Thursday, October 23, 2008

Movie time: City of Ember, Heaven on Earth, Stone of Destiny

I remain, on some level, unwilling or unable to write about the themes and ideas that typify my life these days. However, my urge to blog has not abated in the least – especially as I read the regular updates by my good friend and fellow blogger over at Bookphilia. Highly recommended reading :)

So the question arises: What subject I shall unleash my words upon? Well, the obvious answer at this moment is the myriad of movies that I watch. Yes: I relish a good read, I thrive on travel and I savour the flavour of well-prepared food – but I am also a cinephile to the core. Regardless of genre or origin, nothing pleases me more than a well-made film.

At the Movies

I go to the theatre several times a week, because I believe that films are made to be seen in this setting. Widescreen TVs and home projectors are all fine and well, but there is something about the experience of entering a temple to vision and sound, filing down plush carpeted aisles and sidling across a row of politely angled knees (excuse me, excuse, thank you) to immerse yourself in the experience of a movie. It just cannot be replaced…

Do you go to the movies?

Find a friend in the films

Hold hands with the hero

Fall in love with the heroine

And I even go to the movies alone quite often, melting into the anonymity of the luxurious dark space and allowing myself to sink into the plot and spend quality time with the characters.

Now frequenting of the theatre has a downside as well, as the higher the number of films you attend, the more bad or merely mediocre films you encounter – especially here in Halifax, where the usual Hollywood releases dominate screens and art films barely squeeze into the margins.

But the diamonds in the rough are worth it, and I have found a few of late. Lets take a VERY perfunctory tour of a few of the flicks I have seen of late:

City of Ember (Gil Kenan, 2008) (Park Lane) Ember was built as a haven for the survivors of a great unknown calamity that made life on the surface of the earth untenable. Buried 1000s of feet underground, the city is powered by a great generator that is reaching the end of its usable life – a problem multiplied by the fact that some 200 years of subterranean existence has bred a collective amnesia under the thrall of which no citizen understands how to maintain the technology that keeps the city alive. Even more importantly, however, is the fact that the population has long forgotten that there is a world outside of Ember.

Enter two youths with unquenchable curiosity and vigour that refuse to accept that there is no alternative, and the dangerous and delightful dash towards the outside world begins.

Except that despite an excellent cast (including artful casting of Tim Robbins as a father who tried to escape Ember in his youth and Bill Murray as a more bored than villainous mayor) and an amazing set comprising the clockwork city of Ember itself, there is no visceral sense of danger, and the delights are equivalent to ridding a log jam at the local amusement park.

Which is not to say that I did not enjoy City of Ember, but more to say that I enjoyed the look and feel of the movie more than the story and message – which is never explored beyond skin deep. I hope that the eponymous book, by Jean Drapeau, explores the psychological, physical and/or moral issues arising from post-cataclysm existence more deeply than this film, and hope to read it someday. In the meantime, I can definitely recommend The Chrysalids for a taste of the real thing…


Hmmm… I expected these reviews to be more brief, and am now wondering where to go with the list of about 12 other films that I have seen over the past month or so. I guess the best course of action is to skip on to one that I can recommend unreservedly.

Heaven on Earth (Deepa Mehta, 2008) (The Oxford): Chand is a beautiful, well-educated young Punjabi woman sent from her home in India to consummate an arranged marriage with a young Indian living in Toronto, Canada. Almost immediately upon arriving in the frigid winter of central Canada it becomes apparent that the cold of her new homeland is a physical manifestation of the bleak and unloving life she finds.

This includes a mother-in-law who sees Chand as an intruder intent on stealing her son; a job in a local laundromat that wastes her university education; isolation from her family and community with not even the chance of a phone call home; and a sullen and angry husband whose physical abuse of young Chand is horrific to witness.

Indeed, this is a powerful film that reaches out and touches the viewer on a visceral level – but it is not enjoyable in the strict sense of the word. A desperate lack of hope pervades the film right down to its mechanics, as it is shot in raw, hand-held black and white that is grainy and lacks the post-processed “the sun always shines on TV” patina that typifies most films.

And that first instance of violence – that first brutal slap – hit me where it hurt. An icy hand crept into my chest and constricted my heart. I left the theatre with this feeling and took it home to my comfortable bed, falling asleep with the chill and even awakening with an eerie echo of the emotion.

No, this is not a feel good film that imbues you with joy at the wonder of life. But it is a film that achieves what only a few of the best films can – it makes you feel at one with its protagonist, taking you inside her experience so completely that there is no luxury of considering it from a distance.

And one more thing that I feel is important about this film is the fact that it is set in Canada. Water and Fire, two other films in Deepa Mehta’s quartet about the experiences of Indian women in the modern world, are both set in India – which allows the Western viewer to consider them in the abstract, as parables or lessons. It is happening over there to those people. Heaven on Earth, on the other hand, is happening in North America, here, where we live, among us and as a part of our social fabric as Canadians.

This film will not allow you to ignore or dismiss it. You won’t enjoy it, but in this case that is the film’s primary virtue…

Stone of Destiny (Charles Martin Smith, 2008) (Park Lane) This Canada/UK co-production is based on the true story of a group of Scottish university students who break into Westminster Abbey in the mid-1950s to steal the Stone of Destiny, an ancient relic on which the kings of Scotland were crowned for centuries before the nation fell under British dominion. (Run-on sentence!)

I will be brief about this one, because I really only have one thing to say: this movie made me smile. It was such a sheer pleasure to watch that I became aware at one point of a silly grin playing across my face as an unbridled expression of how fun and suspenseful the movie was.

Why? Because it is an unabashedly enthusiastic adventure in the vein of Enid Blyton, whom many of you may remember from childhood forays into the Rat-a-Tat Mystery and The Secret of Cliff Castle.

And while we are on the subject of films that are a pure pleasure to watch because of their youthful and innocent esprit de corps, another "made in the UK" film that you may want to check out is Starter for 10. Recommended viewing!

Body of Lies (Ridley Scott, 2008) (Park Lane) Fun action movie with lots of explosions but a story that is too thin and scattered to support itself. Russell Crowe does his usual great job, while Leonardo DiCaprio seemed too baby-faced for the role. Basically, this story has been done to perfection in Syriana, so go to see it for action movie fun, not an in-depth look at American meddling in the Middle East

Passchendaele (Paul Gross, 2008) (The Oxford) This is a love story, which does not in and of itself make it a bad film, it just makes it a movie about love and passion rather than a horrifying moment of history. Without a doubt some the highest production value I have seen from a Canadian film.

Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008) (Park Lane) The Coen Brothers, Francis McDormand, John Malkovich, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt – need I say more? This film seems more cynical than other Coen brothers ventures, with a little less comedy attached to its blackness - infinitely worth watching.

Donkey Punch (Oliver Blackburn, 2008) (The Oxford) Yes ladies and gentlemen, we have a new contender for worst film I have ever seen – and I knew it from the opening credits and still subjected myself to the full length. Not even the gratuitous, essentially hardcore porn scenes made this intriguing in the least…

Flash of Genius (Marc Abraham, 2008) (Park Lane) Good “based on the true story” plot that ends up being as grey and flat as the 1970s architecture that it is filmed amidst.