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Originally Appearing In: The Varsity

As The Raid: Redemption’ssolemn, obsidian hued opening sequence rolls, one can only feel a sense of doom when we see the ambitious Indonesian tactical response team member Rama (Iko Uwais) commence his Billy Blanks style morning workout. Although Indonesian martial art enthusiast/ director Gareth Evan’s latest film Raid is being labelled as a martial arts action film, it is Evan’s eye for detail, dark visual aesthetic, and penchant for splattering brain matter that make the Raid the most refreshing action film to come about in recent years.

Raid follows the well acted Rama and his tactical unit’s deadly mission to shut down a dilapidated apartment complex that functions as both a safe house for crack heads and the head office of a drug lord. Once Rama and team enter the complex, Evan’s amps up the notch on the brain-splat-o-meter to 11 and the brisk carnage that ensues is somehow nothing short of delightful.

Rama and his team navigate the henchmen addled hallways, engaging in mesmerizing fight sequences choreographed by Uwais and the drug lord’s psychopathic sidekick Mad Dog(Yayan Ryhian). Using the traditional Indonesian martial art form Silat, Uwais and Ryhian’s skilful direction of teams of machete wielding henchmen and their break neck speed skirmishes are an excellent return to everything good in action films before giant C.G. transforming robots made mind numbing blurry fight sequences acceptable.

But don’t let this old approach fool you, because knives, hammers, and even two by fours with nails are used for innovative cranium bashing fights that would give any MPAA member nightmares. The Varsity caught up with Evans to talk about his unique brand of action in Raid.

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BB

Raid is your second time working with martial art actor Iko Uwais. What can you tell us about your relationship with Uwais?

Gareth Evans

I met Iko for the first time when I was working on a documentary out in Indonesia. He was just a delivery guy for a phone company first and he was a student of Silat. The moment I saw him practicing Silat it was an instant thing where we recognized he had a screen presence about him. Its almost like he has this kind of outside camera where he knows how he’s going to look when he performs. Its very natural and sort of graceful to look at. I really enjoy that juxtaposition of these graceful movements that end with this seriously aggressive attack position. In terms of working with him [Iko]- I guess we both come into this with the same background and learning experiences as well.

BB

I’ve coined the term brain-splatter-action for your films. Do you have any concerns about the violence in your film being misunderstood?

Gareth Evans

I mean, we know that the film is violent, but my goal is always to be aware of there being a certain line that we don’t cross. It’s aggressive up to a point, but for me it never tips over into the spot where it becomes repulsive and that’s really important. I didn’t want to make the audience disgusted with the violence but ah, well this sounds awful, but it’s almost like a certain comfort zone in terms of how the violence is portrayed. With the exception of 1 or 2 shots, we don’t linger on anything. We hit you really hard, really fast in a way.

BB

How did you work with Uwais and Ryhian’s to make the fight sequences?

Gareth Evans

Well the three of us would work shop the fight scenes together. I would come in in the morning and then I’ll get set up and I’ll say something like “Iko you’ve got a knife and stick and an injured cop on your shoulder, and you’re in the corridor space, its two meters wide, every time people attack you from the front, the back or the side, you have to shift your body weight because he [the cop] can’t stand up on his feet”. So that’s the situation and then I’ll say “now fight your way out of it”. Then they have to fill in the blanks then: which punches, which kicks, which blocks, which throws. We workshop it together- it’s the equivalent of two musicians who are working on something and one of them hits a wall and sends it to the other guy to see if he can add anything new or more to it.

BB

Your film is being hailed as one of the best action films to come out in recent years. How do you feel about the hype?

Gareth Evans

We’ve been overwhelmed by the way things have gone, and blown away from the reaction we’ve gotten. I don’t feel we’ve done anything that new in the genre. I’m just riffing on films that I’ve grown up watching, that I still love watching to this day. My tastes and approach to shooting action are old fashioned in a way. The films I use as reference are from the 80’s and the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. What I love about those films is that you get a sense of clarity and detail from the way that they’re shot and edited. You saw somebody firing a machine gun? You knew exactly where each of those bullets hit, you know? There’s that detail to them [action films] that have gone missing lately.

