CATCH A FIRE The title's a bit misleading, insofar as this well-meaning movie never really catches fire. Based on a true story that unfolded in the early 1980s, it centers on Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a South African oil refinery foreman whose apolitical attitude allows him to largely fly under the radar when it comes to confrontations with the ruling white class. But after the members of an anti-apartheid organization sabotage the refinery, suspicion falls on the innocent Patrick, and he's soon arrested and tortured under the supervision of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a key figure in the country's homeland security division. Patrick withstands the abuse, but after his wife (Bonnie Henna) is similarly snatched and interrogated, something inside him snaps and he decides to enter the fray. Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to helming gripping films set in turbulent times and divided lands, but working from an unexceptional screenplay by Shawn Slovo (daughter of one of the film's characters), he's unable to duplicate the vibrancy of The Quiet American or the pathos of Rabbit-Proof Fence -- we naturally feel for these ill-treated characters, but it's more of a Pavlovian reaction to the on-screen brutalities rather than because of anything served up in Slovo's surprisingly conventional script. Those seeking topicality might attempt to equate the manner in which the violent actions of the white ruling class turn peaceful blacks into freedom fighters with the way that the intrusive U.S. army is turning many peaceful Iraqis into terrorists, but it's an awkward comparison at best. **1/2
FLICKA In Flicka, it isn't a case of boy meets girl; it's a case of boy becomes girl. Mary O'Hara's classic novel My Friend Flicka details the relationship between a young lad and a wild horse (it was made into a 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall); this new screen version turns the protagonist into a teenage girl, a gender switch that adds different dimensions to the story. Alison Lohman plays Katy, a strong-willed 16-year-old who locates a soulmate in a wild mustang wandering the acres on her family's Wyoming spread. Katy's dad Rob (Tim McGraw), already peeved that his daughter isn't capitalizing enough on her studies at a private school, forbids the girl to have any contact with the ill-tempered horse, but Katy ignores his mandate and proceeds to train the animal behind his back. Meanwhile, Katy's brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) isn't thrilled that he's expected to inherit the ranch -- whereas Katy prefers the cowboy lifestyle to formal schooling, he dreams only of being allowed to go to college. It's left up to mom Nell (Maria Bello) to serve as referee for all these familial grudge matches. It's refreshing to see an American family on screen that doesn't wallow in dysfunction: While there are plenty of conflicts, the overriding sense is that these folks truly love one another, and the relationships between husband and wife and between brother and sister are especially fresh and reassuring. Unfortunately, more so than in its source material (itself more than a simple kid-and-his-animal yarn), the emphasis on the humans de-emphasizes the presence of the mustang, and there simply aren't enough scenes illustrating the burgeoning bond between Katy and Flicka. The heavy-handed approach to the dramatic plot devices also doesn't help: In moments of despair, you can always count on director Michael Mayer adding some heavy rainstorms to externalize the characters' inner anguish. **1/2
THE DEPARTED At this point in his career, it's hard to imagine Martin Scorsese accepting another filmmaker's hand-me-downs. Yet in essence, that's what's taking place with The Departed, which isn't an original screen story but rather a remake of the excellent 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Like its predecessor, this boasts an ingenious premise: A lawman (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover and infiltrates the inner circle of a crime lord (Jack Nicholson) while a mob underling (Matt Damon) simultaneously works his way up through the ranks of the police department. Neither informant knows the other's identity, prompting both men to feverishly work to uncover the plant on the other side of the fence. Given that powerhouse punch of a scenario, it's perhaps not surprising that Scorsese elected to rework someone else's property while also embellishing it with his own distinctive style. The violence and vulgarity -- trademarks of this sort of Scorsese outing -- are pitched at operatic levels, and they occasionally verge on overkill. But with weighty issues of identity, duplicity and deception remaining constants throughout the film, it's refreshing to find a stateside remake that for once doesn't feel the need to dumb down for the sake of Yank audiences. ***
THE GUARDIAN In this pale imitation of An Officer and a Gentleman, Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its cliches pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way. Director Andrew Davis and scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff tease us by hinting that the final act might actually stray from its preordained path, but no: When push comes to shove, the pair pummel us with the shameless ending we dreaded from the minute the opening credits appeared on the screen. *1/2
INFAMOUS Can the box office handle two movies about Truman Capote? Not a chance. That's a shame, because Infamous, being released approximately one year after Capote, compares favorably to its award-laden predecessor and, in at least one regard, it trumps it. Whereas Capote focused almost exclusively on the social raconteur's experiences while writing the true-crime novel In Cold Blood, Infamous offers more scenes showing Truman flitting about the New York social scene. Furthermore, it has more of a sense of humor in sequences that could benefit from them. Toby Jones is quite good as Truman, even if he doesn't provide as many psychological shadings to his portrayal as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in his Oscar-winning turn. And while Sandra Bullock's impression of Capote confidante Harper Lee isn't as memorable as Catherine Keener's work in the earlier film, other performances stand out, particularly Jeff Daniels as the sheriff investigating the farmland slayings and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) as the more complex of the two murderers. It's just a shame not many people will ever see all this fine work. ***
