In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

67. The Last Airbender

AMC Bay Street 16

When AMC's Bay Street theater was being built, just down the street from my preferred theater, the Emery Bay, I vowed to avoid it. When it opened in 2003, and I began attending regularly, I declared I'd stop patronizing the theater once they started charging for parking. Soon the parking wasn't free anymore, so, in a bold move, I announced I'd boycott if the price went up. Then the price went up. Now, to maintain my dignity, I'm sure to flip 'em the bird each time I buy my ticket. I've attended this theater 41 times.

Bay Street (the neighborhood), is an artificial little commercial strip with condos on top. It's accessible by car and by bus (both AC Transit and the free Emery Go Round), but not really by walking, unless you happen to live in one of those condos. Parking is seldom a problem, though I must often drive to the top levels of the garage (where there are some nice views of the East Bay). The side of the building facing I-80, and decorated with "Bay St" in giant letters, is also often draped with enormous posters for upcoming movies.

As outdoor malls go, Bay Street is very nice. Most of its L-shaped street is open to foot traffic only. Among other businesses, the mall features Barnes & Nobel, Apple, and several restaurants.

Ticketing is located on the second level, but I recommend going straight to the top to pay at one of two electronic kiosks outside the theater door, where there is seldom a line.

The approach is stunning, with long-haired beauties Audrey Hepburn, Julia Roberts, Marilyn Monroe, Lucy Liu, Nicole Kidman, and Mel Gibson eager to greet you from the towering lobby.

AMC, more than other circuits, uses its wall space to celebrate movies, of all things. Below you can see Jon Avnet directing Kevin Costner in The War, and Kirk Douglas fending off a trident attack in Spartacus. There are also stills from A River Runs Through It and The Princess Bride.

The theater's arcade is home to a Star Trek: Voyager video game, which would be fun if I could just walk around the spaceship instead of being assimilated by the borg. A tiny table to one side of the arcade hides the parking validation stamp, where you can reduce your 4 hours of parking to a meager $1.25.

I had absentmindedly forgotten to bring my notepad and pen, and so couldn't get a seating count from the posted signs; next time. The auditoriums are modern, with raked rows and plush, red seats.

Below is a shot of Bay St. at night, from the second level of the theater, just beyond ticketing.


Nanny McPhee Returns

The first film was bad. Like, ranked 98th out of 105 movies I've seen from 2006 bad. The kind of bad that makes you want to go buy a very large soda, so that you'll have an excuse for long, frequent trips to the restroom. This sequel looks identically bad. Nanny McPhee shows up to transform some incorrigible children into something a bit more corrigible. She uses magic. They sling horse manure. Pigs dance and fly. I claw my eyes out. And what in Betty Boop's name is Maggie Gyllenhaal doing in this movie? 133 cuts. Run.

Gulliver's Travels

I grew up watching the Richard Harris film of the same name, release the year I was born. This newest adaptation has Jack Black as Gulliver, and live-action Liliputians. The film might be amusing, but Black is typically overbearing. As trailers go, this one takes way too long to get to the interesting part. 77 cuts.

Alpha & Omega

(Previously reviewed)


Awesome. Johnny Depp voices the titular chameleon, wandering through the Mexican desert in this classic western spoof. Good humor, good voice work, and amazing visuals. Nickelodeon Movies has released a good digitally animated movie (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius), and a very, very boring one (Barnyard). This is something else entirely. This looks Pixar-caliber, and a worthy addition to Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. 46 cuts.

The Green Hornet

This movie perpetuates the stereotype that all drunken man-children are secretly mask-clad crime fighters. Seth Rogen is like Will Ferrell, but liquored up; like Adam Sandler, but still funny; like Woody Allen, but taller, chunkier, and deserving of at least 5% of the female attention he receives. Here he seeks to avenge his father's death by teaming with his mysterious sidekick, Kato, and terrorizing criminals everywhere as the Green Hornet. He has guns, rockets, and crotch-snapping high kicks. 150 cuts.

