AMAZING GRACE Basically Amistad with only half the serving of self-importance, Amazing Grace examines the efforts of William Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament who fought to end his country's involvement in the slave trade during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Ioan Gruffudd, no stranger to heroic roles (Horatio Hornblower, Mr. Fantastic, even the officer who rescues Rose in Titanic), plays Wilberforce, who spent over two decades of his life battling colleagues who saw nothing wrong in keeping the practice of slavery alive. But armed with his deeply held religious convictions and a basic sense of decency, he persevered against all obstacles, including a reputation as a traitor to his country during the war with France ("You're either with us or with the French terrorists!" has a familiar ring ...) and his own failing health. Perhaps more Masterpiece Theatre than motion picture -- director Michael Apted (Nell) frequently opts for static shots more suitable for the small screen -- Amazing Grace nevertheless tells a story that's compelling enough to compensate for the occasional stuffiness. A well-chosen cast also helps immeasurably -- among the luminaries are Michael Gambon as a fellow politico, Rufus Sewell in a change-of-pace role as the most anarchic of the abolitionists, and Albert Finney as a former slave-ship captain who repents for his sins by writing the title tune. ***
BLACK SNAKE MOAN After earning positive notices for his breakthrough feature, 2005's Hustle & Flow, writer-director Craig Brewer returns with another look at Southern discomfort deep-fried in a greasy pool of sex and song. Befitting the double meaning of its title, Black Snake Moan provides a pleasurable bait-and-switch, beginning as a funky, freaky "woman in chains" offshoot and ending up as a more traditional tale about redemption and life's second chances. Set in a swampy Tennessee burg, this stars Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus, a former blues musician who rescues town tart Rae (Christina Ricci) after he discovers her battered body in the ditch next to his house. Working through his own domestic crisis -- his wife has just left him for his brother -- Lazarus decides to redeem himself by simultaneously saving this woman, chaining her to his radiator and attempting to purge her of her sexual demons. What Lazarus doesn't know is that his own demons will be better tamed by the love of a good woman -- in this case, the helpful pharmacist (S. Epatha Merkerson) who works in the nearby town -- and that Rae's soldier-boy steady (Justin Timberlake) has just returned after an aborted Iraqi tour of duty and is looking high and low for his sweetheart. Black Snake Moan is far more scattershot than Hustle & Flow, but its unorthodox yet earnest approach to religion, hot music licks, and spot-on performances by Jackson and Ricci keep the whole brew bubbling. ***
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA There's a gentle strain seeping back into today's family films, a development that should be encouraged at every turn. When movies aimed at the smallest fry feature characters belching and breaking wind at regular intervals, it's clear that the tide has turned since the decades of such marvelous and -- I hasten to add -- enduring masterpieces like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians; even the recent live-action take on Charlotte's Web couldn't resist occasionally pandering to the crusty-snot-nosed kids in the audience. Like the film versions of A Little Princess and The Neverending Story, Bridge to Terabithia wasn't made for them; instead, it's for bright, inquisitive children (and attendant adults) who subscribe to the theory that imagination is one of the most wonderful tools available. Based on Katherine Paterson's award-winning book, this explores the relationship between two outcast middle-schoolers (Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb, both highly appealing) and the adventures they share as they create a magical kingdom in the woods that rest behind their respective houses. If the effects involved in the creation of their imaginary world seem on the thrifty side, that's OK, since the heart of the story rests in the manner in which children are able to cope with loneliness, ostracism and even death. Incidentally, co-writer David Paterson is Katherine's son, which helps explain the film's fidelity to its source material. ***
BECAUSE I SAID SO A nasty piece of cinema posing as a romantic comedy, Because I Said So is this year's Monster-In-Law, a vicious stab at the maternal instinct that also manages to humiliate the iconic actress at its center. Diane Keaton headlines the film as Daphne, a 59-year-old woman who still dotes on her youngest daughter, Milly (Mandy Moore). Determined to find Mr. Right for Milly, Daphne interviews prospective suitors and settles on a wealthy architect (Tom Everett Scott), but her plans are upset by the additional presence of a struggling musician (Gabriel Macht). For all its faults -- reprehensible characters, grotesque racial profiling (check out the Asian masseuses), a dog not only humping the furniture after hearing moans emanating from an Internet porn site but actually licking the computer screen as well -- the movie's most unforgivable sin is its treatment of the great Diane Keaton. Jane Fonda had lost her acting chops by the time she returned from retirement to appear in Monster-In-Law, but Keaton is still an active and accomplished performer. But watching her humiliated on camera in the service of such a loathsome character (she shrieks! she whines! she falls on her ass!) is inexcusable. Just a few years ago, Keaton played a character who was sexy, funny and intelligent in Something's Gotta Give. This one's more like Something Gave Out. *
