dir. Gavin Hood
Let's begin by correcting an error that can be found in much of the press generated by Tsotsi, the first South African film to win an Academy Award: It has no connection with the Brazilian film City of God. The comparison is lazy and ultimately makes no sense. To put Tsotsi and City of God in the same room tells us nothing more than where they are set (crime-riddled slums in countries that the IMF designates as being in the developing stages—in the process of becoming industrialized) and that their characters speak in a language foreign to English.
The correct and rewarding connection is between Beat Street and Tsotsi. To begin with, both films are about an exact place and moment in time—for Beat Street, it is the Bronx in 1984; for Tsotsi, it's Soweto in 2004. (City of God is not a document of a given time and place but a history of a slum.) The tradition that Tsotsi continues begins with The Harder They Come, a movie whose value is not to be found in its story, or its acting, or its cinematography. Its entire worth exists in the raw fact that it captures the music coming out of Kingston in 1972. Right then and there, reggae and all of its significant derivations (dub, dancehall, lovers rock) are emerging; The Harder They Come documents that emergence. The same is true for Beat Street—or better yet, Wild Style—both of which use fictional narratives to document the rise and spread of hiphop culture within the slums of de-industrialized New York City. The musical culture recorded by Tsotsi is called kwaito: a blend of Jo'burg jive, L.A. gangsta rap, and Chicago house that at this very moment (the mid-part of the first decade of the 21st century) is the dominant expression for post-apartheid, inner-city black African youth.
To be fair, Tsotsi, which means thug and is the name of the lead character (Presley Chweneyagae), employs professional actors to tell a story that goes all the way back to Native Son—the story of a young man whose life has been limited by, and is a product of, a festering ghetto. The acting out of Tsotsi's long-established story is solid, and the cinematography is world-class. Indeed, one of the smart decisions that director Gavin Hood made in Tsotsi was not to use the editing language of documentary films, and the Verfallen (thrown-into-the-world) realism of hand-held cameras and natural light. Tsotsi is a full-on production; its makers utilized the latest tools and tricks to construct an illusion that is considerably larger than life. But despite its visual and technical improvements on Wild Style or Beat Street or any other films in that tradition, Tsotsi is, at the end of the day, a record of the new and vibrant music-based culture in the townships of South Africa.
I read somewhere that the film's sad ending moved a number of emotionally fickle people to tears—a sure sign of how easily they identified with Tsotsi's rise, fall, and redemption. But shedding even one tear for the main (or any other) character in this film is utterly idiotic because it's not about one person but a huge city (Johannesburg—the financial capital of black Africa), the slums sprawling from the edge of that city, and the music that's thriving in those slums. Do not cry for Tsotsi; instead be amazed by the rust and gold dust of Jo'burg, the future of Africa. CHARLES MUDEDE
Read Charles Mudede's discussion with Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood about Johannesburg—the real star of Tsotsi.
Unknown White Male
dir. Rupert Murray
One of the more cinematic mental ailments, amnesia has loomed large in the American pop consciousness ever since Moe first beaned Shemp with a shovel. The documentary Unknown White Male, which follows the strange case of Doug Bruce, a former stockbroker who woke up on a New York subway in 2003 with total memory loss, has been battling claims of bogusosity ever since its 2005 Sundance debut. Sadly, the ongoing debate over its factuality proves to be its most engaging feature.
Beginning with a re-creation of the 2003 incident, director Rupert Murray (a childhood friend of the subject) follows Bruce as he rediscovers family, friends, and, most intriguingly, a chance to zero out his karmic odometer. Even on a casual viewing, though, details of Bruce's story fail to hang together, from the small (a nurse describes Bruce as "well dressed" on their first meeting, when he apparently showed up at the hospital clad in a ratty T-shirt and flip-flops) to the large (a psychologist interviewed at length conspicuously fails to discuss Bruce in anything other than strictly theoretical terms). Barring any smoking gun, however, the question remains whether this is all a put-on or just sloppy filmmaking. (After I interviewed the charmingly earnest director, a third, more intriguingly melodramatic possibility emerged—that of Bruce as a Blofeld-level mastermind capable of duping the crew and his closest friends.) Matters are not helped by the fact that its subject, a man who lives in a fabulous loft and apparently has no financial worries whatsoever, comes off as a bit of a self-absorbed cad in both incarnations.
So is it a scam? Answer hazy, check again later. Judged purely on its merits, however, Unknown White Male is a bit of a headache. From the get-go, Murray adopts a manic shooting and editing style that, for all its furious triphoppy glitz, is basically unimaginative. (If Bruce mentions rediscovering food, then, by god, there's going to be a montage that would make Wolfgang Puck nauseous.) Hoax or no, the narrative can't escape death by a thousand newfangled iMac cuts. ANDREW WRIGHT
Read Andrew Wright and Andy Spletzer's interview with director Rupert Murray about his friend and subject, Bruce.
Find Me Guilty
dir. Sidney Lumet
Few directors can survive the polar extremes of the still-brilliant Network and the Melanie Griffith Hasidic-cop vehicle A Stranger Among Us, but Sidney Lumet soldiers on. Lumet's patented combo of untouchable corruption and grandstanding actorly moments has occasionally seemed badly out of touch, but when he's cooking, as in Dog Day Afternoon or the severely underseen Q & A, the director's feel for the street is just about unbeatable.
