Monday, November 21, 2016

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: This is a pleasant movie, the first of an alleged five part series in the same world that contains, and by the same author that wrote, the Harry Potter series. This time J. K. Rowling went straight to the screenplay, but you can buy the screenplay from Amazon.

The title of the movie is from a quick-and-dirty small encyclopedia of magical creatures that Rowling published and sold for charity, but the movie is actually fleshed out from some tales briefly mentioned in the Harry Potter series: Newt Scamander, procurer, protector, and proponent of rare, mostly tame magical beasts, and Gellert Grindelwald, yet another Rowling bad guy who wants the magical world to assert itself as ruler over the muggle world.

The plot: This movie is divorced from the main story of Harry Potter. It is set in 1924 as Newt is at the peak of his procuring and before he has begun writing his book. Something nasty is tearing up the streets of New York City. Graves, a high-up in Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA, the US version of the Ministry of Magic) is doing some secret spying on some orphans who have been collected by a crank fundamentalist lady who is convinced there are witches that walk the streets of NYC. She provides them food and shelter, but also sends them out to distribute pamphlets and whips them for misbehavior. Graves has been meeting with one of the orphans, Credence, who also has a sister. Graves thinks that his sister or some other girl may be of special importance, or something. We find out more about this later, as it turns from the side-plot into the main plot during the last third of the movie.

Meanwhile, Newt arrives in NY with his bag of creatures. His bag gets mixed up with a muggle's, and the muggle accidentally releases a bunch of the creatures. Newt drags the muggle into his quest to find them, along with a discredited MACUSA enforcer, Tina, and her mind-reading sister. The four of them experience trouble, including Newt and Tina being sentenced and nearly put to death (!!!) by a harassed and apparently ineffectual and panicking MACUSA. They escape, collect the last missing creatures, and are then caught up in the Graves plot, the orphans, and the something nasty that is tearing up the streets.

Reactions: This movie is enjoyable, particularly for younger viewers who will take delight in all of the pretty creatures contained in Newt's suitcase. The first third of the movie actually meandered a lot as we hear a lot of slow conversations between Tina, her sister, and Newt, and slowly wander around the contents of the suitcase (for what must be a good 15 minutes) and watch creatures wrecking buildings (another 15 minutes). A young Harry Potter's delight in the magic world was one of the original movie's strength; in this movie, the muggle serves that purpose, to a lesser degree. The story is Rowlingian: a main plot and a sub-plot that switch places about two thirds of the way through. This make this movie feel more like a Harry Potter book than any of the Harry Potter movies did. The HP movies were usually over-rushed to cover only the action points from the books. Older viewers might feel bored during these early scenes.

The HP movies had a strung together overarching plot. At least starting from the fourth book/movie, you know that Harry potter must eventually face off against Voldemort, so there is an underlying story going on behind the scenes and a climax toward which everything is leading. This movie feels like a small vignette about a one-off event; only a cognoscenti would guess that this is probably the first of a five part arc about Grindelwald. The first Harry Potter movie(s) felt about the same.

In the original HP movies, Harry, Hermione, and Ron were cute kids whose characters grew and changed over each movie (well, Ron was basically a lump for movies 2-4). In this movie, there are no character arcs; the only change that we see is that Newt and Tina are keen on each other by the end of the movie.

The movie is beautifully shot and directed, well lit, with the usual HP magic abounding in the pictures and newspapers, the menagerie of creatures, and some Easter eggs. It lacks character arcs, an overriding setting in a larger story, and connection with the main characters, who are cute but not characters who one would identify with due to sympathy. But it is in other ways magical, the story is good after the slow parts, the good guys and bad guys are three-dimensional, flawed characters (although the main bad guy is not particularly sinister), and the merging of magic and period is kind of intriguing: the 1920s world was gender-divided, but the wizarding world isn't. On the other hand, it appears to be race-divided; there are no minority characters in the film. In the jazz clubs, where in the 1920s one could expect to find a racially mixed audience, the clientele is Caucasian characters and non-humans. The movie is good, but I expect the next films in the series to be darker and better.

Monday, November 07, 2016

2016 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

Remember that the most valuable gift you can give is time. Don't just give your loved ones a game; play it with them. Find or start a local game group and join or form a community.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because tablets are perfect platforms for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.

Nowadays, most games are also available on consoles, too.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This is a game of drafting cards and building a wondrous city. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, provides great choices, with depth enough to spare.

Antike II: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game (and its predecessor but very rare and expensive Antike) is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Other alternatives for the Risk player are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game that moves in one game affect the next).

Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.

The pictured version is a little quieter and less bulky than the old boxy version, and comes with a built-in electronic timer.
Candle Quest: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Hanukkah theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme makes it appropriate for all ages, and there's nothing overtly Jewish about it, other than that it's a menorah, so anyone should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Victory Point Games.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions.

Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This game, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, are the perfect adult games for beginning gamers.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.

Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out Pagat.com for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
Codenames: Ages 10+, 4-10 players

Codenames is a new, fun game that uses words in an unusual way. Two teams, the clue givers alternate trying to give one word clues that match as many of their team's cards as possible. You must find a word that matches multiple other words, but not any of your opponent's words or the assassin's word. It's mindbending, and the game is infinitely replayable.

A great game for non-gamers and gamers alike.

Dixit: Ages 10+, 3-6 (12) players

Dixit is an incredible game, especially for non-gamers. It is loved as a creative exercise: pick a card and give a word, phrase, song, dance, or any other clue to describe it, but not too perfectly. The other players try to play cards that also match your clue. You only get points if some people guess which was your card and some people don't.

The fun is in the creativity of the clues, and I've yet to see a game where even the most stodgy non-gamer doesn't have fun.

There are now several expansions, which are all good. This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelry.

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

This game has just 16 cards, but it packs a full, replayable deduction, bluffing game into 10 minutes. It's a top seller, takes 30 seconds to learn, and is challenging to play.

It's not my type of game, but I'm in the minority.
Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Nefarious: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

This is a game of mad scientists that is great for 2 to 6 players, and doesn't sacrifice speed with more players. Each round, you select one of four actions. collect money from any neighbors who selected actions that your minions are invested in, perform your action, and then check to see if you won. The actions are: invest minions, play cards, take cards, or take money.

The cards are fun and the game is quick and replayable, because, in each game, you play with some random twists that make that game's experience unique.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.

Pandemic / Pandemic Legacy

Cooperative games used to be either very boring, very childish, or very hippy. A new breed of cooperative games are nail-bitingly challenging and fun.

Pandemic is a cooperative game of saving the world from disease. Other cooperative games include Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, and Forbidden Island.

The new Pandemic Legacy (like Risk Legacy, mentioned above), is a version that plays out: each time you play the world is permanently changed with stickers and torn cards; after dozens of plays, the game is over.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Catan, is The Game. I used to disagree, but I think I have come around. New players will find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game, and the 1910 expansion is recommended.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as an order of magnitude better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.