Originally Appearing: The Varsity Cities Magazine

VIDEODROME (1983)

Before David Cronenberg made any promises to the East, he was better known as the Canadian director with the affinity for blood, guts, and an unapologetic love for his home city. His Toronto city symphony Videodrome shows a classic Cronenbergian descent into insanity, framed with TTC cars and visits to Spadina store fronts circa 1980.
RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004)
After cringing at the unresolved plot of the first Resident Evil film, I was very surprised to see Resident Evil: Apocalypse made. Still, Apocalypse gets points for parading Central Tech, the Gardiner Express way, and essentially every nook and cranny of Toronto as the zombie ridden Raccoon City. With its climatic fight sequence at City Hall, Apocalypse is Torontonian in all its efforts.

HALF BAKED (1998)

The goofy stoner bro comedy Half Baked is remembered by many as a better introduction to script writer Sir Smoke-a-lot’s (Dave Chappelle) comedic flare. Still, any Torontonian, seriously stoned or sober, can’t miss the and iconic Sam the Record Man sign or Yonge street Pizza Pizza shop that serves as the back drop for a police horse’s death by junk food.

GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (1970)

Don Shebib’s Goin Down the Road is an oldie but goody and the best part about this Canadian landscape film is that it proudly grounds itself in our city.  Distinctly Torontonian in all its facets, Goin Down also goes to show that Yonge Street had a hell of a lot more of strip clubs in the 70’s.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)

One of the best things about screen adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that like its source material, Scott Pilgrim does not use Toronto to represent bigger or arguably bolder cities than our own. The beauty of Scott Pilgrim lies in its visits to Lee’s Palace and the Toronto Reference Library, all of which boost its status to an affectionately Torontonian film.

Watching Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s film adaptation of the popular 80’s T.V. show 21 Jump Street, one can only be reminded of Wes Craven’s teen-slasher parody Scream. In1996, Scream proved successful because its sardonic style was an unflinching portrayal of Hollywood’s climax in the dry predictability of its youth oriented films. JumpStreet is a playful, yet painful, example of the complacency filmmakers have come to find in Scream’s mockingly strait faced style.

The Jump Street T.V. series aired from 1989-1991, and was a police procedural drama that investigated the crimes and issues affecting teens. Lord and Miller’s Jump Street (cooperatively penned by Lord, Miller, Jonah Hill, and Michael Bacall) tries to replicate and amp up this journey into youth culture by bringing Jump Streetto the 21stCentury. In Jump Streetwe see Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill), an Eminem wannabe high school geek and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), an all American football Jock, reunited years later in police academy only to overcome the friendship barriers between nerd and socialite.

Schmidt and Jenko get assigned a mission by the extraordinarily profane Captain Dickenson (Ice Cube) to infiltrate a high school drug ring, which is complicated by their having to navigate the drastically evolved high school culture of the present. Jump Street hits a similar note as previous high school expose flicks like Brick (2006)and The Assassination of a High School President(2008) and shows that Lord and Miller’s adept ability to deride teenage mores hasn’t faltered since their Clone High years.

 Jump Street makes goofy comments on the eco friendly and oddly accepting nature of teens today and it’s in these moments that the film shows that it couldhave something good to say. But Jump Street doesn’t follow these currents for very long, often getting lost in improbable slap stick sequences that function as time killers. Most surprising is that for a film that shows that its writers are so in tune with teenage trends, Jump Street takes dangerously non-chalant attitude towards issues of teenage gun violence (Hill and Tatum go to prom strapped from the neck down with weapons). However, Hill and Tatum’s humping suspects amongst other funny antics is just funny enough to make their shenanigans enjoyable for the most part, instead of just a comical allusion to the ignorance that pervades those who we choose to serve and protect.

