Rings


All is not well with Samara.

(2017) Horror (Paramount) Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Jonny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Chuck Willis, Patrick Walker Zach Roerig, Laura Slade Wiggins, Lizzie Brocheré, Karen Ceesay, Dave Blamy, Michael E. Sanders, Randall Taylor, Drew Gray, Kayli Carter, Jill Jane Clements, Ricky Muse, Jeremy Harrison, Jay Pearson, Rose Bianco. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez

 

Urban legends have a tendency to take a life of their own. They also make for some pretty nifty horror movies, whether they are actual urban legends or made-up ones. One of the best of the latter was the Japanese horror film Ringu by Hideo Nakata which helped make the Japanese horror film industry a global powerhouse back in 1998. Four years later, Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made an American version that didn’t disgrace itself and in 2005, Nakata himself directed the American sequel.

Now in 2017 the powers-that-be at the studio felt the time was right for a third installment of the series but forewent most of the attributes that made the two films so successful and tapped Spanish director Gutiérrez to take his shot. I don’t think that the film’s problems rest primarily on the director’s shoulders necessarily.

The new installment is a sequel. In it, the videotape that brought death to whomever watched it seven days to the tick after watching it is still making the rounds. Holt (Roe) has left his high school sweetheart Julia (Lutz) behind to attend college in the Pacific Northwest. At first, all is hearts and roses as the two lovebirds Skype their sexy across the miles. Then, Holt stops answering his phone. Julia becomes worried so like any good girlfriend she treks to the school to find out what her boyfriend is up to.

It turns out that he has become part of a study of that very videotape as presided over by whacked-out Professor Gabriel (Galecki from The Big Bang Theory) who keeps his students alive by having them do the only thing that gets the video watchers off the hook – show the video to another potential victim. It turns out her man has seen the video and is 24 hours away from an up close and personal visit from Samara (Morgan), the angry spirit who crawls up out of the video screen to murder those foolish enough to give in to temptation.

When Holt’s relief watcher doesn’t show up, Julia herself takes the bullet and watches the tape – which has now been, conveniently enough, transferred to a digital file for easy streaming. It’s the 2010s after all. S’anyway, Julia wants to get to the bottom of this whole rigmarole and ends up chasing clues about the real Samara to a small village on a remote island in the Puget Sound. There she finds a blind priest (D’Onofrio) who may know more about the legend of Samara than he’s letting on.

I think most fans of the series would have welcomed an updating of the original, made in the age of VCRs and modems, into a more digital format. There are certainly a lot of ways good writers could have taken this – Hell, even the concept of a collegiate study of the phenomenon might have worked if the writers had shown some originality.

But they didn’t – not even a little bit. The dialogue is preposterous and the characters are largely too bland and personality-challenged to care about. Lutz and Roe seem to be trying but I have to say that I found their performances simply didn’t create any chemistry or energy onscreen. The producers, going for a PG-13 rating, didn’t even leave Gutiérrez graphic gore or sex to fall back on.

D’Onofrio is a smart actor, who sometimes shows up in bad movies but he never does anything less than his best. Here, his role has little depth to it but what it does have D’Onofrio gives it by the dint of his performance. None of the other actors in the film really hold up next to him although Galecki comes close.

This is a bit of a yawner as horror films go and that’s not what you want to hear when trying to make a scare flick. It has enough going for it that I can give it a very mild – VERY MILD – recommendation but this is a mediocre attempt at resurrecting a franchise that deserves better treatment. I’m quite sure both Nakata and Verbinski would be rolling in their graves if they had one.

REASONS TO GO: D’Onofrio gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO STAY: A poorly written script and not enough imaginative scares doom this franchise revival.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine, there’s plenty of horrific sequences, spooky images, profanity, a bit of sexuality and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the franchise without lead actress Naomi Watts and special make-up effects master Rick Baker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ringu
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: John Wick Chapter 2

Advertisements

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

Turbo Kid


Apple's gonna party like it's 1989.

