Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone;<br></br>Kandahar

Resistance is futile - the magic is just too strong
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The Independent Culture

We critics long ago resigned ourselves to the fact that there is precious little difference we can make to the fortunes of a blockbuster: the most we can hope to do is rustle up a few extra viewers for an underpromoted gem of Estonian social realism. So it doesn't much matter what I say about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, arguably the most critic-proof film ever. If I told you not to bother, you wouldn't listen. If I urged you to see it – well, chances are you've already stumped up for last weekend's advance screenings.

As for trenchant analysis of the Potter phenomenon, we've been glutted on that since JK Rowling first notched up her bestseller figures. The one clever-dick media-studies observation I'll venture here is this: the Potter books are the only massively popular cultural product in Britain that its adult fans consume without any ironic distance whatsoever. And it's a safe bet that the film – which takes its material in good-natured earnest – won't be consumed in irony either, at least not till Hollywood fan-boy auteur Kevin Smith has his characters bickering about the rules of quidditch as they once did about roofing contractors in Star Wars.

In the end, all a critic can hope to offer is a dutiful consumer report: does the film do what it promises on the packet? Yes, pretty much. Even if you're entirely indifferent to the Potter mythos, or determined to hate what will inevitably be a hugely lucrative franchise, you have to admit Chris Columbus's film is a solid, lively distraction – the requisite firework display, Christmas panto and murder-mystery theme party rolled into one.

Predictably, the visuals are grander and more ostentatiously Gothic than Rowling's mundane prose style suggested. But the film heightens the old-fashioned nature of the conceit, shamelessly playing up the E Nesbit archaism. When the Hogwarts Express pulls up at a rural platform, you expect to see the Railway Children waving cheerily from the level crossing. The cast of British stalwarts seems to have come hotfoot from a vintage BBC teatime Dickens adaptation – Richard Griffiths as Harry's Bumble-like tormentor, John Hurt as a generic Curious Old Gentleman.

The spectacle doesn't miss a trick, but some tricks are better than others. I couldn't fathom the quidditch match, which simply made me think of a million technicians worrying over complex 3D graphics packages. The simplest effects are the most striking – notably, a wall of shuffling bricks and some dizzying Piranesi perspectives in Stuart Craig's production design. And the more easily scared members of the audience (ie those over 18) should be warned about the climactic appearance of the evil Voldemort – a grisly apparition as close as you can get to junior David Cronenberg.

Among the adult performances, there's barely a dud, except perhaps for John Cleese doing his usual John Cleese routine. Maggie Smith snippily reprises her Jean Brodie persona, and Robbie Coltrane looms like the Hell's Angel of Christmas Past, but the best turn is Alan Rickman muttering in a voice from the bottom of the inkwell – the perfect incarnation of the "dark sarcasm in the classroom" that Pink Floyd once lamented.

Of the children, the least winning is actually Harry himself, played a touch reticently by Daniel Radcliffe – although it feels most mean-spirited to say this of an 11-year-old with exorbitant pressures riding on him. But he's rather upstaged by rubber-faced Rupert Grint, the suave little sneerer Tom Felton (surely a George Sanders in the making) and Emma Watson's pert know-it-all Hermione. She's a dead cert for the lead when they get round to making Nigella: The Early Years.

When Kandahar was shown in Cannes in May, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film about Afghanistan looked like an urgent bulletin. By the time it had its first British press screenings a few weeks ago, it had become what they used to call "a story ripped from today's headlines". Now, in a week that has seen the beards and burkas coming off, it already looks as though it might be turning into past history. This strange, ragged travelogue is not, by the usual standards, a great film, nor even a great Makhmalbaf film – it's nowhere near as cogent as his autobiographical essay A Moment of Silence. But as an enquiry into the state of the world, it goes some way beyond the usual must-see criteria.

Makhmalbaf made Kandahar at the urging of the film's lead Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan woman living in Canada. She plays Nafas, a woman who returns to her homeland intending to rescue her sister, who has threatened a desperate protest – suicide on the last eclipse of the 20th century. Pazira's monotone narration starts the film discouragingly, but as her journey gets under way, events become all the more unnerving the closer they are to life. Much of the film, shot on the Afghanistan-Iran border, seems like straight reportage. A crowd of young girls stare quizzically at the camera, as their teacher warns that they can soon abandon hope of getting an education. Hundreds of boys sway in prayer at a Koran school; one parrots the official definition of a Kalashnikov, while cradling the real thing.

Soon, it becomes hard to unpick Makhmalbaf's distinctively surreal approach from the everyday strangeness of life under the Taliban. Women consult a doctor through a curtain, putting their mouths to a hole in an image straight out of Beckett. Ghoulish black comedy sets in at a Red Cross post where we meet a crowd of men who have lost their limbs to mines. One man still has his legs, but insists on being supplied with a prosthetic pair: it's always wise to carry spares, he calmly explains.

The film ends on a chilling note, as Nafas looks through her burka at the sun setting over Kandahar, a city she may never reach. By the time you read this, who knows whether that final image too won't have been given a new resonance by events? Whatever happens in Afghanistan in the immediate future, however, Kandahar won't become obsolete so soon, for it should also be seen as Makhmalbaf's indirect comment on women's situation in his own country, a companion piece to Jafar Panahi's recent The Circle. Iran is renowned for its forthright humanist dramas, but not all the country's directors get around restrictions that easily. Feminist film-maker Tahmineh Milani currently faces execution following her film The Hidden Half, despite its approval by the Iranian Ministry of Culture. Details on her case, and a declaration of solidarity signed by international film-makers including Hanif Kureishi, Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, can be found at www.facets.org/petition.html.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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