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Quick Flicks

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"Amazing Grace" — This story of the English MP who fought against the British slave trade is a handsome production with much attention lavished on period detail. The film often seems like a Hogarth print come to life, all periwigs and breeches, even as the characters discuss, often in grisly detail, the horrors of the middle passage. The movie chronicles the 20 years between William Wilberforce's (Ioan Gruffudd) initial dedication to anti-slavery work and the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. It's gripping, to be sure, but this adoring portrait of a wholly noble politician striking out at evil seems in some ways a relic of another age. "Amazing Grace" engages in a good deal of careful editing of the historical record in order to prune away anything that might complicate our view of Wiberforce or the epoch. As good as the movie is, it leaves us wanting a better one that brings out the ironic and even tragic side of Wilberforce's triumph. (PG) 111 min. *** — Thomas Peyser



"The Astronaut Farmer" — A fictitious Texas man (Billy Bob Thornton) builds his own space rocket in this uplifting tale of dreams that has a soaring, ceaseless score to go with it. "Farmer" could easily be dismissed as sentimental pap, but some below-the-surface commentary leaves room for thought. Charlie Farmer (Thornton) is a former astronaut who never made it into space, but rides off to rescue stray calves in a space suit. Kind of like the fifth Beatle of the space program, he had to drop out before the big show to take care of the family farm, all the while maintaining his dream of space flight by painstakingly making a rocket out of spare parts in his barn. Everyone outside his family thinks he's nuts, of course. Even his friend (Bruce Willis) wants him to drop it. The FBI wants him arrested. Farmer wants to dream untrammeled, which leads to some interesting questions about our society. They are not interesting enough, however, to send this movie into orbit. "The Astronaut Farmer" is spacey but never quite blasts off. (PG) 104 min. ** — Wayne Melton



"Breach" — Director Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass," 2003) returns to another august D.C. institution, the FBI, for his second outing. Based on the capture of G-man turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the story focuses on the attempt to trap and expose a brilliant liar. Although countless movies have trained their cameras on the Bureau, Ray and his fellow screenwriters have brought something fresh to their look inside the house that Edgar built, namely a complicated villain whose motives the filmmakers are content to leave, in some measure, mysterious. His nemesis, a rather wonky youth bucking for agent status, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), isn't as intriguing — but "Breach" works both as an engaging character study and as an unusually low-key, quietly suspenseful thriller. (PG-13) 110 min. **** — T.P.

"Hannibal Rising" — The Hannibal horror movie franchise that began with "Silence of the Lambs" gets an extraneous fourth installment from best-selling novelist and scriptwriter Thomas Harris, who provides his infamous killer with a back story begotten in the insanity of World War II. The movie assembles an ardently talented cast and crew (including French actor Gaspard Ulliel in the title role) who execute the story with bold performances against a European backdrop. Dense visual compositions give fertile, classical underpinnings to Harris' formulaic plot. Ulliel, however, makes the movie dramatic. His audacious performance bewitches the viewer into relishing something that we should not. Hannibal becomes a little more understandable, but he's not as scary. (R) 117 min. ** — Cole Smithey



"The Lives of Others" — An ultra-realistic re-creation of life under a police state in East Germany, "Lives" is also a sharp character study. Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a member of the secret police, is chosen to spy on the nation's most revered playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is a patriot, a believer in the state, which adds a subtle layer of absurdity necessary for any story about totalitarianism. "Lives" doesn't totally avoid sentimentality, but it does try to put real people in the uniforms and under surveillance. In their own deluded minds, the bureaucrats tend to think they are doing good, and the civilians tend to think the best is being done for them. As Dreyman muses near the end, to think men like that once ran a country! And to think men like him once obeyed them. (R) 137 min. ***** — W.M.



"Music and Lyrics" — An appealing setup of Hugh Grant as an ex-pop star from the '80s — the opening retro music video, reminiscent of Wham! at its worst, is the movie's best sequence -- soon deteriorates as the movie betrays even its good ideas to save a silly premise. Grant's Alex is commissioned by a contemporary pop star named Cora (Haley Bennett) to write her a new hit. The catch is he has only four days to deliver it. The struggle of Alex and his new friend Sophie (Drew Barrymore) to write a great pop hit rings true, but the idea that they would fall in love in the process doesn't. This song and dance has more notes of make-believe than jokes or romance. (PG-13) 96 min. ** — W.M.



"Notes on a Scandal" — This sharp story reminds us that some of the itchiest dramas break out among the most common bodies, in the most unassuming settings. More films should turn our attention toward the quiet machinations of everyday people — the mailman or the druggist or, in this case, a couple of bored high-school teachers in London. This is where Barbara (Judi Dench), an aging history teacher nearing retirement, spies and befriends the comely new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Here's the gist: Sheba gets a little too extracurricular with a student; Barbara catches them; all hell breaks loose. Off and on narrated by Barbara, who's keeping all the action in her diary while both falling in love with Sheba and trying to destroy her, "Notes" avoids heroes and villains in favor of honest human frailty. Real people, real troubles. And in a swift 98 minutes, it's also real juicy fun. (R) 98 min. ****— W.M.



"Pan's Labyrinth" — This tale of Spaniards living under Francisco Franco's fascist regime is an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Right around the time the Allies are planning to storm the beaches of Normandy, a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives by car with her mother (Ariadna Gil) at a rural supply station guarded against hill-dwelling guerrilla fighters by an evil army captain (Sergi L¬Ępez). Ofelia's inspired imagination conjures vivid adventures in the fairy world, but the story is a little too simple to support the movie's attempt at analogy. It's easy to get into "Pan's Labyrinth," but harder to figure out what's supposed to be gotten out of it. (R) 120 min. *** — W.M.

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