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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) October 4, 2009

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Directed by: Michael Bay

After the incredible success of Michael Bay’s unlikely Transformers [review] film adaptation, Paramount were duty bound to give it a sequel, but who would have thought that a project so impossibly complex could have arrived on our screens so quickly?  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen lands just two short years after its predecessor, and seems to have passed though the sequel-wash on its way here.  More action, more characters, more plot, more running time; all the usual facets of a summer blockbusting follow-up are there.  But so are all the negatives: less adherence to sense, less comprehensibility, less reason to care why you’re watching robots pound each other’s faces in all over again.

This time around our unlikely hero Sam Witwicky is off to college, leaving his boisterous parents, gorgeous girlfriend, and transforming robot-car at home.  Of course, he barely gets two classes into the semester before he is once again whisked off to prevent a war between metal factions that, as a by-product, also spells certain doom for mankind.  It turns out that a shard of the Allspark - the first movie’s all-powerful energy source - has imprinted ancient symbols into Sam’s brain, that manifest themselves in bouts of bizarre subconscious scrawling on any available surface.  These symbols reveal the location of the Matrix of Leadership, an ancient piece of robot gadgetry that would allow Earth to be drained of energy.  The deadly Decepticons come after Sam for this knowledge, but once again he has the righteous Autobots on side to even the fight.  And there are certainly plenty of those.

Make no mistake, this movie is huge even by Bay standards.  It’s also a film that cleverly dodges smart criticism by being so resolutely mindless that you can’t even start an intelligent dissection of it lest your mind immediately turn to mush.  Even its star Megan Fox knows her place: “People are well aware that this is not a movie about acting” she now famously said during the stateside release.  And yet Bay still leapt to the film’s defence.  I dread to think that he believes this franchise is anything more than a collection of explosions, effects, and exploding effects, but the sheer joy he seems to take in doing it after all these years suggests that there’s something more to it for him than just churning out these two-hour headache initiators.

Speaking of which, Revenge of the Fallen is loud.  Or, more accurately, noisy - a statement which applies to both sound and picture, as heavily detailed robotics and swathes of army merchandise fly across the screen, filling all corners with larger-than-life action sequences every ten minutes or so.  When there’s not a giant robot to be crushed, or a large deserted area to destroy, the film uses its time-outs to throw plot at you.  Most of the time, this is pithy momentum material, serving to push us on to the next battle, but about half way through the film we stop for a belated history lesson, taking the story off in a new, convoluted direction that is way too sci-fi even for this franchise.  Merging ancient history with the present day isn’t the most original of ideas to begin with, but attempt to mould this history with that of giant robots from beyond the stars, and watch your interest drop off the charts.

So guess what? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is pretty stupid.  Yet, despite horrible reviews and a general drubbing even from fans, the film still pulled in huge audiences around the globe.  There is almost no reason for trying to make the point that it is incredibly lazy, stupefyingly moronic, or downright lecherous in nature; it’s summer, so all these points fall on deaf ears.  What has made it such a success?  How about incredible special effects, never-ending action sequences, and some seat gripping fights (when you can make out what’s happening) - all the things that apply to more base-level instincts and emotions.  All in all it’s quite a head-spinner, and you do come out a little dazed.

The delirium effect isn’t helped by a running length that stretches itself to a downright unnecessary two and a half hours.  They may have blown the doors off the Star Trek universe this summer with their action-packed reboot [review], but here, writing team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (along with The Ring [review] writer Ehren Kruger), feel substantially more hindered.  The time pressure has clearly had an effect, and the script has little of the wit or fun of their first Transformers outing.  It all gets so bogged down in its own mythology and high-impact thrills that you’ll barely have time to notice what the characters are actually saying or doing.

These characters, incidentally, are played by a host of familiar faces from the first movie.  Shia LaBeouf returns as the irrepressible Sam Witwicky, Megan Fox runs around a lot as girlfriend Mikaela, while Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White, all reprise their previous roles.  Ramon Rodriguez is the new guy, playing Shia LaBeouf’s conveniently conspiracy-obsessed college room-mate Leo Spitz, and unpredictably sticks around for the entire movie.  He is merely another product of sequel-itis though, and his contributions add nothing meaningful.

