Four reviews

Tsotsi

The South African locations are the most interesting aspect of Tsotsi, an otherwise uninspired crime melodrama based on a novel by playwright Athol Fugard. With their corrugated metal walls and dirt floors, the shanties that make up the slums of Soweto stand in stark contrast with the highrises and gated communities of the wealthier sections of Johannesburg. The two worlds meet in this story, but with consequences that aren’t as unexpected as the filmmakers might have wished.

A runaway after his mother died of AIDS, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is as anonymous as his name, which is slang for thug or hood. He heads a gang of four, including the vicious Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), amiable Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano), an alcoholic dropout. Boston’s scruples provoke a fight after Butcher stabs a pickpocket victim in the subway. His tactics and motives questioned, Tsotsi beats Boston mercilessly in a Soweto shebeen.

Running away in a blind rage, Tsotsi finds himself in a wealthy suburb. When Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) has trouble opening the gate to her garage, Tsotsi shoots her and steals her car. Only later does he discover Pumla’s baby in the back seat. Abandoning the car by a highway, Tsotsi brings the baby back to his shanty. Unable to care for the infant, he forces Miriam, a widowed seamstress, to nurse it.

His protective instincts awakened, Tsotsi breaks off with Butcher and reconciles with Boston. When news of the kidnapping spreads through the media, Tsotsi could be betrayed by any of the many he has crossed in Soweto. He must decide whether to sacrifice himself by returning the baby to his parents.

The film presents a vivid picture of life in Soweto, and makes good use of a pounding soundtrack filled with “kwaito” music. But its plot, updated from Fugard’s 1950s settings, reduces moral issues to pointlessly simplistic levels. Using a baby to redeem a criminal is neither realistic nor honest, especially as it’s enacted here.

With a slight figure and soft eyes, Presley Chweneyagae has too pleasant a demeanor to project the menace his part requires. Nor is he an accomplished enough actor to finesse the script’s contrivances. As the widow who helps humanize him, Terry Pheto is improbably kind and beautiful. The strongest performances are in small parts, in particular Kenneth Nkosi as a chubby but still dangerous hood, and Thembi Nyandeni as an untrustworthy bartender. When they’re on screen, Tsotsi shows an energy that’s otherwise absent.

Cast and credits
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Nonthuthu Sibisi, Nthuthuko Sibisi, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Thembi Nyandeni, Owen Sejake.

Credits: Written and directed by Gavin Hood. Based on the novel by Athol Fugard. Produced by Peter Fudakowski. Executive producers: Sam Bhembe, Robbie Little, Doug Mankoff, Basil Ford, Joseph D’Morais, Alan Howden, Rupert Lywood. Director of photography: Lance Gewer. Production designer: Emelia Weavind. Costume designers: Nadia Kruger, Pierre Vienings. Edited by Megan Gill. Original score: Mark Kilian, Paul Hepker. Co-producer: Paul Raleigh. Associate producers: Janine Eser, Henrietta Fudakaowski. A UK Film & TV Production Company, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, and National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa presentation, in association with Moviworld. In Afrikaans and Tsotsi-Taal with English subtitles.

When a Stranger Calls
Based on a considerably bloodier 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls is a tepid, drawn-out thriller whose few jolts will work only if you’ve never seen a scary movie before. The original was a “high concept” slasher film built around one good twist that was inexplicably revealed in its trailer. This version commits the same mistake in its own trailer, while also toning down the violence and gore that experienced genre fans expect. The result is a sort of training film for pre-teens who aren’t sure if they’re ready for R-rated horror yet.

A prologue set in small-town California uses a silhouette on a window shade to depict a murder so gruesome that grown men fall ill at the crime scene. Cut to small-town Colorado, where high-schooler Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) has been grounded for going over her cell-phone limit. Grounding in Jill’s case means missing the school bonfire, a mini-Burning Man festival in the foothills of the Rockies. She is, however, allowed to babysit two toddlers in a mansion so remote it could be in another time zone.

