ALIEN (1979)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm & Yaphet Kotto

ALIEN was one of the first science-fiction horror films to be taken seriously in film. This was basically a B-movie monster story executed with A-grade talent and scares. The film launched the career of a budding Ridley Scott into the mainstream, delivered one of the best female characters to ever grace the silver screen, and spawned a movie franchise that has lasted for decades. Though this film relies on a simple story and it’s not without a few flaws, ALIEN is essential viewing for anybody who loves movies!

The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are awakened from hypersleep by a distress signal on a nearby planet. According to a clause in their work contracts, the crew must investigate and rescue anybody in distress on their way home. What appears to be a rescue mission turns into something out of a nightmare because the planet is quiet, mist-covered, and downright spooky. When one of the crew encounters an odd-looking egg and, being an idiot, bends down to take a closer look, he winds up with a living organism hugging his face. The crew, being idiots, let the possibly contaminated crew member back on board and soon enough, there’s a full-fledged, blood-thirsty alien running around the ship. It’s up to warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to remedy the deadly blunders of her fellow crew members.

You might have noticed ALIEN’s single problem from my plot synopsis. The spaceship is populated by characters who do really stupid things and their dumb decisions further the story along. Don’t get me wrong. ALIEN is a fantastic movie, but there are eye-rolling lapses in judgment that seem to slide purely because the story needs them to. The whole film hinges on a dumbass looking into an egg and then another moron letting that dumbass back onto the spaceship. I can let both of those stupid decisions slide, but I can’t stand Harry Dean Stanton’s redneck wandering around by himself because the script demands it. Also, The film’s most egregious example of stupid decisions has one sobbing character refusing to get out of the alien’s way, thus resulting in two deaths. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first saw ALIEN and this moment still seems stupid to me.

With my complaints out of the way, let me dive into ALIEN’s great qualities and there are plenty to be praised! The first one is Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist Ripley. She’s a strong heroine who kicks ass and doesn’t take crap from any other crew member on the ship. She easily seems like the most sensible person of the bunch and we root for her to live from her first appearance. Weaver is basically playing a slasher final girl on a spaceship and does this with a bad-ass persona. Another performance worth praising is Ian Holm as creepy scientist Bishop. You know something isn’t right about him from his first interaction and though his most memorable scene has already been spoiled by plenty of people throughout the decades, Holm still remains unnerving in the role.

What’s most impressive about ALIEN is how much it accomplished with simple technology and effects capabilities of its time. Ridley Scott employed everyday appliances like rubber gloves (for the movement inside the egg), puppets (for the early born alien), milk (for Android’s blood), various animal guts (for pieces of the facehugger), and miniatures/models (for spaceships and planets). However, none of that is what appears on the screen. What we see is another world, freaky organisms, and visceral gore. ALIEN easily has the best effects to come out of the 1970s!

The spectacular effects come to a head when talking about the film’s titular monster. This is a creature feature after all and a lot of the scares hinge on the creature. Using an unforgettable design by H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph is easily one of the greatest monsters to be brought to life by a man in a suit. That man, Bolaji Badejo, was unnaturally skinny and very tall. This brought an eerie effect to the monster and Scott purposely picked Badejo because he didn’t want the eye to naturally think that a person could possibly be portraying the long-headed, two-mouthed Xenomorph. This monster still freaks me out in certain scenes, the biggest of which is easily Dallas (Tom Skeritt) hunting it in the ship’s air ducts. That entire sequence is masterfully executed and delivers one of the best jump scares in cinema history.

While later entries in the series would take a more action-based approach to the material, ALIEN is like a slasher film in space that features a monster and haunted house scares. It’s a nearly perfect combination of science fiction and horror, with a handful of stupid character decisions marking the film’s only flaws. The monster is iconic. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is one of the best heroines to ever hit the silver screen. The special effects still look amazing. The scares are effective. The filmmaking is masterful. Simply put, ALIEN is one of the best creature features ever!

Grade: A

JACKIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for brief Strong Violence and some Language

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Written by: Noah Oppenheim

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Beth Grant, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson & John Carroll Lynch

JACKIE was built up as a potential awards contender during last year’s Oscar season and wound up being nominated for three awards (Best Actress, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). Those three categories seem appropriate for a film that has a great performance and looks good, but boils down to being nothing more than style over substance. Those looking for a straightforward biopic of Jackie Kennedy had best look elsewhere, because director Pablo Larrain treats this film as his own personal art project. Loud classical music and overbearing camera work frequently work against a narrative that weaves together events in Jackie’s life through a non-linear fashion.

JACKIE mostly takes place in the days following JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to battle her grief, break the news to her children, and plan a funeral ceremony that will go down in history. The film frequently cuts to an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) who was loosely based on a LIFE magazine reporter. There are also flashbacks before that terrible day, involving Jackie’s time with her husband and her historic televised tour of the White House.

JACKIE’s best quality is easily Natalie Portman’s performance. If you watch footage and interviews with the real-life Jackie Kennedy, you realize how much Portman nailed the most famous First Lady through her acting. From the shy, yet determined attitude to the soft-spoken, uniquely accented way of talking. Jackie Kennedy had a strange voice and Portman’s voice sounds equally as strange in the same ways. Portman also captures the melancholy sadness of the assassination aftermath that ranges from sobbing as she cleans blood off her face in a mirror to small lines of dialogue as she slowly begins to cope with her loss.

The supporting performances drastically range in quality. Billy Crudup is amusing as the journalist, while Greta Gerwig (as secretary Nancy Tuckerman) and Richard E. Grant (as family friend William Walton) have a few stand-out moments. John Hurt resides over some of the best moments as a priest who consoles Jackie and gives her advice. His last scene with Portman is incredibly powerful, if only of the rest of the film was up to this level of emotional insight. Disappointingly, the usually great Peter Sarsgaard is bland as Bobby Kennedy and his accent frequently fades in and out. Equally as much of a letdown is a well-cast John Carroll Lynch being underused as the newly presidential LBJ.

My initial good will towards this movie started to fade with its messy script. This screenplay is less a biopic and more a collage of moments in Jackie Kennedy’s life. That sounds like it could make for an interesting viewing experience, but it’s frequently botched by jumbled storytelling. This might be a case where showing the events in chronological order would have greatly benefited the narrative. At the very least, JACKIE could have given the viewer complete events out-of-order, instead of frequently editing these events together. This narrative jumps around far too much for its own good and becomes downright tedious at points.

My boredom wasn’t purely the result of a so-so script, because JACKIE is a definite example of style over substance. The score is overbearing to the point where it almost drowns out dialogue and becomes an annoyance. This music seems like a blatant attempt to tell the viewer how to feel because the movie itself couldn’t be bothered to. The cinematography is all over the place as the camera style frequently shifts from scene-to-scene. Some of these moments are more visually interesting than others and a few echoed the close-up effect from haunting Holocaust drama SON OF SAUL. This beautiful camera work becomes overbearing to the point of distracting the viewer from the content of the scenes.

JACKIE has a great performance from Natalie Portman and a handful of great moments, but comes off like a messy piece of experimental filmmaking. A scene in which Jackie verbally destroys pompous Jack Valenti over her funeral plans is more than a little satisfying to watch. Another great scene has Jackie breaking the emotional news of her husband’s death to their children. Scenes like this and a stellar performance of the titular First Lady both make JACKIE worth watching for those who might interested. However, brace yourself for lots of overbearingly pretentious filmmaking techniques and an unfocused screenplay. JACKIE is shameless Oscar bait that has great positives and a draining amount of negatives.

