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Film Clips

The Lives of Others, Wild Hogs, Zodiac

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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, a sizzling soundtrack, and spot-on performances by Jackson and Ricci keep the whole brew bubbling. ***

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


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