Reviews in Short

Avatar. The most expensive film ever made leaves much to be desired. Paralyzed from the waist down, former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) voices several movies worth of telldon’t-show narration for the benefit of audiences who like being read to when they watch a movie. With no oil resources left on Earth, a battalion of outsourced military bozos have set up camp on the moon "Pandora" with a group of optimistic scientists in order to incite a tribe of native aliens called the Na’vi. They want to drive the Na’vi out of their giant tree home to extract an energy-producing mineral called Unobtainium (yes, really). Jake rests in a coffin-like bed, from which he projects a walking-talking avatar in the form of a Na’vi creature. Jake’s mission is to earn the trust of the blue-skinned Na’vi and report back to the colonizing military forces. The Na’vi are primitive aliens who wear loin cloths, do battle with bows and arrows and fly around on winged, four-eyed creatures. For an ostensibly anti-imperialist war movie written in all caps and splashed with every primary color in the Maxfield Parish color wheel, "Avatar" ends up being a toothless rollercoaster of eye candy that sexes up war, the very thing it professes to detest. Rated PG-13. 160 mins. (B-)

The Blind Side. If ever Sandra Bullock had Oscar nomination potential, it comes in her canny performance as a Southern Republican with a heart of gold. Bullock nails the Memphis accent and attitude of her character, Leigh Anne Tuoughy, a white family woman of privilege who takes African-American Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), an over-sized high school senior athlete from a broken home in the ghetto, into her home. With the help of her family and a few friends, Leigh Anne gives Michael the academic and home life he needs to be a successful college football player. Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s formulaic adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," isn’t above slipping into music video sequences, but the script’s recipe works seamlessly with sound ensemble performances and high production values all around. "The Blind Side" expresses a racially and emotionally charged portrait of coded Southern mannerisms and passive aggressive politeness. Although it’s ostensibly a sports movie, it’s also a character study of how families take care of one another. Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (B)

Invictus. Morgan Freeman’s brilliant performance as Nelson Mandela is the kind of transformation that Academy Award members aggressively reward come Oscar season. Whether or not they’ll be as impressed with Anthony Peckham’s airy adaptation of John Carlin’s book "Playing the Enemy" is questionable. The story is set in 1995, during the early days of Mandela’s presidency, after he served 27 years in prison. Settling into his office, Mandela makes a point to meet with a black nationalist group that has voted to abolish the Springboks, South Africa’s popular Afrikaner rugby team. With calm resolve, Mandela explains to a crowd of apartheid victims that it is better to lead by example than to mimic their former oppressors. Viewing the Springboks as an ideal tool for promoting multiracial unity, Mandela invites the team’s level-headed Afrikaner team captain Francois (Matt Damon) for tea. There, Mandela plants seeds of encouragement about Francois leading his team to World Cup victory. Mandela mentions William Ernest Henely’s poem "Invictus" to Francois as a fount of inspiration that kept him sane in prison. "Invictus" is a beautiful snapshot-biopic that lacks dramatic significance in its subplots. Still, the film makes its points by way of director Clint Eastwood’s usual assured direction and Freeman’s considerable portrayal. Rated PG-13. 134 mins. (B )

Brothers. Jim Sheridan’s muted remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 film with the same title is an imperfect but well-acted examination of the after-effects of a traumatic experience in the war in Afghanistan. Tobey Maguire plays Captain Sam Cahill, a loving family man who begins a second tour of duty. He leaves behind his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their two young daughters. At the same time, Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison after serving a stretch for bank robbery. The film’s thematic centerpiece act of brutality relays the vicious cycle of war that the American government perpetrates on its own people. Sam Shepherd is squandered with a script that hamstrings his role as military father to Sam and Tommy. Portman gives a delicate performance as Sam’s tortured wife. As Sam, Maguire undergoes a complete transformation into a mentally traumatized individual, but his excellent performance isn’t adequately supported by David Benioff’s sporadically amateurish script. Rated R. (104 mins.) (C )

Ninja Assassin. Shockingly, "Ninja Assassin" is a legitimate martial arts fantasy movie. Multiple storylines support shadowy noir settings for gallons of thick, red-paint blood to splatter behind swords, fighting stars, and bullets. Korean pop star Rain is believable as Raizo, a disciplined ninja abducted as a small boy by the underground Ozunu Clan (AKA the Clan of the Black Sand) and trained by the brutal Ozunu (Sh Kosugias) as an outsource assassin to kill for wealthy governments and private individuals. Hotshot Berlin Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) connects the Ozunu Ninja to a political assassination and conspires with her associate Maslow (Ben Miles) to blow open the secret ninja organization that none of her military-prone peers believes exists. Screenwriters Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski might not have created a masterpiece, but they do effectively dodge cliches by going for some less obvious plotting. James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") directs this unpredictable acrobatic display of violent spectacle that carries its themes of loyalty and skill in a slick package of fast-twitch precision. Rated R. 99 mins. (B)

Everybody’s Fine. "Everybody’s Fine" is a thoughtful holiday movie that teaches us how to appreciate differing definitions of success. The story revolves around recently widowed Frank Goode’s grown and scattered-to-the-four-winds children. De Niro, as Goode, grounds the story as a father who not everyone necessarily wishes they had had. Frank’s high expectations for his kids — David, Amy, Robert and Rosie — create revealing consequences, when Frank hits the road to reunite with each of his progeny. A dose of disappointment accompanies each visit, as Frank comes to a realization about his identity as a father. Based on Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 film "Stanno tutti bene," writer/director Kirk Jones fulfills the material’s dramatic demands without putting too fine a point on Frank’s emotional awakening. But De Niro’s naturalistic performance is what captures your imagination. Rated PG-13. 95 mins. (B-)

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