Watching Human Rights

Human Rights Watch is one of the most prominent independent human rights organizations, and it is dedicated to standing with victims and activists to prevent discrimination and uphold political justice. This is by no means an easy undertaking and the 2012 HRW International Film festival at the Bell TIFF LIghtbox is a testament to this organization’s drive for the emancipation of disadvantaged and tyrannized individuals worldwide.  Alex Rogalski, head programmer of the HRW festival alongside Helga Stephenson, explains that the partnership between HRW and TIFF is a natural choice for these films that deal with issues of such a demanding nature.“TIFF’s mandate is to change the way people see the world through film” says Rogalski, and “HRW is an independent organization committed to protecting human rights…the film festival gives them the opportunity to put a real human face on the issues their researchers are putting importance on”.

Possibly one of the most fascinating things about HRW’s steadfast mission is their stance as an active agency who also uses films and media as a means of calling attention to oppression to injustice. When asked if there have been any notable developments that have come about as a result of the HRW festival, Rogalski mentions this years’ Granito: How to Nail a Dictator as a prominent example. Director Pamela Yates’s decade spanning documentary features the only known footage of the Guatemalan army’s genocide of the Mayan peoples, and was used as evidence in an international war crimes case.

Still, the HWR festival’s irreplaceable value lies in its most base effort: to raise awareness of the issues that harrow societies and people ever closer and increasingly interrelated to our continent, all in an effort to put an end to injustice on a world wide scale.

The Price of Sex (2011)

Director: Mimi Charkova

Country: USA, United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey

Explaining that she left while still a youth, The Price of Sexdirector and human rights activist Mimi Charkova shows us grainy footage of her as a young girl dancing in the street her native Bulgaria. There is nothing joyous about these scenes, which quickly become eerie as Charkova’s sombre tone introduces the topic of her documentary.

It is in this dark manner that Price grounds itself, the only mode that can be used to discuss the disturbingly bolstered world of human sex trafficking that exists today. Charkova connects with sex trade survivors, most of whom explain the trickery used by traffickers in order to force victims to believe that this archaic form of human bondage is their only chance to escape their conditions of extreme poverty. Charkova goes to great and daring lengths to give us candid access to the red light districts of countries like Turkey and Dubai in which sex slaves, pimps, and police frequent as customers and proprietors alike.

Charkova gives us unfathomable access to an underworld supported by the very people appointed to protect, and risks her own life to meet face to face with the clients and pimps who enslave, exploit, and break the souls of unsuspecting women and girls. Price exists as more than a project, but instead a divine plea for the voices of thousands untraceable women to be heard.

Color of the Ocean (2011)

Director: Maggie Peren

Country: Germany, Spain

German writer/director Maggie Peren’s has a keen and intense eye, and it is this passionate gaze that is illuminated by the troubling societal issues she weaves together in Color of the OceanColour starts off with José (Alez Gonzalez), a tense Spanish police officer who is morally conflicted as to whether to give solace to his heroin addicted twin sister’s dependence.

Meanwhile the vivacious Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo) and her controlling boyfriend Paul (Friedrich Mücke)take alavish vacation on the Spanish coast, but Nathalie’s ignorant bliss is thrown off course when a group of dangerously dehydrated African refugees crash land on a beach she is sunbathing on. The borders that divide these characters in Color are obvious: societal status, money, and in the case of the two crash landed African refugees Zola (Hubert Koundè) and his young son Mamadou (Dami Adeeri), citizen status.

Still, it is Peren’s persistence to transgress these divides that unifies Color as a tale about the alienation and relentless struggle for basic survival shared amongst refugees, those who enforce the laws, and those who live within them. Impeccably well acted, the cast in Ocean shows us that fighting for the life and rights of others is paramount to coming to terms with our own.

This is My Land Hebron (2010)

Director: Guilia Amati and Stephen Natanson

Country: Italy, Israel

After being annexed by Israel in the late1960’s, Hebron’s Jewish settlements now manage to almost completely occupy the largest city in the middle of the occupied West Bank. Arabs still live in Hebron in small numbers and as documentarians Guilia Amati and Stephen Natanson show in This is my Land…Hebron, the utter hate and disrespect for life that Arabs experience on a daily basis is unfathomable.

