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Sundance Day 5: Reviews -- Duds and docs

Posted by Ty Burr  January 20, 2009 06:26 PM

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If you want to know what's ailing Sundance, look no further than "Adventureland." It's directed by Greg Mottola, who made "Superbad" and the very fine "Daytrippers", so hopes were high at the premiere screening at the Eccles Theater last night. But if you programmed a computer with baseline parameters like "Sundance" "indie" "coming-of-age" "80s" "'hip' soundtrack" and "dream girl," it wouldn't just spit out something like "Adventureland" -- it would spit out "Adventureland."

Mottola wrote the script and based it on his experiences working at a crummy theme park during the summer after college. So he's writing what he knows, like the teachers say. Problem is, we know it too, and all too well. No faulting the actors -- Jesse Eisenberg as the lovelorn, overarticulate hero, Kristen Stewart as the willowy carny girl who steals his heart, Ryan Reynolds as the cool but treacherous older dude who mentors Eisenberg, Matt Bush as the "wacky" best friend, Martin Starr as the eccentric-but-wise co-worker, etc, etc. The songs are great if you came up during the 80s: lotsa Cure and the Replacements, although what the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" is doing on a biker-bar jukebox I have no idea. It's a slick, well-directed movie, and there's not one moment that you haven't seen 5,742 times before. Films like this are about the hero establishing an identity to carry him into adulthood; ironically, "Adventureland" makes the case that one young man's coming of age is exactly like another's. By the time the 'Mats sang "Unsatisfied" over the end credits, I was nodding my head in agreement.

By contrast, "The Winning Season" plays with Hollywood/indie formulas in slightly fresher and certainly more enjoyable ways. This late festival entry is from James C. Strouse, who wrote "Lonesome Jim" and wrote and directed "Grace is Gone," a movie I like very much. "The Winning Season" is his take on the old "Bad News Bears" genre: a rummy loser of a coach (Sam Rockwell) takes on a hapless sports team (high school girls basketball), and guides them toward the finals and personal redemption.

All well and good, and done to death. But because Strouse prizes character over story, and because he's genuinely interested in the ways human beings screw up -- at his best, he's a poet of entropy -- "Season" plays out with ingratiating, off-kilter rhythms. Emma Roberts gets to act in a non-kid part and does a decent job, Rob Corddry plays nicely straight as the principal, and the always welcome Margo Martindale gets laughs even when she's out of focus in the background. But it's Rockwell's movie, and he gives the film what grit it has by making his coach a truly pathetic specimen of failed macho -- funny, sure, but, more than that, alarming. It' a small movie (that's what Strouse makes: small movies made up of small moments) but a solid one.

I haven't seen as many documentaries this Sundance as I could have or should have -- I'm kicking myself for skipping Joe Berlinger's "Crude" last night in favor of "Adventureland" -- but "We Live in Public," from Ondi Timoner ("Dig!"), is an eye opener. The director tells the story of Josh Harris, one of the lesser known Internet pioneers and easily one of the strangest: he starts the 1990s as a dot.com genius, head of Jupiter Communications and the Pseudo.com web network, and by 1999 he's overseeing Quiet, an experimental underground community in downtown Manhattan where people live in pods, everything is on video (and I mean everything), and the Orwellian aspects are right there on the table (and down in the gun range). The movie's a portrait of genius folly indulged and a spooky object lesson in the limits of technological and human connectivity. Or as someone says here, "The more you get to know everyone, the more alone you become."

Another film getting strong word of mouth is "Sin Nombre" (photo above), the second Mexican film I've seen at Sundance, and, like "Rudo and Cursi," one of the festival's best entries. Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, it's a road movie, a star-crossed romance, and a gang thriller put over with brutality and urgency. A young Honduran woman (Paulina Gaitan) traveling toward the US border for an illegal crossing meets a young Mexican gangbanger (Edgar Flores) fleeing his own crew; that's pretty much it, but Fukunaga visualizes the story with sweep and flair, and the portrait of self-subsistent gang communities, vicious and emotionally supportive in equal measure, is frighteningly well-drawn. I only wish the central relationship felt as fresh as the setting: Gaitan and Flores are both really touching but their characters move toward each other at a predictable pace. But, hell, this is Fukunaga's first movie, so let's cut him a break. "Sin Nombre" without question announces a talent; time will tell whether it's a major one.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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