Megamind (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

The Last Airbender

To translate is to betray. Still, some translators are able to produce fine work. Peter Jackson, et al., dropped Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, made √Čomer a jerk and Ents hasty, and, greatest sin of all according to my friend Ben, tempted Faramir with the ring. Nevertheless (and I don't miss Bombadil a bit), the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece. In the movies, Rambo lives, and I rejoice. The screenwriters for Mission: Impossible, having read only the title of the television show, if that, still managed to create an entertaining movie. And the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman, though more linear than the book, still manages to be just as boring. In short, despite our heightened and pre-conceived expectations regarding adaptations, Hollywood is often able to succeed.

M. Night Shyamalan is a different story. His movies have gotten progressively worse and artificial. The Sixth Sense (1999), which heralded Shyamalan as the next big thing, is nearly perfect. In hindsight, I can see the flaws of his artifice even there, but otherwise the mood is palpable, and the characters intensely convincing. Unbreakable (2000) followed, cementing Shyamalan as a good director. Again the tone of the film is consistently electric; I couldn't tear my eyes away from most scenes. But Shyamalan's Mr. Glass character (I'm not a fan of Samuel L. Jackson) and handling of the comic book side of the film seems clumsy, like he is trying to hard to make a superhero movie without making a superhero movie. Next came Signs (2002), the first of what has become an uninterrupted string of plot-driven films from the director. Signs is incredibly tense, but there are many moments when I can feel Shyamalan's hand in the movie, trying to tell me a story. The flashback sequences and the television broadcasts in particular are gimmicky. His Bryce Dallas Howard duology, comprising The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006), are overtly fantastic, beautiful, fun, but heavy-handed. Shyamalan's characters all sound alike, and they speak like the written word, rather than colloquially (or they speak like the written version of colloquialism). In Lady in the Water in particular, it is as if Shyamalan is sitting on a stool in the theater reading me a story he had written, with the movie playing in the background to show me the pictures. I resent an auteur who cannot hide themselves behind their work. I don't want to see the man behind the curtain; I want to believe in the magic. In 2008, Shyamalan subjected us to The Happening, and he still hasn't apologized. It's the worst pro-environment cautionary tale I've seen, the worst from Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, and even the worst from Spencer Breslin. John Leguizamo has one great moment, but otherwise my life would be better had I not watched this movie.

But The Last Airbender is going to be different, right? I mean, the cartoon is soooo good; the characters so developed, the plot so entertaining, the dialog so witty; all Shyamalan needs to do is make sure his actors have a pulse, and he'll deliver gold. Saddly, this is not the case. By cinema standards, relative to other offerings, The Last Airbender is bad. Contrasted to its potential, the movie is terrible.

Let's start with the good. Shyamalan is absolutely faithful to the plot of the first season of the show, almost to a fault. (I say almost because, although Shyamalan should have cut scenes out, other directors could have found a way to successfully leave them in.) Two teenagers of the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, find a boy, Aang, frozen in a block of ice. Aang is the Avatar, the latest incarnation of a powerful spirit able to master all four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. When Aang awakes, he soon learns that he is the last of his kind; the Fire Nation long ago eradicated Aang's people, in an effort to break the cycle of the Avatar. (Depending on how much of a fantasy fan you are, you're either salivating or shaking your head at this point. Chosen one? Last of his kind? Master all the elements? People like me can't get enough of this stuff.) Katara and Sokka agree to take Aang to the Northern Water Tribe, where he can master waterbending. Hot on their heals are exiled Prince Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, a dishonored war general. If they capture the Avatar, they will regain their place at the side of Fire Lord Ozai.

The sets, costumes, and effects are all authentic and terrific. The movie is about a journey, and so we visit many different locales; it would have been easy to tweak the script to focus more on just a few different places, but Shyamalan's production team doesn't cut corners by overusing sets. Likewise the costumes are varied and believable. We don't see in them the same richness of history as in the costumes of Lord of the Rings, but they succeed in being foreign yet familiar. As for the effects, the bending of elements is center stage. The benders' martial arts movements are far too slow contrasted to their television counterparts, but once their element finally gets out of the gate, it looks good, and well integrated into the scenes.

