Thursday, April 09, 2009


Trailers are easily the bane of the film world. Whether it’s their uncanny ability to oversell the action or comedy in a film, or feature all the best jokes or stunts, or even give away massive spoilers, trailers often seem to exist solely to ruin the movie-watching experience. The most unfortunate case is when a trailer simply sells a film as something it’s not. In almost every instance of this it is due to a bad marketing department trying to make a unique gem into a marketable feast for the masses. It rarely works, and often alienates most of the audience who ate it up. One of my favourite examples is the 2006, Vince Vaughn / Jennifer Aniston comedy, The Break-Up; the film was sold as some sort of silly romantic comedy, when it was actually a very funny and poignant film examining the pains of hard break-ups. The latest film to be given a massive screwing by its trailer is Greg Mottola’s Adventureland.

The film featured unremarkable trailers selling the film as another Superbad rip-off, only this time by the guy who actually directed Superbad. Don’t get me wrong - I love Superbad – but comparing it to Superbad really does Adventureland a disservice. Adventureland is unlike Superbad in every way, except maybe its rustic-hued shooting style. The storylines are totally different, the cast is mostly completely different, and the tone is exceptionally different. Yes, it’s a comedy, but only barely.

I really can’t stand the term “dramedy” as a name for genre or category of film. It seems to assume that life’s dramas are somehow removed from everything else, and that to add humour to a realistically dramatic situation somehow means it isn’t still dramatic. Life in many ways is a comedy, albeit an occasionally tragic one, but ultimately there is humour to be found everywhere and in most every situation. Adventureland is one of the few films that seem to genuinely recognize that. It is a funny film much of the time, and there are some creatively inspired gags and lines, but the film is also quite serious. It’s a comedy unafraid to throw in vast expanses of darkness or touching contemplation; it’s also a quite, emotional film that takes pleasure in throwing in scenes funny enough to stand alongside the best scenes from any of the recent great comedies.

Adventureland is about James Brennan, a college graduate with an impressive set of life goals as a journalist and an acceptance to Columbia for grad-school. Unfortunately life kicks into gear and James’ father is demoted at work and the family is forced to take a severe income drop. The family moves to Pittsburgh and James must take the only summer job he’s actually qualified for: a games operator at Adventureland, the local amusement park. It’s about as crappy a job as there is, but there James meets Emily. He begins to fall for her almost immediately, and they soon enter into a relationship. Unfortunately things aren’t too rosy for the couple. James must deal with his family’s dwindling financial resources, a crappy job he doesn’t want, and his insecurities about sex and relationships, while Emily has a sad secret just waiting to reveal itself.

As you can see, the film is a comedy, but the plot itself is quite serious in nature. What surprised me most about the film was Mottola’s deft handling of tone. It would be very easy to make the film overly comedic without letting the more serious moments play out. The film could also have been way too serious all the time, with the comic timing falling flat and gags feeling stale. Mottola manages to weave together the light and dark in a uniquely realistic and relatable way. When a movie that has more than one gag involving erections is also deeply affecting you know the director knows what he’s doing. It really shouldn’t be too surprising considering Mottola is a veteran of the Apatow-produced sitcom, Undeclared. That TV show, while skewing far more to the funny, also managed to be emotional and tender.

The acting is also top-notch. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart play the leads, and do so effectively and with great chemistry. Eisenberg, in particular, brings to his role some great touches; he plays his character as bright and ambitions, but severely insecure. The cast is also filled with a delightful selection of characters. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader bring the funny as the managers of Adventureland. Margarita Levieva is quite inspired as the hot girl at work. But the best secondary characters are Martin Starr as the eccentrically nerdy Joel, Matt Bush as James’ former childhood friend, Frigo, and Ryan Reynolds as Mike Connell, the cool older maintenance guy who supposedly got to play with Lou Reed.

