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Black Baltimore teens, by the time they’re 18, will have made a fashion choice: They’ll be wearing an orange jumpsuit with bracelets. Or a brown suit with a brown box. Or a gown, which comes with the nicer accessory of a high-school diploma. At least that’s what the recruiter for a two-year educational program in Africa says to potential students in The Boys of Baraka, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary about at-risk youth.
According to the film, 76 percent of Baltimore’s black males don’t graduate from high school. In 1996, the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, a group dedicated to aiding Maryland’s disenfranchised, founded the Baraka School, which selects 20 or so seventh- and eighth-graders with the bleakest futures to study in rural Kenya without the distractions of drugs, violence, and broken homes. The Boys of Baraka focuses on four of these students—Devon, Montrey, and brothers Richard and Romesh—as they say a temporary goodbye to inner-city life, marvel over their first passports, and then discover that their free trip doesn’t mean a free ride: “This school is very strict…God!” Richard says. Regular exercise, too, is part of the curriculum.
Ewing and Grady interlace footage of the kids’ home life, both before they leave and while they’re away, with their experiences in Kenya. Most of the boys have a startlingly positive attitude about their circumstances. Montrey is shown visiting his father in jail, telling him, “I’m going there so when I grow up, I’m going to be somebody.” Devon is taken care of by his grandmother because his mom is an addict and often in prison, yet he says he accepts that “life will never be fair” and aspires to be a preacher. Richard insists that he’s too smart and too strong to let “them”—the addicts all over his neighborhood—“get in here,” as he points to his head.
In undistinguished reality-TV style, Ewing and Grady present the school as a cure-all—though the FDA would probably insist on a few asterisks. The students’ grades go up, but excepting a couple of in-class scenes, the mechanics of their academic progress is a mystery. The background of the teachers and administrators—who are almost exclusively white Americans—isn’t revealed. Nor, for that matter, are the school’s origins or funding. Instead, the film shows the boys checking out hedgehogs and lizards. Or playing soccer. Or being rewarded with a trip up Mount Kenya to celebrate the completion of their first year. They sure seem happy!
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Regardless of how heartening the attitudes of the chosen students and the program itself seem to be, the directors never rise above condescension. Subtitles are frequently used when the kids are interviewed—and not because they’re talking quietly. And when the boys return home for a two-month summer vacation, an unimaginable disaster strikes: The school is shut down because of political unrest. Ewing and Grady present this as tantamount to a death sentence. Forget about how the kids have been affected by that first year. Forget about their bottomless wells of self-resolve. Without the nice white folks who’ve magically brought them this far, the boys are as good as doomed.
Naturally, the filmmakers stick the camera in the kids’ faces as they brood over the situation. As Richard and Romesh hang out at a burned playground, Romesh, the younger brother, insists that one year isn’t enough to help them and wonders why such a program can’t be set up in Baltimore. With his head hanging low, Romesh then declares what The Boys of Baraka has been desperate to prove all along: “I think all our lives are gonna be bad now.”
Firewall makes The Boys of Baraka look like a Frederick Wiseman project. There’s not one social issue explored here, unless you count embezzlement by iPod. Directed with maximum cliché by Richard Loncraine—the man responsible for 2004’s Wimbledon—and terribly written by Joe Forte, Firewall is an old-school, over-the-top thriller updated for the 21st century. Though the story involves such old standbys as a house by the lake and characters who demand, “I want to know what you want, and I want to know now!” it also includes a dog that comes equipped with GPS. And that iPod.
If anything good can be said about the film, it’s that it proves Harrison Ford really does still have a little Indiana Jones left in him. Ford plays Jack Stanfield, a computer-security specialist employed by a Seattle bank. He’s shown getting testy with, um, Someone (Terminator 2’s creepy Robert Patrick) at an important meeting. Then Jack’s day gets really bad: An American named Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) visits the office and demands Jack repay $95,000 in phantom gambling debt. Jack leaves work in an attempt to straighten out the apparent case of stolen identity, only to have a Brit named Bill Cox (yes, still Bettany) jump into the car and threaten him further. Soon, Jack’s home—ridiculously palatial even by thriller standards—is invaded by Cox’s toughs, who hold wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and dopey kids Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and Andrew (Jimmy Bennett III) hostage.
Cox has been studying the family via surveillance—à la Caché, sorta—so he knows everything about it. He knows, for example, that Jack owns a gun, with which Our Hero gets whipped when he lies about it. (His kids’ whiny reaction: “I didn’t know he had a gun!” “They hit him so hard!”) Cox also knows that little mouth-breather Andy is allergic to peanuts. (Indiana Stanfield at breakfast the next day: “Don’t touch him, don’t talk to him, and don’t feed him anything!”) The e-mail Jack tries to send for help? The letters are deleted one by one soon after he types them. His cell phone is cloned. He’s outfitted with a camera pen and a wire to make sure he behaves. Even Jack’s watchers are watched.
What it all comes down to, for anyone who’s never seen a movie before, is that Cox wants Jack to rob the bank he protects. The fake gambling debt, after a long period of not being mentioned, gives Jack a motive. Everyone inexplicably ends up being in on it. And the less said about the crime/countercrime, the better. Furious typing and high-speed downloading just aren’t the same as masked men and good ol’ chases and fisticuffs, y’know? Though Ford and Bettany do get to have a go at each other—for a looong time—in the movie’s requisite last-chapter mano a mano.
To be generous, it’s not Firewall’s overall schematic that makes it ridiculous. Bettany and Ford make suave rivals, and the script even has some deliberately funny moments. But the little absurdities quickly pile up. The scary music when Cox offers Andy a cookie. The attempt to turn the family dog into a contemporary Benji, with Jack actually asking the hound where the bad guys have gone. And then there’s the family itself: The wifey and youngsters seem to exist only to be shown huddled together, looking scared in a most pathetic B-movie way. When Sarah whimpers to their captors, “Why do you hate us so much?” just try to resist the temptation to answer her. CP