Enjoy,
Yehuda

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Movie Reviews: Harry Potter series (with spoilers)

I watched a series of eight movies about an evil wizard named Voldemort and the characters who line up to either fight or support him in his quest to rule the world. The series takes place in our modern world, where magic is commonplace in specific areas that are out of sight for us normal people (or "muggles") and practiced commonly and mundanely by those (men, who are called wizards, and women, who are called witches) who apparently inherit the gene for it. Although family members of the magic-practitioners know about the magic world, they think of it as a perversion; other people don't know about it at all (or choose to ignore or forget about it). Magic happenings witnessed by muggles are written off as freak occurrences or natural disasters.

The story begins in the middle of the plot: ten years ago the evil power-hungry and racist wizard Voldemort was defeated when a curse he cast to kill a baby boy named Harry Potter rebounded and killed his body (but not his spirit). Ten years late, we follow Harry's story through seven years of attending the wizarding school Hogwarts, a school that helps you practice magic but apparently teaches nothing else. Voldemort gradually succeeds in regaining a body and returns to his attempts to take over the world and to kill Harry. Eventually, because "plot", Harry Potter is called upon to sacrifice himself to kill Voldemort, which he gamely attempts to do. Does he succeed in killing Voldemort? Does he survive? Is there a happy ending?

The World

The initial premise is absurd: with so many relatives of wizards and witches, nearly everyone in the world must already know about this magical subculture, yet no one does. Nevertheless, it is fetching to see young boys and girls wandering around in a little magical world where, although they are bombarded by various threats to life and limb, they relate to magic as both mundane and wonderful, in turn. It is also nice to see that the magical world is devoid of any of the usual sexism or racism ... except that it has invented a new kind, to serve as a metaphor for the others.

Magic doesn't make anyone a better person; magic is power, and power corrupts. While many of those with magical abilities behave more or less normally and responsibly, others use and abuse their powers, in the same ways that brutish people do in real life with political, military, or monetary powers. Apparently the only thing that keeps magic in check is oversight by the Ministry of Magic. But this oversight is applied sporadically. The logic and rules of the universe are inconsistent. Spells appear in the series when useful and are then never used again; or they do not appear until later in the series, even though they would have been useful in earlier movies. There are spells that could wreak massive property destruction and take out hundreds of opponents with the slightest flick of the wrist and a word, but magic battles are always entirely unstrategic: wizards and witches shoot bolts of energy at each other where they are typically easily deflected unless the opponent is distracted or taken by surprise. An absurdly powerful time travel device is introduced early on, used repeatedly in one movie for a banal purpose, used once to literally raise people and creatures from the dead, and then never seen again in subsequent movies. Spells that can repair items and heal people are used once or twice and then never seen again. Wizards and witches can fly, teleport, and summon things to their hands, but they are constantly stymied by having to cross things and reach things, which should be trivial by using flying, teleporting, and summoning. Truth potions exist that could solve all kinds of problems, but they are used only once and then never seen again.

This absurdity is overshadowed by one of the dumbest games ever invented: quiddich. It's something like soccer or ultimate flying disk played on broomsticks: players as young as ten years old bat a ball back and forth trying to score goals worth 10 points each. Meanwhile, other balls zoom back and forth trying to knock people off of them brooms from easily fatal heights and speeds, so everyone is at constant risk of actual death. The game ends when someone catches a little golden flying ball for 150 points, making everything else that happened in the game entirely irrelevant.

Some magic requires a wand and some doesn't, but it is never made clear why, and not applied consistently. One of the ways of incapacitating a wizard is by disarming them of their wand; yet many magics are performed just by thinking or waving your hand. There are millions of devices that allow you to perform magic without a wand; why wizards don't avail themselves of these when their wand is taken away is beyond me. And why wizards don't avail themselves of perfectly good non-magical firepower, such as guns, is also beyond me (they will occasionally punch people, so they are not "above" such uses).


As for the rest, the overall plot is a bad guy who wants power. Nasty wizards and witches support him, because they hate the same things that he hates: muggles and the impure of the wizarding world. It's a good theme, no less so for having been used to death in many other fiction and fantasy stories. The early movies are light and comical, with local or minor threats to the main characters; they grow increasingly less comical, more general, and more dark and painful as the main characters grow into teenage-hood. Deaths of key supporting characters begin about halfway through and become more frequent until the end of the series.

Major characters

The world depicted in the movies has a dizzying array of characters on both sides of the conflict. Characters are one of the movie series' major strengths. With the exception, perhaps, of the main bad guy, Voldemort, all of the characters are unique and contain some depth. Interactions between main characters and secondary characters, and even interactions between secondary characters, are well-thought out and interesting. I didn't grow tired of seeing a particular character on screen, or get confused between a bunch of interchangeable sidekicks, like I do in so many other movies.

Here are the main characters.

Voldemort (nee Tom Riddle): Chief bad guy, powerful, merciless wizard, and former student of Dumbledore's at Hogwarts. His motivations for wanting to kill everyone else and take over the world remain unclear, but there you go. Nothing redeeming about him.

Harry Potter: Sent to live with his awful relatives after his parents are killed, Harry is mostly brave at trying to do the right thing in between missing his parents and turning into an angry teenager. He makes good friends with Ron, Ron's family, and Hermione, and becomes a mentee of Dumbledore.

Ron Weasley: Red-headed Sam Gangee to Harry's Frodo, who is in turns brave and clumsy with magic (and girls). He eventually becomes a love interest for Hermione.

Hermione Granger: A spunky, magically talented and educated friend of Harry's who starts out as a snob but becomes both brave and motherly to both Ron and Harry. Her family is non-magical, and she takes a kind of racist heat for this (some families in the magic word considered wizards and witches with mixed heritage - or non-magical heritage - to be "impure", which is intended to hearken to supremacist movements). Love interest for Ron, for some reason.

Harold Weasley: Ron's father who works at the Ministry of Magic. His job, as is the job of everyone at the ministry, is to keep magic hidden from muggles (erasing their minds when required) and rein in magic use, and basically not much else. Has a rebellious nature and is curious about non-magical items such as telephones.

Molly Weasley: Ron's mother becomes a mother figure to Harry and tries to keep her rambunctious kids and husband in line. Knits bad sweaters. Like all wizards and witches, she fights bravely when she has to.

Ginny Weasley: Ron's young sister, a brave and wise young woman. She becomes a love interest to Harry, eventually.

Other Weasley siblings: Cause all kinds of trouble, sometimes by being practical jokers and sometimes by being superior; they fight for the good team when necessary.

Albus Dumbledore: Headmaster of Hogwarts and one of the principle opponents of Voldemort, his cryptic remarks and odd pronouncements are hard to figure out. He kind of mentors Harry, but not always in a helpful manner, since he always hides what he is doing, causing everyone to leap to the wrong conclusions.

Minerva McGonagall: Hogwarts professor. A disciplinarian, but constant friend of Harry's and supporter of Dumbledore.

Severus Snape: Hogwarts professor with a sneer and an attitude. His loyalties are never questioned by Dumbledore, and all suspicions against him are always unfounded, but his strict disciplinary attitude makes him appear to be up to something. The fact that he once was in service to Voldemort only crystallizes that concern. His loyalties only come into question in the sixth movie, and we only find out - for sure - his true loyalties at the end of the series.

Other Hogwarts professors: Some are comically inept and disappear after one movie, some remain throughout the series and are loyal to Dumbledore, some (especially dark arts professors) are hacks or Voldemort moles.

