'Harry Potter' | Mariah's Ex | Claire Danes, Billy Crudup

'Prisoner of Azkaban' a Dark, Spooky Hit

It's time for "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" — and let me tell you, it's right in the nick of time for Warner Bros.

"Troy," the studio's big, hoped-for box-office blockbuster, is struggling at American theaters, finishing this weekend with a total of $85 million in the till. Warner is reporting overseas income as $145 million, but still, the damage is done where it counts: in the good old United States. The outlay for "Troy" was almost $200 million.

So yesterday afternoon's world premiere of "Azkaban" at Radio City Music Hall was fairly important. The studio laid on some celebrities, such as Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, LL Cool J, Al Roker and Christie Brinkley, but of course it's hard to get the stars to leave their country homes on a Sunday afternoon unless you're really a hardcore "Harry Potter" fan.

I did see Chris Columbus, director of the first two "Harry Potter" movies, waiting for and then chewing the ear off star Daniel Radcliffe as they entered through the side door of Radio City.

Then there was Radcliffe himself, who, I am told, was accompanied by a very buxom young lady all weekend — unidentified but "surgically enhanced" and "older" were the descriptions I got. And why not? Even though he's not quite 15 years old, Radcliffe has been made wildly rich by "Harry Potter."

Now, me, personally, I've never read a "Harry Potter" book. I saw only the first film, which I thought was dull and lifeless, not full of the magic that Harry was supposed to command.

Granted, the kids playing Harry and his two pals were younger then, and the first film seemed like a children's movie no matter how you looked at it. But it didn't matter what I thought, or what you thought: On the strength of the popularity of the books, the first two movies were gigantic international hits.

I was surprised, however, that right from the start, "Azkaban" seemed so much better than the first film, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Directed by Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mamá También"), this "Potter" is dark — dark comedy, dark fun, scary and darkly lit.

It's actually a little edgy and a whole lot sharper. Cuarón has taken the characters and the story as we are painfully aware of it and breathed new life into it.

All of the original cast is back, with the exception of the late Richard Harris, who has been succeeded by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.

There are some additions to this cast, too, particularly Emma Thompson in a scene-stealing cameo, and Julie Christie in a much-too-cut-down walk-on. (What a shame!)

David Thewlis is the major addition as Professor Lupin, and he is excellent. So, too, is Gary Oldman, as the presumably evil Sirius Black. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters all return to their regular places and give the films continuity and heft.

"Azkaban" is a little long and a little repetitive, but what else is new? I was so won over by the opening sequence — in which Harry dispatches his nasty aunt in a very amusing way — that the rest didn't seem to matter. And the major complaint from the first movie — that the broom-flying wasn't too unique — gets a nice fix at the very end of this film, and it's worth waiting for.

Mariah In For Some Company?

The rumors were flying hard this weekend that Tommy Mottola, former husband of Mariah Carey and ex-CEO of Sony Music, was headed toward the end of marriage No. 3. Or is it 4?

The word from Los Angeles and Aspen is that Mottola and wife Thalia Sodi, a Mexican singer/performer/soap-opera star, have gotten tired of fighting and are going to end it all.

Mottola married Thalia (pronounced Tah-leah) in a multimillion-dollar wedding on Dec. 2, 2000, at St. Patrick's Cathedral. This column reported that Mottola had failed to get an annulment from his wedding to Carey or to his previous wife, for whom he converted to Judaism, even though the Catholic church prohibits weddings without one.

Since then, Mottola has worked hard to make Thalia into an American star. His partner, Randy Hoffman, manages her career. This spring, Mottola put up $300,000 with American Media to publish Thalia magazine in English and Spanish, which would capitalize on her Mexican popularity.

Because Thalia is so unknown in the U.S., the first cover had to feature Mottola's former artist Jennifer Lopez prominently — something that couldn't have pleased the mag's namesake.

But with all this hard work, Thalia still has no presence in American culture, and in the end, that may be what causes the marriage to tank.

I've had insistent phone calls from "insiders" who swear the marriage is over, and another call from "someone who knows" who says the couple is still together. Come on! Can't these two crazy kids work it out?

Meanwhile, where is Mottola in the music business? Last July he was given a deal with Universal Music to re-start Casablanca Records, home in the 1970s to Donna Summer, KISS and the Village People. But the label's Web site says it's still "under construction," and the industry is waiting for some sign of life from the house that Neil Bogart built.

Danes and Crudup: Proof, as It Were

On Friday night I got to see a screening of "Stage Beauty," starring Billy Crudup, of "Almost Famous," and Claire Danes, from "My So-Called Life" and "The Hours."

Maybe you didn't follow this story, but last winter it was widely reported that Crudup left his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary-Louise Parker, known for her starring role in Broadway's "Proof," for Danes after making this movie. Parker was eight months pregnant at the time. Yikes!

One look at "Stage Beauty" and now the reason for all this soap opera is apparent. Crudup and Danes, who are about a decade apart in age, share some intimate moments that really sizzle.

I mean, they are hot together, there's no way around it. I'm sure if and when their respective former partners get to see "Stage Beauty," they'll be able to figure out what happened without using an abacus. In this case, one plus one equals two, case closed.

It seemed a little like what happened to Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco when they were on Broadway together in "Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune." You can't put people together for weeks on end, naked, and expect anything but this conclusion.

I don't know what future the Danes-Crudup relationship holds, but at least they can be proud of this movie and their extraordinary performances.

"Stage Beauty" is sort of the anti-"Shakespeare in Love" in that it explores a similar time and theme, but from a very unusual perspective. We know that women were not allowed to play roles in the British theater in the 1660s.

But then King Charles II decrees that because he's tired of seeing the same performers in all of Shakespeare's plays, women may indeed take to the stage. This is bad news for Crudup, who plays Edward "Ned" Kynaston, a male actor who's the most famous leading lady. In kind of a unique twist akin to silent film stars who had to adjust to talkies, Kynaston must face reinventing himself or heading for oblivion.

Crudup is spectacular and I predict he will finally, after many excellent performances in movies like "Big Fish," "Almost Famous," "Without Limits," "Jesus' Son " and "Inventing the Abbotts," get some serious award attention from critics and, possibly, the Academy.