Tag Archives: movies

cirque du soleil world’s away review…in a word, WOW

Full disclosure: I have been a huge Cirque Du Soleil fan for decades, watched my first Cirque video back when you rented them on VHS cassette, and have seen them live, twice (and seriously—if you ever, ever, get the chance, don’t hesitate, just go), so, no surprise I suppose, I loved this film.

Therefore. Short version: explosive superlatives! Wowowowow! Love!

Now for the longer version. Loved it, but I did have a reservation, see below.

Cirque du Soleil World’s Away is an amazing spectacle of 3-D tech, plus Olympic-level athleticism, plus the most imaginative, creative sets/make-up/etc out there, resulting in a triple threat of circus-y wonder that took my breath away. It takes acts from five of the big Cirque shows like “O” and “Mystere,” ties them together with a light frame story, and documents these acts with astonishing camera work and high-definition capture that boggled my eyes. I’m going to say something about each of these three elements, so here goes. I told you this was the longer version.

First the acts. FIVE FUCKING STARS. I mean, holy shit, how do these performers do this stuff? This is not a CG movie (except for some lovely huge-scale shots outside the tents), no, this is the REAL DEAL, just what these incredible athletes can do, set off by what the visual artists create, the sets and costumes, put to gorgeous music—who the heck needs special effects when you have Cirque???

Honestly, I repeatedly have felt over the years that Cirque du Soleil pushes the boundaries in my mind of what humans can be, what we can do, physically (obviously) but also creatively, and World’s Away totally captures this. It’s so inspiring, like the first time I saw pictures of the Taj Mahal: humans can do this. We aren’t all strip malls and petty meanness. The limits we tend to think of as standard are LIES.

My inner watching-Cirque monologue goes something like this: Oh my god, is s/he really going to do that?!? Danger! Are they going to break? What is that, costume? Body paint? Just how naked are they? What are they thinking as they smile while they are bent in half backwards? I wonder if they get bored doing the same act over and over? Does it hurt? Do they like each other, these performers holding such intimate and life-threatening (so it seems) contact with each other? They must trust each other, at least, to do this stuff. But still, are they catty rivals or best friends or lovers? All three? Just what would sex be like if you could do that? Here is someone doing crazy, impossible upside down splits and wow, I’m looking at another human’s crotch spread out like I never see anywhere else, so that’s novel. I wonder how long it takes to train one’s body to do these things? Does it damage them, long term? How long will be they be able to do it? What’s the injury rate? What do ex-circus performers of this caliber do when they retire? How much do they get paid? Is that a man or a woman? Is that a tattoo?

It’s all so mythical and larger than life. The performers sometimes seem to be animals or magical creatures or mystical embodiments of strange dream-world archeytypes. I love the non-logical way the shows activate something in my imagination, even as part of my brain is going this is so bizarre.

I think my favorite was the fast metal spinning around gear things with the guys inside jumping up over the top on their hands, or jumping rope, or other insanely dangerous stunts. Or no, maybe it was the gorgeous woman doing crazy backbending dives into a glass fishbowl. Or no, wiat, maybe it was the comic book characters doing crazy leaps on sideways trampolines, that was pretty cool, too—their costumes were shaded with dots, as if they had sprung right off the comicbook’s printed page. Cool and with a sense of humor! I like Cirque best, I think, when it laughs a little, like it knows how bizarre it is, too, and isn’t it grand?

Why yes, yes it is.

This thing is spinning super fast and that guy on the top is running on his hands and jumping rope on the outside of that circle. It’s also easily thirty feet up, probably more. And he has no wire, and no net.

Fabulous costume design, of course, but this is Cirque so that goes without saying. Those zebra women? Or those crazy floating jelly fish dancers?? Or the meat suits the warriors wear on the vertical wall???? What?!?

Okay, basically, no amount of astonished exclamation points and full-frontal squeeing are going to be enough to show my experience of the performances.

So I’m just going to move on, now, okay?

The camera tech. I popped my 3-D cherry on this thing, so part of my response is surely the wowy kazowy of seeing terrific 3-D effects for the first time. Someone who has seen a bunch of 3-D already is possibly yawning about all of this, meh, 3-D, whatever, but seriously, the detail you can see, every rhinestone, every bead of sweat, the freaking g-force on the flesh of the performers as they leap and twist—this is all stunning. The individual water droplets flying through the air, the trapeze rushing through space, the contortionists balanced atop of one another right there and I swear I could very nearly touch them—it was soooo cooooool! It’s MAGIC, how do they do that??

It isn’t just the 3-D but also the amazing camera angles that show us the performers from above the trapeze, under the water they dive into, swirling around them, up-close and from a distance, and especially in slow-motion. Seeing Cirque live, the performers are so incredibly fast, I mean, live I get a sense of what is going on and the miracle of what they are doing, and the danger, always the danger—and yes, the danger of live-performance is missing a bit from the movie—but I miss so much. Here, in exchange for the live-performance-danger element, you get to really see what they’re doing. It’s the Matrix bullet-time in HD. It’s amazing! This is a Cirque du Soliel you’ve never seen before, and can’t see, any other way. The hands reaching through space to catch each other, the super fast spinning around thing and that dude leaping over the top of it on his hands, holy shit, seeing that from his perspective is astonishing.

Basically I can’t think of a better use of 3-D slow-motion than Cirque. James Cameron, I salute you!

This is a giant snake, puppet or animatronic, I’m not sure, and to give you a sense of the scale, those fluttery things are humans twirling around on ropes doing astonishing tricks. Crazy!

Which is to say that I am stunned, stunned, that World’s Away is only rating a 58% at the moment over at rottentomatoes.com and that so many of the reviews say things like “just a promo reel for the shows.” No one is knocking Cirque, to be sure, but tons of people don’t seem to like this version of the show. That sound is my jaw hitting the floor.

Take note, I am now moving on to the frame story discussion.

*Puts on Writer’s Hat*

Having said all the above, I think I understand, as a storyteller, why some critics are balking.

The film starts with a lovely set-up, evocatively filmed, with a young woman named Mia, played by Erica Linz done up to look rather like Audrey Tautou in Amelie, walking into a small circus pitched on the edge of some Mid-Western town.

Mia has a brief run in with the pretty, mean girls at the entrance, a walk through the seedy freakishness of the low-rent booths and lower-rent performers, and then we find emotive Mia making some serious eye-contact with a gorgeous hunk of a bashful carny…only to have him shooed away by a older, more bitter version of himself, bummer. Except the young almost-couple reconnect across the not-so-crowded main event when Mia sees that the headliner, the Aerialist, is none other than her hunky carny, and we know they are going to get together, because that’s how these things work.

Okay. Nothing wrong so far. Mia and the Aerialist get sucked through the floor of the circus ring and into stranger and stranger worlds where they must find each other again. We journey with one or the other from act to act. Frame story functioning properly. There are few spoken lines and the characters are the broadest of fairytale archetypes, but that’s all right. All systems go.