The mansion, which belongs to a doctor and his wife, is worthy of Architectural Digest, with an indoor combination koi pond and bird house, motion-sensitive lighting, a Sub-Zero fridge, a guest house, and an apparently unlimited supply of entrances and exits. Jill is barely settled in when she starts receiving crank calls. She’s also startled by a visit from Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), a classmate who has been trying to steal her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty).

The calls escalate in intensity until Jill phones the police for help. That’s when she receives the bad news that everyone in the audience already knows: someone is after her. Jill responds by making almost every bad move possible in a thriller plot as James Dooley’s score gurgles and moans ominously in the background.

Camilla Belle is photogenic as Jill, but she lacks the range to earn much sympathy from viewers. To his credit, director Simon West tries to elicit scares from everyday objects like pet fish, popsicles, and lamps rather than satanic cults and buckets of blood. Unfortunately, Jake Wade Wall’s script has exactly one good idea, and it’s surrounded by blind alleys and red herrings. One way to watch When a Stranger Calls is to spot all the clues Jill misses and then wait for them to come into play. Some are never used, like the clothes dryer that shouldn’t be running but is. Others take so long to develop that you’re left to wonder why Jill’s multimillionaire clients couldn’t afford a live-in au pair.

Cast and credits
Cast: Camilla Belle, Brian Geraghty, Katie Cassidy, David Denman, Derek de Lint, Kate Jennings Grant, Tessa Thompson, Madeline Carroll, Arthur Young, Clark Gregg, Tommy Flanagan, Lance Henriksen.

Credits: Directed by Simon West. Screenplay by Jake Wade Wall. Based on the film written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton. Produced by John Davis, Wyck Godfrey, Ken Lemberger. Executive producer: Paddy Cullen. Director of photography: Peter Menzies, Jr. Production designer: Jon Gary Steele. Edited by Jeff Betancourt. Costume designer: Marie Sylvie Deveau. Music by James Dooley. A Screen Gems presentation of a Davis Entertainment production.

Firewall
Plushly mounted, and with just enough topical references to seem relevant, Firewall adds one more film title to Harrison Ford’s enviable resume. An immensely appealing performer, he’s spent the last decade in vehicles that could rarely be described as challenging. Here he plays another variation on Hollywood’s favorite role for older actors, a harried husband who’s forced into action when his family is threatened.

The setting is Seattle, although any large city would do. Ford is Jack Stanfield, a computer expert happily married to an architect, Beth (Virginia Madsen), and the father of two children, the sullen teen Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and Andy (Jimmy Bennett), a young boy with serious allergies. Jack works at a small bank that’s merging with a larger one, and his skill with computers is shown in one or two brief scenes dense with silly jargon.

Jack has an after-work drink with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), ostensibly a software designer but actually the mastermind of a scheme to steal $100,000,000 from the bank. The first step involves taking Jack’s family hostage, which is easily accomplished by Cox’s minions. The next is to wire Jack with mikes and cameras and force him to use his computer expertise to perform the crime from his bank office.

One of Firewall‘s few legitimate pleasures is watching Jack try to outwit Cox while under surveillance. Muttering to himself, scurrying away from acquaintances, he’s the image of someone on the verge of a breakdown. Jack receives invaluable help from his secretary Janet (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and other bank workers, then runs into trouble with executives (chiefly played by Robert Forster, Robert Patrick, and Alan Arkin). But Firewall ultimately isn’t about identity theft or computer fraud or iPod product placements. It isn’t even about Jack’s wife and kids, who are sketched in so carelessly that they may as well be pictures on a wall. It’s about whether Jack can beat up the bad guy.

