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Blame it on the Star Wars cycle, in particular the middle part of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, the one, if I remember it right, that leaves Luke Skywalker with a solo hand and Han Solo carbonized. We cannot very well place any of the blame on the Lord of the Rings cycle, since that one got going simultaneously with the Harry Potter cycle, at the end of 2001. The latter cycle, two years after the former coasted to a stop, continues to pedal onward, now reaching the fourth installment in J.K. Rowling's series of children's books, where it seems to be thought legitimate -- and thus the search for blame -- to have a two-and-a-half-hour movie which, for all its furious activity, gets virtually nowhere.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire starts off, after a cryptic prologue featuring a computer-generated whispering snake, with the staging of the 422nd Quidditch World Cup, pitting (I believe it was) Ireland against Bulgaria, but the festivities get disrupted by something much worse than soccer hooligans. I was not sure exactly what. Quidditch hooligans, maybe. Then it moves immediately to the business -- the alternative sport -- of the Triwizard Tournament, a "legendary" contest, conferring "eternal glory" on the victor, to be hosted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: three parlous tasks -- fire-breathing dragons, an underwater treasure hunt, a maze of carnivorous vegetation -- undertaken by three select students over the age of seventeen. Except that this time the selection apparatus, the aforesaid Goblet of Fire, spits out the name of an additional fourth contestant, three years below the age limit, our owlish little Harry. A Tetrawizard Tournament, all of a sudden. Between tasks, a school dance takes place, the annual Yule Ball, an occasion for awkward-age dating rites and Cinderellish dolling-up (no one more than the blossoming Hermione). And during the third and final task, the snake of the prologue will metamorphose into semi-human form: "You know what this means, don't you? He's back! Lord Voldemort has returned!" If, like me, you haven't read the books, and you can't quite remember where the third installment left off a year and a half ago, much less where the first installment took up a full four years back, and you are not altogether certain "what this means," then the following must suffice: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead." And there you have your movie. Two and a half hours... a tournament... a victor (guess who)... and now "dark and difficult times lie ahead." I know the feeling.

Potterites, under the freedom-of-religion pact, ought not to be begrudged their mythology; and two and a half hours of lavish illustration might well strike their eyes as a feast. The skeptic or the mere apathetic is more apt to notice the presumptuousness of filmmakers who expect their audience to meet them seven-eighths of the way. (Have you done your homework, kiddies?) The skeptic or apathetic will also be quicker to sense that the unabated spectacle of special effects becomes almost routine, almost humdrum, regardless of how imaginative some of those effects may be: the sailing ship that surfaces and submerges like a submarine, the ghostly face of Sirius molded in the glowing embers of the hearth for a fireside chat. Such a viewer will also be more prone to argue that this sort of anything-goes fantasy, with few established rules, fosters a feeling of passiveness if not instinctive, involuntary withdrawal.

The new director, Mike Newell, is the best of the three to take the controls in the series so far (Chris Columbus for parts one and two, Alfonso Cuarón for part three), although a runaway train is open only to the most limited guidance. We are reminded of his capabilities not so much by any demonstration of them as by the presence of Miranda Richardson, his scintillating star in Dance with a Stranger, and quite delightful here in the new role of Rita Skeeter, nosy news reporter for the animated scandal sheet, The Daily Profit. Brendan Gleeson is no less delightful as the new instructor in the Dark Arts, Mad-Eye Moody, with his rotating artificial eye and his baseball-stitchery pattern of scars. Very briefly delightful, too, is the Scots-accented Asian girl whose name I didn't get. (Delightful in the way of the Minnesota-accented Asian in Fargo.) Michael Gambon, though not exactly delightful, reinvigorates the old and enlarged role of Dumbledore, formerly occupied by the late Richard Harris. And Ralph Fiennes, very far from delightful, is unrecognizable as the reptilian Voldemort, a sort of Freddy Krueger with superior plastic surgery. We'll be seeing more of him in the future. I can wait.

The Ice Harvest, directed by the consistently lightweight Harold Ramis, is an incomprehensible embezzling caper, off-puttingly flippant in tone, yet it generates an atmospheric sense of weather and of environment: Christmas in Wichita, under a freezing rain, on skating-rink roads, around and about the seedy strip clubs and massage parlors, names like Tease-o-Rama, The Sweet Cage, The Velvet Touch. John Cusack, a near synonym for Robert Downey, Jr., heads an unstellar cast tailing off through Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt, Connie Nielsen, and Randy Quaid.

Rent fills our current annual quota of Broadway musicals brought to the screen (2004: The Phantom of the Opera, 2003: none, 2002: Chicago), and that's before the arrival next month of the musicalized Producers (a make-up for 2003). The present one, in case you didn't know, is Jonathan Larson's quick-time parade of undistinguished and largely indistinguishable songs in celebration of bohemian bonhomie on the Lower East Side, tested by AIDS, drugs, romantic intrigues. Director Chris Columbus, having jumped off the Harry Potter train, does a workmanlike job of "opening up" the action into realistic spaces, thoroughly explored, fully utilized. (Though there was no need, when one of the characters takes off for a Santa Fe sojourn, to follow him there.) Outside of Rosario Dawson and Taye Diggs, the stage cast will be unfamiliar to the average moviegoer and, despite their several talents, likely to stay that way.

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