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Arts and Entertainment

LAist at Sundance: Day 5

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Ah, to be young and in love and stuck in a dead-end carnie job. | Photo courtesy of Miramax

Similarly to last year (and probably owing to the largely liberal bent of the festival's programmers), there were a significant amount of films about the Iraq War at Sundance this year. Perhaps the most despairing (both in content and execution) was first-time director Oren Moverman's The Messenger. The film stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as a pair of psychologically damaged Army soldiers who are tasked with the grim responsibility of informing families that their son or daughter has been killed in action.

Foster is the new one of the duo. He's just returned from being in theater in Iraq (where his eye and leg were badly injured by an IED) and has only three months left until his enlistment expires. The film opens with him reuniting with his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) for a final, graphic interlude of passionate sex. She left him for another man when he went off to fight in the war, and their relationship is clearly irreparably broken. The next day, Foster reports to the base and learns that he's been given his new assignment with Harrelson.

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Tom Hardy as Bronson. | Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

From there, the film is a collection of episodes where Harrelson and Foster visit families and give them--in as sterile a fashion as possible--the news of their loved one's ultimate fate. Each visit is obviously terrifically emotional for the families, but Harrelson and Foster are so buttoned-up the entire time that the impact fails to flow through to the audience. Eventually, you simply become numb to these experiences. Whether this was Moverman's intent is open to debate, but the reality is that this is a visceral film which never reaches your gut.

After a strong start, The Messenger descends into a largely perfunctory exercise in character devolution and odd directorial choices. Foster and Harrelson are clearly both in their own descending spirals, but this is all something we've seen before--soldiers breaking down from stress and trauma. Several sequences seem oddly out of place, particularly a long one where Foster and Harrelson crash Kelly's engagement party and embarrass themselves. The Messenger is a well-made, even noble film, but ultimately it is also dull and listless.

The perfect antidote to such a downer was the very commercial and very good Adventureland. Director Greg Mottola gives us a film set in the summer of 1987, where a virginal college graduate (Jesse Eisenberg) gets a job at an amusment park that, quite simply, changes his life. As the film opens, Eisenberg's James is planning to accompany his friends on a trip to Europe that falls apart when his parents suddenly have money issues. Since he's planning to attend Columbia in the fall, James is forced to get a job.

His childhood friend (and current, testicle-punching nemesis) Frigo helps him get on at the local amusement park, Adventureland (incidentally, Matt Bush as the absurdly id-ish Frigo virtually steals this movie). There he (and we) meet the odd collection of souls who eventually have a huge impact on the life of the reserved James: his nutty bosses (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), his nerdish friend (Martin Starr), a lecherous mechanic (Ryan Reynolds), the babe of the park (Margarita Levieva) and the eventual love of his young life (Kristen Stewart).

Adventureland tells a very convetional story--young dorks' world is expanded by falling in love for the first time--but does it with so much good spirit and authenticity that one can't help but be charmed by it all. The young kids in this movie feel like genuine young kids--they drink too much; they smoke pot and flirt; they laugh a lot; they rebel against authority; they hurt each other far worse than they mean to. And ultimately, once the summer ends, they are all genuinely changed people who are better for the experience.

Don't get me wrong, though--this movie isn't some corny story about growing up. It's usually either sort of funny or--often--very funny. Eisenberg (who is growing into a doppleganger for Michael Cera) is great as the bumbling James, a kid who doesn't realize how cool he actually is. As Em, Kristen Stewart is the mildly fucked-up but smart girl that nerds always fall in love with far too quickly. Along with the aforementioned Bush, there are also strong performances from an insane Hader, a daffy Wiig and a strongly against-type Reynolds.

Unlike many Sundance films, Adventureland came to the festival with a firm distribution deal already in place. It's set to be released into theaters in late March of this year. Considering the quality of the film and it's pedigree (from the director of Superbad), I expect it to do very well at the box office. Most people have one summer in their lives where everything was so wonderful and magical and terrible that you wish it never ended and you die hoping to get it back. Adventureland is a great reminder of that time.

Seemingly coming from another universe is the English film, Bronson, which relates the true (and wild) story of one Charles Bronson. Born Michael Peterson, Bronson becomes perhaps the most legendary criminal in the English penal system because of his spectacularly violent (and charismatic) persona. Essentially, Bronson's goes from calm to obscenely brutal in the blink of an eye. It's as if he lives to fight, and he seems to prefer having the odds stacked astronomically against him (like Fezzik, he specializes in fighting groups).

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As Bronson, Tom Hardy gives a performance so fearless that you can't help but watch in amazement. The film is told in three, intermingling sections: a voice-over from Hardy where he stands in the darkness wearing a blue shirt, an on-stage performance from Hardy where he regales a theater while dressed as a clown and the more purely narrative piece of the story where we actually see Hardy in his real world. While each section is effective on its own, they suffer from being constantly blended together and jarred apart.

In that sense, Bronson isn't really a coherent film so much as it is a concept about a character. While the concept and the character are both fascinating (and the physical production of the film is most impressive), the film eventually begins to feel a bit labored and repetitive. While each fight is spectacularly staged, they lose their impact with each successive iteration. The same goes for Hardy's repeated hostage takings. It's strange, I can't 100% recommend Bronson as a film to see, but I think everyone would benefit from seeing it.