Saturday, July 22, 2006

Tsotsi (2005)

TsotsiTsotsi, a tale of redemption, set in the shanty shacks and poverty of Soweto, won the oscar for best foreign film this year, but lost the BAFTA's it was nominated for. Watching the DVD that was released this week I think the American Academy got it wrong, and the British Academy got it right (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which got the BAFTA, is a much better film)!

I had a horrid feeling the movie would turn into another Bullet Boy, a movie that had the sort of critics who'd run a mile from their nearest Council Estate, falling over themselves to praise it for 'keeping it real, innit' (yawn!). 'No acting required' roles performed by those actually living on the Estates, a script comprised almost entirely of four letter words, and film shot pretty much as home movie footage does NOT, at least as far as this viewer is concerned, constitute the rebirth of British cinema, as some ridiculous critics were hinting at, but does show that community projects are breaking out into the mainstream and can get good media coverage when it's needed. Whether it actually put bums on seats, or even warrants being viewed outside the Estates it was made on, is more of a moot point.

I had a horrible feeling, particularly given some of the more negative reviews that indicated it was a GOOD film but not a GREAT one, that Tsotsi would be another Bullet Boy - arguably worthy, but ultimately dull and actually something that promoted the violence it was supposedly protesting about. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. It's far slicker and far more imaginative than Bullet Boy was, and has all the gloss one would expect from a 'movie', as opposed to a low budget, made for British TV effort. The acting performances are strong, the cinematography lush, the direction imaginative, and the pacing is just right. It's a good film that holds the attention for all of its 100 minute running time.

But it shouldn't have got the oscar.

Why not? Because it's too far-fetched and unreal. And far too sentimental.

The movie starts with 'Tsotsi' ('thug') and three friends mugging a man and murdering him on a crowded tube train when things go wrong. The title character then steals a car, shooting the woman driver who tries to stop him, but finds he's accidentally kidnapped a baby. All good so far. But then we're asked to believe that this cold-blooded nihilistic killer undergoes a complete personality transformation as a result of looking in a baby's gooey eyes. It's all too fairy tale, given the 'keep it real' feel the movie has tried to project up to this point. And things slowly get more and more sentimental and contrived as things move on. Suddenly there's a stunningly attractive and beautifully dressed single mother who just happens to live in the same slums making a clearly signposted appearance as 'possible love interest' and... well, that's pretty much the film story told in a few short sentences. Don't get me wrong - this is a film worth seeing, and it has some very nice visual flourishes, but best foreign film of 2005? I think not!

The DVD is a good transfer of a beautifully shot film, with a lively, enthusiastic and informative commentary from writer/director Gavin Hood. The extra's are generous, if something of a mixed bag. The 'Making of' is less marketing-oriented than one would expect, albeit marred by the fact that all the interviews with the director and cast appear to have been conducted with the focus setting on the camera set incorrectly. The featurette is joined by a documentary on 'A day in the life' of a real-life Tsotsi (a schoolboy in Soweto) which is dull stuff that is crying out for a narration track and some decent editing. The three deleted scenes add some interesting back story, and the two alternate endings (actually more like continuations) show that the theatrical ending was a cop-out of stopping the film because the writer/director just couldn't work out which ending he wanted and preferred to leave the viewers arguing over what happened next. Three music videos are also included (shouty 'street' rap just isn't my thing!), but best of all is the director's previous anti-violence short film (just over 20 minutes) The Storekeeper which had a far more credible and, I think, more important story to tell than the main feature, but is disappointingly presented in non-anamorphic wide-screen format and the quality is not very good.

I'm glad I caught Tsotsi, and found it a much better cinematic experience than the afore-mentioned Bullet Boy. It's definitely worth seeing. But it's a rental not a purchase. And with so many other strong foreign films out there it really SHOULDN'T have won the 'Best Foreign Film' oscar.

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