AFI Docs Festival Review: Part 2

Last weekend, Anthony Flores and I tackled the AFI Docs Festival (formerly Silverdocs). Here is the second part in our series of capsule reviews (see part one here):

Cutie and the Boxer

When we first meet the famed Japanese painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko in Cutie and the Boxer, they come across as a fairly normal elderly couple. They bicker in that comfortable, low-stakes way, and it’s clear that they love and have grown accustomed to each other. Circumstances over the next 90 minutes reveal cracks in their marriage and deep wounds that they have hidden, but first-time director Zachary Heinzerling never over-dramatizes the events. Throughout it all, they are a grounded, knowable couple.

The approach has its costs and benefits. On the plus side, it will be easy for most married people to relate to the subtle hostilities that arise over the course of the two years that Heinzerling lived with the Shinoharas. Ushio was a celebrated avant-garde artist in Japan in the 1950s, known for his “boxing paintings.” It’s just what it sounds like: he puts on boxing gloves, dips them in paint, and punches his way across a large canvas. He was a huge success, but at 80 years old, his career has waned, and he and Noriko struggle to pay the bills. It’s a quiet but effective portrayal of life as an elderly couple, but the film takes a turn inward when Noriko, freed from the shadow of Ushio’s success, finds an audience for her own art – a thinly-veiled narrative portrayal of her marriage.

Despite the marital intrigue, I was struck by a feeling that this personal narrative was just not quite a film. Heinzerling may have lived with the couple for more than two years in making it, but the couple oddly remains at a distance from the audience. As a result, Cutie and the Boxer – despite its artistic subject matter – feels a prosaic piece of work. It hums along nicely, but it never quite soars.

My Rating: Put it on your Queue

– Written by Noah Gittell

 

Our Nixon

Richard Nixon is the most studied, most written about POTUS of the last 50 years.  You might wonder what more can be said about him, but Our Nixon manages to add to the dialogue.  The film is a point-by-point rehash of the highs and (very) lows of the Nixon presidency.  What makes the film seem so new is the heavy use of amateur home movies shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin.

“Our Nixon” is a service to history.  Here is first hand footage of some of history’s most important moments, shot by the participants.  We see Nixon on the phone with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they stand on the moon.  We see Nixon in China, or Nixon meeting with Pope Paul VI.  It is amazing footage that will provide a fix for any political junkie.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

Written by Anthony Flores

Our Nixon

Dragon Girls

Dragon Girls is about female students attending the largest Kung Fu academy in China.  These boarding schools, the equivalent of Western military high schools, are for mostly troubled students, and focus almost exclusively on kung fu.  A combination of dance, gymnastics, and fighting styles, kung fu is harder than you think. Dragon Girls lingers on its extreme mental and physical toll.

It’s a compelling subject, but the structure of the film is problematic.  Too many students are followed, making it hard to form a relationship with any of them.  The film also emphasizes the harshness of the academy, which came across to this viewer as blatant child abuse.  It is hard to get engaged with the athletic competition after witnessing the training. As a result, there is no drama in the final contest, a critical flaw in a sports documentary.

My Rating: Skip it Altogether

Written by Anthony Flores

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