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 HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary Images, some Violence, Language and mild Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall & David Thewlis

This may be my shortest HARRY POTTER review. The key reason being that HALF-BLOOD PRINCE revolves around one major event in the final minutes and one major discovery that impacts the rest of the series, but that’s about it. Though this film broke records at the time of its release and has gone on to be one of the most well-reviewed entries in the HARRY POTTER series, it feels like filler. It’s well-shot, entertaining filler…but filler nonetheless. This mostly faithful adaptation is the second-worst film of the series, only topping the okay mess that was GOBLET OF FIRE.

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The wizarding and Muggle worlds both face dark times. Frequent disappearances and unexplained tragedies keep making headlines, forcing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to do all he can to prevent Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers from attaining power. Dumbledore tasks Harry with retrieving a hidden memory from new potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), while rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has become a Death Eater and been assigned an important task that he must carry out. To further complicate his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry finds a worn-out potions textbook that gives him new spells and potions tips from a so-called “Half-Blood Prince,” but this book also contains a dark side.

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Of the first six films, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE feels like the most “normal” school year. Nothing much of significance happens until the final third. We do see romance blossom for Ron, Hermione and Harry, which results in lots of annoying teenage angst. If it weren’t for frequently seen spells and potions, you might mistake this for a boarding school drama as opposed to the sixth installment in a fantasy series. It’s not as if these events aren’t entertaining to watch, because are plenty of humorous moments that work and the characters continue to develop. However, it just feels like HALF-BLOOD PRINCE mainly exists for the purpose of connecting ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS.

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Not much can be said about Daniel Radcliffe’s, Rupert Grint’s, and Emma Watson’s performances that hasn’t already been stated in my other reviews. They’re three entertaining protagonists and the only difference this time around is that Harry is finally accepting his status as “the chosen one,” while Ron and Hermione battle hormones. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE further demonstrates the need to pad out its running time by including the most Quidditch drama of the entire series. Dark forces are on the horizon, a crucial character died in the last film and that should be heavily affecting Harry’s emotional state, and Dumbledore is apparently onto secret dark magic that could stop Voldemort…but we apparently need many scenes of teen romance and sports to stretch this movie longer than 150 minutes.

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HALF-BLOOD PRINCE’s shining moments are in its finale (which is deeply affecting and ushers in new level of maturity for the series), scenes of dark forces rising (with a newly indoctrinated Draco Malfoy), creepy bits of Voldemort’s backstory, and Harry’s borderline addiction to the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook. However, these only make up about half of the running time. The other half is spent on interactions between students and, as I’ve already mentioned numerous times, various romances (only two of which actually seem remotely convincing).

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I may sound more bitter than I actually am. Some of this movie’s problems stem from the source material itself. There are many things to like about HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. The scenes are well-acted and funny in the right moments, even if half of them feel like they add nothing to the main story. Jim Broadbent does a wonderful job as Professor Slughorn. The finale is appropriately dark and makes two massive steps in the series, while the titular story arc with the Half-Blood Prince is mostly well-executed. However, the sheer unnecessary amount of romance and school drama detracted from my overall enjoyment of the sixth film, making HALF-BLOOD PRINCE the second-worst HARRY POTTER in the series.

Grade: B

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Michael Goldenberg

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson & Tom Felton

Two years after audiences experienced the worst HARRY POTTER film, David Yates stepped in as a director and proceeded to helm the last four films in the series (as well as 2016’s upcoming FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM). This long-running fantasy franchise’s fifth installment was one of the best films in 2007’s mixed bag summer movie season. I was working at a movie theater when this film came out and still remember going to see it three times on the big screen. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one notch below PRISONER OF AZKABAN (the POTTER’s highest point). ORDER earns its high ranking due to a fast pace, loathsome villainess, and an intricate story that thrives on believable character development.

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Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. People are disappearing and dark magic is becoming more frequent, but the willfully ignorant Ministry of Magic wishes to look the other way. This leaves fifth-year Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as social pariahs in the wizarding world. To make matters worse, the Ministry appoints cruel sociopathic witch Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Frustrated by Umbridge’s unwillingness to teach students how to actually defend themselves, a small band of Hogwarts students form a small resistance force known as “Dumbledore’s Army,” led by none other than Harry. Meanwhile, Harry discovers that he has a frightening psychic connection with Voldemort and attempts to control it.