Caged behind protective wire, Amati and Natanson interview various Arab residents of Hebron’s Palestinian sector who show us the struggles they endure just to perform simple acts like going to school or the market. Amati and Natanson’s exposé becomes most distressful when begin to include testimonies from Israeli’s and ex-Israeli soldiers who speak about the injustices and chaos they have witnessed as a result of the occupation. These moments echo the loudest, as they show that Amati and Natanson’s docu holds no moral high ground in this conflict that spans decades. Instead, Hebronstands a desperate mantra for action to be taken against the hate, brutality, and dehumanization in the streets of Hebron regardless of religion, race, Jewish or Hebrew status.

As a television screen of rough images opens and closes Hebron, it’s clear that Amati and Natanson’s message far exceeds just the issues in Hebron, but also speaks to our removal and great indifference to the injustice we see on the T.V. and our lack of inaction.

I had a really fun time studying Studio Ghibli’s style while writing this piece about the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli retrospective. For our research, my colleague Damanjit Lamba and I got the chance to interview retrospective programmer and head of film programmes at the Lightbox Jesse Wente to get some better insight on the history and mission behind Ghibli’s efforts.

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Brandon and Damanjit: People often botch the pronunciation of the Studio. How do you say Studio Ghibli?

Jesse: It is in fact pronounced Studio Ghibli (jib-lie), which is the correct pronunciation from Miyazaki San himself. It’s one of those weird things where I think it’s a studio name that for so many years people haven’t said, they’ve just seen.

Brandon: How Has Disney and Pixar’s exclusive North American distribution of Ghibli films been beneficial to the Studio?

Jesse: It’s an incredibly unique position, and I think it’s been hugely beneficial to Studio Ghibli’s influence in the world, and in the world of cinema in particular and I applaud them [Disney]. Disney has been a huge support to us  in having this series here, they’ve been incredibly generous in us having these films because to them it’s part of their mission to make sure these films are seen by people. When we first opened the building this series was one of the dreams that we would someday mount [in the Bell Tiff Lightbox]. Quite frankly I thought it was going to be years and years away because it’s a really monumental task to get both original language and dubbed versions of these films together. The Pixar relationship has been hugely beneficial to Ghibli and has in no way impeached their [Ghibli’s] voice. They [Studio Ghibli] still produce exactly the same types of films they produced 20 years ago.

Damanjit: Where do you think that Ghibli’s aesthetic fits in the changing sphere of Japanese animation?

Jesse: It really does stand apart. I mean, it’s very interesting to have a studio, which Ghibli very much is. It [Ghibli] employs hundreds of people and artists working on these films for years and years- it’s a studio in the way we think of studio. Yet as a company it has an auteur aesthetic, in the sense that the movies are all of a kind and in a like. It’s really unique to animation because of the products they churn out. I think that Ghibli always really stood in connection into animation but also very distinctly apart. While they do have talking animals and action sequences that one would normally associate with Japanese animation, they are somewhat of a different sort. I think that comes from the stories, they take very traditional Japanese myths and stories and transfer them to animation in a way you don’t normally see otherwise.

Brandon: What are your 3 must see Studio Ghibli films?

Jesse: Wow, uh geez. The first one I ever saw is the very first one: Nausicaa, which I would have seen probably in the late 80s early 90s. Nausicaa, at that time, was really quite legendry. Legendary and hard to find. I still think it’s one of their grandest statements. I just think its a stunningly beautiful movie, it really announces their [Ghibli’s] arrival in a way that I think is sort of amazing. I would then put My Neighbor Totoro, which is my all time favourite Ghibli movie. To be honest with you it makes me cry every time-

Damanjit: Totally agree with you there!

Jesse: It’s such a beautiful film. What I love now as a parent, which I didn’t appreciate when I saw the film, is that movies like Totoro are really hard to find in North America that have that sensibility and speak to kids in that way and present the world that that film does. After that I’d probably say Spirited Away. It’s probably their most popular movie in North America, and I remember when it was nominated for the Oscars and it was sort of like ‘where else would this movie have come from but Studio Ghibli’?

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Watching a crackling fire named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) talk in Howl’s Moving Castle is proof that director Hayao Miyazaki really can breathe life into anything.  Combining magic, technology, and science Howl follows the tradition of other Studio Ghilbi masterpieces with its abundant fluidity, refusing to ground itself in one particular representation of an alternate world.

Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a teenaged hat maker is whimsically cursed by the benevolent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), and turned into an old woman. In the quest to reverse her transformation Sophie comes across the soft spoken Adonis wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who’s dark and tortured soul desperately seeks restitution.

Watching a crackling fire named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) talk in Howl’s Moving Castle is proof that director Hayao Miyazaki really can breathe life into anything.  Combining magic, technology, and science Howl follows the tradition of other Studio Ghilbi masterpieces with its abundant fluidity, refusing to ground itself in one particular representation of an alternate world. Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a teenaged hat maker is whimsically cursed by the benevolent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), and turned into an old woman.

In the quest to reverse her transformation Sophie comes across the soft spoken Adonis wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who’s dark and tortured soul desperately seeks restitution. With his penchant and awe inspiring ability to make heaps of scrap metal and glossy steam punk machines behave like metallic organisms with minds of their own, Miyazaki showcases the beauty of the synergy that exists between humankind and technology, and the sordid darkness  that pervades our destructively futile uses for it.

-BB

 

 

I’ve been covering Bell Tiff Lightbox’s Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli event for the last week or so. This 60 year old Japanese studio is renowned for putting out films which look totally unique, are meticulously crafted, and pretty much always guaranteed to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Trying to sum a film in 150 words isn’t easy- and trying to do this with a Ghibli film is damn near impossible. Speaking with Jesse Wente, head of Film Programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox, about this legendary and prolific Studio’s aims was greatly helpful though. Still trying to find the words, no, the right words to sum up Howl’s Moving Castle, Jesse insight is of great and haunting value.

“The common element is really about people. And I think that’s one of the interesting things about Ghibli. They have tons of talking animals but unlike a studio like Pixar, which doesn’t typically always deal with people a central characters, Ghibli always does. I would describe it as a humanist movie studio, and outside of them I’m not sure there is another one [a humanist studio]. Their primary concern is our experience and our interactions with each other, the world around us on this planet. They often relate to history or mythology, or the stories we tell. But they always mange to tell those themes. They all say the same thing, which is that we’re all very much tied to what is going on around us and that we need to be more aware of the footprints we leave in the world.”

Universal Studios’ latest Dr. Seuss screen adaptation The Lorax was released on Friday March 2 to commemorate what would be the deceased Seuss’ 108th birthday. Seuss, an internationally renowned American cartoonist, is remembered best for his vibrant and iridescent characters and Martian landscapes which have proven timeless. Despite his young readership, Seuss’ works are anything but childish and often sport mature and unexpected themes on everything from the dangers of materialism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) to anti-authoritarianism and Hitler (Horton Hears a Who). With a multimillion dollar niche for intelligent animated children’s films in full swing, it’s surprising that in 2012 Lorax is only the second fully computer animated Seuss adaptation.

Lorax takes place mostly in the playfully dystopian city of Thneed-Ville where trees are electronic spectacles powered by 96 batteries. Ted (Zac Efron) is an inquisitive 12-year-old who desperately wants the affection of Audrey (Taylor Swift), and to do so tries to get his hands on the last Truffula tree (picture a delicious palm tree that is made out of cotton candy). To do so he has to visit the fabled Once-ler (Ed Helms), who warns Ted of abusing nature and the forest’s goofy guardian the Lorax (Danny DeVito).

Although Lorax is every environmentalist’s worst nightmare, the cutesy cacotopian Thneed-Ville’s would certainly make George Orwell giggle. The visuals are stunning and being the first Seuss adaptation in 3D,Lorax shows a how 21st century sensibility could enhance Seuss’ psychedelic imagery. The real problem with Loraxis that the film follows too close to Seuss’ story book plot and the impact of archetypal characters like the Once-ler and the Lorax are too predictable and tame.  Seuss himself said that he liked to be “subversive as hell” because “kids can see a moral coming a mile off”. Even with a big name cast and luscious visuals, Loraxfails to really titillate because of it’s subpar musical score and lazy approach to Seuss’ subversively simple innovation.

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