The worst? It slows to a snail's pace in the middle, making its two-and-a half-hour running time feel even longer. Although director Chris Columbus again tries to include every incident and character found in J.K. Rowling's book, his near-slavish commitment to re-creating the novel's mass appeal keeps any genuine movie magic at bay. Daniel Radcliffe returns as Harry, and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are back as his boon companions Ron and Hermoine. New at Hogwarts this term is Gilderoy Lockhart, a foppish instructor brought to riotous life by Kenneth Branagh. But the true Potter fan will be on the edge of his or her seat waiting for the mystery to kick in, watching breathlessly as Harry, Ron and Hermoine find the Chamber of Secrets and try to defeat the monster within. ****
"Half Past Dead" A beefed-up Steven Seagal (OK, you're right, porked-up would be more accurate) teams with lean and funny actor-rapper Ja Rule for this predictable prison-set action flick. The improbable tale unfolds in dizzying MTV-style with writer-director Don Michael Paul wreaking plenty of havoc, if not bloodshed. Seagal is supposed to be an undercover FBI agent; Ja Rule, a crook he's befriended. When the two get sent to a futuristic Alcatraz, they find themselves at the mercy of a government official gone bad (Morris Chestnut), who storms the high-tech prison with mercenaries and takes a female Supreme Court Justice hostage. If you can get past the moronic characters, the lame dialogue and the ridiculous plot, "Half Past Dead" might keep you mindlessly entertained. No? You're right, I'm lying, only Ja Rule's worth watching. *
"8 Women" Cross the theatrical mystery of "Ten Little Indians" with the psychodrama of "The Women," toss in a few campy musical numbers and a healthy dose of feminine self-awareness, and, well, you've got this giddy, caustic bit of French irony. Set in a snowed-in country house in the '50s, this postmodern "whodunit" opens with the discovery of a dead body. Uh-oh, that means the eight female guests are all suspects. And what suspects they are from the divine Catherine Deneuve to Emmanuelle Beart to Isabelle Huppert to Virginie Ledoyen these gals are certainly guilty as sin, if not murder. In French with subtitles, this frankly sexy mystery should please the most discriminating moviegoer. ****
"8 Mile" While this won't make a hip-hoppin' believer out of you, it will make you rethink your media-hyped thoughts about its star, Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. Quasi-autobiographical, "8 Mile" introduces us to Jimmy (Eminem), a gifted Detroit rapper with a temper, a dreary job, a dissolute mom (Kim Basinger) and an adoring little sis (Chloe Greenfield). As with most rags-to-riches tales, Jimmy wants to compete in the local weekly "battle" of amateur rappers, but he's uneasy about trying to rap for an African-American audience. His pal, Future (Mekhi Phifer), who emcees the event, and his other black friends urge him to try. He, of course, chokes the first time out. Although much of "8 Mile" approaches cliche, director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") fills the movie with genuine grit and emotion. He also gets an amazingly controlled and full-bodied performance from Eminem. Who knew such a thing was possible? ****
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