It’s night in New York — and always in Ember
by Molly Templeton
NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST: Directed by Peter Sollett. Screenplay by Lorene Scafaria, based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Cinematography, Tom Richmond. Editor, Myron I. Kerstein. Music, Mark Mothersbaugh. Starring Kat Dennings and Michael Cera. Columbia Pictures, 2008. 90 min. PG-13.
CITY OF EMBER: Directed by Gil Kenan. Screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau. Cinematography, Xavier Pérez Grobet. Editor, Adam P. Scott. Music, Andrew Lockington. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Tim Robbins and Bill Murray. 95 minutes. PG.
|Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist|
Somewhat oddly, given its title, much of the music discussed in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is fictional. Sure, Norah (Kat Dennings) admires the mix CDs Nick (Michael Cera) makes, each one part of a string of endless futile gestures to win back his bitchy ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), but the actual songs on them are barely part of the story — except, it’s safe to assume, on the stellar soundtrack, which gently swept me from the initial feeling that I did not want these stock characters to be part of my music world, thanks, to kind of liking Nick and Norah and their
utterly-unbelievable-as-high-school romance. Everything is simpler here if you a) pretend these folks are in college and b) try really hard to shove reality out the door when it points out that certain things about the music scene in which our hero and heroine are flirting don’t ring true. (I’ll save the details for a blog post. It just seems more appropriate.)
But whatevs. Nick and Norah falls down on a couple of counts — notably by making every female character other than the title lass vapid, self-centered and/or otherwise unlikable — but it makes the most of its setting, swerving in and out of Lower East Side staples like Arlene’s Grocery and the Bowery Ballroom and stopping for an argument outside the dingy Pyramid Club. Though she’s almost too gorgeous to be believable in it, Dennings nails her role as grumpy, defensive Norah, whose dad is a recording bigwig and who’s still young and naïve enough to take forever to notice that her dickweed of a semi-boyfriend, Tal (Jay Baruchel), is just after her family connections. Nick, who plays bass in a queercore band with two energetic, adorable fellows (played for total charm by Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron) who cannot decide on a band name, is oblivious to such things, too sensitive for words and yet in possession of depths of feeling hidden by Michael Cera’s standardly mild demeanor. They’re perfect. If only we saw more of them and less of the film’s two annoying subplots (one involving Tris, the other Norah’s drunken best friend), Nick and Norah might be as enjoyable as its leads are together. As is, it’s not an unforgettable night, but it is a pretty good time.
On the other hand, City of Ember, the latest from Monster House director Gil Kenan, is, apart from a sweet and willing turn by Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan, generally disappointing. The setting offers much to work with — Ember is an isolated city in the darkness, and the generator that runs its lights is failing. Lina (Ronan) and Doon (Harry Treadaway, far too old for his role) are two kids who have just received their job assignments for their lives in Ember, but Lina has found a mysterious box of clues to an exit from the city, and Doon is convinced there’s a secret in the Pipeworks where he labors. But the film is bland and rushed, in a hurry to get to its unexciting climax via scene after disconnected scene, and overwhelmed by a score that doesn’t know when to lay off. Rather than focusing on the menace of true darkness and the urgent need to find something, anything else out there in the world, Ember gives us corny dialogue, bad CGI, clunky transitions (the death of a family member rates not a second of reflection), glaringly obvious bad guys (here’s a hint: they’re funny-looking) and, apparently, a lot of white people (a room of whom saved the world some time in the past). Some might call that nitpicking, but you’d expect filmmakers to think about the entire world when creating a city that, for all your audience knows, may be all that’s left of it.