Upcoming Releases

300 (R) We've come a long way from Final Fantasy, to the point where it's easy to forget that the digitally tweaked imagery washing over us in 300 is not, strictly speaking, real. The source here is a graphic novel by Frank Miller, and the sense that's imparted is that director Zack Snyder (rebounding nicely from his Dawn of the Dead remake) has imbued the panels not only with motion but also with life. An even more sophisticated blend of human actors and computer-generated environments than what was achieved in Miller's Sin City, 300's virtual universe recreates the battle of Thermopylae, when a small band of Spartan warriors held off a much larger army of Persians in 480 B.C. There's style to burn here and gore aplenty, as three hundred Spartan musclemen (resembling Tom of Finland fantasies in their red capes and black leather jock straps) take on hordes of fantastic and fearsome foes in a spectacle both elegant and unabashedly grisly. The movie is mainly notable for being an amazing technological achievement, but there's an actual story here as well (with some engaging characters and surprisingly smart writing), revealing 300 as something more than simply style for its own sake. Stars Gerald Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West and Rodrigo Santoro. Opens March 9 at local theaters. 3.5 stars


THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (PG) Billy Bob Thornton stars as Charlie Farmer, a more or less ordinary man who — as is required in stories like these — dares to dream an extraordinary dream. Charlie's got an adoring wife (Virginia Madsen), two perfect children and a family farm to run, but it turns out that he once had dreams of being an astronaut, and what he really wants to do is to fly a rocket ship into outer space. That's why Charlie's going broke building that massive rocket in his back yard, and that's why the FBI is monitoring him and everybody in town thinks he's crazy. But of course, those of us in the audience are supposed to understand that he's anything but crazy, except in the best and most inspirational follow-your-dreams sort of way. For every interesting little bit of quirkiness there are two big, uplifting speeches complete with swelling Muzak ("Without our dreams, we're nothing"being the main mantra here), and the movie's pieces fall into place with a perfunctory thud completely at odds with the uplift the story strives for. Also stars Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern and Richard Edson. 2.5 stars

BLACK SNAKE MOAN (R) Everybody's got their demons in Black Snake Moan, beginning with Southern-fried nympho Rae (Christina Ricci, starved down to about 85 pounds, and playing her character like a cross between an anime sexpot and the tragic heroine of some white trash grand opera). Then there's the former rough-and-tumble blues singer reborn as a scripture-spouting tomato farmer — named, appropriately enough, Lazarus, and played by Samuel L. Jackson. When these two paths cross and Jackson makes it his mission to save Ricci's soul, the wanton white woman ends up at the end of a chain wielded by her aging African-American captor/benefactor. Despite the leering, pulp-ish veneer, writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) doesn't really take the movie into the kinky areas it seems to be promising, but neither does Black Snake Moan really fit the mold of a serious and sober character study. The film seems to exist in two separate worlds simultaneously — with lurid elements often played curiously straight, and serious dramatic plot points frequently given an outsized, overheated edge — but it's not fully either. The result is often fun to watch, but not completely satisfying. The best thing about the movie is its eye for authentic atmosphere, getting the back-roads juke joints, the ramshackle neighborhoods, the language and textures of Southern life just right. Also stars Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran, Kim Richards and David Banner. Opens March 2 at local theaters. 3.5 stars

BREACH (PG-13) Breach is the true story of FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who was arrested in early 2001 (an event that came to be overshadowed by 9/11) as a long-time spy for the Russians. By most accounts responsible for the most devastating security breach in American history, Hanssen wasn't your typical turncoat. He didn't seem to particularly care about the money, and he certainly didn't turn traitor out of some covert sympathy for Communist ideology. Oddly enough, in his way, Hanssen seemed to truly love his country. He was also a devout Catholic who berated staff members for not praying enough, even as he secretly immersed himself in Internet porn, strippers and homemade sex videos. Hanssen was, as should be abundantly clear, a complicated guy, and Cooper's performance — which is the best thing about Breach — does a fine job suggesting the tortured, unknown places where the man's complications dwell. Ryan Phillippe doesn't fare quite as well as Eric O'Neill, the FBI employee assigned to spy on Hanssen, and the script doesn't help by saddling him with some poorly motivated bits and pieces. Still, Breach manages to hold our interest as a competently made thriller, even if its telling winds up being a bit too conventional for such a curious subject. Also stars Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert and Caroline Dhavernas. 3.5 stars

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