April 12, 2011
Crime, Drama, Film
Africa, Best Foreign Language Film, Blood Diamond, Bonginkosi Dlamini, City of God, District 9, DVD, Fernando Meirelles, Film, film music, Gavin Hood, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Kwaito, Mark Kilian, Meryl Streep, Mothusi Magano, movies, Oscars, Paul Hepker, picture, poster, Presley Chweneyagae, review, score, soundtrack, South Africa, Stephen Dorff, Terry Pheto, The Power of One, Tsotsi, Tsotsitaal, Vusi Mahlesela, Zola
Films about Africa are usually much too hard-hitting to be able to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and with good reason: The picture of poverty that needs to be painted is so impossibly gruesome that viewers shy away. Hollywood has struggled with this in the past (Meryl Streep, Stephen Dorff et al) but for one of the first times, a South African film tackles the subject head on. Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world and though a cinema release was limited, it seems people have sat up and taken notice. Aside from it’s obvious qualities in both acting and direction, perhaps part of its success can be attributed to the fact that it presents a somewhat hopeful picture, that despite the violence, disease and impoverishment, there are people who may be able to make a difference.
Very much inspired by both the tone and style of Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Gavin Hood’s film tells of young Soweto gang leader, Tsotsi (meaning “thug” in the language of the townships) who, angry and confused after a confrontation with a friend hijacks a car, unaware of the baby on the back seat. After initial reluctance and coupled with complete helplessness the young man, played by Presley Chweneyagae, takes the young child with him, and looks after it in the harshness of the South African slums. With the threat of execution he attains the help of young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who has a child of her own and eventually cares for the baby on her own. This may not last however as both the police and the baby’s rich parents are after the young criminal. In a world too cruel to be believed by western eyes (yet every inch true, make no mistake), Tsotsi’s efforts are out of place but act as a fragment of hope for a society mired in poverty, lawlessness and crime. At the same time, the film is very much a desperate plea for help for people without any sort of direction or perspective, as Hood highlights through some of the supporting characters, a failed teacher student (Mothusi Magano) and a victim of the gold mines, now crippled and trapped in a wheelchair. The mixture of languages spoken by the characters – known as Tsotsitaal, thug language – adds a touch of odd familiarity and contributes to the film’s symbolism to a certain extent portraying people without identity or cultural heritage, never mind a chance of escape or a future.
The film relies on Chweneyagae’s portrayal of Tsotsi and the young actor commands his debut film with incredible power and depth. His character is one of few words and this yields a wholly different level of communication with the performer and the audience. The emotional connection most viewers will make is intense and although the film’s open ended nature does not permit a payoff, this is very much to the advantage rather than the detriment of the film. Two more conclusive endings were filmed but were both dropped by Hood in the edit (they are available as a DVD extra however) and though neither is very optimistic, to change anything from the final cut would probably take away from the emotional journey Tsotsi has gone through. Quite rightly walking away with the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005, “Tsotsi” does give a more hopeful impression than Meirelles’ slum-epic though it cannot equal it in terms of innovation and pure cinematic style. And though entirely different from “Distric 9,” “Tsotsi” too present a nation that is still caught up in the long shadow of its apartheid history. An awareness campaign launched in combination with the film and presented on some of the posters reminds of the figures that do not make for easy reading: South Africa reports over 18,000 murders per annum.
Though some original score does feature, selling point for the soundtrack were several songs performed by the South African musician Bonginkosi Dlamini, better known as Zola, who also plays a small part in the film. His merging of Kwaito and Hip-Hop are in keeping with many of the gangster aspects of the storyline, portraying “Tsotsi” at his most ruthless and cruel. To musically colour the rest of the screen-time and bundled into a second album is the original score material by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker and featuring vocals by Vusi Mahlasela. The score is minimalist and, vocals aside not particularly African. Going almost completely unnoticed in the film (neither does the film require a lot of music), its album presentation is enjoyable with cues like “On the Tracks” and “Miriam Feeds Baby.” These serve as the main ideas in the score, the first for Tsotsi the second for the much more hopeful character of Miriam. Score fans looking for something to represent the African continent may do better with something like James Newton Howard’s excellent “Blood Diamond” or Hans Zimmer’s “The Power of One” however.
With “Tsotsi” Gavin Hood has made the leap to respected director and has been able to launch a Hollywood career though none of his follow-up works have been able to come close. The film presents terrible realities and does not make for easy viewing but neither is it entirely bleak in its outlook. Highly recommended.