The problem arrives when all this evocative storytelling gets dropped half-way through. Mia searches for her man who seems to have been captured by the weird circus people but manages to escape (or is helped to escape?) and finally he sees her through a crowd of scary clown-types (are there any other kind?), and even though they are separated once again, he starts looking for her, too. And then….

Nothing. I lose them in the middle. The Beattles section (loved the sheer joy in the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds part!), then Elvis (fabulous, a bit of the darker side of freaky circus-ness) and then, suddenly back to Mia and her Aerialist and boom, they are together. Huh? They find each other in a blaze of aerialist glory ending in a giant orgasmic fireworks display (who needs metaphor?) but how did it happen? I missed something in the middle, or a chapter was cut, something. Why have they now found each other? Why is he now sort of integrated into this world (what with his rope-things and new, shiny pants)? Why is her dress suddenly sparkly? What did this pair overcome in order to get to this new place of connection? I am confused.

I kind of expected them to go back to their Mid-Western town. I thought for sure Mia was going to have another run in with the three pretty, mean girls (because why else have them in that opening? Just to show she isn’t that type of girl?) only this time she would have the gorgeous Aerialist on her arm. But no. Still, the main thing is that the mystery of their falling through the floor is never resolved—or it could, on purpose, not be resolved, as if they fall through the seedy-cheap carnival floor into the Archetypal World of Circus that exists like an Aristotelian Perfect Form of Circus-ness behind the curtain, and then are spit back out again, not knowing how or why but changed by the experience. That would work. OR they could choose to stay in the crazy circus world, because it certainly seems more interesting than the town they left—and maybe this is what they were aiming at? But we never see them choose that. We see them get together, but what of the crazy world, this grand adventure, what has it all meant to them? I’m left hanging, just like the two of them are at the end of their aerial duet, two puppets after the puppet master has gone off to lunch. The whole thing is dropped. Leaving me with the feeling of “what happened?”

This, I think, is the main reason some people are panning the film. The story, so carefully set up in that opening scene, gets short changed. I really wonder if there is a missing scene in there, after the Moon Goddess, but before Mia finds her Aerialist, that explains how she has changed that allows her to find him, shows her in relation to the Beatles scenes, or shows a final struggle that is over-come, something like that. That missing scene, plus a tag after the fireworks, either a return home, or a choice to stay, something.  Just a couple of minutes would do it. Such a scene would have increased my sense of satisfaction at the end tremendously.

And I mean, hey, this is Cirque, filmed by James Cameron, in luscious 3-D. It doesn’t actually need a frame story to be amazing. But having offered a story in the beginning, it hurts it to not complete the story promises made by that opening sequence.

But enough about that.

*Takes off Writer’s Hat*

One more word about the culminating aerial dance between Mia and the Aerialist: it is gorgeous, romantic, full of acts of profound trust, as when she holds onto his extended neck and is lifted forty feet into the air, or he holds her by one hand, or catches her mid-air. So beautiful!! A wonderful topper to the acts up to that point. I would pay again just to see that performance, if I had the money. The last bit where they are hanging, not even looking at each other during the orgasm fireworks, was weird, but the duet before that is perfection.

Oh, um, not to mention the fact that sitting up close and personal (or experiencing the 3-D illusion of that) to the half-naked Ivan Zaripov’s glistening, muscular torso, does not suck. I mean, this is what the human form is supposed to look like people. Wow. Just…wow.

In summary! If you like Cirque du Soleil, you have no business avoiding this film. Honestly, I can’t imagine being so jaded that one would pish posh this film as “just a promo reel” or “just a sampler platter for the real shows”. It’s gorgeous and astonishing and made me feel wonder like Im a little kid again. What a gift! And while it does have some flaws, the good far outweighs them, in my opinion.

See it on the big screen in 3-D!!! Highly Recommended.

gankutsuou and our count of monte cristo redux redux

As part of our recent anime extravaganza, we watched Gankutsuou, an anime sci-fi retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo.   So marvelous!  Although a bit slow in the second quarter for the kids who tired of the intrigue and drifted off to play Minecraft at times…and then riveting again as we got into the last dozen eps.  The animation is spectacular, using an unusual effect of flat textures for fabrics and hair—many stunning visuals that just generally wowed the heck out of me, although it took a few eps for my eyes to get used to it.  It’s a great example of using the art to convey the story—the style really gets across the opulence of extreme wealth, and also, perhaps, something of the shifting veils of deception that are at the heart of the story.

And what a story, right?  How many hundreds of thousands? Millions? of humans have read this story since it came out in 1844?  I read The Count for the first time as a teen-ager—maybe I didn’t finish? I can’t remember—and then again some time in my twenties, listening to an audiobook. The Count has such an extremely compelling character transfiguration at its heart—the transformed-by-hate Edmond Dantes walks with such power, he’s so potent and sexy and mesmerizing—even as we hope he doesn’t succeed in his goal, because that will be the end of him, he will be lost to evil.  While at the same time, his efforts fulfill so many of the revenge fantasies we all carry around in our dark little hearts….

Except me.  I never fantasize about revenge because I am much to evolved for that.

Anyway.  Gankutsuou changes some plot points around, for sure, sometimes substituting SF elements one-to-one for 1800 France (for example, Albert goes to Luna, not Rome, and the Count was once a traveler in Eastern Space, rather than the oceans of Earth), but it also makes adjustments to the plot to keep things flowing within the time allotted.  But it’s all there, this is the Count of Monte Cristo, no doubt about it.  I wish I knew more about why the creator, Mahiro, Maeda, chose The Count as the story he wanted to tell, or how he created its fascinating visual style, but I can’t find much.  My google-fu is weak.  I am ashamed.

The kids and Paul and I have been talking constantly about it since we started watching: what we wanted to have happen, what we thought would happen, what we thought should happen, all the various characters decisions and mistakes, all while compulsively singing the terrific end-credits song, Jean-Jacques Burnel’s “You Won’t See Me Coming (till I strike).”

So, of course, the natural thing to do after finishing the last episode was to start listening to the book.  Did you know that it takes a professional reader over fifty hours to read the entire thing? Onto the ipod it went, I had to delete three other books to make room.   We are currently on the part where Edmund is following the clues to the treasure, and it is VERY exciting.  We sit in the car (our primary audiobook listening location) long after we have arrived in order to finish a chapter.  Funny how much suspense comes with great writing, even when you know exactly what is going to happen.

It surprises me that the kids are interested enough to stay with it despite the difficult syntax of another century plus many words they are unfamiliar with, French, sailing jargon, place names, but also just two-dollar words like “countenance” instead of the more prosaic “face.”  Definitely some of it is blowing by them.  “So what are they talking about?” they sometimes ask me, brows furrowed.   At other times, though, I worry they are missing something and I give unwanted explanations like, “Danglars is tricking Ferdinand into sending that “joke” letter by working him up–”  “We know, Mom, we know, turn it back on!” So, clearly they are getting enough.  And they ask for it when we get in the car, “Put on the book!” so they’re getting enough to want more.  I guess having already watched the story once through, even an altered version, they have enough scaffolding to hang the new telling on to.  This is especially true for the French names and titles, which they already know.  Monsieur and Mademoiselle and the like are no trouble for them after Gankutsuou.

