Departures – Yôjirô Takita (2010)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14436
http://www2.sacurrent.com/film/story.asp?id=70401

When Liam Neeson opened the envelope at the 2009 Academy Awards and announced that Departures had beat out Waltz With Bashir, the supposedly mortal-lock winner, and another highly touted nominee, The Class, for Best Foreign Film, it was a shocker unlike anything seen since that category became remotely competitive. Departures was a film that, unlike Bashiror The Class, had not yet opened in America, not even on the festival circuit. No one had heard of this little picture, but still it ended up at the top of the heap.

It follows the fate of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist living in Tokyo. He is starting out with a new orchestra that promptly disbands, leaving him in the lurch and saddled with a huge debt to settle for his new cello – a gift to himself for getting into an orchestra. He returns to his home village with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), where, trying to get back on his feet, he answers the world’s most poorly worded want ad.

Daigo’s unexpected new gig is in “encoffinment,” working as a mix of undertaker and showman to prepare the dead for their next journey. It’s not something hidden away in the funeral-home basement, but rather performed as a ceremony in front of the family before cremation. It’s a superficial job on the surface, of course – death cannot be erased with a makeup brush – but it’s a profoundly soothing act for the families of the dead. To the living, especially to Mika, it’s a dirty, misunderstood occupation, one that causes Daigo many problems. Cellist, we get. It has some prestige to it. Music is lifeblood; it moves, ascends and takes you to another place. But a mid-row cellist in this day, especially in Japan, is not a necessary component of life. Entombing, however, is a vital part of death.

Motoki plays Daigo with more of a pop-film slapstick edge than I would have preferred, but he never goes so far with it that it detracts from the story. When he does come perilously near the edge of that cliff, Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss) and the always wonderful Hirosue are there to reel him back in just in time. It’s a tightrope Motoki and Yamazaki walked right to the Japanese Academy Awards as well, winning 10 overall.

Am I giving awards too much importance? Probably, but it’s a noteworthy achievement for a film with no other discernible hook. Crouching Tiger introduced us to a vibrant new actress in Zhang Ziyi, and The Lives of Others tapped into both our national obsession with the Iron Curtain and our fear of government wiretapping and reprisal. But there is nothing so sparkling to this film at first glance. It’s a film about man’s mortality and how he handles it, but death is not cleverly hidden inside a bigger story. It’s a wake-up slap in the face about the gritty part of dying: the bodies.

The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow (2010)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14474

It’s no real surprise that we’ve rejected Iraq and Middle East war films almost entirely as a society over these last few years. The war is still an ongoing one, and we’ve been through too many news cycles to sit through the same thing again in narrative form. After all, it wasn’t until after the war was over that the ball got rolling on Vietnam films and we were given great pieces of art like Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket. But as major troop withdrawal in Iraq quickly becomes a reality, The Hurt Locker could not have better timing.

Sgt. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are the two consistent crew members of a three-man explosive ordinance disposal unit. After their team leader (Guy Pearce) dies during a detonation, they are saddled with Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), a wild man who constantly skirts around standard procedure in his attempts to dismantle the explosives. Straddling the thin line between functioning head case and brilliant technician, he keeps a piece of every bomb setup in a box under his bed to remind him of the “things that tried to kill him.”

It’s a relatively simple film, based on the writings of an embedded journalist, that follows a few episodes in the daily lives of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq counting down the days left in their rotation. There are no hexagonal conspiracy plots or deep cover black ops missions infringing on their everyday operations. There are no redacted papers or codes to crack. The whole ballgame is the tension that rises within the unit in the barracks and out on patrol as they sniff out, and try to defuse, IEDs buried in the streets or hidden in car trunks or worse – much worse.

Unlike Vietnam, thick plotting does not hang gracefully onto the war in Iraq, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t try to do that here. She allows the film to grow organically until you realize you’ve been hanging onto the edge of your seat in acute panic. It rises exquisitely above the soldiers’ stock characters, giving us a thriller by virtue of the extraordinary stress of their situation, not by the machinations of the military machine surrounding them. She gets the point that no one cares about the politics or paranoia of old-guard war films anymore, only the drastic life-or-death scenarios. We have better and more ubiquitous outlets for the political side of war, now more than ever before, and while that paradigm shift has not fully rendered politics irrelevant in films, it’s taken a giant, toothy bite out of it.