Draco Malfoy: A foil for Harry Potter, he is a student who comes from one of those racist families that deride mixed-magical or non-magical families. Most of these side with Voldemort, so Draco's loyalties are guided by his family history. He is generally obnoxious but harmless until the last movies. Near the end, he has to decide what to do when Voldemort threatens his family, but he doesn't really seem to hate Dumbledore.

Lucius Malfoy: Draco's abusive father, a death eater (see below).

Neville Longbottom: A clumsy, awkward student, and minor friend to Harry, who occasionally does something brave (and usually useless) and is always willing to try again. He helps Harry on occasion, an he eventually plays a small but vital part in the fight against Voldemort.

Other Hogwarts students: Many of these side with or against Harry, or with or against Draco, or with or against Voldemort as the occasion demands. The "pure-blood" students nearly always side with Draco and/or Voldemort.

Rubeus Hagrid: A half-giant, somewhat dim but loyal Hogwarts groundskeeper. He is a wizard, but his fondness for dangerous magical creatures makes him susceptible to blackmail and bribery, and he has some emotional issues. Still, he is loyal to Dumbledore and a good friend to Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Sirius Black: Harry's godfather, old friend of Harry's parents. Ten years ago he was framed for betraying them and sent to Azkaban prison, but he escapes between the second and third movie. Everyone except for Harry and his closest friends still believe he is guilty.

The Dursleys: Harry Potter's relatives and foster family. Comically spoiled and horrible, but basically harmless.

Death Eaters: Voldemort's supporters. Some of the most powerful ones are released from prison and form Voldermort's core henchman.


Dementors: Wraith-like spirit beings whose very presence causes fear and coldness, and whose kiss will suck out your soul. They are guards at the wizard prison Azkaban and sometimes sent (illegally) on missions. Harry is particular sensitive to them, for some reason, but quickly learns the magic required to chase them away.

Movies

Movie 1: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

PLOT: Harry has lived a terrible life with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, the Dursleys, until he is 10 years old, and then Hagrid comes to collect him to take him to Hogwarts. He is informed he is a wizard and that Voldemort killed his parents when he was a baby, but Voldemort's attempt to kill Harry rebounded and left him without a body (the Dursleys had told Harry that his parents had were killed in a car crash).

Harry learns that he is okay as a wizard, but very good at flying on a broom and playing quiddich. Harry befriends Ron and rebuffs a friendship offer from Draco who casts aspersions on Ron as being from the wrong kind of magical family. The two of them eventually befriend Hermione.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn that a magic stone that can grant immortality is being guarded at Hogwarts, and they think Snape is trying to steal it. They resolve to go find it themselves. Hagrid accidentally gives away a clue on how to get to the stone, and had also given the same clue to some mysterious stranger who bribed him at a bar. The kids suspect it was Snape. They make their way through the guard and traps to where the stone is kept, only to discover that it is some other professor who is trying to steal it on behalf of Voldemort, and that Voldemort is partially living inside the professor's body (turns out that Snape was trying to protect Harry and prevent this professor from finding the stone.) Voldemort thinks the stone will return him to full life. Harry finds the stone and defeats the professor when he accidentally discovers that his hand burn the professor by touch. The professor crumbles to dust, and Voldemort's spirit flies away. Dumbledore informs Harry that his hands were able to do that because of love and the sacrifice that his parents made to protect him when they died. ???

The school year ends and everyone goes home.

REACTION: This movie is good but not great. The plot introduces Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and how they became friends. It introduces - very briefly - The Dursleys, Dumbledore, Minerva, Snape, Molly Weasley, and Draco, as well as Hagrid (a bit less briefly). All of the actors are good, and the characters are nice. Some of the lines are delivered with poor timing, but not badly enough to wreck the film, which anyway relies heavily on the unbelievable. The production and visual design is rich and satisfying, with little pieces of magic thrown about in all corners of the screen. The story is kind of dumb, and the particulars of the world are really, really sloppy (see above). Who let this screenwriter anywhere near a fantasy world?

The main story is very short: something was hidden, someone tries to get it, Harry, Ron, and Hermione become friends, and they accidentally find the stone and then stop the stone from being taken. Except ... Dumbledore had set up a series of traps that would prevent the stone from being found anyway. So really, the only thing that the kids did is nearly blow the whole thing for no reason. The traps that Dumbledore placed were conveniently solvable by the three kids, one each. How exactly did the bad guy get through these traps before the kids did? And how did the traps get reset? None of it makes much sense. Dumbledore's last pronouncement that "love" had had something to do with their success made no sense, nor did Harry's miraculous survival against Voldemort's attack when he was a baby. Nobody else who died was loved by anyone else? Or sacrificed their lives in an attempt to save anyone else? Really?

I could write quiddich off as a parody game, not meant to be taken seriously, if not for the other, even more poorly designed game: the house cup.

This "game" is played by the students in the Hogwarts school. The students are divided into four houses, each of which apparently reflects on, or determines, their personality: Slytherins are all duplicitous, arrogant, and cruel, and Griffindors are all brave and noble. Each student earns or loses points for his house during the year, and the winning house "wins" the house cup, which means nothing, but that's not the problem. Four of the teachers are heads of the houses, and they can award or remove points from students, including ones in their own houses. And - what a surprise - they tend to favor their own houses. Worse, at the end of the year, the headmaster arbitrarily awards as many points as he wants in any direction. It was absurd to watch Draco, a Slytherin student, give a "darn it" face at the end of the first year when the headmaster simply and arbitrarily awarded 170 points to Giffindor, not coincidentally putting them into first place. Who on earth would care about a game that is so obviously rigged? No matter, aside from the very scant mention of the word "points" in subsequent movies, the game is forgotten after this movie.


There are lots of other nonsense ideas: why do the stairs in Hogwarts move around? Really: why? How can there be thousands of "wizard cards" and portraits with Dumbledore's picture if he is too busy to hang out in any one of them for much time? What moron leaves kids to wander around in school areas where they might actually DIE, not to mention letting them play with chemicals, spells, and sports equipment that can kill them? And so on.

The magic is magical, the actors who play Hagrid, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are cute and capable, and the other actors and actresses are fine. The world is pretty safe (somehow) right now, but Voldemort is out there. We don't get much info on anyone else, or even what the heck (or how) these kids study in school.

Movie 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

PLOT: Harry is again suffering at the Dursley's when a house-elf named Dobby comes to warn him against going back to Hogwarts. Dobby is under servitude to some nasty master (the Malfoys, it will turn out), but Dobby (unsuccessfully) tries various ways to stop Harry from returning to Hogwarts. In the end Ron and other Weasleys rescue Harry and take him back to Hogwarts.

Lucius Malfoy surreptitiously slips a book that contains the spirit of Voldemort into Ginny Weasley's pocketbook while she is book shopping. The book causes her to unleash a monster - a basilisk-  that slides around the walls of the school, occasionally, but only half-successfully, attacking people (the basilisk is supposed to kill people, but it only paralyzes them). Due to the attacks, Hagrid is sent to prison (because this kind of thing happened fifty years earlier and he was framed for it at that time and expelled) and Dumbledore is removed from the school. Eventually Hermione and Harry figure out what's happening, and Harry chases down the basilisk and the book. Ginny is captured and is slowly having her life sucked out of her by the book, supposedly to restore Voldemort to life (???). With some deux ex machina help from some of Dumbledore's pets, Harry kills the basilisk, uses one of the basilisk's teeth to destroy the book, and rescues Ginny. He also frees Dobby from servitude to the Malfoys, which makes him a new friend ... who doesn't show up again until the seventh movie.

