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COMPLETE MAGIC BAGFUL OF ALL HARRY POTTER FILMS

year: 2001 rating: ****
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE: Who would ever think timeworn clichés like broomsticks and magic wands would work for a popular modern fantasy franchise, but it all seems brand new.

Based on the first Potter novel by J.K. Rowling, here’s a movie that takes you to another world, which is still part of this one. Harry, as an infant, is left with his abusive aunt and uncle and by eleven years old – aided by their fat spoiled son – he’s treated like a spectacle-wearing male Cinderella.

But his lot lies beyond this particular suburban hell since, being branded with a scar on his forehead, he’s very important. For we learn that a really bad character… whose name is not to be spoken (although it is several times)… had killed Harry’s wizardly parents but couldn’t kill him.

Well that’s the backstory, placed nicely within the linear introducing our put-upon hero. But it’s when a train-bound Harry, joined by underdog Ron Weasley and a brainy girl Hermione, go to a castle called Hogwarts to become wizards, that the movie takes charge.

Actually, wait... Scenes involving Harry and big-bearded caretaker Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shopping for essential "school gear" in a mystical outdoor mall is when the initial spell takes over. Reminiscent of Luke Skywalker going from his dull farmland into Mos Eisley, we’re catapulted into a strange new setting with the protagonist.

"I know everything!"
So by now, most people have seen this movie, but for those afraid that anything this popular must be overrated, it isn’t. The child actors are good to great: Daniel Radcliffe displays the right amount of awe for the audience to share in the unfolding odyssey and Rupert Grint, as the sidekick, provides far more than filler...

But it’s Emma Watson who, as a know-it-all that really knows it all (having studied spells much needed as the film veers into dangerous territory), is reminiscent of the British child actors of the sixties and seventies, seeming like an adult shrunk into a kid’s body.

The first half, as the trio learn the ins and outs of the giant castle Hogwarts… full of murky, mazy surprises (including a big mean troll and a broom-riding outdoor sport)... exceeds the fledgling mid-section, where the character’s get a bit lost in exposition. But once we realize their goal: to get that titular stone before a mysterious bad guy does, things pick back up.

Director Chris Columbus wields the right amount of Spielberg-inspired gliding camera to give the feel we, like the characters, are being welcomed to this mystical setting as insightful newcomers. And John William’s score, although reminiscent of that far away galaxy, provides a dreamy, magical vibe keeping everything in place.

year: 2002 rating: *1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS: Just as bad as the first movie is good, this, the second in the Potter series – although creatively providing the main villain’s backstory – feels like a bad sequel.

New characters like Kenneth Branagh as a charlatan wizard who can’t live up to his ego-driven fame, or Malfoy’s father, an Arian sorcerer who wants to rid of all “Mudbloods” (wizards with muggle i.e. lamen's blood, providing a banal class envy storyline), prance around like part of a stage play, and there’s simply too much dialogue explaining what happened or what’s about to happen, and not much adventure.

The titular Chamber of Secrets holds a power to kill all Mudbloods, and that includes Hermione, incapacitated throughout most of the film. In one part involving a giant spider, one of the only scenes worthwhile, Ron turns to Harry and says, “Where’s Hermione when you need her?”

That’s a great question. Without the best child actor of the lot present, the two boys don’t have that spark needed to carry things through. And a computer animated slave elf named Dobble, the Jar Jar Binks of the series, doesn't help matters, while a car that flies Harry and Weasley around takes the viewer out of the fantasy element right quick.

There's a whole lot of magic here, though few spells actually work… But worst of all, this CHAMBER is boring and a downer to boot.

year: 2004 rating: ***
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN: Things get back on track after the lackluster second movie. Harry finally leaves his abusive home life, which seemed kind of forced to begin with, and is picked up by a speeding bus, providing some action to kick things into gear.

Much of the storyline, after he returns to Hogwarts, is a bit confusing… but eventually, during the imperative third act, as he and Hermione go back in time to relive events from the first half, it all makes perfect sense.

Gary Oldman plays a seemingly sinister convict, escaped from Azkaban for turning in Harry’s parents to Voldemort, with the right amount of frantic fervor. David Thewlis is a new professor with a secret of his own: but both characters aren’t what they seem, and like any of the Potter films, each scene, and every bit of dialogue, brings a new piece to the ongoing jigsaw... so pay attention.

Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, provides far more energy than the ailing icon. And Daniel Radcliffe really shows his stuff here, growing into a fine young actor while Rupert Grint becomes less of a relevant sidekick... Emma Watson wedges into the secondary position with finesse, and Hagrid’s flying pet Buckbeak is a far better computer animated mascot than the last film’s horribly annoying elf.

All and all a good film, making one yearn for the next outing yet feeling like a solitary story on its own.

year: 2005 rating: ****
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE: The best so far of the Potter films. Unlike parts two and three, it doesn’t seek an 11th hour plot while divulging exposition about things happening or about to happen or what could be happening till it’s happening, but there’s an interesting mainline throughout: the Tri-Wizard Tournament, consisting of three students from various locations, and at first – since the starting age is seventeen – this doesn’t include Harry Potter.

Until the Goblet of Fire, which spouts out the selected contestants, chooses the fourteen-year-old. The rest of the film consists of Harry surviving three dangerous tasks including fighting a dragon; staying underwater for an hour against some nasty-looking mermaids; and running through a mysterious hedge maze (without Jack Nicholson wielding an ax).

While Hagrid is thrust into a silly romance, Harry’s burly mentor role is taken over by Brenden Gleeson as Alastor “Mad Eye" Moody, a former bounty hunter type who’s a formidable, but ultimately resourceful, new teacher at the school.

The mentoring between Mad Eye and Harry takes most of the peripheral from even the faithful sidekicks Ron Weasley, who whines and squeaks his way through another outing, and Hermione, seeming even more uptight (and thus, intense) than ever.

But the real significance is the introduction of Valdemort himself (Ralph Fiennes) – appearing after Harry plummets from the final maze into a fog shrouded cemetery, thus witnessing his vile aggressor’s ominous, stage-like diatribe perhaps a bit too lengthy… Then again, since previously appearing in various shapes and sizes with little to say, he has plenty of time to make up for.

GOBLET also includes the death of a side-character and ends with our heroes glancing into an unclear future that, with a tangible evil now placed in the forefront, is of much greater risk and significance.

year: 2007 rating: **
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX: "Hermione," Harry says at one point, "it's not that simple." An understatement!

Well the film starts pretty good with an attack by those vicious Death Eaters... in the suburbs. Then we learn Harry's been expelled for practicing magic in the presence of a Muggle. It's here, through a courtroom scene as our put-upon hero faces expulsion, we're introduced to the Order of the Phoenix, a fascist group of tyrannical political types wanting to turn Hogwarts into their own structured school, and not believing that Voldemort has returned.

But old Stocking Face isn't the main antagonist here. An uptight and darkly efficient underling of the Order's chief, Delores Umbridge, prancing like a finicky church lady born from the depths of hell, takes that position.

With a snide giggle and a heart of stone, Umbridge attempts to keep Harry and friends from forming a secret student army against Voldemort, which is a more involving premise than it turns out to be.

There's a montage of the young wizards training, but nothing really comes of it. All leading to the climax taking place in the maze-like "Department of Mysteries," visually resembling a music video more than an important battle... And the very end, within one conversation, Harry learns from Dumbledore what could have been stated in the beginning of the next film, making this not only bland, boring, and much too complicated, but a waste of time.

year: 2009 rating: ***1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: Edgy darkness abounds as the Harry Potter series nears an end, and we learn the ways to finally rid of Voldemort (for the last two films) and it probably won’t be easy.

The cinematography is liken to a fantasy rendition of THE GODFATHER, cast in darkness and shadows, murky moods permeating a suspenseful, cerebral odyssey.

Harry has become a pop icon of sorts, and before he can hook up with a beautiful "Muggle" groupie, he’s taken by good old Dumbledore to meet our newest special guest: Jim Broadbent as a reclusive Professor Slughorn, holding key memories of former Hogwarts student Tom Riddle.

The entire film plays like a moody mystery/thriller, spending little time with spells, games and camaraderie between the kids: although there’s some light shed on Ron Weasley, who’s unintentionally stolen the hearts of both a love-struck chippie and his good pal Hermione.

But the entire movie truly belongs to Harry: dogging the heels of Slughorn and a grownup Malfoy: the latter in-cahoots with the Dark Lord. And while the third act’s finale is more flash than substance, we finally experience Dumbledore and Harry banding together, reminiscent of Bilbo and Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT.

This, the beginning of the end, is a successful bridge leading to an unknown future.

year: 2010 rating: *1/2
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1: These are dark times, and this is pretty dark film, the first of two parts wrapping up the Harry Potter series. And gone is the safety of Hogwarts as Harry seeks those essential elements to takes pieces out of Voldemort soul – and most of the film is setting up for the next, and last, adventure…

There are only a few good action scenes, and the characters spout so much exposition you’ll need a court typist to dictate everything...

The very beginning loses a couple important characters in a flying broom attack so hard to see, a lot of the punch is lost. Add a lot of whining by a jealous Ron, as Harry and Hermione discover a subliminal love on a long journey through a seemingly endless desert.

The best scene involves a story told by Hermione, reading from BEEDLE THE BARD, a book left to her from Dumbledore: the story is shown in a fantastically gloomy animation (much like Lucy Lieu’s backstory in KILL BILL) – here we learn about the Elder wand and of course, the Deathly Hallows, encompassing three items that, when combined, will mean the end of Harry and just about everything. 

And although Harry takes the death of Dobble, the Elfin Jar Jar Binks, very seriously, this reviewer felt a gigantic sigh of relief upon the horrendously annoying creature’s demise… Thankfully, part 2 peels away all the superfluous junk and thins down into a neat plot: a light a the end of the tunnel, though still quite a long tunnel…

year: 2011 rating: ***
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2: The three main characters are in search of the last “horcrux” to finally get rid of Voldemort… But with everything else aside, if there is any kind of noticeable arc throughout the series, it’s how much Daniel Radcliffe grew as an actor: in the first film, Emma Watson’s Hermione stole the show while the two boys, though natural, seemed a bit overwhelmed… Yet this point Radcliffe delivers lines like a stage actor, and a good one at that… It’s his ride…

The best scenes have the characters going from each location, riding a dragon or thinking up ways to find the key to kill the dark villain… Then they finally return to Hogwarts, which is now a really dark place.

Alas, the movie hits a wall the further in we get to the final answer: during long, brooding scenes with deceased characters, the cinematography, basking in white glow, tries too hard to mirror the ambiguous 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ENDING and is a little too much… especially for young viewers, or old impatient ones. 

Leading to a final standoff, which includes Harry joined by several of his ragtag friends, that’s too rushed and resulting in a tacked-on conclusion showing the main characters twenty years in the future, looking pretty almost exactly the same… Anyone ever attend a 20-year high school reunion?
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