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Monday, October 13, 2008

City of Ember

One movie at the Essex Cinemas this week is City of Ember, which sounds like it could be about Malibu after the annual Summer brush fires, but it isn’t. I mean, that’s okay because City of Ember is actually quite interesting as it is, but who can resist the thrill of celebrities and their mansions burning to the ground? Sometimes I imagine those gi-normous scales that all the non-famous but flabby “stars” on “Celebrity Fit Club” huddle together on for their team weigh-ins at the end of each episode. Then I weigh the ‘options’ on those massive scales: Hmmmm. Well-known Jeanne Duprau children’s fantasy novel turned into a sparkling film adaptation or the potential of seeing Richard Simmons hair in flames or Cher’s plastic butt-implants melt? Decisions, decisions.

Well, I don’t actually have that option to choose, so it doesn’t really matter what my answer would be, but, as it turns out, the kids’ book makes quite a terrific movie even if nobody does gets fried along the way. I have to admit I had never heard of
City of Ember before going to the movie and so I hadn’t a clue what the storyline was about before the film began. Okay, a lot of you probably still don’t think I have a clue, but you are wrong. I have many clues, just few answers. One I do have is that City of Ember is not just for kids by any means.

The story reminds me a bit of the whimsy one finds in the television series “Pushing Daisies.” While it lacks the tv show’s bright primary colors, it is a fairy tale that begs us to suspend our
disbelief and close at least one eye to the harsh reality of where the story’s origin comes from. Ember itself is a city that was built deep beneath the surface of the Earth and planned to last exactly 200 years. It was then populated with people who would be self-governed and live independent of outside resources until its’ generator, which was designed to provide electricity and overhead lighting to the entire village for those two centuries, would eventually die at the same time as the town’s food supplies ran out. Hopefully, by that point, the world would be ready again for humans to come up top and live safely. The builders explained all of this in a letter placed in a metal case with a timer that would open automatically in 200 years and gave it to the original mayor of Ember, who was to pass the case along to the next mayor and then from mayor to mayor for generations. Unfortunately, its’ significance was eventually lost and the case was finally stashed in a closet and forgotten, and the 200 years came and went without notice.

In Ember’s 241st year, however, food is running scarce and the generator is shorting out regularly. This is where the movie’s story really begins as everything before is zipped through quickly in a prelude of a couple minutes that will leave latecomers, which I loathe, asking their companions (out loud, of course, what is going on, but only after they locate their seats by making as much noise as possible as if the sounds of their voices will bounce back at them and reverberate where the empty places in the theater are. Grrrr).

Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway; The Disappeared) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan; Atonement) are two of Ember’s teens who have reached the age when they are assigned their jobs for life, written on parchment slips picked from a velvet bag by chance. Life in Ember is simple and education is basic, so no one questions the system in place as it has been the tradition for as long as anyone can remember. Doon goes to work in the Pipeworks, where he can explore the underbelly of the City and, with any luck, get a chance to see (and maybe fix) the Generator. Lina, meanwhile, is assigned the job of messenger, a task that has her delivering secret information from one source to another. This is just the sort of thing that gets a girl in trouble. I know it would me, and it sure does Lina because she is no dummy at her job. She grasps more than most her age and soon she has her hands on the original Builders’ plans and recognizes that the current mayor, Cole (Bill Murray; Get Smart) is corrupt and self-serving. It’s Doon, though, that fills in the other half of the equation and figures out that the glow of Ember is about to go out forever unless he and Lina use the map to find a way out of the City and, hopefully, discover a safe place for the citizens of Ember to escape to before the generator gives out entirely.

All this is very exciting, especially when you consider that most English people resist ever looking for the sun and prefer damp, dark places with bland and dreary food, so this is a total rebellion
against the norm. I’m sure if it weren’t for the fact that there are American actors (Tim Robbins, The Lucky Ones; Martin Landau, Lovely, Still) stuck down below with the mostly British cast, there wouldn’t be such a rush for everybody to find a way outside, but we all know how impatient Americans can be. They’re probably driving the Brits batty. I’ll bet if Sarah Palin parachuted in, the entire City would scatter like cockroaches when a kitchen light comes on.

City of Ember is a treasure for the whole family. The cinematography by Xavier Pérez Grobet (Music and Lyrics) is perfectly matched to complement the over-all Art Design by Martin Laing (Terminator Salvation). Ember itself becomes a character within the film, and its’ structures and overall look, as well as its’ seeming precipitous demise, create an urgency about it that makes the viewer feel like Ember is alive ~ if just barely. Perhaps it is because the residents live there in such naïve innocence, some like Mrs. Murdo (Mary Kay Place; tv’s “Big Love”), even holding on to a belief that “The Builders” will arrive again someday and return Ember to its’ former glory when the time is right, preaching a pseudo-Christian philosophy in a society without organized religion.

City of Ember, aside from a few corrupt politicians (it’s always those damned politicians, isn’t it?), is a lovely place to visit. I’d encourage everyone to take a few hours and mosey on down to the Essex Cinemas for a trip. The nicest part is that by watching the movie it means you don’t have to take any stairs down to the actual City of Ember, which would be the equivalent of working out by taking a few thousand Pilates™ classes all at once. Oh please. Like I’d even try. I exercised one time. It was in 1974, a Wednesday in March, I think. That’s when I developed my lifelong philosophy: Never stand when you can sit; never sit when you can lie down. And there must be ice cream and movies always. Movies like City of Ember preferred. I think you’ll agree.

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