MISS POTTER Just as the current Amazing Grace let it be known that its subject, politician William Wilberforce, not only fought to end slavery but also championed animal rights on the side, Miss Potter takes great pains to reveal that Beatrix Potter, in addition to being a beloved children's book author, also made time in her schedule to push the case for environmental awareness and land conservation. Hers was a rich and varied life that deserves a rich and varied movie, yet Miss Potter never matches either the passion or fired-up imagination of its subject. Renee Zellweger, in full-on perk mode, stars as Beatrix, who creates animated friends (like Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck) on the written -- and illustrated -- page and watches as they become literary sensations under the guidance of guileless book publisher Norman Warne (a sweet Ewan McGregor). Even a third-act tragedy can't taint the picture's perpetual cheeriness -- which works fine when Miss Potter functions as a wholesome family film and not so well when it strives for some measure of dramatic heft. **1/2
300 Positioned as the Ultimate Fanboy Movie, this adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is indeed ferocious enough to satisfy basement-dwellers with its gore, violence and chest-pounding machismo while savvy enough to downplay the homoeroticism that will ever-so-subtly cause heretofore unexplained stirrings in the loins of these same armchair warriors. Yet for all its brutality, 300 has as much chance of satisfying a sizable female contingent, since it's ultimately a beefcake calendar posing as a motion picture (interesting, then, that the lockstep online trolls attack anyone who doesn't rave about the film as being like "a girl"). Beyond its demographic-targeting, however, its greatest claim to fame is that it's positioning itself as the next step on the evolutionary CGI ladder, offering (in the words of director and co-writer Zack Snyder) "a true experience unlike anything you've ever seen before." Snyder was responsible for the surprisingly accomplished Dawn of the Dead remake three years ago, but here he seems to have been swallowed up by the enormity of the project, which depersonalizes the major players in the battle between the Spartans and the Persians to such a degree that one ends up feeling more sympathy for the shields that end up receiving the brunt of the sword blows and arrow piercings. 300 contains a handful of staggering images -- and, for once, the color-deprived shooting style fits the tale being spun -- but Sin City, a previous adaptation of a Miller work, offered more variety in its characterizations and, more importantly, in its cutting-edge visual landscape. **1/2
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. ***
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