Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Kung Fu Hustle - Movie Review

Here's my suggestion to you: leave your logic at the theatre door, laugh out loud, and pick it up on your way back to home. 'Kung Fu Hustle' is the result of inspired silliness - and every one involved in the production seems to be proud of how silly they are! If you're concerned about the laws of physics (and biology too) and a linear storyline, go elsewhere. Stephen Chow's latest movie has all the required elements of a kung fu action comedy: a story - which is in place only to bring the characters together; action - read: fly, kick, dance, play; comedy - of the suspended logic type; romance - as deep as Vijayakanth's love; sprituality - which is a taste booster.

The setting is somewhere in China, early twentieth century and the Axe gang is every wannabe-ganster's dream place. Sing (Stephen Chow) dreams of joining the Axe gang and enjoying the cars, girls and booze. When the Axe gang gets thrashed at the hands of a landlord of a colony, and his wife, the landlady, the leader hires Sing, who is adept at breaking locks to release 'The Beast', the world's greatest fighter from an asylum to tackle the couple. The fight between the Beast and the couple goes awry and Sing gets badly hurt. The couple nurse Sing back to good health, he fights the Beast and all ends well.

The opening line says 'A film by Stephen Chow', and how true it is. He is the lead actor, screenwriter, producer and director and for the sake of crediting others, I guess he didn't choose to have his name printed in other categories. Yeun Wah as the landlord and Yuen Qiu as the landlady are great fun along with Stephen Chow. The fight/dance sequences with the musicians and the Beast are stand-out examples of entertaining choreography. The movie has obvious references to 'The Untouchables', 'Lord of the Rings' and a couple of brilliant scenes that spoof 'Matrix: Revolutions'.

There is so much over-the-top violence that even when you see blood, you only laugh at the cartoonish violence. When you're not laughing, you're simply waiting for the next big gig. In essence, the movie is purely a visual affair and the brain can remain safely disengaged for two hours. There is one good thing with such movies - they never bore you. The film has 'lunacy' written all over it, that you'll laugh once at what's shown on the screen and laugh the second time at yourself for falling for such a silly joke.

Nayagan - Random Thoughts

Time, arguably the most popular weekly magazine today, has compiled the "All Time Top 100 Movies" list. I've read at least ten such 'Top 100' lists from respectable resources. Almost all of the lists would say that it is personal, because, no movie buff or human critic can watch all the movies released so far and pick the best from them. Time's critics Corliss and Schickel are presenting "All Time Top 100 Movies", which would mean that "Of all the films shot and made available for public viewing in this world so far, the following are the best...". Though I'd have liked a disclaimer mentioning that the list belongs in the heads of the critics and it's not a generic quanitfication of the artistic quality (what an oxymoron!), it doesn't surprise me that the presentation of the list is another example of the bloated ego of the magazine.

Now, the movie. I was a kid when I watched Nayagan for the first time, and I just knew that it was not another usual movie with stunts, comedy track and a smiling photo finish. In short, I was disappointed. My second and subsequent viewings were more effective - I was a teenager, and they were my movie formative years. There was a marked departure in the feel and style of the movie. The film announced the rise of Mani Ratnam to international cinema and provided Kamal an opportunity to push his envelope.

I once watched Godfather (I) and Nayagan in a single sitting. Nayagan's storyline, mood and tone has an undeniable similarity to Godfather. There is a striking resemblance in the character portrayal of the younger Kamal Hasan to Al Pacino and the aging Kamal Hasan to Marlon Brando. The wonderful baptism massacre scene, which, through parallel editing presented Micheal Corleone becoming a godfather to his sister's son and effectively symbolized the ascendance of Micheal Corleone as the successor of Don Corleone, the 'Godfather' in the sense that is used today. That scene is blatantly copied in Nayagan, but merely used as a 'direction tool'. There are other aspects that remind me of Godfather: the emphasis on family, trying to juggle family values and mob values, a love affair, etc. I'm not trying to belittle the efforts of Mani Ratnam and Kamal Hasan.

