TKFF 2012 Festival Wrap-Up (Kirk Haviland)

TKFF 2012

Kirk

The first ever Toronto Korean Film Festival wrapped on July 1st after a nine-day run in its first year. The highlights of the festival were the films of course, closing with the latter two entries of the famed Vengeance Trilogy from Park Chan-wook, Oldboy and Symapthy for Lady Vengeance on 35mm film prints, highlighting some of the best that Korean Cinema has to offer. Of course there were ups and downs, as with any fest going through its first iterations, growing pains if you will, and the TKFF is no exception.

First off, while I was not present for the opening gala which I did hear run late, there seemed to be some disorganization with lineups and showtimes as for the first weekend not one film started at its designated start time. Now while this is not a rarity in film festival land, the fact that we were not even seated for most of these performances until after the scheduled start time is. To the festival’s credit by the 2nd weekend this seemed to be an issue of the past, at least I hope it is. Also, the exact same spooling of header/commercials greeted us before every showing, which is not entirely bad, but with the attendance being mainly a smaller but dedicated crowd attending more than one show, mixing up the clips and maybe getting more director endorsements might be the way to go next year.  And personally I was hoping for more of a “taste” of Korean culture in general surrounding the festival throught its duration (I understand was more prevalent on opening night). That said I cannot deem the first offering of TKFF as anything less than a minor success. I know they were hoping for better attendance, and that will come with time, but the basis for any successful venture like this lies in its people and in that category TKFF flourishes. The cast behind the scenes is a group of friendly, enthusiastic and talented people that I personally wish every success with this fest for years to come. The films may have been the main attraction but they were a close second. How TKFF returns next year remains to be seen, I feel they may be better served with 5 nights instead of 9 with 3 or 4 shows on the weekends but that’s just me, whether they change venues or go completely new release without the ‘best of’ format one things is for sure, if it’s the same people behind it you will see me in line with my ticket in hand.

Dave

You know ultimately, I have to rate the first edition of TKFF (Toronto Korean Film Festival) a minor disappointment.  Growing pains and organizational hiccups are understandable given that it was a first year event, but there was just too much wrong with the entire event.  It was far too long for a first time festival; 9 days was more than a little ambitious and given the pedigree of some of the programmers, organizers and advisors it was a little too much.  For a first time festival going entirely retro is good enough and it had more than its fair share of highlights.  The opening night film of “Secret Sunshine” was a stunning and heart wrenching drama, and while some of the screenings like “Tale of Two Sisters”, “Save The Green Planet” and the aforementioned Park Chan-wook films that closed out the festival had the added bonus of being displayed on 35mm film prints, there were some films that just didn’t work.  Films like “Epitaph” and “Failan” that had their Toronto premieres were not very strong and while I’ll admit that there may have been a cultural divide in regards to the animated film “Leafie”, it was one of the more awkward and potential inappropriate animated films I have seen in some time.

Going forward I would recommend trying to accentuate more of the cultural aspects that could have been there, even if it’s just a Kimchi station on opening night and while retro programming does have its place in most film festivals, they desperately need to add newer films that a great portion of the general public are oblivious to, in order to expand their audience.  It was an OK start for TKFF and I certainly hope they get the opportunity to do this again next year, but they do need to make some big changes and learn what aspects that they need to focus on more if they want to have better success in the coming years.

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TKFF Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Review (Kirk Haviland)

Toronto Korean Film Festival 2012

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Starring – Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kwon Yea-yeong and Kim See-hoo

Written by Park Chan-wook and Jeoung Seo-gyeong

Directed by Park Chan-wook

Now the undeniable creative leader of the Korean film movement of the last decade is by far and away Park Chan-wook. Starting with 2000’s JSA: Joint Security Area, director Chan-wook has delivered diverse and ground-breaking films like the three films that make up the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK, and Thirst. Even though the Toronto Korean Film Festival wrapped over a week ago, I would like to use the background of the TKFF to talk about my two favorite Korean films of all time, Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

Lady Vengeance starts with the release of Lee Geum-ja, after 13 1/2 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Upon her release a preacher (Kim Byeong-ok), who she has been working with during her incarceration, meets her in front of the prison with the traditional present of a block of tofu. The tofu symbolizes a “white life” or not breaking the law again after her release. Geum-ja promptly dumps the tofu on the ground and walks away. You see, Geum-ja has been the perfect inmate for a reason, because it has served her plans for revenge to have everybody she helped inside help her execute her plan. Forced to take the blame of the kidnapping/murder by the devious Mr. Beak (Min-sik), Geum-ja was also forced to leave her newborn daughter behind as well. We see a series of flashbacks to prison sequences where we see how Geum-ja earned the nickname “The Witch” in prison; she dispatches one abusive inmate over a series of years in a very deliberate and methodical manner. Each of the inmates she helped in prison will now play a part in her grand master plan to exact her revenge. After tracking her daughter down to Australia where she was taken after adoption, we are introduced to the precocious Jenny (Yea-yeong) who ends up demanding to go back to Korea with her mom, complicating things further. While filled with cameos from actors that have been in both of the two prior Vengeance movies (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy), Lady Vengeance keeps ratcheting up the suspense until the surprising and extremely effective ending.

This truly is a fantastic film. Lee Yeong-ae is mesmerizing on-screen, her performance is flawless as the wronged Geum-ja. She dominates the screen whenever she is on it and in one second can be flat-out mean then angelic a mere second later. Wook-park’s strongest female protagonist, which is saying something as he forms female characters very well, Geum-ja is a brilliant character whose story is truly compelling. Of course Geum-ja needs a strong protagonist to make this story work, so Wook-park goes to the big gun and brings in the incomparable Choi Min-sik. I have said this many times to friends and others in conversation and will state it here and now in print, Min-sik is Korea’s version of Robert Deniro circa the Mean Streets through Goodfellas era. Yes he is THAT good and he immediately elevates everything he does, more to come on him in my Oldboy review. The rest of the cast also does admirable work in spinning a fascinating tale that never ceases to surprise. Wook-park’s direction is masterful and his story building expertise is on full display.

After the Masterpiece that is Oldboy, Lady Vengeance could have been a letdown as so many follow-ups are. Instead we are treated to a completely different tale that manages to more than hold in Oldboy’s shadow. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an absolute must see.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Unfinished Spaces Review (Kirk Haviland)

Unfinished Spaces (2011)

Starring: Vittorio Garatti, Roberto Gottardi and Ricardo Porro

Directed by Benjamin Murray and  Alysa Nahmias

The Cuban National Schools of Art was an ambitious project born of the Cuba Revolution and the imagination of its leader Fidel Castro. Years later they were abandoned, deemed frivolous and unnecessary by the Cuban government, so they were left in an unfinished state even though classes were already underway and continued to take place for decades to follow as the buildings decayed around them.

In 1961, shortly after driving Bautista out of office, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, while out and about in Havana, decide to stop in at the most luxurious of Golf courses in the city to participate in a round of “the game of the idle rich”.  While failing to fall in love with the Sport, Castro did fall in love with the land and asked Che what he thought this land would do as inspiration if it were to be used to house schools of artists. And the National Schools of Arts project was born. Conceived as a five school compound (modern dance, plastic (visual) arts, ballet, music ,and dramatic arts), the project was commissioned to three architects (Cuban National Ricardo Porro and two foreigners, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti) to design and build the schools. During the five years that the schools were initially under construction the priorities for Cuban architecture were changed under the Ministry for Construction as they decided that everything, like in their economic benefactor the Soviet Union, should be set up for mass consumption and prefabricated for easier construction. This of course flies directly in the face of the ingenious and one of a kind designs of the Schools of Art and eventually construction is forced to be ceased. During the following decades the schools remain open and still hold classes and influence artists and culture in Cuba in drastic ways, despite the buildings being unfinished and literally falling apart around them. In 2001 Fidel has a change of heart and invites the men back to finish what they started many years ago. But the hope these three men have always held that they may someday get that opportunity is always tempered with a sense of pessimism as they can never know whether the funding will be there before the government deems them unnecessary once more.