BREACH Though lacking the breadth and complexity of this past winter's The Good Shepherd, Breach is another dour cloak and dagger thriller set within the corridors of one of America's omniscient law enforcement agencies. In this case, it's the FBI, and the subject is the true-life saga of the apprehension of agent Robert Hanssen, who in 2001 was brought down for his role as a longtime spy for the Russians. The superb Chris Cooper plays Hanssen, who's presented as a deeply religious man with a disdain for homosexuals, strong-willed women (Hillary Clinton rates a diss) and many of his peers at the bureau. He's assigned a clerk named Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), not realizing that the young man is a budding agent who's been ordered by his superior (Laura Linney) to spy on him and collect any potentially incriminating evidence. Apparently adhering closer to the facts than many Hollywood fictionalizations (director and co-writer Billy Ray even works in Hanssen's fetish for secretly filming and writing about his sexual encounters with his unsuspecting wife), Breach is competent without being particularly distinguished, with Cooper working hard to provide any psychological subtext to the story behind the headlines. As the green Eric, Phillippe is adequate, though if there's any variance between his performances in Crash, Flags of Our Fathers and this film, I must have blinked and missed it. **1/2
HANNIBAL RISING This prequel to the myriad Hannibal Lecter titles now lining DVD shelves hits theaters reeking of "cash-in-quick sequel," so it's somewhat shocking to note that, for a good while anyway, its creators actually make a go out of creating something beyond the expected. Director Peter Webber, who earned kudos for his Johannes Vermeer sorta-biopic Girl With a Pearl Earring, lavishes painterly attention to the film's look (cinematographer Ben Davis shares the credit), while writer Thomas Harris (who apparently wrote the recently released novel concurrent with the screenplay) takes great pains to fill in the backstory on the cannibalistic serial killer and how the events in his youth -- WWII-era through the early 1950s -- turned him into a human monster. Unfortunately, after a fairly gripping first half, the movie devolves into a routine rip-off of Death Wish, with the youthful Hannibal (played by Gaspard Ulliel) exacting his bloody revenge on those who abused him years earlier and thereby turned him into the killing machine he eventually became. Rhys Ifans is effective as the sneering heavy, Gong Li adds understated concern as the woman who takes Hannibal under her wing, and Dominic West functions as the audience surrogate in the role of the kindly police inspector who seeks to understand Hannibal even as he tries to stop him. **
MUSIC AND LYRICS Assembly line romantic comedies often rise or fall based on the stars at their center, and Music and Lyrics is lucky to have both Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant (as opposed to, say, Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey) offering their services to the soggy premise. The perpetually perky (but rarely tiresome) Barrymore is a constant beam of sunshine in practically all her film appearances (God forbid she ever gets cast as Joan of Arc), while Grant is more entertaining playing charming rakes (About a Boy) rather than out-and-out rotters (American Dreamz). Here, they're both allowed to cater to their strengths, and even if they never quite click as a romantic couple -- admittedly a huge flaw in a movie released on Valentine's Day -- their individual personalities make up enormous stretches of terrain. Grant stars as Alex Fletcher, a former 80s pop star who's commissioned by current music diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) to write a new hit song for her. Alex's forte is in the melody, not the lyrics, so he ends up asking quirky Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants, to help him on that end. Writer-director Marc Lawrence doesn't deviate much from the expected template (boy and girl meet cute, love cute, break up ugly and reconcile cute), but he includes a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud lines, something I never expected from the guy who penned (among other chuckle-free affairs) Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks Notice. **1/2
NORBIT There's a reason makeup artist Rick Baker has six Academy Awards on the mantle in his workshop, and it can be seen in his latest collaboration with Eddie Murphy. Baker, who earned one of his Oscars for his work on Murphy's The Nutty Professor, had a hand in the designs Murphy dons in this comedy, and as usual, his efforts elicit gasps of admiration. Also worthy of (guarded) praise is Murphy himself, who once again is able to create a deft comic persona. That would be the title character, a mild-mannered nerd who, after being raised by Asian restaurant owner Mr. Wong (also Murphy), ends up marrying a frightening, 300-pound behemoth named Rasputia (Murphy yet again). Like the geek Murphy played in Bowfinger, Norbit is a likable man whose rotten luck and sweet demeanor earn our sympathies. What doesn't engender audience goodwill is the rest of this picture, which, in addition to not being particularly funny, is petty and mean-spirited when it comes to any character not named Norbit or Kate (the willowy love interest played by Thandie Newton). Yet for all the stereotypes perpetrated by this film -- the black-hating Mr. Wong, a jive-talking huckster (who else but Cuba Gooding, Jr.?), a garish pimp (who else but Eddie Griffin?) -- the one most likely to offend is its centerpiece: Rasputia, an African-American caricature who's oversexed, overfed and in all other regards over the top. First, Martin Lawrence as Big Momma, then Tyler Perry as Madea, and now this? Enough already. **
OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 2:
BLACK SNAKE MOAN: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Muhe.
WILD HOGS: John Travolta, Tim Allen.
ZODIAC: Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal.