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March 16, 2007|By Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach | Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critics

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

300, -- a blood-strewn retelling of that apotheosis of Spartan military glory, the Battle of Thermopylae, is the best example yet of the movie-as-comic-book. Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose testosterone-soaked storytelling has made him a genre favorite, 300 captures not only the look and feel of its source material, but its essence as well. Gerard Butler is the Spartan King Leonidas, leading a band of 300 impossibly buff warriors, clad in little more than thongs, to take on the invading Persians at Thermopylae, where sure death - and even surer glory - await. This is not storytelling for the squeamish, but it's also not unduly graphic. This is comic-book land, after all, where heroism is a messy business. (C.K.) R 117 minutes B

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 Lives of Others, -- set in 1984, in an East Germany that echoes Orwell's 1984, tells what happens when a secret-police surveillance and interrogation expert (Ulrich Muhe) bugs the apartment of the country's leading playwright (Sebastian Koch); as he eavesdrops on the dramatist and his lover and star (Martina Gedeck), he gets drawn into their thoughts and feelings. The unique, serious fun of this movie - and forbidding reputation aside, it is exhilarating - lies in the way that these three end up collaborating unknowingly on their own Design for Living (for a while, it's like Noel Coward for moral cowards); at the end, you want to rise to your feet and shout "Bravo!" (M.S.) R 137 minutes A+

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 when they move to rural North Dakota. Their farmhouse is chockablock with restless spirits that show up at any minute. Alas, the plot is less inspired than the creepy visuals. (Los Angeles Times) PG-13 90 minutes D

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