I am truly sorry to say that this movie is a big, dumb, dull, dud and a failure in almost every category.
It is difficult to imagine how even writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who seems to forget more about film-making with each successive production, thought that this cardboard claptrap could engage an audience. It is a disappointment to those of us who continued to hold out hope that Shyamalan could once again show us his genuine gift for cinematic story-telling, and it is an even bigger disappointment to fans of the popular animated television series who were hoping to see its spirit honored with a large-screen, live-action feature film.
I was hoping that Shyamalan’s creative energy would be sparked by working with stories and characters that were proven and created by others as the problem with his most recent films were a sagging sense of story and a disconnect from the audience. But instead of benefiting from the material here, he simply transferred the same problems. The story-telling is distant and chilly. The performances by the adult and child actors are stilted and wooden, with Shaun Toub as Uncle Iroh the only one who creates a character of any kind.
The screenplay is so exposition-heavy the characters sound like they are chewing on rocks. And then much of it gets repeated. It even has the ultimate cliche of a character, upon discovering a mass killing, screaming up to the sky. “Forget an air-bender,” I thought as I watched. “This movie needs a cinema-bender.” You know, an editor. For a movie with so much focus on responsibility, you would think Shyamalan would recognize some sense of obligation to the source material and its fans.
The story-line tracks the first season of the series, which was called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The world is divided into four nations: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. At one time, each nation produced “benders” who had special powers enabling them to control their elements and communicate with spirit guides, and they lived in harmony. There is a single avatar, the same spirit reincarnated over and over, who can master all four elements, speak to all the spirits, and maintain the balance of peace and harmony
But there has been no avatar for a hundred years as our movie begins, and the Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis) is a cruel despot who will stop at nothing to control everyone. When he heard that the new avatar lived with the Air Nomad, he had them all killed.
But the young avatar, now the last of the airbenders, was not there. He is discovered inside an iceberg by Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (“Twilight’s” Jackson Rathbone) of the Water Tribe. Together, they must protect the avatar from Orzai’s son (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel as Prince Zuko) and his general (Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao).
Every single system is a #fail, from the murky cinematography to the murkier storyline. Appa the flying bison has no majesty — he looks like a cross between a woolly mammoth and Mr. Snuffleupagus. The dialog sounds like it has been translated from another language, badly, with weird juxtaposition of fantasy-film-talk and contemporary syntax, and even the heaviest, most portentous comments are delivered as though the characters are talking about a trip to the mall. The special effects might be impressive if they were not exceeded by the imagination of the original animated series — or if they were better integrated into some sort of engaging narrative. And it has to be the poorest use yet of 3D technology. The only thing that jumps out of the screen are the too-frequent titles telling us of yet another confusing location shift and reminding us that the rest of the movie has no dimension at all.
This genial little fairy tale of a comedy gives us a likable hero and an irresistible fantasy. Kevin Carson (Bow Wow) is a good, honest, hard-working kid who lives with his grandmother (Loretta Devine) in the projects. He is so diligent he irons his shoelaces and so kind-hearted that he is the only one who will do errands for a neighbor who has not left his house in decades and is reputed to be a serial killer.
Every day, Kevin walks to his job at the sports shoe store in the mall with his best friends Benny (Brandon T. Jackson of “Tropic Thunder” and “Percy Jackson”) and Stacie (Naturi Naughton of “Fame”), for companionship and safety. They have to pass through some dangerous spots on the way because not everyone in the community wants to see them get there on time. Some do not want them to achieve anything. They want to discourage them from having any ambition that includes participation in the society outside of their community. And some are more predatory and want to take away what little they have.
Kevin’s grandmother has him play her numbers by buying a lottery ticket every week. Just before a three-day 4th of July weekend, when the pot is over $130 million, on impulse Kevin buys a ticket for himself, with the lucky numbers from a fortune cookie. And he wins.
But the lottery office won’t be open until after the holiday, so Kevin has to figure out a way to hold onto the ticket and resist the persuasive powers of everyone from a tough guy just out of prison to the local crime kingpin and the pretty girl who suddenly finds him utterly fascinating.
Producer Ice Cube, who plays the man who never leaves his home, has produced another comedy with a tender heart about poor people and their challenges and dreams. If he tries to have it both ways, with some painful stereotypes and some affectingly vivid personalities, with one character saying that the lottery is designed to keep poor people poor by selling them false dreams and then have someone win $370 million, if it has both a shopping spree montage and some important lessons about what money can’t buy, well, that’s what makes it a fairy tale. And what makes it a pleasant one to watch is the effortless charm of Bow Wow and Jackson.
