Air


No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can't reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can’t reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical/Stage 6) Djimon Hounsou, Norman Reedus, Sandrine Holt, David Nykl, Michael Hogan, Peter Benson, Steve Burgess, Paula Lindberg. Directed by Christian Cantamessa

The Hollies famously did a song called “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” that in a just world, would have been part of the soundtrack to this movie. Indeed, air is a requisite of life. What happens when there isn’t enough to go around?

That’s just what the situation is after chemical warfare rendered the atmosphere unfit to breathe. With the human race in mortal peril, the powers that be hastily converted old nuclear missile silos into makeshift shelters, in which suspended animation chambers were installed. Into these chambers went the best and the brightest, scientists of all disciplines, medical professionals, agriculturalists, philosophers, maybe an artist or two – everyone you would need to re-establish civilization once the air was breathable again. Movie reviewers need not apply.

There are also a pair of maintenance men making sure that everything works. The trouble is, there isn’t enough breathable air to allow them full-time coverage, so the two men also sleep in their suspended animation chambers, awakened only once every six months and then only for two hours at a time before heading back into their sleep chambers.

The technology is decidedly low tech – the silo had been abandoned since the 80s and there are things like dot matrix printers and DOS-like screens of green scrolling text. Evidently there wasn’t enough time to drop by Best Buy and pick up a couple of laptops. Pretty much what you’d expect from government work.

The two techs, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) are beginning to get a little buggy; Cartwright is having conversations with his wife Abby (Holt) who is one of the sleepers in the chambers that he is protecting, while Bauer is watching re-runs of athletic events long in the past. However, the unexpected occurs; an earthquake triggers a fire in Bauer’s suspended animation chamber, rendering it unusable. Attempts to rig up a spare chamber end up nearly killing Bauer until Cartwright belatedly rescues him. Spare parts will have to be found and the only way to find them is to check a neighboring silo, which will require Cartwright to get into an environmental suit, traverse a labyrinth of tunnels until reaching the other facility.

However, both men have begun to become suspicious of one another as well as whether the mission they are charged with is even possible – or worth the cost. Suspicion breeds fear which in turn breeds paranoia; not something healthy when you have only one other human on the entire planet to communicate with.

I like the premise a lot, although there have been similar stories with different twists (disease, radioactive fallout etc.) in the concept. While some critics have been getting their panties in a bunch over the obsolete tech, it does make perfect sense up to a point. One huffy writer took umbrage that there wasn’t even a smart phone to be seen, which you would assume just about everyone had but one brief scene near the end indicates that the war was a lot more than chemical.

Reedus has become something of a cultural icon as Daryl from The Walking Dead and while this is a much different role than Daryl, some of the basic characteristics are there; Bauer has a kind of homespun outlook on life and he’s a bit easily hot under the collar although I suspect that if I was a technician fixing obsolete machinery so that hundreds of others could survive when the atmosphere became breathable again I would probably be a bit crabby my own self.

Hounsou is one of those actors who lends credibility and gravitas to every movie he participates in; here, his character is a bit more vulnerable than the ones he usually plays. Often Hounsou plays physically intimidating characters but not so much here; he’s a big man but he badly misses his wife and is lonely as can be as a result. While this isn’t Oscar bait by any stretch of the imagination, it does remind us that Hounsou has a depth and range greater than the roles he’s usually asked to take.

The set design is industrial, with pipes and knobs and wheels and metal tables and chairs. Everything looks like it came out of a manufacturing facility circa 1988 which is what I think the producers were going for. This is low tech sci-fi and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

That said, there are plenty of movies with post-apocalyptic settings and there are a few cliches about them that are repeated here, from the failing machinery to the paranoia among survivors. The pace is pretty slow, particularly early on and the action never really generates a lot of tension. Plus there are a few logical holes that don’t make sense; there is a medical bay full of medications that, given that the process apparently is expected to take decades, would certainly expire long before they are needed. Also, how do the crew members eat? Won’t the food have spoiled before long?

Of course, questions like that aren’t meant to be answered or, I suppose, even asked. Game performances by two likable actors are the centerpiece of this science fiction thriller, and if you don’t mind sci-fi that has no gleaming machinery, super high-tech gadgets, monsters or alien vistas, you certainly might enjoy this. Although there are monsters – the kind we keep inside us, and the alien vista is of a world that in our folly we destroyed ourselves. Caveat Emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Really cool premise. Reedus and Hounsou are both fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit. Doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some sexual references and a bit of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first theatrical feature to be produced by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Infini
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Band’s Visit

The Last Airbender


The Last Airbender

Those guys are just teed off because Aang stole their pajamas.

(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub, Keong Sim, Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Francis Guinan, Randall Duk Kim, Damon Gupton, Summer Bishil. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

There is the school of thought that all of us were born for a reason. Whether that reason is to accomplish something, or to be with somebody, we all have a destiny we’re meant to fulfill. That’s the idea, anyway.

Based on the Nickelodeon faux-anime series, the movie takes place in a world that has been divided into four nations, each based on an element – Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each nation has a group of people within it that can bend the element endemic to their nature; Earthbenders can cause rocks to hurl themselves at aggressors, and protect their Bender by creating a shield wall. Waterbenders can encase their enemy in ice, while Airbenders can create a little tornado. Firebenders can hurl flames at those they wish, which can come in very handy when you want to fricassee someone.

