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     The Last Airbender
    Filed under: — David @ 8:45 am

    I’m calling this a victory for hand-drawn animation. The Last Airbender is a 3D, live action film that pales in comparison to its cartoon counterpart. The original show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is an excellent show. It shows depth, originality, and a fantastic blend of humor, action, and serious drama. In all of these aspects it is superior to the film.

    Having learned my lesson from Transformers 2 and Percy Jackson, I went in expecting nothing. I left plenty of room for pleasant surprises, but that void remained empty. The only surprises were the unpleasant ones.

    The first big surprise was how distractingly bad the post-process 3D effect was. Many times, I saw faces that seemed to float several inches in front of where they should have been, and in general there was just a strange mix of flatness and depth. I was expecting it to be on par with Alice in Wonderland, which similarly added 3D after filming, instead of being actually filmed in 3D like the not-to-be-confused Avatar. Alice was fine, but with Airbender I wished I could just get rid of the glasses, but of course the double vision effect without them was even worse.

    The most jarring thing was the change in pronunciation for several of the names compared with the cartoon. Aang (rhymes with rang) became Ahng. Sokka (sock-ah) became Soh-ka. Iroh (eye-roh) became Ee-roh. Even Avatar was Ahvatar (most of the time).

    There has been a lot of controversy over the racial changes in the casting. I think the changes were probably a mistake, but it didn’t really bother me that much. My only problem was that Jackson Rathbone looks too much like Brendan Frasier, and I’m just not used to taking him that seriously.

    Any adaptation from one medium to another has inherent challenges. Here, they had to condense 22 half-hour TV episodes into a two hour movie, as well as take an occasionally silly cartoon and find a more appropriate tone for live action. They failed on both counts.

    The film felt rushed, jumping from one story point to the next without taking any time to breathe. Even when they were directly recreating individual scenes from the cartoon, they produced inferior dialog, action, characterization, and drama.

    There was a scene in which Zhao invites Zuko and Iroh to lunch, and it soon is obvious that his only purpose was to mock and taunt Zuko in front of the Fire Nation soldiers. Zuko storms out, and after a moment’s pause, Iroh silently follows. Lisa and I, as well as our two teenage nephews, all had the same thought: the Iroh we knew from the cartoon would have humbly thanked Zhao for the meal before leaving. Like Albus Dumbledore, he is unfailingly polite in a manner that shows calm and wisdom in spite of his host’s rudeness. The Iroh from the film has not fully developed this virtue.

    Like Percy Jackson, this film’s source material has ten times more potential. Ideally, they should go on to make the sequel (I really want to see Dwayne Johnson play The Boulder), but find a new writer and director. Lisa thinks Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top style would be well-suited to adapting a cartoon. After M. Night Shyamalan’s failed attempt, I’m certainly willing to give him a chance.

     Iron Man 2
    Filed under: — David @ 2:03 pm

    Like most of the reviews said, and as I expected going in, Iron Man 2 was good overall, even if it wasn’t quite as good as the first film. It picked up literally where Iron Man left off, and I think it did a good job of continuing the established tone and characters. I also laughed a lot, so it’s definitely an entertaining movie.

    My main problem was with the Justin Hammer character. I feel like I’ve seen this situation before, where the spoiled, corrupt rich guy thinks he can control the evil mad genius, only to be inevitably double-crossed because the mad genius has his own agenda, plus he is, after all, a genius. It can be fun to watch if the rich guy is a genius himself (I’m thinking Lex Luthor), and is actually equal to the task. Mickey Rourke’s character, Ivan Vanko, never loses his cool in this story. It would have been fun if Hammer could have made him scared or angry or something just once. It’s fun to watch two villains go after each other when they’re evenly matched. But it was established from his first scene that Justin Hammer is annoying, overbearing, and incompetent. His attempts to duplicate the Iron Man armor are all embarrassing failures. I didn’t even find it believable that such a person could be in his position without screwing it up a long time ago.