Bigelow’s camera is impartial and dispassionate, but explosively powerful and unflinching. There is no commentary or judgment, just war and fatigue.

Fanboys – Kyle Newman (2010)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14160

When the end credits rolled on the New Trilogy of George Lucas’ legendary Star Wars franchise in 2005, this was all supposed to go away. The space-epic story was supposed to revert back to the world of paperback novels and video games from whence it came, and that would be that. But there were still the Original Trilogy DVDs, released a few months earlier, to sift through. Then there was a cartoon to prolong it a little bit longer.

Now there’s Fanboys, a Lucas-approved geek-stoner comedy that takes us back in time a decade, to six months before Episode I – The Phantom Menace was unleashed on a willing but unsuspecting populace.

The time frame of “six months before” becomes a problem when Linus (Chris Marquette), a lifelong Star Wars devotee, finds out he has cancer and only three months to live. This injustice cannot stand, decide his equally devoted friends Eric (Sam Huntington), Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Windows (Jay Baruchel), so they band together and take him for one last wild ride: a cameo-filled road trip from their home of Ohio to Marin County, Calif., to steal the film’s work print from under Lucas’ nose at the Skywalker Ranch.

It’s a plan Linus has been dreaming of, in jest, for years, but to make it happen takes more suspension of disbelief than is possible, and the plot’s implausibility is clearly too difficult for first-time feature director Kyle Newman to overcome. What begins as a relatively simple, straight-line buddy comedy turns into a twisted corkscrew of in-joke hurdles, each level escalating in ridiculousness and none more incomprehensible than Seth Rogen’s double cameo as both a Trekkie and a Wars geek, brawling with each other over Han Solo’s honor on the floor of a Vegas casino.

The movie has a built-in, highly specific audience in mind, as the film’s poster, a mix of The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s marketing design and Darth Vader, indicates. Don’t know a nerf herder from a Nerf ball? Don’t bother. Not gonna get baked in the parking lot before you go in? Skip it. That goes double if you’re a Trekkie.

The cancer plot ends up as the catalyst, rather than the heart. What little heart the movie does possess lies within the inadvertent love story between the oblivious Windows and one-in-a-million, doesn’t-exist-in-real-life fangirl Zoe (Kristen Bell), whose sharp tongue and love of torturing Hutch is one of the few bright spots in this dreary paint-by-numbers comedy.

Fanboys’ development has become legend – originally slotted to come out in August 2007, it was delayed for reshoots and re-edits by a hack-for-hire director, Steven Brill, who traded foul e-mails with some of the film’s defenders in the fan community. Ironically, the film isn’t a victim of executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s well-known eagerness to edit films to death – a trait that’s earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands” – or of Brill or anyone else. Its essential problem is one of timing. Ten years earlier, before the spate of alternating sappy-raunchy bromance pictures and before Star Wars references were run deep into the ground, there was room in the world for a movie like this. It may not have been any better a movie a decade ago, but it would have at least been a fresh take. It’s too late now, though. Star Wars is over, and it’s time to let it go.

Yellowbrickroad – Andy Mitton (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/yellowbrickroad-1.1155823

Seventy years ago, all of the people in the tiny New Hampshire town of Friar, all 572 of them, just up and left. No one knows why. They just started walking north one day and – with the exception of one survivor, who has no answers – no one ever saw them alive again. With the documents and police reports about the case newly unclassified, well, it’s time someone wrote a book about it.

Yellowbrickroad is the second in an ongoing series of midnight horror movies created by a team-up between AMC Theaters and horror-film website Bloody Disgusting. (Check bloodydisgustingselects.com for showtimes.) It’s a bold move, but this film does not hold up its end of the bargain.

There is an enjoyable sense of care that went into its making. The directors’ and actors’ love of craft doesn’t go unnoticed, and as you watch it you get the feeling that they would have gotten a group of friends together to shoot this on a digicam if they couldn’t get a budget for a proper shoot. But not only are the movie’s key questions left unanswered, they are left almost entirely unexplored once the cast begins their journey on the trail.

There is a sound foundation built around the backstory of the “walkers,” as they’re called, and the Wizard of Oz iconography serves the first half well enough that a good movie could have come of it. But that movie never materializes once the aura of mystery around the event starts to lift. The film unravels itself just when the group unravels, and just as painfully, slowly dying a little bit where it should have had a punch of excitement.

Yellowbrickroad does, however, succeed in being thoroughly creepy at times, and reasonably tense. It also manages to deliver a few much-needed shocks along the way. But Dorothy and Toto find their answers at the end of their yellow brick road. The same can’t be said of this film or its characters.

Daydream Nation – Michael Goldbach (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/daydream-nation-1.1152328

First films are a notoriously tricky proposition, and in Michael Goldbach’s debut film, Daydream Nation, just released on DVD, the director has stumbled into every predictable pitfall along the path.

The film finds a city girl, Caroline (Thor’s Kat Dennings), in an emotionally perplexed state as she and her father settle into a small suburban town to escape the ghost of her dead mother. Caroline, of course, hates the town and is instantly rejected by the kids in her new high school. She’s a bitch, they say, and a mega-slut.

The only positive attention she gets is from Thurston (Reece Thompson), a stoner who is hiding from the ghost of his best friend in a cloud of pot smoke. Caroline also befriends a cute novelist, Mr. A (Josh Lucas), who is slumming it as an English teacher until he makes his first sale.

To get a few things out of the way: Yes, this is the setup for every movie about teenagers. Yes, it turns into a mess. Yes, she actually is a bitch and a mega-slut, and the goodwill that the charming Dennings has built up in earlier films, such as 40-Year-Old Virgin and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, doesn’t excuse this role. And naturally, this movie’s climax is set at a bitchin’ house party. (No, Loveburger doesn’t reunite to play it.)

Daydream Nation’s problem can be boiled down to one telling scene in which Mr. A excitedly asks Caroline for her opinion on his manuscript. She proceeds to, justly, shred the novel for the drivel it is. It turns out that the awful book he’s written is a mirror of Goldbach’s own script: the stoner youth, the ethereal angel come to save him with notes of depression and death, all of it derivative. If Caroline thinks that’s bad, wait til she sees the movie she’s in.

The only real surprise this film has to offer is that Caroline never gets pregnant, which, these days, is some kind of triumph of narrative restraint. Otherwise, Daydream Nation only succeeds in coloring neatly inside the lines of a stolen coloring book.

Four Lions – Chris Morris (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/four-lions-1.1083555

In British humorist Chris Morris’ debut film, he has set out to answer the question, “Why is this happening?” in reply to the July 7, 2005, attacks throughout London. It’s a question so loaded and complicated that a 97-minute farce doesn’t have a shot at answering it, but the endeavor is not fruitless.

Four Lions follows the lives of five Islamic extremists around the suburbs of England as they plan Jihad after work. The group of would-be mujahedeen includes Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is the leader by default as he is the only one with a brain, the dimwitted Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and the very dimwitted Waj (Kayvan Novak).

In an emotional tizzy over not being allowed to join Omar and Waj in Pakistan to train, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the very white Curly Howard of the group, takes over planning the jihad with Fessal, going so far as to recruit a new member, Hassan (Arsher Ali). Young, wealthy and English-born, Barry would be in way over his head if he thought it was any more real than playing G.I. Joe. But it seems impossible to think this bumbling bunch of misfits could ever actually pull anything off besides accidentally 
exploding themselves.

And this is actually the point of the film. We’ve seen the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and laughed at the silly ways they’ve tried to sneak explosives onto planes, but we’ve only been able to do so because they are so inept. The explosives they carried were as real as any used in the daily car bombings in Afghanistan. The scary thought is that even the last kid chosen for a pick-up game hits a jump shot once in a while, if only by blind accident.

In his attempt to answer “why?” Morris creates even more questions. Omar, Waj, Barry, Fessal and Hassan are not the only bumbling fools here. Their plans are made in broad daylight right under their English friends’ noses, none of whom seem alarmed by five Muslim men running through the streets nervously gripping large packages, or notice the detonators on the coffee table when they pop over for a visit.

