Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Order of the PhoenixHARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

I have no idea whether Alan Rickman, who portrays the impenetrable, vaguely sinister wizard Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, realized that the Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix movie would hit screens 10 days before the release of J.K. Rowling's seventh (and purportedly final) Potter book. But Rickman's portrayal seems so shrewdly tied in to readers' hunger for a new installment - and their passionate "Is Snape a villain or isn't he?" debate - that, with very little screen time to do it in, he practically emerges as the film's star.

Lisa Kudrow and Bobby Cannavale in Happy EndingsHAPPY ENDINGS

This summer, I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening of writer/director Don Roos' Happy Endings at the University of Iowa, but decided to hold off on a review until the film made it to our area.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of AzkabanHARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Anyone interested in the distinction between routine direction and inspired direction - anyone who has ever wondered what, exactly, it is that a director brings to a movie - should compare Chris Columbus' first two Harry Potter films with Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuaron; Columbus' films are the work of a by-the-numbers craftsman, and Cuaron's is the work of an artist. (Which isn't to say that everyone will prefer Cuaron's style; many people would rather dine on Big Macs than filet mignon.) Cuaron isn't quite able to overcome the series' built-in limitations - the familiarity of the storytelling arc, the "surprising" character reversals that aren't really much of a surprise, the fact that all three movies are too damned long - but for those viewers, like me, who've never been overly enamored of the Harry Potter film series, Azkaban is as fine an entertainment as you could hope for, a visually audacious work with moments of true magic, and it improves on Chris Columbus' vision tenfold.

Bonnie Wright and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & the Chamber of SecretsHARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

Although I didn't care for last year's Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone, I was more than willing to greet the new Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets with an open mind.