Apple’s gonna party like it’s 1989.

(2015) Retro Sci-Fi Action (Epic) Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Michael Ironside, Edwin Wright, Aaron Jeffrey, Romano Ozari, Orphee Ladouceur, Steeve Léonard, Yves Corbeil, Evan Manoukian, Anouk Whissell, Franҫois Simard, Tyler Hall, Martin Paquette, Pierre Sigouin, Yoann-Karl Whissell, Christian Picone, Eric S. Boisvert, Abdul Ayoola, Nathaly Thibault. Directed by Franҫois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell

There was a time when movies just had to be fun, when things like BMX Bandits and Solarbabies filled the 8-screen multiplex with kids and teens. Big floofy hair and a synthesizer-based score were offset by plenty of gore and sex scenes set to power ballads. Mad Max ruled the wasteland and The Last Starfighter soared into deep space. These were good times.

The year is 1997 and acid rain and killer robots have decimated the surface of the earth and reduced the population to a handful of scared townsfolk trembling in the confines of a town on the edge of the badlands, trying to find water wherever they can but most have to get theirs from Zeus (Ironside), the despotic and de facto ruler of the badlands and pretty much anywhere else he can get to on a BMX bike – apparently gasoline is a super-precious commodity that is only used to power cars in emergency situations.

This is the world that the Kid (Chambers) lives in. He’s an orphan who lives in a fallout shelter. He gets by going into the badlands and scavenging for whatever he can find, then trading his goods for water, food and comic books, especially Turbo Rider, the kid’s favorite.

One day he comes across Apple (Leboeuf), a pink-haired chipper happy-go-lucky young girl with ethereal blue eyes. At first the Kid finds her annoying but eventually they become friends and the Kid teaches her the rules of survival. However, the Kid runs afoul of Skeletron (Wright), the right hand man of Zeus which is somewhat ironic because Skeletron has saw blades where his hands should be. In trying to get away, he falls through an ancient door and discovers the Turbo Rider’s suit and power glove, which shoots off a powerful blast of….umm…a powerful blast.

Now armed with a powerful weapon, aided by Frederic (Jeffery), an arm-wrestling champion whose brother was killed by Zeus and whose right arm was chopped off by Zeus and now seeks vengeance. The Kid has his own reasons – first and foremost, Zeus has kidnapped Apple but also nearly as important, it was Zeus and Skeletron who orphaned the kid all those years ago. And before the final confrontation occurs, we discover that Apple has a secret of her own.

As I started watching this, I wasn’t sure whether this was an homage or a spoof of 80s movies and I eventually came to the conclusion that it was the former. Spoofs tend to be mean-spirited but one gets the sense that the filmmakers have a genuine affection for the films and pop culture of the era. The movie is littered with different references to life in the 80s, from the vaguely New Wave synth score to the Legend of Zelda to ViewMasters to rockin’ headbands to the aforementioned BMX bikes to a bazillion cinematic and TV references. The movie began life as a short film that the filmmakers submitted to the ABCs of Death anthology but were not selected; they decided to push on by making a movie of their own based on the short. Either way, Gen X kids are going to get nostalgia overload watching this movie.

There is a ton of gore here but it is not realistic in any sense; blood is essentially red Kool-Aid that fountains from anyone who gets even the merest scratch and while body parts are blown up and limbs scattered everywhere, probably the more freaky images are those of long-dead corpses in the wasteland that are little more than bones and dust.

Chambers is a likable actor who gives the Kid a certain naiveté that is endearing and occasionally annoying, while the out-of-this-world pretty Leboeuf comes off sort of like Goldie Hawn on happy pills. Ironside, a veteran of the sort of films that the movie is paying tribute to, is a bit long in the tooth but still has the gruff skills to make Zeus deliciously hissable.

