***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Jake Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Margarita Levieva
written and directed by Greg Mottola
starring Eric McCormack, Jenni Baird, Robert Patrick, Dan Lauria
screenplay by Steven P. Fisher
directed by R. W. Goodwin
by Ian Pugh In everyone's life there's a summer of '42, but of course it was never as wonderful as you remember. Although Greg Mottola's Adventureland is set in 1987, that's almost incidental--it really takes place in that hazy cloud known as "the past," full of fly-by-night jobs rife with fraud and deceit, fairweather friends who sock you in the crotch, and, of course, the music that brings to mind painful experiences perhaps best left forgotten. (Funny to think that this might be the ideological inverse of another great 2009 film about memory, The Uninvited: unhealthily obsessive instead of unhealthily in denial.) The key to understanding the film, I think, lies in Falco's New Wave anthem "Rock Me Amadeus," here serving as an inescapable nightmare at the titular amusement park, where it's pumped through the sound system ad nauseam ("Can you give me an ice pick that I can just jam into my ears?"). But then the romantic confusion driving the plot unravels in a series of betrayals, and that same song becomes a damning elegy. Seems strange that the director of Superbad, an instant classic of maturity-through-childishness and nostalgia-without-precedent, should deliver something so angry and contradictory for a follow-up. Perhaps it is strange--but Adventureland is also a more honest, more personal, and, most importantly, more mature film than Superbad.
College grad James (Jesse Eisenberg, a slightly more intellectual Michael Cera) is forced to abandon a trip across Europe and relocate to Pittsburgh, whereupon he settles into employment as a carny with a pocketful of joints and the vague hope of finding true love to shed him of his virginal shame. It's a little disappointing at first that the plot, such as it is, should essentially boil down to his rather obvious choice between thoughtful, world-weary Em (Kristen Stewart) and legendary strumpet Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), something that will be familiar to any student of '80s teensploitation--and buried within that is an all-too-cursory discussion concerning the double standards in the sexual/social expectations of men and women. Yet the movie never lets you forget that these well-worn decisions are being given excruciating contemplation, decades after they've already happened, by Mottola. For something pitched as a trip down memory lane, Adventureland sure crams itself full of obsessed men, clinging to questionable victories long past.
See it first in James's father (Jack Gilpin), a failed yuppie and borderline alcoholic whom we suspect sowed his share of wild oats. Then there's the park's thirty-something maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds, doing a pretty decent job in a role which feels like the natural evolution of Van Wilder), host to a number of arrested-development neuroses: married and still chasing after college girls; doting on his mother; and eternally claiming to have jammed with Lou Reed despite appearing to know nothing of the legend's work. When James's own tale of heartbreak has played out, each of these men regards him with the same sad, knowing glances--why? Ignoring the obvious autobiographical slant of the piece, Adventureland manages its greatest intrigue by refusing to tell us what's happened in the intervening twenty-two years, or to offer so much as a post-coital conclusion to its central romance. Could James have ended up like either one of his inappropriate mentors? The fact that this blast from the past has been given any amount of indulgence doesn't exactly assuage those fears, but Adventureland is ultimately about the importance, the pricelessness of personal experience--even once the relevance of "carpe diem" has passed us by and "regret nothing" has long given way to its share of regrets.
A charming if awkward mash-up of The Blob, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and maybe Fiend Without a Face, Alien Trespass likewise has a rather unique perspective on another brand of institutional nostalgia, namely that you can have a completely earnest pastiche of "B" movies from the '50s without resorting to hostile condescension. Pitched to us via newsreel as a long-lost Technicolor classic from 1957, Alien Trespass features Klaatu-like visitor Urp (Eric McCormack), an intergalactic "federal marshal" who possesses the body of a local astronomer to capture the wayward Ghota, a nasty, one-eyed creature that devours people "for their nutrients" and leaves sticky puddles in their wake. Naturally, it threatens the existence of all life on Earth. The special effects are dedicatedly amateurish and the dialogue is wonderfully melodramatic, as you'd expect both to be--and it one-ups Monsters Vs Aliens in its refusal to let savvy, wink-wink knowledge of clichés dictate its fragile sensibilities. Above all else, Alien Trespass is thankfully, gloriously straightforward.
While it was crafted with a certain escapist sensibility in mind, what makes Alien Trespass so endearing is that it never forgets the apocalyptic underpinnings that drove its inspirations. As waitress Tammy (Jenni Baird) explains the dire situation to the sheriff (Dan Lauria, basically giving the same performance he gave in The Spirit), the camera prefers to focus on the secretly-unscrewed sugar dispenser he's about to empty into his coffee cup. It's easily the film's loveliest moment--the one that reminds you that, in the face of Armageddon, you're going to fight for the right to silly, human moments like this. Because it embodies that sentiment whereas this film merely rehashes it, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! remains the most vital modern take on atomic-age sci-fi, though Alien Trespass is a loving homage that demonstrates the filmmakers of the era as neither incompetent nor naïve in their comprehension of the social climate. Originally published: April 3, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - ADVENTURELAND
by Bill Chambers Miramax brings Adventureland to Blu-ray in a satisfying 1.85:1, 1080p presentation. Unlike Greg Mottola's Superbad, this movie was shot on film and retains its celluloid texture in HiDef, though grain is only pronounced during the bumper-cars sequence, which looks from the washed-out blacks like it was shot in dark enough conditions that it had to be significantly "pushed" in post. Still, while the image is especially flat here, it's never all that dimensional--a fact which seems hard to fault since it aesthetically corresponds to the picture's touted naturalism. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD audio is serviceable, although I wish the mix were a little more dynamic: in terms of spatiality, there's scarcely a difference between scenes that take place in the titular park and outside it. Thankfully, the analog soundtrack selections have a warm and pleasing timbre. On another track, find a feature-length commentary with Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg, the latter very much like his screen persona except for a capacity to get paper-jammed and start compulsively using "like" as a preposition. It's a pleasant, free-flowing conversation that discusses challenges inherent to the period setting you might not have thought of (scouting for kitchens that haven't had "the Home Depot makeover," for instance) and touches on some of the autobiographical aspects of the piece. In a real Twilight Zone moment, the subject of American Graffiti leads to George Lucas being called an "actor's director." Weirder still, I sorta knew what they meant.
Kicking off the video-based extras, "Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland" (17 mins., 480i) is mostly Mottola relating Adventureland's genesis to the summer he worked as a carny, followed by the usual roll call devoting a soundbite or two to the awesomeness of each cast member. For what it's worth, Martin Starr is painfully self-deprecating here in a way that makes me miss "Freaks and Geeks" anew, and about 90% of this making-of's B-roll features the gyrations and gesticulations of "Lisa P."--not that I'm complaining. Two of the three "Deleted Scenes" (3 mins., 1080p) with optional commentary from Mottola and Eisenberg create flimsy opportunities for improvised riffing, while the same could be said of three BD exclusives: "Frigo's Ball Taps" (3 mins., 1080p), in which actor Matt Bush distinguishes each style of crotch-punch administered by the tiresome Frigo; "Lisa P's Guide to Style" (2 mins., 1080p), a legitimately funny in-character bit with actress Margarita Levieva where she compares her curls to those of "really, really amazing actress Jami Gertz" and claims beneath layers of Max Factor that her face is "au naturel"; and "Welcome to Adventureland", a batch of faux-commercials and employee-training videos--the former believable as vintage advertising, the latter hosted by Starr's Joel. Previews for Extract, the upcoming 10 Things I Hate About You 10th Anniversary Edition, the Miramax legacy, Buena Vista's Blu-ray slate, The Proposal, "Scrubs" Season 8, and "Lost" round out the disc, the first four cuing up on startup along with a stop-smoking PSA; a "song selection" menu meanwhile joins the standard "scene selections." The requisite Digital Copy comes packaged inside the keepcase. Originally published: September 1, 2009.