Archive for January, 2009

City of Ember (2008)

hr_city_of_ember_posterMythmaking in the movies has never enjoyed a more fruitful age than this present era of special effects.  What’s missing, however, is the depth and subtly the filmmakers of the past could weave without easy access to glitter and glow.  City of Ember, another Walden Media kid-lit adaptation, has all the ingredients needed to create a compelling myth.  What it lacks is the patience to let it all simmer. 

Ember, based on the book by Jeanne Duprau, begins as the Builders prepare humanity for the end.  They have constructed Ember, a vast city, deep underground, to shelter the human race from an unnamed catastrophe.  In a small parcel, they lock away a prepared a set of instructions to lead the people out once enough time has passed.  They set the parcel’s timer for 200 years, and as the years tick by, the parcel is passed down to each of Ember’s mayors, until by accident, the parcel is lost. 

Now, the Builders are regarded as little more than legends, the timer on the box reached zero long ago, and Ember’s vast array of lights are beginning to flicker and go out. 

It is Assignment Day; the day Ember’s young students will draw a job out of a hat and start a career.  Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) wants to work in the generator room.  Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) wants to be a messenger, and when her and Doon end up with jobs neither one likes, a trade suits both their desires—Lina accepts Doon’s messenger assignment, and Doon heads for the pipeworks. 

The story unfolds against Doon’s obsession with learning the massive generator’s workings, and a tiny parcel Lina’s little sister Poppy discovers in the closet.  Inside, Lina finds the Builders’ instructions, half chewed by the precocious toddler, and she enlists Doon’s help to learn its secrets. 

Differences between book and film always create a divide between any established fan base, and the film’s audience.  In this case, screenwriter Caroline Thompson (who also penned Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) adds the character of Doon’s father Loris (Tim Robbins), who helps to elevate some of the thematic weight that takes the book 50 pages to convey. 

Loris likes to build things when he’s not rambling off words of wisdom to his son.  “Notice the things no one else notices,” Loris tells Doon, “and you’ll know the things no one else knows.”  Though it may seem a tad cliché, it serves the narrative’s thematic direction: pursuit of the intended will and purpose entrusted to them by those who sought to protect them.  “If you have proof, you have to pursue it!”

The people of Ember, however, embody a collective disillusionment. Their mayor (Bill Murray) espouses unity and courage, yet drinks from the cup of corruption once he steps back behind his veil.  Devout believers in the Builders wander the streets singing hymns, yet most of the city’s inhabitants believe the Builders abandoned them.  Food is in short supply, and the city is cursed by frequent blackouts that last longer and longer.  The quest to find a way out becomes a linchpin to the narrative—the Builders never abandoned them; they left instructions. 

The plot garners all the magic of modern mythmaking—new beginnings, transcendence, courage and conviction.  The filmmakers fail, however, in not taking enough time to unfold its developing themes, and linger on their inherent beauty. Not that the film looks bad—cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet lifts Ember right off the pages of Duprau’s book, lighting the city’s interior with bright phosphorescent yellow, contrasted with the deep black of the city’s dark outskirts. 

Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) lends some competence to the film’s shortcomings—he knows the value of the landscape of a character’s face, but spends too much time setting up pay-offs that end too soon.  His cast, however, delivers.  Bill Murray downshifts his antics and delivers a surprisingly subtle villain, and Tim Robbins channels a little of Andy DuFresne’s meticulous patience. 

Saoirse Ronan (who earned an Oscar nom for her work in Atonement) is an actress to watch.  While Ember never really gives her a chance to stretch her legs, at 14-years-old, she’s already learned that her eyes convey the best body language.

Duprau’s novel is a visual, imaginative splendor, and a ripe candidate for screen adaptation, particularly for Walden Media.  And while City of Ember certainly falls among the better entries in the Walden canon, it still cannot maintain the grasp needed to carry the weight of creating a modern myth.

(you can also see this review at Blogcritics here)

Logging on to Blogcritics

The people at Blogcritics have graciously picked me up as a writer. For my first piece, I wrote out a review for City of Ember, which I later learned someone had already posted, but who knows. I’ve only really been at this for 24 hours, so when I know more, you’ll know more.

