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March 09, 2007

Capsules by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach unless noted. Full reviews are at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Amazing Grace -- chronicles the fight of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to keep the anti-slavery crusade alive. But the movie is so reverent that it registers as little more than a pageant of outrage and uplift; only the parliamentary machinations prove witty and fascinating. Another hymn or two and it would turn into a musical along the lines of Les Miserables. (M.S.) PG 116 minutes B-

The Astronaut Farmer -- A frustrated astronaut (Billy Bob Thornton) builds a rocket out of spare parts salvaged from a NASA junkyard and sacrifices everything he and his family own in this world for a few minutes in space. Sad to say, it's Frank Capra without the genuine heart, certainly without any sense of perspective. (C.K.) PG 100 minutes C-

Because I Said So -- Diane Keaton is a mother who can't bear the thought of her lovelorn daughter (Mandy Moore) spending one more minute unattached. This is a relationship film put together by people who think TV sitcoms are reality shows. (C.K.) PG-13 111 minutes D

Black Snake Moan -- stars Samuel L. Jackson as a former blues singer whose tough love rescues Christina Ricci, a victim of abuse and neglect who careers against her will into nymphomaniac spells. Jackson and Ricci are inspired, and the writer-director, Craig Brewer, pulls off a full-blown folk opera in the idiom of blues; he plays with fire without a single singe on his fingers. (M.S.) R 116 minutes A-

Breach -- tells the story of the capture of super-spy Robert Hanssen with a delicious doggedness. Writer-director Billy Ray doesn't try to dazzle you with the scope of Hanssen's treachery. He focuses on how this man (played with virtuoso insinuations of creepiness by Chris Cooper) could operate for decades as an enemy within, rising to the top rung of American counterintelligence. By the end, the movie has planted a nightmare in your brain that won't leave you at the crack of dawn. (M.S.) PG-13 110 minutes B+

Ghost Rider -- shows what happens when you deal with the devil. A teenage carnival stunt cyclist, Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) makes such a deal to save his father's life. Of course, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) being the jerk that he is, this bargain doesn't work out to Johnny's satisfaction. Years later, Johnny (now played by Nicolas Cage) becomes the Evel Knievel of his generation. (Los Angeles Daily News) PG-13 114 minutes C+

Little Children -- is a rhythmless dramedy about a desperate husband and desperate housewife (Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet) who fall into an affair one sultry summer when he should be studying for the bar and she should be figuring out why she can't connect with her adorable young daughter. The popular novel was equally warm and satiric, but the movie is an illustrated screed with a voice-over that brings home familiar lessons about bourgeois hypocrisy and smallness and a pasted-on, upbeat ending. (M.S.) R 130 minutes C

The Messengers -- The Solomon family - particularly Dad (Dylan McDermott), Mom (Penelope Ann Miller) and 16-year-old Jess (Kristen Stewart) - find horror in the heartland as they move to rural North Dakota for peace of mind. Their weather-beaten farmhouse is chockablock with restless spirits which show up at any minute. Alas, the plot is far less inspired than the creepy visuals. (LAT) PG-13 90 minutes D

The Number 23 -- is a ramshackle tale of numerological obsession and a hidden murder revolving around the number 23. The script reduces Jim Carrey to playing catch-up with the plot: It squeezes out each clue to the mystery with an existential eyedropper, and by the end, leaves us with nothing more than a murky pattern in a puddle. (M.S.) R 95 minutes C-

Reno 911! -- If you're familiar with Reno: 911 on Comedy Central, you need no introduction to this doltish octet of law enforcers led by gung-ho Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), the flamboyantly gay lieutenant of the Reno, Nev., sheriff's department. When the team arrives at a law-enforcement convention in Miami, they find themselves the only police in the city who haven't been quarantined by a bioterrorist attack. So they're recruited to keep Miami from turning into a lawless jungle. (Newsday) R 86 minutes D+

Wild Hogs -- are four middle-aged, suburban-Cincinnati weekend bikers (Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy) who decide to go West on the open road. With photography that shoots the stars as if they were the dough supply at a bake-off and lame gags involving a gay cop (John C. Reilly) and a rabid gang leader (Ray Liotta) stalking them for different reasons, this film puts the "ick" in City Slickers. (M.S.) PG-13 93 minutes C-

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