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

Dr. No


Dr. No

A debonair James Bond enters M's office for his next assignment.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, Regina Dawson, John Kitzmuller, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell. Directed by Terence Young

There are few characters in the movies more iconic than James Bond. The suave, sophisticated British superspy can karate-chop a bad guy into submission, or kill him in a particularly gruesome fashion and save the day with an urbane quip. He can seduce just about any woman nearly at will. He is the man every guy wants to be and every woman wants to be with, and no actor embodied him as well as Connery, even to this day.

In his first big screen adventure (a television version of Casino Royale had been made some years earlier, but it had been Americanized and has been mercifully lost to the mists of time), Bond is summoned to Jamaica to investigate the murder of an MI6 field agent named Strangways who at the behest of the Americans had been investigating mysterious radio interference of rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral. Bond discovers that Strangways had been looking into a sinister place called Crab Key, an island off the coast of Jamaica that the locals are afraid of visiting because of rumors that a dragon patrols the beach. Bond also discovers that Strangways had submitted some rocks to his bridge partner Professor Dent (Dawson) to examine.

Bond is aided by CIA operative Felix Lieter (Lord) and Quarrel (Kitzmuller), a local boatman who has assisted the CIA in the past. Several attempts are made on 007’s life before he finally heads out to Crab Key along with Quarrel. They meet the fetching Honey Ryder (Andress), a comely but no-nonsense seashell collector who has been taking shells from Crab Key to sell in Jamaica. The three eventually discover that the island’s owner, Dr. No (Wiseman) has an evil plan up his sleeve and is the member of an organization called SPECTRE, bent on the destabilization of the world.

Coming up on its 50th anniversary, the movie holds up surprisingly well in some ways. Yes, it’s hopelessly dated in its attitudes towards women, minorities and politics, but if you can get past some of the special effects (which are admittedly primitive but keep in mind that this was a low-budget production even for its time) and the dialogue which can be laughable, you’re left with some wonderful action sequences, amazing set design and of course Bond.

Here is the first appearance of the James Bond theme, the first time “My name is Bond, James Bond” is uttered. It’s the first appearance of the Walther PPK, the first time we see M (Lee), the head of MI6 and his wonderfully efficient but oversexed secretary Moneypenny (Maxwell).

The Hollywood conceit of a megalomaniac on an island is essentially established here, one that would be followed in many a Bond movie to follow as well as in other spy and action movies over the next half century. The urbane Dr. No would be a model for Bond villains; suave, sophisticated, brilliant and egomaniacal but ultimately done in by his own hubris.

It seems hard to believe now but United Artists was not pleased with the choice of Sean Connery as James Bond (and Ian Fleming apparently wasn’t happy either, at least until he saw the movie for the first time). The rugged Connery was not the picture of a sophisticated upper class Englishman (Connery is a working class Scot) that the books had suggested.

When watching Dr. No, you can’t help but be aware of the times in which the movie existed. John Kennedy was president (and a big fan of the Bond series, which was one of the selling points for the movie) and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full bloom, making nefarious doings in the Caribbean all the more believable for nervous American (and global) audiences. The Second World War was twenty years in the rear-view mirror and the Cold War was at its peak. The space race was just beginning and the New York Worlds Fair was only two years away (the architecture of the fair was foreshadowed by the ultra-sleek lair of Dr. No). It was a time of great optimism yet a time ruled by enormous fear.

James Bond played into both. Yes, there was much evil in the world, and evil geniuses plotting to take over but with Bond on the case, the Free World could rest easy knowing that 007 was laying the smackdown on wannabe world dictators (the memory of Hitler still fresh in the minds of many). He conformed to the ideals of manhood of the time; virile, decisive, rough, smart and sophisticated, able to wear an expensive Saville Row suit at the baccarat table with a stunning sex kitten on one arm, a (shaken, not stirred) martini in one hand, his trusty Walther PPK in his waistband and impeccably coiffed hair barely ruffled after beating the crap out of a thug (and uttering a bon mot over the inert body of his assailant).

Times have changed and feminists no doubt cringe at the attitudes of Bond, but all the same he still holds a fascination that has carried him through nearly five decades of nearly continuous missions that still continue to this day. Bond was, at the time, unlike any other hero that had ever appeared on the silver screen and is unlikely to be duplicated ever again (Indiana Jones comes close). Dr. No stands up today not just because it was first but because it’s actually a very good movie, despite its flaws.

WHY RENT THIS: This is where it all began. Connery is electric as Bond and the action almost never stops.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopelessly dated, some of the dialogue and effects are laugh-inducing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ah, where to begin? It’s the only Bond movie in which Bond sings and doesn’t feature a pre-title sequence. Also, Bond’s armorer is known as Major Boothroyd (not Q as in later films) and is named after a reader who wrote Ian Fleming asserting that a true British spy would never use a Beretta as Bond does in the early novels, but a Walther PPK. Fleming concurred and the incident was actually used in a kind of backhanded way in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print that cleans up some of the graininess of the original and actually looks better than when it was released theatrically. There are a number of contemporaneous features about the premiere, and on-set featurettes. There’s a nice feature on the guns of James Bond and a piece on the restoration of the print.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Goldfinger

How to Train Your Dragon


How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and Toothless take flight.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig, T.J. Miller, Robin Atkin Downes, Phillip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, Ashley Jansen. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Most of us have a preconceived notion of things. We live our lives in a kind of ordered routine, never questioning whether our ideas of how the world works are actually correct.

