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Inception

Inception is easily one of the most anticipated films of the summer, not simply because it’s conceptually innovative and looks to be an entertaining piece of cinema, but due to the fact that in the end, it’s a film that’s directed by Christopher Nolan. Following his recreation of the Batman franchise, Nolan has been thrusted from indie film circles into the limelight, and with each consecutive release, his films have to please what seems to be an infinite level of hype. The screenplay behind the film apparently took form over a ten year process, which isn’t surprising considering the level of intricacy that was required to bring the narrative into something that wasn’t forcefully contrived. Similarities can be drawn to other films within the “cerebral science fiction” genre such as The Matrix or Dark City, and while it certainly drew inspiration from these films, Nolan manages to create something that is completely unique.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man who utilizes his knowledge of subconscious security to “extract” information from the minds of people that various clients pay to have stolen. In his next assignment, he’s given the opportunity to clear his name if he successfully carries out the unconventional mission of a powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Wantanabe) . The mission lies outside that of the “extractors” expertise, and instead of extracting an important piece of information, Saito asks that he does something significantly more difficult, implanting information within the subconscious unknowingly to the host, Robert Fischer, Jr (Cillian Murphy).

It’s difficult to describe Inception in detail without completely giving away a lot of what makes its concept so unique and engaging. If one had to describe the film in the leanest way possible, the most appropriate term would be layers. Inception is ultimately a film about layers, both within its plot and its main character. The level of cohesion Nolan was able to utilize is nothing short of brilliant. His ability to seamlessly string together such a thematically layered concept and do it in a way that is both intellectually sound and accessible to the casual movie goer is impressive. There have been plenty of “puzzle” like narratives in the past, including Nolan’s own Memento, but it’s not mere hyperbole to suggest that Inception’s plot is home to perhaps the most difficult and impressive usage of a jumbled structure to date.

While the characters of Inception are interesting and fresh for the most part, with the exception of Dom Cobb, few of them develop beyond what we already know following their introductions to the story, which quite frankly is not that much to begin with. They appear to be little more than a vehicle in which Nolan can use to flesh out Cobb, which leaves the rest of the characters with little to no depth to speak of. This is especially disappointing because this is a film that relies heavily on suspense, and outside of Cobb (and possibly the character of Mal) who is appropriately fleshed out and complex, chances are you’re not going to care whether some of the other characters arrive at the film’s conclusion with a pulse. This is exacerbated by the fact that the premise of the film and the underlying concepts behind it, work in lockstep to completely rid the possibility of danger from becoming a reality within any of these character’s lives. And not only is there a lack of danger in a physical sense, but Nolan has effectively removed the possibility of anything negative happening to any character outside of Cobb should they not accomplish what they’ve set out to do. Basically, there is nothing to be tense about through out the film.

The acting within this film was for the most, consistently good across the board, with some fluctuations towards both sides of the spectrum. As expected, Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent and proves once again why he’s among the most talented actors of his generation. Nolan’s screenplay doesn’t demand much from him in the way of emotions, but when he is called to do so, he delivers some of the more heart felt scenes (actually, the only heart felt scenes) of the movie. Ken Wantanabe, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Cillian Murphy are serviceable within their roles, Hardy in particular proves that he’s one of the more promising up and coming actors in cinema.

Unfortunately, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt weren’t up to par. Page’s acting and presence often felt out of sync with the rest of the cast and the film itself, one can only wonder why an actress whose previous roles were so energetic and full of life, was given a role that wasn’t representative of any of her strong suits. The most disappointing performance belonged to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Many believed this film to be his coming out party to mainstream audiences, and while that’s certainly to be the case, it was with a performance that was as emotionless and wooden as any that have graced the screen in recent memory. And while he certainly gave an uninspired performance, blame ultimately lies with Nolan for creating such an important character that amounts to nothing more than throw away or background noise.

When talking about  science fiction, it’s difficult to determine what is and is not unrealistic within a film due to the genre’s tendency to handle what’s impossible in the real world at the time of its creation. The most you can expect from a film within the genre is for it to own up to the rules that it has created. Inception is hit or miss in this regard due to Nolan’s skepticism of whether to fully embrace the dream space and everything that comes with it. While he flirts with it for much of the film, Nolan never really pushes the ‘anything is possible within the dream space’ angle typically attributed to that state of mind. For the most part, the dreams within Inception are reality based and Nolan only manipulates the space enough to get what he wants from the story, which is disappointing considering a dream is basically a free pass to utilize that which is not firmly grounded within reality. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments where he shatters the established guidelines of his universe, or succumbs to some rather hefty errors in logic and noticeable plot holes. There are several scenes where the main characters’ abilities seem to exceed that of mere training and meticulous preparation, and you’ll be wondering why they’re superior to everyone else in a borderline superhuman fashion.

