Cute and the Boxer – a review

cutieandtheboxer

Zachary Heinzerling’s charmingly intimate documentary dives inside the world of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a Japanese artist couple living in New York. On the surface, a colourful and light-hearted journey through the life and times of eccentric Ushio, his highs and lows as an artist, but behind the splashes of paint and easy smiles is a story of love and sacrifice played out over four decades.

Ushio Shinohara punches his way onto the screen as we witness, in a wonderful opening sequence, his unique take on art and what first brought fame knocking at his door in the 60s/70s. This sets the tone for a beautifully shot and perfectly paced piece of documentary filmmaking.

Heinzerling combines animation, old ‘home movie’ footage and intimately shot observations to paint his picture of Ushio and Noriko’s life together. The premise is Ushio’s final attempt, at the ripe old age of 80, to cement his legacy as a relevant artist in New York’s contemporary art scene. However, what we discover as this relationship unfolds is, as the director himself says, it’s ‘Noriko’s story that drives the narrative arc of the film’.

The seemingly timid wife of an extrovert showman, Noriko rapidly reveals a sharper edge as she openly belittles and mocks her husband apparently for the benefit of the camera. This comes across as endearing and strangely romantic and has you smiling and laughing along as they exchange the kind of insults that can only live in a 40-year marriage. As our time with the Shinoharas continues the strange looks and pauses, which at first are comical, become far more telling as more and more is learnt about their past. Through Noriko’s hand-drawn artwork, her eponymous ‘Cutie’ series, an appreciation begins to develop of the gravity belying her comments towards her husband.

This is a good journey and shows that Heinzerling clearly has talent as a storyteller but not only are the lines between art and domesticity blurred with the relationship between Ushio and Noriko but also between that of viewer and voyeur. It’s not that the film is exploitative, far from it, but there are moments, particularly involving the son Alex, that verge on uncomfortable as you no longer know whether it’s OK to be watching what your being shown.

‘Cutie and the Boxer’ is enjoyable and packs a punch in more ways than one with beautiful utilisation of modern digital cinematography to immerse the audience in the chaotic world of these artists. But there remains something unsettling about the truths that it only flirts with uncovering. One scene, again shown through old home movie footage, is particularly moving as Ushio finally breaks down and cries inconsolably, ‘It’s we that suffer the most for art‘.

The film’s closing sequence matches in brilliance that of the opening, there’s no better visual display of the relationship between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara than the two of them smacking nine bells out of one another in beautiful multi-coloured slow motion!

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Escape Plan – a review

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Escape Plan is a marriage made in heaven as two 80s action icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, roll back the years to fight their way out of the US government’s latest maximum security prison. Sounds good right…

Well, have you ever followed a recipe, got all your ingredients neatly laid out in front of you, pre-heated the oven to just the right temperature, gone through each step with meticulous attention to detail, served it up, your mouth a’ quivering with anticipation, only for it to taste awful? Just. Plain. Awful.

You check back to your cookbook, surely you must’ve missed something, left out one crucial ingredient. But no, you followed the recipe to the letter, all the ingredients were present and correct. So what happened??

You just watched Escape Plan, that’s what happened.

Arnie. Sly. In a movie. Together. Surely that’s the formula for an absolutely delicious viewing experience. But there in lies the rub. This is formulaic filmmaking and at its very worst. Unapologetic in its ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to storytelling it moves through the narrative gears with the clunky uncertainty of a clapped-out old Skoda. More sexed-up TV show than long awaited Hollywood blockbuster, the ‘cool’ graphics, used to emphasise Devlin’s (Stallone) keen eye for identifying the weak points in a prison’s defences, just feels like a cheap gimmick.

Arnie seemed old and tired (maybe that Governor’s desk took its toll) as he struggled to match Stallone’s commitment to the cause. Which, it’s briefly worth mentioning, was the only thing that (came close to) carrying the film. The pay-off was cheap and ultimately amounted to a self-referential, albeit enjoyable, slow-motion moment when Arnie finally picks up a big gun and opens up on the bad guys. OK, this was fun and everyone in the cinema enjoyed it but it was the only moment in the entire film that garnered that reaction from the audience, any kind of reaction for that matter.

Then, as if to plug the sprawling canyons in the plot, a succession of A-Listers are wheeled out at strategic intervals as our supporting ‘characters’: Sam Neill as the guilt-ridden prison doctor; Jim Caviezel the pantomime dictator Governor and Vincent D’Onofrio as Stallone’s two-dimensionally OCD business partner. And then there’s 50 Cent. Best not even mention him. Actually, we should. Then we don’t have to mention Vinnie Jones. OK. Well, 50 Cent is in this film. And his teeth are very white.

It’s upsetting that this film was such a terrible disappointment but where Expendables and, particularly, Expendables 2 work so well is in their ability to recognise and play to their strengths. Maybe Escape Plan just has no strengths but the only enjoyable moments in it are those self-aware and tongue-in-cheek glimpses where they give the audience what they came to see: our action heroes doing what they do best. Action.

