Christopher Haskell (xas5)Studio City. CA
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"Cutie And The Boxer" is the story of the artistic couple, Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, living in their Manhattan flat attempting to make ends meet through their art. Having moved from Japan to the United States, Ushio found slight stardom from his transition into the New York art scene. His sculptures made from recycled cardboard and his paintings made from his boxing with a canvas made him someone to watch. In 1969, Ushio met Noriko and 40 years later, they're still married. However, Noriko seems to have regrets, having dealt with Ushio's alcoholism and living in his professional shadow, being an aspiring artist herself. The documentary follows the couple in their everyday life, eating dinner with their son at their home, arguing on an elevator on the way to their studio, and painting alongside one another, supporting each others work along the way. While Ushio takes out his aggressions with boxing gloves and paint on canvas, Noriko finds solace in her passive aggressive series of paintings featuring a naked woman named Cutie and an abusive, alcoholic husband named Bullie.
My favorite part of the film is the slow motion paint-ladened boxing match between the couple at the end of the film. There's something so poetic about this sequence and really ties the film together, grounding it in the beauty and messiness of art. Acclaimed at last year's Sundance and recognized as a nominee at the 86th Academy Awards, "Cutie And The Boxer" sets out to present something unique by way of the couple's art but their personal struggles end up front and center. At a short 82 minutes long and designed as more of a character study, this couple and their squabbles are tolerable in small doses. You wonder why the couple is still together, but then you realize a universal truth about relationships and the struggles of human nature and monogamy, no matter how much you love someone, you are never going to get along with them all the time. This is summed up by an innocent conversation between the two regarding their pseudo-characters in Noriko's paintings: "Cutie hates Bullie?" "No, Cutie loves Bullie so much."
Turning an inanimate object into the main antagonist of a story is a huge accomplishment, especially when it comes to horror. Setting the right tone and building enough tension to get the audience invested in your otherwise outrageous ideas is pivotal in bringing that world to life. In "Oculus", the inanimate villain is an ancient mirror that plagues the families that it comes into contact with. "You see what it wants you to see", as the tagline insists. In the same regards, the audience sees what director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan wants you to see, in his highly stylized editing sequences that blends two narratives into one. Interconnecting the story of two siblings recounting their childhood traumas involving the mirror while attempting to prove the existence of a paranormal presence within it, the lines between the narratives are so blended that you are never sure what timeframe you are in. We are in the middle of an original horror renaissance, following the success of films like "Insidious" and "The Conjuring", allowing early masters like Flanagan a chance to step up and shine sooner rather than later in their career.
Karen Gillan stands out as the star of the film. As read from a Moviefone review, "Gillan is ready to be a movie star" which is absolutely apparent in this role. She nails her emotional marks no matter what they may be, making this unbelievable tale appear that much more authentic by way of investing fully in her character. The other stand out performance comes from the young Annalise Basso, who plays Gillan's character as a child. Bringing out some of the best scares of the film, Basso has the look that makes everything scarier through her eyes. Her small stature along with her red locks makes you cringe when bad things are about to happen to her and she really pulls off the intense emotions just as well as her adult counterparts.
In the distorted reality of "Oculus", pulling off a band-aid results in you pulling off your fingernail or stabbing what you believe to be the ghost could result in you stabbing a loved one. These are the tactics Flanagan uses to shock the viewer and craft his world and it works. Building some of the most memorable horror sequences of this decade, I will not soon forget a perfectly framed shot of Gillan biting into what she believes to be an apple and the utter shock that follows. Flanagan and his cinematographer have an eye for horror, mastering the placement of the camera for maximum effect, whether it is the high angle shots above the mirror, diminishing its characters in front of it, or a close-up on Gillan standing in the dark, with LED lights lined down the hallway behind her. Even the design of the mirror is elaborate, looking like a giant blemish sprawled out on the office wall that it inhabits. There is a richness to the film that makes it extremely approachable and that much more intense, allowing for a much more encompassing experience.
Mike Flanagan produces some of the most visually stunning and eerie set pieces in recent memory. Replacing gore with an overall feeling of dread, "Oculus" becomes more of a psychological thriller rather than straight up horror. Although many will state that the ending is telegraphed, I was in complete shock and awe when it happened, having been so wrapped up in the characters and their plight that I had no time to imagine where it would end. Masterfully handled, Flanagan also shows his utility in developing a horror film with an open ending that could easily spawn a sequel. With low budget roots and its heart in the right place, "Oculus" wins by being the most original horror film in recent memory.
Christopher's Favorite Movies
I cannot express enough how touching and deeply thought out this film is. The performances are perfect all around, especially from Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger and the plot, though structurally challenging as it may present itself, is worth the second or third viewing to soak in all the film's maze-like qualities. Wicker Park is truly the most heartfelt film I feel I have ever seen, with each music choice placed perfectly throughout to evoke emotion from every action and reaction. One of my all-time favorite films.