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Catch a Fire, Flicka

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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

Current Releases

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

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