    Plus I didn’t enjoy watching him because he was just annoying. They might as well have cast David Spade or something.

    The whole thing with Tony’s electric heart poisoning him as well as keeping him alive also seemed somewhat unoriginal, but I think it was handled well, especially in terms of staying true to the characters of Tony, Rhodey, and Pepper. It was also good to see some exploration of Tony’s relationship with his father, though I think it could have been woven into the story more. It felt a bit shoehorned in.

    I’m often dissatisfied with the villains in comic book movies - like Justin Hammer - but Ivan Vanko/Whiplash was done pretty well. He was kind of inscrutable; he didn’t talk much, and half the time it was in Russian. But still, the little he said was enough for me to understand his motives. The character made sense, and he was all the more intriguing because he didn’t want to kill Iron Man, just show the rest of the world that he was vulnerable. That was enough for him.

    So, I can similarly say that while Iron Man 2 wasn’t perfect, it was still entertaining and engaging enough.

    On the other hand, I don’t plan on going back to the AMC theater in downtown Santa Monica anytime soon. The sound was terrible.

     The Lightning Thief
    Filed under: — David @ 5:00 pm

    I had been looking forward to this movie for a while. Then the reviews started coming out, and they weren’t all that positive. OK, I’ll just lower my expectations and maybe I can still enjoy it. But no, it turns out it really isn’t a very good movie.

    Déjà vu. I wrote something very similar to the above last Summer, describing my experience with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The good news is that Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief isn’t as bad, but of course that’s not saying much.

    The biggest problem is what was left out. Of course, when a book is made into a movie, things have to be left out. But you have to keep the important stuff. The Percy Jackson books are about modernizing the Greek myths, and the film didn’t do a good job of sticking to that theme. We never got to see Hermes dressed as a bike messenger, or Zeus in his business suit, or Poseidon as a weathered fisherman. This was a vivid and unique part of the story that I was looking forward to seeing on the screen, and it never happened.

    When I’m reading a book, I like to try to cast actors in my mind. Only a few tend to stick, though. In the Percy Jackson books, the only ones that really stuck were Danny DeVito as Dionysus, and Randy Savage as Ares. I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t cast in the film. What did surprise me was that they were cut from it entirely.

    Another theme in the series is that the gods have a tendency of not identifying their children. Percy (nor anyone else) didn’t even know that Poseidon was his father until about a third of the way through the book. That revelation is a significant part of the story. The movie kept the scene, but not its purpose. He just found out that, since he’s a son of Poseidon, water heals him. Surprise!

    Medusa was one of the very few examples the movie had of putting these mythological characters in a modern setting, with her sunglasses and the turban hiding the snakes. The problem was that Uma Thurman played her just like Poison Ivy from Batman and Robin, which was about on par with Transformers 2. I don’t need to be reminded of that.

    There are five books in the series. I read them all last year. I don’t read a lot of books, but Percy Jackson kept me going for all five books and left me looking forward to the films. Now I’m not even sure the filmmakers are ready for more because they left out the parts that set up the overall story. (Spoiler) In the book, Ares and Luke were following the plan of the Titan Kronos, the villain of the story. In the film, Ares was absent and Luke was a lone teenage mastermind setting the gods against each other. Riiight.

    Sigh. Can I say anything nice about this movie, other than that it’s not as bad as Transformers 2 or Batman and Robin? Well… Grover was funny.

     Half-Blood Prince
    Filed under: — David @ 9:39 am

    Spoiler alert, blah blah blah.

    Lisa and I went through the first five Harry Potter films this past week to get ready for the big event. Not only did it get us in the mood, it also got us ready to compare.

    I think Prisoner of Azkaban remains my favorite. In spite of the fact that it leaves out several things from the book that really tie things together (such as the identity of the “Marauders”), it all flows very well and there are so many nice touches here and there.

    Order of the Phoenix is my least favorite. It’s just not very memorable, and it’s not clear what the point of the story is. Plus they leave out what I think is an important point: Voldemort wants the prophecy, but it turns out it wouldn’t have done him any good. It’s a recurring theme that one of his flaws is that he doesn’t understand things as well as he thinks he does.