There’s little doubt this is Michael Bay movie - or should that be ‘product’.  Marketed to the extreme and executed with that perfect summer formula which has turned him into one of the most financially successful directors of all time, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a film that embraces its compromises and disregards its failings.  A perfect example of Bay’s brashness comes early on when Sam turns up to college and nobody comments that they’ve just arrived at the only educational establishment in Strippersville, USA.  Then, as if to force the point, when Sam’s parents later take a holiday, it turns out there’s a Strippersville in France too!  His focus is unashamedly about aesthetics above all else, but like his world of human perfection, the beauty is only skin deep.  Inside is a film wrought with a mess of story points, superficial characters, and only occasionally distracting visuals.

District 9 (2009) September 28, 2009

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Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Anyone who caught Doug Jones’ inconspicuous, low-budget sci-fi feature Moon [review] during its limited release will know that hope for this ailing genre has already been recaptured once this year in a thoughtful film by a first-time feature director.  If you missed it though, here’s your second chance.  As yet another debut feature, District 9 tells a provocative human story through the medium of alien occupancy, providing a film with a little more meat on its bones, and plenty to digest after the credits roll.

Set in an alternate 2010, the film captures life in Johannesburg, South Africa, twenty years after an alien spaceship came to a rest over the city and dumped its intergalactic passengers down on the surface.  Any goodwill shown towards these new residents was short-lived, however, and it wasn’t long before the aliens - nicknamed ‘Prawns’ for their odd looks - were being herded into a cordoned-off area referred to as District 9.  Now, having ravaged the slum where they currently live, the Government wants the aliens moved again, this time to a newly built but equally poor facility called District 10.  In charge of this important assignment is Wikus van der Merwe, a recently promoted office worker who’s about to get his first taste of field work.  All, of course, does not go to plan - as tensions flare in District 9, overly aggressive soldiers turn to violence, while Wikus himself makes a mistake that fuses alien DNA with his own. Exiled from humanity, Wikus takes refuge in the heart of the dangerous slums he is supposed to be clearing.

In order to keep up with this rather bizarre story, the film employs an inventive shooting style that differs from the norm.  Much of the film is presented as a documentary, or through the lens of a camera which is actually supposed to be on the scene, rather than some omnipresent angle on reality.  While it makes for a common opening or pre-title sequence, it soon turns out that director Neill Blomkamp is not just using the documentary as an expositional gimmick, instead utilising the uniquely grounded perspective as a method to draw the audience into his alternate reality.  Admirably, the film manages to keep this up for most of the first act, before it is forced to add scenes set outside the realm of real cameras, in order to further the film’s central story.  At first this transition between reality and fantasy view points can be a little jarring, but it is never confusing, and as the film continues the mix of footage becomes increasingly natural.

Meanwhile, the production design of the film is simply extraordinary.  From District 9’s dilapidated slums, to the alien inhabitants themselves, plus their gigantic mothership and all their advanced weaponry, everything is brought to life in stunning detail.  Some of the credit here can be handed to the digital teams at numerous production houses, including Weta - a side-effect of having superstar director Peter Jackson on board (the film is notably “Presented by…” so as to trade off the association).  The ‘Prawns’ - entirely digital creations painstakingly brought to life by computer artists - are a particular triumph, blending with the scenes around them perfectly.  But this should not take away from the non-CG elements, which on a surprisingly sparse budget of $30 million, still manage to create an incredibly believable world.  An important factor in any feature that stylises itself half the time as a documentary.

Interestingly for a sci-fi movie, we can at least recognise the locations as having a basis in reality.  Inspired by Blomkamp’s childhood in South Africa, and based on his six-minute short film Alive in Joberg, District 9 makes use of real life experiences and areas, to find the truth in its surroundings.  Creating a full-length feature has allowed Blomkamp and fellow first-time writer Terri Tatchell, to expand their themes and delve deeper into the discrimination motif explored by the short film.  In doing so, they have created a movie with action and sci-fi overtones, but a distinctly dramatic core.  And in its central character of Wikus Van De Merwe, it finds the resonance to tackle both.