The special effects are era-specific and look primitive to modern eyes but that’s intentional. In fact, the cheese factor here is off the charts, which some may not appreciate as much as those of us who lived through the era and loved many films from that time. As a matter of fact, I have to say that it brought a nice warm feeling to this reviewer’s gizzards as I was reminded of a whole ton of movies from my misspent youth. Devotees of 80s films will no doubt feel the same, although I think that audiences of a certain age group are going to appreciate this more than younger audiences who might not get the references, at least in any emotionally attached way as a Gen X-er might.

This is a movie that grows on you. Sure, it’s a one-trick pony and maybe you might find it gimmicky and start to get fidgety towards the end but I was definitely in the right frame of mind to experience this movie and fell in love with its goofy charm. No, this isn’t going to win any Oscars but I think it’s got a good shot at being a cult movie that a lot of people are going to adore for a very long time.

REASONS TO GO: Really grows on you. It brings up the warm fuzzies of long ago matinees.
REASONS TO STAY: Cheesy to the max. A bit one-note.
FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of violence and gore, some foul language and a little bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set in a desert wasteland, filming in Quebec – which as far as I know doesn’t resemble a desert wasteland anywhere in the province – was marred by particularly rainy weather. Because of this, the storyline was changed to an environment polluted by acid rain and standing puddles were tinted green by the film crew to simulate this.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (check your local cable/satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Dog and His Boy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Pawn Sacrifice

Battle: Los Angeles


Battle: Los Angeles

The smog is particularly bad in L.A. today.

(2011) Sci-Fi Action (Columbia) Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, Cory Hardrict, Ne-Yo, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena, Noel Fisher, Bryce Cass, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, Joey King, Neil Brown Jr., Roger Mitchell, Gino Anthony Pesi. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

In any military action, it is the grunts on the ground that do most of the fighting. While most of our alien invasion movies look at the high flying pilots and the decision makers of government and the military, we rarely get to see much of the guys in the trenches trying to survive the much more advanced weaponry of a space-capable race.

It started out as a meteor shower that came out of nowhere but the attitude generally changed when the meteors began to slow down as if they were under power; infrared pictures taken from the Hubble Space Telescope indicate the presence of mechanical devices in the center of the meteors, and the fact that they were only landing outside the waters of major coastal cities…well, it’s a little bit suspicious. And what do Americans do when they’re suspicious? They send in the Marines.

Among the Marines is decorated veteran SSgt. Mike Nantz (Eckhart) who has seen combat action, but is nursing wounds that can’t be seen after a mission in the Gulf leaves him minus several members of his squad who didn’t make it home, including the brother of Cpl. Jason Lockett (Hardrict), who happens to be in Nantz’s squad.

Except it really isn’t Nantz’s squad; Nantz had recently submitted his retirement papers and was only in this squad because Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), a bit wet behind the ears and fresh from OCS,  was down a Staff Sergeant because his was on leave. When the meteors turn out to be an invasion force of squid-like aliens who start shooting first and asking questions…ummm, not at all, they are sent on a rescue mission to Santa Monica to pick up some civilians from a police station because in a few hours, the Air Force is going to carpet bomb that part of town to keep the aliens out of the rest of it.

They manage to get to the Police Station but not unscathed; there they find a veterinarian (Moynihan), a man (Pena) and his son (Cass), and pick up an Air Force tech sergeant (Michelle Rodriguez) whose mission went horribly wrong. They are hemmed in by alien ground troops and too late discover that the supposed rule of the airspace that the humans had was a complete illusion.

It becomes obvious that they’re going to have to fight their way through superior forces to get back behind their own lines, and those lines are rapidly moving in the other direction. The Battle of Los Angeles is in danger of being lost, and it will become the crux on which the survival of the human species will balance.

After seeing last year’s Skyline I had low expectations for the genre. The trailers for B:LA made it look far more interesting and a better quality and I suppose in that sense, the trailers don’t lie. However, the movie is just as disappointing as Skyline but for different reasons.