REACTION: This movie is marginally better than the first movie, but still makes little sense.

One, this "chamber" and the basilisk have been at Hogwarts for a thousand years, and not a single person has ever been able to discover it until now, including during the (what must have been many) times that it was "opened". The basilisk's lair is littered with bones, but what did it eat during the last fifty years while the chamber was closed, or the 950 years before that?

Two, why are the most powerful wizards and all adults so entirely incompetent that they can't figure out a mystery that is easily figured out by a bunch of eleven year olds? Why do they leave the incredibly dangerous and important job of battling the basilisk to eleven year olds? Are there no magical exterminators who can spray for snakes? That's simply insane.

Three, exactly what was happening when Ginny was "unlocking" the chamber? The basilisk slid around behind walls, peeked out for a second, and then went back to its chamber and locked itself in? Why doesn't the ghost of Tom Riddle simply have Ginny unlock the damn chamber and release it on the students, period? The basilisk is supposed to purge the "unworthy" students from the school, but its attacks are entirely random, including attacking so-called "purebloods", not to mention a cat. And a ghost. Speaking of which, if a ghost can be paralyzed by the basilisk, why doesn't Tom Riddle's ghost become paralyzed?

Four, what exactly is Voldemort doing with Ginny? Isn't his spirit flying around the ether somewhere? How is Ginny's dying supposed to help restore Voldemort? This isn't explained.

Five, what is removing Dumbledore from the school - leaving the kids at school but less one strong wizard protector - supposed to accomplish? Why not just close the school?

Draco has a moment or two of nastiness in the movie, but otherwise he plays no particular role. Snape also has little screen time, which is a shame, because he is such fun to watch on-screen. Hermione is already transitioning to teenage-hood, while Ron and Harry both still seem like children. Harry and Hermione both are more confident in this movie than in the last one. Ron is a sniveling, horrid, waste of screen time, scared of everything, whining, failing clumsily, and as much use to the plot as C3PO was in The Empire Strikes Back.

Other than the above, the plot works okay. The visual design is excellent, perhaps surpassing the design of the first film. It presents a rich canopy of magical elements, with generally believable grand sets and effects. The story elements hit the right notes, darker than the first movie, and the plot is not hard to follow. But - with one small exception - the story is entirely separate from the rest of the movies, and we still have no idea what the kids learn in school.

Movie 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

PLOT: Harry runs away from home and finds his way safely to school, despite the fact that a "madmen" named Sirius Black has escaped from the Azkaban magical prison and is possibly looking to kill Harry. Harry learns that Sirius was a friend of Harry's parents, but he betrayed their location to Voldemort, which is how Harry's parents ended up being killed. Sirius was such a powerful wizard, that he blew away another friend of Harry's parents named Peter Pettigrew; all that was left of him was part of a finger. Azkaban sends horrifying dementors to guard Hogwarts and search for Sirius, although dementors tend to kill anyone who crosses their path without asking any questions. Harry turns out to be excessively sensitive to the fear that dementors exude, but also extremely proficient in a spell that can ward them off.

Meanwhile, Ron keeps losing his old family pet rat Scabbers, who is missing part of his toe. A new teacher, Professor Lupin, arrives to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts; he turns out to be a werewolf, which are generally considered to be untrustable in the wizarding world. Hagrid is keeping a pet Hippogriff, but it is sentenced to death after Draco riles it up and it attacks him. Hermione uses a magic time traveling device to go to multiple classes all year long. Harry uses a magical map to escape to the nearby magical town when Ron and Hermione have permission to go there and he doesn't. One night Harry sees Peter Pettigrew on the map, but can't find him in real life.

In the end, the Hippogriff is executed; it turns out that Ron's pet rat is really Peter Pettirgew in disguise; it was Peter, and not Sirius, who betrayed the Potters; Lupin, Sirius, and the three kids try to capture Pettigrew, but Pettigrew escapes when Lupin picks the wrong time to turn into a werewolf; Harry and Sirius are nearly killed by dementors until someone at a distance drives them off; and Sirius is sentenced to die ... and then Hermione uses the time travel device to rescue the Hippogriff (who isn't killed after all), have Harry be the one to drive off the dementors from a distance, and use the freed Hippogriff to rescue Sirius.

REACTION: I have mixed reactions to this movie. On the one hand, the cinematography is still excellent.  On the other hand, the directing changed for this movie, and the new director is just awful. Like so many other bad directors, he is more in love with sight gags and cinematography than he is with characters and story; some parts of the movie are unwatchable slapstick, meaningless crashes, and unnecessary music and noise interruptions. We are so divorced from the characters, that, when the scant but unavoidable emotional moments come, they are unbelievable - with one exception: the incredibly talented Emma Watson, who plays Hermione, can make anything she portrays believable.

On the one hand, this movie has the best story of the first three movies: instead of a slow, childish run around with obvious clues and deux ex machina that basically rescues the main characters despite themselves, in this movie the story is well-integrated into the entire movie. The main heroes are full of spunk and take charge. In the last movie, Hermione had made the transition to young adulthood, while Harry and Ron were still children. In this movie, Harry and Ron also seem like young adults, while Hermione is a young woman superpower. She is the lead action figure, with Harry a close second: he seems angrier and more in command (Ron, as usual, just tags along, whining and falling apart, albeit less annoyingly than in the last movie).

On the other hand, this is a time travel plot, and all time travel plots make no sense, since the second iteration could never have come about unless it had already been present during the first iteration. Once again, all adults are completely useless while the kids are allowed into dangerous situations and forced to save the day. Once again the school should have been closed instantly when it was discovered that a murderer was roaming the halls; instead they lock everyone - including the murderer - inside. The bad-guys-who-are-actually-good-guys spend a large amount of screen time playing the pronoun game and NOT clarifying what is going on to the main characters, so that they are dangerously and unnecessarily attacked when a few clarifying words would have prevented it.

The world is still a magical place, and the acting is still very good - once again I want to single out Hermione, who is incredible, as well as Snape in his very small amount of screen time. Dumbledore is played by a new actor, but the transition is smooth. But the directing: oh man, was it gratingly bad.

Movie 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

PLOT: The movie starts with Harry dreaming about a not yet reborn Voldemort, attended by Peter Pettigrew and another henchman and a snake, murdering a curious groundskeeper near a graveyard. We quickly move to the Quiddich World Cup, which is interrupted by the above henchman and other troublemakers burning tents and casting Voldemort's banner as a glowing symbol in the air. Then we quickly move into Harry Potter's fourth year of Hogwarts, where the only events of importance are a) the "tri-wizard tournament" and b) a big school dance.