Inception‘s biggest issue arises from the fact that the premise is ultimately too high of a concept for its own good. Dreams and the human subconscious are relatively confusing concepts in themselves, and when you add  layers upon layers of additional self-created wrinkles to them, letting the overall concept speak on its own behalf becomes a pipe dream in itself. Basically, this is the type of film where exposition is absolutely crucial to the audience’s ability to comprehend the narrative. And while there’s certainly much explanation to be had, it’s surprisingly lazily handled, amounting to little more than characters arbitrarily explaining the various rules behind the film’s mythos to other characters. Nolan’s method results in a lot of the film being more akin to an instruction manual or the tutorial stage to a video game, than a source of cinematic entertainment, which makes the beginning of the film overly lethargic in comparison to its perfectly paced latter half.

Fortunately, once the rules and concepts behind subconscious espionage are finally established, the film manages to pick up momentum and sustain it for the entirety of the film. Taking place across a multitude of beautiful locales, ranging from Mombasa (If only the rest of Hollywood would go against the grain and stop beating audiences over the head with the same tired settings.) to a snowy mountain top, Inception manages to create a  constant level of activity that is a rarity in cinema. While the more traditional aspects of action were good, such as the car chases and various shootouts which are quite typical of the action genre, the single most impressive scene within the film was easily the manipulated gravity fight scene involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and not simply because it’s amazing eye candy.  The most impressive thing about it is the fact that its presence actually makes complete sense within the context of that particular scene. And like most Christopher Nolan – Wally Pfister (Director of Cinematography) collaborations, the overall look of the film is simply gorgeous. It wouldn’t be a bad investment for cities to hire them to spearhead a tourism ad of some sort, they seem capable of bringing out the best of any environment they choose to shoot within.

And just a heads up, without giving too much away, let’s just say that your overall enjoyment of the film may depend on whether you’re a fan of ambiguity within the film space.

Final Verdict: As many film viewers know, expectations can have a huge impact on one’s enjoyment of a film. If they’re set ridiculously high, you’re bound to be disappointed, and if they’re considerably lower, there’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Does Inception live up to the hype? No, but few films can surpass the level of expectations placed onto Inception’s shoulders. Having said that, it’s inability to overcome hefty expectations does little to detract from the fact that this is still a relatively enjoyable film despite its noticeable shortcomings.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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Predators

Let’s start with the good news. Predators is easily the best Predator related film since the original’s sequel twenty years ago. The bad news? Aliens vs. Predators and its sequel were the only competition.

While this film certainly eclipses the bottom feeders of the franchise, it is considerably worse than the first two films, which is unfortunate considering a lot of the talent behind the production. When Robert Rodriguez was brought onto the project as producer and Nimrod Antal  (Control and Vacancy) was chosen to direct thereafter, fans of the franchise were ecstatic, for the first time in a long time, it seemed the Predator name would be used for more than a mere cash-in. Rodriguez and Antal wanted to bring the franchise back to its roots, and in that regard they succeeded, unfortunately the end result is an uninspired and overly familiar rehash that ultimately fails to fill the shoes of its predecessors.

The overall premise is based on a treatment written by Rodriguez in 1994, that was subsequently turned down by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that the premise called for too big of a budget at that particular time. The resulting screenplay is a strange combination of the original Predator and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. The film begins with Royce, an American ex-military soldier turned mercenary, waking up to find himself in free fall and without a clue why. After landing safely, he quickly meets up with seven armed strangers, who are bonded together by a single commonality (besides being tired caricatures), the fact that they are the prey in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a merciless alien race.

One of things that Rodriguez felt the franchise was missing since its original incarnation were  “great characters so that the audience feels they’re going on this journey with them.” That’s certainly a good area to spend some time developing, unfortunately, the characters of this film are uninteresting and about as deep as the piece of paper their stories were written on. Besides the before mentioned Royce played by Adrian Brody, the characters include: a female Israeli soldier (Alice Braga), a loudmouthed death row convict (Walton Goggins), a Mexican drug cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo), a Russian Spetsnaz commando, a Sierra Leone death squad  officer, a Yakuza, a doctor (Topher Grace)and a longtime stranded US soldier who is suffering the effects of longterm isolation (Lawrence Fishburne).

Outside of a few exceptions, the characters aren’t explored beyond their job descriptions, and even that aspect of them is relatively hazy. It’s difficult to truly care for a character when their development is monotonic, have backgrounds  that are ambiguous at best and literally go unnamed until the film’s credits start rolling. Even Royce, who was by far the most complex and fleshed out character of the film, is little more than a vehicle for witty one liners. Despite the pedestrian ensemble of characters, the filmmakers were able to effectively use them to create some fairly rigid social commentary. When the tables are turned and these trained killers are on bottom of the food chain for the first time, the morality of their past decisions come into play which has a noticeable effect on most of the characters and their decisions through out the film.