Is it insightful? Yes and no. The curtain is pulled back, if only slightly, on the extremes that Muslim men are pushed to by a host of religious, political and cultural issues, and they are exposed with a deeply cutting wit – it really is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year – but it’s exposed by an outsider. How many European directors have we seen botch American war films because they are outsiders? It has to give the viewer pause.

But does it matter? Perhaps my middle-class, white, Catholic upbringing is showing here, but the film left me with a slightly empty feeling that all Morris has accomplished is getting me to split my sides in the face of something wholly terrifying, and that’s OK – even necessary – for now. But laughing in the face of people who reply with bombs stops being OK when the next printer cartridge slips unseen through security.

Howl – Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/howl-1.1071452

The year of James Franco continues with Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new biopic about Allen Ginsberg and his titular landmark beat poem. The poem defined part of a generation, not just Ginsberg (Franco), but all of the usual suspects: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady. This film is not exactly a defining moment of anything, past or present, but it offers a compelling peek at an important point in time.

Howl the film is told just as poetically as “Howl” the poem was recited, unspooling in four or five commingling strands. These threads skillfully braid together the tales of Ginsberg as a young man looking for his poetic voice with his pals Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg the poet finding his voice and Ginsberg the mighty, giving an interview post-“Howl” to an unnamed interviewer.

It’s all hung loosely around the dual framing devices of the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of Howl and other Poems, and the first recitation of the poem at Six Gallery in October 1955. Wild animation, under the direction of John Hays, connects the dots of the disparate hallucinatory images of Ginsberg’s words.

Despite being the most elaborately planned segment of the film, and the one that boasts most of its star power (Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels and David Strathairn), the trial segment is also the most inconsequential and cumbersome strand of the piece, making stilted, unemotional legal points (probably taken directly from court transcripts) that don’t even rise to the drama of the second half of a Law & Order episode.

But that’s all right. If you didn’t know the outcome of the court case – that is, whether “public decency” prevailed – then obviously there would never have been a film about it in the first place. The film is about the creation of the poem, and even the creation of Ginsberg himself. In a broader sense, it’s about the creation of the beat generation and those themes all work well.

Franco has come a long way from his Freaks and Geeks days as the eternally wasted Daniel, even if Ginsberg’s outer character isn’t a death-defying vertical leap upward in comparison. It’s not as amusing a portrayal of Ginsberg as David Cross’ in I’m Not There, but the younger Ginsberg wasn’t quite as generously eccentric as he was later in life. There is clearly nuance in Franco’s performance that you wouldn’t have thought possible until recently, though. It didn’t even appear possible as long ago as Pineapple Express, and certainly not while watching him squint his way through the Spider-Man movies. His career path is a genuinely perplexing one: Is he a modern day Montgomery Clift or merely a new Tony Curtis, fitting a few gems into an otherwise unremarkable filmography? Watching for the answer, however, is worth it.

Nowhere Boy – Sam Taylor-Wood (2010)

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http://orlandoweekly.com/film/watching-the-wheels-1.1054994

Is there a historical figure we know more about than John Lennon? True, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept meticulous notes and records of their lives, but they weren’t rock stars and frankly, founding a nation is hardly as interesting as having written “Imagine” or “Norwegian Wood.” And to use an example once offered by Lennon himself, we only “know” about a fraction of Jesus’ 
life, and nothing at all about his 
formative years.

It’s a daunting task to offer a new angle about Lennon’s life, to say the least. He exhaustively told us everything over the years, or at least what he wanted us to know. There have been earlier attempts to capture the early Beatles story, most notably Backbeat, which focused on Lennon’s relationship with Stu Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is a character here, as are McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and Harrison (Sam Bell), but Nowhere Boy is firmly about the inner workings and burgeoning genius of the 
young John.

Based on a biography written by his half sister, Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy starts out with Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in his youth, pre-Beatles – even pre-Quarrymen. Like most teenagers, he has a chip on his shoulder the size of Blackpool (the bustling port town near Liverpool where, the film shows, Lennon discovered rock & roll). He smokes, gets in trouble at school and hates to wear his glasses despite his Aunt Mimi’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) chiding. It’s typical teenage stuff, certainly not the sign of any particular brilliance to come.

