Film Openings

Week of February 22, 2007

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace. (PG) Morally irreproachable and flat as a pancake, Michael Apted's Amazing Grace is set among bickering House of Commoners in late-18th-century London, but the movie belongs squarely in the blooming subgenre of Whites Saving Dark-Skinned Victims of Empire. It is the story of how England was won over to slavery-free sugar imports by William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a liberal member of Parliament who, being British, talks — and talks, and talks — the opposition into submission. Wilberforce, the abolitionist who devoted his life to pushing anti-slave trade legislation through a hostile Parliament terrified of waving goodbye to the British Empire, comes with grade-A hero credentials. Still, he doesn't deserve to be deified, sanctified, and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy — and that's just in the first 10 minutes. Slackly paced, suffused with tasteful lighting, and weighed down by a surfeit of chat, Amazing Grace hauls us responsibly through the fight to bring the good word to Parliament. Only at the end, spurred to renewed activism by his wife, does Wilberforce mount a grass-roots campaign and — thank God — lower his holier-than-thou self to a little means-end dirty work, the stuff that gets things done in all politics, liberal or otherwise. (Ella Taylor) PF, RON, STCH, WO

The Astronaut Farmer. (PG) The fourth film from Mark and Michael Polish will very likely alienate fans of their earlier work, who will wonder what became of their rueful inscrutability and scoff at the cornpone, heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment that permeates every second of this latest. But those who do turn up their noses at this story, of a former astronaut (played by Billy Bob Thornton, blessedly shirking off the drunken shitheel parts that have defined his filmography of late) who still dreams of space travel and inspires his family with his indefatigable spirit, will miss out, because The Astronaut Farmer remains very much in line with the Polish brothers' earlier work. It's still a fairy tale, only for grade-school children for whom such aphorisms as "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing" are not hackneyed greeting-card sentiments but inspiration. There is no denying it: This is male-weepy, Field of Dreams territory, a tale of a son risking farm and family in order to escape the specter of his daddy's failures. But this movie, like its softball predecessor, works precisely because it's bereft of modern cinema's cynicism — that above-it-all sneer that permeates most of the best-intentioned kiddie films made more to hold parents' attention than their children's. (Robert Wilonsky) CMP, CGX, RON, SP, WO

The Number 23. (R) Reviewed in this issue.

Reno 911!: Miami. (R) Norbit has nothing on Niecy Nash, who proudly parades her prosthetic ass along Miami Beach, lowering oceanside property values with each thunderous step. The joke here is that the snooty pastel metropolis needs to be taken down a few rungs by Nash and her law-enforcement crew from the Comedy Central show Reno 911! (basically a lampoon of Cops, only dumber, if that's possible). The series regulars — including director Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, and Kerri Kenney-Silver — accomplish this task with signature incompetence. They are levelers whose fathom line never hits bottom. With the city's regular police force trapped inside a quarantined convention, our gang from Reno confronts backyard gators, a bad Scarface imitator (Paul Rudd), and even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in a good-natured cameo. Stretched out (barely) to 84 minutes, these vignettes seem more like an assault on filmmaking than municipal probity. The show excels with its short squad-car bursts of random inanity; here, the plot — somehow involving Patton Oswalt's corrupt city official — feels like a dime bag tossed aside by a fleeing perp. Fans won't mind, though the material would've worked better on TV, with blacked-out breasts and bleeped-out dialogue. Garant does attempt one ambitious long-take sequence along a motel breezeway, each window a sad tableau of lovelorn off-duty cops. It's like Jacques Tati with drunken, desperate masturbation. (Brian Miller) ARN, CGX,CC12, DP, EQ, J14, RON, SP, STCH, WO

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