Unfinished Spaces is a fascinating look behind the curtain of Cuban politics and Art that seldom gets shown. Documents that are this critical about policies of the government rarely are allowed to come out of Cuba and this one pulls no punches in its depiction of the treatment of these schools. The three men behind the designs are fascinating characters and really drive the story along as the two men who left Cuba travel back for the first time in decades to see the decay of the buildings first hand. We even get some insight into the leader himself, Fidel Castro, as he decrees that even he himself was led astray as to the importance of the buildings, while being told by the Ministry of Construction that the buildings were an ugly disgrace, not the things of beauty he originally envisioned.

The pictures and old footage of the buildings and Castro really help to flesh out the back-story, but the film relies mainly on interviews and “talking heads” to convey the story.  When the three main characters are on-screen the doc works quite well, yet some of the other people interviewed/tangents taken don’t seem to have as satisfactory a conclusion to the points being made. That said, there is more than enough historical importance on-screen here to give this film a definite recommend. If you have any interest in Cuban history/culture you should absolutely seek it out.

Unfinished Spaces is currently playing on a limited engagement at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Savages Review (Kirk Haviland)

Savages (2012)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, Emile Hirsch and John Travolta

Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winlsow and Oliver Stone

Directed by Oliver Stone

After 2010’s disappointing Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps director Oliver Stone returns to familiar territory with Savages, the tale of a couple of small-time drug dealers fighting the Mexican cartels. Stone hasn’t been back into the drug trade since his infamous scripts for Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Alan Parker’s Midnight Express and has not directed anything as violent as Savages since Natural Born Killers. Unfortunately Savages does not come close to the mastery of any of those films.

We start the story with a voice-over narration from the character simply known as O (Lively) as she sets into place the specifics of the script and establishes that she will be our narrator throughout the film. She introduces us to her two men, Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson), I say her two men as she is with the both of them in every sense of the word, a pair of intelligent independent cannabis growers who have developed a highly successful strain of Marijuana. The strain is developed from seeds brought back from Afghanistan by Chon during his last tour in the Army. Chon is quickly established as the hard-edged muscle of the group, not afraid of dealing with any form of violence, while Ben is the softer more trusting side of the equation willing to trust that his buyers will keep their end of the equation. Enter Elena (Hayak), kingpin of the biggest Mexican Cartel who is desperate for Ben and Chon’s business. And her main general/right hand man Lado (Del Toro), a particularly nasty hitman who takes care of most of the cartel’s dirtier affairs. After being turned down by Ben and Chon for a partnership with the cartel, Elena targets O as the boy’s weak link and abducts her in broad daylight to coerce the boys into cooperating.  The boys had planned to go dark and get away from the situation with the help of their money launderer Speed (Hirsch), but after the abduction they squeeze as much info as they can about Elena and the cartel out of DEA agent and business partner Dennis (Travolota). The boys then head out on a bloody trail after the cartel to get their girl back.

I must say that I really wanted to like Savages. I had hopes going into this film for a return to form out of Stone as it was the type of story he knows how to tell very well. And for the first part of the film I was there with it, through preposterous parts and a terrible voice-over narration from Lively, I was willing to go with it to see where it was going. The pacing at least worked very well for me, as at two hours plus it could have easily started to drag. And of course with naming one of the main characters O you know the Shakespeare references/homages are soon to follow. Then the third act started and it all falls apart – boy does it ever. The performances from Travolta and Del Toro both work well, but they have done these same roles before, but in better films. Hayak’s character, or should I say caricature, is little more than a stereotypical cartel leader with breasts, we saw this done better in another Del Toro movie, Traffic. Our young leads manage to just ‘be there’ for most of the film, not exuding much emotional impact, and Lively manages to underperform them both. But even with these issues I was willing to go with it, until the third act which finishes with the worst ending of a film this year. Yes the ending (or endings) is that terrible. In fact, the more you think about it after the movie has finished the more you hate it, as attested by the flabbergasted group of us after the movie discussing it.

As much as I wanted to recommend this movie I can’t in good faith recommend it for anyone, the ending still disturbs and underwhelms me too much. Savages is a definite non-recommend. You have been warned.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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The Amazing Spider-Man Review (Kirk Haviland)

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Starring – Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Irrfan Khan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka with Sally Field and Martin Sheen

Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves based on the comic by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee

Directed by Marc Webb

The Amazing Spider-Man, the newest release from Sony Pictures, is a film born of Hollywood legalities. When Spider-Man 4, with Director Sam Raimi and original stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, was shut down due to the studio and Raimi not agreeing on the direction of the script and Maguire’s refusal to participate without Raimi, Sony decided to reboot the series as opposed to recasting a sequel with a new Peter Parker. If Sony had opted not to reboot the series then, as part of their original deal with Marvel studios, the film rights for Spider-man would have reverted back to Marvel and Sony would lose the character to Disney, the studio that owns Marvel. Complicated I know, but is the final product worth all this effort?

The Amazing Spider-Man starts off by retelling the origins of Peter Parker’s emergence as Spider-Man, though with a few twists from the first time around. We begin with a young Peter as he discovers his father’s home office has been broken into and ransacked. Richard and Mary Parker (Scott and Davidtz) rush Peter over to his Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s (Sheen and Field) where they leave him for safekeeping as they flee for their safety. Many years later we catch up with the now teenaged Peter (Garfield) who still lives with his Aunt and Uncle after his parents have perished in a plane accident. Peter is an awkward teenager who does not fit in and is a regular target of class bully Flash (Zylka), which causes him to retreat behind the lens of his camera. The object of his affection this time around is the brilliant and stunningly beautiful Gwen Stacy (Stone), who besides being a fellow student, also works as an intern at Ozcorp for Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans). Connors as it turns out is Richard Parker’s former lab partner and helped work on the same research that caused the break-in at the Parker’s years before. Upon visiting Ozcorp to meet Connors we get the spider bite sequence that transforms Peter into Spider-man and a relatively funny subway sequence because of it. Peter starts his life as crime fighter and draws the ire of the Chief of Police (Leary) who is coincidentally Gwen’s father. Meanwhile Peter’s Uncle Ben dies because of a robbery gone wrong and Dr. Connors transforms into the Lizard because of the research which forces Spider-Man into action.

The Amazing Spider-Man starts off in familiar territory, very familiar actually, retelling the same origin story that was told just a decade ago in the original Spider-Man. Perhaps this is why the first hour of the story drags a bit. The story really picks up and gains a life of its own once the transformation occurs and we see Spider-Man in his full crime fighting glory. Garfield is a good fit for Parker as Director Webb has clearly been influenced by the Ultimate Spider-Man line of comics where Parker is still a struggling high school student and has no connection to the Daily Bugle or its cantankerous editor J. Jonah Jameson as of yet. Emma Stone is a standout as Gwen Stacy, by far the best female love interest in any Spider-Man film, as she practically glows on screen and you are immediately smitten. The rest of the cast does well in turn, Leary as Captain Stacy and Sheen as Uncle Ben standout in particular. The special effects and stunt work are the real winning combination here as Spider-Man has never looked more convincing on screen. Using a combination of acrobatics and free-running techniques as well as CGI, this Spider-Man feels more grounded in reality, which makes sense as Batman Begins was another influence on Director Webb’s decision making. Speaking of Webb, he manages to put to rest all doubts that he can direct action sequences as those set pieces are some of the highlights of the film.

Overall a Spider-Man film that may have surpassed its predecessors, The Amazing Spider-Man is better than its auspicious beginnings gave it any right to be, but when you hire talented people it usually pays off. The Amazing Spider-Man is a fun time and a solid recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

Make sure to keep up with what’s going on at Entertainment Maven by liking our Facebook page and having updates delivered right to your Facebook News Feed. It’s the only way to stay on top of all of our articles with the newest blockbusters and all the upcoming films and festivals in Toronto.

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