So while the criticism that you can piece together the arguments and events of District 9 from a collection of other movies may be true, it is this central performance by Sharlto Copley that provides the film’s real revelation.  Like Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s recent historical fantasy Inglourious Basterds [review], he is unlikely to remain an unknown for long, but here his anonymity works wonders for believability.  Starting the film as a bit of an office-bound geek, his good (or possibly bad) fortune forces him into a position of authority, where Copley pitches the character’s revelry in this sudden power perfectly.  Then there is the twist, and Wikus’s life descends into turmoil as he slowly becomes an unlikely subject for our sympathy.  It is not an easy line to tread, especially as our protagonist’s personal battles cause him to cross the moral boundary line once or twice.  But throughout the entire range of these complex emotions, Copley is never less than excellent.

All this in comparison to the generic masses, which in this case refers to the migrant ‘Prawns’.  Lawless and without direction, they descend into mindless savagery, much like humans are seen to do in every movie that throws an apocalypse their way.  This human connection is not to be underestimated, as District 9 is essentially a human story, told through extra-terrestrial beings, and packed with issues that plague our planet.  The most obvious parallel, given the setting, is with apartheid, as the Prawns become racially separated by the human world and eventually segregated into a fenced off slum.  Their apocalypse, it seems, was coming to Earth in the first place.  This issue is the film’s central and most laboured one, unsubtle and entirely intentional, but there are smaller and equally interesting ideas to note here, like the abuse of all possible technological advancements for militaristic purposes, and the increasingly hostile attitude towards immigration.

Maybe the most surprising aspect of District 9 is that it’s a low-budget film which is smart enough to know that roundtable issues and metaphors will only carry a mainstream audience so far.  With that, it picks up the pace for an all-action finale, playing like The Fugitive meets Aliens during the last half hour, as Wikus finally asserts himself to a cause that is not self-serving.  It certainly provides plenty of ‘cool’ moments, but whether its slightly tacked-on inclusion does the film any good as a whole is more debatable.  The dramatic high point comes well before all the high octane showboating, with a squirm-inducing sequence set inside a Government research lab that is both seat pinning and, at times, truly harrowing.  These scenes, along with many others in the first hour, show human beings up as the real devils in this tale of intergalactic intolerance.  The film’s tagline: “You are not welcome here”, a biting reminder that nothing in this alien story is too far from human truth.

District 9 is currently on UK general release.

The Soloist (2009) September 23, 2009

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Directed by: Joe Wright

Leaving behind the period pieces for a modern day tale of chance and hope, director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) puts his mark on this real-life story set on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

The film is told from the perspective of Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, who is desperately searching for his next story idea when he bumps into a talented but homeless violin player in a downtown park.  The musician’s name is Nathaniel Ayres and with a little research Steve discovers that he was formerly a cellist, and a drop-out from the famous music and arts school, Juilliard.  Steve has his story.  But the tale doesn’t stop there - overwhelmed by the columns, one elderly reader sends her old cello for Nathaniel to play.  Meanwhile, Steve sets about trying to help his new-found friend, believing that he may be able to convince Nathaniel to treat his debilitating mental illness problems and become a great musician again.  After spending more time and writing a series of stories on Nathaniel, though, this proves to be a more difficult task than he had anticipated.  As Steve comes to learn, his good intentions might be mistaking Nathaniel’s real needs.

Playing Steve Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. remains a very watchable screen presence, picking up where he left off as a newspaper journalist in David Fincher’s Zodiac [review] and updating the character for the modern day.  He is the right amount of obsessive and compassionate to make us care in the story, even if all the real work seems to go to Jamie Foxx, as desolate cellist Nathaniel Ayers.  His performance is overstated and could appear a little forced to those unaware of how the real Mr. Ayres conducts his conversations.  Like Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Julia Child in the recent Julie & Julia, it may be a role that only becomes whole if you know what to expect going in.  Still, Foxx handles the emotional ups and downs of Nathaniel with his usual skill, and manages to create a character who, despite a generally non-confrontational demeanour, still appears quite frightening during the one scene where he breaks down.