“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” is a documentary about the New York state attorney general who took on Wall Street, was elected governor, and then, in one of the most spectacularly scandalous falls of the last decade, resigned following charges that he was a customer known as “Client 9” of a high-end escort service that provided expensive prostitutes for wealthy men. Alex Gibney, who has made powerful documentaries about falls from grace: Enron, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and post 9/11 torture by the US military, spoke to me about this film. (“Client 9” is now available at xfinity On Demand)
Why did Spitzer agree to do the film?
He wanted “final argument.” he wanted the ability to have his say in a film that was going to be all about him. He knew [co-producer and business journalist] Peter Elkind from before and he knew we were going to do a rigorous and factual job. So, better to have his story told than not. We made a powerful argument that he was going to have to reckon with his past and that cooperating with us would be a way of dealing with it and then maybe he could move on.
You made an unusual decision for a documentary in having an actress play the role of one of the key players — and not be revealed as an actress until the end of the film. Can you talk a little about that?
She didn’t want her identity exposed, for obvious reasons. There’s a standard way to do that in documentaries — put the person in shadows and mechanically alter their voice. We experimented with that. It was terrible. It turned her into a cliche like a mobster, a monster, like she was in the witness protection program. It created an aura of criminality about everything she did, a cheap stereotype. So I thought, as long as we disclose it, let’s transcribe the audiotapes and then cut them down and that’ll be the script that an actress performs. It will be true to what she said, and more truthful by presenting her as a human being. I found her not just truthful but very affecting, not like the stereotype of prostitutes that we think of, smart and funny and tough. For all those reasons it seemed like the more truthful thing to do. At the end of the day, each film sets its own rules. Our obligation is to let the viewer know what those rules are and that can be accomplished any number of ways.
How do you decide what your rules will be in a given film?
I was very influenced by [the Errol Morris documentary] “The Thin Blue Line.” I heard a wonderful radio interview with Errol Morris where he said, “The only version of the truth I didn’t show was the version I thought happened.” I thought that was a very interesting rule and so I made it my mission from then on to come up with rules that I thought made sense from my standpoint and in terms of the overall presentation of the story. With “Angelina,” we show her two or maybe three times before we disclose that she’s an actress.”
I wanted her to be shocking and I wanted you to be saying, “Oh, my God, we’re really getting inside here” and to experience her as a person without thinking about the device. And then I reveal it but by then hopefully you’ve developed an affect with her as a person. And then you roll with it even though you know it’s an actress.
The movie digs in by having a whole bunch of false starts. It’s a movie all about about things that you think you know and you don’t know know. When you first see that guy in the cowboy hat at the beginning, you think “Why are they putting this painter up front?” And then you learn that he was the booker and he knew Ashley. And then you think that Ashley is at the center of the story and it turns out that she’s not. Nothing in this film is quite what it seems initially.
Why did Spitzer foe and business big shot Ken Langone agree to be in the film?
I think he wanted to be in the film because John Whitehead told him that I was a good listener and he enjoyed talking to us. I found it very refreshing talking to him. There were no handlers, just Ken Langone telling me what he thought. People talk when they’re emotionally invested in talking. As you can see in the film, he is invested in talking. All you have to do is say the name “Elliot Spitzer” and smoke comes out of his ears. He literally foams at the mouth. He is the essence of the “winner take all society.”
Do you think that Spitzer underestimated not just the power and fury of his opponents but his own ability to take on the very different job of being governor?
Spitzer was not comfortable with the culture of the legislature which was one of the great bogs of corruption, a system of greasing. He had a commitment to the power of argument to carry the day and was much more high-handed. I have sympathy for that idea in principle. But Spitzer had a great deal of difficulty in letting other people take credit for his ideas. That would have been smart. Weird rules, double-dealing, entrenched favors and interests. It’s so sclerotic; it’s terrifying.
What would you say that this film is about?
Unlike the film I did just before this, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” where you could come out of that and say, “Take the money out of politics or we’re done,” this one is harder to summarize. It asks some fundamental questions about human nature and how we judge our public officials. Do we judge them as vehicles through whom we live vicariously or by what they do as public officials? Are we being blinded by scandal in a way that prevents us from seeing stuff that really affects us as individuals?
Celebrate Rock Hudson’s birthday this week with the movie that really made him a star, a remake of a Robert Taylor movie based on a popular book by Lloyd C. Douglas, who often included religious themes in his stories. (Both movies are included in the Criterion edition.)
Hudson plays a careless playboy whose boating accident deprives a beloved doctor of lifesaving equipment. The doctor dies. His widow (Jane Wyman) discovers that he had been quietly helping dozens of people, requiring only two things: that they never tell anyone and that they never pay him back. He asked them to pass the aid along to others instead. That was his “magnificent obsession.”
No one was better with melodrama than Douglas Sirk. In his first American film, he amped up the luscious technicolor but it was still not as purple as the emotions, especially after the playboy has another catastrophic encounter with the widow before finally finding a magnificent obsession of his own.