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ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is probably the most stress-inducing HARRY POTTER cinematic chapter in that enemies come from both sides. In the first four films, Harry was seen as a sort of gifted celebrity by the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts staff. ORDER changes that, because the corrupt Ministry invades Hogwarts and shapes the school to their benefit. Of course, this is being perpetuated by probably the most despicable antagonist in the entire series: Dolores Umbridge. She’s a horrible person and you might have to restrain yourself from attempting to jump through the screen to strangle her. Imelda Staunton plays her to sickly sweet perfection in a performance that reminds me of two terrible teachers I had in school, making the character that much more aggravating on a personal level.

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Besides Dolores Umbridge, two new characters also pop up in murderous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and optimistic oddball Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). The former only appears for ten minutes of screen time, but makes the most of her scenes. The latter is a fantastic new addition to the main HARRY POTTER cast. Lynch was a perfect choice for the role and plays Luna exactly as I imagined her in the books. This character is a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why. To further praise Luna Lovegood as a positive role model, she has the admirable attributes of not caring what other people think and being true to herself.

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Daniel Radcliffe is back in top-form as Harry Potter, becoming outright confrontational in places and slowly evolving into the determined hero he needs to be in order to take down Voldemort. Emma Watson’s Hermione gets a few moments to shine. She passionately hates Umbridge and supports Harry. Rupert Grint’s Ron devolves back into only providing comic relief, but his funny bits alleviate the film’s more depressing moments. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Gary Oldman all receive their shining highlights as well.

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ORDER’s finale delivers lots of excitement and carefully builds upon everything that’s previously occurred. An effects-heavy confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore easily stands as one of series’ best scenes, even if the closing minutes seem a tad too convenient. The running time is also among the shortest in the eight films, which makes the fast pacing even better. The final third’s emotional arcs have serious repercussions for the main characters and the rest of the series. Everything that comes before that point is a combination of magical suspense and uplifting entertainment about standing up for what you believe in…even when all sides seem stacked against you.

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Much like PRISONER OF AZKABAN, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX uses a carefully scaled-down plot to evolve the characters and series as a whole. The performances are solid across the board, with Imelda Staunton being one of the series’ best villains as Umbridge. ORDER functions on powerful ideas of a corrupt government (albeit a magical one) and brewing rebellions. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is just a hair beneath AZKABAN on the HARRY POTTER totem pole. In this series, second-place isn’t bad at all!

Grade: A

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Miranda Richardson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Stanislav Ianevski, Robert Pattinson, Clemence Poesy & David Tennant

After directing the best HARRY POTTER film, Alfonso Cuaron decided to step down and let someone else take the reins for GOBLET OF FIRE. The fourth HARRY POTTER novel easily stands out as my favorite book in the series and promised to be a spectacular film to the point where pages seem like they were written with a big-screen adaptation in mind. The plot is also just as exciting as PRISONER OF AZKABAN, while offering its own nifty plot twists as well. However, this fourth film is a bit of a mess. GOBLET OF FIRE was directed by Mike Newell (who also brought us PRINCE OF PERSIA and MONA LISA SMILE, which aren’t exactly credits that scream for a high-profile fantasy-adventure). GOBLET OF FIRE is entertaining enough to be a decent watch, but the smell of a missed opportunity remains.

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After a trip to the Quidditch World Cup ends in magical terrorism, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) finds that his fourth year at Hogwarts provides excitement in the form of the famous Triwizard Tournament. This deadly competition will pit three different champions from three different schools against each other for the Triwizard Cup…but this year there are four champions. Powerful magic has been performed and Harry has somehow wound up in the Triwizard Tournament. Facing three dangerous challenges, Harry will find himself tested in ways he never imagined. All the while, dark forces are at work.

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Let me get the main positive quality out of the way. GOBLET OF FIRE is entertaining in a spectacle-driven way. It’s hard to make dragons and deadly challenges into a boring watch. The challenge sequences are well-executed with lots of grand special effects, excitement, and high stakes. Lives are literally on the line, so Harry and the other champions are forced to muster incredible courage…in the face of a huge audience and media coverage. Scenes outside of the challenges range from watchable to great. However, uneven pacing, annoying jokes, and unnecessary plot details frequently stall GOBLET’s momentum.

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GOBLET’s pacing has two speeds: too fast and too slow. Within the first 15 minutes, it seems like we’ve been given the Quidditch World Cup (which is more of a fun prologue) and three different introductions for the Triwizard Tournament. The film shows us the two other schools arriving through magical means, then has the two other schools walk into the grand hall with style, and then has Dumbledore explain details about the tournament. It makes you wonder if these three introductions could have been combined and allowed for more natural interactions between Harry, Ron and Hermione in the beginning.