    Now on to Half-Blood Prince. Obviously it hasn’t replaced either my most or least favorite. But I’d rank it pretty high. The love triangles and such were fun and gave it a nice human touch. Luna was great fun, and it was a shame that she kind of disappeared from the story halfway through.

    Draco’s portrayal is different from in the book. Rather than just seeing Harry watch the map and wonder what he is up to, we get to see Draco going about his task - and we see the burden of it nearly break him. Of all the changes from the books to the films, this is my favorite.

    Conversely, there are two glaring omissions. It’s a close call, but I’ll rank the funeral as number one. Simply put, Dumbledore deserves better.

    Second is the battle at the end. What was the point of bringing all those Death Eaters into the castle if they weren’t going to do anything? Draco and Snape were the ones tasked with killing Dumbledore, and they were already there. Once that was done, they all just broke some windows, set Hagrid’s house on fire, and ran away with nobody but Harry to chase them.

    If it was a question of time or budget, I would have traded the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes scene for the battle at the tower. Sure it was a fun scene, but story-wise it only introduced the love potions and darkness powder (and the latter should probably have been omitted).

    I could go on, but since I really enjoyed the film overall, that would be counterproductive. So I’ll just mention my two favorite quotes, which were omitted from the film. They’re both from Dumbledore:

    “Oh, surely not. So crude.” (Disappointed that blood was required to enter the cave)

    “Jokes? No, no, these are manners.” (Refusing to lose his composure in front of the Death Eaters even though he was about to die)

     Fallen indeed
    Filed under: — David @ 12:20 pm

    Yeah, I know, dead horse, but I’m a fan and I must rant.

    So yes, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was bad. The first film way okay, and the second was bad. For me, the worst of it was the pervasive crude humor. Having read the reviews, I thought I had set my expectations low enough, but I did not expect to be tempted to walk out. Maybe if the third film doesn’t have any fluids squirting out of Bumblebee for once, I’ll consider seeing it. Maybe.

    One thing that Michael Bay continues to get wrong is that the titular Transformers characters lack personality (the twins and the little RC truck guy don’t count because they’re stupid and annoying). The thing is, almost every transformers toy since 1984 has had a description of the character’s personality on the back of the box (called Tech Specs). To me, this is a big part of the appeal of the Transformers. They’re not just robots, they’re characters. Why is this so hard?

    Take Skids for example. The original Tech Specs describe him as a daydreaming scientist fascinated by Earth. In the movie, he’s an offensive caricature. I was seriously disappointed that Devastator didn’t eat him.

    Frequently, especially during the desert battle scenes, it was hard to tell who was who. I think the silliest mistake in this category was the introduction of two silver sports cars: an Autobot named Sideswipe, and a Decepticon named Sideways. The original Sideswipe was red, which could have easily solved the confusion. Why is this so hard?

    Fans were very excited to hear that Peter Cullen would be reprising the role of Optimus Prime for the Transformers movie. Then we got a truck with flames on it. In the second film, we hear him trash-talking the Decepticons as he fights them. With most other Autobots I’d have no problem with this, but for Optimus it’s just out of character. The filmmakers tried to please the fans by bringing back Peter Cullen, but they didn’t understand why it’s important to us.

    Optimus Prime is an iconic character, a classic leader. He’s charismatic, wise, powerful, but also friendly and approachable. These are the qualities we wanted to see Peter Cullen bring to life again. But he wasn’t given the chance.

     The Dark Knight
    Filed under: — David @ 7:26 pm

    Now that was the Joker.

    Unlike a lot of people, I’m actually not a big fan of the Jack Nicholson Joker. It was a good enough movie on its own, but to me that just isn’t the Joker. Where did the whole “homicidal artist” thing come from? And Jack may make a good villain, but I don’t think he makes a good Joker. I’ve always said I would have nominated Christopher Lloyd (see the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit) or Tim Curry (who almost got the role in the cartoon before Mark Hamill came along). But now they’d both be too old.

