Junga (2018)

Junga

A Vijay Sethupathi film never fails to be entertaining even when, as in this case, the story fails to impress. Gokul’s latest is a comedy that alternates between some hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that fall conspicuously flat, mainly due to the ridiculous plot. When the comedy is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s pretty meh and not helped at all by the glaring plot holes. Still, Junga is not meant to be taken seriously, and Vijay Sethupathi strolls through all the mayhem raising laughs with his take on a parsimonious criminal out to win back his family fortune.

The film starts with Junga (Vijay Sethupathi) being removed from jail by two policemen who plan to kill him in an encounter. Sadly, despite the presence of Rajendran as one of the officers, these are some of the least successful scenes in the film where the dialogue seems forced and not remotely amusing. Luckily this is only a brief introduction to allow Junga to begin relating his life story, which is where all the action happens.

The flashback shows Junga as a small-town bus conductor (all comparisons with Baasha are deliberate) whose love for a Telugu girl (Madonna Sebastian) leads to him taking on a persistent and unwanted stalker and his gang of friends. This foray into fighting shocks his mother who reveals that he is genetically predisposed to violence as he is actually the son of Don Ranga and the grandson of Don Lingaa; gangsters who lost all their money due to their extravagant celebrations and poor accounting skills. Junga’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) and grandmother (Vijaya) bewail the loss of the family fortune, particularly a picture hall in Chennai which was Junga’s mother’s dowry. Junga vows to be a money conscious Don and heads back to Chennai to restore his inheritance along with his best mate YoYo (Yogi Babu).

Junga quickly builds up a reputation as a cheap option for those seeking intimidation or assassination skills, but fails in his attempts to buy back Cinema Paradise from its new owner, Chettiyar (Suresh Chandra Menon).  Plan B involves heading to Paris to kidnap Chettiyar’s daughter Yazhini (Sayyeshaa) and thus force him to hand over the theatre. Naturally all does not go to plan and Junga’s kidnap scheme is foiled by the Italian mafia who have their own plans for Yazhini.

The first half has plenty of excellent comedy, mainly based around Junga’s miserly tendencies and extreme economies to save money. The film is irreverently tongue in cheek and pokes fun at classic Tamil films as well as modern-day tropes and even at the actors themselves, most of which works well. Radha Ravi channels Marlon Brando as the head of the Committee of Dons who are morally outraged by Junga’s discounted thuggery while Yogi Babu provides solid back-up as Junga’s chief henchman.  The first half has some good fight scenes too along with the best of the songs, including the wonderfully colourful Amma Mela Sathiyam.

The second half falters when the action moves to Paris and the Italian mafia muscle in. What does work is Junga’s obvious pain when he realises just how much money he has spent and the various jokes around the confusion between Parry’s (in Chennai) and Paris (in France). Best of all are Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who swagger around as a brilliant double act and completely steal the show as Gangster Amma and Gangster Patti. They have the best lines as they try to shake down Chettiyar and it’s great to see Saranya Ponvannan have a chance to step out of her usual standard mother role, albeit in a small way.

What doesn’t work is the whole storyline with the Italian mafia and French police, although we do get a great fight scene with an umbrella and some good car chases. But there are just too many silly plot holes that stop some of the comedy dead in its tracks while the rather contrived romance between Junga and Yazhini doesn’t work at all. After good chemistry with Madonna Sebastian and an amusing end to that whole episode, the love story with Sayyeshaa is limp and anaemic without even the benefit of any comedy to lighten the romance.

As with Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, Vijay Sethupathi gets to wear some outlandish costumes as part of his trip to France and when he plays the roles of his father and grandfather. There is plenty of moustache twirling along with flamboyant gestures which have become Vijay’s signature comedy style, but he is very funny in this persona and his charm and charisma are almost enough to carry the film through the problematic second half. Almost, but not quite. Thankfully, Vijay is ably supported by Yogi Babu and the double act of Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who ensure their scenes are funny and help to keep the plot (such as it is) moving along.

Junga is a film that works when the action is kept close to home with the comedy centred on Vijay Sethupathi and his Don Amma and Don Patti. The more action-based sequences disrupt the flow and don’t fit into the overall pace of the film, even though the fight sequences are well choreographed. They also drag out the film which is already overly long by the time Yazhini is kidnapped. However the songs are good, the comedy for the most part is very funny and Vijay Sethupathi is excellent in the title role. Junga isn’t consistent, but it is hilarious in parts and that, along with the enthusiastic cast make it worth at least a one-time watch.

 

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Kodi (2016)

kodi-poster

Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.

 

24 (2016)

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For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!