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Kung Fu Hustle: a film review

Kung Fu Hustle is one of the most original, genre-blending films martial arts films to come from China in our time. It is ambitious, fun, creatively shot, and backed by an emotional story which is right between “too melodramatic” and “too thin.” Some things may be lost in translation if you don’t know about being a kid in Hong Kong or folklore of the culture; but even then, this adds a magic and mysticism in a way that may peak your curiosity or at least kindly request the audience’s respect and suspension of disbelief. The American Gangster film hommage in the opening sequence circa 1940s is great, but also blends Hong Kong culture and make it something unique. That’s the best word for the whole movie: Unique.

This film was released in 2004 and given an R-rating: somewhat silly considering the cartoon nature of the film, the total absence of sex, and the limited blood. Though implied, you never see someone murdered and there is almost no undesirable language. The rating is not totally insulting and irrational; it came down to violence, which there is a lot of, but I’m glad they released it how they did and didn’t go for the PG-13 rating. It would have negatively affected the film in the way of story and content, though perhaps they hurt themselves to begin with—by releasing a cartoony, action movie clearly pointed at teenagers while developing it as an “R”. It would be the equivalent of releasing a Pooh Bear movie, clearly for little kids, then being surprised it doesn’t do well because you got a PG-13 from the MPAA instead of a PG rating because you had Christopher Robin cursing at Pooh for getting lost in the woods and gives Pooh a bloody nose. Don’t forget this though: we’re stricter in the USA with ratings, and surely other countries didn’t give it a “must be seventeen without guardian” rating. Take it with a grain of salt.

Let’s get back on point now. Kung Fu Hustle was a weird film to most Americans and, frankly, we didn’t respond well to it at the start. Maybe that was because it only opened on seven screens nationwide on its opening weekend. That’s right. Seven. It was only with the success of the first Kill Bill movie by Quentin Tarantino that Kung Fu Hustle got some viewership. Though the rest of the world had this movie in December of 2004 and January of 2005, the USA wouldn’t get its opening weekend until the Spring of 2005. Sometimes, smaller films take more time to flourish. Eventually, however, the film did get to over 2,000 theaters nationwide and made 17 million dollars by the summer in the USA alone; but it was a long shaky road, and like all films, had no guarantees. Any foreign films, especially niche, cult-like ones like these, are lucky to have done as well as they did. Again, thank Tarantino, and I don’t think that is an unfair statement. At the time, people were going “gaga” for that sword-wielding revenge flick starring Uma Thurman.

Directed by, written by, and starring Stephen Chow, this man accomplished greatness with this big budget picture, but only in the sense of personal accomplishment. It earned just over $200,000 in its opening weekend in the USA, but made a much better amount in the Philippines, the UK, Germany, and the rest of the world.

Kung Fu Hustle is original as hell and is, indeed, a cult film. Stephen Chow paid homage to Bruce Lee serials and does what few films can do that try to blend genres: do it right. There is love, genuine comedy, beautiful slow-motion action that fits perfectly here where other action films force it, and the colors, props, and environments are detailed and expressive.

If you’re over 50, you’re not going to like this film. If you’re in your 30s or 40s and remember the 70s and 80s martial arts wave, you just might dig it and “get it”. This isn’t a film you watch every month, but it’s worth having in your collection because there is nothing else like it. Even the cover of the DVD release calls it “Kill Bill meets Looney Tunes” which, while accurate at parts, undersells the film in my opinion and simplifies it too much. Then again, short blurbs from someone you don’t care about quoted on the cover box are often far too brief to encapsulate any film’s tone or premise.

The film is packed with sweeping wide angle lens shots. The camera rarely stops moving and allows the film and the audience to flow together. This phonetic energy creates a mood that most of the best directors use: frequent cameras in motion, however slight. Even the smallest, faintest tracking shots add something interesting, even if you are not consciously aware of it. They do this a lot in big 90s action fiulms when people are talking in an important meeting. Just think about the opening breakfast scene in Resevoir Dogs, but not so obvious. The action is choreographed masterfully and when the camera does stop moving or is a static shot, it is almost always done in the name of art. The whole film was well-thought out and nothing you will see in this film is just randomly thrown in. They wanted to tell a story and entertain, and every shot was clearly weighed for its pros and cons during pre-production storyboarding – even before a single frame was shot.

You have to go into this movie anticipating a certain type or irreverence; a certain tongue-in-cheek, slapstick kind of vibe. This is not a brutal rated-R action film. This is not Die Hard or Chinese Connection. This film doesn’t take itself too seriously. But at parts, when it is time to be serious, it seems to really work, is sincere and balances out the film – giving it that very original feel that, culturally, Americans don’t see in most films today.

From the back story flashbacks, to the tenants, to the landlord and landlady, this film’s cast goes over the top in what characters it presents and what martial arts make physical sense. But again, it’s a movie. Anything Stephen Chow hadn’t seen yet in a movie, he went for it. Things that had been done, he got his team to do even bigger. The excellent fight choreography by legendary Yuen Woo-Ping is also responsible for the fight scenes of Kill Bill vol. 1, Fearless, The Matrix, Hero. No wonder it’s great. But the editing team deserves a pat on the back as well; with a bad editor that chops action sequences too frantically, you’ll get a choppy blur of un-rhythmic garbage and unintelligible shit, like most of the confusing action scenes in the Transformers franchise.

On a final note, some of the Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI) has not aged well, but given that this is not supposed to be a serious Matrix movie or Lord of the Rings film, somehow the weakness in the CGI is not only forgivable, but charming. It reminds me of a time where they still couldn’t do everything with a computer and still had to use some kind of ingenuity and creativity.