While you’ll certainly have questions through out the film, the same can’t be said for Brody’s character, who has deduction skills that would make Sherlock Holmes second guess his own abilities as a detective. While the rest of the characters (and the audience) are still trying to wrap their heads around the situation, Brody’s character has already evaluated and deciphered the situation down to the most intricate of details. Apparently the US military does prepare you for everything you’re likely to ever encounter.

One of the original film’s greatest strengths was its ability to truly embody the hunting angle of the Predator character. Each of the Predator’s kills were carefully planned and meticulously executed. Whether it was through carefully traps, from a distance with an alien rifle or up close by hand, the predator’s decision to attack never appeared to be spontaneous, which allowed for some brilliant tension. Unfortunately, outside of some scenes in the beginning, the film seemed to completely ditch this aspect of the Predator character, making the alien more wild killer than intelligent hunter. In the end, the pursuits and the subsequent action spawning from them, are uninspired and clumsily handled, and in some cases, flat out bizarre (Did I just see a samurai duel between a Yakuza and an alien in a grassy field on a twilight backdrop? Why yes, yes I did.) 

Final Verdict: Predators is a step in the right direction for the franchise but does little to expand on or capture the magic of the original film in the series.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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Antibodies

This film is a rarity in cinema. With a run time totalling 127 minutes, the film manages to string together 120 minutes of absolute cinematic bliss that are among the best of its genre, only to squander it all away in what must be one of the most ridiculously absurd film conclusions of all time. In his sophomore effort, German filmmaker Christian Alvart, who recently made his mainstream debut with Pandorum, pens and directs the crime-thriller Antibodies (also known as Antikörper), taking several ques from prominent films existing within the genre. The film can effectively be described as a mash-up of the films Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, and while the inspiration is quite noticeable (there’s even a joke involving Hannibal Lecter), the film manages to remain fresh despite potentially being familiar to those who’ve seen the before mentioned movies.

The film begins with Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke), a pederast serial killed wanted for the murder and raping of thirteen boys, being caught by authorities in a large-scale raid on his apartment in Berlin. Thereafter, Michael Martens (Norman Reedus), an officer from a local German village, travels to Berlin upon hearing of the serial killer’s capture, due to an unsolved murder in his own village having similarities with Engel’s past crimes. When the Berlin police are unable to get Engel to confess to his crime, they turn the case over to Martens who manages to ultimately succeed where they failed when Engel takes an interest in Martens. In his attempts to solve both cases, Engel manages to shake Marten’s underlying beliefs, turning him into potential danger to those around him.

Michael Martens is a man of devout faith, and while he’s true to his profession as a police officer, he doesn’t let it or anything else get in the way of his love for his wife and children. Normon Reedus, most known for his role as one of the hitmen brothers in Boondock Saints, does a wonderful job embodying the righteous persona of the character, and when the time comes for his character to take an unforseen dark turn, he makes the transition flawlessly.

Much like Hannibal Lecter, serial killer Gabriel Engel is every bit as intelligent and manipulative as he is malignant, and André Hennicke is disturbingly believable in his depiction of the deranged character. Engel’s crimes typically involve the raping and eventual killing of young boys, and if that weren’t twisted enough, he creates works of art utilizing their blood as paint. To put it in lamens term, he is pure evil in the most literal sense of the word. Antibodies is ultimately a film that is carried by these two incredible leads, and with their respective characters being on opposite extremes of the morality spectrum, the concept of good versus evil ends up being a central focus  which helps to reinforce the already significant presence of religion within the film. 

The brilliantly moody atmosphere, multi-layered characters and splendid acting, all work together to create a build up that is both well paced and incredibly suspenseful. And while the best ending possible was also the most logical choice, Christian Alvert chooses to take the film in an unforseen direction that’s sure to disappoint, and to make matters worst, he utilizes the dreaded Deus Ex Machina to get there.

Final Verdict: While Antibodies is certainly familiar in its story and approach, it still manages to differentiate itself from the films it borrows from enough to not feel like a complete carbon copy. The film is competently directed, tightly written and well acted, unfortunately a lazily executed ending that is nothing short of intellectually insulting, nearly destroys every positive aspect built up through the first two hours of the film. It’s certainly still worth watching but the ending definitely puts a hamper on what could have been one of the best films in the genre.

Who knew such a minute and insignificant amount of time could be such a difference maker?

Rating: 7.5 out of 10
(Side note: I would have given the film a 9.0 if the ending weren’t so poorly handled.)

