Friday, April 29, 2011

Gokusen: The Movie (Japan 2009)

What's this!? A movie for the much-loved, long-running Japanese drama of the same name? Consider me intrigued! Having been a fan of the three "seasons" of Gokusen, I was curious to see how well the show's material would translate to a film version. Well, it's over-the-top, both in acting and in premise, it's overly-dramatic, cheesy at times, and has no shortage of laughs and heart. This is definitely Gokusen (ごくせん THE MOVIE).

Gokusen: the movie starts with our loveable heroine Yamaguchi Kumiko, aka "Yankumi" (Nakama Yukie), in one of her most absurd scenarios yet. Along with two of her fellow teachers, (Takano Aoi and Ayukawa Sakura), Yankumi is returning from her summer trip to Hawaii, asleep on the plane and completely oblivious to the fact that it's being hijacked by terrorists. While everyone is silently freaking out, as usual, nothing seems to unsettle our bubbly Ojou (princess for the uninitiated). Side note: Yankumi was next in line to be the 4th generation leader of her Yakuza family but her heart led her to teaching. Making quick work of the hijackers, Yankumi returns to her regular life of being a teacher of the delinquents class, 3-D, at Akadou academy. Now principal, Sawatori Goro (Namase Katsuhisa), tells Yankumi that they're expecting a student teacher and that she'll be overseeing his experience at Akadou. Much to their surprise, Odagiri Ryu from Gokusen 2 (Kamenashi Kazuya), walks through the door as the unlikely teacher-in-training. Beaming proudly, Yankumi introduces Odagiri to her new class of trouble-makers, led by Takasugi Reita (Yuta Tamamori) and his four cohorts. Of course these kids get involved in a mess by mouthing off to the wrong guys, in this case the Black Skulls motorcycle gang, and Reita uses his fists to settle the matter. Of course the Black Skulls aren't going to leave it alone and Reita challenges them all on his own in an attempt to spare his friends. Naturally, he gets the stuffing beat of out of him, but Yankumi refuses to let anything happen to her precious students, so she arrives just in time to make quick work of the Skulls, with a little help from Odagiri. Yankumi's actions once again open the eyes of her students in that they can in fact trust her, a teacher, and that she'll always be there to protect them. She's had this affect on all of her past students, and the cast from Gokusen 3 are here to show their life after high school. Ren Kazama (Haruma Miura) is working, but not earning enough so he takes on a night job that promises big money for little effort. Never a good idea right? Turns out life isn't that easy and he soon discovers that he's helping to smuggle drugs. Now he's on the run from the police and is reluctant to involve his friends and Yankumi. So, just whose drugs are these anyway? Well the charming, successful, soon-to-be politician Kentaro Kurose (Ikki Sawamura), of course! Apparently this guy isn't as honest and down-to-earth as people are perceiving and he's really all about money and power. Using Kazama as a drug smuggler does not sit well with Yankumi, as you can imagine, so she'll do whatever it takes to bring this corrupt businessman down and protect her precious students at all cost.

Oh I get it. The story is a bit nutty, but somehow within the world of Gokusen, it all makes sense. One of the biggest challenges this movie succeeds at, and where many fail, is making a successful transition from a television drama to a feature film. The filmmakers do a good job at making it accessible to the uninitiated, but fear not Gokusen faithful because there is a ton of fan service going on here, especially in regards to familiar faces making cameos. Some of the over-the-top performances and silly comedic elements, such as cartoon-ish sound effects, CG usage, and heavy dramatic moments might seem odd to those unfamiliar with the show, but again, it's all in the vein of why people fell in love with Gokusen in the first place. Yankumi's co-workers are all teachers from Gokusen 3 and she interacts with a lot of her past students. This will all mean a lot more to those who watched the series, so in that respect, someone just watching the movie on it's own might not get that nostalgic feeling or that desire to point at the screen and say, "oh, there's ____!". That being said, the story felt like just a way to get all of these characters back together and to give the audience and long-time viewers some closure on the series and all the characters they grew to love. I feel like this is the end of the series and they did a great job with wrapping up the loose ends. Again, that won't mean much to newcomers, but there's still a fun, action/drama/comedy here with a lot of pulling-on-the-heartstrings moments and characters that you can instantly take to.

I'm a bit conflicted as to how to grade Gokusen: THE MOVIE because your overall experience with it weighs largely on whether or not you followed the series. If you did, there's no reason to dislike the film. It gives fans everything they could've wanted and then some. If you didn't, I really believe there's still an entertaining film here, but probably one-too-many fan-service elements to recommend it wholeheartedly to those unfamiliar with the show. Either way, it's a fun way to kill a couple of hours and a fitting end to a series that had a good run. Fight - OH! (Lee)

Grade: B

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Haunters (Korea 2010)

Oh man. You know those times when you read about a movie and start developing expectations for it and then the cold, hard hand of reality smacks those expectations to the dirt? Well I really set myself up for disappointment with Haunters (초능력자) aka Psychic (which is ridiculous because his abilities aren't even psychic abilities). However, if I were psychic, I could've seen beforehand what a pile of garbage I'd soon be watching. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

1991. Cho-in (Yang Kyeong-mo), a boy with a wooden leg and gauze over his eyes, is being dragged through the rain by his mother. His mother explains that he isn't to take the gauze off of his eyes and that he should just trust her. The boy's insanely abusive father comes home swearing and starts beating the boys mother. Fed up, the boy removes his gauze and suddenly we see the man under the boy's control and he deals with his father accordingly. This kid is anything but normal. 2010. Im Gyoo-nam (Ko Soo), is working at a junkyard with his best friends Ali (Enes Kaya) and Boba (Abu Dod), but soon finds himself out of work after he's involved in an accident which lays him up at the hospital. Looking for a new job, Gyoo-nam answers a help-wanted ad at Utopia, a pawn shop run by Jeong-sik (Byeon Hee-bong). Happy in his new position at Utopia, Gyoo-nam seems to be without a care in the world until Cho-in (Kang Dong-won), walks through the door and puts everyone in freeze-mode with his magic eyes...everyone but Gyoo-nam that is. Cho-in can't believe that he's finally run into someone invulnerable to his abilities after all these years. Seems our super-powered figure has been using his ability to rob various shops of their money. He's abnormal and not a good guy. Double whammy. Gyoo-nam tries to fight off Cho-in but during the melee, Gyoo-nam's boss Jeong-sik is killed. Gyoo-nam feels like he's let his boss down and is having a hard time forgiving himself, so with the help of his two goofy, foreign friends, he aims to hunt down Cho-in and bring him to justice.

Well, that was certainly one of the shorter synopsis' that I've written up for a movie. That's probably because almost nothing happens in Haunters. I could tell you that this movie is chock-full of spoiled potential but that would probably just depress you even more. The opening of the film, showing a bit of Cho-in's back-story, looks really good and you think you're in for a really cool, sci-fi/fantasy film with a sharp, glossy look to it. However, after the movie places us in 2010 that all goes out the window. Suddenly the movie looks incredibly low-budget, as if it were made in the 1990's. Not only does it all look different, but everything feels different as if you're watching a completely different movie. The acting is very comedic, which I'm sure was unintentional, but Haunters feels like something you'd catch on a cable network at 2:30 in the morning. We all know that Kang Dong-won is better than this (see: Secret Reunion, Jeon Woo Chi), but here it seems that he's simply dialing it in and collecting that paycheck. His character has zero depth and we really don't ever get to find out what his motivation is for being "evil". Ko Soo and his cohorts are fine enough a different movie, but here they just feel out of place and Ko Soo's heroics seem to come out of nowhere because he's never perceived as anything but bumbling beforehand. I place a lot of the blame on writer/director Kim Min-suk for Haunters being as big of a mess as it is. Everything feels so unbalanced, from the acting, to the score, down to the abysmal dialogue and inconsistent look. I have to also point out that either Cho-in is terrible at being a villain and using his abilities, or Gyoo-nam is just this insanely lucky guy that can't be brought down. The latter being a bit of a spoiler, but it never gets explained. I always keep my reviews spoiler-free but I have to go on record as saying the ending to Haunters makes zero-sense. Just another hash-mark in the tally of missteps this film goes through.

If the previous paragraph didn't give away my thoughts on Haunters, well then let me make myself even more clear; this is a terrible movie. It can be viewed as amateur at best, but even that would be generous as there are no redeeming qualities to be found here. I never bash movies just for the sake of bashing, but goodness me, I can assure you these harsh comments are not without warrant. (Lee)

Grade: F

Friday, April 8, 2011

71 Into The Fire (Korea 2009)

I've said it time and time again (but who's listening), war is hell, and 71 Into The Fire (포화 속으로) is yet another film that drives that point home. What's different this time around is the perspective in which we view the atrocities of war; through the eyes of teenagers. That can't be right...can it?

