This Week's Attractions

Amazing Grace and four other new releases.

Amazing Grace Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 23-Thurs., March 1. Rated PG. 117 minutes. 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 currently 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 real-life 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 grassroots 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 The Astronaut Farmer Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 23. Rated PG. 104 minutes. 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 The Number 23 Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 23. Rated R. 95 minutes. The Number 23 grips hold of one stupid idea and runs so far with it, in so many directions, to such little purpose, that it nearly won me over from sheer berserkoid effort. In a nutshell, this nutso movie observes what happens to a man (Jim Carrey) under the impression that every damn thing that's happened in the history of the world somehow relates to the titular digit—Hiroshima, the death of Hitler, Grandma's birthday, whatever. Parents each contribute 23 chromosomes to their kids; the Earth's axis is off by 23.5 degrees (and 5 = 2 + 3); New Line Cinema projects a $23 million opening weekend. There's something sort of adorable about a thriller premised on the delusional analysis of utter randomness, and I salute its makers for extending this helter-skelter desperation to everything in the movie. If nothing else, they're consistently arbitrary. The plot is beyond complicated, but it basically comes down to this: Omigod, 23! Omigod, 23!! Omigod, 23!!! A word of warning to fans of Dreamcatcher, Silent Hill, and Domino—guilty pleasures with a similar devotion to throwing themselves off the cliff of credibility—The Number 23 is a lot more fun to write about than sit through. NATHAN LEE Our Daily Bread Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Feb. 23-Thurs., March 1. Not rated. 92 minutes. Alienation is more difficult to dramatize than horror. This documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter takes a programmatically detached viewpoint over the mass production of food. Opening with an endless row of trussed pig carcasses, neatly hanging by their hind legs, Bread is a cool, nearly wordless succession of scenes from the European food industry. When not hitching a ride on a tractor or crane, Geyrhalter's camera is static, contemplating an infinite expanse of chicken coops, a hangar-sized greenhouse of hydroponic cucumbers, or the vast vista of a crop-dusted field. Machines rule, whether milking cows or gathering olives. Humans aren't necessary; the assembly line sprays cattle with feed, guts pigs, and processes live chickens. Scenes of workers chewing their cud or sitting docilely on the bus supply human interest. (That everyone and everything is drugged is suggested by the C-section performed on a totally passive cow.) Geyrhalter's fastidious, symmetrical compositions match these clean, orderly spaces. Bread gives the sense of an empty, highly regulated planet populated by a relatively few number of workers. (It's a happy version of Metropolis.) As with Pripyat, Geyrhalter's 1999 survey of the contaminated zone around Chernobyl, information is subordinate to visual ideas. Yet the clarity of these ideas provokes all matter of philosophical questions—they're food for thought. At what point during the industrial procedure do the animals actually die? The film's title obviously refers to work as much as food—does it also ask forgiveness for our sins? Geyrhalter saves the spectacle of stun-gun cow slaughter and blood geysers for last—next-to-last, actually, in that he ends with someone hosing out and scrubbing down the killing floor. That erasure is part of the horror. What's harder to forget is the sight of live chicks being processed in handfuls or masses of fish vacuum-sucked out of the sea. This may be more "humane" than the system similarly mapped by Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation last year–but that is because it is a more efficient technology of death. As The Jungle is the literary paradigm for Nation and Bread, so their filmic precursor is Georges Franju's poetic documentary Blood of the Beasts. Like the surrealist films Franju admired, his 20-minute investigation of Paris' municipal slaughterhouse is an assault on the spectator—rubbing the viewer's nose in butchery. But, filmed only a few years after the end of World War II, Beasts asks not only what it means to be a carnivore but what it means to be a political collaborator—even providing a visual analogue for images, like the Nazi death camps, that are too terrible to behold. There's almost nothing we can't look at now. Where Nation ends with a crescendo of allegorical violence, Bread uses factual material as a means to interrogate metaphor. Without needing a word, Geyrhalter gives new meaning to the species paranoia dramatized in those gore-soaked scenes of human harvesting in War of the Worlds or The Matrix. Our Daily Bread is quietly radical in showing creatures whose existence is solely and inexorably a preparation for death. J. HOBERMAN Reno 911!: Miami Opens at Varsity and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 23. Rated R. 84 minutes. Norbit has nothing on Niecy Nash, who proudly parades her prosthetic ass along Miami Beach, lowering beachfront 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

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