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The Lookout

The Lookout marks the directorial debut of Hollywood veteran Scott Frank, who is most known for his extensive work as a screenwriter, penning such films as Get Shorty and Minority Report through out his twenty year career in the film industry. While the film is multi-layered and tackles a multitude of subjects regarding its main character, in the end, it’s your typical heist film with the exception of a lazily tacked on mechanic involving memory loss. Due to its emphasis on and utilization of memory loss,  comparisons are going to likely be made between this film and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

The film begins with Christopher Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a handsome high school jock, driving down a rural road with his girlfriend and two other friends. Trying to impress his girlfriend, he turns off his headlights so she can get a better look at the night time sky. This decision eventually causes him to crash into a stalled combine, fatally injuring two of his friends and significantly damaging the memory-laden parts of his brain. Four years later, Christopher uses hand written notes as an extension of his memory and attends classes at a special school aimed to help people struggling with various memory issues. In an attempt to maintain normalcy within his life, he manages to land a job working the graveshift as a janitor at a local bank. These two aspects of his life become the target of the manipulative Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who befriends Christopher and with the help of beautiful young woman (Isla Fisher), manages to persuade him into allowing a robbery to happen at the bank he works at.

The film is extremely fresh and the dialog is quite sharp, which is not too surprising considering they’re elements typical of a Leonard Elmore novel, whom director Scott Frank is quite familiar with, having adapted several of his novels for film as a screenwriter. Those worried about Frank’s lack of experience as a director will be relieved to know that his end product comes off feeling more like the work of a seasoned veteran, than that of a complete newcomer to the profession.

The up and coming Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a decent job balancing the social awkwardness and emotional turmoil required by his character, but he ultimately appears more at home when channeling the confident suave personality of his character’s former self prior to the accident. Matthew Goode, fresh off his role in Woody Allen’s Match Point, undergoes an amazing transformation and loses himself within a role unlike anything he has done previously. As the sleazy criminal Gary Spargo, Goode perfectly embodies the superficially friendly con man role, and is able to force his character’s personality into a complete 180 when a scene calls for something a bit more heated.

But as good as Gordon-Levitt and Goode are, Jeff Daniels eclipses both through his role as the main character’s eccentric blind roommate, Lewis, who has a striking resemblance to the main character of The Big Lebowski. Despite being blind, Lewis is notably wise and seems to take it upon himself to guide the main character through his tough situation. Daniels is able to bring a few laughs to what was otherwise a relatively depressing atmosphere, and his confidence and cheeky personality in the face of such a restrictive disability is sure to win many people over. His character also provides a nice alternative to Christopher’s attitude towards life. Despite having a disability that’s just as restrictive as Christopher’s, and more so in some respects, unlike Christopher who is dejected and spiteful because of his condition, Lewis is readily aware of his physical limitations but refuses to let them dictate his life. It’s a bit of a cliché, but figuratively speaking, Christopher has the best vision of any character within the film.

The film is not without its faults however. The Lookout suffers from some severe implausibility within its plot, and it seems to constantly break rules that it established early on in the film. Through out the film, it’s apparent that the main character’s brain functions are inconsistent at best and the source of much difficulty within his everyday life. He also finds himself unable to keep much of his thoughts internal, evident by his continual blurting out of sexual thoughts to the various females he encounters. Then why is a who struggles from the before mentioned symptoms given sole responsibility of maintaining a bank in the wee hours of the night, and in the case of the criminals, trusted to keep their criminal plans a secret? Who knows.

The character’s memory issues were certainly an interesting aspect to the narrative, but its execution seemed to be half-hearted and only relevant when convenient to the story. Christopher seems appropriately disabled in some cases and magically competent in others, and while the brain works in mysterious ways, it’s hard to believe that a person who forgets how to use a can opener is capable of driving flawlessly, let alone get around town without issue. Towards the end of the film, things will get so ridiculous, that you’ll find yourself wondering if his condition has undertaken a miraculously sudden turn for the better.

Final Verdict: The Lookout is a solid, albeit flawed, directorial debut for screenwriter Scott Frank. The film contains an interesting premise and Frank manages to squeeze out some interesting performances out of his cast. It’s surprising to see that it was his writing, specifically the lack of continuity within the plot, that was his shortcoming and not his lack of experience as a director. The film is entertaining and quite suspenseful, and its other elements end up being solid enough to overshadow much of its faults.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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Re-Animator

Re-Animator, a loose adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story “Herbert West-Reanimator, marks the film debut of director Stuart Gordon and remains his best film to date. What was initially supposed to be a television series, was transformed into a film production following the introduction of fellow horror director Brian Yuzna to the project. The end result is a wonderfully gory reimagining of the Frankenstein mythos, that is more than deserving of  its long running cult status with various film circles. Stuart’s direction is obviously in its infancy at this point in his career, but his rudimentary style is part of the film’s overall charm and is likely responsible for the unique style that was unlike anything present in Hollywood at that time.

