Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Adventureland (2009): I don't remember the summer of 1987 very well; I was about 3 at the time. So perhaps the nostalgic element of Adventureland are a bit lost on me with its 80s soundtrack and repeated references to Lou Reed. Yet despite my lack of sentimental love for the 80s, Greg Mottola (Superbad) has crafted a coming-of-age summer love story filled with awkward sincerity. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and is about to embark on a summer-long trip to Europe with his Ivy-league pals before heading to Columbia graduate school in the fall. The plan falls apart upon learning that James' father has taken a significant pay cut, which means that James is going to need a summer job (you have to wonder how many teens are facing the same economic reality this summer!). He ends up at Adventureland, a local amusement park that seems to attract only the quirkiest of characters as employees. There's Frigo, James' childhood friend who seems to revel in being a complete idiot. There's Joel (great name!), a Russian-literature obsessed nerd brimming with dark sarcasm. There's Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the attractive-yet-sleazy maintenance guy. There's Lisa P., the ditzy Catholic girl that every guy at the park lusts after. And finally, there's Em (Kristen Stewart), the deeply attractive insecure girl that James finds himself falling in love with.

Adventureland feels like an homage to John Cusack coming-of-age films from the 80s (think Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, and Say Anything), with Jesse Eisenberg doing his best to capture the awkward charm of Cusack. I love those kind of films, so this was a pleasant surprise. The story runs a tight balance between that naively ideal romance you read about in classic novels and the harsh realities of our broken world. Much less laugh-out-loud than Superbad, there are still a lot of hilarious moments with Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig as the goofy park managers. But perhaps the most touching performance is Kristin Stewart as Em, the darkly attractive girl who is self-aware enough to know her own identity, yet insecure enough to allow herself to make a multitude of relational mistakes. Greg Mottola manages to capture those completely awkward real-life moments during dating. You know, the ones that seem somewhat cute when you're a part of the romance, but almost disgustingly cliche when you're watching two people go through it together. James and Em perfectly embody those awkward initial feelings of romance and interest. (And to be forewarned: the film is quite candid in its sexual dialogue, though there aren't any explicit scenes or nudity.)

Adventureland is a delightfully authentic snapshot at how three summer months can radically change one's life. If you've ever had a crappy summer job or grew up in the 80s, this might be one of your favorite films from this year.

Henry Poole Is Here (2008): If I told you there was an indie film coming out featuring Luke Wilson, George Lopez, and Cheryl Hines, you might think it was a comedy. If I told you that this same indie film had Jesus' face appear in a stain on the side of a house that leads people to the house to see the "miracle," you might think it was going to be quirky, funny, and potentially spiritually inspiring.

You would be wrong.

Directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies), Henry Poole Is Here is a sad meditation on finding meaning and faith in one's life, with a little bit of a love story thrown in. Henry (Luke Wilson) has been diagnosed with an unknown disease that will kill him within weeks. Depressed and numb, Henry purchases a house near his childhood home, the place he last remembers feeling happy. A poor stucco job on the house leaves a large brown stain. This stain becomes the obsession of Henry's next-door neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), who believes that the face of Jesus Christ is miraculously present in the stain. Examined by a priest (George Lopez, in a completely miscast role) and seemingly causing miracles in the lives of the next door neighbor and the grocery store girl, people show up at Henry's house believing that the stain can heal them. Henry is convinced that these people are crazy, and he's got great a lot of evidence against them. Seriously, who repeatedly trespasses on other people's property to see the Jesus-like stain on the side of someone's house? How on earth is that anything like Jesus' command to "love your neighbor as yourself?"

The film focuses mainly on Henry's depression and his slow-paced romance with the next door neighbor woman (Radha Mitchell). Mitchell is strangely delightful; Wilson is mostly blank stares and angry outbursts. The film does a decent job of bringing up the debate of faith versus reason without having a bias, allowing the audience to choose for themselves. I could see this film leading to discussions about spirituality, whether it's an opiate for the masses or a the only legitimate way to live. Yet the attempts at spiritual revelation feel a bit shallow, mostly due to Esperanza's annoying character, Henry's bitterness towards life, and George Lopez cast as a priest. Every character has enough flaws to be both contemptible and relatable; you don't want to like these characters, but you can't help seeing yourself in them.

Henry Poole Is Here was marketed poorly, plain and simple. It's labeled a "dark comedy," but there's really almost no comedy whatsoever. There's a lot of crying, a lot of deep contemplation, and a lot of sequences resembling music videos (director Mark Pellington began his film career directing videos for U2 and Pearl Jam). The film tries a little too hard to capture the American indie zeitgeist, including blurred and shaky cameras, lots of slow overhead shots, and lots of indie music for the soundtrack. All this to say, it's not a bad film, per se. Just don't go in expecting to laugh very much.

The Edge of Heaven (2007): Driven entirely by character development, The Edge of Heaven is an emotional journey through the six intertwining lives of people from Turkey and Germany. There is the Turkish professor and his eccentric father living in Germany; there is the hooker seeking a better life and trying to reconnect with her political rebel of a daughter; there is the good-natured German student and her quietly caring mother. We've seen foreign intersecting stories before, most recently with the Oscar-nominated Babel (one of my favorite films from 2006). Yet this film is less about plot--though there is a story arc for every character--and more about how people are absolutely fascinating.

I love people watching. If I'm in a mall food court or an airport or a coffee shop by a busy street, I could sit all day long and watch the variety of people walking by, wondering about each of their fascinating stories. I love seeing the beauty in ordinary people. Maybe this is why films like Magnolia and The Thin Red Line are two of my favorite films of all time; they are snapshots of the intertwining lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In The Edge of Heaven, the six characters are a strange mixture of German and Turkish people who happen to have intertwining stories in exceptional ways. This film is like getting the full story behind the people watching; it's becoming emotionally invested in those brief encounters we have with other human beings every day. Every character's story is dramatically altered through their encounters with the other characters, no matter how brief or seemingly ordinary.

There is a deeper truth here: none of us are ordinary. Some of us seem like we lead boring or uneventful lives, but God has created us as finite reflections of His infinite beauty and character, which means that we somehow reflect some of his beauty in our ordinary lives. If you're the kind of person who is willing to give a German/Turkish foreign film a chance, The Edge of Heaven is a wondrous picture of how enthralling each of our stories truly is.

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