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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. ***

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. ***

GHOST RIDER Is it possible that before making the big-screen version of Ghost Rider, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson had never even read a Ghost Rider comic book? The original Johnny Blaze wasn't a joke-a-second character like Peter Parker or The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm; he was more somber, as one would expect from a biker who sold his soul to the devil (to save the life of a loved one) and then found himself living under a curse that transformed him into a flaming-skull creature whenever in the presence of evil. Of course, when you hire Nicolas Cage to star in your movie, it's safe to assume that camp was what was intended all along. Despite all the eye-popping and head-rolling, Cage doesn't deliver the movie's worst performance; instead, he lands in the show position, right under Eva Mendes as the somnambular love interest and the mesmerizingly awful Wes Bentley as one of the least convincing -- and therefore least threatening -- villains of recent vintage. On the plus side, the special effects are pretty cool, and it was inspired to cast Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles (Easy Rider, meet Ghost Rider). Otherwise, this is yet another comic book adaptation that goes up in flames before our very eyes. *1/2

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