Grade: C+

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Macdonald, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & David Thewlis

Though the decision to split HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films still seems like a mistake on Warner Bros.’ part, this eighth (and final) film in the HARRY POTTER saga is cinematically spectacular final installment nonetheless. Sure, Part 2 understandably feels like the second half of a better whole, but that narrative flaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact in dipping quality that 2010’s Part 1 saw. Details from the previous films come into play, major plot revelations about certain characters come to light, and the HARRY POTTER saga comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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After narrowly escaping the clutches of Death Eaters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes (dark magical objects that contain pieces of his soul). Their magical scavenger hunt takes them into the dark vaults of Gringotts Bank and then to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With only three Horcruxes left and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) determined to kill “chosen one” Harry, Hogwarts will become the battleground for a massive confrontation. Prophecies will be fulfilled, truths will be revealed, deaths will occur on both sides and a final battle will decide the fate of the wizarding world.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is the exciting second half of a cohesive whole. This leads to some narrative issues as viewers will have to be fresh off DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 to fully appreciate Part 2 picking up mere seconds after that far lesser film concluded. There are only two major settings in this movie: Gringotts and Hogwarts. Gringotts Wizarding Bank was briefly glimpsed in THE SORCERER’S STONE, but Part 2 treats the viewer to a more in-depth look at the Goblin-run bank’s treacherous vaults filled with curses, elaborate security precautions and a show-stopping set piece that delivers excitement early on. As for Hogwarts, old places and familiar faces come into play as Harry desperately searches the corridors for a hidden chunk of Voldemort’s soul.

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In terms of spectacle, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 delivers action that fans wanted to see on the big screen since the series began. There’s a massive battle featuring damn near every major character and supporting actor from the previous films, even Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson pop in just to reprise their professors in the final conflict. The special effects and make-up work are just as solid as ever, though director David Yates occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top during final Harry vs. Voldemort fight. Though a tense wand duel throughout Hogwarts is stellar, a scene of Voldemort and Harry whizzing through the air like Superman is silly to say the least.

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There is no need to recap this final film’s many performances, because we’ve seen all these characters and cast members before. Nothing has changed in their greatness. However, I will say that there’s a sense of maturity in seeing these beloved characters and the series as a whole grow throughout the years. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching the conclusion to this eight-film-long franchise, be it from sheer nostalgia or fantastic storytelling. Voldemort’s speech to the tearful wizards and witches of Hogwarts is affecting. Two major plot revelations bring about the yearning to rewatch previous entries and cast a new light on the series as a whole. However, the titular Deathly Hallows once again feel like a throwaway subplot that’s merely there as a cheap plot device. Also, Alan Rickman’s Snape story arc delivers one of the most emotional sequences in the entire series.

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Would HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS have functioned better as one big three-hour film? I think so and it might have stood next to PRISONER OF AZKABAN as the best film of the series. Part 2 and (to an annoying degree) Part 1 both have scenes that could have been excised for a tighter, better film. I feel this finale could have functioned better as one long seventh movie. Still, in spite of being the second half of a whole story, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 stands as one of the better films in the long-running fantasy series. Plot points are wrapped up in emotional ways with revelations that cast a new light on previous movies. We get to spend one last time with a large cast of beloved characters. The battle at Hogwarts also stands as the series’ most epic moment. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is a deeply satisfying final installment to an unforgettable cinematic saga.

Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence, Frightening Images and brief Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton & David Thewlis

Confession time: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is probably my least favorite book in the series. It’s an underwhelming conclusion to a groundbreaking fantasy series. However, the material seemed like it would make an exciting film. Enter the Warner Bros. execs who upon realizing they only had one HARRY POTTER adaptation left to milk for cash decided to keep the blockbuster train rolling for two more films. Though many fans seemed initially disappointed by the studio’s route, that didn’t stop this seventh film from becoming the third-highest grossing HARRY POTTER title in the franchise (behind the eighth film and the first film). DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t a bad movie. It’s better than a majority of split book adaptations (e.g. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1), but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that this is still half a story being stretched into over two hours.

