Bad Movies: The Last Airbender

1) Hollywood's movie studios have become so good at hyping their own media franchises that audiences often act genuinely surprised and disappointed (or have learned to go through the proper motions of acting surprised and disappointed) when their sequels and adaptations fail to live up to the quality of the original creations. For The Last Airbender, the hype began more than three years ago when Paramount announced the signing of M. Night Shyamalan to write, direct and produce a trilogy of live-action films based on the popular TV series of the same name. The studio's promotion and marketing machine went through the usual motions: teaser trailers, a Super-Bowl ad, a toy line, fast food cross-promotions, a comic book tie-in. But how does someone go about condensing the show's entire first season into an hour and half feature film? Not very well as might be expected. This is one uninspired and indifferent adaptation: The storytelling is lazy, the pacing is choppy, the cinematography is incompetent, and the dialogue is incredibly stilted. So much of the movie is devoted to exposition that there's little left for more audience-pleasing elements like romantic complications or extended action sequences. All this info-dump makes the story so confusing that I doubt anyone who isn't already a fan will completely comprehend what's going on. Many characters appear so briefly before scene shifts, they barely register.

Iroh (Shaun Toub) and Zuko (Dev Patel).
Iroh (Shaun Toub) and Zuko (Dev Patel). Image from Avatar The last Airbender Online

2) Shyamalan's past success with child actors is not replicated here. The lead Noah Ringer puts up a valiant effort to convey the director's habitual gravitas, but lacks the charisma to pull it off. It doesn't help that he has to deliver some very atrocious dialogue. Most of the other cast members sleepwalk through their lines, barely expressing any emotion other than furrowing their collective brows. Dev Patel comes off the best as the conflicted antagonist Prince Zuko. But none of the cast has really been given that much to work with.

3) Given that the original series main draw was its mystically enhanced hand-to-hand combat, this happens to be the movie's biggest let-down for this fighting arts geek. The bending fails at pretty much every level. Hollywood directors are usually unable to mimic the balletic wire-fu of Hong Kong cinema, and Shyamalan is no exception: His staging of the fight sequences is pedestrian at best, and the fight choreography in itself is brief and perfunctory. There's not a single memorable duel between any two characters in this movie when there should have been at least half a dozen. As for the cast themselves: I'm used to untrained actors moving stiffly when trying to perform martial arts moves, but it looks even more egregious here. I understand that the twelve year old Noah Ringer is trained in taekwondo, which imbues him with a lot of physical dexterity. However, his tai chi chuan imitation is mediocre, and not significantly better than the efforts of co-star Nicola Peltz. Most of the supporting cast could have benefited with some more formal training, if only to learn how to maintain a proper stance. As for the special effects used to depict the elemental bending, they're generally disconnected from the actors physical movements. It often looks as if they're waving their arms and feet frantically for a few seconds before an element shoots out from behind them. It's terribly unconvincing, and lacks the clever variety found in the TV series.

4) Regarding the racebending controversy that has taken up a lot of public attention - Changing the cast to satisfy the critics would not have fixed the structural flaws of the story. However, there were two instances were I was more conscious of the racial makeup of the cast: Early, when I couldn't help noticing how everyone in the Southern Water Tribe was of Asian extraction except for Katara's and Sokka's family. And later during the climatic battle between the relatively light-skinned citizens of the Northern Water Tribe, and the swarthier Fire Nation soldiers. This is counterbalanced to some degree by the fact that the two most interesting characters are Fire Nation citizens Zuko and his uncle Iroh, played by Shaun Toub, who is underutilized in his role. The casting may not be the worst thing about this movie. But it's a terrible distraction that compounds the movie's many faults.

5) The TV series was not historically accurate in the conventional sense. But in its world-building, it cohered around certain details. The stylistic breakdown of the varieties of quan-fa was one. Or the way its architecture and fashions formed a close analog to real world Asian cultures. The movie deviates from the original in small ways that would be irritating to the series fans. For example, Chinese characters are replaced with an invented script that looks like someone's bad imitation of Chinese. Or Shyamalan's changing the pronunciation of certain words to make them sound more Indian, which only pushes the film further away from the imaginary milieu of the series just to satisfy his personal vanity.

6) When I first heard that Avatar: The Last Airbender was being made into a movie, I suspected that this would be just another poorly executed adaptation that I could afford to skip. The irony is that the casting controversy and calls to boycott the movie piqued enough of my interest that I wanted to see just how big of a train wreck it would turn out to be. Well, the movie isn't just bad. It's so bad, it lacks even the usual technical competence displayed by Shyamalan. It's as if Paramount went out of its way to ruin its very own franchise. So I should have stuck with my initial gut reaction. Another, more familiar, irony is that if the movie earns enough from its international releases, it could make back its costs despite being almost universally eviscerated by the critics.

