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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 30 

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

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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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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