At Sundance, a few gems among all the grousing

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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PARK CITY, Utah - What on earth is happening? In all my years attending the Sundance Film Festival, I’ve never heard more grumbling. No one likes anything. (OK, not exactly true - I’m a fan of “Please Give,’’ “I Am Love,’’ “Night Watches Us,’’ and the lottery documentary “Lucky,’’ and I’ve heard great things about the docs “Catfish’’ and “Exit Through the Gift Shop.’’) Still, one distributor joked at a cocktail reception that this year the dramatic jury should hand out a prize for the worst film. Everybody has one.

The walkouts, for instance, during Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me’’ were almost as violent as the movie, which is based on Jim Thompson’s 1952 psychotic pulp-noir melodrama about a killer sheriff. Winterbottom is too cold a director to duplicate Thompson’s sick delight, so the movie becomes a tedious exercise in grisly style. Casey Affleck is the sheriff, while Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba are, uh, in distress. Some people left because of the relentless savagery. I wanted to leave because of the miscasting. It was like watching a bunch of teenagers reenact a heartless Halloween special.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams seem better suited to the material in the drama “Blue Valentine.’’ The problem is that there isn’t enough material to do them many favors, which is odd since three people, including the director Derek Cianfrance, are credited with writing the script.

This is the story of a marriage that oscillates between courtship and demise. Gosling plays a casually alcoholic odd-jobber, Williams a nurse, and they stammer and shout and push into each other, just like Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands did for John Cassavetes. Yet the relationship here doesn’t ever feel real. Williams seems too together a woman to find herself married to such a mess of a man.

As a director, though, Cianfrance has a wonderful eye. Even if the mood is plain, his movie looks great. But all that good style goes to waste on a not terribly compelling conceit and characters that are sketches, at best. And the climactic blowup is embarrassing.

Troubled relationship movies are a Sundance staple. In “Welcome to the Rileys,’’ Kristen Stewart plays a sloppy, shaky New Orleans exotic dancer who winds up in the care of a grieving plumbing-supply company owner (James Gandolfini).

I’m a little tired of starlets who decide that playing strippers and hookers is a kind of acting stretch. Yet the movie, written by Ken Hixon and directed by Jake Scott, got me over my skepticism.

After a Traumatic Accident, Gandolfini leaves his wife (Melissa Leo) and ends up in New Orleans, living in Stewart’s squalid house. Leo follows, and the estranged couple wind up helping the lost soul. It’s a little sick, a little sad, a little mawkish. I liked that I didn’t know how it would arrive where I knew it was going.

The acting helps. It’s amazing all that Gandolfini can do with that giant face of his. By default, he has an intimidating screen presence - he’s built almost like a cartoon bomb. So it can be shocking to see him so vulnerable to his feelings. He and Leo bring out a sweetness in Stewart, best known for playing Bella in the “Twilight’’ franchise. She’s not a good actor, but she has terrific on-camera instincts: Her jitters, the eye-rolling, that unclosable mouth, her burning need both to touch and to be touched. In this movie, she’s always twitching.

Stewart is also a good comedian here. With the right director and material, she could be the Tom Brady of throwaway dialogue.

Speaking of humor, there’s Chris Morris’s “Four Lions,’’ which is being called The Suicide Bomber Comedy. A quartet of British Muslims - one of whom is an Anglo - hatch a plot to blow up parts of London. The catch is that they’re idiots. The four actors playing the bombers, especially Nigel Lindsay as the Anglo, find completely different ways of playing nincompoops.

Morris was a partner in comedy with Armando Iannucci, who wrote last year’s very funny war farce, “In the Loop.’’ “Four Lions’’ proceeds in the same profane rat-a-tat style. It almost succeeds as satire. But its political intentions are vague, and its last-minute sentimentality seems well beside the point.

Don’t let her potty mouth and ill will fool you: Joan Rivers is pretty sentimental, too. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress’’ is a touching docu-profile that spends a year in her life and career, which, at the time, was at an ebb. There’s the sense that the movie is meant to help get her back on her feet. She doesn’t appear to need the help - she’s a workaholic.

As a comedian, Rivers is an icon and pioneer; as the owner of a face, she’s something of a freak. Yet it’s the comedy that stays with you - how it’s born of doubt, insecurity, and great rage. Rivers is still painfully funny (my abdominal muscles seized up three or four times). After a sold-out screening, Rivers showed up and the crowd leapt to its feet. She cracked some jokes, including one about Haiti that no one laughed at.

She knew it was both bad and in bad taste. But she didn’t apologize for it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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