The source of Lennon’s rebellion becomes apparent when his cousin gives him the news he’s always wanted to know: his mother, Julia’s (Anne-Marie Duff), address. It sets him on a journey of self-discovery that he’ll be on until – but wait a second. We’ve heard “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and saw Beatles Anthology. Lennon’s mommy issues are almost the foundation of modern popular culture. We know all of this already, don’t we?

We do. But to read about it or see it in a documentary is one thing. To see it live and breathe and take shape, brought to life in full color, is something different. And that’s what first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood has pulled off here, thanks mostly to Johnson’s embodiment of Lennon. It’s almost inconceivable that this is the same kid who played the gawky nerd-cum-superhero in Kick-Ass a few months ago.

Less is known about Julia Lennon, and manic-depressives are hard to play without garnering eye rolls, but Duff nails her spirit spot-on. In her more manic moments, there is a natural ease with which she and Johnson play off each other, reaching beyond the mother-son vibe – and teetering dangerously close to Oedipal territory – to the master-muse relationship that would be so important for John and Paul and George going forward.

Plot is important, sure, but in a biopic where the subject’s story is practically taught in kindergarten, the portrayals are everything, and that’s what works best here. It’s hard to suspend the fact that you know who lives and who dies, but it’s a great estimation of what the teenage John Lennon might have been like: a mixed-up kid who is kind of a dick, kind of sweet, very rebellious, very emotional and about to change the world.

Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) – Shin Su-won (2010)

http://seoulbeats.com/2012/03/under-the-rainbow/

When the vanguard films of the first South Korean wave hit in the early 2000s, most of us were caught off guard, unaware that such a place like Chungmuro–a center of great filmmaking, where melodrama wasn’t a negative and voice over wasn’t a crutch–even existed. The quirkiness of My Sassy Girl, the magic realism of Il Mare, the intensity of Chingu–these were new experiences, something American and European films, which were still stuck in a cycle of vacant gun play and artless conversation films, didn’t offer.

Somewhere it went all wrong, though. Maybe it had been all wrong from the start. Maybe the sudden and intense interest allowed years of great films to float to the top all at once, to be consumed as if they all came out in a single year. But even if it were all wrong from the beginning, there was still a change somewhere between My Sassy Girl and Oldboy winning the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Shin Su-won’s Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) seems to remember a time when there was still joy left in filmmaking, but that spirit has since been exercised to near death. Rainbow offers a bleak and thoroughly depressing look at the inner workings of the popularity-or-bust film industry that once, even if briefly, thrived with a real sense of Korean identity, which has since given way to a sanitized version of itself for a globalized world.

Films, now, are made or not made by committee, and within that committee, directors are met with reams of statistics on what is likely to be commercial, and any popular whim that occurs requires the production to completely change at a moment’s notice.  More often than not, their projects are not given the green light to go ahead, which is where we find Ji-won (Park Hyun-young), a director about to turn 40 who caught the filmmaking bug a little too late in life and still hasn’t made her debut yet.

After resigning from her job to pursue her new dream, Ji-won has found little more than a brick wall to run face first into with each new project she begins. Her husband is frustrated with her lack of progress, and her son, the socially awkward Si-yeong (Baek So-myeong), is even less supportive, openly taking out every flaw in his life on his mom. I would have gotten a mouthful of lava soap if I said any of the things that Si-yeong says in the film to his mother, but Ji-won’s meek character allows it, just as it allows her to be stepped on at work, where, even after making a major artistic breakthrough, finding the voice and the kernel of a story she had been so desperately looking for for so long, she is cheered on with a smile into changing her script to better fit the marketing plan. To make it more popular.

As a film, Rainbow has a tendency to oscillate back and forth between empathy with Ji-won, as she goes through her creative process trying to remember what drew her into filmmaking in the first place and trying to free her artistic wings, to a multi-layered frustration that is so deeply rooted in the film that it threatens to spoil it. Every character comes from a place of frustration: Ji-won’s frustration at seeing younger filmmakers than her begin their productions, her husband’s frustration at having to share a wife with a so-far fruitless endeavor, her son’s frustration at being a poor guitarist and the subject of senior bullying, and even her producer’s frustration at not receiving material from Ji-won that she can do anything with.

