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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 6

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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

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

EVERYBODY'S FINE After spending the better part of a decade mugging to the rafters in such films as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Analyze That, Robert De Niro opts to underplay in the family melodrama Everybody's Fine. But don't let this opposite approach sucker you in: De Niro isn't low-key as much as he's merely lethargic, and it's yet one more dismissive turn from an actor who once owned a major chunk of seminal '70s cinema. De Niro stars as Frank Goode, a widower who, disappointed that all four of his grown children have canceled plans to come visit him, decides instead to surprise all of them on their own respective doorsteps. He first visits David, an artist living in New York, but David never turns up at his own apartment. Undeterred, Frank presses forward, visiting in rapid succession his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), an advertising executive, his son Robert (Sam Rockwell), a symphony musician, and his other daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a Vegas entertainer. It turns out that all three are hiding things from their dad -- about David as well as about themselves. Writer-director Kirk Jones makes an unhealthy number of unwise decisions, from pacing to casting to his mise en scene selections. Awkward and ill-matched, the members of the big-name cast fail to impress, although Rockwell comes closest to making his character something more than a dullard. Dramatic crises are played out in predictable fashion, with the one deviation from formula -- a climactic scene in which Frank imagines his offspring looking like children but arguing with him like adults -- proving to be disastrous. Although a remake of a 1990 Italian import starring Marcello Mastroianni, Everybody's Fine also has much in common, both thematically and narratively, with a Jack Nicholson gem from a few years back. Ultimately, though, this is less About Schmidt and more about nothing much. **

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