Find Me Guilty, a semi-comic recounting of the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, registers as a bit of an aberrant mid-level blip on Lumet's resume. Co-written by the director with first-timer T. J. Mancini, the story focuses on Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio, a mid-level coke trafficker who acted as his own lawyer during a legendarily sprawling, 20-defendant Mafia sting case. As always, Lumet's supporting cast, which includes Linus Roache and The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage as warring attorneys, is impeccable. The main story here, though, is the lead work of Vin Diesel, an actor whose employment as such has generally been inexplicable. Here, sporting what looks like one of Bert Convy's escaped hairpieces, Diesel delivers a sly performance: charming, yet honest about his character's essential lunkheadedness.
Diesel aside, however, the other mobsters remain gold-chain-sporting ciphers, and the opening reel, which includes at least three separate fart jokes, is just dire. Still, most scenes contain something worthwhile, whether it's an air of unrelenting cynicism or the way an actor is allowed to stumble into ums and ahs in the middle of a significant monologue. Even at age 81, Lumet's knack for unpretentious gutter poetry remains. ANDREW WRIGHT
Ask the Dust
dir. Robert Towne
Ask the Dust, John Fante's classic pulp novel (and a Bukowski fave), has been a pet project of director Robert Towne's since he first made his bones with the script for Chinatown. But something may have been lost during the two-decade gestation process. For all the snappy patter and indecent gorgeousness of leads Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, you can't help but feel that it would work better on the page.
Narrated by Farrell in a surprisingly passable Italian accent, Towne's script follows the exploits of Arturo, a blocked short-story writer, who has relocated to a flophouse in the Bunker Hill area of L.A. during the height of the Depression. As he's spending his last nickel, Arturo meets an illiterate waitress (Hayek) with a troubled past and an eye on moving up. Thus begins a prickly romance that mirrors (occasionally too baldly) the hard-luck turmoil of the era.
The results are never tough to watch, since Towne gets L.A. (that strange combination of wide-open spaces and close-quarter moral rot) like nobody else. Still, there's a persisting dreariness at the film's center. Smart as the filmmaker is, he never overcomes the basic problem that, as far as professions go, the act of writing is about as uncinematic as you can get, requiring oodles of distractions to pad out the endless shots of people scratching their heads while sitting at a desk. Barton Fink had a demonic John Goodman; Cronenberg's Naked Lunch featured horny typewriters and vats of giant centipede goo. All Towne's film can offer is the sight of Salma Hayek frolicking buck-naked in the surf. On second thought, perhaps this review is a recommendation, after all. ANDREW WRIGHT
Histoire(s) du Cinéma
dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard's bizarre, digressive, funny, stylistically inconsistent, theory-heavy, eight-part video meditation on the history of (or "stories about"—it's a pun à la français) cinema reveals him to be, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a breast man. They're everywhere. Lactating Byzantine Madonnas, sinuous Renaissance goddesses, centuries of come-hither odalisques, Janet Leigh's Psycho brassiere, hardcore porn starlets, and, of course, Anna Karina in a sweater. There are also a hell of a lot of concentration-camp victims—the Holocaust and the French Resistance being major preoccupations of Godard's—and the upsetting juxtaposition of boobs and Auschwitz is freely deployed. Amongst these orgies of visual repetition, there is one portrait of a woman with an egg-smooth featureless face. It appears around the time Godard is musing about Proust's Albertine, and I would be interested to learn its title, should any reader chance to know it.
I am not the kind of critic to demand obeisance before the great French auteur, who is receiving a Northwest Film Forum retrospective this week. New Wave–era Godard is fucking fantastic, as everybody with eyeballs will agree, but his recent movies are obstinately hermetic, enclosed little circuits of reference that are much more interesting to "unpack" than to watch. (Band of Outsiders fits the former category—see it! dream it! memorize the choreography!—and is screening Saturday–Monday. In Praise of Love, a stern latter-day product, is playing once for the die-hards: Tuesday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m. The middle era is represented too: Weekend, great, Saturday–Monday; Every Man for Himself, never seen it, Wednesday, March 22 at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.) The four-and-a-half hour Histoire(s) du Cinéma, being screened in two parts Friday and Saturday at 7:00 p.m., was assembled between 1988 and 1998, and pulling apart its dense nest of allusion, montage, and overlapping sound mix would take at least half that time. What distinguishes Histoire(s) from, say, In Praise of Love is its cheeky, mordant sense of humor; its childlike joy in wordplay and visual superimposition; and its loony hypotheses about the psychosexual source of motion-picture technologies. I only recognized about one out of every six of the clips, but mystery is part of the game. ANNIE WAGNER
Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
dir. Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, Jessica Joy Wise
When a colleague handed me the press release for this documentary, he observed that this love letter to heavy metal was apparently "designed by a god for you." Given my unflappable affection for the genre and unyielding belief that punk purists and indie-rock elitists who dismiss it are intellectually lazy hypocrites, he was right on.
Co-director Sam Dunn is a cultural anthropologist, and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is an artifact of both academic theory and enduring fandom. Dunn's scholarly illustrations (such as the detailed diagram of metal's multiple subgenres referred to throughout) complement interludes with childhood heroes that are alternately heartwarming (coaxing the satanically inclined members of Slayer to have a thoughtful discussion on Christianity) and hilarious (dashing about Ronnie James Dio's living room wielding a sword). He also gives a long-overdue nod to the fierce females in the genre (including the criminally overlooked women who founded Girlschool) and is brave enough to visit Norwegian death-metal practitioners who think nothing of burning down churches and executing fellow band members. From thoughtful analysis by fellow academics and respected writers (including metal expert and New York Times Magazine contributor Chuck Klosterman) to the pitch-perfect soundtrack, Dunn has made the documentary die-hard metal fans have been starving for. HANNAH LEVIN