James Toback is a charming dude. You hear about the man's infamous lifestyle – the sex and drugs and gambling to absurd extremes – and you expect to see a hipster jerk, but the guy is genial and matter-of-fact. The highlight of the festival may be his deadpan description of participating in near-daily orgies at former Cleveland Browns quarterback Jim Brown's residence – he first made a fleeting mention of these events in an unrelated context, then elaborated colorfully in response to a brave audience questioner. He's sharp, articulate, surprising, and readily recognizable as the mind behind his singular, volatile films. And he has a charisma that sneaks up on you.
The on-stage conversation with Toback was followed by a screening of Tyson, which is already playing in some cities and will expand to more in the coming weeks. The documentary, narrated by Mike Tyson himself, also sneaks up on you. At first, Toback's perspective seems clear: Tyson narrates his well-known history with the embarrassment of a reformed man who looks back on his reckless youth with disbelief that he could be so dumb, so crazy. We feel for him. But as the film plays, we become more and more uncomfortable as the events Tyson recounts with the same sheepish regret become more and more recent. Before long, he's looking back at 2003, 2004, 2005, still shaking his head at himself. The chilling subtext of Toback's otherwise sympathetic film is that Tyson's attempts to attribute the crazy outbursts that have punctuated his career to temporary insanity – and the implicit assertion that he is a changed, newly rational man -- are not altogether credible.
Click through for thoughts on The Age of Stupid, Still Walking and (500) Days of Summer.
There's nothing so interesting hiding in Franny Armstrong's annoying climate change documentary The Age of Stupid. I was intrigued by the film's description because it seemed to promise a distinctively cinematic twist on the convincing environmental alarmism of An Inconvenient Truth: when human civilization is all but wiped out in 2055, the movie posits, an archivist (Pete Postlethwaite) looks back on the time – right now – when humanity could have saved itself. We watch as he shuffles through "archival footage" (in fact Armstrong's actual documentary) of our civilization burying itself despite all the warning signs.
An Inconvenient Truth was a Powerpoint presentation and not a movie, but at least it made a genuine effort to reason with the audience: Gore made his case with evidence, and offered concrete suggestions. The Age of Stupid has one worthwhile segment – a look at the malicious, ignorant sabotage of a British scientist's attempt to erect a windfarm in the countryside by neighbors worrying about their views and property values. Otherwise it quickly turns into a Generic Progressive Cause Movie rather than a global warming documentary, making detours to show us how Shell Oil mistreats Nigerians and how the Iraq War had dire humanitarian consequences, and making vague, thoughtless anti-capitalist noises. I don't know how to turn the climate situation around, but I know that this sort of didactic, all-purpose liberal harangue is not the answer.
I switched gears with Hirokazu Koreeda's lovely, low-key family drama Still Walking. I was defeated by Koreeda's formidably slow Nobody Knows a few years back, but found Still Walking far more engaging, despite the Spartan plot (adult children visit their parents several years after the death of their beloved older brother). It's a subtle, carefully observed meditation on how Japanese cultural preconceptions about family lead people who love each other to nonetheless be dishonest and cruel. The movie seemed a bit too committed to its quiet, wry tone to really make an impression – it winds up a bit static – but that same levelheadedness is probably responsible for its countless wonderful, perfectly judged moments, so it's hard to complain too much. The movie has a distributor (IFC Films) and will be released later this year.
The festival's "Centerpiece" was this year's indie darling, (500) Days of Summer. Plenty has been written about that movie, including on Cinematical, so I won't belabor it except to add my voice to the chorus of admiration now that I've finally seen it. The gimmicks are executed with wit and even subtlety (though I thought the cartoon bird sort of spoiled the big musical number), and I was impressed by the film's pessimism (not everything always works out in the end). The last scene did strike me as a huge miscalculation, though I'm open to persuasion on this point. (I'll write more about it once the film opens and I can be less wary of spoilers.) And crucially, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel make the characters endlessly interesting and a pleasure to spend time with. Can you imagine this movie with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson?