Friday, January 23, 2009

Sundance 2009: Premiere Events

When it comes to the Premieres category at Sundance, there are two very general schools of thought. There are those who flock to them – in the press because they’re the movies with stars people will want to read about, and in the public because they’re the movies with stars that they want to see in person. And there are those who avoid them – in the press and in the public because they enjoy discovery, or figure they’ll always have time to catch up on those films in theaters.

Personally, I’ve often walked a sort of middle path. When a filmmaker I love has something new, I want to see it as soon as possible, and sometimes word on the Park City street will point me to something I’m thrilled I didn’t miss (like 500 Days of Summer). But when I’m looking at that schedule and something’s gotta give, I often give stuff like I Love You Philip Morris or Brooklyn’s Finest a pass so I can watch something I might never get a chance to see otherwise.

The Premieres I have seen have certainly proven as hit-and-miss as my own approach. On the up side, there’s Adventureland, a charming romantic comedy from director Greg Mottola (Superbad). The story follows newly-minted college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) as he deals with his family’s financial troubles by taking a summer job at an amusement park in his hometown of Pittsburgh, hoping to make enough money to help pay for grad school at Columbia. There he meets and falls for a cute co-worker (Kristen Stewart), who also has something going with the park’s hunky (but married) maintenance guy (Ryan Reynolds).

The romance is sweet, but in a lot of ways it’s largely secondary to the way Mottola sets up his milieu – not just its specifically 1987 setting, but the specifics of being bitterly under-employed in a place where you’re treated like garbage by the people around you. It’s also full of terrific small comic touches, like a roadside bar advertising a Rolling Stones tribute band, the letter-deficient sign dubbing them “Tumbling Dic.” And even though Mottola clearly gave Eisenberg directions to basically pretend to be Michael Cera, he still makes a terrifically sympathetic protagonist. Warning: I almost certainly feel inordinately fond of this movie because of its era, and because even before the Miramax logo appears on the screen, The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” launches from the soundtrack. What, is a 40-something guy made of stone?

Far less successful at creating winning characters is Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, yet another drama with an Iraq War theme. Ben Foster places Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, an injured, decorated veteran who gets a rough assignment near the end of his enlistment: learning the ropes of informing next-of-kin of war casualties. The subject provides fascinating opportunities – what would it be like to have to be the “regret to inform” guy? – but Moverman never provides a clear sense of what motivates Montgomery, or what haunts him. It’s a narrative that just kind of lays there, the most complex psychology largely unexplored.

It is, however, a work of freaking art compared to Shrink. In one of those squirm-inducing independent dramas where actors are allowed to chew the hell out of their parts, Kevin Spacey plays an L.A. psychiatrist and best-selling self-help guru who – surprise, surprise! – is actually pretty screwed up himself. His clients include a sexaholic actor (Robin Williams), a wrong-side-of-30 ingenue (Saffron Burrows) and a teenager (Keke Palmer) acting out after a family tragedy. But nothing that goes on here feels at all like actual human behavior; they’re the kind of tics and twitches that actors love to play, and inexperienced screenwriters and directors like to throw at actors so they’ll be in their low-budget movie. And maybe that’s why the star-heavy Sundance movies are so often worth avoiding. (Scott Renshaw)

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