The film begins at a medical university in Austria where a shady experiment involving a scientist and his student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has gone catastrophically wrong. From there the story shifts to Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott), a dedicated medical student, and his girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of the Dean at the school Daniel is currently attending. Their lives become entangled with the before mentioned Herbert West and his experiments involving the reanimation of dead tissue. Through his experiments, he attempts to prove the current scientific thoughts of death wrong by breathing life back into the deceased with a mysterious serum, and while his testing certainly succeeds in that regard, the end result is more fiend than man.

You know you’re in for a treat when the Psycho inspired opening credits hit, complete with a remixed score of the opening music (as well as the music from the famous ‘Shower Scene’). Whether this was a conscious nod or flat out thievery is up for debate, but whatever the reason, it’s certainly a nice touch that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The film is obviously not going to win any awards for its cinematographic prowess, nor is it necessarily trying too. As an independent feature with a relatively modest budget of $900,000, the filmmakers do an excellent job of   stretching their funds and ultimately succeed in creating a film that appears to be significantly more expensive to create than it actually is.  

The fact that this film’s effects are still serviceable twenty-five years after its production, is not only a testament to the longevity of hand crafted effects, but an example of the amount of skill and work that went into creating them. John Naulin and Bob Gordon, the duo behind the special effects of the film, were able to create and utilize some of the best hand crafted effects and makeup work to ever be used in a film. Decayed corpses, dislodged organelles and decapitated heads, whatever bizarre scenes of gore the screenplay called for, Naulin and Gordon were able to realistically recreate them for the silver screen. Apparently the most blood a film previously called for that Naulin was a part of was two gallons, and according to him, that record was increased 12 fold after filming Re-Animator.

Re-Animator doesn’t shy away from gore or nudity, it’s filled with numerous moments of grotesque dismemberment and full frontal nudity. Even by today’s standards, this film is incredibly gory and quite raunchy, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some people simply weren’t capable of resonating with such a film at the time of its release in 1985. It takes considerable courage and a relatively warped mind to construct some of these scenes, one can only imagine the state of mind required to think up a scene involving a zombified decapitated head and oral sex.

The film starts out a bit slow but once the “reanimated” are introduced to the story, the action and tension continuously heighten until the eventual conclusion ends up being a brilliant segway into the sequel. The ‘reanmimated’ are by no means innovative and parallels will obviously be drawn to the undead in various zombie films, they’re menacing none the less and are among the more gruesome monsters to ever hit the screen. Despite the fact that the entire film takes place in a handful of locations, with the most time being spent in the mortuary itself, the film never really feels restrictive and the enclosed settings help to give a false sense of claustrophobia that compliments the story well.

For such a cheap production, the acting was surprisingly competent. The main character and his girl friend, are serviceable and manage to provide a necessary moral middle ground, but the real stars of the production are Jefferey Combs as the wonderfully twisted Herbert West, and David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill. Combs is not only awkwardly hilarious, but manages to embody the role of a “mad scientist” brilliantly, so much so, that by story’s end you begin to wonder what his character won’t do in the name of science. David Gale is rather tame early on but once his transformation to the undead takes place, his character involves into a strangely entertaining hodgepodge of sheer insanity and wit, which seems to just work within the context of the film.

Final Verdict: While Re-Animator is certainly comedic and purposely so, it’s still a competent horror film and contains everything people have come to expect from the genre. The film is known as a gory cheese fest, but to be perfectly honest, these types of overly simplified descriptions are underselling it by quite a bit. Despite the fact that the film is relatively grotesque and raunchy, it’s wonderfully suspenseful and a lot more intelligent than its given credit for. It manages to strike the same cords that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead made famous, while managing to carve out a comfortable niche within the crowded horror genre.

Within a genre that often too straight faced for its own good, it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The genre could definitely take a page or two from Re-Animator’s playbook, especially in an era filled with remakes.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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The Last Airbender

With the release of The Last Airbender, a noise more boisterous than the vuvuzela can be heard from every theater in the world. It’s the collective whimpering of a dumbstruck fan base as they lay witness to one of the most disturbing sights imaginable, an adaptation of one’s favorite show written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Fans of the cartoon were bewildered, how could Paramount and Nickelodeon entrust the keys to their expensive endeavor with M. Night Shyamalan, the once promising director who has yet to recapture the magic of his early career for nearly a decade? And while the decision was heavily criticized, fans remained confident that the integrity of the show would remain intact, and that this would be the film to reignite Shyamalan’s languishing career. Unfortunately, there are no happy endings to be found here. With a single film, Shyamalan manages to bring a previously prosperous intellectual property to its knees, destroy the future prospects of several young actors and solidify his position as one of the most disappointing individuals in the history of film. To simply refer to The Last Airbender as bad  would be doing the film a major disservice.  Shyamalan creates something much more prolific than your typical stinker, this level of abomination only comes once in a blue moon. It’s not mere hyperbole to suggest that he is responsible for spearheading the single worst film to hit the screen since Battlefield Earth.

