By both critical and commercial measures live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet Hollywood keeps trying lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal built-in — and most importantly international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense in that it was conceived and produced in the States but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film's story is set in a world divided into four tribes each aligned to an element: Air Earth Water and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members known as a “benders ” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance after which a torrent of fire water or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender which suffers from mediocre CGI inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors none of whom are especially talented are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available) and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.
Festivals wrap; "Clerks" director makes points with wife; Joey Lawrence shines (really)
PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 30, 2000 - Done.
"Girlfight" and "You Can Count on Me" - the two films everybody talked about non-stop up here - ended up as the two films everybody talked about non-stop during Saturday's awards ceremony at the Raquet Center. The movies took two awards each - tying as the Grand Jury Prize winner for best dramatic film.
"Two Family House" - a film that as far as we were concerned nobody talked about up here - ended up as the upset winner in the Audience Award category, supposedly a popular vote. We're not sure what audience voted for it, but we're sure it wasn't the people at the Raquet Center. The films that drew the biggest applause during a rundown of the competition dramas were, of course, "Girlfight" and "You Can Count on Me," as well as "Songcatcher," "Urbania" and "Our Song." Of course, "Two Family House" wasn't included in that rundown because it wasn't a competition flick - it was an American Spectrum entry.
For a complete look at the night's winners, check out The Buzz.
In other festival action:
IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS: "I've said this before and I'll say it again, I sort of wish there wasn't a competition at the festival because [as] nice, gratifying and thrilling as it is to win a prize, it's just so nice to be here. And I sort of wish we could all get here and be here and that would be it." - "You Can Count on Me" writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, to Hollywood.com.
LIKE WE SAID, IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS: So, was Mr. Lonergan willing to give back his two awards he won Saturday? "No. Despite my altruistic sentiments."
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SUNDANCE AWARDS AND THE SLAMDANCE AWARDS: The Slamdance awards are held in a bar; the Sundance awards are held at a health club. The Slamdance awards take about an hour to hand out; the Sundance awards take about two hours to hand out. The Sundance awards also feature many more speeches about the importance of film festivals, in general, and Sundance, in particular.
EXCEPT FOR THOSE OF YOU SEATED IN THE BACK ROWS BEHIND THE PRESS AND SPONORS: "This evening is really yours …" - Sundance festival co-director Nicole Guillemet, in her opening remarks to filmmakers.
FINALLY, A REAL MOMENT: "P.S.: [Expletive deleted] Slamdance." - Faux letter from Robert Redford, as read by Sundance juror/potty-mouthed filmmaker Kevin Smith ("Clerks").
PRESENTER'S ULTERIOR MOTIVE REVEALED: "I'm so getting laid tonight." - Kevin Smith (again), after thanking his wife for no particular reason before revealing the winner of the best dramatic director award.
AND NOW YOU KNOW: "Girlfight" writer/director Karyn Kusama's first name is pronounced "Car-in," not "Care-in," as she pointed out on stage moments after the aforementioned Mr. Smith botched it.
AND NOW YOU KNOW THAT, TOO: Mercedes-Benz has cared deeply about independent film for a decade - or so said the Mercedes-Benz mucky-muck allotted stage time on account of the luxury-car maker is the official sponsor of Sundance's Grand Jury Prizes.
THAT SPECIAL TOUCH: "Can you, uh, GET OUT THE WAY." - Sundance volunteer, to person standing in said Sundance volunteer's way.
SOME PRIZES COME IN CASH FORM: "Groove" and "Chuck and Buck" both got high-profile deals in the last week - but not a single Sundance award.
TASTY STUFF WE ATE AT THE AFTER-PARTY: Quiche Lorraine, lemon-grilled chicken on focaccia, vegetarian frittata and little square brown fudgy things.
SPOTTED: Kevin Smith chatting up comic Bobcat Goldthwait near the bathroom directional sign at the Raquet Center.
MOVIES WE SAW:
1. "Good Housekeeping" (Slamdance Competition Feature) -- Frank Novak's debut feature, which won the Slamdance Grand Jury Award for best feature, is like a 92-minute episode of "Cops," with all the grit, grime and white trash of that voyeuristic hit -- plus lots more laughs. Don (Bob Mills) and Donatella (Petra Westen) are two weeks away from divorce court and their domestic strife is reaching a crescendo. Then, Don erects a wall in the middle of the house to draw the battle lines. He's aided in his war with the missus by a gaggle of oddball friends including his loser brother (who sleeps in the car on the lawn), a fellow action-figure collector geek, and a divorced friend turned men's-rights activist, who gives Don a pistol and a Laaz military rocket for "self defense." This is an alarmingly realistic movie about an extremely dysfunctional family, but its sometimes-absurd humor makes it a delightful, if not always easy, movie to watch. (-- Steve Ryfle)
2. "Dolphins" (Slamdance Competition Feature) -- Think "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," sans dialogue, and with a beautiful young woman standing in for Jack Nicholson. Throw in amazing cinematography, a la the craftsmanship of "Manhattan," and you're close to describing this 40-minute debut from Iranian-born Farhad Yawari, which won (despite its brief running time) this fest's Audience Award for best feature. A female mental patient (Julia Brendler) stares into her goldfish bowl and imagines herself swimming underwater with a school of dolphins. When she refuses to live by the house rules, the girl is repeatedly subdued by a Nurse Ratched-like character until a good-hearted garbage man busts her out of the nut house. The story is only one component of this multi-layered movie -- the music, the images and the performances meld seamlessly. Sure, it's a bit pretentious and artsy-fartsy, but it's obvious that Yawari is a filmmaker of great talent. (-- S.R.)
