Tsotsi (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Life for post-apartheid kids without homes and families is still terrifying.


Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-02-24 (Limited release)

Tsotsi opens on dice. Kids are playing craps, and if the shots are too close to read precisely faces or setting, you can make out hands and arms, liquor bottles and smoke. "What are we doing tonight?" one wonders out loud. All look to Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae). He has a plan.

It's not that he has so many options. Tsotsi and his crew -- Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano) -- live in Soweto, where they deal drugs, steal, and scavenge to get by. At least they have each other, and even places to sleep that aren't drainage pipes. For their evening's work, they head to the trains, where they'll find someone to rob. En route, they pass public service posters that warn against AIDS ("HIV affects us all"), a detail that marks the changed timeframe for Tsotsi. Where Athol Fugard's novel was set during the 1950s (published in 1980), Gavin Hood's film takes place in an amorphous now. This shift has to do with budget (it's expensive to design period sets and costumes), but it also underlines the ways that risks shift but also persist. Life for post-apartheid kids without homes and families is still terrifying.

It's what they know, and so they accept. Tsotsi and his boys find their mark -- a man who keeps his valuables in an easily accessible pocket -- and gather round him on a crowded train. Within seconds, their job is done, though Butcher gets reckless, stabbing the man with an ice pick, right up under his ribs, so he dies quietly, unnoticed by the other train riders.

The combined brutality and carelessness of the act is stunning, but the kids count their bills and head off to a local pub where they proceed to get smashed and argue: Boston's unhappy about the senseless murder, pressing Tsotsi to consider whether he's even capable of "decency" anymore. The self-vaunted, exhausted hustler Tsotsi erupts, smashing Boston's face repeatedly even as his friends must drag him off the prone, unconscious body. Looking down on his friend, now a victim of his ruthlessness, Tsotsi runs into the night, seeking escape, or maybe just another crime to commit. At this point, it's all the same.

And so he finds his ostensible fate, in a BMW he carjacks while the driver (Nambitha Mpumlwana) waits for her driveway gate to open. She fights him hard for her vehicle, too hard, it seems, until he gets down the road and discovers her infant in the back seat. And now, by chance, Tsotsi has some strange new options.

His choice to keep the baby and leave the car changes everything and nothing. Loading the baby into a shopping bag he finds in the car, he traverses the wide emptiness between the highway and the shantytown, the camera hovering above the street to observe his movement. At home, a shack with a sheet metal door he keeps chained shut with a padlock, Tsotsi feeds the child condensed milk from a can, diapers it with newspaper, leaves it in the shopping bag under his bed while he goes out cruising for new trouble. But while his encounter with a homeless crippled man (Jerry Mofokeng) in a homemade cart and flashbacks to Tsotsi's tragic childhood provide unnecessarily broad symbolism (not only does his mother [Sindi Shambule] die of AIDS, but his father [Israel Makoe] kicks dogs) they also lay a groundwork for his evolving intimacy with the child he can only see at first as an object, a sort of mini-me he's stolen because he wants it.

This relationship is rendered in images that emphasize 19-year-old Tsotsi's limited, slowly expanding vision. At the market, he spots Miriam (Terry Pheto), her own baby tied to her back as she waits to buy food. Loading "his" increasingly miserable but astoundingly patient baby into the shopping bag, he arrives on Miriam's doorstep and makes her breastfeed the child at gunpoint, her own baby beside her on the bed, touching at the visitor, welcoming and curious, blissfully ignorant. Tsotsi watches, gun in his lap, transfixed.

While Tsotsi certainly presses the sorts of buttons that attract Academy attention, and indeed, it's nominated for this year's best foreign language film. But its earnestness and occasional awkwardness are assuaged by Lance Gewer's sharply affecting cinematography and Chweneyagae's remarkable (first-time) performance. As the young hoodlums are faced daily with images of what they'll never have, the middle-class gated homes so close to their own squalor, they rage without recourse. Without education or adults who might look for them, they can only survive according to the terms they see.

Tsotsi's grappling with the baby's needs makes him seem sympathetic, especially as Butcher provides an increasingly cruel and violent opposite. But what the film overstates in narrative, it makes poignant in imagery. When Tsotsi thinks briefly he might give the baby away to homeless kids closer to its age, he visits the drainage pipes where he used to live, pointing out the one where he slept. Scrawny and tough, they look at Tsotsi as if he's crazy, asking them to take a baby in a bag: what do they want with this little bit of precious life? They need to look out for their own.

It's a small moment that suggests how lives become irrelevant, out of control, lost. The middle-class parents suffer and seethe, Tsotsi learns his own sort of lesson, and viewers can feel better for all of it. But it's worth remembering the kids in the pipes, who show up only for this instant and then vanish again, seeming slivers of narrative background, tossed like dice into a distressing nowhere. They are, in fact, the film's focus, however unseen.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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