    Here, however, both problems are corrected. I found the way the character was written to be completely faithful to the Joker I know from the comics, and Heath Ledger’s performance fully lives up to the hype. You never think about who’s behind the makeup, which can’t be said about Jack.

    We saw the “IMAX Experience” version of the film, which I definitely recommend. Going in I thought the difference between the IMAX and non-IMAX scenes would be jarring, but it’s actually fairly subtle, which is good because the two are often actually intercut. It seemed like all the aerial shots were done in IMAX, plus a couple of other specific locations and of course the opening bank robbery sequence. The thing is that the screen is so big, the extra area covered by the IMAX shots is just about in your peripheral vision, so you might miss the transition until you look around a bit more and realize what an amazing panorama it is all of a sudden.

    It’s hard to say anything more that’s interesting without spoilers, so I’ll just go ahead.

    Part of the film’s story is how Harvey Dent became Two-Face. I thought this worked well. For one thing, they set up his coin-flipping habit in his first scene. I also liked the subtle references to him as a “hero with a face”, in contrast to the masked Batman. I was of course disappointed to see him die in the end (or did he?), but this was different from your standard “villain plunging to his death” situation. It was actually important to the story: there was a need to preserve the image of Harvey Dent as the “white knight” of Gotham City, a symbol of hope that Batman could never be because Dent represented the law.

    I was hoping Two-Face’s appearance would be a little less extreme, but I wasn’t surprised that they went that far. On a technical level, it works very well. But not only is it gross and distracting, it also strains credibility. How can a man in that condition not be in constant screaming pain?

    For me the most thought-provoking thing was the Joker’s expression of his philosophy. He reveled in the idea that he was immune to interrogation because there was nothing the police or Batman could use as leverage against him. There was nothing he wanted. But of course there was, or he wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble. What he wanted, and worked so desperately for, was to prove that any person will compromise their morals under the right circumstances.

    I can think of lots of responses I might give to this. So nobody’s perfect? That’s old news. Then there’s the problem with proving that something will eventually happen, but the only method available to you is trial and error. When you fail, all you have to do is say that wasn’t the right situation, and surely next time you’ll get it right.

    So why is the Joker so intent on proving this idea? Because if he’s wrong, then there is enduring good in the world, a constant standard against which everyone can fairly be measured. And he doesn’t measure up. That’s a hard thing to face.

    The mere fact that I’m having such thoughts is another testament to what a good movie this is. I could even see it again, once it stops being sold out.

    There were a couple of things that bothered me, though. As above, Two-Face’s scarring was unbelievably extreme. Another is the presence of guns on the Batpod. These car chases involve an awful lot of property damage, which Batman didn’t seem very worried about avoiding.

    And finally, what’s up with the mayor’s eyeliner?

     Batman Begins
    Filed under: — David @ 10:28 pm

    I’ve been thinking for a while now that the next Batman movie should have the Scarecrow as a villain. The previous films have missed something important: the reason Bruce Wayne chose the image of a bat. He wanted to scare the criminals. Batman is supposed to be scary, and Batman Begins finally takes that seriously.

    Another thing that was missing before was the relationship between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, complete with Batman disappearing in the middle of their conversations. This film finally gives us that too.

    I had a few complaints, though. Creating a love interest for Batman is always tricky, and I wasn’t satisfied with this attempt. For some reason I don’t think it fits to have it be someone from his past. In particular, the image of Batman yelling “Rachael!” doesn’t work for me.

    I was also worried about Ra’s (”Razz” in this version) Al Gul. It looked like they were going to mess up the character, as comic book movies tend to do. Why Ken Watanabe? He’s not supposed to look like that. What about the Lazarus pits, and Talia, and “Detective”? Well.. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I came out relatively satisfied on this.

    But I’m still waiting for a Batman that can actually turn his head.


    This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

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