Eckhart is a decent enough lead and makes the rough and scarred Nantz also conscientious and brave. Most of the other roles are more or less disposable and seem to have sprung from a Screen Writing 101 cliché course. The characters are rarely fleshed out and most of the dialogue consists of gung-ho lines like “Marines never quit!” and “I’m not going to leave you behind!” and “Retreat? HELL!!!”

The special effects are only okay and the aliens, when you see them, are sort of squid-like and don’t look very realistic or even threatening which would be okay except that they mostly are seen firing weapons which get more elaborate as the movie goes on. It isn’t the aliens that hold our attention but their guns and when that happens, the movie loses interest. We’re told they’re after our water and that their technology and the aliens themselves use water as a conductive device; that’s really all we ever hear about the aliens and their culture. Someday, I’d love to see an alien invasion movie that lets us actually meet the aliens. Beyond that, the action sequences can be rather nifty, and there are some very cool shots of L.A. under siege.

In fact, think of this very much as a Marine Recruiting Video mash-up with a war-based videogame and throw in some Independence Day besides. There are a lot of elements here that would normally add up to a good movie, but too many Lt. Deadmeats and way too many testosterone-fueled cliché moments make this seem like something you’ve seen before and can go a long time without seeing again, which bodes ill because there are a plethora of alien invasion movies in the pipeline. Perhaps Mars Needs Screenwriters more urgently than it needs moms.

REASONS TO GO: Eckhart is an appealing lead. Some nice video game-like action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the worst-looking aliens in any film ever. Cliché-ridden script with testosterone fueled moments don’t a great movie make.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a good deal of battlefield violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Los Angeles, much of the film was shot in Louisiana with sets built to stand in for L.A. streets.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen fare.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Saw the Devil

Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World

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

The Book of Eli


The Book of Eli

Tell them Eli's coming and Heaven's coming with him.

(Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Malcolm McDowell, Tom Waits, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Chris Browning, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by the Hughes Brothers

There are those who say that faith and religion are to blame for all the world’s troubles. There are also those who say that the world would be a savage place without them.

The world as we know it has come to an end. War has ripped a hole in the ozone, allowing the sun’s radiation to cook the Earth. It is the apocalypse, and as we all know from watching films set in the post-Apocalyptic era, the Earth turns into the Old West.

Down the dusty pock-marked roads that are all that is left of the Interstates comes a walker, a middle-aged man – something that is rare in this world where both the good and the bad die young – carrying a satchel and armed to the teeth, as would be prudent in a time where law and civilization have broken down. Darwin’s law has become the only law that is enforced.

The man is Eli (Washington) and he carries with him something very valuable. Not just the trinkets he’s been able to pick up, mostly from corpses and the already-stripped houses that remain standing, but something worth dying for…maybe even worth killing for. It is the King James Bible, and it may be the last one left. After the war had decimated the planet, many of those who remained on it blamed religion for the war and Bible-burning became the new national pastime.

Eli is a man to be reckoned with, lightning quick and merciless with knives, as a group of scavenging hijackers who mean to rob him and eat him find out. He is also merciful and compassionate with the weak, as the woman (Martinez-Cunningham) who was used as bait also discovers.

Eli comes to a small town which looks uncannily like Tombstone, Arizona, mostly to get supplies and to recharge a battery charger. While he’s waiting for the Engineer (Waits) who runs the general store to charge the battery, he goes across the street to the Orpheum bar to fill his canteen. Some rough and tumble sorts led by Martz (Jones) try to mess with him and wind up writhing on the floor or dead. The leader of the town, Carnegie (Oldman) is impressed and is anxious for Eli to join his group of enforcers. Eli is unwilling; he has business to the West to which Carnegie responds “There’s nothing west of here.” Carnegie isn’t the sort to take no for an answer so he has Eli sleep on it, whether he wants to or not.

Carnegie sends his girlfriend in, blind Claudia (Beals) with food and drink. He then sends in Claudia’s daughter Solara (Kunis) to tempt him with baser charms. Eli turns her down but she begs him to allow her to stay the night and give Carnegie the illusion that she had done as he asked; if he does not, she tells him, her mother will pay the price for her failure. Eli relents and allows her to stay.

