Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Oscars 2017
The Latest News and Insider UpdatesDon't Miss

Article

Sundance: Yes, documentaries still rule ('The September Issue,' 'Tyson,' and 'Over the Hills...')

Posted on

Tyson_l

Tyson_l

The Sundance landscape includes a new venue this year. It’s called the Temple Theatre, but I was still mildly shocked to learn that the reason it’s called that is because it’s housed … in a temple. One lodged at the center of a crystalline wilderness of show-capped mountains. It is, I’m told, Park City’s very first synagogue, erected this past year in conjunction with the festival, and designed in an open, airy style I would describe as Yiddishe Ski-Lodge Adobe Modern. (It’s a temple to make Robert Redford feel right at home.) It turns out to be an exceedingly pleasant place to watch a movie, and so I settled in for a handful of documentaries — which, for this hardcore doc junkie (I could eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), is about as much fun as Sundance gets.

I’ve seen numerous documentaries about the fashion world, going back to the zippy Unzipped at Sundance in 1995 (remember when Isaac Mizrahi was the new black?), but there was a special buzz in the air before the premiere showing of The September Issue, a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Anna Wintour, the chicly legendary, by now infamous queen-bee editor of Vogue. It’s clear what the anticipatory static was about: not just fashion or glamour, but the electromagnetic pull of power. It’s no overstatement to say that Wintour, more than any other single figure, holds sway over the $300 billion-a-year fashion industry, and the movie, directed by R.J. Cutler (producer of The War Room), is a luscious and feisty and agreeably glamstruck look at the several months in which Wintour and her world-class army of editors, photographers, designers, models, and underpaid-assistant gofers assemble Vogue’s massive September issue, a plushly gilded treasure chest of ads. The movie understands that this annual totem of a fall fashion bible is no mere magazine. It’s a full-scale production, a major motion picture stuffed between glossy covers, with Wintour as its all-knowing, all-dictatorial producer and director.

Is she the devil in Prada? (If my eyes are educated, she seems to prefer Lagerfeld.) A diva? A bitch? The truth is more fascinating. In The September Issue, Wintour comes off as a perfectionist who suffers fools not at all, not for one minute of the day, but even her steeliest moods are charged with purpose, and the scariest thing about her isn’t that she’s mean. It’s that even when she takes those trademark sunglasses off (which is most of the time), she’s still a sphinx, her face implacable but for the occasional hint of a wince or a soft smile, her mind always in two places at once: intensely focused on the task at hand, yet at the same time attuned to the cosmic-semiotic global fashion ramifications of every decision she has to make. The closest she comes to devilish behavior is when an underling shows her a photo sheet, and she offers him an ice-melting stare and says, “Where’s the glamour? It’s Vogue. Please, let’s…lift it.”

Part of the dishy fun of The September Issue is that there’s room for more than one ego in the room. André Leon Talley, Wintour’s consigliere and editor-at-large, is

a bitch (I mean that as a high compliment), a witty postmodern man so

neurotic about swaddling his giant physique that he can’t play tennis

in the summer without draping a designer towel over his shoulder. And

it’s a kick to see Grace Coddington, the magazine’s passionate and

easily infuriated creative director (she orchestrates those

dream-diorama photo shoots), stand up to Wintour. At moments, the two

square off like jungle cats, yet they’re united in their obsession with

elevating taste to a level of audacity that can be called beauty. I

came away from The September Issue liking Anna Wintour more

than I thought I would, but mostly with an appreciation for her

mission: not merely to sell magazines, to create a market for clothes

and style, but to help give femininity its sheen.

I didn’t get to see Wintour herself at Sundance, but I did see

another formidable legend of intimidation, Mike Tyson. He was there for

James Toback’s turbulently candid and hypnotic psycho-biographical

documentary, Tyson, and when the fallen champion —  dressed in

an incongruous-for-Park City tuxedo — wandered to the front of the

auditorium after a screening, the audience gave him a standing ovation,

moved by his demons, his frankness in presenting them, and his

survival. The movie opens with Tyson, in fluidly overlapping

interviews, ruminating on the “chaos” in his brain, and as his life

unfolds before us — child hooligan from Brooklyn; teenage boxing

protegé of father-figure manager Cus D’Amato; heavyweight champion;

reckless celebrity who, by his own admission, knew no limits in sex,

money, drugs, fame — we never stray far from what’s boiling inside his

head, and that’s the film’s ominous intrigue.

In the ring, Tyson was arguably the greatest boxer who ever

lived, fusing the fractious power of Sonny Liston with the unreal speed

of Bruce Lee, and his words have a similar paradoxical fury. In Tyson,

speaking in that baby-bruiser lisp that has only grown more pronounced

with time, he’s a self-analytical hard case, with a liquid street

eloquence at once witty, melancholy, mocking, seething, vulnerable,

egomanical, and tinged with a regret as bottomless as his bravado.

Toback zeroes in on the fragile flip side of Tyson’s tough veneer, but

the filmmaker’s most telling inspiration is to frame the movie as an

exploration of how that toughness is, by itself, a fabulously complex

mechanism. Tyson makes no apologies for Mike Tyson’s behavior,

but it doesn’t need to. What “redeems” him isn’t remorse, it’s the way

that he keeps punching away at his own image, laying himself out on

Toback’s canvas.

