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Capsule reviews for films playing the week of Dec. 16

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THE BLIND SIDE Precious is different in that it allows an African-American character to tell her own story, never ceding the camera to anyone else and remaining the focal point throughout. The Blind Side is more typical of the sort of racially aware films Hollywood foists upon middle America, purportedly focusing on a black protagonist but really serving as an example of the goodness of white folks. The only reason this young black boy exists, it seems to hint, is so that a Caucasian woman can feel good about herself. The fact that The Blind Side is based on a true story dispels much of this criticism, although it still would have been nice if writer-director John Lee Hancock had thought to include the character of Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron) into more of his game plan. Instead, he's a saintly, one-dimensional figure -- although he (like everyone else in the film) seems like the spawn of Satan when compared to Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the feisty Southern belle who decides to feed, shelter and eventually adopt this homeless lad after spotting him one dark and stormy night. Bullock's a lot of fun to watch in this role, and the movie itself contains enough humor and heartbreak (though next to no dramatic tension) to make it an engaging if undemanding experience. But its true intentions are revealed in its ample self-congratulatory dialogue. "Leigh Anne, you are changing that boy's life." "No. [insert dramatic, Oscar-friendly pause here] He's changing mine." You can almost see the filmmakers patting themselves on their backs before heading home to their maximum-security Beverly Hills mansions. **1/2

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Officially, the title is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which is acceptable since it sure as hell isn't Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While it might be true that this animated version retains more of the literary classic than might reasonably be expected, it's also accurate to state that a key ingredient of the novel -- namely, its humanist spirit -- is largely missing from this chilly interpretation. Director Robert Zemeckis, who used to make fun movies in which the spectacular special effects served the story and not the other way around (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), has become obsessed with the motion capture process (this is his third consecutive picture utilizing this technique, following The Polar Express and Beowulf), and one gets the sense that he chose the Dickens chestnut not because of a desire to revive its moral tale for a new generation but because it seemed like a suitable vehicle for his new techno-toys. But Zemeckis can't keep still, and rather than remain within the parameters of the meaty story, he follows in the footsteps of the recent Where the Wild Things Are adaptation by fleshing out a story that didn't exactly cry out for extraneous material. But while Wild Things' additions at least made thematic sense, Zemeckis pads the material with such nonsense as Scrooge (Jim Carrey) being blasted into the stratosphere or dashing through the cobbled streets of London (a chase scene? Really?) while simultaneously turning into the incredible shrinking man. Carrey gives the role of the miserly Scrooge his all (he also voices a half-dozen other characters), and the 3-D effects (offered in select theaters) are expertly realized. But you don't need glasses -- 3-D or otherwise -- to see that this holiday release is too diluted for adults, too frightening for children, and too tiresome for just about everybody. *1/2

AN EDUCATION Coming-of-age movies are a dime-a-dozen, but one as exemplary as An Education deserves nothing less than the opportunity to command top dollar on the open market. Sensitively directed by Lone Scherfig and exquisitely penned by Nick Hornby (adapting Lynn Barber's memoir), this lovely drama set in London during the early 1960s stays true to its title by showing how its teen protagonist learns life lessons as they relate to issues of class, sex, schooling and her country's own growing pains. In a tremendous breakout performance, Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old whose intelligence and maturity level place her far above everyone else at her high school. Her strict father (Alfred Molina) and comparatively more lenient mother (Cara Seymour) plan for her to attend Oxford upon graduation, but those plans threaten to get derailed once she meets a debonair gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) twice her age. She's instantly smitten by this older man who introduces her to a whirlwind life of nightclubs, champagne and fine art, and her decision to possibly toss aside higher education troubles her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) as well as the school's principal (Emma Thompson). Morals may be gently suggested by the story but no easy answers are ever provided, marking An Education as that rare film which acknowledges that regrettable situations don't always destroy lives but can sometimes be used to positively shape long-term outlooks. Hornby and Scherfig set up a number of believable conflicts for Jenny to navigate, and the acting is uniformly splendid. An Education is clearly one year-end award contender that passes with high honors. ***1/2

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