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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 2

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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

THE BOX The Box is the latest picture from writer-director Richard Kelly, who with the cult fave Donnie Darko proved that he's one filmmaker able to think outside the box (ouch). Adapting Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," Kelly has fashioned a complex tale out of a simple premise: A solemn stranger (Frank Langella) hands a married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) a box and informs them that if they press the button on top, someone they don't know will die but they'll be rewarded with one million dollars for their action. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the button does indeed get pushed (otherwise, it would be one helluva short flick), but no viewer can be expected to predict the myriad directions in which the movie travels. At its heart a fable about the moral choices we make and accepting the consequences of our actions, the film remains an original even as it touches upon other literary and cinematic sources to enhance its appeal: Sartre's No Exit plays a part, as does the writing of Arthur C. Clarke (the latter in turn leading to a visual sequence worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself based on Clarke's story "The Sentinel"). Admittedly, The Box doesn't hold up as a morning-after title, since reflecting on its events will reveal a fair share of plotholes. But both its imagination and its ambition sprint far beyond anything offered in the creatively neutered likes of A Christmas Carol or Law Abiding Citizen, and Kelly doesn't cheat in the final reels in a grasping effort to placate timid moviegoers. Conscientious in its actions yet radical in its approach, The Box demonstrates that, in this instance anyway, it's hip to be square. ***

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

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