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Avatar, The Young Victoria and Penelope Cruz: This Week’s Big New Movies

Broken Embraces

AVATAR: James Cameron directed the best of the Terminator and the Alien movies and, of course, Titanic. So how does this measure up? Very well. It has a Lord of the Rings feel in
its spectacular visuals and giant battle scenes. It imagines an entire aboriginal society of mystical people with a deep connection to the forest. Then it sends in the bulldozers and military gunships to take their resources. The people try to fight back, like some American Indians did. The story has been criticized as cold and pedestrian but those are radical ideas lurking there behind the strong environmental message. Cameron manages to weave it all seamlessly into a grand adventure set on another planet sometime in the future. Sigourney Weaver is a scientist who sends avatars (hybrids of both peoples) to infiltrate the primitive clans. Sam Worthington is a new recruit who switches sides and even falls in love when he goes out there. That’s when he’s not fighting off dinosaur-like creatures and diving off giant cliffs. This, finally, is a movie worth seeing in 3-D. (At the Park, Caprice White Rock, one Empire and several Cineplex Theatres). 4 out of 5

THE YOUNG VICTORIA: Romantic chemistry? In a movie about Queen Victoria? Yes, there it is,  as she takes a first dance with her beloved Albert at the Coronation Ball. It’s well into the film when it happens, and signifies a change.  The obscure political games (both at court and internationally) that weigh down the first part, finally give way to the human story that’s been struggling to come out. It’s a tale of personal growth and then a love story, a long-distance one, until that dance. Emily Blunt is radiant as the young queen who has learn to stand up to various advisors, prime ministers and even her mother. Rupert Friend is quietly solid as her beloved  Albert, the German prince who became her husband. The film is choppy at times but also playful and generally warm and satisfying. Directed in England by Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallee. (5th Avenue Cinema and  Cineplex theatres in Coquitlam and Riverport)  3 1/2 out of 5

BROKEN EMBRACES: Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar and  Penélope Cruz make terrific films together. This one is both a mystery and a celebration of the movies. A film director (Lluis Homar)) who has gone blind and tries to write under an alias gets some startling news. An old acquaintance has died. He was a philandering tycoon who years before had tried to put his mistress (Cruz) into the movies. The director fell in love with her, though, which the tycoon found it out by having a lip reader interpret some silent footage of private conversations. Before long, the couple are on the run. That’s a very streamlined synopsis of a rich, varied script. We get most of the story in a series of flashbacks. In the current time, a would-be director shows up with an old grudge and a mysterious connection to the main tale. The film references a few film noir classics but doesn’t hit that mood itself. It is stylish, ironic, often funny and usually sunny in both look and tone. It has a Golden Globe nomination as best foreign film. (5th Avenue Cinema)  4 out of 5

LA DANSE: I don’t know much about ballet but even I found this film thoroughly engaging. Fred Wiseman, one of the USA’s premier documentary makers, takes us inside Le ballet de l'Opera de Paris. We watch the dancers rehearse while instructors coach or even hector them. They tell them to hold a hand higher or lower, spin faster or slower. One is criticized for imagining an arabesque that isn’t there. There are stars as well as new dancers. Wiseman doesn’t identify anybody. Nor does he tell us what works they’re rehearsing. He doesn’t ask questions and just lets us watch. That’s more than a bunch of benefactors from Lehman Brothers get. We see a  manager’s meeting reject their request to see a rehearsal. There are also other business meetings that interrupt the dancing with odd bits of information. One is about a new retirement and pension plan. It seems the dancers have the same deal as railway workers. The result is a rounded picture of the artists and the environment they work in. Near the end we get short clips from the actual stage performances of the works we’ve been watching take shape. There are seven, including an amazingly bloody Medea. (VanCity Theatre starting Monday Dec 21) 4 out of 5

HELEN: It’s an annual newspaper story. There are people who suffer terrible depression at this time of year. But who wants to see a movie about depression right now? This is a German-Canadian co-production filmed here in Vancouver with a powerful performance by Ashley Judd.
She’s a university music professor who starts spacing out during her lectures,  strolling in fog at Spanish Banks and sleeping late. Even though she says she’s just tired, a severe breakdown soon comes on and she’s in a psychiatric hospital. The film shows that progression with care and sensitivity. We believe it. The story meanders on though and gets strange and melodramatic. Her husband (Goran Visnjic) finds out she’s been in that psych ward before. She turns down electro-shock therapy and runs off with another patient, a young suicidal woman who shows fits of rage and is seen turning cheap tricks in a rundown former shipbuilding plant. Ashley, meanwhile, takes a more surprising path. A well-meaning, rambling and depressing film. (Tinseltown)  2 ½ out of 5

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS: Seven years ago Hugh Grant’s ex-flame Elizabeth Hurley played a New Yorker compelled to spend time in small-town cowboy country in Texas. Now it’s Hugh’s turn. He goes to Wyoming and the results are no better. He’s a lawyer; his wife (Sarah Jessica Parker), from whom he’s separated, is a fast-talking real estate agent. When they witness a murder, they’re sent west to hide out with a rural lawman with a big mustache and a heavy drawl (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife who loves to hunt (Mary Steenbergen). Yes, there’s a Sarah Palin joke. And pretty well every other joke and situation you’d expect: a rodeo, a bear attack, bear spray in Hugh’s eyes, Sarah rebuffed when she asks a guy at the café to please not smoke, big city vs heartland ways. Not much of it is funny; most of it is belabored and, even though we know the killer will eventually show up, we have to wait forever through endless bickering about some ancient infidelity. (One Empire and 10 Cineplex theatres)  2 out of 5

More in New Movies

Disney wildlife times two, a blast at American politics and a traumatic teen drama

Also a couple of small but amiable comedies, one of them Canadian

More streaming ideas take you to Brazil, low-life China and two Jesse Eisenberg films

As well as a cleverly-plotted trip to Barcelona thanks to Netflix

Movie theatres are shut down, so what’s streaming?

Some modest recommendations and stay for the last one, an alarm about what has happened to the internet.
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