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HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE Considering that the first four books in J.K. Rowling's series about a budding boy wizard have sold over 100 million copies, it's no surprise that Hollywood decided to get into the act; what is surprising is the degree of reverence with which this property has been treated. This lavish film version ends up working on both levels: as a stand-alone motion picture and as a worthy adaptation of a novel that, while hardly a literary landmark, is nevertheless funny, inventive and full of spirit and spunk. Director Chris Columbus has a deserved reputation for making cloying films (Home Alone, Bicentennial Man), but here he has deftly allowed the movie to walk the precipitous line between being too syrupy for adults and too grave for children. This balancing act begins with the kids cast in the principal roles: Daniel Radcliffe as 11-year-old Harry Potter and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his loyal classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All three actors are endearing rather than annoying, and the natural ease with which they work together goes a long way toward drawing audience members directly into their world (they're supported by a top-flight cast that includes Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith). If there's a flaw to be found, it's that the picture may be a little too breathless for its own good, occasionally relying on its technical achievements at the expense of its emotional content. For the most part, though, this is an enchanting magical mystery tour and a sure moviegoing bet for the holiday season.
KATE & LEOPOLD We're all familiar with Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma & Louise, but as far as screen couples go, look for Kate & Leopold to have a shelf life more in common with those of O.C. & Stiggs and Homer and Eddie. (Who, you ask? My point exactly.) Meg Ryan, whose ceaseless attempts to remain the pixie queen of frothy romantic comedies are becoming embarrassing, plays Kate, an ambitious sales executive whose career strength, according to her unctuous boss (Bradley Whitford), is that she knows what women want but thinks like a man while preparing successful ad campaigns. Naturally, it's going to take one special individual to thaw her out, and that would be Leopold (Hugh Jackman), a 19th century Duke who, via a scientific experiment conducted by Kate's ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), ends up being transported to present-day New York. Bland romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but it's rare to come across a time travel tale as listless as this one. After an insufferable first half in which we watch Leopold predictably become perplexed by modern-day gadgets like toasters and telephones, the second half marginally picks up thanks to the pleasing presence of Breckin Meyer as Kate's good-natured brother. Still, this is awfully anemic material, and yet another misstep for Jackman, the X-Men star who needed this about as much as he needed Swordfish. 1/2
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING The second part of this season's highly anticipated wizard show, The Fellowship of the Ring has its roots in a literary legacy even more feverishly admired than the one for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Filming all three parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy in one fell swoop (the second and third films will be released over the next two Christmases), director Peter Jackson gets things off to a promising start with this first installment, a three-hour epic that, while rarely scaling new heights in the fantasy genre, should nonetheless please both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are probably familiar with the saga's basic thrust noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story (compare this to the opening crawl in David Lynch's Dune, which left viewers instantly confused). From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the pace rarely flags. Still, despite the fantastical setting, the sense of wonder that Jackson brought to such earlier credits as Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures isn't quite as apparent (a determination not to offend the faithful may have something to do with it), and, as in Harry Potter, the computer-generated effects aren't always up to par. Admittedly, though, these are mere quibbles that diehard fans will brush aside like gnats, boding well for the remaining chapters in this ambitious undertaking.