Poor poor Harry Potter. Orphaned as an infant he's been raised by his beastly aunt and uncle who keep him locked in the room under the stairs and make him serve breakfast. But 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has always known he was different a fact confirmed in a big way when he's invited to enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Despite his horrid family's protests Harry's whisked off by a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to the magic school where it seems he's something of a celebrity. Turns out his parents were killed by a wicked "fallen wizard " who despite his mighty powers was somehow unable to kill the baby Harry. It will eventually fall to Harry to stop the malevolent sorcerer who still roams the countryside plotting to get hold of a magic stone secreted inside Hogwarts that will give him absolute power. Meanwhile Harry makes some new friends in bossy Hermione (Emma Watson) and affable Ron (Rupert Grint) becomes a star player of Quidditch (like hockey on broomsticks) and defeats a troll rampaging through the girls' bathroom.
Unfortunately Radcliffe brings nothing spectacular to a role that requires it. You don't like him or dislike him; he's a bland Harry who simply reacts (without the sheer amazement you expect from an 11-year-old boy) to the wild and crazy situations he's suddenly immersed in. By contrast Watson carries off her officious Hermione with aplomb and personality as does Grint (who looks startlingly like a young Hayley Mills) as Harry's bumbling loyal buddy. The rest of the enormous cast throw themselves into their we've-seen-these-characters-before roles with gusto: Richard Harris as wise old headmaster Dumbledore Maggie Smith as a prim and proper schoolteacher Tom Felton as Harry's smarmy arrogant rival Draco. Best in show goes to Coltrane as the amiable giant who gets the most screen time of all the adults as he helps Harry along on his journey of discovery. A pageboy'd goth Alan Rickman as sly Professor Snape is good too but underused.
Chris Columbus certainly had his work cut out--remain true to the fanatically revered book or attempt to interpret its magic? As one might expect from the director of Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom he took the high road and gives us the book almost word for word (you practically expect Rowling herself to pop on-screen to narrate). It makes for a safely predictable movie but lacks the enchantment of discovery. John Williams' slick grandiose and too-loud score doesn't help either. As it turns out the best special effects are in the not-so-obvious details--pumpkins and candles suspended in the dining hall moving pictures on the walls--rather than the cheesy Cerberus guarding the stone and ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese's cameo) which move about like Disneyland holograms. Even the overlong Quidditch game looks fake-y; the players zoom through a blue sky that might as well be the blue screen. Lots of unanswered questions will remain after you leave the theater: why is Snape such a jerk and how come Harry didn't once use the precious wand he's given except to stab the troll in the nose?
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) is trying to keep his small family together after losing his wife and the mother of their kids Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts) in a tragic fire that left them homeless. Out of nowhere one enigmatic Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) wills Arthur a bizarre yet dazzlingly beautiful mansion made almost entirely of glass and filled with priceless antiques. There's not much that could go unseen behind the transparent walls except for perhaps 12 pesky ghosts of disturbed folks like onetime mental patients and a kid whose head got in the way of an arrow. It just so happens old Cyrus with the help of his psychic phantom-wrangler Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) has been summoning up a few restless spirits so he can open the Eye of Hell and take over the world or something. They just need one more spirit to finish the job.
All right who's blackmailing Oscar-winner Abraham into taking roles like this? The man should have thrown the script out sight-unseen and then fired his agent. Rah Digga yet another rapper-turned-wanna-be-actress is there to offer some sassy comic relief as the kids' nanny--she's fun in a usual sort of way. Shalhoub-ho hum. Elizabeth? Yawn. She's not even in half the movie. Lillard it can be said is about the only bright spot in this otherwise not-silly-enough not-cheesy-enough not-funny-or-scary-enough horror movie. He's got the right idea as he tries to camp it up as a borderline hysterical psychic who has guilt issues about being able to see everyone's secrets with his "gift." But worst of all is the usually great Embeth Davidtz (um Schindler's List?!) as a--get this--ghost's rights activist who thinks she's channeling Zelda Rubenstein from Poltergeist as she hisses the obvious: "This house is not a house!"
The only thing scarier than F. Murray Abraham taking a role in this movie is that it ever got made at all--then again we have the Dark Castle folks (the same ones who brought us that masterpiece remake The Haunting a few years ago) to thank. They forgot to hire a director and a scriptwriter instead putting visual effects guy Steve Beck behind the camera to show us some semi-interesting special effects (it is a ghost movie after all and you better score some points there). Unfortunately the movie is uneven makes little sense and strives for both laughs and scares but achieves neither with cornball dialog and silly stereotypes; it's wildly gory to boot. Everyone's gonna say the ultra-modern haunted house is the star of Thirteen Ghosts and with good reason. The production design in this movie is amazing and the idea of ghosts hiding behind clear walls is an intriguing if ultimately wasted concept.
Diamond (Haitian-American rapper Pras) hopes to launch a recording career with a self-financed CD but loyalty to his loose-cannon homie Gage (hip-hop star Ja Rule) and a lack of cash keep him uncomfortably linked to Gage's drug-trafficking boss ("Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" star Jason Statham). Diamond's pregnant girlfriend (Tamala Jones) and estranged father (Vondie Curtis-Hall) try to steer him on a more responsible path but the would-be superstar continues to find himself in more gunfights than in the average Wesley Snipes flick. Will the violence ever end?
Handsome ex-Fugee Pras' refusal to register any emotion whatsoever hampers what little credible drama there is to be found in the script. Just because the quiet angry thing works for Ice Cube doesn't mean it will work for every rapper-turned-actor. The fierce Ja Rule shows much more promise in his feature debut though his gat-packing crazyman character is too much of a cliché to go anywhere very interesting. The terrific Curtis-Hall ("Eve's Bayou") perks things up every time his dreadlocked wise man shows up on-screen but he's criminally underused.
Writer-director Robert Adetuyi tries to have things both ways in the classic Hollywood style -- selling a vague anti-violence message while glamorizing the film's glossy gunfights. Dramatically the piece seesaws between soap opera-ish personal exchanges and cheesy gangster movie confrontations. Mechanical problems with the plot mount as Diamond and Gage set up the inevitable Big Score and soon the only question in viewers' minds is how thematically dishonest the action finale will be.