The village of Berk sits on a mountainous island in the North. It is, we are told, a very old village – but the houses are all new. That is because the village has a pest problem. Not spiders, termites or mosquitoes but dragons. Lots and lots of dragons of every shape and size. Dragons that breathe fire and swoop from the sky. Some have many eyes, others have many heads. Some are long and slender, others short and fat. They come in every color of the rainbow, and some are as black as night.

Those are the dreaded Night Furies, nearly invisible and lightning-fast. Rather than breathing fire, they emit a kind of pulse wave that flattens everything in its path. They are the most feared of all dragons and no Viking has ever seen one, much less killed one.

You see, the village of Berk has another pest, but those are the ones who actually live there. They’re Vikings and not just any Vikings, they’re Scottish Vikings. I know, I’m confused too; I had understood most Vikings to be Scandinavian but apparently I was mistaken. They’re Scots. All they’re missing are kilts. They do have, however, odd names meant to show how fearsome they are.

The most fearsome of the Scots…err, Vikings…is Stoick (Butler), a massive bull of a man with massive red hair and an equally massive red beard who is the most brave, most fearless and most ferocious of the Vikings. His son however, is not what you’d call a chip off the old block. His name is Hiccup (Baruchel) and he is as scrawny as his dad is beefy. He dreams of being a true Viking, a noble slayer of dragons but he doesn’t have the brawn and when the village is attacked, is banished to the armory to sharpen swords and spears with the one-armed, one-legged Cobber (Ferguson), who was once a fearsome warrior himself but now must content himself with training them and arming them.

One thing Hiccup is good at is engineering machines, and he creates a cannon that can launch a bolo a great distance. Despite the misgivings of Cobber and Stoick, he pulls out the cannon to a hillside but it is so dark he can’t see the dragons flying around in the night sky. Aiming and firing at what he hopes is a dragon, he is surprised when he actually hits something. However, he has a hard time being able to tell what it was and where it fell to.

Stoick knows that the Vikings are losing the war against the dragons. Their only hope to end this war once and for all is to find the dragons’ nest and destroy it. He intends to lead an expedition to do just that but before he goes Cobber advises him to put Hiccup into dragon fighter training, which Stoick knows will probably be another humiliation for his son, but he has really hit bottom.

Hiccup is in a class with the aggressive and pretty Astrid (Ferrara) as well as the cocky Snotlout (Hill), the overly intellectual Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse) and the warring twins Ruffnut (Wiig) and Tuffnut (Miller). Cobber leads the class and as expected, Hiccup is an absolute failure. Cobber gives the class a book that contains all the information about the different types of dragons that the Vikings know about with orders to read it which the others almost disdainfully turn down. Hiccup takes the book to study it. Know thy enemy, after all.

In the meantime, he goes searching for the dragon he might have taken down and comes upon it in a quarry-like valley. It is all-black and nothing like what Hiccup expected. Here, at last, is his chance to kill a dragon, his chance to be a Viking, respected and admired.

Except the dragon is just as frightened as he is and Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill it. He resolves instead to get to know it, especially when he discovers that the dragon was wounded in the attack and is unable to fly out of the quarry or hunt. Hiccup helps to feed the dragon whom he names Toothless for its retractable teeth. Eventually Hiccup learns how to disable dragons with a single touch, and how to frighten them with eels and so becomes an unlikely success in his class. For his part, he designs a mechanical solution to help Toothless fly again and becomes Toothless’ pilot. The two become reliant on one another.

In the meantime, Stoick returns from an unsuccessful venture but is pleased and proud to hear that his son is finally doing well at something. Hiccup’s success in class has reaped the reward of the honor of being the first in his class to be allowed to kill a dragon. However, Hiccup has discovered that dragons are not the evil creatures the Vikings believe them to be and has learned the secret of their lair, the key to destroying the dragons altogether but within the lair is another secret that changes the dynamic altogether. Can he convince his father, who has never listened to a word he’s said his entire life, that he must change his viewpoint or will both dragon and men perish together at the hands of something far worse?

The latest from DreamWorks Animation may very well be among their best. It certainly ranks up there with Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. Directors Sanders and deBlois, who collaborated on Lilo and Stitch for Disney (deBlois also directed the excellent Sigur Ros concert film Heima), have made a film that soars, literally. The scenes in which Toothless and Hiccup fly together are some of the best animated sequences you’re likely to see this year. We saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and that lent a great deal of immersion to the proceedings. It comes as no surprise that the directors previously were responsible for Stitch; Toothless has a great deal of visual similarity to the alien creature of that movie.

The story, based on the book by Cressida Cowell, is very much Animated Feature 101 and doesn’t hold very many surprises. Still, the dialogue is witty in places and Baruchel is superb as the acerbic Hiccup. This is a movie that is certainly intended for much younger audiences (think single digits) and while adults might get a kick out of certain sequences (particularly the flying ones), for the most part it might bore older children and teens and some of the dragons might terrify the easily frightened.

Still, I found the movie has a certain lopsided charm that I can’t ignore. It’s one of those cases where the sum of the parts doesn’t equal to the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of those parts. That’s a good thing, incidentally; even if I can’t necessarily explain that charm, I can nonetheless report that it’s there and worth experiencing for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best-looking non-Pixar animated features yet. Awesome dragon flight sequences will take your breath away. Seriously funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat formulaic as far as family films go.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some cartoon violence but nothing you don’t see on the Cartoon Network day after day. Perfectly fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Night Fury dragon can be seen occluding the stars during the DreamWorks opening banner if you look carefully.

HOME OR THEATER: The flying sequences alone are worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Go-Getter