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Child of despair: Chweneyagae in Tsotsi.

A Public Enemy

By Laura Leon


Directed by Gavin Hood

At the point in which titular gangster Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) discovers the infant in the backseat of the car he’s hijacked, the viewer might well consider running out to use the loo, purchase some snacks, or just leave. Given the fact that in just 10 short minutes, we’ve witnessed Tsotsi cold-bloodedly assault a man on the subway and then, just as shockingly, brutally kill fellow gang member Boston (Mothusi Magano) after the latter questions the necessity of the attack. And so, when Tsotsi unpacks the unruly tyke, steps out of the stolen vehicle and gazes out at the unforgiving Soweto landscape, one can’t help but anticipate the horrific end of one more especially innocent victim.

But this is when the movie, which won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar, takes a slight detour from its essentially genre roots, and delves into the realm of redemption and hope. Hiding the baby, whom he dubs David, in a shopping bag, Tsotsi brings it home like a kid with a new puppy. Interspersing flashbacks of a childhood made rough by a mother dying of AIDS and an embittered father with suddenly pressing necessities like feeding David, the movie displays a gritty realism reminiscent of early silent films. Interestingly, the movie is based on a 1960 Athol Fugard book, which dealt largely with the title character’s victimization under apartheid. While screenwriter-director Gavin Hood’s treatment takes place now, thus eliminating much of the politics, the unremitting poverty of the surroundings and the incessant black-on-black crime—Tsotsi’s carjacking victims are a well-to-do black couple—speak volumes about the aftermath of that system, and contribute to a sense of unease about Tsotsi’s likely future.

Much of the plot of Tsotsi is relatively simple—it is, after all, a formula story which wouldn’t have been unusual, in another time and place, to feature James Cagney living by his wits and finding redemption in an unlikely source. And while I generally cringe at stories that simplistically equate a character’s poor choices with impoverished upbringings, I didn’t mind so much here, and that’s almost entirely because of Chweneyagae’s impressive performance. For most of the movie, Tsotsi is an eerily still presence, with only his eyes depicting the feral quality of his mind (not to mention the menace in his heart). And yet, as Tsotsi remembers his mother, or cradles David, he suddenly becomes a little boy in front of our eyes. The movie’s end, a crucial standoff between Tsotsi, the cops and David’s actual parents, is masterful in its utter stillness. By this time, we’ve become so invested in Tsotsi, despite his criminal past, that we’re hoping for a miracle, for some ray of hope. Without betraying its sense of realism, the movie comes off as slightly more uplifting than Fugard’s novel, and overall, Tsotsi packs an emotional wallop.

Don’t Talk to the Animals

The Wild

Directed by Steve “Spaz” Williams

Apparently, Disney’s The Wild has been in the making for many years. So, it only looks as if it’s copying last year’s Madagascar, with its somewhat domesticated lions escaping from Manhattan zoos and embarking on ocean voyages that take them back to nature, and critters being mistaken by African animals as gods from heaven (and so on). Then again, The Wild also borrows freely from a long list of other movies, such as Finding Nemo, The Lion King and A Shark’s Tale. Apparently, it took four screenwriters to come up with this decidedly mixed bag of recyclables.

While the animation (by Toronto group Core Digital Pictures) is remarkable, especially when it comes to depicting the tufts of mane on Samson (Keifer Sutherland) and his little cub Ryan (Greg Cipes), the story is anything but. Basically, Ryan is suffering from preadolescent angst, which boils down to the fact that he can’t yet roar and feels hopelessly inept in comparison with his father, whose swashbuckling exploits are legend among the zoo animals. Upset one night, Ryan takes shelter in a container, which ends up en route to Africa. Somehow, Samson and giraffe Bridget (Janeane Garofalo), anaconda Larry (Richard Kind), koala Nigel (Eddie Izzard) and squirrel Benny (James Belushi), follow the cub—amazing, really, considering the lack of opposable thumbs (and the minor point that the tug boat in which they ride never needs a fuel refill). While in Africa, the friends and Ryan discover that Samson’s big stories were just hot air, a fact that becomes dismally clear just as they are about to be eaten by crazed wildebeests. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly.

The Wild is another in a growing list of depressingly banal computer-generated films, movies that Hollywood seems intent on pumping out because they realize that there are a lot of us out here with kids who need something to do on cold or rainy days, or a DVD to rent or purchase for when the babysitter’s coming over. Sure, Finding Nemo mined familiar themes and spun time-tested morals, but it did so in such a superior, highly entertaining and intelligent way that it became an instant classic. This movie retreads the usual “Everybody’s unique” and “Be true to yourself” lines, but it’s got absolutely no subtlety, grace or smarts. The Wild is a lesson in mediocrity that kids truly don’t deserve.

—Laura Leon


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