But even fifty hours of spoken text has not been enough, so the other night we watched the Jim Caviezel 2002 version (with Dumbledore as the Priest!) a retelling that has also taken many, many liberties with the story to fit it into two hours and turn it into a swashbuckling up-ending tale.  Talk about the most over-the-top, mine is bigger than yours, grand entrance (hot air balloon?  seriously?) an ostentatiously rich person ever made!  And can we just take a moment here to honor Jim’s amazing blue eyes?  Wow.

The kids thought the movie was okay, but were more interested in discussing the various changes and why I thought they had been made, especially the whole “Albert was really Edmund’s son all along” bit, which was not in Gankutsuou, and required a bit of explaining about how it used to be that a woman who had a baby when she was not married used to be shunned and generally treated very badly, and so that was why Mercedes had lied about that.  They thought this was stupid.    I have to agree.  Which led to a whole discussion on the history of women’s rights that was pretty interesting, especially as I am a married woman who stays home to keep the kids, coming full circle in some ways from those women for whom there was no other choice.  I told Sophie if she ever had a baby, no matter her age or marital status, she was always welcome at my house, no problem, and I’d gut anyone who gave her a hard time about it.  I thought she would roll her eyes at me but she said, “I know, Mom.  Thanks.” which was surprisingly sweet. I just love her.

But back to The Count. The idea of the power of will to transform oneself, plus the power of extreme wealth, plus what happens when we close our hearts in pain, has been much in discussion around here.  Plus history, how social norms change, war, revenge, and Franz’s amazing letter (don’t miss it!) in the anime version—all great stuff.  No topic is too small or too big for discussion in the yurt.

I love living in a time when we can access so much amazing storytelling so easily.  Gankutsuouhighly recommended—is streaming on Netflix.  A half-dozen versions of the audiobook are on audible.com.  Jim’s version can be rented for two bucks from amazon.  How long has it been since you read it?  Is it time for a revisiting?  I say, give the anime a try.  It’s been well worth our time.

writing is music is art

I usually write in silence, but sometimes I get a certain song looping in my head, connected, often, to a certain character or scene I’m working on, and I play it over and over and over.  I am always intrigued by this, by the interaction between different kinds of art, music to writing, movies to music, dance to art to comics, whatever the mix.  Steampunk, for example is cool in the way the visual art is fed by the books, which are fed by the music, which are fed by the sculptures, all in a loosely unified movement (maybe?) or possibly you call it an aesthetic.

Sidebar: There is a steampunk cafe in our tiny town, a fact which I adore.  It has a series of nesting room sporting a decidedly steampunk (if under capitalized) ambiance and sells steampunk art, jewelry, books, pastries and absinthe, no kidding, I’ve had some.  You pour it (it’s pale green) over a sugar cube and it tastes delightful.  Did you know that absinthe is not the toxic substance it is commonly thought to be, but, rather, all that wormwood-makes-you-crazy-stuff is just bad PR spread by the French wine industry in the early 1900s?  Seriously!  There is a fun documentary about the history of this mysterious beverage called, what else, Absinthe, and here is a link to a preview of it.

Anyway.  I have mentioned my love of of the anime Samurai Champloo, and now I’ve seen all the eps (sadness! finding something that delights is so bittersweet because once you’ve finished, its gone) so, in mourning, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack.  Shinichiro Watanabe, Champloo‘s director and creator, is famous for the powerful use of music in his work, and even for writing scenes for specific songs.  Champloo is no exception, lots of great songs in the mix.

My favorite, hands down, is the song played during this amazing scene in ep #14  where a character is having a life-flashes-before-his-eyes moment, plus some possible afterlife with weird crow-men gods-of-death sort of dudes—a WAY more remarkable scene than this little description lets on—and I’d say a large part of the scene’s impact comes from the song, an eerie Okinawan folk song about sadness and death.  Indeed, Watanabe has said that he was so moved by that song when he first heard it (before he started working on Champloo) that it would NOT be an exaggeration to say that he had created the entire series just to be able to write that scene for that song.

Here it is, “Obokuri Eeumi,” and it’s gorgeous, go ahead, click play listen.  The video itself is just a few pictures from the show, ignore that, just listen to the music.  And no, I’m not giving you the scene itself because that would SPOIL you for this great episode.  Plus Funimation doesn’t want to share the copyrights, boo.

Did you listen?

I’ve done this, too, this song-to-story transfer. I’ve had songs that moved me, sometimes on their own, sometimes because they were connected in my head to a certain moment in a movie or show, and I’ve written that mix into a scene of my own.  I remember at one point I had latched onto part of a song by Tori Amos, “Siren,” and another small part of “I Wish You Were Here” by Incubus (I think there was another one, but I can’t think of it now, god, what was it?  maybe “Opening” by Philip Glass?) while I was writing the Jeremy section of Children of the Fallen and playing these three bits over and over on a loop—“Iiiiiiii wish you were here, Iiiiiiiiii wish you were here!”—my poor family!—until Paul came in one day and said, “You wish she was there, yeah, you say that now, but wait till she gets there.”

I bet Watanabe played “Obokuri Eeumi” over and over. I just bet.

On the other hand, a writer friend of mine says that writing from your own life, rather than writing from other people’s art, is more potent, more real. I find this an intriguing differentiation. Is writing from other people’s art derivative and therefore less valuable? Certainly there are less digested (and therefore, more easily recognizable) versions of retelling someone else’s story. Copies of copies. (Which makes me think of that Star Trek: New Generation episode where an entire culture’s language consisted of references to mythic stories. “Shaka! When the walls fell!” I loved that ep. Could that culture tell new stories, I wonder?)

Is it cheating somehow to write from other people’s writing or music or visual art?  Or, possibly, are these three separate things….

Similar to the the music-loop phenomena, there are paintings and photographs I’m looking at a lot for Lucidity Effect, probably because my main character, Liv, is a photographer. For example, I love these, images I found at the Etsy shop, Eye Poetry.  This is in Italy:

or this one from England,

These pictures help me know something about my character, for some reason.  Art influencing art.  Media hopping?

I wonder how all these tracks work in the brain, how separate they really are?

As for soundtracks, I’m also listening to the music from The Secret World of Arietty which I love, and writing a scene between two characters that shares an emotional quality with a scene in that movie—something about the way Miyazaki creates such meaning and importance in the exchange of a couple of insignificant objects, how he builds that up in the way the story is told.  The music is reminding me of all that, so I listen and listen and try to channel that feeling into the words I’m typing.  He is such a master at tiny moments that contain great emotion.  May I touch the hem of his kimono.

Pro tip: Good headphones are very important to this process, or one’s family gives one no end of flack.

Deep thoughts for a late night blog post, eh?  Anyway, I should probably get back to it and quit blathering on.

santorini, temper tantrums, and lost chances

One of my fave yoga bloggers, Grimmly, has gone to Santorini to practice for two weeks and I freaking hate him.  It’s so unfair.  I have wanted to go to Santorini ever since I was 14 and saw this campy, pretty, B-movie called Summer Lovers, about a sweet little menage a trois that takes place on Santorini and oh my goddess, the scenery of that movie rocked my little world.  And I was living in Hawaii at the time, so that’s saying something.  I mean, seriously, would you look at this??

Holy bananas, is this place even real?

In the movie, basically you’ve got incredibly young Darryl Hannah and incredibly young Peter Gallagher going to Greece for a post college vacation together, where they find throngs of nearly naked and just plain naked young people getting it on in every possible configuration on the gorgeous turquoise beaches of Greece, all while the black dressed local men and women turn their heads in disgust.  Soon the young couple meet a lovely young French archeologist and, after a few minutes of gorgeously lit angst-on-the-beach, the three fall in love and become increasingly tan and have this idyllic summer with the Pointer Sisters blaring “I’m So Excited” in the background.  I would be excited too.

So, I’m googling around looking for good pics from the movie and would you believe that the amazing little white house the three characters live in is now a tourist attraction, a little gift shop called, what else, “Summer Lovers”?

See it down in the lower left corner?  Here it is in the movie:

I’m pretty sure this shot is from a moving moment where Darryl and Peter think they have lost their French sweet heart and are dejectedly leaving their gorgeous Greek home-away-from-home, heading back to America a few weeks early.  FOOLS.  What the Hades?  They only have the place for two more weeks or something, I mean, if you’re going to mope over lost love, you might as well mope in a house like this with a view of turquoise waters, because the moping isn’t going to be any better back in Wisconsin or whatever not-Santorini place these two were from.

But not to fret, they find her, of course—I hope I’m not giving anything away here—and the movie ends all up-beat and happy, yay, the lovers are together again!

Actually, I was always troubled by this ending, because the problems that caused lovely Lena to leave in the first place (they’re American, she’s French living in Greece, how can this continue, blah blah) are still there.  And they still only have two weeks, right?  I was so worried about them in the end, even as they ran off into the sunset, arm in arm.  My 14 year old pre-novelist self had to invent a couple of further scenes, a true, if improbable, happy ending for them. I couldn’t help myself.

ANYWAY.

Now we come to the temper tantrum.  Brace yourself.

WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN TO SANTORINI YET?  I’m freaking 41 years old!  I totally should have been there already, I totally should have at least gone before I looked really stupid in a bikini!  Shit, it is probably already too freaking late, for heavens sake, it’s like I had book-marked Santorini as a Thing to Do, and didn’t realize this particular Life Plan had an expiration date.  Who’s stupid idea was it to go to freaking useless graduate school for a freaking useless MFA when I could have used all the money to go to freaking Santorini?? I could have been swimming in those mouthwash colored waters and been getting skin-cancer and been living in a salt-white house already!  How did my life get so off track???

Shit.  I’ve totally blown my shot at this one, haven’t I.  I can’t believe I missed the freaking boat to Santorini.

I know what you’re saying.  Why not go now?  I mean, Grimmly gets to go, why not me?  Well, I’ve got these two kids, and a yurt payment, and a pile of medical bills, and a husband who has a job he has to keep going to, blah blah, there are always reason not to go to Santorini.  Sometimes very compelling reasons.

I know, I know.  Lame.

Maybe.  Maybe when I’m old.  I’ll totter up that steep road with all its staircases, my suitcase on some poor donkey’s back.  Or maybe they’ll have levitating suitcases by then.

Pout.

Grimmly, I hope you’re having a good time over there.  Take some pictures for me. If you see Lena, tell her I said Hi, will you?

Avengers! Assemble!

Yep, along with the rest of the movie going world, we went to see Avengers this weekend—and I know everyone else went to see it too, because the dang thing has crossed 1.2 billion dollars worldwide in three weeks!  Go Joss!

Well, no surprise, we LOVED it.  And in case you’re new to the blog, we are huge Avenger’s fans around here, due mostly to Luc, 6, who adores the recent cartoon reboot (now in its second season) which he has watched, many, many, many, times (first season is streaming on Netflix, if you’re interested).

We started our Avengers journey back three years ago with Incredible Hulk, but didn’t hit true Avenger-team-up story lines until last summer when Luc broke his arm.  He and I sat curled up on the couch that first week after his surgery, him groggy on pain medicine and me just freaked out beyond the beyond, the two of us watching Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes over and over for days.  After I couldn’t take that anymore we started working our way through the live-action movies starting with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, watching them all multiple times, especially the little tag scenes at the end after the credits.  Luc loves the little tag scenes.

Needless to say, after all of this prep, we have been STOKED to see the new movie, and finally, this weekend, we had all the family, plus the money, and we saddled up, woo hoo! And anyway, I’m a huge Whedon fan, so there was really no doubt we would go.

What a rocking FUN movie!!!

SPOILERS (Although since everyone in the world has already seen the movie, I reckon spoilers are moot.)

Luc sat on my lap for the whole thing, intensely whispering insider secrets into my ear.  “The name of the hammer is Mjolnir.” “Why isn’t Hawkeye’s outfit purple?” “Black Widow is supposed to have long hair.  She’s Russian.”  “I don’t think he can be a skrull, they do have wrinkly chins, but they aren’t red.” “This music is bad-ass.” He could not sit still.  When he got home he watched the whole of the cartoon season 1 again, and then jumped on Tux Paint to draw super-heroes for days.  He is totally smitten with the whole thing.

For myself, I loved Black Widow, I thought her scene with Loki was FANTASTIC.  That she knows how to play men into thinking she is a Weak Emotional Girl and then uses that to get them to spill all their secrets while they gloat and boast over her fake tears and her pretty face (even if the tears have a core of truth, and her face really is very pretty).  I adore that this whip-smart, bad-ass woman was holding her own with a band of Super-hero Manly Men even though she has no super-powers.  How cool is that?

And Tony Stark was fabulous, of course.  Robert Downey plays that character so perfectly, pushing him (almost) farther in audacity than I can stand (like the bit where he can’t help but jab Bruce Banner to see if he’ll turn??? HAHAHA).  Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist for the win!  Best line: Loki-“I have an army.”  Tony-“We have a Hulk.”

But the best for me, I think, was Mark Ruffalo’s wonderful Hulk.  Let me say that I have probably seen every rendition of the Hulk that there is over the last three years, forty year old cartoons (terrible), the live action show with Lou Ferrigno, the cartoons from the nineties, the two live action movies of the last decade, etc etc etc.  And something  has always driven me nuts about them: how the fucking idiotic people chasing him, the Hulk Busters, the military, Betty’s dumb-ass Dad, all of them, how they always use escalating force to try to capture the Hulk.  Force just makes him angrier, which makes him stronger and more violent!  Why can’t they understand this?  The Hulk is essentially a defensive creature, not an attacking one.  But instead of sending him chamomile tea and yoga instructors, they chase him with bombs and tanks.  DUMB.  It’s like they can’t wrap their mind around the fact that the Hulk is also Bruce Banner who is a pretty decent guy.  Banner doesn’t want to destroy stuff, and he’s super smart, probably the only person on the planet that could research what has happened to him.  If he stays calm, no Hulk.  They should be helping him.  Duh.  Why do the Hulk Busters never think of this?

