Weekly DVD/Video Picks

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Many fans consider the third Harry Potter book the best of the series to date. The film version, directed by series newcomer Alfonso Cuardón, has the makings of the best of the three films so far.

The first two films were slack at times; here, the story is taut and well-paced. The three leads — Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) — inhabit their characters more comfortably and convincingly than ever. Yet where the first two films felt padded and over-long, this one feels incomplete and overly edited.

Viewers who haven't read the book may feel somewhat lost at times. Potential content issues include the usual: from Harry's magical studies (here including a course in divination, mitigated by the ridiculous, debunked way divination is presented) and Harry's ongoing patterns of reckless rule-breaking. On the other hand, this film also gives Harry his first meaningful relationship with a sympathetic adult. As Harry grows up, it's nice to see the stories growing up in certain ways, too.

Content advisory: Some frightening scenes and menace; fantasy presentation of magic.

The Train (1964)

The year is 1944; the place, France in the last days before the Nazi withdrawal. Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons) plays a cultured Nazi colonel whose appreciation for the priceless art of the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris has led him to protect the museum from damage or plundering during the occupation, but now, with his departure imminent, causes him to plunder the museum himself and bring the collection to Berlin as a consolation prize. Pitted against him is Burt Lancaster as a railway man named Paul Labiche with resistance ties who must try to stop the train from leaving the country until the Allies arrive.

Based on a true story, The Train is thrilling, intelligent moviemaking, crisply directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) with documentary-like realism and emphasis on action and problem-solving. The value of some unseen art is reduced to an idea, along with the lives of a number of resistance operatives who die offscreen for their efforts. Is it worth the price? Is there any answering that question?

Content advisory: Wartime violence.

The Searchers (1956)

The reputation of John Ford's The Searchers is as a classic but troubling Western in which John Wayne plays an Indian-hating racist. But Wayne's character, Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, is actually a complex man whose hatred is principally reserved for one particular tribe, the Comanche, members of which killed his wife. The Searchers tells the story of Ethan's relentless pursuit of a Comanche band who perpetrated a murderous raid on a settler household and kidnapped his young niece. Accompanying Ethan is the girl's adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who hopes to rescue his sister and, as years go by, begins to fear that Ethan would rather see the girl dead than living as a Comanche.

A gruff, off-putting loner, Ethan takes a “war is hell” approach to combat, shooting enemy Comanche as they attempt to retreat and rescue their wounded. This is a rare Western classic that questions its hero and the mythology of the Western itself.

Content advisory: Disturbing situations including kidnapping, implied rape and murder; recurring shootouts and battle sequences; treatment of racist attitudes.