The Last Airbender is an adaptation of the popular Nickolodeon cartoon of the same name, minus the word “Avatar” in front thanks to James Cameron’s recent $2.7 Billion juggernaut. The story revolves around a 12-year old monk (Noah Ringer) named Aang who is the latest incarnation of the Avatar, a generational being with the power to manipulate all four elements, whose sole purpose it to maintain the balance of the natural world. He is the last surviving person of one of the world’s four major races, air benders, who are capable of manipulating the air around them. The film begins with two siblings, Katara and Sokka (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) from the Inuit-esque Water tribe, discovering a young boy enclosed within a capsule of ice, the before mentioned Aang, who apparently vanished from the world one-hundred years ago. Soon thereafter, the trio sets off on an unlikely adventure in an attempt to thwart the Imperialist Fire Nation and restore balance to the world. Their journey won’t be without conflict, they’ll have to deal with a young Fire Nation prince, Zuko (Dev Patel), who’s sole mission in life is to capture the Avatar and restore honor to his name in the eyes of his people and father.

The film follows the story of the source material rather faithfully, and manages to capture nearly every major plot point of the cartoon. The movie is not entirely faithful though, besides some minor concessions to the story, the filmmakers made a multitude of cosmetic changes to the source material’s universe, and unfortunately, this is one of many areas where they ultimately fail to capture the magic of the cartoon. But before delving into the negative, to which there is much to talk about,  let’s focus on some of the things the filmmakers did right.

The music score by James Newton Howard is easily the best part of the film, and while that in itself doesn’t mean much considering the film in question, it does little to detract from it being one of the better film scores this year. Howard is by no means a stranger to the industry, he has scored every Shyalaman production since The Sixth Sense, and has had an equally prolific career outside of the relationship. He manages to create a score with the right balance of serenity and fervor, it’s unfortunate that his passionate effort will likely be overshadowed by such mediocre film making.

Some of the environments from the cartoon manage to make a smooth transition to film. The Southern/Northern Air Temples, inspired by Tebeten architecture, and the Northern Water Tribe’s homeland are gorgeously recreated through a combination of impressive CG and solid set design. Unfortunately the awe wears off as we transition from distant establishing shots to close ups, where the overall visuals take a quality dip from that of a high budget blockbuster to a Sci Fi channel original. While some of the set design in the film is solid, the contrast between the good and the bad is startling. At times, the various settlements and cities look surprisingly fake, and are visually comparable to artificial recreations of film settings found at most theme parks.

The film also struggles to faithfully and realistically recreate the costumes of the cartoon’s various character, which is certainly one of the trickier aspects of adapting a cartoon into a live action film. There’s a fine line to walk during the recreation process, if you’re too faithful, the costumes will likely come off as unnatural and cheesy, and if you deviate too far from the source material, you’ve effectively altered the very fabric of the cartoon. Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail this tight rope walk and manage to manifest both sides of the spectrum in spades. Not only is much of the costume design overly distinguishable from its cartoon counterparts, but it flat out looks amateur at times and is more reminiscent of a decent Halloween costume than the work of a $150 million production.

You can’t talk about The Last Airbender without referencing the casting, which many considered to be another example of Hollywood “whitewashing” its characters, or as fan’s creatively coined, “race-bending”. To make a long story short, in a cartoon whose characters and setting were heavily influenced by Asian and Inuit culture, the casting director saw ambiguity and decided to cast all of the main characters with Caucasian actors, with the exception the antagonists who are of South Asian descent. This caused an uproar, made worse by the fact that the casting calls specifically called for Caucasian actors “and other ethnicities” to fill the roles. Character’s names were unsuccessfully changed to sound less ethnic and the main characters previously Hindu related tattoos were changed into something representative of Christian imagery, all in a ridiculous attempt to “Americanize” an otherwise culturally diverse cartoon.

In response to these criticisms, Shyamalan claims that he is proud of his achievement in creating the “most culturally diverse tentpole movie ever made.” The filmmakers remain firm in their stance that casting was color blind and that no parameters outside of the actor’s ability to bring their respective character to life were used when casting the film. While doing little to better minority representation within the film space, this is certainly a respectable and justifiable stance if true. There’s only one minute issue, the actors in question put forth some of the most uninspired and ridiculously stale performances of all time.

Either the acting pool available to them was unusually weak or their statements are little more than a means of damage control. Whatever the reason, authenticity was sacrificed for a higher level of acting that wasn’t attained, and the end result was a mind-numbing distraction, mainly due to the fact that the film’s settings and cultures are based on things that actually exist. Everybody has an idea of what an Eskimo or Tibetan monk, and the ethnic groups that they’re made up of, historically look like. And it’s because of this familiarity that the casting ultimately does not work. When you see an Inuit settlement made up entirely of people who are representative of the region, except for the three white main characters who’ve miraculously remained genetically unaffected by the harsh terrain, you can’t help but be taken aback. That feeling of disconnect is unfortunately present through out most of the film, and is a big reason why it’s nearly impossible for the audience to become the least bit emerged within the film’s unique universe. But enough about that, it’s the acting that counts.