And yet, and yet, just as you’re questioning your undying love for Arnie and Sly, a momentary peak at that self-referential magic that makes the ‘geriaction’ resurgence so magnificent. When the plot twist at the end is revealed Sly turns to Arnie and flippantly says, ‘well, I didn’t see that coming’, Arnie retorts, ‘well, you should have’. This is either wonderful in-joke irony or just appalling dialogue, either way it’s great and makes you think again about what you’ve just sat through. Were they joking the whole time? If only there had been more moments like that one…but there weren’t.

Sadly, the only Escape Plan worth seeing was the route out of the cinema. And fast.

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Rurouni Kenshin – a review

Kenshin

Director Keishi Otomo’s second feature, Rurouni Kenshin is a bold and ambitious live-action adaptation of the celebrated manga and anime series of the same name (for those unfamiliar with Japanese animation: manga = comic book, anime = cartoon).

It’s late 19th Century Japan, the dawn of the post-shogunate Meiji period, as the film opens with the final throws of a decisive battle as rebel forces fight to oust the remaining warlord’s armies. Among these rebels is ‘Battosai the Killer’, a feared assassin, his deadly skills with the samurai sword renowned. We’re shown his prowess with the sword as he slices through all those in his path with a chilling calm and clinical accuracy.

When challenged to a duel by fellow samurai Saito, who fights for the other side, the Emperor’s banner is suddenly raised and the war is over. Battosai’s mission is complete and he renounces killing, refusing Saito’s challenge and planting his sword deep into the ground. As he staggers away from the battlefield we get the first glimpse of the dichotomy that is Battosai: part killing machine, part man.

Ten years later we meet Kenshin Himura, a wanderer who cuts a remarkable likeness to our old friend Battosai the Killer. We learn that Kenshin carries a sword, which is strictly forbidden in this new post-samurai era, but that his sword is not quite what it seems. This is Kenshin’s ‘back-blade’, a customised weapon that has the cutting blade on the wrong side, so he cannot kill. This serves as the ultimate reminder of Kenshin’s past and symbolizes his journey throughout the film, as Saito later tells him, ‘the weapon that faces towards you, one day will hurt you’.

As Kenshin (literally) leaps to the aid of local girl Kaoru, he is embroiled in a battle against maniacal crime boss Kanryuu and his evil minions. An unlikely and charming partnership forms with mercenary street fighter Sanosuke and sees Kenshin in an all-out war to save Kaoru in a thrilling and action-packed finale.

And it’s the action that ultimately decides the film’s success. Although we have the love story between Kaoru and Kenshin, and the main narrative of his quest for redemption, it’s the stunning action scenes that make this a convincing and enjoyable conversion from animated series to the big screen.

The decision to keep the live-action ‘live’ was a good one with no (or extremely limited) wire work, camera tricks or CGI to propel the fight scenes but instead the actors, wherever possible, performing their own stunts. This lends itself to a more believable and engaging action sequence, as we see that actor Takeru Satoh (Kenshin) is actually dicing with death and dishing out justice himself rather than a stunt double in a dodgy wig.

Although some of the characterisations come across more as caricatures, villain Kanryuu especially, this is an adaptation of a manga/anime series so it plays into the authenticity of the film and belies its dedication to the original. This dedication is no better evidenced than in the first meeting of Kaoru and Kenshin, which is close to a direct replica of the corresponding scene from the opening episode of the anime series.

Despite its dedication to the original, sumptuous cinematography and impressively realistic action sequences it’s the overt and laboured delivery of its core message that lets Rurouni Kenshin down slightly.

‘Can you help those that you love and seek to protect without killing?’

This is Kenshin’s ultimate struggle and although it is a beautifully choreographed journey it is overplayed, with it being painfully spelt out on numerous occasions throughout the film. None worse than the climactic sequence, as Kaoru repeatedly screams at Kenshin that he doesn’t need to kill again, which would have had more visceral impact had we not already had this message drilled into us over the preceding two hours.

Where it lets itself down through repetition of its core themes, Rurouni Kenshin more than compensates with its beautiful aesthetic and an enjoyable roster of young character actors. Once you get over the initial clash between the conventions of live-action filmmaking and the absolute freedom of an animated world then you are in for an exhilarating ride through post-samurai Japan at the hands of Keishi Otomo. And you are in capable hands.

Die-hard fans, as is always the case, will find holes to pick in any adaptation but the true success of this attempt is that it works as a stand-alone film. Whether you’re a fan of the original, know something of Japanese animation or have no previous on Rurouni Kenshin whatsoever, this film is an enjoyable piece of cinema in its own right.

The final word goes to Nobuhiro Watsuki, the author of the manga on which the film is based, ‘it does the original justice’.

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