Joe Wright throws in his own directorial flourishes to fill out the movie.  Any scene where Nathaniel plays his cello takes on a dream-like atmosphere, allowing you to feel the music and drown out any noise of the world around.  Some of the visual choices, such as the birds that swoop around and then rise up above the busy intersection, are a little heavy-handed, but there is one rather brave move towards the middle of the film that does seems to work, albeit in an odd way.  When Steve takes Nathaniel to the Disney Concert Hall for the first time, they listen to an orchestra rehearsal, and we get to witness a visual representation of Nathaniel experiencing the music.  For a couple of minutes the screen is overtaken by nothing but flashes of colour set to the orchestra, pulsating and reacting to the ebb and flow of the sound.  It is both fascinating and a little distracting, as you realise that you are sat with a motionless audience staring at just the simplest of colour changes.  Even if it pulls you out of the film for a moment, it is not there to be interpreted like an art installation, instead holding a set purpose in the movie to let you experience the music rather than focus on the visuals.

With the real Steve Lopez’s book - The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music - as a guide, screenwriter Susannah Grant adapts the story and brings it to the screen efficiently and effectively.  The dialogue is sometimes snappy, but more meaning can be taken from what isn’t said in The Soloist, which provides thoughtful and poignant moments, but also lets the pace drag during certain sections of the movie.  The story itself is a little unnatural on screen, darting back and forth between similar locations, often with the same goal in mind.  Besides interesting sequences like those that flash back to Nathaniel’s youth, or the voice-over quotations from Steve’s actual LA Times columns, the film’s ongoing theme of futility starts to bare down on the narrative during the last half hour.

In fact, the biggest problem the film runs into is the way in which it becomes limited by its own moral.  As Steve Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel in any way he can, it becomes clear that help is not what Nathaniel really wants or requires.  What it adds up to is a conclusion that is open-ended and a little narratively unfulfilling.  In order to subdue this effect, writer Susannah Grant has fabricated a marital issue in Steve’s life that is not part of the real story.  It is supposed to alleviate the flat ending with some kind of point, but as it was never part of the actual tale it feels tacked onto this version, and ultimately adds little to the film’s real central relationship, between Steve and Nathaniel.

The Soloist is an effective drama, and for at least the first two acts plays unpredictably as Steve feels his way through the odd relationship he forms with this gifted, but troubled street musician.  It is fortunate to have the true story to lean on, and this stops it from becoming another by-the-numbers tale of uplifting human spirit, keeping its feet more firmly on the ground when it comes to morals.  In fact, the script and direction do a great job of not elevating the character of Nathaniel out of his squalid conditions, but rather pulling Steve, and the audience, right down into it.  The scenes shot on LA’s skid row and around the LAMP Community centre show a troubled world very different from the LA we are used to seeing on screen.  This may well be the film’s strongest asset - a deep-rooted sense of reality brought on by using the actual locations.  A final title card announces that there are 90,000 homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles, a disturbing thought for those leaving the theatre to return to their home comforts, and an especially poignant ending to this slow paced but otherwise rhythmic drama, let down only by its discordant ending.

The Soloist is on UK general release from Friday September 25th.

Away We Go (2009) September 16, 2009

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

As one of my favourite working directors, Sam Mendes has produced a series of films in the past decade that seem to celebrate a certain turmoil in life.  Two in particular stand out as similar variations on this theme, namely the Oscar winning American Beauty and his recent adaptation of Revolutionary Road [review], which both took a downbeat attitude towards marriage and turned it into a biting modern family breakdown and gripping period suburban drama, respectively.  With that out of his system, maybe it’s no surprise to see that this latest movie is a celebration of love and life - both the living and creating.  It appears like a ray of sunshine in the darkness; a beautifully pitched alkaline to his better-known acidic screen relationships.

Finding themselves in their mid-thirties and pregnant, Burt and Verona decide that it’s time to sort their lives out.  When Burt’s parents suddenly announce that they are moving to Belgium, the couple take the opportunity to free themselves of Denver and their house with the cardboard window, and move where they can raise their child properly.  In order to make an informed choice, they stay with old friends and relatives who help them to understand that parenting isn’t a by-the-book procedure.  Fearful of their own abilities, Burt and Verona look for a model family to base their own on, but it seems that no matter how many states they visit, there is no such thing as the perfect family.

The film has distinct, independent values at heart, and, complete with a couple of quirky lead characters and their collection of equally eccentric friends, lends itself perfectly to the low-key comedy drama category.  It’s also a road trip film at heart, but instead of bustling its scenes around in a yellow VW van Little Miss Sunshine [review] style, the story focuses more on the destinations than the travelling itself.  As such, we capture only short glimpses of its central couple on the road, and spend more time with the people they meet along the way, which in turn helps to establish the film’s abundant views on family.  One of the oddest twists to the story is that Burt and Verona aren’t so much picking a place to live - sizing up the climate, location and such - as much as choosing the type of family they could raise.  From dysfunctional desert-dwellers in Arizona, to an adopted menagerie in Montreal, their options are very much defined by the people, not the places.

It is this kind of wide-eyed innocence you come to expect from the film’s central couple, however.  Burt and Verona are the story’s anchor and have the kind of non-standard relationship that you rarely see in film, which is to say, a perfectly happy one.  They appear relentlessly in love, something that proves to be the movie’s one consistent thread.  As the story bounces them around the different states, the couple remain almost hopelessly upbeat and unwavering in the strength of their bond.  What it does not resort to, though, is turning this innocence into naivety or weakness - something that would have destroyed any investment in them.  As it stands, they are wonderfully crafted creations, and, if not entirely believable, still make for enjoyable company on this whistle-stop tour of family archetypes.

So while the script, by first-time screenwriters Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers, works to give our guides the necessary human quirks, it is with the periphery couples where they really get to cut loose and have fun.  From Allison Janney’s slightly bonkers suburban mum, to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hippie family unit, most of the laughs are centred around finding the fun in dysfunctional, and highlighting the cracks in these so-called responsible adults.  The script also finds moments to be more serious too, including a scene while in Canada that turns into the film’s most poignant stop-off, and an honest diatribe from a recently single dad in Miami that neatly strikes to the core of parental anxiety.  Luckily, the story never loses its grasp on hope, which plays a big part in the eventual conclusion.

In order to convey the wide range of characters on display, director Sam Mendes has gathered a fantastic cast, of which those already mentioned all put in great work, as do Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara who, as Burt’s parents, give laugh-out-loud performances.  It is with the two leads, though, where things get interesting.  John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are maybe not the most obvious choices for these quietly romantic oddballs, yet they mix the comic and human elements of their characters to make them marvellously charming rather than moribundly irritating.  As perfect as their relationship is, they restrain the instinct to overplay it, or give you room to doubt the characters’ good intentions.  They are undoubtedly the basis on which this film is built, and provide a solid foundation for the laughs that follow.

There is one more twist in the tale, however.  For all its obvious overtones as the thematic antithesis of previous Sam Mendes movies, Away We Go remains similar in its pessimism towards marriage.  Verona spurns Burt’s proposals as she “doesn’t see the point”, and while a deeper reason is revealed later in the film, what it really highlights is that it’s not a change in subject matter that makes this film different, but rather the way it is presented - an assessment that could apply to the whole movie.  Gone is the sarcastic, downbeat attitude and in its place, something bright, honest, and hopeful.  Accompanied by Alexi Murdoch’s melancholic acoustic soundtrack, the film whisks you off on a 98-minute journey and keeps you smiling all the way.  A humanist holiday that’s well worth packing your bags for.

Away We Go is on UK general release from Friday September 18th.

Adventureland (2009) September 9, 2009

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Directed by: Greg Mottola

Casting us back to the late 80’s, Adventureland is the second story of reckless teenage abandon from director Greg Mottola.  His previous feature, the foul-mouthed Superbad [review], was a huge success and cashed in vigorously on the frat-pack goodwill brought by writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.  This time around the script is penned by Mottola himself, who, left to his own devices, has turned in a substantially more understated affair.  For all the thematic similarities, it is a film that clearly marks itself from its predecessor, with sweetness instead of sex-talk, and despondency in place of desperation.