JESUS CAMP Just in time for Halloween comes Jesus Camp, featuring a monster more frightening than either Jason or Freddy. Her name is Becky Fischer, a Missouri pastor who runs a summer camp in which children are trained to be soldiers for God. That'd be fine if this were an ordinary Christian organization that practiced Jesus' messages of peace, love and tolerance. Instead, it's one more example of the insidious Evangelical movement that's helping destroy the fabric of this nation, as this sobering documentary shows kids being brainwashed at every turn by fanatical adults. Offering the film's lone voice of reason is radio talk show host Mike Papantonio, a devout Christian who, like the rest of us sane believers, is aghast at how these zealots are turning the religion's saintly sentiments into something ugly and brutal (Fischer discusses everything in terms of war and battles, failing to note the similarities between her methods and those of -- what's the popular term these days among Republican parrots? -- Islamofascists). The most surreal scene finds Fischer bringing out a cardboard standup of George W. Bush for the kids to worship -- and one can't help but note with amusement that it seems no less intelligent than the real thing. ***
KEEPING MUM Mary Poppins commits murder most foul in Keeping Mum, a slight but worthwhile comedy that proudly displays its droll British humor at every turn. Rowan Atkinson, toning down his Bean befuddlement just a tad, plays Walter Goodfellow, the vicar of a miniscule English burg as well as the head of a highly dysfunctional family. Walter has become so consumed with his church duties that he has emotionally and physically abandoned his wife Gloria (an excellent Kristen Scott Thomas), who in turns seeks comfort in the arms of an American horndog she employs as her golf instructor (leatherface Patrick Swayze, appropriately sleazy). Their children aren't faring much better, but along comes housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith) to set things right. Working behind the scenes, she improves everyone's lot in life -- never mind that this seemingly benign lady has to kill a few people in order to foster family unity. Working from a story by American author Richard Russo (Empire Falls), co-scripter and director Niall Johnson manages to wring some poignant moments out of this dicey material without ever betraying its dark comic roots. ***
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND Based on Giles Foden's novel, this employs a fictional character to take us inside the regime of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada (Forest Whitaker): Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who agrees to serve as Amin's personal physician and regrets his decision once Amin's true nature comes to light. The film could conceivably be viewed as yet one more work in which a white man is given center stage in what is primarily a black man's tale, yet a couple of elements set this apart from such pandering works as Cry Freedom and Ghosts of Mississippi. For one, Garrigan (nicely played by McAvoy) isn't the usual bland Caucasian bathed in the light of liberal guilt but a conflicted young man with his own ofttimes prickly personality. And while McAvoy has more screen time, the sheer force of Whitaker's superb performance -- to say nothing of the dynamic character he's playing -- guarantees that he remains the story's central focus even when he's not in front of the camera. Paradoxically, you can't take your eyes off him, even when he's not there. ***
MAN OF THE YEAR It's junk like Man of the Year that makes me remember movie reviewing often isn't just a job; it's an adventure -- and I'm owed some serious combat pay. Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for U.S. president, finds himself on the ballot and making progress in the polls. It's a decent premise for a piercing satire, but writer-director Barry Levinson's approach is so timid that it makes last spring's soggy American Dreamz look as incendiary as a Michael Moore documentary by comparison. The main problem, of course, is Williams, who isn't playing a fictional character running for president as much as he's playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president. In other words, it's the same lazy performance we almost always get, with the actor groveling for laughs via his patented physical shtick and repertoire of stale jokes that were already passé around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. Soon, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal thriller plotline involving inaccurate Diebold-style voting machines. *
THE PRESTIGE In this twisty thriller about the rivalry between two tortured magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), writer-director Christopher Nolan has crafted an exemplary drama that explores his usual recurrent themes while serving up a cracking good mystery yarn. In Memento and Batman Begins, Nolan took the time to painstakingly explore issues of identity; in this regard, he recalls David Cronenberg, who frequently returns to the topic of competing identities. Nolan is the more guardedly optimistic of the pair, believing that people have as much chance of improving themselves as they do debasing themselves. It's this moral uncertainty that provides The Prestige with most of its power, since it allows the characters to evolve in intriguing ways. The movie isn't simplistic enough to pit a "good" magician against an "evil" one; instead, it recognizes the duality of each man's nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree. It can be argued that the story becomes too fantastical for its own good -- it's more compelling when it's rooted in reality rather than when it enters the realm of science fiction -- but except for a nagging final shot, the filmmakers at least take care to cover all their narrative bases with acceptable explanations and believable character arcs. ***1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 27:
CATCH A FIRE: Derek Luke, Tim Robbins.
SAW III: Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell.
SHORTBUS: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson.