Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane

Featured Attraction

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Here's the review that counts most: Max, my 11-year-old companion at a screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and an ardent fan of the bestselling novel upon which the film is based, says, "The movie was great! The special effects were amazing. The cast was perfect."

The response of adults to the filmed adventures of Harry Potter (Radcliffe), a young, bespectacled wizard, may be more tempered. Initially Harry casts a powerful spell as it traces the bleak existence of its plucky hero. Like his Dickensian literary predecessors, Pip of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, Harry is orphaned in infancy and survives tough times. He is raised by uncaring relatives who make him sleep in a closet beneath the stairs. All that changes when a giant, bearded stranger named Hagrid (Coltrane) appears on Harry's 11th birthday, tells the boy that he possesses magical powers and then whisks him off to a special school for wizards.

The breathless sense of determination and discovery that characterizes Harry's early scenes vanishes partway through the movie, which runs a foot-jiggling 2 hours and 22 minutes, when Harry and his wizard pals begin making like junior action heroes and battling evil. Director Christopher Columbus (Home Alone) substitutes whiz-bang special effects for narrative momentum and heart. Harry turns into a checklist that includes too many scenes and characters—such as a pointless cameo by Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese)—simply because, well, because they were in the book. But that's a grown—up for you: picky, picky, picky. Max, who also read each of author J.K. Rowling's three successful sequels, can't wait to see Harry again. (PG)

Bottom Line: Kids will fall under Harry's spell

Steve Martin, Laura Dern, Helena Bonham Carter, Scott Caan

Open wide and prepare to laugh nervously. Novocaine is a comic thriller about the misadventures that befall a dentist when he's bamboozled by an attractive scam artist who poses as a patient. The film, the first by director-writer David Atkins, attempts to be both suspenseful and amusing, a tricky combination.

Mild-mannered and thoroughly conventional, Frank (Martin) is engaged to Jean (Dern), the hygienist at his successful suburban practice. He is content with his ho-hum life until vampy Susan (Bonham Carter) turns up in his patient's chair complaining of a toothache and asking for Demerol. When he hesitates, she asks, "Don't you ever break the rules?" Soon Frank is breaking 'em right and left, surreptitiously meeting Susan, lying to his fiancée and eventually trying to explain to detectives why Susan's lowlife brother (Caan) is lying dead on the floor of Frank's house.

Martin and Bonham Carter are both drill-sharp here, each creating a vivid character. Dern is less effective, turning her hygienist into a screeching clown. Novocaine is a promising first effort and never bores, but ultimately it lacks bite. Like a dentist who tells jokes while he has his fingers down your throat, it is often more amused by itself than we are. (R)

Bottom Line: Fails to hit a nerve

John Leguizamo, Julie Carmen, Rosie Perez, Cliff Gorman, Marisa Tomei

This is the kind of small movie that cable TV's Sundance and Independent Film Channel were created for. When King of the Jungle eventually airs on one of them, or elsewhere on the dial, and you're channel surfing late at night, this drama about a mentally retarded man will grab and hold you. On the big screen it seems puny and underdeveloped.

Seymour (Leguizamo) has the intellectual capacity and emotional development of a preadolescent child. He lives in a borderline neighborhood in Manhattan with his mom (Carmen), a political activist, and her lesbian lover (Perez). His father (Gorman), a hard-drinking poet, won't accept his son's disabilities. "He's just a hustler," the father insists. When his mother is fatally shot, Seymour's world shatters.

On a smaller screen Leguizamo's high-energy performance as Seymour might seem intense rather than showy. And the script's lapses in logic, the obvious budget restrictions and director-writer Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's weakness for melodrama (also evident in his earlier film, A Brother's Kiss) won't be so glaring. (R)

Bottom Line: Don't crown him yet

Rob Morrow, Laura Linney

Actors love to play characters suffering from mental or physical disabilities (see review above). The latest to take up the challenge is Morrow, who leaves the quirkiness of Northern Exposure's Dr. Joel Fleischman behind to take on the involuntary quirks of a man afflicted with Tourette's syndrome.

In Maze, a small but compelling romantic drama that Morrow also directed and cowrote, he portrays Lyle Maze, a lonely New York City artist who fears his physical and verbal tics will scare off women. When his buddy Mike (Craig Sheffer), a physician, heads off to a job in Burundi, he leaves behind his girlfriend, Callie (Linney), unaware that she's pregnant. While Mike is away, Lyle and Callie grow friendly and eventually fall in love, though neither is willing to admit as much. Then Mike returns.

By keeping its ambitions small and avoiding sugar traps for the most part, Maze rises above a mere vanity project. Morrow makes Lyle complicated beyond just his medical condition and, as a director, elicits a lovely performance from Linney. He has less success when he tries to show Lyle's visual point of view by using a jittery, handheld camera, and near the end he steers several scenes toward soap opera. (R)

Bottom Line: Worth traversing

>Heist David Mamet's first-rate thriller about a gang of thieves. Stars Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. (R)

Life as a House Kevin Kline is superb as a terminally ill man who builds his dream home and mends his relationship with his ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and teenage son. (R)

The Man Who Wasn't There Darkly funny tale of a blackmailing barber (Billy Bob Thornton). With Frances McDormand and Jon Polito. (R)

Monsters, Inc. Boo-tiful for kids. (G)

Shallow Hal Rowdy Jack Black and a terrific Gwyneth Paltrow star in an unexpectedly sweet comedy. (PG-13)