However, Benders can only work with the element they’re native to and none other. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four elements. He also can communicate with the spirit world, wherein reside dragons and other amazing creatures who act as mentors and guides. The Avatar is reincarnated whenever he dies and while he lives he keeps the world in balance.

However, Aang (Ringer), the most recent Avatar, ran away before he could be fully trained and disappeared. Without the Avatar to maintain balance, the aggressive Fire Nation attacked the Air Nation and wiped it out, and has occupied the Earth Nation while besieging the Water Nation. The world is at war.

A hundred years later, two war orphans of the Southern Water Tribe are hunting for very scarce food on the ice floe. Katara (Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Rathbone) find something buried beneath the ice which turns out to be an ice sphere, which turns out to contain…drum roll please…Aang, who has remained in suspended animation for more than a century. He is completely unaware of what has transpired. However, releasing Aang sends a bolt of light sure to attract anyone in the vicinity.

And it so happens that in the vicinity is Prince Zuko (Patel) of the Fire Nation, who is in disgrace for showing leniency to the soldiers under his command. He has been banished by his own father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Curtis) until Zuko brings the Avatar to the court of the Fire Lord. The beam of light attracted Zuko’s notice and he, along with his uncle, General Iroh (Taub). They march into the village of the Water People and capture Aang. However, Sokka and Katara rescue the lad with the aid of his luckdragon. Okay, it looks like a luckdragon.

At Sokka’s urging, Aang heads up a rebellion, which gains some steam. After awhile, Aang confesses to Katara that he was only trained how to bend Air, and needs to learn Water, Earth and Fire in order to attain his full power. Sokka and Katara must take Aang to the Northern Water Tribe where they still bend water openly, and get him trained. However, Zuko is pretty hacked off after losing his prisoner and is looking for him with a vengeance, and Ozai has sent his slimiest general, Commander Zhao (Mandvi) to trap the Avatar himself. Considering the armed might of the Fire Nation and their infernal machines, can anyone stand up against the most powerful nation on the planet?

The critics have been universally harsh on this one, and I can see some of their points. Certainly the acting is on the wooden side here. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be one with the earth but do they have to be trees?

I know, har de har har har. However, Shyamalan, who has been on a cold streak lately, cast a kid in the lead role that has a certain amount of natural charisma but not enough acting chops to pull off carrying an entire movie. He has some impressive martial arts moves, but mostly what he does is wire work. Ringer would have benefitted from a few more acting lessons before cameras were rolling. However, the boy has a certain natural charm that you can’t teach; hopefully in future movies he’ll be much better.

Another problem is the battle scenes. If you look at most Asian martial arts movies, the battle scenes look realistic and beautifully choreographed. Here, it looks like a bunch of guys waving their arms around. There’s no sense of conflict.

There has been some grumbling that the bad guys are mostly played by Indian actors. I mean, can we just take a chill pill for a moment? The director wanted the four nations to look ethnically similar, so the Earth people look Chinese and Mongol, the Water people look Scandinavian and Germanic and the Fire people look like Eastern Indians. Shyamalan is of Indian-American background; how people would have had a coronary if the Fire People all were African, or Italian. Take it easy people; this is a fantasy movie, not an indictment of any particular ethnic group back here on Earth and certainly not the director’s own. Sheesh.

To the good, the art direction is marvelous. Shyamalan succeeded in creating distinct cultures with their own architectural look, from the steampunk-styled warships of the Fire people to the igloo-like dwellings of the Water people. The costumes and the overall look of the movie is very satisfying, to say the least. The bending effects of fireballs, ice walls, flying rocks and tornadic dust clouds while not groundbreaking are at least reasonably high on the wow factor scale.

The dialogue could have used some work, but then again what do you expect for a movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series? It’s simplistic in places, full of pretentious New Age babble, and portentous pronouncements. I suspect some of the acting performances would have been better had the actors had more naturalistic dialogue to work with.

This isn’t a very good movie, to be sure but it does have some redeeming qualities, despite the critical bashing that it has been taking for awhile. I haven’t seen the original anime that this is based on so I went in as something of a blank slate, without any preconceived notions of how this movie should look or feel. Without any knowledge of the show’s canon, I can safely say that the premise is very intriguing, if a little child-friendly, and I liked some of the concepts here. Unfortunately, those concepts weren’t well-served by the script. The movie did moderate box office in its first weekend and unless it turns out to be word-of-mouth proof, chances are those numbers are going to take a nosedive in the coming days. So, it is sad to say that this will take its place in a long line of recent attempts to create a new fantasy franchise that have ended after a single chapter (see Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, Inkheart, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass, to name just a half dozen). Maybe the studios should stop looking for the next Harry Potter and try some adult fantasy fiction, like the Wheel of Time, or the Shannara series or perhaps the Magic of Xanth. I wouldn’t mind any one of those making it to the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Great concept and some truly impressive visuals. The set design is just outstanding.

REASONS TO STAY: Really bad acting in some key roles. Battle sequences look just awful. Dialogue too “Nickelodeon Cartoon” to make sense in a live action film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fantasy violence and a few battle scenes, but nothing bloody or disturbing enough that you wouldn’t think twice about letting most kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the series this is based on is entitled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Paramount dropped the “Avatar” to avoid confusion with the James Cameron movie released in 2009, and also to avoid possible legal action from 20th Century Fox, who had already registered the name.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the sequences are visually impressive and deserve to be seen on a big screen; otherwise, it’s your call.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Death Race