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Directed by Gavin Hood.
Written by Gavin Hood.
Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Nambitha Mpumlwana and Mothusi Mogano.
Release Year:  2005

Review Date:  3/20/06


The recent winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, "Tsotsi" (the entry from South Africa) is a great film, in ways that I didn't see coming, and one that I hope many others will catch just to get a casual glimpse at life on the other side of the world.

At its heart, "Tsotsi" is a coming-of-age picture about a petty criminal called Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his maturation from thug and part-time murderer to decent citizen over the course of a week.  After we witness Tsotsi rob and assist in the death of a passer-by on a subway train, Tsotsi becomes desperate as he carjacks a woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana) of her BMW and in the process shoots her and unknowingly drives off in the stolen vehicle while that woman's child sleeps quietly in the back seat.  When Tsotsi wrecks the vehicle, he realizes that the child is back there...and makes a decision that ultimately reshapes his life forever.

Having not read much about this film before seeing it, I was glad to discover the plot of "Tsotsi" through watching the film, because it allowed me to sit back and watch writer/director Gavin Hood give me a film that mixes our view of Tsotsi becoming a man, but also the casual mix of shots that show us what kind of a life a person in Tsotsi's shoes must deal with, in terms of survival, little things like housing (I honestly said to myself "Damn, I've got it good" at least a half-dozen times during this film, much like I did when I watched the awesome Brazilian drama "City of God" a couple of years ago), in terms of access to silly things like electricity, and other odds and ends as we watch Tsotsi and his crime crew visit the other side of town to rob from the rich and privileged.  Man, that's maybe why I loved this movie so much, by packing the story of what Tsotsi will do with a newly kidnapped son with elements of pure poverty, and what a man might do to even partially emulate a life of which he has no real knowledge.

The performances are excellent, but the one thing that Hood really nails and what translates well to any audience is the sheer intensity of the eyes of these characters; whether it's the cripple that sits at the top of the subway escalator area, or the husband of the shooting victim (Rapulana Seiphomo), or Tsotsi, or the glazed-over look of Boston (Mothusi Mogano), one of the members of Tsotsi's gang...the eyes just bleed here with fire, or hatred, or fear, in ways that some movies have failed to capture lately.  You can't really say that the eye acting is intense, but certainly, eyes carry a lot more weight in this movie than they have in recent times.

The soundtrack is just wacko given the material here; 75% of the time, the music not only doesn't fit the situation but it almost kills the mood, it's so ridiculous.  At one point, there's a rap-ish song playing over Tsotsi looking out at some cement piping where he used to live, and I'm thinking, "Why would any sane editor believe this is a good spot to have an African rap number?"  The soundtrack features great music, but almost none of it belongs in a tense drama revolving around a kidnapping and murder and nursing a hungry child.  Truly baffling.  Also, this one is piddly--I was convinced throughout that the actor playing Tsotsi was definitely a woman, but then I caught myself as I realized that this was just my imagination.  But, the trim and the cheekbones definitely had me going for a while...

"Tsotsi" is also that rare film that isn't long enough; I actually wanted more day-in-the-life numbers about Africa.  I also enjoyed the interplay--tense as it initially was--between Tsotsi and a mother (Terry Pheto) that helps Tsotsi take care of his new charge.  I wanted more of this pairing too, but alas, it was not to be.  Otherwise, I really enjoyed the experience of "Tsotsi" and I think that Oscar may have gotten it right when giving the award to the best work available.  Hopefully us gringos won't try and rip this great film off.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09