Representatives of two other schools attend Hogwarts for the year. Only one student from each school is supposed to be chosen to play in it, so three students are chosen, but Harry is also chosen as a fourth player, even though he didn't ask for the "honor". The tournament is extremely dangerous. Ron gets mad at Harry for volunteering for this honor, even though he didn't, but the two make up in time for the school dance.

The dance requires the boys to ask the girls to dance, but both Ron and Harry leave it to the last minute and don't end up with the right girls. Harry fancies a girl named Cho, but she has already said yes to the other Hogwarts tournament player, Cedric Diggory. Ron tries asking Hermione at the last moment as a last resort, but she has already said yes to one of the other school's tournament players. It turns out that she really had wanted Ron to ask her. And it might be that Ron had really wanted to go with her, although he remains oblivious to this even after Hermione dresses him down for ruining her evening. Harry and Hermione deepen their friendship, but the friendship continues to be entirely platonic.

Meanwhile, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody, stomps around, teaching the kids about unforgivable curses, helping Harry out with the tournament, over-zealously punishing troublemaker students, and continuously drinking something unknown from a flask.

At the end of the tournament, as they are about to jointly win, Harry and Cedric are involuntarily whisked away to the graveyard from Harry's dream. Pettigrew is there and he traps Harry, takes Harry's blood, and restores Voldemort to life. Several death eaters show up to serve Voldemort and apologize for not restoring him sooner, including Lucius Malfoy. Voldemort tries to kill Harry, but somehow the connection between Harry's and Voldemort's wands causes a strange magical phenomena which allows Harry to take Cedric's body and escape back to Hogwarts.

It turns out that Moody was not Moody after all; he was Barty Crouch, a death eater who had escaped from Hogwarts, imprisoned the real Moody, and continuously imbibed a potion to disguise himself as Moody the entire year. He got Harry chosen for the tournament, and he placed the trap so that, when Harry won the tournament, he would be sent to the graveyard and captured by Pettigrew. Barty's plan is revealed, he is sent back to Azakaban, and Moody is freed. Also, it turns out that Snape was once a death eater many years ago, but he betrayed Voldemort and is solidly on the good side, at least according to Dumbledore. And, given everything we've seen in the first four movies, there is no reason to doubt this.

REACTION: This movie is under a new director. Instead of the bright colors and childishness of the first two movies, or the insane freneticism of the third, we get a movie devoted to plot and fully developed characters ... at least, after the first few scenes of the movie. The first few scenes, until the announcement of the tournament, are incredibly rushed. We jump from short scene to short scene with barely any time to breathe and few explanations. We don't know what happened with Harry over the summer, we barely see anything of the World Cup, we barely see anything of the start of school, and - as usual - we see virtually nothing about school itself.

Once the tournament gets underway, the movie slows down and finally feels right. The movie series really starts with this movie. Everything prior is prelude; if it were not for the introduction of the main characters and their relationships to each other, the first three movies would be dispensable as prelude. The first movie introduces many of the the characters. The second one introduces one of the horcruxes (although this fact is only explained in the sixth movie) and how it is destroyed. The third introduces a few more main characters. The true story of the film series starts from about a fifth of the way into this movie and ends at the end of the series. This movie takes its time to show emotional reactions and character interplay. Harry and Ron now have long hair, and Hermione now has a figure, and all of them take an awkward interest in the opposite sex.

The only emotional misplay is the odd fight between Ron and Harry; Ron is angry at Harry for "not telling him that he was going to try out for the tournament". Harry tells him he didn't want anything to do with the tournament and it was obviously a setup, but this "fight" goes on for the second fifth of the movie. It comes out of nowhere, serves no purpose, and is gone as quickly as it came. It's supposed to be a subplot about character development, but it's just annoying and pads out the screen time. Other than his more realistic and satisfying problems with Hermione, Ron is again a useless wheel in the movie, contributing nothing to the plot. Maybe he comes to shine in a future movie? Hermione has no important action scenes in this movie, either; this is all Harry's movie.

Some other things I don't get. Harry survives the first test by summoning his broomstick so that he can fly around, evade the dragon, and grab the golden egg; why not just summon the egg? Are students really so ignorant after four years of magical schooling to not know a few thousand spells, the parameters of the magical world, and the basic ideas of what can or can't be done with magic? There are dozens of ways to breathe underwater, but Harry couldn't figure out any of them without prompting from Moody? If it was a big deal when Sirius escaped from Azkaban, why didn't anyone know that Crouch had escaped (for a full year!)? Why are the adults still so inept? Why does a potion that is "really difficult" and takes "a month to brew" now available on a continuous basis with no effort? And what happened to the damn time turner that Hermione used in the third movie!?

This was a very good movie, and promises good things for the rest of series, if the directors can keep both the characters and a sensible story front and center.

Movie 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

PLOT: Harry is taken over the summer to Sirius Black's ancestral home, headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, a small group of wizards (mostly introduced in previous movies, including Snape, the Weasleys, Sirius, Moody, and Lupin) that are fighting death eaters.  Sirius tells Harry that he would like Harry to live with him after the coming war is over. Harry, meanwhile, is incredibly angry at everything and everyone except for Sirius and an odd student named Luna Lovegood (who has also experienced a personal death, and so offers some comforting words to Harry and understanding of what he is going through) - partially due to his encounter with death and torture at the end of the last movie, partially because Dumbledore won't talk to him for some reason, but partially - Harry fears - because he has inherited part of Voldemort's soul. Harry experiences visions of Voldemort searching for something in the Ministry of Magic, from Voldemort's point of view, which makes him fear that he is becoming more like Voldemort. This concern is built on indications in previous movies that Harry is a lot like Voldemort in other ways, but for his having made different choices and truer friends, and having had loving parents.

The Ministry of Magic is trying to bury the story of Voldemort's return, since they would have to deal with it if they acknowledged it. Instead they call Harry and Dumbledore liars and try, but fail, to have Harry expelled from Hogwarts. The minister is afraid that Dumbledore is raising an army of wizards to overthrow his weak government, so he places the odious, tittering, but fearsome ministry worker Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in Hogwarts. She teaches only book learning (because "why would they ever need to learn any real spells? There is nothing out there to fear!") and spies and informs on the other teachers for the ministry. Hermione and Ron and a large group of other students get Harry to teach them real defense magic, since they are not learning anything in school. Harry calls the group Dumbledore's Army. During this time, Harry and Cho share a kiss.

When the group is discovered due to Cho being coerced (using truth serum) into giving them up, Harry can't forgive Cho and dumps her (though it was not her fault). Dumbledore assumes all responsibility for the group (since a paper describing the group as "Dumbledore's army" was found on Harry) and Dolores takes over the school. Harry has a vision of Sirius being tortured at the Ministry of Magic and the kids try to sneak into Dolores' office for something to rescue him, but they are caught by Dolores. Dolores is about to torture Harry to find out why when Hermione tricks her into going into the forest with just Hermione and Harry. While there, they run into the centaurs who don't like humans at the best of times. Dolores insults the centaurs, and they carry her off.

Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Luna, Neville, and a few other kids run to the Ministry of Magic where it turns out that the vision of Sirius that Harry experienced was a trap to lure Harry. Voldemort requires Harry to retrieve an item for him, and the death eaters on the scene try to force him to do so. The kids attempt to fight, and initially it seems as though some of Harry's teaching is of some use, but they are no match for experienced adults, especially ones who are willing to use serious curses that the kids are not. At the last moment, the Order of the Phoenix arrives and fights the death eaters, who are driven away, but not before one of them kills Sirius. Voldemort and Dumbledore arrive and fight, and Voldemort escapes, but not before the rest of the ministry is witness to Voldemort's existence, and therefore can no longer deny that he is back. Dumbledore explains to Harry that his not talking to him during the last year was because he was afraid that Voldemort would learn about the Order through Harry's connection to him (so why not tell him that!?).

REACTION: This was also a very good movie, and the second movie in the real story. It has another director, but the style transition between this and the last movie is mostly non-existent. As usual, almost nothing in the way of actual school learning appears in the movie. But unlike in previous movies, adults are finally shown to have power and competence (or incompetence, in the ministry's case). The adult death eaters and the adults in the Order take action both off and on the screen.

I'm afraid that I don't understand magic fighting. If the ministry can detect, anywhere and any time, that an underage wizard has used magic, or that someone has used magic in front of a muggle, why are they unable to detect and capture anyone using one of the so-called unforgiveable curses? If they are so unforgiveable, why does everyone forgive Harry for trying to cast one of them at the end of the battle in the ministry?

Let's take a look at these "unforgiveable" curses:
  • One causes pain in the victim. Ok, but is that really worse then transforming the victim into a slug and then stepping on him? Or into a teapot? Or filling him up with slugs, deforming his or her entire body, or any of the other thousand spells we've seen that can instantly and permanently incapacitate a target?
  • One takes control over the victim. While it's unclear how long the spell endures and at what distance, it's implied to be a long time and at a great distance. Why isn't this used far more often, especially since you can force your victims to also cast curses, rapidly and geometrically gaining control of your entire opposition? In fact, it is never used in the entire movie series.
  • One instantly kills the victim and is unblockable. Casting the instant death curse is so easy and so quick (no lines of lightning, no recuperating, unblockable, etc unlike when you cast lesser attack spells), why the heck aren't the death eaters using it left right and center?
Dolores was a deliciously nasty bad guy, original and fun to watch. Hermione and Ginny had decent second fiddle roles to play in this movie, and even Ron wasn't his usual sniveling useless self. Hermione and Ron don't have any particular romance blooming; they both happen to orbit around Harry at the same time. Ginny doesn't talk much, but she obviously already has eyes for Harry. Harry unfairly punishes Cho, even though it wasn't her fault, and he makes a non-romantic friendship with another girl, Luna. These are good character-building scenes. I would assume that Harry is  devastated over the loss of Sirius (which is partially his fault), but, while the movie sets that up, it doesn't deliver the scenes that convey this in the end - maybe in the next movie? I would also like to point out that, until now, Snape has not done a thing to make him appear anything other than a loyal Dumbledore supporter and opponent of Voldemort.

Overall, this was enjoyable, fun, and tense. The visuals continue to be beautiful and magical, growing slightly bleaker with each film. While the tone is dark and Harry's anger dominates the movie, there are still some nice humorous and lighter parts to the movie, such as Dolores' frilly aspect and Luna's semi-psychotic meandering. A strong entry in the series.

Movie 6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

PLOT: Dumbledore picks up Harry and together they recruit yet another new teacher for Hogwarts, Horace Slughorn. Dumbledore's hand is withered, but he doesn't explain why. Meanwhile, for the first time, we are given to believe that Snape might be a double agent in service to Voldemort, when he vows to some other death eaters to protect Draco Malfoy who has some mission to perform for Voldemort, and to perform the mission himself should Draco fail.

Hermione, Ron, and most of all Harry suspect that Draco is up to some kind of no good as the school year starts, but they don't know what. For his part, Draco doesn't look too happy; instead of angrily insulting our three heroes, as usual, he walks around looking morose and doing secret things. Apparently his family is under threat from Voldemort.

Boy-girl relationships run high: Ginny is going out with someone named Dean, while secretly pining for Harry; this upsets Ron (because Ginny is his sister) and Harry (who fancies Ginny). Ron is trying to make a name for himself in quiddich, feeling (rightly) inadequate in all other areas; he is trying to impress some girl, which annoys Hermione, although he also may fancy Hermione. Someone named McClaggen is making eyes at Hermione, which also annoys Ron. Later in the movie, Ginny and Harry finally get together.

Dumbledore knows that Slughorn once taught a piece of dark magic to Voldemort just before he publicly turned evil, but he is unable to figure out what. He asks Harry to find out, and, through the use of a good luck potion, Harry is able to find out that Voldemort split his soul into seven pieces - horcruxes - and hid them. That is why he didn't die when the curse he cast at Harry rebounded. Harry already destroyed one of them in the second movie (see above), and Dumbledore found a second (a ring) that (as revealed in the next movie) he has destroyed. Dumbledore also takes Harry along to help him retrieve the third, a locket, which they do, although Dumbledore is severely weakened owing to the guards and traps that Voldemort set up to protect it.

When they return, Dumbledore is very weak and asks specifically for Harry to get Snape to help him and to hide from everyone else. Draco succeeds in his first mission of letting four death eaters into Hogwarts, but their only goal is to cast another Voldemort banner into the air. Draco's second mission is apparently to kill Dumbledore. Draco disarms Dumbledore. The other death eaters show up and urge Draco to kill Dumbledore while he lies helpless, but Draco can't go through with it. Harry is hiding and almost casts a spell to stop Draco, but Snape shows up and motions for Harry to stay out of it .. and then Dumbledore whispers "please" to Snape and Snape kills Dumbledore himself. Harry, enraged, tries to fight Snape. Snape easily defends himself and disarms Harry, while keeping all of the other death eaters from killing Harry by telling them that Harry's life is only for Voldemort to take.

Harry realizes that Draco could not kill Dumbledore in the end, and that it was Snape who was the betrayer all along. And he also learns that the locket they retrieved is not a real horcrux but a fake; the real one was stolen.

REACTION: Until the last twenty minutes of this movie, the movie is good, but not great. Cinematically it is sharp but bleak, nearly black and white. The acting and directing are good. There is less magic in this movie; having proved themselves in the previous movies, that's okay. I like the boy-girl relationship dynamics, but these are supposed to be in the context of a good story. There's not much of a story here. The first twenty minutes promised something in terms of moving the Voldemort, Draco, Dumbledore, and Harry stories forward, but then nothing happened with them for the next hundred minutes. At about two hours, Harry and Dumbledore have an overlong scene retrieving the horcrux and then the world crashes down. The end of the movie is very moving. We are now a long way from the lighthearted magic and fun that we experienced in the first two movies. This movie is contemplative and has no room for whimsy; it is a suspense movie.

Yet another insanely powerful magic is introduced and then abandoned; this time it's a potion of luck. And yet another egregious upending of the rules is introduced: supposedly one of Draco's missions is to help the death eaters find their way into Hogwarts, which is protected by many magics. Yet we've seen about a half a dozen people fly, crash, walk, sneak, or otherwise find their way into Hogwarts over the last five movies, not to mention teleport out and in in this movie, so that didn't make any sense. Not to mention the hundreds of owls and other animals that fly in and out of Hogwarts each day, and that there are spells that transform you into animals or disguise you as other people. Also, it is not explained how Dumbledore simply looks at Voldemort's traps and knows how to get past them.

