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Let out another ‘Moan’ 

click to enlarge JACKSON: As Lazarus, he keeps 'Moan' alive.
  • JACKSON: As Lazarus, he keeps 'Moan' alive.

One of this reviewer’s favorite things to gripe about is the Celluloid South. While the physical South has made great strides in the areas of women’s hairstyles and air conditioning, the Celluloid South is still stuck in a vague never-never land, somewhere between the invention of the beehive hairdo and the advent of crystal meth. If you were to believe the purveyors of the Celluloid South, we all sit around down here in frayed overalls, varnished in sweat, only rising to smack the wife around (unless you’re a lawyer, of course, in which case you wear a white linen suit and a Colonel Sanders tie).

While it deals with some interesting themes, Memphis auteur Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan” isn’t going to move the ball much when it comes to convincing the rest of the country that folks South of the Mason-Dixon aren’t all flip-flop-wearing inbreeders. The good news, however, is that “Moan” is more interesting than it might seem on the surface (and much more interesting than its overly-titillating marketing scheme would suggest) — a deep film, chockfull of good performances, genuine emotion and true feeling.

Soon after his wife leaves him for another man, one-time blues singer and farmer Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds something at the end of his driveway: the unconscious body of small-town party girl Rae (Christina Ricci). Since her fiance Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) shipped out for Iraq with his Mississippi National Guard troop, Rae has pretty much been going for the Town Pump World Record, getting stoned and bedding any man who’ll have her (there’s some indication that she might be a nymphomaniac, a condition spurred by flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse). Before long, her behavior gets her beaten and left, half-naked, for dead.

Having heard tales of her shenanigans, Lazarus decides that God has visited the troubled girl on him so he can help her. Soon, he’s got her chained to the radiator in his shotgun house. He proceeds to keep her there, trying to gentle her out of her wicked, wicked ways — even as she tries to tempt him with her skanky wiles. Before long, with the help of preacher R.L. (John Cothran), the relationship between Rae and Lazarus becomes very father-daughter — though that’s put in jeopardy when the jealous and AWOL Ronnie returns to town unexpectedly.

Though it can seem like a study in Southern stereotypes at times — the kindly loner, the whore with a heart of gold, the doubtful preacher — “Black Snake Moan” is a heartfelt film full of good performances. I was less impressed with Timberlake here than I was with his turn in “Alpha Dog.” As for Ricci and Jackson, they work well together as two people wanting something and finding it in the least-expected place.

In short, though I wish Southern directors like Brewer would work a little harder to tear down the idea that the South is the Land That Soap Forgot, you’ve got to love a nice character piece like “Moan.” As with “Sling Blade” before it, it’s a thoroughly Southern film — one that understands that any good story is more about people than place.

— David Koon

Fairly ‘Amazing’

“For me it’s like arsenic, each new dose doubles the effect.” These are words of William Wilberforce, a young member of the British Parliament, and he’s talking about slavery. Wilberforce’s crusade to end the slave trade in England is the subject of Michael Apted’s latest film, “Amazing Grace.”

Apted, best known for his direction of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” tackles the issue of slavery with “Amazing Grace.”

This film stars Ioan Gruffudd as the crusading Wilberforce, and he is supported by an impressive ensemble cast that includes Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Toby Jones. Gruffudd, whom you probably won’t recognize, has had small roles in “Titanic” and “Black Hawk Down,” and played the role of Reed Richards in “Fantastic Four.”

The film’s title is taken from the hymn written by minister John Newton (Finney). It’s said that Newton, while aboard a slave ship, had a great awakening and wrote the lyrics to the hymn shortly before renouncing his involvement with slavery. Set in the 18th century, Wilberforce, by today’s standards, was a liberal. Elected to Parliament at the age of 21, he fought for health care, free education, prison reform, animal cruelty laws and the abolition of slavery.

Apted and his producers (one of which is the magnificent Terrence Malick) focus on the anti-slavery legislative crusade and how one man, against all odds, changed the world. As Wilberforce’s friend and eventual Prime Minister William Pitt notes, “We’re too young to realize certain things are impossible.”

But what Wilberforce proved was that the impossible was possible and slavery, in all its horror, died. This film lacks the emotional punch one expects from a discussion of this topic. But the lessons imbedded in Apted’s work are relevant and important, and for that reason, “Amazing Grace” is a film worth seeing.

— Blake Rutherford

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