The next morning Solara inadvertently lets slip that Eli is carrying with him a book. Carnegie goes ballistic – this is the very book he has been sending bands of illiterate marauders out to retrieve. With it he can control the remaining populace and act as a kind of post-Apocalyptic messiah. He has to have this book! He and his right hand man Redridge (Stevenson) go running into Eli’s cell, only to find him gone. He hasn’t gone far and after a brutal gun battle in which Carnegie gets hit in the leg, Eli escapes with Solara chasing after him, eager to get away from her existence in the town.

The enraged Carnegie takes nearly all his enforcers in what vehicles remain and head out after him. Eli believes he is on a divine mission to take the Bible to safety, but with such a man on his tail can Eli reach safety even with heavenly assistance?

While much about the movie is basic Post-Apocalypse 101 from the Old West-style towns, the rusting cars abandoned on highways that have collapsed, the desert-like environment to the abundance of trenchcoats and shotguns, the concept is unique. It is not your usual action-adventure type of film that is usual for this genre (although there is plenty of both); it is also meant to be an examination of faith and belief.

Kudos for screenwriter Gary Whitta and the Hughes Brothers for trying something a little daring. It is not an easy sale sometimes for secular Hollywood to take on themes of morality and faith, but they do so here. I’m sure the presence of Denzel Washington in the project had more than a little to do with the studio taking a chance on it.

Washington is perhaps the most movie star-like actor out there today. He has the kind of screen presence and charisma that gives him appeal not only to African-American audiences who revere him, but also to white audiences who respect him, female audiences who adore him and male audiences who want to be like him. He carries films in the same way that Clint Eastwood once did. In fact, this is the most Eastwood-like of Washington’s performances ever, as he plays essentially a man with no name and of few words who comes into a town, kicks ass and fights injustice. It’s the kind of role few have tackled since Eastwood hung up his gunbelt.

Kunis has been getting a lot of high-profile roles lately, and she has a great deal of potential, but in many ways this was the wrong part for her. She seems far more adept at light comedies and romantic roles than in action movies. However, I was pleased to see Jennifer Beals do so well in this movie; after Flashdance she never really regained the kind of attention that movie brought her, but she is a talented performer as she shows undeniably here. Ray Stevenson, who was last seen playing the comic book character the Punisher is also very strong as Carnegie’s lackey.

Gary Oldman plays villains with a great deal of panache and you get the feeling that he has more fun with them than he does with characters like Sirius Black from the Harry Potter movies. He is certainly playing a demagogue – when we first meet Carnegie he’s reading a biography of Mussolini – but he’s not completely unsympathetic.

I have to mention that there is a bit of a twist ending here, one I didn’t see coming which is somewhat unusual these days, and it elevates the movie in my opinion. However, it also must be said that because the filmmakers are showing a world in which the sunlight is much brighter, the whole movie has a washed out, colorless look that is at times distracting. I know it’s probably a realistic look and I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but just the same it did wear a little bit on me personally. Just sayin’.

I’m not going to say this is a pleasant little film because there’s a good deal of brutality in it, but I found it to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than most of the critics I’ve read and heard from made it out to be. Denzel is a fine actor and an engaging screen presence and while I hesitate to say he can do no wrong, he has for sure not done wrong here.

REASONS TO GO: A very nice twist at the end. Washington does his best Clint Eastwood and is surprisingly good at it. Oldman is always an engaging actor.

REASONS TO STAY: The film has a bit of a washed-out feeling that lacks color, which I found to be a bit distracting after awhile. Once you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic landscape, you’ve seen them all.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a great deal of brutality and some rough language. There’s also a suggestion of rape. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the wall of the room in which Eli is kept prisoner at the Orpheum is a poster for A Boy and His Dog, another post-apocalyptic movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s a bit washed-out from a cinematography standpoint, so a smaller screen might lose some detail. See it in a theater just to be on the safe side.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Darwin Awards