But Joss has thought of this!  And so, for the first time that I’ve seen, the forces around Banner (in this case, S.H.I.E.L.D.) pursue Banner for his scientific brilliance and help him (or try to) stay calm so he can use his brains to help them.  Finally!  I mean, yeah, they’ve got the cage (like that ever works) ready, just in case, but they’re working with him for once.  What a relief!  What a big green ginormous freaking relief!

Mark’s Bruce Banner seems older, too, grey hair, haggard, sad expression, but also a wry smile like he gets how absurd his situation is and he is just struggling to live through it.  I liked that.  The fact that he seems to have gained some control over “the other guy,” has learned that he can’t suppress his anger, but rather must work with it, this is a very cool evolution of the character.  Again I had this feeling of FINALLY.  Finally they are looking at this beyond “set up Banner to hulk out and watch the explosions.”  Explosions aren’t what makes Hulk a compelling character.  It’s that Banner is a good guy struggling with massive force inside him that can be terrifically destructive and he is terrified of it, but forced to deal with it, over and over. Plus the fun that he is a big Id crashing through the world and gets to beat the shit out of everybody.  You need both.

Indeed, Banner/Hulk got many of the best moments of Avengers for me, from the simply terrific scene between Stark and Banner in the lab—so textured and interesting!—to the hilarious side-punch of Thor. And of course, the Loki smack-down.  “Kneel before me–” Slap-wham-smash-flap! “Puny God.” HAHAHAHAHA!

I ran across this post by another Hulk, Film Crit Hulk, which said a lot of what I was thinking, only better.  If you like Hulk stories, I highly recommend his break-down, and totally agree with his conclusions about why Joss and Mark’s Hulk is so good.

So many great character moments!

Best scene hands down: the post-credit tag.

Did you see it???  HILARIOUS.  So PERFECT.  I adore that 60 seconds of film more than 98.99999% of any other 60 seconds of film EVER.  I could watch them eating shawarma all day and not get enough.  They’re all so totally exhausted and out of it.   Who wouldn’t be after the day they’ve had?!  Totally worth sitting through ten minutes of credits.

The movie isn’t all perfect. For example, there were a couple of bits where I thought, “oh another flying bone turtle thing,” yawn.  Which just goes to show you how fast you get numb to spectacle.  Because holy shit FLYING BONE TURTLE THINGS! But still, the movie was at it’s best, for me, in the character moments, like naked Bruce Banner waking up after Hulking Out against his will, and the first thing he asks is, “Did I hurt anybody?”  Or his admission of his suicide attempt, told with emotional complexity while being read almost matter-of-fact, so much packed into a few minutes in that scene!

So much packed into this one movie, and its still totally fun, funny, even endearing.

How does Joss do it?

I won’t tell you to go see this movie, because you probably already have.  But I will say, I can’t WAIT for the dvd extras!!!!!

Deleted scenes!  I want lots of deleted scenes!

power over harry potter, or, it’s a very harry christmas

Last week at the library, we checked the first Harry Potter movie on a lark.  I had read the first book to the kids last year (I read all the books when they were coming out, adored them) and Luc has the Lego Harry Potter game on the ipad, so they were familiar with the world and the beginning of the whole story, and I knew what was coming.  So, in spite of there being some concern that the later stories get kind of scary, we settled in a watched.  Big surprise, we all loved it.

So, back to the library we went, totally stoked for the next movie, only to find, to our delight and surprise, they also had Harry Potter 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.1.  A moment’s consideration and yep, we got them ALL.  Plus, 7.2 is on its way from Netflix.  We’ve been watching part of a movie a night, finished the Order of the Phoenix (5) last night, and, at our current rate, will sit down for the last installment, 7.2, on Christmas Day.

Full on Harry Potter Christmas Marathon for the win!  Woo hoo!

But it’s tricky.  One of the (many) cool things about the Harry Potter series is, of course, that the stories age and mature as Harry does, in both complexity, depth, and intensity.  This means, however, that the books about Harry as a sixteen or seventeen year old really aren’t written for the eight or nine year olds who might have loved the first books when Harry is eleven or twelve.  I hear parents talking about “holding off” on Harry because they are worried that the stories are too scary or intense for their kids in the later books.  But, of course, the readers (the kids) often want to blast through them, no waiting.  What to do?

Luc particularly can get scared by something in a movie and then be troubled at night by visions of monsters or just feeling spooked by the dark.  But he really, really wants to watch these movies, is totally into the story at this point.  I can’t blame him!  Our approach has always been power over media, rather than media having power over us—and couple that with a strong conviction that a person should decide for themselves what they want to think, learn, experience, read or, in this case, watch, and what we have here is an opportunity to help Luc watch Harry Potter in the least scary way possible for him.

Because here’s the thing.  I really wanted to see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because, although I haven’t read the book, I had heard amazing things about the main character and the actress playing her (all true)—BUT I also had heard there were several intense scenes of sexual assault.  NOT something I want to see, at all.  But imagine how silly it would sound if Paul were to say to me “I don’t think you can handle this movie.  You aren’t allowed to watch it.”  I’d laugh, or slug him maybe.  How dare he think he can decide what I can watch?!  He knows better, haha.

Luc, a human just like me, deserves the same freedom to watch Harry Potter and not be impacted by the bits that are too much for him (his choice what those bits are) just as much as I should be able to watch the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and not watch the bits I don’t want to (my choice, the sexual assault scenes, too dark for me).  And I want to help him do that.

So, how does one have power over a movie?  Easy.  First and foremost, the Pause button.  If a scene gets too intense, we pause, get up, get some snacks, thus breaking the emotional build up created by the images/sounds.  We talk about what is going on in the story, or about how the effects were made, or how the acting, or the camera angles, or the color palette, or the sounds, or the set design, create the mood, and the talk breaks the trance of the movie, which automatically makes it less scary.

Also, for Luc, talking about the CGI artists who make a monster (like the Basilisk, say) puts it right in the world of Luc drawing on Tux Paint, something he does almost every day.  He starts thinking about the choices they made for, say, the scale pattern on a dragon, or how its leg joints work, decisions he’s faced when drawing his own dragons on the computer, and he gets it.  He’s a digital artist too, who loves to draw spooky monsters.  And digital monsters aren’t really scary.

Basically, when the emotional impact of a scene isn’t something you want, you don’t have to just succumb to it.  Choose and pick the bits you want. Leave/break the rest.  Power to the viewer!

Other tricks….watching an intense bit with the sound off reduces the scary a LOT.  It’s surprising how much of the mood of a scene is created by the music and the sound effects.  Once Luc knows what’s going to happen, the shock factor (a big part of being scared in movies) is gone, and we can rewind and rewatch with the sound back on.  Another way of diffusing the intensity.  The scary bits are usually only a few minutes long, it’s really no big deal to rewatch a little bit.

Or you can reverse that approach and just listen—the classic Cover Your Eyes strategy.  Luc will sometimes listen only and have me tell him what is happening.  Then, when he knows what to expect, he can rewind and watch the scene.  I did this with Dragon Tattoo (being, as I was, in the theater and unable to pause)—I covered my eyes for a couple of scenes and got the gist from the dialogue (or the, um, screaming. ugh.).