Snape's relationship to Harry and Dumbledore, Dumbledore's ambiguous "please" before Snape kills him (allegedly), Snape's defending Harry from attacks by the other death eaters and leaving Harry alive and uncaptured (at the very least Voldemort would surely want Harry captured and delivered to him, no?), and Dumbledore's emphasis to Harry about trusting him and trusting Snape, make a powerful story point, and the whole thing is left open for many interpretations, even if it seems to Harry that there is only one conclusion to draw. And that is good drama.

One side note: the story about the "half-blood prince" - the book with his name in it, the mystery of who he is, etc - is a waste of time, and adds nothing to the story. It seems like something must have been left on the cutting room floor.

Movie 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

PLOT: The various heroes prepare to embark on a quest for the other horcruxes. Harry takes a piece of glass with him that he stares at occasionally. At a death eater gathering, Voldemort kills another Hogwarts teacher; Draco looks disturbed and unhappy about this.

Harry is underage, so still has a Ministry of Magic "trace" on him, which means that he must be taken by non-teleportation means to Ron's house. Seven adult members of the Order of the Phoenix, and six young adults (including Ron and Hermione), show up to escort Harry. The young adults take a potion to transform into Harry Potter decoys. En route, they are attacked, which means that they must have an informer in the midst. Moody is killed, Harry's pet owl is killed, and Ron's older brother Bill is wounded, but everyone else arrives safely. Harry talks about going out to find the horcruxes on his own in order to prevent anyone else taking risks "for him", but Ron reminds him that this is everyone's fight, they won't stand a chance without sticking together (with him and Hermione), and Harry is being daft.

Dumbledore left some things for our heroes: he left Ron an item that can turn lights on and off. He left Hermione a children's book of magical tales. And he left Harry the first golden snitch that he caught. He also "left" harry the sword of Griffindor (which Harry used to kill the basilisk in the second movie), but the sword is actually currently missing. Hermione and Harry don't know what to do with the objects that Dumbledore left them.

Bill marries a young witch. At the wedding, Harry sees Luna's father wearing a necklace with some kind of symbol on it. The wedding is interrupted by news that the Ministry of Magic is now under Voldemort's control and then the wedding is attacked by death eaters (what a surprise). Everyone scatters. Hermione, Harry, and Ron teleport (they can do this at will, now) to central London, where they are attacked again by two death eaters. Our trio must have been followed? They easily take out the two death eaters and, with some help from the house-elf Dobby (from movie 2) they chase after the stolen locket. This leads them to Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic, which they infiltrate with the help of more transforming potion.

The Ministry's activities are now straight out of the Nazi party, with statues, posters, and pamphlets trumping up the purity of the pure-blooded wizards vs the "mudbloods" (wizards from non-magical families) and muggles. Trials are being held to ferret out the undesirables and everyone not in charge is fearful of taking a wrong step. The kids attack Dolores, steal the locket, and escape to a forest. Ron is injured in the escape. Not only is he physically slowing them down, he also becomes angry that Harry doesn't know what to do, that Dumbledore didn't leave them information on how to destroy the horcruxes, and that Harry and Hermione seem to be close (he is suddenly jealous of them). One night Ron goes into a tirade and teleports out, leaving Harry and Hermione to go on alone. Meanwhile, Hermione realizes that the sword is probably strong enough to destroy a horcrux, if they can find it.

Harry and Hermione continue to search for clues, and narrowly avoid Voldemort's snake at one point. In their escape from the snake, Harry's wand breaks. They discover the symbol from the necklace that Luna's father was wearing in several more places, including the book that Dumbledore gave to Hermione.

One night while guarding, Harry follows a light into a pond, under which appears to be the Griffindor sword (mighty convenient). He dives in and gets trapped, but Ron turns up unexpectedly and pulls him and the sword out. They destroy the locket horcrux. Ron apparently has been trying to find them again, but had to wait for Harry to step outside of the protective enchantments to do so. And he apparently now realizes that he is in love with Hermione; his other issues have resolved themselves. And he happens to have a spare wand for Harry.

They go to talk to Luna's father about the symbol: turns out that the symbol represents the "Deathly Hallows", three magic items: a powerful wand, a resurrection stone (which appears to be somewhat flawed by design), and an invisibility cloak (Harry's?). Luna's father betrays them, hoping to sell Harry in exchange for Luna, who has been captured by death eaters. The kids escape but are immediately captured by a roving band of thugs (I don't know why they try to run from the thugs instead  of just teleporting away). Hermione casts a spell to disfigure Harry's face in order to try to prevent people from recognizing him, but the disfigurement doesn't hide the scar. The thugs think that this might be Harry Potter so they take him to the death eaters, which includes Lucius and Draco Malfoy.

Draco says that he is not sure that this is Harry Potter (even though he recognizes Hermione and Ron). Somehow through the piece of glass that Harry has been playing with, Dobby comes to rescue them (as well as Luna, who was also imprisoned there), Harry disarms Draco and Hermione disarms one of the other death eaters (stealing their wands), and they teleport away, but one of the death eaters throws a knife that kills Dobby just as they teleport away. Harry buries him. Meanwhile, Voldemort discovers that Dumbledore was buried with the powerful wand, so he breaks into his tomb and retrieves the wand. And we end on a cliff hanger.

REACTION: This movie continues the previous movie, with solid directing, production, cinematography, and acting. In particular, Emma Watson as Hermione is outstanding. The actors playing Harry and Ron also do a great job, although Ron's character agains goes through an unbelievable story arc. Ron's moodiness in the sixth movie made some sense: he felt inadequate and wanted to do something good so as to impress girls. In contrast, his fight with Harry in the fourth movie made no sense. Similarly, his fight in this movie is artificially conjured out of nothing, and, again, resolved just as easily. Why would he be jealous of Harry and Hermione when he already knows that Harry is dating Ginny?

Movie four had the death of a minor character (Cedric). Movie five had the death of a dear character (Sirius). And movie six had the death of a major character (Dumbledore). So I expected the death count to ratchet up. The wedding scene was a giveaway; the only surer harbinger of imminent death in a movie is a soldier showing a wallet picture of his fiance / new child to a colleague before a battle. The movie is again all suspense, with little in the way of humor. But the main characters have several nice scenes between them to make you care for them. Aside from the opening scene, Snape is entirely absent from the movie, and Draco has only the one additional scene at the end. Hogwarts and all of its inhabitants are absent altogether.

As I noted in the previous movie, the fact that the death eaters have to capture Harry now is due to the fact that Snape didn't bring him in at the end of the last movie, when he had a chance. Which is kind of confounding, unless a) there is a reason that he is not really a bad guy, or b) something about the story that would explain this got lost on the cutting room floor. And once again I have to wonder about this transforming potion that disguises people: in the second movie, it took a month to make it; now the good guys use it all the time, like lemon lime soda. The bad guys never use it at all. And once again: why does Dumbledore leave the entire task to kids to destroy the horcruxes, instead of tasking some adults to do it? And why does he leave mysterious clues about the deathly hallows, instead of just telling them?

