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Column Fri Apr 03 2009
In a strange and wonderful way, I'm both a little ticked off and extremely pleased with the folks that are marketing the latest film from writer-director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) entitled Adventureland. Most of you probably think this is a silly comedy about a bunch of teenagers who work at a rundown amusement park circa the 1980s, and you'd be about half right. There's a big part of me that wants you to walk into Adventureland thinking you know exactly what you're in for, so if you like surprises then walk away from this review right now. While I won't spoil any major plot points in this review, those of you who continue reading need to understand that you're going to discover that the tone and plot of this film are a lot more interesting and weighty than any of the advertising might lead you to believe. As long as you're cool with knowing that ahead of time, continue reading.
Your first clue that Adventureland has some emotional depth should have been the two young leads. James is played by Jessie Eisenberg, who has starred in such melancholy treats as The Squid and the Whale, The Hunting Party, Rodger Dodger and The Education of Charlie Banks. Then we have Kristen Stewart as Em. Excluding her star-making turn in Twilight, Stewart is one of her generation's best actors, with such works as Panic Room, The Cake Eaters, Into the Wild, Fierce People, Undertow, Cold Creek Manor and The Safety of Objects. I remember when I first started seeing the trailer for Adventureland, my first thought was, "What the hell is Kristen Stewart doing in this goofy comedy?" But when you see the film, you understand that an actress of some measure and talent is absolutely required to capture this troubled young woman's journey though some very dark places. Stewart could not be more perfect in this role.
Not to short change Eisenberg, who slides gracefully into the role of a young man whose virginity bothers him but not enough to lose his dignity to rid himself of it (like the kids in Superbad). James is strangely confident in his ability to attract women, even if he's not quite capable of holding onto them once they grow to like him. In the film, he is befriended by two very different men — Joel, played by Martin Starr ("Freaks and Geeks," Knocked Up), an uber-social outcast whose very look makes him a target; and the slightly older Mike (Ryan Reynolds, who plays this role seriously, leaving his smarm in the dressing room), who offers sage advice about women to James, even as the two men pursue the same woman.
When his parents' financial stability deflates, college grad James is forced to put off his plans to spend a summer in Europe to get the worst possible job — as one of those guys in charge of those awful carnival games at the amusement park. His bosses are the husband-and-wife team of Bobby and Paulette (SNL's Bill Hader, sporting a hideous Tom Selleck mustache, and Kristen Wiig, whose character might be a tiny bit brain damaged). Hader and Wiig provide the film's funniest moments, and they are much needed at times as the film digs deeper into Em's upbringing and her current romantic situation. It's clear that she truly likes James, and just being around her brings James out of his shell enough that other women who work at the part start to notice him, including the voluptuous Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). In the perfect world, these two would hook up for the summer and possibly get serious enough to stay together beyond the carney life. But how many of us can say that our early 20s love lives went according to plan?
James plies Em with perfect mix tapes featuring dark and intellectually stimulating works from Lou Reed, The Replacements, Alex Chilton and Husker Du, as if to counter the inane '80s pop music played nonstop and on constant rotation at the park. You may actually make Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" the theme song to your next killing spree. Mottola beautifully recreates the conflicting sonic landscapes of the 1980s better than anyone else in recent memory. And his nearly wall-to-wall use of music reminded me of a modern-day American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused.
But where the film really scores points are in its dark corners. Although many may attempt to compare Adventureland to the films of John Hughes, that's not what I saw at all. What came to mind for me was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, written by Cameron Crowe and another prime example of bait-and-switch advertising. People walked into that movie expecting "Hey, dude, let's party" and topless Phoebe Cates, both of which they got, but they also got tales of bad sex and abortions. And it's these portions of the plot that elevated the film to its legendary heights. Now, there are no abortions in Mottola's film, but that doesn't mean that some really cruel and unusual stuff doesn't happen between the cock-punching gags and Hader's psychotic, bat-wielding moment of glorious insanity as he chases off patrons intent on beating the spit out of James. And it's in these quiet but powerful sequences where Eisenberg and Stewart truly show what they can accomplish.
The day that Greg Mottola fails to surprise me will be a disappointing day for me indeed. Even in Superbad, there are moments of incredible sweetness that I was not expecting, but Adventureland goes beyond the occasional moment and gives over large potions of the movie to these tough and tender scenes. This is a film that defied all of my expectations, still delivers loads of laughs, but inserts great moments of humanity and soul that make is something really special. You are going to love this movie.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Adventureland writer-director Greg Mottola and star Bill Hader.
Fast and Furious
Jesus, this movie is dumber than dick cheese. I don't really have a vendetta against any of the actors in this film. Vin Diesel has been in some pretty entertaining things over the years, despite his limited range as an actor; he spends a whole lot of time looking angry and contemplative in Fast and Furious, the fourth in the turbo-charged muscle car franchise. I guess the draw here is that this is the first of the sequels that has successfully reunited the four main characters from the first film. In addition to Diesel's Dominic and his wife-beater undershirts, we have Paul Walker, whose Brian is now an FBI agent investigating an international drug ring based in Mexico. Jordana Brewster is also on hand as Dominic's sister Mia, who was Brian's love interest in the first film. And the still-crazy Michelle Rodriguez is Letty, who has been traveling the world, on the run with Dominic using their skills as drivers to commit crazy money-making schemes, such as stealing fuel trucks while they are still moving. If you've seen the original teaser trailer then you've seen a good chunk of this opening sequence; the movie doesn't get any better than that.
