Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Presley Chweneyagae does bad things and good on Johannesburg’s streets in ‘Tsotsi.’
Starring Presley Chweneyagae. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on Athol Fugard’s novel. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas.

Starring Clifford “Tip” Harris and Evan Ross. Directed by Chris Robinson. Written by Tina Gordon Chism. Rated PG-13. Opens Mar. 31. Now playing in Dallas.

Night Watch
Starring Konstantin Khabensky. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis, based on Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel. Rated R.
Tales From the ’Hoods

Around the world and here at home, these three movies take to the streets.


Like the rest of us, filmmakers like to go out once in a while. Throughout movie history and in all countries, they’ve tried to capture the atmosphere of a particular neighborhood in a particular city and use that to tell stories that can’t be told in a studio’s hermetically sealed environment. Of course, “keepin’ it real” (to use the present-day American locution) is no substitute for good stories and fresh filmmaking style. However, the three movies under discussion this week all bring something new off the streets of their parts of the world to a multiplex near you.

Tsotsi comes fresh from winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and you can easily see why it won — its mix of Third World social consciousness and squishy sentimentality no doubt pushed all the right buttons with the Academy. The movie is set in Johannesburg’s poor, crime-ridden townships, whose inhabitants speak a mishmash of Zulu, Xhosa, Dutch Afrikaans, and other local dialects. The word “tsotsi” means “thug” in the local patois, and it’s the name by which the main character (Presley Chweneyagae) is known, having lived the thug life for so long that his real name has been lost. He runs a small gang of criminals, and we first see them mugging a rich man on the subway. The robbery goes wrong, the victim winds up dead, and when one of the gangsters (Mothusi Magano) later voices his disgust at what has happened, Tsotsi beats him so severely that he loses an eye.

The film is adapted from a novel by the eminent South African writer Athol Fugard. Writer-director Gavin Hood does well enough with the city’s squalor, the criminal milieu, and the soundtrack filled with popping Kwaito tunes, but he stumbles badly when it comes to redeeming Tsotsi. The hoodlum carjacks a woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana) outside her tony suburban home and drives off in her car, only to discover soon afterward that the woman’s baby is in the backseat. He takes to caring for the infant, and every story development connected with the baby is soft-boiled enough to make you gag, from Tsotsi remembering his predictably abusive childhood to his taking a young single mother (Terry Pheto) hostage for her breast milk to an incredibly contrived police-standoff climax. Despite a conscientious performance from the talented Chweneyagae, the character’s violence and tenderness never feel like they emanate from the same personality.

His brutality is what takes center stage in the movie’s highlight, when Tsotsi accidentally jostles a homeless man in a wheelchair (Bheki Vilakazi), who responds by cursing at him and spitting on his shoes. The hard expression that forms in the gangster’s eye sets off a sequence where he methodically tracks the cripple, then corners him on a dark, empty street. As Tsotsi looks to kill this helpless man over nothing more than a few words shouted on a subway platform, the scene’s gathering horror and the misplaced desire for respect that drives Tsotsi feel very real. This is hardcore stuff, and the encounter would stand out even in a much better movie. It’s a shame, then, that it does here only because everything else around it is so synthetic.

In Tsotsi, Johannesburg’s townships and suburbs are all but walled off from each other. ATL is an American story, taking place in Atlanta, and thus that city’s mansions and country clubs aren’t an impossible dream for the kids growing up on the south side of town. The movie, which opens here on March 31, comes to us with no Oscars, and it’d take an upset of Biblical proportions to win any next year. Yet in many ways, it’s a better film.

It’s not a gangsta movie, though you’d be forgiven for drawing that conclusion from the way it’s being marketed. Clifford Harris (billed in the credits as Tip Harris and known as a hip-hop musician under the name of T.I.) plays Rashad, a high-school kid who spends Sunday nights with his friends at the local roller rink while trying to figure out what’s next in his life. He starts dating a new girl at the rink who calls herself New New (Lauren London), but their relationship unexpectedly interferes with his pal Esquire (Jackie Long) as he pursues a dream of attending an Ivy League school.

The only criminal element in the movie comes from a subplot in which Rashad tries to prevent his brother Ant (Evan Ross) from falling into the clutches of the local drug boss (Antwan Patton, better known as “Big Boi” from OutKast). This is where the movie is weakest, as the storyline plays out in wholly predictable terms despite Patton’s genially menacing turn.

The movie’s much better in its first half, when Rashad and his pals hang out and talk about girls and other teen-age stuff. The dialogue is clever, the chemistry between the actors is easy and unforced, and the conversation is full of moments like the one when Rashad quizzes his friend Brooklyn (Albert Daniels) about New Yorkers’ habit of addressing people as “son.” Brooklyn tells him, “I call you ‘son’ because you shine everywhere in my life,” delivering the line with perfect mock sincerity before cracking up. Before the movie trips over itself trying to resolve all its plotlines, it scores early and often in its depiction of teens coming of age. First-time director Chris Robinson does good work shaping the material without making it too smooth and shows some intriguing talent — it’ll be interesting to see what he does next.

Speaking of emerging talent, Night Watch benefits from a dose of realism, even though it’s about superheroes and supervillains fighting each other on the streets of Moscow. When it was released in Russia in 2004, it became the biggest box-office hit in that country’s history for a number of reasons, including state-of-the-art special effects done entirely in Russia and an eclectic cast that combined young, hip stars of current tv programs with veteran actors who were movie stars during the Soviet era. The Moscow locations also struck a chord with audiences, referencing so many local landmarks that natives of the city could probably draw a map showing where every scene took place.

None of this will necessarily mean much to us Americans, so it’s good that the movie’s fantasy world is large, strange, and engrossing enough to appeal to us anyway. Walking among Moscow’s human population are “Others,” people gifted with superpowers who choose to work either for the forces of Light or Darkness. The plot revolves around one of the Light Others, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky, stalking around in shades and a hooded sweatshirt, looking like a guy working a mission to kill on a three-day hangover), a seer of the future who’s charged with recruiting a 12-year-old boy (Dmitri Martinov) whose powers are so great that they’ll tip the balance in the eternal struggle.

The U.S. version of the film contains quite a bit more material explaining the terms of the battle, yet the story still comes out incomprehensible enough to give you a headache if you try to work it out. (Perhaps some issues will be cleared up in the next two movies; this is the first of a planned trilogy.) The plot matters less than the visual style shown by Kazakh writer-director Timur Bekmambetov. You can feel him swinging for the fences, trying to establish himself as the voice of contemporary Russian cinema. Occasionally he tries too hard, interposing special effects where they aren’t needed. Also, the American version fiddles with the English subtitles, putting them in different colors and fonts, placing them in the corners or the middle of the screen, and making some of them disappear in a puff of smoke. This is distracting.

Yet the effects are undeniably spectacular, whether they’re showing a Russian doll sprouting spider legs, a nuclear-plant meltdown and citywide power outage, or Anton’s new partner arriving in the form of an owl, which transforms itself slowly and painfully into a naked woman (Galina Tyunina) on his kitchen table. Russian critics rightly hailed the movie as a sign that their industry now has Hollywood’s capabilities. The effects aren’t just there for spectacle, either. They bring to life a world full of sorcerers, witches, and vampires who swill cocktails of human blood and vodka, disguised as everyone from colorless bureaucrats to pop music stars. All this in a version of the city so convincingly gritty that Muscovites must have felt these struggles might plausibly have been going on where they lived. It shows what a flexible tool cinematic realism can be — it can tell stories not only about life the way it’s lived, but even about life the way it isn’t.

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