Nayagan, is an Indian masterpiece, but a flawed one. The narrative tone imparts an epic proportion to this movie. Only a few other movies I've seen come close to this level of story-telling, which it does with great flair. The production design by Thotta Tharani and photography by P.C.Sriram are world-class. I'm pretty sure that the kind of images seen in this movie would've guzzled millions of dollars had it been a Hollywood production. Every scene blended with the next scene seamlessly and it is quite difficult to hold the attention of the audience in such themes. Kudos to the editors (Lenin - Vijayan?).

Ilayaraja's sound track for 'Nayagan' is one of the best I've heard. When songs are considered as bathroom breaks, all the songs in 'Nayagan' are classics that have stood the test of time and fit perfectly into the movie (for which Mani Ratnam's screenplay should be credited) and my favourite is 'nee oru kadhal sangeetham'. The background music is an example of the genius at work. Re-recording is so full of life that it tightly embraces the whole movie and provides a new meaning which 'Nayagan' wouldn't have had without Ilayaraja.

I feel that Mani Ratnam hasn't equalled Nayagan through any of his latter offerings, and it's quite understandable. You simply can't churn out masterpieces. However hard Spielberg may try, he can't produce another 'Schindler's List'. But Kamal has managed to surpass this performance twice in my opinion - in Mahanadhi and Micheal Madana Kama Rajan. Almost every scene has been played and replayed that it has become quite impossible for us to see the movie with a fresh pair of eyes. The magnificent "neenga nallavara kettavara?" has lost it's emotional punch and is now only a cliche. Ofcourse, branding it as a cliche implies it's greatness. If I had a personal 'Top 5 Indian Movies' list, Nayagan would figure in that.

Lost In Translation

A movie that transcends geography and simply pierces your soul with its message is a masterpiece. Such movies, in most cases are thematically simple and break the cultural shackles so violently, that the language of the film is no barrier at all. To appreciate 'Seven Samurai', you need not speak or understand Japanese. You don't have to know the lifestyles of samurais or farmers in the backdrop of medieval Japan to truly appreciate the movie, because the movie is something deeper than the characters and it's settings. But for a movie that is deep-rooted in culture, geography is a barrier. You need apriori knowledge about the place and people to grasp the depth of what the characters mean.

Some genres invariably fall into the cultural trap: comedy, family, mockumentary, etc. Of all the genres, I think comedy suffers the most when it comes to translation. Talking of catering Indian movies to international audience, 'Micheal Madana Kama Rajan', the second best movie I've seen, doesn't provide even 10% of the laughs in Telugu, forget it subtitling in English. I've seen subtitled versions of Thenali and Panchathanthiram and it's quite difficult to not blame the producers. Not that they did a lousy job translating, but for coming up with the idea to sub-title. Many jokes are based on word-play and cultural differences that how ever hard you try, you won't laugh at the joke by reading it; you may laugh at the translation, which is unintentional. I've seen bits and pieces of Hindi movies with English sub-titles, and the slap-stick comedy it featured, I assume must have been equally painful for Hindi audience as it is for non-Hindi audience.

The other side of translation is funny, but raises an integrity question - foreign movies that are translated into Indian languages. Interestingly, I haven't seen any sub-titled movie so far, only dubbed versions; and I haven't seen any non-English movies dubbed for Indian audience*. So, when an English movie is dubbed (which is usually the case), say in Tamil, our translators bring a strong cultural force to the characters, which distorts their development. In the recently broadcast 'Shanghai Noon', Owen Wilson's Roy was horribly twisted, because of the slang and voice that was provided to him. It was funny, I confess, but I personally think the director would be unhappy if he understood Tamil, for taking his creative child and reshaping it.

The director/writer develop characters (primary) and they want it to be perceived a certain way. But depending upon the viewer's personal experience, he brings a part of his history in identfying/disowning the character on top of the primary development. This projection, which is secondary character development, happens in the mind of the viewer. Translators should understand that every word they choose to substitute directly affects the primary character development process, which eventually defines the tone of the movie.

