Stoker Review (Kirk Haviland)

Stoker Banner

Stoker (2013)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Lucas Till, Dermot Mulroney and Jackie Weaver

Written by Wentworth Miller

Directed by Park Chan-wook

New in theaters this week from Fox Searchlight Pictures is Stoker, the English language debut film from Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). The intense horror/thriller written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller packs a stellar cast with Mia Wasikowska heading up the center of the story. With Chan-wook delving into the English market, the question remains, is his unique style and vision compatible and adaptable for an English audience?

After India’s (Wasikowska) father, Richard Stoker (Mulroney), dies in an auto accident her Uncle Charlie (Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother (Kidman). But there is something not quite on the level with Uncle Charlie, something from the past has kept him from being a part of the family for India’s entire life, and that is not lost on the house matron and India’s Auntie Gin (Weaver). But instead of feeling outrage or horror the tormented and bullied high school girl becomes increasingly infatuated with her Uncle, and begins to feel urges and actions that she never knew she had come bubbling to the surface.

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Stoker is one hell of a debut from Park Chan-wook. Continuing to press forward with his trademark brooding atmosphere, pierced periodically with jarring violence, Chan-wook has crafted an unconventional yet beautiful looking story. The script provides a solid base for Chan-wook to jump off from, staging even the most mundane and generic dialogue in subtly dramatic tones that increase the ominous feel that permeates the film. The script does pack a sexually charged coming of age story that Wasikowska grabs with gusto. Her India goes from dour and reclusive, a girl whose best friend is her father and would rather go hunting with him than shopping with her mother, to a confident and determined young woman set upon a different path. Chan-wook does nothing to subtly connect this other ‘awakening’ to her sexual awakening, he smashes his audience over the head with it like a cast iron frying pan. Matthew Goode delivers the fully formed silent menace that was only touched upon in his Ozymandias performance from the Watchmen back in 2009. And Nicole Kidman chews scenery in a deliciously camp performance.

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On top of the heaps of violence there is a lot of stunning imagery on display here. The transitions are gorgeous and some of the most beautiful put to lens this year or last. Some of Chan-wook’s favorite imagery does creep into the film as well; his spider motif does show up here as does his fascination with unconventional weaponry, but this helps to add to the visual flair. The Stoker house is a visually compelling estate with lush grounds, including stones and large boulders that may have more than decorative purposes, old style French doors and all the creaks that come with a house of age. The Plantation type feel is lost once you enter the dungeonesque basement, complete with iffy lighting that India swats as she walks like low hanging school decorations.

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The film will not go without controversy though – it will not be universally loved. Chan-wook does not dilute his vision to appeal to North American audiences. His audacious and bombastic connections between female sexuality and violence, culminating in a shower sequence that very well may disturb quite a few, and may  have some screaming misogynist and sexist charges his way, and they may not even be wrong. But ultimately it is the same girl who ends up aware, and even gaining the upper hand, by the end of the film. Of course means to an end is hardly a defense but the seeds of India’s behavior are sown from the very beginning of the film, through another classic Chan-wook piece of imagery in a gift box. Seeing these exploited and maneuvered by Goode’s Charlie through the film you can see how the malleable India could be formed and shaped by his deeds into something more sinister than she may have if her father had lived and was around.

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In the end Stoker may not be a film for the masses. The unflinching portrait of a girl discovering the true meaning of her family and their dark secret, as well as discovering herself along the way, will be unsettling for some and possibly offensive to others. But for fans of Park Chan-wook, this is the film they have been praying his English debut would be. For fans of experimental and ground breaking cinema, who aren’t afraid of some violence mixed in, or fans of Park Chan-wook’s previous works, Stoker is a must see.

Movie Junkie TO

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The Last Stand Review (Kirk Haviland)

Photo Courtesy of Eone Entertainment
Photo Courtesy of Eone Entertainment

The Last Stand (2013)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Eduardo Noriega, Rodrigo Santoro, Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzmán, Peter Stormare and Genesis Rodriguez

Written by Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Goergeo Nolfi

Directed by Jee-Woon Kim

Making his first starring bow since leaving his office as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns this week with his new film: The Last Stand. The film also marks the English language debut of Korean director Jee-woon Kim, the director of atmospheric thriller “I Saw the Devil” and the western homage “The Good, The Bad and the Weird”. But will Jee-woon’s frenetic style mesh with the action veteran Schwarzenegger’s own signature style?

Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) moved out of Los Angeles and settled into a life fighting what little crime takes place in the sleepy border town of Sommerton Junction. But that peaceful existence is shattered when Gabriel Cortez (Noriega), the most wanted drug kingpin in the western hemisphere, makes a spectacular escape from an FBI prisoner convoy. With the help of a fierce band of lawless mercenaries led by the icy Burrell (Stormare), Cortez begins racing towards the US-Mexico border at 250 mph in a specially-outfitted Corvette ZR1, a hostage in tow. Cortez’ path is straight through Summerton Junction, where the whole of the U.S. law enforcement, including Agent John Bannister (Whitaker) will have their final opportunity to intercept him before the violent fugitive slips across the border forever. At first reluctant to become involved, Owens ultimately rallies his team and takes the matter into his own hands after a tragic encounter, which sets the stage for a classic showdown in the middle of Sommerton Junction.

Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment

The Last Stand is a film that knows very much what it is meant to do and who the film is targeted at, and boy does it delivers. Arnold is in classic mode here, with many sequences feeling like he is winking directly at the audience, all that is missing is an actual wink and an already lit stogie. The film title sequence is a broad animated sequence that lasts about 30 seconds as just when you are ready for a full out sequence it ends as abruptly as it started. This just sets the tone for an all-out, action packed 107 minutes of bullets and blood that will satisfy any action fan. Schwarzenegger’s welcome return is flanked by a handful of familiar faces: Knoxville, playing a local gun aficionado who coincidentally has a full arsenal that he makes available for the final shoot out; Stormare, the leader of the mercenary team helping Cortez escape; the always hilarious Guzmán, playing a bumbling deputy; and Forest Whitaker, the agent in charge of the case. Whitaker’s performance is noteworthy as he is full on tongue-in-cheek and hilariously over the top throughout.

Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment

Jee-Woon is very good at is staging action. The set pieces here all work very well and cater to Schwarzenegger’s capabilities. The sheer amount of blood exploding out of the very ‘juicy’ squibs used for the bullet wounds add a level of comic book mentality to the film and allows the audience to buy into the more comedic tone of the action. Schwarzenegger’s dispatching of a roof top mercenary is a stand-out among the sequences, as is Guzmán’s ‘hero moment’ in the film. The final chase through a cornfield ending on a knockdown, drag out fight on a bridge with traditional fisticuffs facing off against jujitsu is excellently staged and extremely satisfying. Car buffs will love the Corvette of Cortez’s and gawk in awe at how the film uses the vehicle as an escape device as well as weapon. The action here is also more “Expendables” that “Kindergarten Cop” in nature as it is extremely violent and not intended for small children as the 14a rating would suggest, and Jee-Woon revels in the freedom of this choice.

Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Eone Entertainment

An extremely satisfying North American debut form one of Korea’s rising stars, Jee-Woon makes the most of his opportunity in delivering a film very much influenced by his own “The Good, The Bad and The Weird”, with its western feel being set in a small town and a Sheriff refusing to back down. He is a very astute action director as Last Stand will attest to and with his compatriots in Chan-wook Park and Joon-Ho Bong also set for their English language debuts later this year, 2013 could be a breakout year for Korean cinema in mainstream North America. Full of plot inconsistencies with goofy dialogue and predictable story lines, The Last Stand is ‘technically’ not a great movie, but this film knows all this and plays to it, resulting an film that may end up one of the most fun times in a theatre this year. The Last Stand is a strong 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, festivals and film related events in Toronto.

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TKFF 2012 – Oldboy Review (Kirk Haviland)

Toronto Korean Film Festival 2012

Oldboy (2003)

Starring – Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong, Ji Dae-han and Kim Byeong-ok

Written by Hwang Jo-hyun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Lim Joon-hyung and Park Chan-wook (based on the Manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi)

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 one of my favorite Korean films of all time, Old Boy.

Oh Dae-su (Min-sik) has always been a troublemaker. We open in a police station where Dae-su has been brought in on a drunken disorderly charge. After a series of funny outbursts Dae-su is sprung by his high school friend No Joo-hwan (Dae-han). It’s also Dae-Su’s daughter’s birthday and as Joo-Hwan talks to Dae-su’s wife explaining that he will get Dae-su home he suddenly disappears from a crowded street. Dae-su wakes in a locked room without any explanation. This cell will be his home for the next 15 years. We watch as Dae-su goes through his routine inside the cell, occasionally getting dosed with knockout gas so that his sheets can be changed and his hair cut, as he fights depression and starts training and preparing for whenever he may get released by punching a solid brick wall. One day 15 years later Dae-su wakes up on a roof of a building in the exact same spot where he was taken 15 years earlier. A suicidal man stands on the ledge of the building ready to jump until Dae-su forcefully makes him listen to his tale. After his confession the man states he wants to tell his tale which prompts Dae-su to stand up and promptly leave without another word. Dae-su wanders the streets until he ends up in front of a restaurant when a homeless man gives him a phone and wallet full of cash with the simple statement “Don’t bother asking me anything, I know nothing”. Once entering the restaurant Dae-su meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong), a young server/cook who looks to help him, and after receiving a phone call from his captor promptly passes out. Dae-su ends up at Mi-do’s home and she becomes his accomplice in piecing together the missing 15 years. Eventually Dae-su meets with Lee Woo-jin (Ji-Tae) and his accomplice Mr Han (Byeong-ok). Woo-jin gives him 5 days to discover who he is and why he imprisoned him for 15 years. The story continues as Dae-su unravels the mystery and moves along to one of the most shocking twists in film history.