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Harvey Pekar (October 8, 1939 – July 12, 2010)

A Robert Crumb-illustrated page from American Splendor by Harvey Pekar
What's in a Name? A Robert Crumb-illustrated page from American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

I love Harvey Pekar. Okay, I've never actually met the man. And who knows if I could have actually tolerated him if he were my next door neighbor. But I have nothing but respect for his achievements. Looking past the juvenile wish fulfillment, corporate ownership, and slick genre conventions that dominated (and still do) the industry, he saw in comics the perfect medium for autonomous artistic expression. And in his American Splendor comics he told extraordinarily blunt, unromantic, even banal tales of his own rather ordinary life. For a long time he worked for little to no financial reward, and gained only intermittent, if dubious mainstream recognition. But he kept plugging away with it, and his comics were eventually adapted into a critically lauded movie with the same name. To me, American Splendor was a revelation when I first encountered it because, in contrast to most of the comics I had read (and my own upbringing), it was grounded on an uncompromising, blue-collar, adult perspective. I was immediately hooked. Others have since followed in creating their own autobiographical works. But Harvey's unsentimental voice remains a singular presence that I will miss.

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To Boycott or Not?

Believe me, as an actor, it’s no easy answer. My first gut feeling is, the best actor should be cast for the job no matter race… But maybe that’s just an ideal that is unreal when it comes to making a movie, and making a big budget movie at that. See, my whole career is based on playing roles that were not written race specific, matter fact, if I had to wait for Hollywood to come along with a script for a Filipino American, I would have no career at all.
- Dante Basco
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What, no beavers?

Happy Belated Canada Day! from Kate Beaton
Go to: Happy Belated Canada Day! from Kate Beaton

About the Wonder Woman Cosmetic Changes

Wonder Woman by Don Kramer
Wonder Woman by Don Kramer

Meh. It's not so much that I hate the idea as that I'm already bored with it. The whole urban crime-fighter schtick seems already played-out, as well as the black leather pseudo civvies. Even more telling - J. Michael Straczynski implies that his changes to the status quo are temporary at best, so it doesn't feel particularly substantial on paper at least. More reactions at Robot 6. Here's Tom Spurgeon's take on it. Kevin Church reminds everyone that this has happened before.


More NonSense: Racebending Epic Fail Roundup

Noah Ringer plays Aang in the movie "The Last Airbender"
Noah Ringer plays Aang in the movie "The Last Airbender"

"As a Vietnamese American, I find “The Last Airbender’s” production and casting a great offense to my cultural roots, and believe that Paramount – and especially Shyamalan – should be ashamed of themselves. Frankly, I hope they go down in film anthropology as infamous practioners of self-indulgent, self-delusional ignorance, stupidity and racism"
- Q. Le (Quote added 07/11/10)

Despite its July 1st worldwide release, The Last Airbender has yet to hit my local movie theater. So I'm not going to be able to make any independent assessment of it just yet. But here's what the online critics have to say about it. The movie continues to draw criticism for its decision to cast Caucasian actors in the leading roles. Asian American cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim, Gene Yang, and Tak Toyoshima have repeated their initial objections to Paramount's "racist" casting. At the center of calls to boycott the movie, Racebending.com has organized several public protests and demonstrations in the hope of negatively impacting on the commercial success of the film. But they're also big enough fanboys to put up a handy guide deliniating the differences in the main plot points between the big screen adaptation and its source material.

With the movie having already alienated a significant portion of its existing fanbase months before its release, it would have to make up in box office sales from the general population. Early numbers indicate that the movie has not quite succeeded. It has received a critical drubbing from the mainstream press: As of this writing, aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes has given it a a horrendous 7% general rating, and Metacritic has rated it a "generally unfavorable" 20 based on 32 reviews. So the movie is a flop with the cognoscenti. But what does the public think? Entertainment Weekly reports that the film earned "$16 million on Friday after pulling in $16 million on its opening day for a 5-day holiday weekend gross that could total $70 million." This sounds like a decent box office weekend performance. But according to Patrick Goldstein, the film has received a grade of C from CinemaScore - an organization that tracks the reaction of audiences during a movie's opening night. "the C grade is a pretty reliable indicator that the movie will have a steep dropoff in its grosses in the weeks to come" explained Goldstein. He goes on to opine about director M. Night Shyamalan's future with the franchise:
"In the run-up to the film's opening, Shyamalan has been talking about quickly getting to work on a sequel, but if I were him, I'd be keeping my options open. This movie, to quote one of my father's favorite expressions, looks like a dog that won't hunt."

How much did the casting of white actors to play non-white roles hurt The Last Airbender? Roger Ebert thought it did some damage, or at the very least didn't help:
"His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they're all whites. This casting makes no sense because (1) It's a distraction for fans of the hugely popular TV series, and (2) all three actors are pretty bad. I don't say they're untalented, I say they've been poorly served by Shyamalan and the script."

Kirk Honeycutt agrees saying:
"The Nickelodeon series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, is wholly and inarguably centered on Asian (and Inuit) culture. But Shyamalan, a South Indian, for whatever reason -- you supply the motive -- chose to cast mostly white actors. Two fellow Indians, "Slumdog Millionaire's" Dev Patel and veteran Indian-American Aasif Mandvi, play different kinds of villains, but otherwise this fantasy world is pretty white until you get to the extras.