I’ll post the review here and at Aspect:Ratios as soon as I can.  Also, since I have spent so much time blogging on movies and TV and little else, I may switch venues here in the coming weeks and just hang out full time at that little outpost Sam Gaines and I started after Infuze’s collapse.  Right now, I’m recycling a lot of the stuff I write here over there, but I write new stuff, I’ll post it there too. 

If I move, I’ll let you all know.  Promise.

The Oscars – Baloney by Any Other Name…

oscarstatue_325Oscar has spoken, and the nominees are in.  When the lights come down and Hugh Jackman takes the stage, I can promise one thing:


I will not be watching. 


This year casts all Oscar clichés into gleaming bronze.  Each film nominated for the top prize this year (with the possible exception of The Visitor) was built to be a contender—dense, sophisticated,  literary looking titles released over the last two months, all waving a sign just begging for a nod.   


There was a time, not so long ago, when the Academy would take the occasional look outside the November/December window.  The Sixth Sense, a late summer 1999 release, earned both public and critical favor before landing a nomination in a year that included American Beauty and The Cider House Rules. 


I do not get to see enough movies anymore to really weigh in on what makes the best movie of the year.  But I did get to see Benjamin Button.  Wouldn’t miss a David Fincher film.  And after sitting through a three-hour, uninspired retread of Forrest Gump, I can easily say that both Wall-E and The Dark Knight, are better films. 


Related: Jeffrey Overstreet outlines his thoughts of Oscar’s outrageous behavior, and John Nolte offers up his picks of the top five films overlooked by Oscar’s 81 year run. 


When the Oscars air on Feb 22, do yourself a favor and go read a book.  It’s the best act of rebellion. 

If you see one version of Forrest Gump this year…

The review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I would have written, were I endowed with a smidge more talent and courage. (HT: Overstreet)

The Curious Case of Forrest Gump (click to view)

Fearless (1993)

fearless2Fearless opens in a cornfield.  Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), a successful architect, leads a small parade of dirty refugees through the tall foliage and into a clearing to find the remains of their plane that fell from the sky.

Emergency crews have arrived, spraying the fires, pulling people to safety.  Max leads his caravan to aid.  Were you on the plane, an EMT asks.  No, Max says, and we know he’s lying.  He hops a cab and heads to a motel.   He rents a room, showers, and stares at himself in the mirror.  You’re alive, he says.  But he does not appear convinced.

What we learn about the crash evolves throughout the film in flashbacks (a precursor to Lost, in a small way), and early on, we get our first look.  Max is flying home with his best friend and business partner (John DeLancie).  The plane jerks, the engines whine.  The pilot cuts in over the PA to tell everyone that the plane has suffered a complete hydraulic failure, and that they’re going to have to ditch.  The plane banks, pitches, and starts a rapid decent; the flight attendants do their best to get everyone organized, even lock all the ladies’ high-heeled shoes in a lavatory.  Max grips the armrests of his seat, terrorized.

Recall, for a moment, an early scene in Big Fish where little Ed Bloom looks in the witch’s eye, and sees the moment of his death.  This knowledge has already frightened two of his friends, who fled the witch’s house screaming.  Bloom, however, calls the knowledge a “help,” and later as he spins his tall tales, he faces certain dangers and threats with a special kind of courage.  “I don’t die here,” he declares at one point, just before Bloom confronts a giant.  On the plane, Max attains a similar catharsis: this is the moment of his death.  And he is unafraid.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, Witness) unfolds a layered study of psychological trauma.  On one end is Max, suffering a peculiar form of post-traumatic stress syndrome where he requires the continual high of overcoming his fear, and thinks he’s invincible.  On the other is Carla (Rosie Perez), oppressed by crushing guilt and remorse over losing her toddler in the crash.

Given film’s unique ability to create an experience within a narrative, some have argued that the experience is the medium’s chief end.  Weir seems to embrace such an understanding, at times using his film’s narrative to prod the audience into questions through subjective visuals, rather than allow them to lapse into concrete understanding by spelling out the details.  Be it the girls of Appleyard College (Picnic at Hanging Rock), or the boys of Mr. Keating’s English class (Dead Poets Society), Weir uses their stories to plumb their inner worlds, and invites the audience to do so as well.