Choi Min-sik has never been better than he is as Oh Dae-su. If he truly is Korea’s Robert DeNiro (he is) then Oh Dae-su is his Jake Lamotta or Travis Bickle, or maybe more appropriately the two of them combined. Min-sik is simply brilliant in one of the greatest performances I have seen on-screen. Kang Hye-jeong’s Mi-do is the reason Dae-su comes back to reality and does not simply fly off the handle in an infinite fit of rage. The rest of the performances are just as solid throughout. Wook-park once again proves his mastery in casting and storytelling. Oldboy has become iconic for its hallway fight sequence, where Oh Dae-su decimates a small army with only a hammer in hand, and its stunning final sequence. But it’s the smaller sequences like those in the jail cell and the ever cryptic ending that flesh out the story and really drive the impact home.

Oldboy is one of what I like to call an “all-time top tenner” as I love it so much it will seemingly always have a spot on my all-time top ten films list and in many other top ten lists as well. I cannot recommend Oldboy strongly enough, it is an absolute must see.

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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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

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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Contact me at moviejunkieto@gmail.com

Toronto Korean Film Festival Preview (Kirk Haviland)

Toronto Korean Film Festival 2012

5 Reasons you need to check out the TKFF

This month brings the launch of a new film festival for us residents of “Festival City” aka Toronto. The Toronto Korean Film Festival runs from June 22nd until July 1st over 9 days and aims to introduce those not familiar to some of the best of Korean film. For its inaugural event the staff of TKFF have decided to feature a best of Korean Cinema lineup, rather than just new undiscovered cinema, as an introduction for the non-indoctrinated and to offer a rare chance to see these films on a theater screen to those who have seen them before at home. That said, I will now tell you the 5 reasons why I will be in attendance.

5 – Korean Culture. The festival organizers are just as motivated to introduce people to Korean culture in general as they are about its cinema. For those whose knowledge of Korean culture is derived mainly from its film, like myself, this is could be an intriguing opportunity to learn more about the country that inspired these cinematic gems.

4 – Quirky Comedy. Sunday the 24th  brings us a double bill of Korean comedy with Save the Green Planet and Invasion of  Alien Bikini. Green Planet is a TIFF Midnight Madness graduate that I saw back in 2003 about a man who kidnaps someone who he is convinced is an alien and his bumbling attempts to torture him into confessing it. Bikini is a film I have yet to see, but it’s been on my radar for a while, it’s about a female alien in need of sperm. Yes quirky is the key word here folks.

3 – Korean Horror. Sat the 25th gives us an exciting double bill of Korean horror that I haven’t seen, despite the fact that I actually own one the films! Eptitaph is a film set in a Korean hospital during the 1940’s and tells three different horrifying stories of events that occur in the hallways and rooms of the institution. A Tale of Two Sisters from 2003 is from one of Korea’s greatest new directors Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil; Foul King; and The Good, The Bad and the Weird) and was his first big smash crossover international hit. The creepy story of two doomed twin sisters is considered a classic of Korean genre cinema.

2 – Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. On Friday June 29th the TKFF will screen the critical smash hit Mother from another of Korea’s burgeoning directors Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder). The searing brilliant lead performances from its two lead actors (Kim Hye-ja as the titular Mother, and Bin Won) are a must see. This little mystery explores the bond between a mother and her son as her 28 year old developmentally challenged son is accused of murder, a charge she will literally do anything to clear him of. A brilliant 2009 festival smash, Mother is one of the gems of this fest.

And the number 1 reason…Park Chan-wook appreciation/closing night. July 1st closes the festival with bang as we get one of my favorite films of all-time playing that night, the second entry in the famed “Vengeance” trilogy, Oldboy, and its follow up Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Both films feature brilliant acting performances from the incomparable Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy and Mr. Beak in Lady Vengeance. Oldboy is brilliant filmmaking with an unbelievable ending that will stun and amaze. Lady Vengeance is more of a character piece with a strong lead performance from Lee Yeong-ae. This is visual proof of Park’s brilliance and absolute must see films on a theater screen. If you attend only one evening of the festival, this is it.

As I stated earlier, the festival runs from June 22nd to July 1st.  All screenings are located at the Innis Town Hall, on the U of T campus, at 2 Sussex Ave. For ticket availability and pricing please visit their website at TKFF.

I hope to see some of you readers join me in celebrating Korean film.

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.

Follow me on twitter @moviejunkieto

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