowler" - he received from his grandmother; in matters tangential to the main action, Columbus' work was often impressive. Yet his style, which hasn't changed at all since the Home Alone days, is based on maximum obviousness. Those throwaway scenes stood out because Columbus made sure they would; you weren't permitted to discover anything magical on your own. Yet Cuaron is nothing if not trusting of the world he's created (and trusting of his audience, too). He fills the screen with images of almost ethereal wonder and doesn't make a big deal out of showcasing them; they're there to be discovered, or not, at your leisure. When the camera focuses on, say, the walls of living portraits, your eyes can't move fast enough to see everything you want to, yet you don't feel deprived, either; when something onscreen strikes you as particularly clever or wondrous, you have the enormous satisfaction of feeling like you're the only one in the audience who saw it. (Azkaban will probably play better on repeat viewings than Columbus' offerings.)

Yet as generous a director as Cuaron is, he's also marvelously tough-minded, sometimes in ways that avowed Potter fanatics might not like. (Which makes some of us like him all the more.) You can almost hear him saying to the devoted, "You want your Quiddich match? Fine. But I'm going to shoot it in a hellish rainstorm and make it look like no fun at all. You want to see Harry riding on his souped-up broomstick? Fine. But I'm going to make it the curtain-closer and halt the action practically before it starts." Unlike Columbus, you never get the feeling that Cuaron is overly indebted to his source material; instead, he uses Rowling's vision at a starting point for his own, which makes Azkaban feel like the first true movie in the series, with life independent of its literary origins.

The performers seem to respond well to this freer style; Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane, in particular, appear to be having more fun this time around, and new additions David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon (taking over the Dumbledore role from the late Richard Harris), Timothy Spall, and Emma Thompson give vividly etched portrayals. And while the leading teen trio might never become terrific actors - none of them seems, as of yet, completely at-ease in front of the camera - Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint are growing into their roles nicely. Add to all of Cuaron's accomplishments a superb bit of storytelling that requires Harry and Hermione to go back in time and aid their future selves in saving the day, and Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban stands, thus far, as the blockbuster treat of the summer, and the first Harry Potter movie that gives more than lip service to J.K. Rowling's magical world.


Mary-Louise Parker and Jena Malone in Saved!SAVED!

Let's all cheer the arrival of Saved! , not just because it's a loose and extremely likeable comedy, but because it's an assault on the hopelessly narrow-minded right when we most need one; within the confines of its teen-flick format, the movie says so much about open-hearted tolerance that it stands as one of the few truly spiritual cinematic works of recent years. You might not anticipate this in the movie's first half-hour, though, where Saved! seems to take easy (albeit hilarious) potshots at fundamentalist Christianity; we are introduced to Mary (the wonderfully appealing Jena Malone), a born-again teen who believe it's God's will that she have sex with her boyfriend to rid him of his incipient homosexuality. Yet as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that director/co-writer Brian Dannelly is up to something far riskier than an attack on the right-wing, pro-life movement; he's willing to embrace the right-wing, pro-life movement, demonstrating that the diversity inherent in Christianity is perhaps its greatest attribute. Powered by a remarkably on-target cast featuring Mandy Moore (gamely playing off her image), Macaulay Culkin, Eva Amurri, and Chad Faust, Saved! is fresh, touching, and very funny throughout, and while a few subplots - like Mary-Louise Parker's romance with the "phat" Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) - aren't very fleshed-out, the movie is a giddy treat, a free-spirited yet deeply moral entertainment. And, best of all, it's bound to piss off all the right people. That's reason enough to buy a ticket.

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