In fact, it’s a surprise that this film was even made, it’s so critical of the film industry. But it puts a voice to the frustration that I think a lot of people feel when it comes to Korean film in the last five or six years, since American studios started buying up remake rights.

The saying goes that there are two things you never want to let people see being made: laws and sausages. But the ways in which a film comes to be made–or, worse not made–is often more uncomfortable to witness. Almost every reason for a film to be made is a bad reason, and almost every reason not to make a film is a good one. But it’s a sickening truth to realize, to live in a world where this is so. Shin Su-won captures the spirit of that thought, but the underlying problem remains. Film going is a casual experience for a far greater percentage of the population, and that’s who will always get served first, but they already have the rest of us, and they know it.

A Better Tomorrow – Song Hae-sung (2010)

http://seoulbeats.com/2012/01/better-luck-tomorrow-boys/

It’s been twenty four years since John Woo and Chow Yun Fat conspired to make trench coats and firearms as a permanent fixture in our minds by pitting them together in the sweat-drenched street scenes of A Better Tomorrow. But for everything iconic about the original, Song Hae-sung’s remake of the film makes little to no impression at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course — and honestly, it’s almost criminal that it was. Song and his army of writers (Kim Hyo-seok, Lee Taek-kyung, Choi Geun-mo & Kim Hae-gon) began their film by weaving a pattern of homegrown depth, setting their story against the backdrop of a splintered Korea in the shape of a family who get separated as they try and flee the repression of the North.

Twenty years after the fact, Kim Hyeok (Joo Jin-mo) ends up a gangster in the South, middle management for a drug-smuggling Pusan mob. His mother and younger brother, Yeong-choon (Song Seung-heon), are held captive and regularly beaten by North Korean guards. Through his mob connections that apply the right amount of grease to the right palms, Kim Hyeok searches furiously for his little brother and manages to find him in a North Korean prison camp. Little Brother is not so forthcoming with forgiveness when he meets Kim Hyeok for the first time — their first meeting since childhood.

The two films – both of which are actually remakes of an even earlier Mainland China film – follow roughly the same path: a deal that goes bad lands Kim Hyeok in jail for three years after being double crossed by the insipid, cloying underling Tae-min (Jo Han-seon), who has been a gangster for about three hours and already wants to be boss. Sometimes all it takes are the balls to want something for which you’re willing to kil. While Kim Hyeok is in jail, Yeong-choon is repatriated and becomes a cop in Pusan, keeping such a close eye on Tae-min he’s almost thrown off of the force.

But Song Hae-sung is not the visionary cinematic tailor that John Woo once was (and no longer is), and cannot weave anything compelling out of his attempt to recapture a special film. Pusan plays its own role – the music of the docks at night and the comfort of family noodle stands – but again, Song can not pull the same magic out of the atmosphere that Woo managed to make with Hong Kong. For all of its failings to live up to the original, it does make the grade in one area, though: sticking religiously to the John Woo doctrine that states, “Why use 1 bullet when 10 look so cool?” Even after all of these years and all of the half-assed attempts to emulate this image, I have to admit that it is still satisfying to see the lollipop sucking Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), Kim Hyeok’s best jopok buddy, storm their rivals’ massage parlor two-fisted in order to take out revenge for the double cross.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare this remake so closely to the original, but that’s the problem with remakes, especially for classic films. The standard is set in stone. I struggle to see the point of remaking this film a quarter century later. John Woo’s film has only grown over the years and has not been forgotten. Unless you’re going to bring something new to the table, some point of view, something to say, some basic reason besides money to revisit the well worn story of cop and criminal siblings…why do it? They could have gotten to all of those, and even started to, but then didn’t. Again, why? Cop versus criminal is not a dead trope — well, not yet, despite world cinema’s best efforts to kill it — but it ended up being a wasted opportunity to expand on John Woo’s work by introducing and delving into the wealth of thematic baggage that comes with being a North Korean refuge in South Korea. Instead of diving in head first to this rich topic, director Song tiptoed around the issue and largely used it as a cosmetic trait, not a theme. The rest of the film took its cue from the cautionary tiptoeing and did not develop significantly beyond a cheap revenge film with a pretty cast and a lavish bullet allowance.