One of the themes that under girds — sometimes more implicitly than anything else, lying just under the surface — much of Weir’s work is the pursuit of LIFE, as opposed to mere “life.”  “Life” is sometimes tawdry, repetitive, meaningless and rote.  LIFE is active.  It lives.  It creates, overcomes, adapts, learns, and finds excitement, even in the midst of fear.

At one point, pressured by the lawyer looking to cash in on the tragedy, his best friend’s wife suffering from her loss and desperate for some kind of reprieve, and his own wife’s (Isabella Rossellini) struggle to reconnect to her husband, Max flees to the rooftop of a high-rise.  There, though he basks under an endless, open sky, it isn’t enough to conquer the walls closing in.  So he perches himself on the edge of the roof.  It’s a long way down, and he’s terrified.  He fights the strength into his legs and wills them to raise his posture to stand at attention, screaming all the way.  But he stands.  And he finds himself unafraid.  There on the ledge, with the childish joy of a kid knocking the hell out of a soccer ball, he actually dances.  What a lunatic.  But he has captured LIFE, and wrestled it into submission.

There’s a lot of wrestling going on in Max’s soul.  On the inside, everything is fighting to heal, and at first, he can’t figure out how to do it.  He latches on to the nearest warm body with whom he can share in (commune with?) his journey.  We already died, he tells Carla.  We’re ghosts.  His words provide an appealing thematic exploration of pain and discovery, though Carla’s reaction to his grandiose, almost supercilious behavior renders the balance he needs.  Perez injects Carla with a terrific, discerning and mature self-awareness, even in the midst of her deep pain.

The moral complexity of Max’s decision to pursue his relationship with Carla unwinds against Max’s wife’s attempts to reconnect to her husband.  It’s a setting that, in the hands of other writers, could go in any number of interesting (and many more uninteresting) directions, but Weir and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (who adapted the script from his novel) choose to focus on her stalwart devotion.  Rossellini lends Laura Klein strength replete of any mawkish indignation, and braced with determination to cleave to her husband.

Weir directs his cast to unexpected performances, including a nicely understated John Turturro as a psychologist intent on helping Max along the healing process.  The film’s most glaring fault is that it fails to find a place for him as the film starts wrap things up by mid-way.

Yglesias writes his characters as adults.  While a handful of moments dip into sentiment and drip with emotional appeals for tears, others cast a sublime light on the emptiness of fear, and the virtue of commitment.  The narrative never draws a decisive corollary with faith or spirituality, but is deeply concerned with the questions such beliefs raise.  Max states that he doesn’t believe in God; a curious contrast to Carla’s serious and unpretentious religious faith.  His disbelief, however, is bracketed by a visit to church with Carla, and a defiant shout to the heavens.

After crossing a busy city street, Max alights on the curbside, lays on his back and cries out, “You want to kill me, but you can’t!” he declares.  One has to wonder if this is expressive of his defiance of divinity, or perhaps a subtle recollection (however unintentional) of the portrait of grace present at Moses’ defense of the wayward Israelites before God, who was ready to wipe them all out.

Evangelicals often assert that the opposite of fear is faith, which sounds nice behind a lectern, but doesn’t allow enough room to challenge the roots of fear, whether traumatic or irrational.  Fear suppresses LIFE, Weir seems to say here.  So he asks questions, suggesting the opposite of fear may instead rest on a tenuous relationship between faith and knowledge.

On My Way Back…

The grant writing is done, and I’ve just about finished the Fearless review.  Just need to clean up the writing so someone can actually read it.

More on the way. Promise.

Time to Dial it Back Once More

Another grant proposal assignment has found its way to my desk, so the blog will take a back seat for a while.  The writing that doesn’t pay has to make room for the writing that does. 

When I return, I will hopefully (and FINALLY) have sat down to watch Fearless, and post a review.  Also, I have written a series of posts devoted to those movie trailers that led to fulfilling experiences at the movies, but I am not happy with the list, and I think I can do better. 

In the meantime, please, if no one’s suggested it already, pop over to Big Hollywood, Andrew Breitbart’s new venture

Later, homes.