Under the earth’s surface for so long they have forgotten how and why they got there and even that there is another place to be, the citizens of the City of Ember have just about lost their sense of hope, of wonder, of imagination, and adventure. On “assignment day” kids pick their careers out of a hat. The idea of special interest, curiosity, or competence never comes up. And neither does the idea of creating or improving anything. All of the jobs that occupy the time of the citizens of Ember are about maintenance. All of the clothes, all of the infrastructure, everything is made from broken pieces of other things. Decay and breakdown pervade everything. Learning, reading, and creating, are ideas that have just about disappeared.
There is a genial but disengaged mayor (Bill Murray). Everyone seems to accept everything the way it is except for two kids, Lena (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her dotty grandmother and little sister, and Doon (Harry Treadaway). Together, they race to solve the mystery of how their city was created before it becomes uninhabitable.
An almost Junior Great Books version of Brazil, this is a gorgeously imagined and visually sumptuous but still bleak and dystopic vision. In most stories featuring young lead characters, at some point they consult with a wise older person or get help from an adult. But here all of the other characters, the adults and even Lena’s little sister all seem oddly passive and disconnected and the kids are on their own. It does not have the brightness and energy of many films for this age group, and that may take some getting used to for kids used to a lot of flash.
But like a good book, it rewards patience and thoughtful attention. As with Wallâˆ™E, some audience members will complain that this film is a one-sided and thinly-veiled allegory about current controversies or that it promotes rebellion. But that a very superficial mis-reading of the movie’s message, which is about the much more important and much more fundamental importance of independent thinking and not being satisfied with the status quo. In a time where both candidates for President are competing to persuade voters which will be the most effective in bringing change, it is an important reminder that we can all find ways to make things better.
There is a thoughtful article in the New York Times by film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the way that on-screen images of African-Americans in the last five decades have reflected and influenced the way race is understood in this country.
Make no mistake: Hollywood’s historic refusal to embrace black artists and its insistence on racist caricatures and stereotypes linger to this day. Yet in the past 50 years — or, to be precise, in the 47 years since Mr. Obama was born — black men in the movies have traveled from the ghetto to the boardroom, from supporting roles in kitchens, liveries and social-problem movies to the rarefied summit of the Hollywood A-list. In those years the movies have helped images of black popular life emerge from behind what W. E. B. Du Bois called “a vast veil,” creating public spaces in which we could glimpse who we are and what we might become.
Filmmakers as diverse as Charles Burnett, Spike Lee and John Singleton have helped tear away that veil, as have performers who have fought and transcended stereotypes of savagery and servility to create new, richer, truer images of black life. Along the way an archetype has emerged, that of the black male hero, who, like Will Smith in “Independence Day,” rises from the ashes — in the case of that movie, the smoldering ashes of the White House — to save the day or just the family vacation. The movies of the past half-century hardly prophesy the present moment, but they offer intriguing premonitions, quick-sketch pictures and sometimes richly realized portraits of black men grappling with issues of identity and the possibilities of power. They have helped write the prehistory of the Obama presidency.
They go on to discuss archetypes ranging from Sidney Poitier’s roles as “a benign emblem of black power” to “not-so-benign emblem(s) of black power, erotic and otherwise, the hypersexualized black male (who) also became fodder for white exploitation” like Sweet Sweetback and Superfly all the way to the predatory cop played by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington in “Training Day.” They also identify the “Black Provocateur” played by Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy and the “Black Father,” a kind of safe harbor for former provocateurs like Murphy, Ice Cube, and Bernie Mac.
Movie history is littered with the mangled (Joe Morton in “Terminator 2”), flayed (Mr. Freeman in “Unforgiven”) and even mauled (Harold Perrineau in “The Edge”) bodies of supporting black characters, some sacrificed on an altar of their relationships with the white headliners, others rendered into first prey for horror-movie monsters. There has often been a distinct messianic cast to this sacrifice, made explicit in films as different as the 1968 zombie flick “Night of the Living Dead” and the 1999 prison drama “The Green Mile.” In the second, Michael Clarke Duncan plays a death-row inmate who suggests a prison-house Jesus: “I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day.” More recently, Will Smith picked up the mantle of the Black Messiah in four of his star turns: “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend,” “Hancock” and “Seven Pounds.”
Savior, counselor, patriarch, oracle, avenger, role model — compared with all this, being president looks like a pretty straightforward job.
James Earl Jones played the first black President in “The Man” in 1972, written by “The Twilight Zone’s” Rod Serling. Even in a fantasy, it was so unthinkable that he could be elected or supported by the American people that the film has him become President only because the President and Speaker of the House are killed in a building collapse, and the Vice-President is too ill to serve. And most of the movie is his struggle to be a leader for both black and white Americans.
More than 30 years later, Dennis Haysbert played a confident and commanding President on the television show “24.” Like the President played by Jones, he is targeted in an assassination attempt but it may be as much a function of his being a character in a television series about terrorism as it is related to race.
Gawker’s list of seven movies featuring black Presidents has films ranging from satire to sci-fi, played by actors from Terry Crews to Morgan Freeman. Now that it is no longer hypothetical or symbolic, it will be fascinating to see the way that this administration influences future Presidential portrayals. And what will future movie and television Presidents do to suggest the changes ahead? “24” now has Cherry Jones as a female President….
In the town of Malaria, anatomy is destiny. Boy babies get their assignments at birth. Those without hunchbacks become evil scientists. Those with hunchbacks become Igors and spend their days saying, “Yes, master,” when ordered to “Throw the switch!”
Malaria was once a happy farming community. But some sort of climate change resulted in constant thunderstorms and now the entire economy depends on evil inventions and the biggest event of the year is the annual evil science fair competition. But not all of the people in Malaria are right for their assigned roles. Dr. Glickenstein (voice of John Cleese) is not a very good evil scientist. His Igor (John Cusack) has the hunchback of an assistant but the heart of an inventor. And the most evil scientist of all, Dr. Schadenfreude (voice of Eddie Izzard) cannot invent anything at all and relies on tricks and spying to steal the inventions of others. Igor, with the help of two assistants he invented, the immortal cat-like Scamper (voice of Steve Buscemi) and a brain in a jar named Brain (voice of Sean Hayes), invents a bride-of-Frankensteinish monster (voice of Molly Shannon). But she, too, turns out not to fit into the role she has been assigned.
The tone of the movie is cheerily macabre, so parents should be cautious about allowing young or especially sensitive children to see it. But for those who are able to be in on the joke, the film has a number of delights, from the Louis Prima songs on the soundtrack to the tweaks and jibes at horror films, “Annie,” and James Lipton’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
This week we observe one of the great strengths of the system created by the founding fathers, the orderly transition to a new administration. In honor of the outgoing and incoming Presidents of the United States, take a look at this eight-part series from the History Channel about the Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, their careers and their lives, their triumphs and their disappointments.