* Talking of non-English movies dubbed into Indian languages, martial arts flicks from China make an exception. These movies are more dependent on stunt sound effects than on dialogues. Their target base is kung-fu fans, and most of the original dialogues are awful. So, the translator is at liberty to improve the movie.

FFM 2 - Apocalypse Now

Masterpieces like 'Schindler's List', 'Platoon' and 'Full Metal Jacket' have breathed life into the cliche 'the dehumanizing power of war'. 'Apocalypse Now' took a tangential approach from the above mentioned war movies (any war movie, for that matter) and made a resounding statement about the dehumaninzing power of war. Infact, it went much deeper than that - it's about the beast inside the man.

The storyline uses the Vietnam war as a background. Capt. Willard is on a critical assignment - to find and kill Col. Kurtz, with extreme prejudice. Capt. Willard is seen as an emotionally unstable man, but with good military credentials. A patrol boat, swimming through river Nung helps Willard to reach Cambodia, which is where Col.Kurtz is.

The patrol boat stops a sampan (fishing boat) carrying a family for a routine check. (Sampans were used by the VietCong to smuggle weapons and contraband items). When a U.S soldier is completing his check-up, a little girl on the sampan moves rapidly to hide/help something. This triggers Clean, a high-strung teenager to fire at the family indiscrimanetly on his impulse. When he's done, everyone's dead except the little girl's mother and the boat's commander insists on carrying her to the nearest army hospital. Capt. Willard, who remains unperturbed for most of the events, puts a bullet into her and explains that the wounded woman can't delay his mission. It turns out that the girl was trying to protect her puppy from them.

If you haven't seen the movie, I don't think I have done justice to the scene by this post. Although it's partly becuase of my limitations as a writer, the scene is breathtakingly composed that no amount of words by the greatest living writer can evoke the sense of disbelief the scene creates. Because what precedes the sampan massacre and what follows the massacre are seen with different perceptions - the scene defines the strength of movie making. This scene adds a new depth to Capt. Willard - he is not a cold-blooded murderer; he's not deranged. But his soft corner has been numbed. His heart has been broken and rubbed into stony salt that he no longer cares for himself.

Trace post.

FFM 1 - Raging Bull

Ray beats the hell out of Jake in the boxing ring, but Jake manages to stand on his feet. Jake says: "You didn't get me down, Ray".

Raging Bull is about a man with incredibly low self-esteem trying to deal with his insecurity. I can also say that it's a filmography of the boxer Jake LaMotta, but I don't care if it's true or not. This is one incredible film and every scene is like an art work, appealing different aspects/senses depending on the viewer.

Jake has a binary view of the world - Either someone is highly regarded that that someone won't even look at Jake, in which case Jake would hate them; Or someone is so trashy that they associate themselves with Jake, and since they're trashy Jake would hate them anyway. This two-fold viewpoint results from his low level of respect he has for himself. And that transforms into brute force.

Jake, though a gifted fighter in the boxing ring, is poor at fighting his insecurity. Only to assure his supremacy over another fighter to himself, he simply accepts all the blows his opponent can deliver without getting knocked out. And when Jake manages to stay on his feet, the act had offered him a sense of relief and freedom from the shackles of his insecurity.

I can't think of any scene that comes close to explaining how emotionally tortured Jake is - this scene is a magnificent example of character development, not through words but through action. Although Scorsese (director) and Chapman (photographer) do a flawless job, Rebert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta steals the scene.

Trace post.
[This scene later inspired Tamil actor Kamal Haasan in the climax of 'Kuruthippunal'].

Favorite Film Moments

1) Raging Bull: Ray beats the hell out of Jake in the boxing ring, but Jake manages to stand on his feet. Jake says: "You didn't get me down, Ray".

2) Apocalypse Now: Sampan Valley massacre.

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey: A bone thrown into the air jump cuts into an orbiting device.

4) After Hours: Paul at a subway train station.

5) Casablanca: Rick: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine".

6) Pulp Fiction: The climax.

7) Saving Private Ryan: First 28 minutes.

8) Amelie: Meeting Bourdeauteau.

9) Airplane: Time spent on the airplane.

10) Schindler's List: Stern: "This list... is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf".