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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Raze (Waller, 2013)

June 25th 2014 03:52



A brutal, no-holds barred dive into an arena of death in which women battle one another with only their fists and survival instincts, Raze (2013) is not for the faint-hearted. Unashamedly exploitative and B-grade, Josh C. Waller’s film will either be perceived as hateful, misogynistic fare or an allegory for female empowerment. The central figure of this bloody drama is Sabrina, played with relish by Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman and occasional actress best known for her work on Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007). It’s Sabrina journey through the round robin stages of combat as the ranks of contenders are whittled away to a pulverised two that commands our attention. Bell’s emoting is limited but her lack of inhibition and strong physical presence make up for these deficiencies. Waller and his co-writer Robert Beaucage immediately drop us into his nightmarish scenario with Jamie (Rachel Nichols) as she wakes to find herself prone in a blank corridor. Soon, her opponent enters; she grasps for a perceived ally but of course, she’ll need to kill to survive thanks to the whims of a puppetmaster, Joseph (Doug Jones) and his equally twisted wife, Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn), a former winner of their yearly contest. A handful of retrospective snatches relate the ways in which the chief protagonists were snatched from their real lives, but Waller’s chief arm is to create carnage without a repertoire of weaponry or computer assistance. Raze is resolutely old-school and even if the dialogue is generally underwhelmingly bland and hardly insightful, the rawness of his premise is fully realised thanks to some willing participants, especially Bell as the credible, ruthless Sabrina. Composer Frank Riggio‘s low-budget score is another shrewdly utilised element, his contributions often ramping up the drama to invest moments of wordless, brutal contemplation an unlikely, near Tarantino-esque sense of ‘cool’. Though it’ll never win mainstream critical plaudits, Raze is at least a memorably original guilty-pleasure contender - not to mention a propulsive, visceral throwback to a more uncompromising form of storytelling that’s all too rare these days.












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With his first documentary feature Zachary Heinzerling has produced an exceptional piece of cinema: an intimate glimpse into the ordinary domestic lives of a married couple, a pair of Japanese artists whose disparate approaches to subject matter is but one of the fascinating insights into their working methodology. Venturing to America 40 years ago, Ushio Shinohara became the subject of much attention in the art world for his conceptual approach to painting and sculpture. His best known approach can be appreciated in his prolific ‘boxing’ paintings, in which he straps on a pair of boxing gloves dipped in paint and bashes away on a large canvas to produce an abstract, often monothematic chain of smears. Now 80, he’s earned international acclaim but nothing close to a fortune. He and wife Noriko live in cramped quarters in a mundane New York apartment, struggling to forage together past works from his studio to attract sellers, mostly to no avail.

Heinzerling’s homely portrait reveals a domestic ordinariness that slowly opens up poignant, troubled realms. Ushio and Noriko clearly share a profound affection and love, though his past battles with alcohol have left Noriko wounded, especially as the disease manifested itself in their only child Alex too as he grew older. She uses her drawings, tales of Cutie and Bullie, as a direct outlet to deal with these and other biographical elements from their long marriage. From the dismissive, aloof way in which Ushio addresses her art – or not; he seems casually, sometimes cruelly dismissive of her ambitions – it’s clear that, to this day, he occasionally creates a negative space around her. Yet love conquers all, and though more than 20 years in age separates them, they endure. In its examination of the film’s most powerful theme, so too does the calling of the artist endure. This demonic urge that usurps the will must be fed - often to the detriment of financial prosperity, the security of domestic bliss, and to the psychological well-being of those who hear the calling of this persuasive internal voice.

Cutie and the Boxer (2013) is one of the finest documentaries of recent years; as fine a portrait of a fascinating couple from a humane perspective as it is a sensitive meditation on the vagaries of art, on its rawness, and the apparent simplicity that gets muddied by tides of complexity. Heinzerling, through his compelling subjects, also muses on the sometimes harsh degrees of subjectivity that establish perplexingly fine lines between fame and notoriety; fortune and the eternal struggle. Real world pressures forever impinge upon the artistic calling - the demonic urge usurping your will - simultaneously attempting to strip the mystery, allure and danger of creative credibility from its moorings. But in the case of Ushio and Noriko, there is a remarkably ordinary tale to tell: of life lived on its own terms, in abeyance of the relentless, subjective vision that keeps them alive, passionate and entrenched in a sometimes wavering but forever devoted union.




Cutie and the Boxer is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.







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In its more effective early stages, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s new drama sleekly switches perspectives, beginning with a bent copper, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), determined bid to turn his prime suspect Dror (Rotem Keinan) into a confessor. Then there’s the disconcertingly mysterious figure of Gidi (Tzahi Grad) lurking in the background. He trails Miki with a trusty camera at the ready, keeping us guessing as to what his part in the drama will be. When sprung via social media – after all, what moment goes undetected by a roving lens in today’s world? – Miki’s role in the taskforce searching for the latest abducted young girl becomes minimised. But it doesn’t deter him from upping the ante in his dogged, concentrated efforts to pry the truth from the pathetic Dror’s mouth. For the second half the directors narrow their focus; the film becomes a neat, occasionally tense chamber piece with these three central characters segregated in a basement appropriated by Gidi. The balance of power alters as their interactions continue, mostly without progress, whilst further on, a fourth member is added to the mix. In general, the screenplay by Keshales and Papushado is a strong one and a distinct upgrade from their disappointing, impotent previous collaboration Rabies (2010). The set-up this time is intriguing whilst tautly defining the main players; it always shows off a perfect balance of seriousness laced with dark humour. Our allegiances are no certainty to be glued in place either as concerted attempts are made to keep the tone and pacing unpredictable via the introduction of a blowtorch and a drug-filled cake. Acting wise, all three are strong, though it’s Grad as the take charge, ultra confident Gidi who proves to be the film’s most domineering and memorable character. Frank Ilfman’s ominous score makes a strong contribution too, even if it feels streamlined by way of a familiar Hollywood formula. Though it winds down to a less frenetic resolution than we may have been imagining, with a final twist, there’s little to dislike about Big Bad Wolves (2013). It’s consistently compelling and never resorts to cheap, provocative violence for the sake of stirring the pot or as a disguise for crass social commentary.







Big Bad Wolves is now on DVD through Transmission Films.








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Dom Hemingway (Shepard, 2013)

April 29th 2014 02:31
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Cheap Thrills (Katz, 2013)

April 23rd 2014 04:15
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How I Live Now (Macdonald, 2013)

April 14th 2014 06:42
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Ginger and Rosa (Potter, 2012)

April 3rd 2014 01:51
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20 Feet from Stardom (Neville, 2013)

March 26th 2014 03:43
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