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Besides rushing through plot details without giving the viewer enough time to care, GOBLET constantly gets bogged down in unnecessary details. Did we really need to see Moaning Myrtle in a scene that borders on becoming a PG-13 sex comedy? What about the long section dedicated to a drawn-out dance that provides a whole lot of teenage angst? It’s true that both of these things were in the source material, but the script should have found a way to make them interesting as opposed to sucking the excitement out of the proceedings. Groundskeeper Filch also strangely becomes an often-seen source of silly comic relief, which is downright awkward in this installment…and much better utilized in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX.

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Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson all put in quality performances, though they don’t come off nearly as strong as they were in PRISONER OF AZKABAN. Alan Rickman’s Snape gets numerous highlights as he reveals a few clues about dark dealings and delivers great humor. Gary Oldman gets a quick blink-and-you-missed-it scene, while Maggie Smith steals a couple of moments during the film’s otherwise annoying dance section. Michael Gambon remains a strong Dumbledore and Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid only receives a couple of memorable scenes.

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GOBLET delivers more characters into the wide world of HARRY POTTER. These include: three Triwizard champions, a cartoony Death Eater (follower of Voldemort), an eccentric new professor, and the long-awaited dark lord. As Harry’s competitors, Clemence Poesy, Stanislav Ianevski, and Robert Pattinson (three years before he became sparkly vampire Edward Cullen) all have distinct screen presences in their own ways. Brendan Gleeson is the best part of the entire film as crazy new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Mad-Eye Moody and receives huge laughs. Though he’s regulated to one sequence, Ralph Fiennes more than delivers as Voldemort. Fiennes has played memorable bad guys before, but Voldemort is one of those special villains for the ages. Meanwhile, David Tennant is embarrassingly over-the-top as a briefly glimpsed Death Eater.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE is a mixed bag. On one hand, it has solid spectacle, a handful of great scenes and two fantastic performances. On the other hand, the film frequently falls victim to uneven pacing, unnecessary extra details, forced teenage angst and one downright terrible performance. What’s even more disappointing is that GOBLET OF FIRE is one of the best books in the series and was perfect for a big-screen adaptation loaded with special effects. The pros keep the film from becoming all-out mediocre or bad, while the cons keep it from being great. When held up to the other seven HARRY POTTER films, GOBLET OF FIRE sticks out as the weakest in the series.

Grade: B-

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Frightening Moments, Creature Violence and mild Language

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Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson & Tom Felton

PRISONER OF AZKABAN marked a distinct shift in HARRY POTTER from family friendly entertainment to mature fantasy-adventures. Ironically enough, PRISONER is the best film in the franchise and had the lowest box office return. Director Alfonso Cuaron replaced Chris Columbus in the director’s chair and the running time was considerably shorter than previous installments, but PRISONER OF AZKABAN also benefits from a smart script, solid performances, a refreshingly serious tone, and better filmmaking all-around.

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Harry’s third year at Hogwarts has begun with him accidentally blowing up his aunt, being quickly pardoned by the Minister of Magic and discovering that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a dangerous killer, has escaped from Azkaban prison. Because Sirius has his murderous eye on Harry, Hogwarts has undergone extra security measures in the form of soul-sucking creatures called Dementors. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find themselves beset with new classes, difficult challenges, and buried secrets. Forming a friendship with newly appointed Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), Harry discovers details about his father’s past and Sirius Black begins to enact a long-awaited plan of revenge…but things aren’t as they seem.

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PRISONER OF AZKABAN is very different from the other installments in the series, because Voldemort isn’t the main antagonist, which allows for a more confined story as Harry makes new friends and discovers new enemies. The focus is strongly on characters and this third film is likely the most emotional entry as a result. The threat of Sirius Black on the horizon builds a solid sense of escalating suspense and there are interesting subplots that brilliantly tie into the main story to keep the viewer hooked the whole way through. The final hour packs enough twists, turns and surprising revelations to make your head spin. These become even more rewarding upon repeat viewings and you know what clues to look for.

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Performances have drastically improved over the previous two installments. Daniel Radcliffe stretches a lot of emotional muscles, which make for genuine moments of joy, anger and heartbreak. Rupert Grint is above simply being comic relief and transforms Ron into a believable best friend. Emma Watson’s Hermione seemingly existed for exposition and extra emotional stakes in the first two films, but she adds a ton to the proceedings this time around. Alan Rickman’s Snape is given plenty of room to develop, while Hagrid has a great subplot as well. Michael Gambon replaced the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore and puts a new spin on the character. Though he has a noticeably changed Irish accent, Gambon’s Dumbledore is fantastic and serves as my preferred interpretation of the two in the series.

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New additions to the ever-expanding cast of characters include: Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Sybill Trelawney, and a certain other person who I won’t mention by name. The titular prisoner of Azkaban, played by Gary Oldman, is one of the strongest characters in the entire series. I don’t want to go into specifics, for fear of spoilers, but he’s a fascinating figure that delivers hugely impactful scenes. David Thewlis plays Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin and provides one of the best story arcs in the film, helping Harry cope with his fear of Dementors. Emma Thompson delivers quirky comic relief as hack Divinations Professor Trelawney, while Timothy Spall is perfectly cast as a certain character.

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The film’s tone is darker and its pacing considerably quicker than STONE or CHAMBER. Director Alfonso Cuaron had a careful eye for artistic touches. Creative scene transitions make the world of Hogwarts feel expansive and fleshed out. Smaller scenes like a visit to Hogsmeade (a village outside of Hogwarts), frequent cuts to the Whomping Willow, and interesting class sessions make for more natural (dare I say, realistic) footing to this fantastical story. The special effects hold up perfectly (whereas STONE and CHAMBER have both shakily aged in this department). The Dementors are legitimately frightening, while a winged Hippogriff brings one spectacular sequence. It should be noted that small details laid carefully throughout come back in big ways too.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is all-around fantastic! The complex story plays out masterfully and rewards viewers upon repeat viewings. This mature vision of HARRY POTTER shifted the series into bold new territory and stood out from the pack. It also serves as a faithful adaptation, capturing all the important details of the book and translating the magic from the page to screen. Of all eight HARRY POTTER films, PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the best of the series!

Grade: A+

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary Moments, some Creature Violence and mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & Tom Felton

Warner Brothers was confident that HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE would be a hit. How confident were they? Well, they believed in the film enough to begin production on a sequel three days after the first movie hit theaters. This sequel brought back director Chris Columbus, who opted for different filmmaking techniques this time around that greatly benefitted the film, and is a faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of the second novel in the HARRY POTTER book series. CHAMBER OF SECRETS is one of those rare sequels that not only lives up to its predecessor, but easily surpasses it.

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Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is spending a rather depressing summer at his abusive uncle’s home, but things liven up in a bad way when masochistic house elf Dobby gives Harry a messy warning not to return to school. The second year at Hogwarts is off to a rocky start as it seems someone has it out for Harry (sabotaging the Hogwarts Express gateway, tampering with a Quidditch equipment), but those are the least of his problems. Something ancient and deadly has been unleashed in Hogwarts. It’s literally petrifying victims who see it and may kill someone very soon. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must get to the bottom of another mystery before Hogwarts is forced to close its doors for good.

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Though it still has a child-friendly attitude and is significantly more light-hearted than later entries in the series, CHAMBER OF SECRETS is darker than SORCERER’S STONE. There’s still a fantasy-mystery at the center of this film, but the stakes are higher in that people are actually being petrified and there’s a strange beast stalking the students. There a few scenes that are bound to give little kids nightmares yet again (especially those who are afraid of spiders or snakes).

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With only a year’s worth of extra experience, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson all improved greatly in natural line delivery and believable emotions. Seeing the reunion of Harry (a hero worth rooting for), Ron (great comic relief and a solid sidekick) and Hermione (bringing smarts and exposition) is akin to watching real-life friends meet up. Tom Felton also gets a lot more to do this time around as cocky rival Draco Malfoy. The returning adult cast receives noticeably less screen time, though Alan Rickman is still phenomenal as Snape, Richard Harris is perfect as Dumbledore, and Robbie Coltrane steals his scenes as the lovable Hagrid.

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New characters and fresh faces include: aforementioned CGI monstrosity Dobby, cocky incompetent professor Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), weeping ghost Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), and menacing Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs). Much more time is also spent with the charming Weasley family. The best new addition is easily Kenneth Branagh’s headstrong Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, who provides a lot of comic relief and frustrating plot developments in equal measure. Moaning Myrtle gets a couple of grim laughs, while Jason Isaacs is great as Draco’s threatening father.

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The worst character is easily Dobby. I know he might be a fan favorite in certain circles and he certainly plays a significant role in this film’s plot (and in later films), but I see Dobby as HARRY POTTER’s Jar-Jar Binks. He’s annoying, his humor mostly falls flat and I found myself taken out of the film every time he popped up. His final scene also contains a big plot hole pertaining to a certain curse that another character is trying to cast. It opens up a big gap in the series’ logic that makes no sense when you eventually find out about that specific spell in the fourth film.

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CHAMBER’s pacing moves quickly and the script pretty much captures every major scene from the novel. It’s faithful to a fault in that exposition is somewhat too fast and convenient, but that’s the result of filmmakers trying to cram 341 heavily detailed pages into less than three hours. I feel they succeeded, but some of the plot details are a bit heavy-handed. One element that is welcomed is the prejudice between “pure blood” wizards and “mud-bloods” (Muggle-born wizards and witches). This is a remarkably mature element in a PG-rated fantasy.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS is bigger, funnier, darker, faster, and all around better than the first film. It’s slightly grim shift in tone signaled the maturity that later films in the series would follow. Though it’s not without a couple of complaints (which could be considered to be minor gripes), CHAMBER OF SECRETS is an exciting fantasy-adventure that outdoes its predecessor in every conceivable way.

Grade: A-

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+

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, some Sexuality and Innuendo

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Directed by: Michael Apted

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Bruce Feirstein

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Colin Salmon & John Cleese

The nineteenth entry in the Bond series and the tenth review in my 007 retrospective, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is a movie that I actually had a weird childhood connection with. Though 2006’s CASINO ROYALE was the only Bond movie I had ever watched before starting this retrospective (in anticipation of SPECTRE), I played the Nintendo 64 version of WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH throughout my later years of elementary school. So while I had never seen this 1999 film, I had played its videogame counterpart enough to guess a basic outline of where things might head. That being said, I was excited to see if this third Brosnan Bond flick would hold up to his first two entries. To put it nicely, this was a disappointment…

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Sir Robert King, a high-profile businessman, has been assassinated inside of MI6. James Bond gives chase to the assassin, but is left in the dark as to why King was killed and by whom. As a result, MI6 assigns Bond to guard King’s daughter, Elektra. The culprit behind King’s assassination appears to be Renard, a chaotic terrorist who had previously abducted Elektra. Bond quickly discovers that Renard seems to be coming after Elektra for a second time and a deadly, destructive plan is set in motion. Aided by a most unlikely nuclear physicist (Denise Richards), Bond must race against the clock to stop a nuclear attack.

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The opening ten minutes of WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH speak volumes as to what kind of movie this is. We see Bond confront a Swiss banker, leap out of a building, witness an assassination, engage in a high-speed boat chase and then jump off an exploding hot-air balloon. As adrenaline-pumping and overwhelming as all of this sounds, none of these things come off as the least bit exciting. An apathetic approach towards the action is constant throughout most of the running time. However, there are a couple of ridiculous scenes that I enjoyed if only for their sheer absurdity. The best of these has Bond facing off against a helicopter equipped with saw blades. This sequence is just as stupid as it sounds, but at that point, I was taking any possible enjoyment that I could muster. The film also looks good (for the most part) with solid special effects and stunts, but sadly this cannot make up for a lackluster screenplay.

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I don’t know what happened between TOMORROW NEVER DIES (my pick for the most underrated 007 film) and WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, but it seems like Brosnan just stopped caring. When performed well, the character of James Bond can bring a level of fun and excitement to even the most preposterous script. In his third outing as the iconic secret agent, Brosnan seems bored. The only halfway decent performance in this movie comes from Sophie Marceau as Elektra King, but I saw her character’s whole story arc as forced and unbelievable. Denise Richards takes the spot of worst Bond girl that I’ve ever seen. She has no chemistry with 007 and her wooden delivery make all of her puns even more painful to behold. Finally, there’s Robert Carlyle as the scarred madman Renard. This Bond villain is just plain vanilla. He’s bland and the only unique characteristic to him is that there’s a bullet in his brain that makes him immune to pain. That being said, the final showdown between himself and Bond comes off like the actors are rehearsing for a fight scene as opposed to actually performing stunts in front of the camera.

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THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is where Brosnan’s stint as Bond began to turn sour. The self-referential attitude is absent and the character of Bond has suddenly turned into another generic action hero. The qualities that made this long running franchise of spy movies so special don’t seem to exist within the confines of these 128 minutes. I was far more bored than excited. The action scenes (which should have been impressive, save for that lame final fight) somehow come off as dull. Sadly, WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH doesn’t pack enough of a plot or enough excitement to be remotely satisfying.

Grade: C-

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