The acting in this film is atrocious. Even the film’s more seasoned veterans were unable to muster up an acting performance that is at the very least serviceable, but seeing as they make up an insignificant chunk of the overall film, they’re not the reason for this film being the epitome of bad acting. That honor goes to the actors behind the three main character; Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, who give the acting equivalent of a deadly fifty car pile up. What you’re looking at is visually scarring and an absolute tragedy, but you find yourself glued to the scene, curious if it can somehow manage to get worse. And boy does it ever. Conversation between characters amount to little more than what sounds like people emotionlessly reading off a piece of paper to one another, it’s forced and simply lacks the effortless nature of an actual conversation. Maybe M. Night Shyamalan is to blame, part of the responsibility of a director is to bring the best out of his or her’s cast, whatever the reason, it’s clear that something went horribly wrong.

The biggest offender is the actor behind the protagonist Aang, who certainly looks the part but lacks the acting chops necessary to bring the character to life. There’s a reason newcomer Noah Ringer doesn’t speak much within the film’s advertisements, and if the filmmakers were disgusted enough by his performance to almost completely omit his dialog from the trailers, you can only imagine how horrible it really must be. Ringer gives a performance void of any emotion whatsoever, at times you have to wonder if young Aang is on Ritalin or suffering from a severe case of depression. It didn’t matter if the scene required anything ranging from sheer joy to overwhelming anger, Ringer was going to have the same facial expression and tone through out the entirety of the film. It’s almost as if the filmmakers became infatuated with his resemblance to the character, and forgot that he’d actually have to open his mouth from time to time.

The actors behind the characters Sokka and Katara weren’t much better. Not only are their performances overly stale, but if you weren’t readily aware of the fact before hand, you would have likely never come to the conclusion that the two characters were actually close siblings. Rathbone and Peltz simply lacked chemistry, which unfortunately seemed to be a major issue for most of the close characters within the film. None of the characters appeared to have any form of kinship, and instead of the unbreakable bonds seen within the cartoon, we were presenting with characters that merely happened to be acquainted with one another. And blame should not merely be placed on the shoulders of the performances alone, Shyamalan’s screenplay was the biggest reason for the lack of character development and the film’s overall mediocrity. The dialog prepared for these actors was simply deplorable, and even if they managed to nail their respective performances, the words coming out of their mouths would not have done them any favors.

Even the best screenwriters in the world would struggle to condense twenty episodes, or what works out to be roughly seven hours worth of content, into a single movie. But for a screenwriter of Shyamalan’s stature, who quite honestly is not very good, it’s a task that proved to be impossible. The first mistake was attempting to work within the confines of a 100 minute runtime, condensing a seasons worth of content into a movie is hard enough, and expecting your movie to be anything short of rushed when doing so is delusional at best.

It appears Shyamalan went into this screenplay with the intention of including nearly every moment that was pivotal to the main narrative of the cartoon, and in that regard he most certainly succeeded. Unfortunately that’s all that is included, everything else not absolutely vital to the story is completely left out, which is important to note considering the fact that the omitted tidbits are where the majority of the character development happens takes place. Not only is there a lack of character development, but the widespread omission within the screenplay results in a narrative that is jumbled and extremely hard to follow.

The plot sporadically jumps around from one point to the next, with days or months being lost with each transition, and audiences are left in the dark as to what happened between events. It’s not uncommon for characters to speak about important events within the adapted cartoons that are completely unexplained within the context of the movie itself. Shyalaman tries to hide this short coming through what seems to be the last minute addition of  some voice over narration, but it feels lazily tacked on and does little to replace what should have been actual filmed exposition. For example, the narrator has to clue us in on the fact that two characters have romantically fallen for each other. There’s absolutely no excuse for such horrific writing. Any good writer knows that it’s always better to show something than to have a character arbitrarily explain it, and it’s unfortunate that it happened with this particular example, because it completely ruined one of the most emotional scenes in the cartoon’s repertoire.

Characters such as Appa the flying bison, to which they only refer to by name once, and Momo, the winged lemur who is literally unnamed within the film, are a mere afterthought despite being two of the biggest companions to the protagonists within the cartoon. They seem to drift in and out of scenes without any explanations to their mysterious disappearances or reintroductions to and from the story.

People who have seen the show will be able to mentally fill the many holes left by Shyamalan’s screenplay, but those who are new to the Avatar universe will likely struggle to follow the story, and ultimately not care for any of the underdeveloped characters of the film. A barrage of asteroids could strike the Earth,  condemning every character to a brutal death, and most people would fail to bat an eye,  due to the fact that no single character manages to gain the audience’s sympathy. The character’s relationships are non-existent and their various motives are left unexplored, the writing in this film is simply deplorable and it’s truly amazing that it got all the way through production without a complete revision.