It's 1950 and the Korean war is in full effect with the North making it's advances. A unit of South Korean soldiers, led by Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo), are feeling the pressure and are in constant retreat. With limited resources at their disposal, Seok-dae recruits as many fresh bodies as he can which is where our 71 teenage students come into picture. The 71 students are thrown right into the mess of things (hence the title of the film), with Oh Jang-beom (Big Bang's Choi Seong-hyeon), put in place as the acting commander of his fellow students, because he's the only one with actual battle experience. Reluctantly left in charge of a varied group of misfits and troubled, inexperienced youth, with Koo Kap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo) being the biggest pain in the butt and murderer no less, Jang-beom must muster up the courage to hold down the fort at an abandoned middle school with his comrades to keep the North from advancing. Sounds like a pretty tall order for any of us, let alone being a teenager and having never really handled a rifle before. The group of North Koreans pushing forward are led by General Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won), who is as cool as can be and seems completely battle-hardened. Jang-beom tries against all odds to keep his troop together, but Seok-dae and his two goofball buddies have their own agenda and refuse to take orders from our young commander. So with limited weaponry and unruly subordinates, will Jang-beom be able to rally the troops in time to effectively stop the advancing North Korea troops? Or will General Park's men be far too much for these kids to take on? And where the hell is Seok-dae with the backup!?

Premise alone, 71 Into the Fire might sound like a campy, almost comedic take on the war-film genre. However, don't be fooled dear reader as this is indeed a serious film with plenty of blood sprayed across your screen. I suppose it just seems unheard of to most of us to picture teenagers having to lock and load and go to battle with basically no battle experience. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and the Korean war was certainly such a time for many. That being said, let's get down to business. The first half of the film left me mostly unimpressed for a number of reasons. The story is super basic stuff. Northern troops on the move, but Southern troops, teenagers mind you, block their path. However, director Lee Jae-han said, "hey, let's stretch this premise out to two hours shall we?", unnecessarily. Let's shorten some of these scenes...tighten it up people! The action really looks amazing though, I will say that much. If you love explosions, gunfire, slow-motion and people catching rounds with their bodies, then 71 Into the Fire delivers the goods.

Try as I might, I couldn't get past the fact that our young commander was played by a singing and dancing pretty boy, Big Bang's T.O.P., as he's known. Smudging a little mud on the cheeks doesn't exactly make him look like a tough guy. I didn't want to just write him off and as the film went along I did enjoy the journey his character took, from quiet and intimidated to a guy that could lead his fellow men into battle. I warmed up to him but ultimately Choi Seung-hyeon lacked the charisma that takes a lead to another level which made him feel one-note. Oh, what's this!? Another pretty boy, Kwon Sang-woo, playing the bad-boy role yet again? Alas, I really had issues with his character. He's introduced to us as a murderer on his way to juvenile detention but they keep him around because hey, he has a bone to pick with the North Koreans that killed his parents and the South needs soldiers. Sounds like a deal! Add the fact that he's as difficult as can be and altogether obnoxious and you have a character that you roll your eyes at everytime he's on screen because you know what to expect from him. There was some retribution for him later on in the film but it felt like a case of too-little, too-late. The real stand-out performance for me was the North Korean General, Park Moo-rang. This guy was hardcore the minute you saw him and remained that way throughout. Nothing ruffles his feathers and he just made being a bad guy look cool. Job well done I say. The cast of young soldiers were very affecting and there were times where I was genuinely moved by the madness they were all experiencing and the sadness they were conveying. This supporting cast, far too numerous to credit here, were effective and helped in creating a realistic atmosphere.

Let's be honest, the really touching thing about 71 Into the Fire is that it's based on a true story and the actions of these 71 kids that slowed down the North for eleven hours, thus giving the US and South Korean troops an advantage with a counterattack. With that in mind, I believe the filmmakers succeeded in making the importance of that fact clear and while I question some of the casting choices and felt they could've snipped a few minutes here and there, the end result is a mostly successful and ultimately touching look at the unlikeliest of heroes. (Lee)

Grade: B -