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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Here's an event movie that holds up to being an event. This filmed version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, adapted from the wildly popular book by J.K. Rowling, stunningly brings to life Harry Potter's world of Hogwarts, the school for young witches and wizards. The greatest strength of the film comes from its faithfulness to the novel, and this new cinematic world is filled with all the details of Rowling's imagination, thanks to exuberant sets, elaborate costumes, clever makeup and visual effects, and a crème de la crème cast, including Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, and more. Especially fine is the interplay between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his schoolmates Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), as well as his protector, the looming Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). The second-half adventure--involving the titular sorcerer's stone--doesn't translate perfectly from page to screen, ultimately because of the film's fidelity to the novel; this is a case of making a movie for the book's fans, as opposed to a transcending film. Writer Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus keep the spooks in check, making this a true family film, and with its resourceful hero wide-eyed and ready, one can't wait for Harry's return. Ages 8 and up.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
First sequels are the true test of an enduring movie franchise, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets passes with flying colors. Expanding upon the lavish sets, special effects, and grand adventure of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry's second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry involves a darker, more malevolent tale (parents with younger children beware), beginning with the petrified bodies of several Hogwarts students and magical clues leading Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) to a 50-year-old mystery in the monster-laden Chamber of Secrets. House elves, squealing mandrakes, giant spiders, and venomous serpents populate this loyal adaptation (by Sorcerer's Stone director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves), and Kenneth Branagh delightfully tops the supreme supporting cast as the vainglorious charlatan Gilderoy Lockhart (be sure to view past the credits for a visual punchline at Lockhart's expense). At 161 minutes, the film suffers from lack of depth and uneven pacing, and John Williams' score mostly reprises established themes. The young, fast-growing cast offers ample compensation, however, as does the late Richard Harris in his final screen appearance as Professor Albus Dumbledore. Brimming with cleverness, wonderment, and big-budget splendor, Chamber honors the legacy of J.K. Rowling's novels.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Some movie-loving wizards must have cast a magic spell on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because it's another grand slam for the Harry Potter franchise. Demonstrating remarkable versatility after the arthouse success of Y Tu Mamá También, director Alfonso Cuarón proves a perfect choice to guide Harry, Hermione, and Ron into treacherous puberty as the now 13-year-old students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry face a new and daunting challenge: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison, and for reasons yet unknown (unless, of course, you've read J.K. Rowling's book, considered by many to be the best in the series), he's after Harry in a bid for revenge. This dark and dangerous mystery drives the action while Harry (the fast-growing Daniel Radcliffe) and his third-year Hogwarts classmates discover the flying hippogriff Buckbeak (a marvelous CGI creature), the benevolent but enigmatic Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), horrifying black-robed Dementors, sneaky Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), and the wonderful advantage of having a Time-Turner just when you need one. The familiar Hogwarts staff returns in fine form (including the delightful Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and Emma Thompson as the goggle-eyed Sybil Trelawney), and even Julie Christie joins this prestigious production for a brief but welcome cameo. Technically dazzling, fast-paced, and chock-full of Rowling's boundless imagination (loyally adapted by ace screenwriter Steve Kloves), The Prisoner of Azkaban is a Potter-movie classic.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The latest entry in the Harry Potter saga could be retitled Fast Times at Hogwarts, where finding a date to the winter ball is nearly as terrifying as worrying about Lord Voldemort's return. Thus, the young wizards' entry into puberty (and discovery of the opposite sex) opens up a rich mining field to balance out the dark content in the fourth movie (and the stories are only going to get darker). Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) handily takes the directing reins and eases his young cast through awkward growth spurts into true young actors. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, more sure of himself) has his first girl crush on fellow student Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and has his first big fight with best bud Ron (Rupert Grint). Meanwhile, Ron's underlying romantic tension with Hermione (Emma Watson) comes to a head over the winter ball, and when she makes one of those girl-into-woman Cinderella entrances, the boys' reactions indicate they've all crossed a threshold.
But don't worry, there's plenty of wizardry and action in Goblet of Fire. When the deadly Triwizard Tournament is hosted by Hogwarts, Harry finds his name mysteriously submitted (and chosen) to compete against wizards from two neighboring academies, as well as another Hogwarts student. The competition scenes are magnificently shot, with much-improved CGI effects (particularly the underwater challenge). And the climactic confrontation with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, in a brilliant bit of casting) is the most thrilling yet. Goblet, the first installment to get a PG-13 rating, contains some violence as well as disturbing images for kids and some barely shrouded references at sexual awakening (Harry's bath scene in particular). The 2 1/2-hour film, lean considering it came from a 734-page book, trims out subplots about house-elves (they're not missed) and gives little screen time to the standard crew of the other Potter films, but adds in more of Britain's finest actors to the cast, such as Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody and Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter. Michael Gambon, in his second round as Professor Dumbledore, still hasn't brought audiences around to his interpretation of the role he took over after Richard Harris died, but it's a small smudge in an otherwise spotless adaptation.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Alas! The fifth Harry Potter film has arrived. The time is long past that this can be considered a simple "children's" series--though children and adults alike will enjoy it immensely. Starting off from the dark and tragic ending of the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix begins in a somber and angst-filled tone that carries through the entire 138 minutes (the shortest of any HP movie despite being adapted from the longest book). Hopes of winning the Quidditch Cup have been replaced by woes like government corruption, distorted media spin, and the casualties of war. As the themes have matured, so have the primary characters' acting abilities. Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and especially Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) are more convincing than ever--in roles that are more demanding.
Harry is deeply traumatized from having witnessed Cedric Diggory's murder, but he will soon find that this was just another chapter in the continuing loss he will endure. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned and, in an attempt to conceal this catastrophe from the wizarding public, the Ministry of Magic has teamed up with the wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet to smear young Potter and wise Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)--seemingly the only two people in the public eye who believe the Dark Lord has returned. With no one else to stand against the wicked Death Eaters, the Hogwarts headmaster is forced to revive his secret anti-Voldemort society, the Order of the Phoenix. This welcomes back characters like Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), kind Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), fatherly Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and insidious Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and introduces a short list of intriguing new faces. In the meantime, a semi-psychotic bureaucrat from the Ministry (brilliantly portrayed by Imelda Staunton) has seized power at Hogwarts, and Harry is forced to form a secret society of his own--lest the other young wizards at his school be left ill-equipped to defend themselves in the looming war between good and evil. In addition, Harry is filled with an inexplicable rage that only his Godfather Sirius seems to be able to understand.
This film, though not as frightening as its predecessor, earns its PG-13 rating mostly because of the ever-darkening tone. As always, the loyal fans of J.K. Rowling's books will suffer huge cuts from the original plot and character developments, but make no mistake: this is a good movie.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The sixth installment of the Harry Potter series begins right where The Order of the Phoenix left off. The wizarding world is rocked by the news that "He Who Must Not Be Named" has truly returned, and the audience finally knows that Harry is "the Chosen One"--the only wizard who can defeat Lord Voldemort in the end. Dark forces loom around every corner, and now regularly attempt to penetrate the protected walls of Hogwarts School. This is no longer the fun and fascinating world of magic from the first few books—it's dark, dangerous, and scary.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) suspects Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to be a new Death Eater recruit on a special mission for the Dark Lord. In the meantime, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) seems to have finally removed the shroud of secrecy from Harry about the dark path that lies ahead, and instead provides private lessons to get him prepared. It's in these intriguing scenes that the dark past of Tom Riddle (a.k.a. Voldemort) is finally revealed. The actors cast as the different young versions of Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane) do an eerily fantastic job of portraying the villain as a child. While the previous movies' many new characters could be slightly overwhelming, only one new key character is introduced this time: Professor Horace Slughorn (with a spot-on performance by Jim Broadbent). Within his mind he holds a key secret in the battle to defeat the Dark Lord, and Harry is tasked by Dumbledore to uncover a memory about Voldemort's darkest weapon--the Horcrux. Despite the long list of distractions, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) still try to focus on being teenagers, and audiences will enjoy the budding awkward romances. All of the actors have developed nicely, giving their most convincing performances to date.
More dramatic and significant things go down in this movie than any of its predecessors, and the stakes are higher than ever. The creators have been tasked with a practically impossible challenge, as fans of the beloved J.K. Rowling book series desperately want the movies to capture the magic of the books as closely as possible. Alas, the point at which one accepts that these two mediums are very different is the point at which one can truly enjoy these brilliant adaptations. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is no exception: it may be the best film yet. For those who have not read the book, nail-biting entertainment is guaranteed. For those who have, the movie does it justice. The key dramatic scenes, including the cave and the shocking twist in the final chapter, are executed very well. It does a perfect job of setting up the two-part grand finale that is to follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I is a brooding, slower-paced film than its predecessors, the result of being just one half of the final story (the last book in the series was split into two movies, released in theaters eight months apart). Because the penultimate film is all buildup before the final showdown between the teen wizard and the evil Voldemort (which does not occur until The Deathly Hallows, Part II), Part I is a road-trip movie, a heist film, a lot of exposition, and more weight on its three young leads, who up until now were sufficiently supported by a revolving door of British thesps throughout the series. Now that all the action takes place outside Hogwarts--no more Potions classes, Gryffindor scarves, or Quidditch matches--Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) shoulder the film almost entirely on their own. After a near-fatal ambush by Voldemort's Death Eaters, the three embark on a quest to find and destroy the remaining five horcruxes (objects that store pieces of Voldemort's soul). Fortunately, as the story gets more grave--and parents should be warned, there are some scenes too frightening or adult for young children--so does the intensity. David Yates, who directed the Harry Potter films Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, drags the second half a little, but right along with some of the slower moments are some touching surprises (Harry leading Hermione in a dance, the return of Dobby in a totally non-annoying way). Deathly Hallows, Part I will be the most confusing for those not familiar with the Potter lore, particularly in the shorthand way characters and terminology weave in and out. For the rest of us, though, watching these characters over the last decade and saying farewell to a few faces makes it all bittersweet that the end is near (indeed, an early scene in which Hermione casts a spell that makes her Muggle parents forget her existence, in case she doesn't return, is particularly emotional). Despite its challenges, Deathly Hallows, Part I succeeds in what it's most meant to do: whet your appetite for the grand conclusion to the Harry Potter series.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the film all Harry Potter fans have waited 10 years to see, and the good news is that it's worth the hype--visually stunning, action packed, faithful to the book, and mature not just in its themes and emotion but in the acting by its cast, some of whom had spent half their lives making Harry Potter movies. Part 2 cuts right to the chase: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has stolen the Elder Wand, one of the three objects required to give someone power over death (a.k.a. the Deathly Hallows), with the intent to hunt and kill Harry. Meanwhile, Harry's quest to destroy the rest of the Horcruxes (each containing a bit of Voldemort's soul) leads him first to a thrilling (and hilarious--love that Polyjuice Potion!) trip to Gringotts Bank, then back to Hogwarts, where a spectacular battle pitting the young students and professors (a showcase of the British thesps who have stolen every scene of the series: Maggie Smith's McGonagall, Jim Broadbent's Slughorn, David Thewlis's Lupin) against a dark army of Dementors, ogres, and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, with far less crazy eyes to make this round). As predicted all throughout the saga, Harry also has his final showdown with Voldemort--neither can live while the other survives--though the physics of that predicament might need a set of crib notes to explain. But while each installment has become progressively grimmer, this finale is the most balanced between light and dark (the dark is quite dark--several familiar characters die, with one significant death particularly grisly); the humor is sprinkled in at the most welcome times, thanks to the deft adaptation by Steve Kloves (who scribed all but one of the films from J.K. Rowling's books) and direction by four-time Potter director David Yates. The climactic kiss between Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), capping off a decade of romantic tension, is perfectly tuned to their idiosyncratic relationship, and Daniel Radcliffe has, over the last decade, certainly proven he was the right kid for the job all along. As Prof. Snape, the most perfect of casting choices in the best-cast franchise of all time, Alan Rickman breaks your heart. Only the epilogue (and the lack of chemistry between Harry and love Ginny Weasley, barely present here) stand a little shaky, but no matter: the most lucrative franchise in movie history to date has just reached its conclusion, and it's done so without losing its soul.