At The Movies

The Last Airbender

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Based on the TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the title was shortened to avoid confusion with James Cameron’s little “Avatar” home movie. But the films have nothing in common other than the titles and the computer generated 3D worlds they take place in.  While both are ultimately disappointing, they disappoint for different reasons. Where “Avatar” was an unremarkable story told remarkably, “The Last Airbender” is a more remarkable story, told unremarkably.

The premise of the story revolves around four nations who identify with the four basic “elements”- air, water, earth, and fire. In each society, there are “benders” who can control their respective element and who are held in high regard. Ideally, the four forces and peoples would be held in check by an ‘Avatar’ who can control all four elements and who can also communicate with the spirits. However, the world has been Avatarless for 100 years and the Fire Lord has become the playground bully.

The film presents this 100-year period of decline and despair in the same way that some films would introduce “countless millennia,” and it seems oddly short in that context.  The non-fire people seem to have folded pretty easily to the arsonists, as much the result of low self-esteem or a group sense of futility as lack of abilities. Fortunately, the Avatar, who is repeatedly resurrected Dalai Llama-style, just accidentally spent the last century trapped in an ice bubble and is now back to fix things.

This basic story actually seems moderately interesting – and significantly less derivative than many fantasy films and books. But the storytelling isn’t. It’s plodding and clumsy, with characters and delivery that are either poorly-realized or simply aimed at small children. This also seems out of place, given the genocidal themes and killing fields depicted in the film.

Even the signature aspect of the film was fundamentally lame. The “bending” of elements was dependent on elaborate martial arts moves and were portrayed in what seemed like very inconsistent ways. In one moment a quick hand flick would send a gust of wind that would knock somebody down, and in other moments a similar action would take considerable windup and twirling. Much of the time, opponents do that “incompetent villain in a cheesy movie” thing, whereby they all hang back and allow the hero to concentrate on a few of them at a time. During the more elaborate spinning and waving, it just seems like a few of them could go over and slap the kid and put him off his game.

Having become used to watching Shyamalan make awful movies from his own weak ideas, I was looking forward to seeing him make something relatively decent from established source material. But the outcome is clumsy at best, and at times reminiscent of watching George Lucas’ characters attempt to deliver hamfisted expository or romantic dialog. The movie relies on transitions with voice-over narration to fill in the gaps and presents us with principle characters who seem poorly formed and, for example, able to lose a love interest in one scene and apparently able to forget them by the next. Maybe he should stick to ruining his own material after all.

Having also seen the latest “Twilight” sequel, which feels like Act 2.5 of a 3 act play (see next week’s column for that discussion), it seems as though the best family movie for the holiday weekend is still “Toy Story 3.”  

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Subtitled “A Year in the Life of a Semi-Legend,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is an intimate and revealing study. Shot a couple of years ago when she was 75, it chronicles a remarkable year that included both “Celebrity Apprentice” and the roast on Comedy Central.

Rivers has been in the business for over 40 years, has pushed buttons and envelopes, and is credited with helping female comedians.  But she measures her own success on the basis of her bookings calendar and her fear is a blank page.  

Her career has been remarkable, punctuated by high highs and low lows. After becoming permanent guest host of “The Tonight Show,” she left for her own show, which ended her friendship with Johnny Carson and ultimately ended her marriage when her husband and partner committed suicide after the show was canceled. But through it all she has remained grateful for her successes (“I thank God every time I step into a limousine”) and disappointed for her own lack of success as a serious actress.

She lives an opulent life (“This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money”) and maintains a schedule that could tire somebody a fraction of her age. The film reveals her constant struggle to maintain her income, her career challenges, and glimpses of her softer side as a mother and a grandmother. It doesn’t flinch away from showing her without her makeup, although she is virtually never without it on her heavily constructed face. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is a great portrait of a remarkable woman, an interesting character study of an insecure workaholic, and well worth the time.

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