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Sundance day 6: Can we talk?

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 26, 2010 08:36 PM

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What on earth is happening? In all my years, I've never heard more grumbling. No one likes anything. We're all a little concerned. One distributor joked today at a cocktail reception that this year the U.S. dramatic jury should hand out a prize for the worst film. Everybody has one. And I think people are tired for the search for excellence. There are certainly movies people like and a few that people love: Two documentaries, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," starring the unknowable street artist, Banksy, and "Catfish," about a photographer's increasingly complicated relationship with a family via Facebook, often come up as two of the very best films in the festival. They were screened in tiny theaters, so, regretfully, I missed my chances. But it's telling that when you run into a colleague, a programmer, an executive, or even some civilian moviegoers, they ask, "Have you see anything?" Things outside the theater at this festival don't feel festive. I wouldn't say there's a sense of crisis in the air. Folks are just a little put off. 

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. Thompson loved running the water on his bloodbath. The blood, on screen, is definitely there -- it's everywhere, in fact. But 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, including apparently Alba, 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. 

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Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams seem slightly better suited to the material in "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 to demise, and it's another exercise, here the spiritual instructor is John Cassavetes. 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 Cassavetes. The relationship here doesn't ever seem real. Williams seems too together a woman to find herself married to such a mess of a man. Gosling's screw-up is a cute, weird, troubled guy. You date him for a year then throw him back in. Women make this mistake in life, but life is what this movie lacks. 

Cianfrance has a wonderful eye. Even if the mood is plain, his movie looks great. But all that good style goes to waste on both a not terribly compelling conceit and characters that are sketches, at best. Some of the acting seems improvised. Given the number scenes that culminate in the repetition of lines and obscenities. Gosling steps right into the Cassavetes idea. He can do a lot with a shaggy dramatic framework. Williams, who's a marvelous interior performer, doesn't appear as comfortable with the assignment. The climactic blow up is embarrassing. Williams doesn't seem to believe what she's asked to do. Neither did I.   

I did, however, like "Lucky" from Jeffrey Blitz, who made the spelling bee documentary, "Spellbound." He explores the American obsession with the lottery, following a handful of big winners and a few losers and one very persistent woman, waiting for million-dollar lightning to strike her, despite the terrible odds. It's a cute and sad movie that explores some very true aspects of human nature, like the resistance to change and envy. Blitz takes a friendly approach to his subject. His movie lacks the suspense of "Spellbound." But it has both a sense of humor and sense of dismay.  

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Speaking of humor, I started the day with 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 (that's him to the left in the Mutant Ninja Turtle getup), 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 feet. She doesn't appear to need the help -- she's a workaholic. But there's enough good material here for the movie to be a real entertainment. As comedian, Rivers is an icon and pioneer; and a trendsetter with regard to late-night talk wars. As the owner of a face, she's something of a freak. 

Of course, 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 this afternoon, 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. 

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