Time to kick off the Holiday Ticket Stub season!

* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- Director Mike Newell has done the impossible here: made a good movie out of J.K. Rowling's most overstuffed wizarding adventure. After skillfully stripping out the 5 or 6 least interesting subplots, Newell leaves us with an action-packed flick that zooms from adolescent angst to machinations of pure evil and back, with only a few bumpy patches along the way. He manages to convey a lot of atmosphere in short bursts, with compressed set pieces like the Quidditch World Cup and the Yule Ball making the most of vivid fx and snappy dialogue by the core trio of Harry, Ron & Hermione. The kids seem refreshed and re-engaged in their roles on the fourth go-round, a nice trend. The supporting adults are delightful, as usual, with Brendan Gleeson's hard-bitten crackpot, Mad-Eye Moody, providing some needed comic relief. The plot spirals downward in the third act as the supposed focus of the school year, the TriWizard Tournament, is shown to be just a ruse for Harry to be delivered to his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, embodied with lithe menace by a creepily disguised Ralph Fiennes. My heart was actually pounding during the climactic scene: the sense of epic evil whisking away the illusive comforts of childhood is the real turning point of Harry's saga, and his fans will look forward to the next few chapters with dread as well as anticipation, just like him. (B+)

* Walk The Line -- Oscar bait this may be, but if Joaquin Phoenix makes his way to the podium this winter the trip will be well-deserved. A standard, though not dully formulaic, biopic of Johnny Cash and his great love, June Carter, the film blends knockout musical performances with impassioned characterization by Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who will never have to do a twerpy romantic comedy again. Phoenix inhabits Cash almost deferentially, never pushing the drawling voice or rueful face into caricature, and smoldering through the songs in a way that showcases Cash's beguiling (and sometimes highly calculated) simplicity. This understatement is what sets this movie apart from Ray, which I found a little overcooked, though the stories are oddly similar (check out Nat's comparison chart!). Witherspoon crackles as June, the seasoned performer and grounded realist who prods and waits for Cash to right himself before giving herself over. The pacing is a little saggy, and the "road to redemption" plot is clearly marked from the outset, but the performances draw you in. Watching Phoenix deliver tender lines about the beloved older brother who died young and tragically, whose memory haunts and drives Cash, was riveting -- I'm surprised more critics haven't picked up on that aspect. Whatever his motivation, Phoenix sells the legend of Johnny Cash as a man with convincing feet of clay. Extra points for Shooter Jennings' bit part portrayal of his own daddy, Waylon! (A)

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