* * *

No, Over the Hills and Far Away is not a documentary about Led Zeppelin. (There is

a doc here about the Doors, which I’ll review tomorrow.) It is, rather,

a lyrical, heartbreaking, and deeply stirring meditation on the mystery

of autism. Rupert Isaacson, a British journalist and human-rights

activist, and Kristin, his American psychology-professor wife, led a

blissful life up until the moment their son, Rowan (born in 2001), was

diagnosed with autism. At that point, they began to descend, by their

own admission, into an everyday hell, coping with Rowan’s screaming

fits, his absence of toilet training, and his nearly complete lack of

engagement with everything but…horses.

As the film opens, the two parents so emotionally bedraggled

that they come up with a desperate measure: They will take Rowan to the

mountains of Mongolia, where they’ll track down the shamans who live

there and pursue the mystic healing those shamans can offer. If Rupert

and Kristin were flakes, we might look askance, but they are deeply

intelligent and loving people, and their journey is more than a quest

for healing. It’s an education — one that we take along with them —

in what autism really is. One of the shamans believes that Rowan’s

problems are spiritually linked to the mental illness of his maternal

grandmother, and his attempt to cast this legacy out of the boy induces

a tremor of awed fascination. At the same time, an even more revered

shaman views Rowan’s autism not just as an illness, but as a kind of

force. To be overcome, it must be embraced. Over the Hills and Far Away

does ramble a bit, but by holding the tragic enigma of autism up to a

mirror so removed from our own culture, it helps us all see it clearer.

Part of the dishy fun of The September Issue is that there’s room for more than one ego in the room. André Leon Talley, Wintour’s consigliere and editor-at-large, isa bitch (I mean that as a high compliment), a witty postmodern man soneurotic about swaddling his giant physique that he can’t play tennisin the summer without draping a designer towel over his shoulder. Andit’s a kick to see Grace Coddington, the magazine’s passionate andeasily infuriated creative director (she orchestrates thosedream-diorama photo shoots), stand up to Wintour. At moments, the twosquare off like jungle cats, yet they’re united in their obsession withelevating taste to a level of audacity that can be called beauty. Icame away from The September Issue liking Anna Wintour morethan I thought I would, but mostly with an appreciation for hermission: not merely to sell magazines, to create a market for clothesand style, but to help give femininity its sheen.

I didn’t get to see Wintour herself at Sundance, but I did seeanother formidable legend of intimidation, Mike Tyson. He was there forJames Toback’s turbulently candid and hypnotic psycho-biographicaldocumentary, Tyson, and when the fallen champion —  dressed inan incongruous-for-Park City tuxedo — wandered to the front of theauditorium after a screening, the audience gave him a standing ovation,moved by his demons, his frankness in presenting them, and hissurvival. The movie opens with Tyson, in fluidly overlappinginterviews, ruminating on the “chaos” in his brain, and as his lifeunfolds before us — child hooligan from Brooklyn; teenage boxingprotegé of father-figure manager Cus D’Amato; heavyweight champion;reckless celebrity who, by his own admission, knew no limits in sex,money, drugs, fame — we never stray far from what’s boiling inside hishead, and that’s the film’s ominous intrigue.

In the ring, Tyson was arguably the greatest boxer who everlived, fusing the fractious power of Sonny Liston with the unreal speedof Bruce Lee, and his words have a similar paradoxical fury. In Tyson,speaking in that baby-bruiser lisp that has only grown more pronouncedwith time, he’s a self-analytical hard case, with a liquid streeteloquence at once witty, melancholy, mocking, seething, vulnerable,egomanical, and tinged with a regret as bottomless as his bravado.Toback zeroes in on the fragile flip side of Tyson’s tough veneer, butthe filmmaker’s most telling inspiration is to frame the movie as anexploration of how that toughness is, by itself, a fabulously complexmechanism. Tyson makes no apologies for Mike Tyson’s behavior,but it doesn’t need to. What “redeems” him isn’t remorse, it’s the waythat he keeps punching away at his own image, laying himself out onToback’s canvas.

* * *

No, Over the Hills and Far Away is not a documentary about Led Zeppelin. (There isa doc here about the Doors, which I’ll review tomorrow.) It is, rather,a lyrical, heartbreaking, and deeply stirring meditation on the mysteryof autism. Rupert Isaacson, a British journalist and human-rightsactivist, and Kristin, his American psychology-professor wife, led ablissful life up until the moment their son, Rowan (born in 2001), wasdiagnosed with autism. At that point, they began to descend, by theirown admission, into an everyday hell, coping with Rowan’s screamingfits, his absence of toilet training, and his nearly complete lack ofengagement with everything but…horses.

As the film opens, the two parents so emotionally bedraggledthat they come up with a desperate measure: They will take Rowan to themountains of Mongolia, where they’ll track down the shamans who livethere and pursue the mystic healing those shamans can offer. If Rupertand Kristin were flakes, we might look askance, but they are deeplyintelligent and loving people, and their journey is more than a questfor healing. It’s an education — one that we take along with them –in what autism really is. One of the shamans believes that Rowan’sproblems are spiritually linked to the mental illness of his maternalgrandmother, and his attempt to cast this legacy out of the boy inducesa tremor of awed fascination. At the same time, an even more reveredshaman views Rowan’s autism not just as an illness, but as a kind offorce. To be overcome, it must be embraced. Over the Hills and Far Awaydoes ramble a bit, but by holding the tragic enigma of autism up to amirror so removed from our own culture, it helps us all see it clearer.

Comments