3. "Desperate But Not Serious" (SlamDunk) -- Bill Fishman, who has directed music videos for bands ranging from Suicidal Tendencies to Hank Williams Jr., as well as the big-screen comedies "Tapeheads" and Car 54, Where Are You?," weighs in with this $650,000 would-be comedic satire of the Los Angeles night-life scene. A San Francisco chick (Christine Taylor of "The Brady Bunch Movie") flies into L.A. to rendezvous with her botanist boyfriend (John Corbett) at a wedding reception, but when she loses the invitation she spends the entire night hopping from party to party with her party-gal friend (Paget Brewster) in search of her beau. During their misadventures, the girls meet a psychopath bartender (Henry Rollins), Brewster's ex-boyfriend (Max Perlich), a pretentious grrl rocker (Claudia Schiffer) and a pampered-but-nice movie star (Joey Lawrence -- the best thing about the film, really). In the end, Taylor gets her man (duh) but it's too late - the movie's already self-destructed with its unfunny, rambling dialogue and lack of story. Rent "Party Girl" instead. (-- S.R.)
BEST TAKE ON THE SUNDANCE Y2K EXPERIENCE: "It was monkeys and clowns all around." - Two anonymous filmmakers at The Club on Main Street.
WHAT ONE NON-FILMMAKER GOT OUT OF SUNDANCE: "Varicose veins from standing in line." -- Susan Nicolls, senior public relations manager, Macromedia.
HOW SUNDANCE Y2K DIFFERED FROM PREVIOUS SUNDANCES: "It's the same pretentiousness and arrogance. Have you seen these girls walking around outside with bare midriffs? What guy would want a girl with a blue stomach?" - Quotemeister Susan Nicolls.
WHY SLAMDANCE IS BETTER THAN SUNDANCE (ONE OPINION): "They're not kicking you out of parties like at Sundance." -- Sharon Reed, aspiring filmmaker.
WHY SUNDANCE IS BETTER THAN SLAMDANCE (ONE OPINION): "It was an excuse to party. In that respect, it succeeded tremendously."-- James Dudyen, filmmaker.
BEST PARTY: The Entertainment Weekly-sponsored bash on Jan. 21 at the Silver Lake Lodge. The free food (chicken strips with peanut dipping sauce) was refined; the view was spectacular; the band (Norway's own Getaway People) was very good. But, most of all, the festival was very young and we w ren't sick of this place yet. (-- J.R.)
WORST PARTY: The one on Friday night at Harry O's where the Worst (Most-Effective) Bouncer (see: below) put our own Jim Bartoo in a headlock on account of … well, to tell you the truth, we're still not exactly sure why.
BIGGEST PARTY TREND: Raves. Maybe it was the effect of the movie "Groove" being a big hit up here this year, but it wasn't surprising to see the president of New Line letting it all out on the dance floor to DJ's Digweed and Sasha. Rave culture touched everything at Sundance from the give-aways, (knit caps, disco-ball-keychains, and flashers) to the clothes (funk-sneakers and hi-tech nylon cargo-pants anyone?). (-- Gerry Katzman)
WORST (MOST-EFFECTIVE) BOUNCER: The nightclub Harry O's, which featured nightly performances by the likes of Sugar Ray, Primus, Third Eye Blind, and the Cult, should take the scads of money it made this week and open a studio, because as Hollywood Royalty waited in line and pleaded, "Let me in! I'm cold!," the red-mohawked bouncer replied, "Shut up, or none of you are getting in!" We smell a studio head in the making. (-- G.K.)
MOST CONSECUTIVE NIGHTS STANDING IN FRONT OF HARRY O'S WITHOUT GETTING IN: Four, as accomplished by Hollywood.com's Chuck Walton.
MOST UBIQUITOUS DRINK: "I have never seen so much frickin' Red Bull in my frickin life!" one party-goer screamed to us. The mediciney-sweet energy drink was everywhere in Park City. Red Bull, which contains "taurine," some kind of amino-acidy energy potion, is illegal in France - and, hence, a perfect compliment to vodka. (-- G.K.)
BEST SUGGESTION: Hold this stupid thing in May when it's, like, not FREAKIN' COLD outside.