We could skip whole scenes, too, but usually reducing impact is enough.

Sound like a lot of work?  It’s not.  And for Luc, if he wants to watch, I want to help him do it in a way that makes the whole thing a success for him.  I loved Dragon Tattoo, amazing acting, powerful character (Rooney Mara ROCKS), but, in the theater, I wished for a pause button when the tension was getting too high.  At home, we have all the power, and we use it.

“So, would you just let your kids watch anything?”

Yes, if they wanted to watch something, if the desire came from them, I want to help them do that.  That isn’t the same as having R rated movies running in a room they are in, and it isn’t the same as them watching silently, on their own, without our help in processing whatever it is.  They don’t WANT to watch just about any adult movie they’ve ever catch a bit of as they scroll through the channels.  They aren’t interested.  Harry Potter is an example for Luc, just as Dragon Tattoo is for me, of a story we want, even though some parts are more intense than we want.  So far the Harry movies haven’t been a problem for Sophie at all, who is sucking them up, just like me.  And Paul was untroubled by the violence in Dragon Tattoo.  Everyone is different.  Everyone gets to pick for themselves what their boundaries are.  And we all help each other with our choices, because why not?  We’re all friends.  We’re all on the same team.

Huge upside: the four of us have had some amazing conversations as a result of our Harry Potter Marathon.  School (Hogwarts), corporal punishment (Snape, and then Delores and her quill that writes in your blood), changing views of children by society (how beating children used to be the norm, for example), the press (the Daily Prophet), slavery (Dobby and the house elves), racism (mud-bloods), economic disparity (the Weasleys vs. Harry), the afterlife (Nearly Headless Nick and other ghosts), sports culture (the Quidditch cup), and friendship and loyalty (Ron and Hermione)—all these topics and more have been discussed, sometimes heatedly, over the last few days in the yurt.  Not to mention the story, and the art, writing, and meta-level of creating the movies.  I wouldn’t trade these conversations for anything.

Really, anyone who thinks watching tv/movies is a “passive” activity has not watched anything at our house, that’s for damn sure.  The idea of it is downright laughable.

I’m sure 2011 will go down in our memories as the Harry Potter Christmas, haha.  It has been a tremendous amount of fun.  I bought Luc a Gryffendor hat yesterday for a last minute Christmas present.  Heck, I dreamed I was at Hogwarts last night.  We’re all in deep at this point.

Half-Blood Prince tonight.  If it really gets to be too much, we’ll put it aside for another time, but so far everyone is loving it, including Luc, who knows he has all the power he needs to control his experience of the movie.  Which, if you ask me, is a heck of a lot better than seeing him as a potential victim who needs protecting (who wants to be seen, or see him or herself, as helpless?), and much better than controlling him (saying no) and thus setting us up as adversaries.  This way I’m his ally in watching as much as he wants, in the way he wants, and he gets to feel powerful, AND watch Harry Potter with his family. It’s a win for us all.

Rango and the Story Engine

I saw “Rango” this weekend with the kids, an entertaining Western about a misplaced chameleon lizard and a town drying up in the Mohave desert.  Visually, the movie is superb, the dialogue is awesome, the jokes are funny…but both Paul and I found ourselves getting bored in the middle. Despite it’s excellence in many ways, the second act flagged.  Why is that, I wondered?

There are lots of ways to structure a story, but if you want your story to move, you’re going to want to pay attention to the old protagonist + antagonist + conflict + stakes formula.  I think “Rango” has problems in it’s second act with every element of this formula.  [Spoiler Warning!  Lots of spoilers ahead….]  Here’s how it breaks down.

The first act sets up our character as a likable chameleon, both literally and metaphorically, as he has a thespian’s ability and joy in mimicry.  And this section moves well.  Our protag is lonely, but creative, longing for connection, but with little real-life experience. Other characters arrive in a predictable but enjoyable fashion to complicate things.  Indeed, “Rango” uses tropes and stock story elements like an expert card shark dealing from a well worn deck.  The Feisty Heroine, the Dirty Politician, the Accidental Hero, the Native American Tracker, etc., all present and accounted for, self-consciously so.  But this if fine.  “Rango” is endlessly surprising in it’s twists on the the known.

But, as I said, the the story engine, that protag-antag-conflict-stakes thing, is working well in this first act.  After the quick character set up and his internal conflict (lonliness), Rango is tossed into the desert and comes face to face with a big hawk.  Clear antagonist, high stakes, this part of the story moves.  As does Rango.  But even once the hawk is vanquished, Thirst sets in as the antagonist, and Rango staggers towards the rumored town seeking relief.

Enter Ms. Beans, the romantic sub-plot, and enter the Mystery: a rush of water where there should be none.  Rango arrives in Dirt, your classic Western town, portrayed with tremendous visual style, and Rango takes his first non-reactive action: he decides to reinvent himself as a wild-west gunslinger of the toughest kind.  The story has arrived.

But just as the story is set up, the story engine slows down.

The first problem the second act struggles with is the vague protagonist.  Rango himself identifies this problem in the first few minutes of the story, which is why he decides later to reinvent himself.  He knows a vague protagonist makes for a weak story.  But still, for most of the story, Rango is a largely reactive hero, only occasionally taking action on his own.  When he does, it’s great, but part of his character’s appeal is that crazy things happen to him, which can be fun, but doesn’t add fuel to the story engine.  A hero that takes actions, figures things out, does stuff,  gives direction and energy to the story.  A reactive hero, not so much.  It isn’t insurmountable: it’s part of Rango’s struggle.  But it doesn’t help the story move.

If that were the only problem, it would probably still work, but there’s more.  The second problem in the second act is a shifting, even at times missing, antagonist.  I already mentioned the Rango-opposing forces of loneliness, then the hawk, then thirst.  But once Rango gets to town, who is the bad guy?  Is there a bad guy?  What is blocking Rango from what he desires? There is a vague sense of trouble brewing because Rango is pretending to be something he is not, and there’s the missing water, but what exactly is the force or person, internal or external, that is working against our hero?  It’s hard to drive the Conflict Engine when we don’t know who the hero is up against.  What is he working towards and what is stopping him?  it’s all muddy in this second act.  The moles step up as a temporary antagonist, but it feels like a straw man because it is.  Finally the Mayor is revealed, unsurprisingly, as the real bad guy, fulfilling the trope, but it isn’t until Jake the Snake shows up in the third act that we have a clear and present Bad Guy for Rango to tangle with.

With no clear antagonist, the conflict shifts.  He’s thirsty, he wants to be liked, he wants to find the water so everyone will like him, but it all feels like a play, because for him, it is.  And what exactly are the stakes?  The stakes for the town are clear: no water, everyone leaves or dies.  But Rango walked into town, he could walk back out.  The stakes don’t feel that personal to him, not yet.

Weak protagonist, shifting/missing antagonist, muddy conflict, low stakes=me looking at my watch about half-way through.  There just isn’t a drive pulling me through the story in this section.

In addition, it’s a bit hard to buy the goofy Rango as a romantic lead, but since the romance sub-plot gets most of it’s screen-time during this second act, it struggles to carry the story along.  And perhaps because we strongly suspect that the whole “hunt to find the water bottle” is a distraction (and it is), we’re waiting for the real plot to arrive.  And Rango himself hasn’t stepped up yet, so we’re waiting, also, for him to engage.  Waiting does not make for a fast moving story.

Put all of these things together and, as I said, the second act lags.

But then watch as things pick up again when Jake shows up to throw Rango out of town and force Rango to cross to the Other Side (of the road) to find the central theme of the story: you ARE you who invent yourself to be.  With a side-helping of everyone is the hero of their own story.  Rango has convinced the town’s people that he is a hero, but he has yet to convince himself.  But “you can’t walk out on your own story,” and Rango, finally, decides he will be the hero he has been pretending to be.  The protagonist suddenly takes on sharp focus.  One cylinder of the Story Engine comes to life .

The antagonist becomes equally sharp in the form of Jake and Mayor.  These two are in direct conflict with Rango over control of the town, and control of the water.  The antagonist cylinder fires up.   When Jake and the Mayor capture Ms. Beans (she’s the last hold out to sell her land in the real-estate scheme that is, of course, at the heart of the Mystery) the conflict is right there on the Main Street of Dirt, and the stakes suddenly become quite personal to Rango who must save her and himself.  Cylinders 3 and 4 are up and running, and the story is finally working.  The town’s problems are now Rango’s problems, not a play.  Rango returns to town, faces down Jake and the Mayor, solves the Mystery, returns the water, and gets the girl.  Ta da!

The moral: get the story engine engaged and you get a clear directional force pushing the viewer/reader to keep watching.

Caveat: while both my husband and I were a bit bored in the middle, despite the movie’s bucket-loads of style, my kids, 5 and 7 years old, were most interested in the middle.  The middle was where most of the good jokes played out, they said.  The kids were there for the funny, who cares about the plot?

Which just goes to show you: know your audience.

megamind, oh my big blue head

In keeping with our theme of likable villains (see our review of Despicable Me and Heinz Doofenshmirtz), the kids and I went to see Megamind yesterday.  In a word, six thumbs up.

Evil, well, it’s just cooler.

Did the likable animated villain trend get started with Shrek, I wonder?  Ia anyone doing a survey of this?

Anyway, I’m surprised Megamind is only getting a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Who are these jaded reviewers? We found Megamind to be very funny, interesting, often pretty to look at, and containing some great character reversals and theme deconstructions.  What makes a villain? Are they made are born?  What makes a hero?  Is it the nifty powers? What we choose vs. what is given to us, compare and contrast.  Etc.  I see many of the reviews that panned it are saying there is nothing new here, that it is all a retread, but that seems wrong-headed, somehow, to me.  It was all new to my kids, and somewhat new to me, even though I’ve seen a million superhero movies.  What does ‘new’ mean, then?  New to the reviewer, I guess?  But if you have a good story, well-told, why does it need to be new to everyone to be valuable?  I don’t have a firm thought here, just a trend in my brain that says ‘new’ isn’t the most important characteristic, but rather, the quality of the telling that matters most.

Okay, let’s see.  Number of times the plot surprised me: 2.  Number of times a visual surprised me: 4 or 5.  Number of times I laughed out loud: dozens.  Number of times I thought eh, I’m a little bored now: 1.  Number of times I thought “Cool!”: 3.  Number of times I wanted to instantly rewind and rewatch, but couldn’t: 2.  Overall score: I’d watch again (and probably will on dvd, many times, if the kids have any say).

That’s not bad, people.  Movies can rarely surprise me and laugh-out-louds are pure gold, in my book.  I came out of the theater thinking, that was a great time.

It’s not life-shattering.  It isn’t meaty enough to have me thinking about it for days and day, the way Hereafter did, but if you like superhero stories, and you like to laugh, the kids and I can wholeheartedly recommend this one.

hereafter

Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s new movie, is what you get when  an 80 year old grandmaster visual storyteller at the height of his powers decides to explore the Big D. Death in a movie.  In other words…

Wow.

On the surface, this is three interlocking stories: a French journalist nearly drowns in a tsunami but is brought back, an ex-professional psychic tries to figure out how to live with what he can do, and a child loses his twin and tries to deal with his grief.  But much more importantly, this movie is about death: grief, losing someone, what it feels like to die—and come back, religion, charlatan psychics, real psychics, the politics of discussing death, the taboo against discussing death, the desire to deny death’s existence, the peace of death, and above all, the joy of connection despite death.

But listen: this is NOT a downer movie, people!

And yet no facet of death is unexamined while the question of death is turned over and over like a pebble in your mouth.  Every shot, the way the camera moves, the way the three stories intertwine, the beautiful music (which I noticed  is also by Clint Eastwood), all of it feels on purpose, and combines to create, not a traditional narrative structure, but an experience that I wore, walking out of the theater, that is difficult to describe, but very real and translucent and wonderful none-the-less.  All the while never for a moment feeling sappy or trite.

How did he do it?

This is one of the most beautiful, moving, lovely, thoughtful movies I have seen in a long, long time.   Deep, slow, profound, but riveting.  To me anyway.  I couldn’t believe when it was over that it was 2+ hours.

It’s interesting, then, that rottentomatoes.com pegs it at about 51% (at the time of this writing).  A measly 51% for a masterwork?!?  One of the reviews even says they think Clint Eastwood might be senile.

WTF?

Well, I guess either you love it, as half the reviewers seem to, or you really, really, really don’t get it.  And it’s about half and half. Interesting that the movie itself speaks openly of the hostility people can have about talking about death. Perhaps there is some of that hostility in those negative reviews?

Hey, death is scary.  Do what you’ve got to do.

Bottom-line: this is not a movie to take you out of your life—something I love, by the way, about many movies, that sweep-me-away feeling, that I-want-to-be-someone-else-for-two-hours feeling—no.  This is a movie to put you squarely IN your life.

Slamdunk, Mr. Easwood, if you ask me.  Thank you for making this beautiful film.

the last airbender reviewed, fans, & filling in the blanks

For Paul’s birthday, we had key-lime pie and a matinee showing of The Last Airbender.  And while I understand why people are complaining, especially anyone new to the story, it is not the awful, soul sucking event that the tidal wave of terrible reviews would have you believe.

The good:

1- The Last Airbender is gorgeous.  Often stunning.  At least, it is in 2D—I can’t speak for 3D because that ain’t what we saw.  But as far as I am concerned, this is the thing Shyamalan got totally right—the ovie looks right.  And it looks amazing. The world, the landscapes, the weird Fire Nation tech, the spirit world, the creatures like Appa and Mo-mo, the bending, all of this is beautiful, rich, bright, realistic, layered…gorgeous.  I don’t understand how anyone could be describing the look of it as boring or flat or generic.  Maybe the 3D really messed it up?

In addition to the content, the way the shots are composed is often beautiful.  I’m thinking, for example, of Aang summoning the tidal wave in the end, with him on the lower half of the screen on the wall and the water swirling above.  The dance-martial-art summoning of the bending is simply lovely.

2- Related to this, the action sequences are terrific. Again with the gorgeous.  Dancelike, graceful, especially Aang, which seems  right out of the show for me.  The action is often surprising, too, as a good action sequence should be.  As in the show, the different element fighters have distinct styles, with lots of fluid tai-chi-like movements for the water benders, dynamic and brutal movements for the fire benders, frontal assault slams from the earth benders, and Aang’s trickster-y, swirling airbender style.  Some have complained about too much slow-mo but I liked it—there is so much going on in each action sequence shot and so much of it so interesting, that I appreciated the slow downs just to let me take it all in.

3- Zuko and Iro rocked.  The Fire Nation prince and his uncle, are complex and sympathetic characters amidst difficult times and terrible pressures.  Well done.  Knowing Zuko’s phenomenal arc, I am totally interested in watching Dev Patel make that journey.

5- Noah Wringer was fine.  I cared about him.  He didn’t blow me away, his line delivery wasn’t fabulous, but his expressive face and beautiful movements carried a lot of the weight of his character and worked for me.  He looks just exactly like the cartoon Aang, too, if you ask me.

6- The flashbacks to Aang’s life with the monks were simply wonderful. They never failed to evoke smiles and delight from me.

The bad:

1- Kitara was awful. Whether it was the actress, the lines, or the direction, I can’t say.  Combo is my guess.  But I just started just wishing she would stop speaking altogether, which is pretty much what happened as the movie went on, and I was grateful, because every line delivery jerked me out of the story with its epic terribleness.  Which made me sad because I adore Kitara from the show.  Show-Kitara is strong, dynamic, a warrior, a powerful woman, smart, loving, inspirational.  Movie-Kitara seemed in a constant state of exaggerated surprise/fear/distress.  I have never seen acting that felt so much like pretending.  I never felt anything when she was on screen.  Basically, she was painful to watch, except when she was water bending, which was very pretty.  But Kitara should be at the heart of the story.  In fact, one could find ample evidence to show show-Kitara, over show-Aang, as the main protagonist of the story.  With movie-Kitara so broken, it’s hard for anyone to care about what is going on in the plot.

2- 80% of the lines are delivered as if they are Something of Terrible Importance, and this makes me want to bop people on the head after a while.  This is a continuation of #1 because Kitara suffered from this the most, but other actors fell into as well.  Or were they directed into it?  Was it a conscious, exaggerated style chosen for the movie that just didn’t work?  Dev Patel as Zuko was the only one who could pull it off.  Sokka and Aang suffered from this Terrible Significance, too, only not as badly, because they did have a few moments of more natural interactions, humor, etc.

3- The friendship and humor of Team Avatar—the community of the show—is missing. This is a painful loss because it is one of the best parts of the show.  But really, I can’t imagine how they could have captured a natural, easy, playful vibe with these three actors in the exagerated delivery they used (especially movie-Kitara.  Movie-Aang, movie-Sokka, and movie-Kitara did not work as real people.  What’s odd is that this feeling of friendly play is totally present in the Airbender Temple flashbacks with Aang and Monk Gyatso and the other students.  So Shyamalan can totally create these scenes.  Just not for our wonderful threesome.  Big sad face here.

4- The choppy story-line sucks. Honestly, this didn’t trouble me as much as you’d think because, knowing the source material so well, I found myself simply plugging in whatever was missing.  But it was bad.  Boom, we’re here.  Bang, we’re there.  Oh, now they’re in love.  Oh, now we’re having a Profound Moment. The whole finale section is really moving in the show—and if you haven’t seen the show, you may find that hard to believe, but it totally is, I was hanging on to my seat the first time I saw it, crying, the works—but the compressed story and quick-cut shorthand of the movie just couldn’t generate those feelings in me. If I wasn’t deeply familiar with the material, I probably would have been bewildered by what the heck was going on, what am I supposed to care about, who are these people, etc.

Which got me thinking about how forgiving, in a way, viewers/readers can be when a story really works for them on some level.  I mean, I found myself plugging in the missing bits, so happy to see these favorite scenes in such a gorgeous, live-action format, although aware that often the feelings I was having were largely borrowed emotions from the show.  But still, I was willing to skip over the bits that weren’t working to get at the parts that were.  I observe the same phenomena, say, in the other movie-rendition of popular source material in the theaters at the moment, “Eclipse.”  The fans of the Twilight Saga seem perfectly aware of the many flaws, problems, downright silliness, etc, of the books and the movies, and yet they are able and willing to skip over those bits in order to mine the veins that run through the Twilight material.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I am enjoying the podcast that Jennifer Crusie and Lucy March are doing, the Popcorn Dialogues, a deconstruction of romantic comedy in film.  A couple of weeks ago they did “The Philadelphia Story” and Lucy made the point that, although the movie was terribly flawed, she didn’t care, she was willing to sort of rewrite the broken bits in her head, in order to enjoy the parts she loved.  And she loved that movie, indefensible, in some ways, that it was.  “The Last Airbender” benefits, I think, from this phenomena.  I’m not saying this is a good thing, or a bad thing, exactly—just that it is inevitable in any story-retelling.

In a way, the movie came across to me as some really, really EXCELLENT fan art.  It did not tell the story of Book One: Water.  I do think it failed in this in any coherant way.  But what it did for this fan was gorgeously illustrate various scenes from Book One.  And because I love the show’s story, and because these live-action ‘illustrations’ were phenomenal, I really enjoyed the movie, and can easily imagine seeing it again.  But, perhaps illustrating a handful of the best scenes from the show and then filling in the transistions with voice over can never work.  Perhaps to really tell Book Two: Earth, well, you’d have to start from scratch, create new scenes by lifting out the bones of the story and giving them new flesh, to match the increased pace required by a movie.

Basically, as a fan, I was really excited to see various well-loved moments from the show brought to life, which speaks to how great the show is—the film benefits from the love of the story and the characters generated by the show.  A slosh over effect that Shyamalan undeniably is riding here.

Paul said, to hell with the critics.  He liked it.

Luc (4) said he liked all of it except that there was no penguin sledding, and Fire Lord Ozai didn’t have a beard and just didn’t look right.  And where was Roku?  Why was Roku’s dragon talking to Aang, instead of Roku himself?

Sophie (6) said Ozai didn’t look right.  He’s supposed to be the most powerful fire-bender but he didn’t look like a fire bender.  How could that guy jump across those rock towers [in the show]?  I don’t think he could do that.  And he wasn’t scary.  But I liked the movie.  Appa was cool!

I hope that Shyamalan gets another shot at this and gets to do the second movie.  I hope that he takes to heart the critiques he has received and, maybe, gets some strong writer to help him construct better dialog and smooth out the lumps in the pacing.  I hope he drops the info-dumps (or at least decreases them).  And I really hope the actress playing Kitara gets some major acting lessons and that they all drop that exaggerated line delivery thing.

I hope, I hope…

In sum: don’t listen to all the Shyamalan bashing.  The movie is flawed, yes, even broken in places, but if you’re a fan, you might not care.