Adventureland also happens to be a period film. It takes place in the distant past of 1987. I’m not exactly sure how necessary the time-period is to the film, but I found it added a nice character to the atmosphere of the film. It’s also a great excuse to play some awesome music, and some cheesy music as well. A common thread involving a grating loop of songs played over the park’s intercom is hilarious (and something I totally related to, being a former employee of Canada’s Wonderland.) And really, any time a film gets to play the song Rock Me Amadeus is a good time, and trust me when I say there is more than one time.

Adventureland takes all the fun of the crappy job genre, and mixes it with the heartfelt and realistic emotions surrounding financial straits and relationships. If you are looking for the next Superbad you’ve found the wrong place, and I’m sorry you were misled. If you can handle in its place a funny and poignant film about the trials of life then Adventureland is perfect. Instantly quotable and deeply touching, Adventureland is easily my favourite movie of the year so far, and now I simply cannot wait for what Greg Mottola does next.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009


Nicolas Cage in a new sci-fi action-thriller could only mean disaster. That was the mindset accompanying me as I walked into the theatre to watch Knowing. Imagine my surprise when I found myself totally gripped by the premise and the story. It shouldn’t have been that surprising though: the ever-ambitious filmmaker, Alex Proyas, who was responsible for both The Crow and Dark City, directed Knowing. And for all that one may tear Knowing down, nobody can deny Proyas’ ambition. It’s a disaster film built on a unique premise that attempts to explore themes of determinism, religious faith, and the scientifically inexplicable.

Knowing stars Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, a professor at MIT. At a ceremony at his son’s school a fifty year-old time capsule is pulled out of the ground. Each student is given an envelope from the capsule. While most students get drawings in their envelopes, John’s son, Caleb, receives a piece of paper with a nearly endless series of numbers scrawled all over it. John soon discovers that the numbers are actually dates, death tolls and coordinates of every major disaster over the last fifty years, including several that have yet to happen. The film follows John as he tries to prevent the disasters and save the world from destruction prophesized by the final string of numbers.

Allow me to get the problems of the film out of the way first. The acting, across the board, is horrendous. Nicolas Cage has rarely been less convincing, and Rose Byrne, one of my favourite actresses, has been left to screaming incessantly and being a general pox on the film. The supporting players are mostly just as terrible, and that makes it very difficult for the film to sell its premise and larger themes. There are also instances of poor effects work; low budget and big CG effects do not go well together. Lastly, there is a serious structural problem in the writing of the film: the narrative focus is placed on Cage’s character, but the focus of the plot is on his son. It’s a problem that becomes more apparent after the ending of the film and calls into question the purpose of all that occurred throughout the film, including the entire point of deciphering the numbers.

But even with these major issues threatening to completely derail it, the film succeeds. Knowing is incredibly tense and the premise and unraveling of the plot is amazingly engaging. The direction, particularly of the disaster sequences, is mostly stellar. A scene in which John witnesses a plane crash is remarkably effective: in a single take we see a plane crash and all the accompanying horrors, including people being burned alive, with John completely powerless to stop the seemingly inevitable. Another sequence in a subway station is equally thrilling. Proyas clearly understands how to put together a great action sequence.

Proyas also understands pacing and tone. Knowing is a film that never really lets up, and there is always a sense of underlying dread leading to the brilliant ending of the film. The finale of the film is spectacular and goes a long way in developing the complex themes that are toyed with during the rest of the film. I can see it turning a lot of the audience off of the film, but I think the ending takes the film to a whole other level, and is appropriate both for the story as well as the larger themes of the film.

There is a lot not to like in Knowing. In many ways the film is complete mess, and in some ways (the acting) a minor disaster, but in the end I think there is a lot to like in the film. It is smart and tense and fascinating, and ultimately it’s really entertaining. That’s a lot more than can be said of a lot of recent action or sci-fi films, and on some level the sheer ambition of the film must be commended. Would I call Knowing a great film? Not at all. But there certainly is greatness buried somewhere inside it, and if you can’t find that you’ll at least be kept very entertained for two hours. Let’s just hope Nicolas Cage stays as far away from Alex Proyas’ next film as possible.

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