Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
Since they were young girls growing up in the Midwest Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have shared the same dream--to become the next biggest thing to hit musical theater but so far performing in an airport lounge is the closest they've come. Their lives change however when they witness a murder by some nefarious drug dealers and in an attempt to escape end up in Los Angeles which has "no dinner theater no musical theater no culture at all." It's the perfect place for them to hide out and all goes to plan until Connie and Carla happen upon a local drag club. Suddenly they see an excellent way to elude their pursuers--and fulfill their need to be on stage at the same time. Pretending to be men dressed as drag queens Connie and Carla are soon headlining at the club belting out the show tunes they love. They become a huge hit getting the fame and recognition they've always wanted--but as time wears on the whole charade turns out to be a real "drag" ("pun intended " as the gals like to say) especially when Connie falls for nice guy Jeff (David Duchovny). Still with the killers hot on their trail Connie and Carla have to stay incognito--at least until they can find a way to come out of the closet without getting killed or disappointing their growing legion of fans.
The very charismatic Vardalos wowed audiences with her first feature the smash hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and is probably feeling more than a little pressure to follow up with something just as good especially since the Big Fat Greek spin-off TV series failed miserably. Luckily she succeeds with Connie and Carla due in large part to her co-star Collette who finally--after a string of dramatic movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Hours--gets to use the comedic skills she deftly showed in her feature film debut Muriel's Wedding. Together the actresses' natural rapport and infectious charm permeate the film and despite a sometimes hackneyed script they keep things lively and boy can they sing! Vardalos and Collette make the most of their musical theater backgrounds working the stage and making the film's musical numbers truly memorable. Vardalos also displays a fair amount of chemistry with Duchovny as the straight Jeff desperately struggles with his burgeoning feelings for someone he believes is a man. The last little plus is C and C's supporting cast including the bonafide drag queens the girls befriend at the club. Led by the Tony-winning Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as Robert/"Peaches " who also happens to be Jeff's estranged brother the supporting guys/dolls add that certain La Cage joie de vivre.
As she did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer/actress Vardalos' script speaks from the heart with genuinely fresh funny and down to earth dialogue. Apparently she did loads of dinner theater in her early years so she's familiar with the subject. Unfortunately she relies on a contrived Some Like It Hot plot about vengeful drug dealers to get Connie and Carla to L.A. but once the film gets into drag it zings. Connie and Carla is also in capable hands with director-actor Michael Lembeck (The Santa Clause 2) a former song-and-dance man himself at the helm. The broad comedic style he picked up directing countless television sitcom episodes serves well here and he turns the musical numbers into mini show-stoppers each one topping the next. The last is the best of course when the girls launch into "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma capped by a special guest appearance from the musical theater goddess herself Debbie Reynolds. Classic.