It’s the summer of 1987 and James Brennan is expecting it to be a great one.  With a blow-out European tour planned before he starts at an Ivy League New York school in the Autumn, his life is really looking up.  That is, until his parents undergo some money troubles, and James’s trip – as well as possible educational future – falls under jeopardy.  Now, the only way he can afford the school and life he has worked so hard for is, apparently, to work some more.  James takes a job at the crummy local theme park, questionably named ‘Adventureland’, where he is put on ‘games’ and sent off to while away the hours while his friends are in Europe.  Initially downbeat about what he is missing, James soon starts to realise that it is not the job, but the oddball characters and friends that he makes who will decide the fate of his summer.  And one, a girl named Em, might just make it a great summer, after all.

It’s the classic setup for a coming-of-age film, only with a period setting that seems to be focussed on musical preference rather than anything in the story, which is the relatively timeless tale of that awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood.  It may also be a nod to the fact that some of the best teen movies were made during the 80’s, and Adventureland sometimes evokes a little John Hughes charm in its character archetypes.  Everyone is a little bit emotionally broken, especially its central female character of Em, played by Kristin Stewart, who puts her standard low-key performance to good use while constantly adjusting her hair to the point of OCD.  It works, but only because she is supposed to be confused, emotionally torn and a little morally bankrupted due to her broken home upbringing.

Our hero, on the other hand, is more a classic underdog.  With his slightly floundering mannerisms and bumbling disposition, Jesse Eisenberg plays James as the good-hearted outsider who is truly open to love, but not great at acting on it.  The same is true of Martin Starr, who takes the role of outright nerd Joel, and gives him a quiet, unappreciated reality.  In fact, very few people get a chance to stand out in Adventureland, as even the usually quip-heavy Ryan Reynolds, last seen bantering with Sandra Bullock in The Proposal [review], is relegated to a non-comedic position as the mechanic who puts a spanner in the works of James’s plan.  Only Bill Hader gets to play anything approaching energetic, as the park’s quirky manager and keeper of the peace.

It is this reverence to a depressed low-fi mood that makes Adventureland somewhat of a left turn for fans arriving in theatres based on the knowledge that this film is, as its poster describes it, “from the director of Superbad”.  There’s no denying the truth of that claim, but if you’re expecting the kind of brash, outrageous comedy that it implies, you’re bound to be disappointed.  The title sequence immediately gives off an indie vibe, pitching itself like a slightly less verbose Juno [review], and that same mood, one of quiet teenage suffering and small emotional connections, is what carries the film through to its hopeful conclusion.  There’s still a fair bit of profanity as well as some teenage drinking and mild drug use, but the coarseness and madcap pace of Mottola’s last film has been cast aside in favour of something more honest, and more real.

Does it pay off?  Well, yes and no.  The script is neat and tidy, hitting all the points you expect it to as a burgeoning relationship emerges between James and Em, only to be threatened by the manipulating character of Mike (the mechanic – an intentional pop music gag?)  It can be slow, and never feels in a rush to get wherever it is going, which may add to the lazy summer vibe, but doesn’t exactly demand your constant attention.  Secondly, and maybe more importantly, as a comedy it isn’t filled with as many laughs as one might like.  There are chuckles, wry smiles, and the occasional smirk, but very few proper laughs - often you’ll find yourself mentally acknowledging the jokes, but not getting any physical reaction from them.  It’s a difficult thing to balance comedy and reality, but I’d say that Mottola has fallen on just the wrong side of the line this time around.

With solid direction and a decent ensemble cast, Adventureland is a likeable entry into the coming of age genre.  Given a few more moments of comic exuberance, and a few less angsty, self-reflective conversations, Mottola may well have been on to a winner, especially given the current embracing of indie-flavoured teen pictures and the so-called ‘mumblecore’.  The mood of the film is spot on, but the standard teen comedy crowd might see things differently when they pay their entrance fees and try to go along for the ride.  Because much like the Adventureland park itself, this film may advertise copious fun and thrills from the outside, but inside it delivers a significantly tempered experience.

Adventureland is on UK general release from Friday September 11th.

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