Shyamalan attempts to cover too much ground, with too few omissions in the plot. As a result, the film is choppy, speeding from one scene to the next without ever letting us settle down to acquaint ourselves with the characters. The scenes are too short and incongruous to maintain a tone. Katara, whose character is disappointingly nerfed (Aang steels her best speech), delivers some acutely emotional moments with teary eyes and quivering voice, but none of the other characters slow down enough to notice. Sokka finds a romance at the tail end, but it is so hurried it's laughable (his girlfriend's hairdo looks like a giant penis, by the way). The movie devolves into a clumsy montage early on and, deciding the montage was a success, follows it with several more. Katara narrates some parts, while other sequences are subjected to voiced-over conversations between Ozai and the film's chief villain, Commander Zhao (who somehow has enough time to make repeated visits to the islands of the Fire Nation, yet is unable to catch up with the Avatar, who is making an obvious beeline to the Northern Water Tribe).

The jumbled cuts from one scene to the next should be enough to put anyone off, but their effect is also to keep us at arm's length, never fully absorbed in the action. The movie's most serious offense is that it is boring. The action sequences, though cut together at a rapid clip, still unfold too slowly. The soldiers of the Fire Nation could practically have teatime while Aang warms up with his first offensive move. And when they finally retaliate, it's with tiny puff of fire, like a baby dragon learning to burp. The pervasive, obvious music does its best to instruct our response, but to no avail. I just didn't care.

My biggest disappointment is with the characters' personalities. Shyamalan has applied his usual coating of everything-is-deathly-serious, draining our heroes of their most lovable quality: humor. The cartoon is wildly entertaining, because everyone has so much fun together. My friend Elizabeth, also a fan (in fact, all my friends are fans of the show; it's the measure by which we judge each others' sanity), says their humor also shows their courage, that they are able to be human and vulnerable with each other, despite the overwhelming odds they face. In the cartoon, Aang is a young, innocent goof ball. He's a child and he wants to play. All the time. This makes all the more sobering the times when he must fight, and when his Avatar responsibilities weigh down on him. Katara is marvelous. She's the most mature of the team, the most dedicated to their cause, the most disciplined, and yet very tender and amiable. She wants to be a kid, too; but seeing her mother murdered, and being the last waterbender of her tribe are persistent reminders to her that the conflict against the Fire Nation is for the highest stakes. Sokka, like Aang, is silly. He likes to kid around, to complain, and often finds himself the butt of jokes. He's the comic relief for an already comical team. But again, like Elizabeth says, this increases the effect when Sooka puts jokes aside and charges into battle. Consistently throw in funny moments with Appa and Momo (Aang's sky bison and winged-lemur, respectively), and you've got yourself a very fun and funny show.

The movie has none of that. There isn't a joke to be found. The characters never smile, or laugh, or have a moment when they are allowed to be kids. Zhao and Ozai fail at being fierce, and Zuko isn't princely enough. The only character Shyamalan gets close to correct is uncle Iroh. Shaun Toub's Iroh is both noble and light-hearted, cruel and kind, whimsical and wise. We see in his face and hear in his voice that he loves his nephew, and that he alone of anyone in the Fire Nation sees his people's course of destruction. Good job, Shyamalan; you got one right. There are other crimes against the cartoon, of course, like rhyming 'Aang' with 'pong' and 'avatar' with 'lava tar'; changing the ending to be sugar-coated for pre-schoolers (since when does Hollywood deliver a product less violent than a kids' cartoon?); race-bending the cast (e.g. making Katara and Sokka caucasian); revealing Ozai this early; and omitting Suki, a major character later on. None of this will bother a viewer who hasn't seen the television show, but the collective lack of personality among the characters will.

There were some nice surprises. In an otherwise hurried film, Shyamalan is patient to speak the names of the characters, instead working in the names naturally. Appa looks just like he does on the show, and blends into the scenes well. But overall, I get the sense that Shyamalan read synopses of the show's plot, without ever bothering to enjoy the show's tone. I can't recall ever being this disappointed by a movie.

1 comment:

  1. Halfway through Unbreakable I suspected that Shyamalan was going to use the same breed of gimmicky ending that had worked in 6th Sense. It was disappointing to discover that I was right. I was even more disappointed to discover that the same director had rubbed his grubby hands all over what could have been an awesome movie. Oh well. Thanks for the tip on the cartoon. It looks good!

    Have you considered posting your reviews to a more mainstream site like Rotten Tomatoes? They're really good!