If you have seen “Tsotsi” or have any opinion on the subject I want to know! Please do leave a comment or share this review with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. You’re the best!
March 18, 2011
Alexandre Desplat, Amy Adams, Chris Messina, Doubt, Film, film music, Hans Zimmer, James L. Brooks, Julia Child, Julie & Julia, Julie Powell, Margaret Whiting, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, McCarthy, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, movies, Nora Ephron, Oscars, Paris, picture, poster, Rachel Portman, review, score, Sleepless in Seattle, soundtrack, Stanley Tucci, Time after Time, When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail
Not since 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” have audiences been able to enjoy the sort of charming comedic and romantic fluff that writer and director Nora Ephron used to produce with ease. Her output in the noughties has been lacklustre at best and therefore “Julie & Julia” was perhaps received with lower expectations than her previous films. And while her ode to culinary arts can’t quite reach the heights of her early 90s form, it does remind us of Ephron’s not insignificant talents. Perhaps the first significant point to be noted is that it operates around a dual-storyline form which has become an Ephron trademark as much as Meg Ryan, though in this case the two strands do not intertwine in a physical sense as the characters are separated throughout. It’s a format that can work well though here it also serves to highlight the film’s flaws.
Sick of her day job and at general crossroads in life is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an aspiring author with a great love of cooking. Following a suggestion by her husband Eric (Chris Messina), Julie decides to cook her way through the greatest cooking bible there is, Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and to keep a blog about it. 365 days, 524 recipes. In parallel we follow the tale of Julia herself – played with great vigour and alacrity by the great Meryl Streep – as she writes and tries to find a publisher for the book. With her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) working for the American embassy in Paris, the food-loving but cooking-illiterate Julia begins taking classes to pass her time as much as anything else but soon finds love for the pastime. Both women struggle through the highs and lows of their chosen tasks, taking both their happiness and frustration out on food. Based on the memoirs of Julie and Julia (and also claiming to be the first film based on a blog), each story is given its necessary screen time, neither strand coming up too long or too short, often a problem with films like this. Switching between the settings of France and New York, Ephron’s screenplay thus manages a healthy balance of opposites and even though the denouement isn’t particularly mind-blowing, the film can maintain enough likability to maintain the viewer’s interest throughout.
Meryl Streep’s performance has been much praised and is very much in keeping with the real Julia’s rather exaggerated and eccentric personality. To the casual viewer unaware of the likenesses, Streep may however come across as completely overblown and just that, exaggerated. As a result, while this does not always lead to believable results, Streep all the right notes of the Child nuances that doubtlessly made the latter’s shows so enjoyable in the first place. Amy Adams on the other hand is generally more low-key but this serves as a good counterpoint to Streeps performance. The pair had already worked together on “Doubt” one year earlier and it is clear that each has knowledge of the other, the acting adjusted accordingly. There are problems however: As a comedy, the film is far less funny than it would like itself to be, too often relying of “French charm” to entice laughs rather than being truly witty itself. Furthermore, an attempt to insert a more serious note into Julie’s strand at the end of the second act to parallel with the McCarthy investigation of Paul (which is well handled), comes out of the blue and lacks believability in its execution. Worst of all the film fails to make the viewer truly hungry, a detriment to any movie about food. Nevertheless, driven largely by Meryl Streep, the film will remain amusing to most, of not one that will be revisited too often.
Rising French composer Alexandre Desplat composed the original score for “Julia & Julia,” perhaps the most “appropriate” assignment he has received in Hollywood. The film provides a great opportunity for Desplat to explore his roots, and rise to the challenge he does. Separating out the two storylines, charming accordions and strings play to Meryl Streep while a more jazzy rhythms form the basis of Julie’s theme. As always with Desplat, there is great orchestral precision in the music, highlighted on the album in tracks like “The Original French Chef Theme” and “Eggs.” It’s an accomplished effort, with styles more often heard in romantic comedies by the likes of Rachel Portman and Hans Zimmer’s work for James L. Brooks. Musically charming, the soundtrack to “Julie & Julia” is a score that will never win any awards for originality, nor is it a groundbreaking score by any means but an easy-going, very enjoyable score. The placement of songs like “Time after Time” by Margaret Whiting on the album however, makes for a bigger distraction than it does in the film, even though they help set the time period for one of the film’s halves.
Make no mistake, this is not “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally” but Nora Ephron has proven she can still churn out very likeable fare that makes for easy viewing. Outside of Meryl Streep’s Oscar nominated performance however, it is unlikely that “Julie & Julia” will linger very long in the mind.
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