The film is part Tarantino, part Dragonball Z, part Looney Tunes, part Matrix, and part Bruce Lee. Enjoy the quirky humor of this underrated cult gem.

(8/10)

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MH

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Captain America: The First Avenger Movie Review

Captain America: The First Avenger movie poster

Having waited to see Captain America: The First Avenger for three years, I was not let down in the slightest. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that it went above my expectations. After the “average-at-best” Thor and Green Lantern (and I think that is putting it mildly) it was great to see a film that I put on par with this past Spring’s X-Men: First Class, 2008’s Iron Man, and 2009’s Watchmen. These have been among the best super hero films of the past five years, perhaps only topped by The Dark Knight.

What is so great about Captain America is that we’re given a protagonist and main character that we care about from the very beginning. We care about what happens to Steve Rogers and he is played perfectly by Chris Evans. If there are any doubters out there, don’t be. He shines.

This cast is also possibly the best ensemble cast of all the above films listed because it is balanced so well, and unconventional actors were given the chance to shine. Whenever a new face was on the screen or an old one came back, I was always entertained and enjoyed the characters. I was more than happy to see Stanley Tucci still performing magnificently into his old age, and Hugo Weaving never fails to disappoint, especially since he has been in two other movies I love (V for Vendetta and the Lord of the Rings Triliogy). The woman playing Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was very good and extremely beautiful in that pin-up girl sort of way. I had never seen her before, but as a man, this brunette with dark red lipstick was more than welcome. She got plenty of face time too and was more than just eye-candy. Thanks, Marvel. Even Tommy Lee Jones was perfectly cast, and though I was hesitant at first to see the Men in Black and No Country for Old Men actor in a super hero film—guess what?—it was a great choice. Everybody played their parts straight and realistically. I felt depth in everyone, not hammy laughs and over-amped characters.

A brief word on sound design, editing, and action: Very good on all fronts, but not excellent. Pacing of editing and story development were perfect. Not rushed and also, never dragging. Some may feel that there was not enough action, but I felt that was not the case. Action was needed where it was needed and wasn’t super over the top. Just enough for it to be a superhero film. This isn’t supposed to be X-Men battlefront. It’s an origin story, and a damn good one at that. The only origin film I think I like more is Batman Begins (2004). I’m not even going to mention either of the HULK movies regarding butchered origin stories. Christ. What a shame.

The CGI was a little much for me however. I enjoyed the world that they created, as well as all of the colors template, the mis en scene, and costume design for the 1940s; however, the CGI was sometimes clearly a blue screen. I don’t know if this was because of too much budget or too little budget, but I wonder if some shots which tried to “flex muscle” could have been left out. Without the distraction of noticing overlayed backgrounds, the audience would have been kept in the “illusion” better. Some may not notice at all, of course. I wonder if some of the parts, (mainly Captain America chasing after the plane near the end and much earlier when he was talking with Red Skull in the fiery lab/hangar), could have been re-edited or given another camera angle so we didn’t have to see so much “fakeness” in the background.  This is a very “nit-picky” point I am making here, and I’m sure that if my ideas were implemented another viewer or critic would equally wonder why not enough was shown. They would say:

“Why can’t we see the background in this shot? It feels awkward. Did they run out of money?”

So, it is a lose-lose situation possibly, but again, it is a small thing. Hopefully it will age well and the scars of CGI here will smooth out, not become even more apparent (especially on Blu-Ray).

The last thing I’d like to mention is the time in which this film came out. Nearly ten years after 9/11. I am sure that Marvel Studios didn’t plan for this, but I am glad that if there were any plans to green-light this movie earlier—that they were pushed back. I don’t think that the public would have been in great support of a “Captain America movie” between 2005-2008 when Iraq and Iran were messes, Bush was still in office, and the housing bubble was popping its way into a long recession starting in 2009. It was wise to wait until somewhat better times, and arguably, it is now. Captain America, just that title comes with a pride for country and nationalism that is multi-faceted now, and unfortunately, complicated. In addition, while there isn’t a sparkling list of a thousand reasons to be proud of our country and it’s incompetence at present in both parties in Washington, the truth is this film came out at as good a time as it ever will. Many, many superhero films have been spilling through Hollywood these past eleven years with more on their way, and waiting to do Captain America and eventually, an Avengers film, was a good choice. We knew eventually they would do every comic franchise imaginable. For example, I never thought we’d get Ghost Rider or Daredevil – certainly not before the better known Iron Man and Captain America. How did they get made first? I don’t know.

A lot of the big, bad boys have been done an are out of the way (i.e. Spiderman and X-Men, and DC’s Batman almost done as of 2012) so with a new generation completely in love with comic book superheroes like never before, we can all learn about some of the lesser known ones without too much impediment. The problem recently, as in Thor and Green Lantern, is that they did not deliver. In fact, they were poor. Worth perhaps one viewing for free. In that regard, the very idea I’ve just put forward about lesser known heroes reaching out to new fans on the coat tails of the greats has failed us. Thor and Green Lantern and Fantastic Four’s Silver Surfer tragedy of a film were let downs. But I got to tell you, I had the lowest expectations for Iron Man years ago, and I suddenly became a huge Iron Man fan after I saw the film twice in theaters. Was not expecting that great origin story. Too bad Iron Man 2 was clearly more fun to make than watch.

Maybe there is opportunity for rectification. After all, with the Amazing Spiderman film set for next year already re-beginning Spiderman, who knows?—Maybe all of these films in the past ten years will get re-made in the next ten. Let’s freaking hope not.

In conclusion, Captain America is a surprisingly welcome dose of red, white and blue without shoving the flag down your throat. Bravo.

Grade: (A-)

God’s speed.

MH

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