This movie was better than expected. Often the first part of what should have been a one part movie is lacking in something; this one wasn't. There is a lovely animation sequence while relating the story of the deathly hallows. While not an incredibly lot happens in this movie (they find and destroy one of the five remaining horcruxes) and it's still pretty mood-oriented, it has more action than the previous movie, which was more thematic with slow panning camera shots. It's a downer, but it's a rich involving tale, and I liked it.

Movie 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2

PLOT: Due to a plot convenience, our heroes figure out the location of the fourth horcrux and they retrieve it, but they leave behind the sword of Griffindor and so they are without the means to destroy it. They then travel on to Hogwarts, where they rouse the school, chase off Snape, seclude the Slytherins (who are wont to side with Voldemort), and arm and protect the castle. Meanwhile, they look for the fifth horcux (which Harry calls "the last one" ???), which is figured out (by Luna) to be the lost diadem of Ravenclaw. Harry's thoughts are leaking into Voldemort's, and vice versa, so each one knows what the other is doing.

Harry convinces a ghost to tell him the location of the diadem, while Hermione and Ron grab a basilisk tooth and destroy the fourth horcrux; both Harry and Voldemort feel this when it happens. Ron and Hermione finally share a kiss.

The death eaters (and Voldemort, looking very strained) break holes in Hogwarts defenses and attack. Harry finds the diadem in a hidden room in the castle, but he is found by Draco and some of Draco's goonies. Harry challenges Draco, telling him that he knows that Draco recognized him (while he was captured in the last movie) but didn't tell the other death eaters (c.f. Star Wars: "I know there is good in you, father"). Draco and his goonies attack, but Ron and Hermione show up to battle. One of Draco's goonies sets the whole room on fire, and the goonies die in the fire. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are about to make their escape, but Harry also rescues Draco who is trapped. Then Harry uses the basilisk fang to destroy the diadem horcrux: five down, two to go.

Through a shared vision with Voldemort, Harry sees that Voldermort's snake is the sixth horcrux (though, once again, he calls it "the last one"). The trio hide outside a room while inside Voldemort kills Snape, believing that he (Voldemort) cannot properly control the wand because Snape was the one who "won it" from Dumbledore, and therefore he (Voldemort) has to "win it" from Snape. Strangely, he allows his snake to do the actual killing and then leaves. Harry has time to speak to Snape before he dies. I don't know why he would want to, but Harry allows Snape to tell Harry to take his (Snape's) tears - which contain Snape's memories ???(in previous movies, one had to extract memories using a wand) - and examine them to learn a truth. Meanwhile, Voldemort calls off the attack in order to give Harry another chance to surrender. The trio discover that there are some dead people on their side, but the only ones that matter include one of Ron's brothers, Professor Lupin, and one of the other members of the Order (Lupin's girlfriend "Tonks", I believe).

Harry learns from Snape's memories that a) Snape always loved Harry's mother, which is why Snape betrayed Voldemort and swore allegiance to Dumbledore (to protect Harry), b) Snape spent his life protecting Harry, c) Dumbledore knew he was going to die and so he asked Snape to be the one to kill him, so that Snape would earn Voldemort's trust again, d) it was Snape's light that guided Harry to find the sword of Griffindor in the last movie, and e) Dumbledore figured out that Harry is the last horcrux, and that Harry has to die (and Voldemort has to kill him) in order for Voldemort to be defeated.

Harry goes alone to find Voldemort in the forest outside Hogwarts. On the way, he meets the ghosts of his parents, Sirius, and Lupin, all of whom say that they will be with him while he dies. He opens the golden snitch that Dumbledore left for him to find the resurrection stone, but he purposely drops it on the forest floor (something to do with the ghosts; this is not explained). He finds Voldemort, who kills him.

The end.

Just kidding. Harry awakens in a ghostly version of a train station, where he sees a fetus-like version of Voldemort and has a pithy conversation with Dumbledore's ghost, and then he wakes up again. He's not dead, but Voldemort's soul within him has been killed. I'm not sure how to explain that. Harry pretends to still be dead. Draco's mother, who until now has been held captive by Voldemort, checks Harry, finds him alive, but tells Voldemort that Harry is dead. A captured Hagrid is made to carry the "dead" Harry back to Hogwarts, followed by Voldemort and his army.

Voldemort declares Harry to be dead and asks everyone in Hogwarts to swear allegiance to him. Draco's mother and father persuade Draco to come over to them. Neville Longbottom makes moves to come over, but then he makes an impassioned speech about Harry living on in their hearts. He pulls Griffindor's sword out of a hat. Harry jumps up, and everyone scatters. Draco and his parents slip away from the battle.

The snake chases Hermione and Ron, but Neville cuts its head off, killing the last horcrux. Harry and Voldemort are battling, and even though Voldemort has the special wand, Harry tells him he will never control it - Harry had figured out that the wand actually belonged to Draco, who was the one to disarm Dumbledore of his wand ... and then belonged to him, when he disarmed Draco (??? except, Harry didn't disarm Draco of the special wand. He disarmed Draco of Draco's normal wand. So how does that work?). After the snake is killed, Harry disarms Voldemort and grabs the special wand from him. Voldemort disintegrates.

In the aftermath, Luna and Neville seem to have something going on. Harry destroys the special wand for reasons. Apparently no one remembers that the resurrection stone is just lying around on the floor of the forest, or that Harry still has the invisibility cloak.

19 years later ... Ginny and Harry are married with children, as are Hermione and Ron. They send their kids off on the train to Hogwarts, as does Draco. One of Harry's kids is named after both Dumbledore and Snape.

REACTION: This movie seamlessly fits in with the last four movies, and provides a satisfactory conclusion to the series. While it was good to see Neville and Luna play key parts in the story, there was little here in the way of character time. This is an action movie from start to finish; three quarters of it are taken up by the battle for Hogwarts. There are well-directed action sequences, as well as kisses, daring rescues, dramatic flights, (a little) humor, climaxes, and a denouement. The story is grand and the battles wide ranging and well presented (lots of CGI). The adults, once again, play a scant second fiddle to the kids. There were a lot of story questions/problems (as noted above), which dragged down my enjoyment a bit. But you get the gist of it: the kids are brave, they won't give in, they eventually figure everything out and drive away Voldemort, and  not too many more of the main characters die.

I don't know what the Weasley brothers were doing in Hogwarts (since they had already left school) nor what the rest of the Order of the Phoenix was doing in Hogwarts, unless that's where they were hanging out this whole time - which they couldn't have been, since Snape was in charge of the school. And they had no way of getting there. And I wonder what happened to Peter Pettigrew.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a grand story, with interesting and appealing characters. The world has many, many significant consistency problems, and the story has many, many story problems. Most of the time you can overlook them; the more egregious ones detract from the story, but not enough to ruin the enjoyment. The first movies don't quite fit in with the rest of them - they are unevenly directed, have a vastly different feel, and are really not significant to the story. But they are watchable and enjoyable, kind of in the way that The Hobbit (the book, not the movies) is an  enjoyable read before The Lord of the Rings. The last five movies may be too intense for younger viewers, however.