After the death of a close friend, Dominic decides it's time to return to the United States for a little vengeance, and it isn't long before he and Brian are working side by side trying to infiltrate the drug ring. The film's core problem is that I didn't give one or two shits about these two idiots solving a crime. In a film and a franchise like this, I want some motherfucking drivers racing some motherfucking cars, and I want lots of it. Fast and Furious gives us four extended races/chases (there might have been five, but it's possible I dozed off during all of the talking and missed one) and two of them are practically duplicate sequences inside a cross-border tunnel.
But you know what? I would have been willing to put up with this nonsense if there had been something resembling a script. Instead what we get from screenwriter Chris Morgan (Wanted, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) is a serious of rogue cop clichés from Walker, schoolyard tough-guy action from Diesel, and absolutely nothing for the women to do but look pretty. I'm a big supporter of director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, Tokyo Drift Finishing the Game), but this is by far his worst outing. The chase scene staging is choppy and shaky to the point where it's impossible to tell which cars are crashing and which are still in play during certain races. And while I certainly think most of the main actors have the ability to act well, they certainly come off as giving terrible performances here because the writing is so bad. I wish I made it a habit of taking notes during films, because I could have scribbled down at least a dozen cringe-inducing lines from each cast member. And everyone is just taking everything so damn seriously that it was a fairly common occurrence during the screening I went to for people to laugh at some of the more earnest lines and the so-serious delivery of said lines.
Fast and Furious left me annoyed, bored, and eager to get the hell out of the theater and see something better right away. If you go in with the lowest possible expectations, you might have a good time at all the glitzy cinematography and occasional scantily clad female. And director Lin certainly has an eye for making Diesel's straining pectorals look shiny and lumpy on film under a host of tight shirts, but beyond those few high points, there's really nothing here to recommend.
For many weeks leading up to me seeing this homage to '50s sci-fi monster movies, I'd been led to believe that this was some sort of comedic spoof of the genre. The problem with spoofing films like that is that it's almost impossible to spoof something that they are often far more humorous and self-mocking in their original form than any modern take on them could ever be. It's one of the reasons I've never been a big fan of Mars Attacks!; what could be funnier or more entertaining than the ultra-low-budget works from the generation of filmmakers that spawned Ed Wood? So the biggest surprise in watching Alien Trespass was that it's in no way a comedy. In fact, what director R.W. Goodwin (who worked on more than 100 episodes of "The X-Files" as either writer, director, or some level of producer; and was also an executive producer on "Tru Calling") is far more impressive: he has recreated a '50s monster movie with all the trimmings, including an phenomenally hideous monster that also looks like it cost about $49.99 to create. Some of you may disagree with my assessment of this film, but I think I'm on the money here, and I had a really fun time watching this tribute to all films made with love, passion and a teeny, tiny budget.
Set in 1957, Alien Trespass opens with the obligatory fiery object hurling down toward Earth from space and landing in the California desert. Turns out the object in question contains a rampaging alien monster known as the Ghota, which movie at about a half-mile per hour and is bent on destroying all forms of life on our fair planet. The savior of the film is another alien named Urp, who takes over the body of an astronomer played by Eric McCormack, who does a great job dead-panning his lines while delivering all the necessary exposition to keep things rolling along. A young, pretty waitress (Jenni Baird) who has a crush on both the astronomer and the alien inhabiting him, assists Urp in his quest to save the world. My only complaint about the film is that I kind of wish it has been in black-and-white to add to the authenticity of this movie that feels like a long-lost science-fiction film, now found in a vault somewhere in the California desert. Alas, the film looks great in bright and shiny color, which actually makes the alien monster look just a little bit less convincing. It's a small flaw in a film that doesn't have extraordinarily high standards it's trying to match.
Alien Trespass is by no means a great movie, but the performances are note perfect, and the feel of the film is spot on. I've never been much of an Eric McCormack fan, but he's damn-near perfect, especially in his alien-invaded scientist mode. I've heard people complain that the film isn't funny, and when I heard this my heart sunk a bit. But having seen the film, I understand now that laughs are not the end game. Director Goodwin is remaking a film that was both never made before and made hundreds of times in film history, if that makes any sense. More importantly, I had a great time watching this movie and reminiscing. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Shall We Kiss?
When I watch films like this (which I reviewed about a month ago as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival), I'm filled with a comforting, warm feeling that I just never get from 99.9 percent of the American films on love in all its joy and disruptive consequences. The film begins with a man and a woman meeting for the first time somewhere outside Paris. Their meeting is random, but there's clearly a spark between them and a connection that neither wants to ignore. They end up spending the day together, eating and talking (what else is there to do in France?), and at the end of the perfect day, the man leans in for what he says is nothing more than a good-bye kiss. But in this deceptively simple story-inside-story-inside-story structure, a kiss is never just a kiss. The sweetly rebuffed moment leads to the telling of a story about another couple (Virginie Ledoyen and writer-director Emmanuel Mouret) that allowed a kiss to disrupt an otherwise ideal relationship as close friends.
The film is the perfect blend of light humor based in some very keen observations about what brings people to the brink of making the right or wrong move and the forces that either keep them from acting on these impulses or push them into the abyss of love. I absolutely adored this quiet, passionate work, filled with impressive performances that made me love these characters all the more. There isn't an ounce of sap or falseness to any part of this beautifully written film. Shall We Kiss? opens today at the Music Box Theatre.