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In the aftermath of Dumbledore’s death, the wizarding world has become dark and hopeless. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is tightening his grip on the Ministry of Magic and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is taking over Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chosen one Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is Voldemort’s prime target, which has led secretive rebel group Order of the Phoenix to stage a complicated rescue mission. After some casualties ensue and Voldemort’s Death Eaters find the Order’s location, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) venture out on their own to track down Voldemort’s secret Horcruxes, magical objects that contain pieces of his soul. These dark magical objects must be destroyed in order to kill the Dark Lord…and the trio kick off their deadly scavenger hunt by hunting down a cursed locket.

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While the HARRY POTTER series had been progressively getting darker and darker through the previous six films, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 ranks as the most depressing installment of the series. Part of this might be attributed to the “To Be Continued…” ending, while another reason easily comes from major character deaths that might shock those who haven’t read the material beforehand. However, I feel the main reason that DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 succeeds in being a suspenseful installment is because Harry, Ron and Hermione become fugitives. The corrupt wizard government no longer offers any safeguards towards the chosen one and is actively following Voldemort’s agenda. The lack of a safety net and danger coming from all directions offer a feeling of dread that the series has previously never seen before.

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It should come as no surprise that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson slip right back into their iconic roles with ease. Though the rising threats cause tensions to erupt between their characters. Much like the film’s dark tone, this isn’t necessarily something completely new in the series but it’s never been executed to this degree. When we see longtime grudges emerge and drama between the three best friends, it’s a bit tough to watch because we’ve come to love these characters for so long. Still, these are the same protagonists, just more mature and grown up. Harry is just as courageous as ever. Hermione is smart and frequently gets the group out of trouble. Ron delivers comic relief that attempts to brighten up the rather depressing plot.

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Other familiar faces return with Dobby (the most annoying character in the series), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), worst teacher ever Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a cameo from Wormtail (Timothy Spall), a hardly glimpsed Ollivander (John Hurt), a psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and many more. Ralph Fiennes has two scenes as Voldemort, while Snape’s presence is mostly regulated to the opening prologue. Series newcomers appear in: Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, Andy Linden as scumbag Mundungus Fletcher, Peter Mullan as Death Eater Yaxley, and Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood’s eccentric father Xenophilius. All four of these characters serve as plot devices and nothing more.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is entertaining and nicely sets up the conclusion to the series, but unfortunately falls victim to an unnecessarily lengthy running time. Perhaps, Part 1 wouldn’t feel underwhelming if this movie wasn’t as long as previous HARRY POTTER entries. There are (at least) 20 minutes that could have been excised for the sake of a tighter running time and a more compelling movie as a whole. The introduction of the titular Deathly Hallows (three legendary magical objects) seems disconnected from the rest of the movie, because the exposition dump functions as an introduction for DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2. Also, this plot point directly contradicts a piece of the series that was introduced in SORCERER’S STONE and I’ve never been able to completely overlook that. This sloppy bit of writing leads me to believe that J.K. Rowling didn’t have the series fully mapped out in her head as she was going along.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t the worst HARRY POTTER film. GOBLET OF FIRE still holds that title and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is 75% filler, but Part 1 is still very much the first half of a plot and feels like it. The long running time certainly doesn’t help matters, but there are memorable sequences that stick out for positive reasons. I love the confrontations that Harry, Ron and Hermione have with various Death Eaters, especially a climactic showdown. There are tense scenarios brought up in visiting the Ministry of Magic in disguise and the completion of the cursed locket storyline. This is also the darkest HARRY POTTER film with a “doom and gloom” atmosphere the whole way through. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is far from the best installment in the HARRY POTTER series, but still remains a solid movie in the decade-long saga.

Grade: B

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Scary Moments and mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman & Maggie Smith

HARRY POTTER was a huge part of my childhood. I remember reading the entire book series with my family and repeatedly listening to the audiobooks. I remember the idiotic controversy from extreme religious groups about the series promoting witchcraft. I remember dressing up as Harry Potter for Halloween in third grade, before there were even Harry Potter costumes being sold in stores. I also remember seeing this movie on opening weekend in a sold-out theater with my family. This series (both the books and films) was a huge part of my life, so I’ll attempt to be as unbiased as possible in my HARRY POTTER reviews.

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Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan living with his abusive aunt, uncle and cousin. On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers he’s actually a wizard and has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Leaving the world of Muggles (non-magic folk) behind for a wondrous education in magic, Harry soon befriends ginger Ron Wesley (Rupert Grint) and geeky know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). The school year presents challenges with near-death experiences and other strange happenings. Harry and his friends soon discover that something very powerful is being guarded in the restricted third-floor corridor. The mysterious object peaks the interest of the pre-teen trio and lands them in the crosshairs of a dark wizard who wants to claim unspeakable power for himself.

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The first HARRY POTTER is easily the most kid-friendly of the series. That’s not to say that this film doesn’t occasionally get dark and have serious plot points. There are some scenes that might inspire nightmares in young children, particularly an antagonist’s demise and dangerous obstacles on the third floor corridor. Still, SORCERER’S STONE mostly feels upbeat and innocent, whereas other films in the series become progressively more mature. The musical score adds to the mood of the film, providing whimsy and aiding suspense in equal measure.

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At the heart of this story is a mystery about an ancient object, but that’s not the entire plot for 152 minutes. Instead, this film is also tasked with introducing viewers into the wizarding world, the school of Hogwarts and the big cast of characters in this series. Functioning as both a first step into a long-running franchise and its own movie, SORCERER’S STONE is an entertaining fantasy that occasionally suffers in its pacing. The script is forced to slow down to explain key details to the viewer, so they don’t need to be explained again in the next seven movies. Take for example, the abusive Dursley family portion which feels out-of-place and tests the viewer’s patience. The story significantly picks up steam once Harry finally boards the Hogwarts Express.

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Daniel Radcliffe will always be remembered as Harry Potter, no matter how many other quality films and edgy roles he takes in his career. Being very young at the time this was filmed (fitting for his eleven-year old protagonist), Radcliffe occasionally stumbles over a few lines and I still mock a couple of these moments with my brothers to this day (mainly quoting the “I’m just Harry!” scene). Rupert Grint plays Ron as a loyal sidekick and comic relief. His character doesn’t fully develop until the sequels. Sticking out from the main pack of child actors is Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Watson’s delivery, attitude, and body language all perfectly encapsulate what most fans probably pictured while reading the book.

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In supporting roles, Matthew Lewis shines as dorky outcast Neville Longbottom, Devon Murray gets a few laughs as rambunctious Seamus Finnigan, and Tom Felton is fantastic as pompous bully Draco Malfoy. John Cleese has a brief appearance as a ghost, while Maggie Smith is well-cast as the stern Professor McGonagall. Richard Harris perfectly embodies headmaster Albus Dumbledore and this would be the first of two performances the late actor would give as the character. Stealing nearly every scene he’s in, Alan Rickman is absolutely amazing as suspicious Professor Snape. Robbie Coltrane is a friendly presence as half-giant Hagrid, while Ian Hart is okay enough as timid Professor Quirrell.

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SORCERER’S STONE’s effects have mostly held up well over time, though a couple of computer-generated creatures look like they came out of a PlayStation 2 game. I’m mainly speaking about a troll, which looks just as cheesy as the cave troll in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. 2001 was a bad year for trolls in movies. A Quidditch match (an intense wizard sport) still remains very exciting, while the finale is a hugely satisfying culmination of every detail, plot development and character trait we’ve seen up to that point in the film. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE isn’t quite up to the level of other films in the series, but it’s certainly better than a couple of installments. As the most child-friendly of the bunch and an introduction into the magical cinematic world of HARRY POTTER, the film is enchanting fun!

Grade: B+

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