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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 17

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AVATAR The only film capable of surpassing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as the Fanboy Fave of 2009, James Cameron's massively hyped Avatar at least differs from Michael Bay's boondoggle in that it's, you know, entertaining. On the other hand, the notion that it represents the next revolution in cinema is nothing more than studio-driven hyperbole, because while the 3-D visuals might rate four stars, Cameron's steady but unexceptional screenplay guarantees that this falls well below more compatible marriages of substance and style found in such celluloid groundbreakers as the original King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Toy Story and Cameron's own Terminator films. Here, the story meshes Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas with, amusingly enough, this year's animated flop Battle for Terra -- it's the year 2154, and the Americans have decided to destroy the indigenous people on a distant planet in order to plunder the land and make off with its riches (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose). Employing technology that allows humans to look like the blue-skinned locals, the Earthlings send in a Marine (Sam Worthington) to gain their trust, but as the jarhead gets to know these aliens better, he finds himself conflicted. For all its swagger, Avatar is rarely deeper than an average Garfield strip, but Cameron's creation of a new world demands to be seen at least once. ***

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 BOOK OF ELI Talk about apocalypse now. If there's one positive thing to be said about the sudden glut of end-of-the-world tales, it's that the batting average in terms of quality has been on the winning side. Certainly, 2012 was a stinker, but The Road, Zombieland, Terminator Salvation and now The Book of Eli have all been compelling watches, each for different reasons. In the case of The Book of Eli, the first film directed by The Hughes Brothers since 2001's criminally underrated Johnny-Depp-meets-Jack-the-Ripper movie From Hell, it's the potent religious slant that makes it intriguing. Thirty years after a war that wiped out most of the world's population, only one Bible remains in existence. The righteous Eli (Denzel Washington) owns it, planning to use it for good; the despicable Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants it, planning to use it to forward his own insidious agenda (no mention in Gary Whitta's script as to whether Carnegie is related to Pat Robertson). Admittedly, the spiritual stuff often takes a back seat to sequences of Eli slicing and dicing his way through hordes of sinners. But Washington provides the proper amount of gravitas to his role, and the surprise ending almost matches the denouement of The Sixth Sense as an audience grabber. ***

CRAZY HEART Robert Duvall appears in a supporting role in Crazy Heart and also serves as one of the film's producers. His participation in this project makes complete sense: He wanted to personally hand the baton off to Jeff Bridges. After all, Duvall won his Best Actor Academy Award for 1983's Tender Mercies, and now here comes Bridges, the odds-on favorite to finally win his own Oscar for playing the same type of role essayed by Duvall -- that of a rumpled, boozing, country & western star who enters into a relationship with a sympathetic woman at least two decades his junior. Bridges' grizzled character goes by the name Bad Blake, and that first name describes less the man who bears it -- he's fundamentally decent although, like most drunks, irresponsible and exhausting -- than the circumstances of his present lot in life. Washed up, perpetually inebriated, and playing honky-tonk dives while his protégée, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), fills up massive arenas, Blake stays in the fight even though the odds are against him. But suddenly, unexpected developments on the personal and professional fronts hold real promise. Sweet turns up and, clearly fond of his former mentor, offers him an opening slot on his tour and the opportunity to write new songs for him. And Blake, a multiple divorce' and unrepentant womanizer, finds a chance at a lasting relationship when he meets and falls for reporter and single mom Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Will Blake finally encounter true happiness, or will he find some way to screw everything up? Adapting Thomas Cobbs' novel, writer-director Scott Cooper throws enough curve balls into the expected plotting to keep the narrative from completely dissolving into formula. This is Bridges' show from start to finish, and he seems to be taking particular glee in letting it all hang out (sometimes literally, as a generous gut is frequently glimpsed bursting through an open shirt). Jeff Bridges is a great actor and Bad Blake a great character, and that's more than enough to make this otherwise unexceptional picture sing. ***

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