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Four Corners
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by Jay Seaver

"Dials the right Numbers."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I must admit to not having a particular affinity for movies about gangs, and I kind of worry that being drawn to this one because it is set in South Africa rather than an American city doesn't speak well of me - I'm too willing to dismiss these stories as alien rather than close-to-home. Still, the environment that director Ian Gabriel and company visit in "Four Corners" is a large part of its appeal, showing gangs functioning like secret societies inside prison and a run-down but still somewhat sustaining part of Cape Town, and it serves as background for a fine bit of drama.

The opening titles inform those of us who were not aware that South Africa's "numbers gangs", specifically the 28s and 26s, have been fighting for over a hundred years, and right now, the 26s control the neighborhood where 13-year-old Ricardo Galam (Jezzriel Skei) lives, mostly trying to keep his head down and avoid recruitment. A couple of not-quite-newcomers are going to shake things up, though: Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), a general in the 28s once known as "Lee Marvin" and just released from prison, intends to leave the life and move back into his old house despite the 26 now living there; Leila Domingo (Lindiwe Matshikiza), a doctor sent to live in England as a teen has come to bury her father and is not sure about Manzy (Jerry Mofokeng), a homeless man her father took in. Meanwhile, police Captain Tito Hanekom (Abduragman Adams) does what he can to keep the peace and solve a series of murders that have the gangs on edge.

According to the publicity materials, director Ian Gabriel and his crew shot their movie primarily in authentic locations, the sort of places that even cops and reporters tend to stay out of for their own safety, also shooting in the local Sabela dialect. How much it represents the actual experience of being there, I can't say, but it feels genuine in ways that aren't always the case: Rather than just the dark interiors of some run-down buildings, this movie spends a lot of time outside, in a neighborhood that is at least crowded if not quite bustling; there are almost always plenty of people in the background, going about their lives, even though the gang presence can be overwhelming. Much of the cast, from background players to people as prominent as Manzy, are former gang members sporting real ink, slotted into roles that fit them like gloves.

The core cast is very nice, too. Jezzriel Skei doesn't quite have to carry the movie as Richardo, but he's well up for it when it's on him, presenting the audience with a strong enough impression of a mostly-uncorrupted middle-schooler who just wants to play chess that it sticks even as he is pulled inexorably into the numbers gangs and tries to kill his fear with aggression; it's a darn fine starring role. Brendan Daniels is right up there as Farakhan, a character who isn't as detached in mind from the gangs as he'd like to think; he's certainly got the tough-guy attitude his nickname implies. He has the stance of someone who doesn't realize that living a peaceful life means changing attitude as well as actions. Lindiwe Matshikiza plays Leila's duality a bit differently, in that as much as she is as nervous and kind of dismissive as someone who has been living in a more comfortable environment might be, she also doesn't see herself as an outsider. Abduragman Adams has a good handle on the sort of cop who knows the limits of his power and has to pull out stern, clever, and conciliatory personas depending on who he is dealing with, but doesn't make any look like masks. Looking at the many nonprofessional actors in the supporting cast, and none of them feel too practiced; there's a steely authenticity to how everyone is inured to living on these violent streets but still alert.

There's a fair amount going on and a lot more characters besides; it's a fairly dense movie. Gabriel never has the plot become overwhelming, but there are certainly stretches where a viewer who favors one character's story over another's may get a little impatient. Still, things click along nicely; it's fairly obvious from the start how Ricardo's and Farakhan's stories will dovetail, for example, but it's easy enough to be patient in getting there most of the time.

At times, the setting is what sets "Four Corners" apart, with what's happening being something of a familiar coming-of-age story, albeit one where the supporting characters get a bit more due than usual. There are worse formulae for success, though, and the makers of this movie make the most of what they've got here.

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originally posted: 09/04/14 10:30:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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