Getting to that point requires several more shots of computer screens than any film should contain, as well as some remarkably pointless plot twists. Should Jack have to climb over the top of a rainswept apartment building to find out that his friend isn’t home? Given so many opportunities, couldn’t he leave one note alerting the police? Director Richard Loncraine shows no affinity for the nuts and bolts of constructing thrillers, playing out the script’s empty threats and chases at a lethargic pace. As the villain, Paul Bettany (who worked with Loncraine in Wimbledon) lacks the menace his part requires. As always, Ford performs capably, but it’s time he tried a serious movie again.

Cast and credits
Cast: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Robert Patrick, Robert Forster, Alan Arkin, Carly Schroeder, Jimmy Bennett, Vincent Gale, Kett Turton, Nikolaj Coster Waldau, Vince Vieluf.

Credits: Directed by Richard Loncraine. Written by Joe Forte. Produced by Armyan Bernstein, Jonathan Shestack, Basil Iwanyk. Executive producers: Brent O’Connor, Charlie Lyons, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman. Director of photography: Marco Pontecorvo. Production designer: Brian Morris. Edited by Jim Page. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Costumes designed by Shuna Harwood. Co-producer: Tobin Armbrust. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Beacon Pictures, Jon Shestack, and Thunder Road production.

Annapolis
Good-looking but glib, Annapolis manages to paint an idealized picture of the Naval Academy while sending out a surprising number of mixed messages about actually going to school there. Hawks will take to the film’s testosterone-heavy swagger, but doves will feel that the whole project is too close to a recruiting brochure. Neither will find much that’s new in the tired script.

The film opens with a concussion, as blue-collar shipyard worker Jake Huard (James Franco) recovers from a knockdown blow at an amateur boxing match. Admiring his pluck, Lt. Cmdr. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg) offers Jake a position at Annapolis. Jake is far behind in his studies, but too proud to accept help from his plebe roommates Loo (Roger Fan), Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), and Twins Nance (Vicellous Shannon). As a result, he earns the enmity of his strait-laced company commander Cole (Tyrese Gibson).

Failing in his studies, Jake considers dropping out. But pretty midshipman Ali Hathaway (Jordana Brewster) offers to help him train for the famous Brigade Championship, an annual boxing tournament. It may be Jake’s only chance to get back at Cole. Nance, who’s also on the verge of being “separated” from the class, gives Jake tips about studying. In return, Jake tries to help Nance meet the school’s tough physical requirements.

The plot is just an excuse for the boxing scenes, which occur so frequently and are filmed with such care that they overshadow everything else in the story, including a suicide attempt, a tepid father-son conflict, and more sexual fraternizing than the Navy would care to own up to. That may be why Philadelphia’s Girard College stands in for the Annapolis campus, and why the school seems to consist of one obstacle course, one classroom lab, and a world-class boxing arena.

James Franco has a square jaw, looks good in a uniform, and can take a punch, but is at a loss as to how to play Jake. The plebe is supposed to have a chip on his shoulder, but for most of the film Franco’s guarded expression is too hard to read. Maybe he’s trying to downplay the fact that his character ends up in a grudge match with male model Tyrese Gibson. As an impossibly dewy classmate, senior officer, and love interest, Jordana Brewster will inspire more enlistments than an other element in the film. Why director Justin Lin chose to follow up his small-scale, gritty Better Luck Tomorrow with a corporate enterprise like Annapolis is just as bewildering as the film’s final line, “Come join me in the Marines.”

Cast and credits
Cast: James Franco, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Donnie Wahlberg, Chi McBride, Vicellous Shannon, Charles Napier, Roger Fan, McCaleb Burnett, Wilmer Calderon, Jim Parrack, Brian Goodman.

Credits: Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Dave Collard. Produced by Damien Saccani, Mark Vahradian. Executive producer: Steve Nicolaides. Director of photography: Phil Abraham. Production designer: Patti Podesta. Film editor: Fred Raskin. Costume designer: Gloria Gresham. Music by Brian Tyler. Co-producer: Gym Hinderer. A Touchstone Pictures presentation.

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