Mark Kermode - Spellbound

Film - A return to Hogwarts finally gets a dose of magic; and an affecting, off-kilter drama. By Mar

For those who have never read J K Rowling's Harry Potter novels, the spin-off movies must be judged on their cinematic merit (or lack of it) alone. It was on this basis of informed ignorance that I was utterly underwhelmed by the screen versions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, both of which conjured up action-packed cocktails of wizards, spells and potions but lacked a crucial ingredient: magic.

Unlike Peter Jackson's brilliant Lord of the Rings trilogy (with whose source I am similarly unfamiliar), the first two Potter films were stodgily workmanlike, thanks to the "safe hands" helmsmanship of Chris Columbus - a director whose style resembles that of an accountant more than an auteur.

Thank heavens, then, for Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican maverick behind the beautiful rites-of-passage fable A Little Princess and the bawdy road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. His offbeat third instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, gives the series its darkest and most intriguing outing to date.

Returning to Hogwarts after the usual miserable sojourn with his obnoxious suburban relatives (a joke that is starting to wear thin), Harry is threatened by the spectre of Sirius Black, the eponymous escaped prisoner, believed to have been involved in the violent demise of the Potter parents. Taunted by cackling images of Black (Gary Oldman, carving himself another tasty slice of ham) and terrorised by the soul-sucking Dementors nominally enlisted to protect the school, Harry and his chums Ron Weasley and Hermi-one Granger (the increasingly engaging Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) use wit, wizardry and even a well-orchestrated bout of time travel to confront the sins of the past and thereby save the future.

OK, so the narrative may be a tad shaky, but what lends Azkaban its edge is the unabashedly creepy tone that Cuaron conjures. Eschewing the shiny, happy sheen that characterised Columbus's two escapades, Cuaron and the cinemato- grapher Michael Seresin (Alan Parker's long-time collaborator who, significantly, shot the eerie horror film Angel Heart) conspire to paint it black, turning a rougher, grainier eye to the material, evoking arts darker than the simple pursuit of box-office big bucks.

From the lavish scenes of ghostly buses and spectral apparitions to the shadowy close-ups of Daniel Radcliffe's increasingly angst-ridden Harry, the palette is dominated by sombre browns, sickly greens and icy blues, suggesting all the sadness and danger so sorely lacking from the first two instalments. Add to this a self-mocking "Mystic Meg"-style cameo by a goggle-eyed Emma Thompson and a splendidly feral turn by the ever impressive David Thewlis as the suggestively named Professor Lupin, and Azkaban offers more than enough to delight both adults and children. What the British director Mike Newell - whose own CV encompasses the light comedy of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the brooding drama of Donnie Brasco and the cheesy scares of The Awakening - will make of the fourth episode remains to be seen.

Less high-profile, but equally off-kilter, is Japanese Story, an award-winning independent Australian oddity in which an Oz geologist and a Japanese businessman unexpectedly encounter love and death in the eye-catching Pilbara Desert. What begins as a broad cross- cultural comedy, replete with "hilarious" Down Under karaoke bar scene, soon mutates into something much more intimate and alarming.

Described rather portentously in the press notes as "a story of human inconsequence in the face of the blistering universe", Japanese Story features another superb performance from Toni Collette, whose passively expressive face carries entire scenes with ease. From the loveable ugly duckling of Muriel's Wedding and the glamorous rock chick of Velvet Goldmine to the rattled mother of The Sixth Sense, and now the bereft Sandy of Japanese Story, Collette inhabits each movie as if dressed in a different skin - indeed, many viewers may not even realise that her various roles were performed by the same person.

Aided by Sue Brooks's statuesque direction, Ian Baker's stately photography (constantly hinting at unseen worlds beneath the surface) and a melancholy soundtrack, Japanese Story emerges as a strangely affecting affair, occasion- ally reminiscent of Christine Jeffs's Antipodean weirdie Rain in its emotional shifts, and a world away from the pre-packaged predictability of most mainstream Hollywood fare.