Friday, April 3, 2009
Amusement parks, aliens and the movies
COMING-OF-AGE IN AN AMUSEMENT PARK
I grew up five blocks from Palisades Amusement Park, a long-gone amusement park in Cliffside Park, N.J. I even worked there for part of a summer. As a former age guesser, I was particularly interested in "Adventureland," a slight but pleasant coming-of-age movie about a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who lands an amusement park job, hangs out with his fellow employees and falls in love with a kindred spirit (Kristen Stewart). I played lots of pinball in my spare time at Palisades. I did not fall in love and I ate too many of what I still regard as the best French fries ever made.
Greg Motolla ("Superbad") has directed three features, beginning with 1996's "Daytripper." Oddly, "Adventureland" feels more like a first movie than a third, perhaps because Motolla offers a collection of small insights and minor characters and gives his movie an autobiographical feel.
No one in the movie is as colorful or interesting as some of the characters I met during my amusement park days -- remind me to tell you about a guy named Applejack sometime -- but Motolla has a gentle approach that makes his movie easy to take. Even a local womanizer (Ryan Reynolds) -- a character we're prepared to dislike -- turns out to be less obnoxious than expected. Another character (Martin Starr) becomes the object of an anti-Semitic attack, and an attractive young woman (Margarita Levieva) turns heads even as she proves that her's is rather empty.
"Adventureland" is awfully slender, but it's insightful in its low-key way, and if you liked Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale," you'll probably enjoy him here. No point belaboring: "Adventureland" is one of those nicely observed films in which modest ambitions become a definite virtue.
THE PARODY ISN'T AS FUNNY AS THE ORIGINAL MOVIES
"Alien Trespass" spends 90 minutes attempting to parody the kind of sci-fi movies that were popular during the 1950s. Here's the drill: An alien spacecraft lands in a small town. An alien takes over the body of a scientist who works at the local observatory. The alien turns out to be doing Earthlings a favor: He wants to stop the onslaught of a planet-threatening, one-eyed monster that turns its victim into puddles of goop. Shot in colors that would feel right at home in any '50s kitchen and full of tacky effects, the movie does a nice job of observing the details of '50s life -- at least as we like to imagine it. Too bad, "Alien Trespass" faces an insurmountable obstacle. No parody of '50s sci-fi can be as funny as the real thing. A game cast led by Eric McCormack of TV's "Will & Grace" provides a few chuckles, and director R.W. Goodwin displays an obvious affection for the genre he's satirizing. But the movie's too mild for its own good, and the one thing it can't replicate is the mixture of innocence and paranoia that fueled '50s sci-fi and which made the strange sounds of the Theremin so perfect for it. (Don't know what a Theremin is? Have fun googling away.)