No one can say whether "Airbender" would have been a better film with a different cast. But as it is, the film loses substantial credibility in regard to its source material."

Others disagree with it's importance. Andrew O'Hehir opines: "Despite the Internet uproar launched by some fans of the animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (which was going to be the title of this movie, until, uh, other forces intervened), I have to say that the racial controversy around this movie is overblown." Angry Asian Man on the casting of Noah Ringer, blamed the script for not giving the actor enough to work with: "To be fair, Noah Ringer, who plays Aang (the titular last airbender), does an okay job. Is he the only kid in the entire world who could play Aang, as Shyamalan has so boldly claimed? Absolutely not. But he does a passable job in an mediocre movie. Could this material have been elevated by casting an Asian actor? Probably not." Joe Morgenstern puts the casting controversy into the larger context of a series of bad decisions:
"The producers have been widely criticized for failing to cast the Asian characters of the original with Asian actors, and the criticism is valid, notwithstanding the presence of Asians in minor roles. Like the hero, Aang, the lead characters of the brave sister and brother, Katara and Sokka, are played by young and conspicuously Caucasian American actors—Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone (who also plays the "Twilight" vampire Jasper Hale). But where does criticism end when a production is botched from start to finish?"

Richard Corliss tried to put a positive spin on it:
"The dearth of racially appropriate casting in the U.S. simply means that fewer Asians were humiliated by appearing in what is surely the worst botch of a fantasy epic since Ralph Bakshi's animated desecration of The Lord of the Rings back in 1978. The actors who didn't get to be in The Last Airbender are like the passengers who arrived too late to catch the final flight of the Hindenburg."

But some of the harshest criticisms were reserved not for the film's casting, but for its cynical implementation of 3-D technology. Ebert attacked it as "Not only is it unexploited, unnecessary and hardly noticeable, but it's a disaster even if you like 3D. M. Night Shyamalan's retrofit produces the drabbest, darkest, dingiest movie of any sort I've seen in years." Sam Adams reported on the industry's squeezing of theater goers: "audiences in upscale areas were having difficulty locating 2-D screenings. A listings search turned up exactly one non-3-D theater on the island of Manhattan; ditto Santa Monica." Keith Phipps sums up the general disgust for these practices: "...a few 3-D elements have been added to satisfy the current 3-D craze, and the higher ticket prices they allow. Worse still, the process makes the already-dark imagery darker, and turns the action blurry. Viewers who see it in this form will pay more for an even shittier experience than the one they would have had in 2-D."

Most of the reviewers I read confirmed my own nagging doubts about Shyamalan's ability to adapt a serialized fantasy epic aimed originally at children. Mr. Beaks commented "Burdened by an never-ending onslaught of expository dialogue awkwardly delivered by actors giving career-worst performances across the board, The Last Airbender is so outrageously bad it's a wonder it ever got before cameras. Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, veteran producers who know better, should've shut down production the minute Shyamalan turned in his first draft and found a writer with a vision for the material. Or just a writer with a vision, period." Charlie Jane Anders eviscerated the director's efforts: "Shyamalan's true achievement in this film is that he takes a thrilling cult TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and he systematically leaches all the personality and soul out of it — in order to create something generic enough to serve as a universal spoof of every epic, ever." Peter Debruge thought Shyamalan misses the point of the series: "Here, we expect an epic martial-arts movie and instead get a soul-searching adolescent's decision to spare his enemies -- a character-driven approach that's ill served by the largely amateur cast."

I'll let Angry Asian Man sum it all up:
"M. Night Shyamalan attempts to adapt the entire storyline of season one (Book 1: Water) into this movie (the first of a planned trilogy). Having seen and enjoyed the animated series, I'm aware that this is no small feat. Unfortunately, overall, the plan fails. It's supposed to be epic, but the whole thing feels clunky, rushed and at times incomprehensible. You might not have to boycott this movie -- it's so bad, it could boycott itself."

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Update to Flash Gordon Memories of Al Williamson

I mentioned in a previous post reading a copy of Flash Gordon #1 when I was a kid. I think it was a local reprint published sometime after the release of the Flash Gordon movie - the one with the Queen song. Out of this World has reproduced all but one of the pages of this famous issue, confirming my memories of this comics. here's Al Williamson's rendition of the see-through ski suits:

Flash Gordon #1 by Al Williamson.

And here's the giant "ice dragon" looking like a big green lizard:

Flash Gordon #1 by Al Williamson.

I love the now classic streamlined look of its futuristic technology. Not a trace of steampunk to be found anywhere. But time also amplifies the rather old fashioned heroism where men took it upon themselves to save the damsel in distress. Then there's the fact that everyone has the proportions of a supermodel, even the scientists. And of course, there's the lavish psuedo-Renaissance clothing they wore. All in all, this is a beautiful story to look at.