If there’s one thing audiences thought they could look forward to, it’s the visuals and action that one has come to expect from a high budgeted summer blockbuster. The screenplay and acting removed the possibility of a well rounded film, but surely The Last Airbender could still salvage this sinking ship through a steady dosage of mindless fun. The previously fast paced and fluid action of the cartoon was dumbed down into something erratically clumsy, and riddled with amateur choreography and needless moments of slow motion. One would think that the elemental bending of the cartoon would make for some quality entertainment, unfortunately these abilities that are supposed to be an extension of the body, seem lag behind a character’s movements by seconds, and for some reason,  require a considerable amount of movement just to execute the simplest action.

The fight scenes end up being the biggest disappointment of the entire product, especially in comparison to their cartoon counterparts. Fights that took minutes to play out in the cartoon, concluded in mere seconds within the film, which typically consist of a single attack demolishing a foe. Fights involving a multitude of people are considerably worse and don’t really feel like a large scale skirmish. “Fights” might not even be an appropriate term for what’s in the film, an excuse to  flaunt CG prowess, which honestly isn’t that good in the first place, seems to be a more apt description and the main focus of these encounters.

There’s also a clear visual difference between those with an existing background in martial arts and those without one, and while that’s a common fault within many films, it’s more apparent within a property that’s built around the concept of martial arts. With the exception of Noah Ringer, who had relevant experience before hand, absolutely none of the characters were convincing within their fight scenes. One can’t help but laugh at Patel’s character’s martial arts skills improving ten fold, simply because a particular scene where his character wears a mask, allows for a stuntman to be used for the entire scene instead of intermittently.

Final Verdict: It doesn’t take a sixth sense to see that this movie sucks. Previously thought to be an impossibility, Shyamalan has managed to create a film that is noticeably worse than his previous effort in every conceivable category. The Last Airbender is a terrible film, and with the exception of a solid film score and the occasional gorgeous scenery, which are unsurprisingly two of few things that Shyamalan had no part in creating, it is without any redeeming qualities.

It’s home to some of the worst writing and acting to hit the screen in quite a while, and has probably destroyed any chance of a studio taking a risk on a similar project in the near future. M Night Shyamalan is a mediocre director and a horrible screenwriter, and if it wasn’t readily apparent before hand, it most certainly is now. One can only wonder how he has continually managed to find work, let alone be given free reign on such expensive productions as The Last Airbender. Avoid this film at all costs. This is not a matter of differing tastes. A reluctance to taking another’s opinion should not push you to watch this film, it is deserving of every single ill thought being thrown its way. We can only hope that the next twist from Shyamalan, will be his early retirement from the film industry.

Rating: 1 out of 10

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Taxidermia

Based on a series of short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, Gyorgy Palfi‘s Taxidermia is a brilliantly twisted and grotesque critique of Hungarian society. What appears to be disgusting drivel void of any intelligent or artistic merit, is actually one of the most symbolic and thematically powerful films to grace the screen in quite a while. That’s not to say that this film is for everyone, evident from the first minutes of the film when a man purposely burns himself with candle fire and eventually ejaculates a long stream of fire, it’s clear that Palfi didn’t intend for the faint of heart to pay his product any attention.

Taxadermia takes place over the course of three successive generations through a male lineage, starting in World War 2 era Hungary and concluding within modern times. Without giving too much of the film away, it follows the life of a lonely military orderly during World War 2 who finds one of his sexual fantasies miraculously coming to fruition. His illegitimate son who becomes a prolific Hungarian speed eater. And finally, the speed eater’s son, who makes his living  by preserving the remains of dead animals as a taxidermist. None of the cast is particularly well known, even among Hungarian circles, but like good directors should, Parti is able to squeeze a magnificent performance out of everyone involved.

This generational approach to story telling is crucial to understanding the film’s underlying theme, which manages to connect the characters together beyond a mere genetic relation. These characters represent the male’s overwhelming desire to become eternal, whether genetically through reproduction, such was the case with the first two generations, or something a bit more twisted in the case of the 3rd generation, which I’ll leave unspoiled.

Wrapped around all of this thematic symbolism is a film filled with animal brutality, sexual masochism, self mutilation, forced regurgitation and some surreal depictions of obesity. One of the most memorable scenes in the film involves two characters hunched over a waste bin, who are holding a casual conversation while intermittently vomiting, and this is one of the more tame scenes of the Taxidermia. Palfi manages to accommodate all of this into a product that is not only entertaining, but visually striking as well.

Cinematographer, Gergely Poharnok, manages to do some amazing things behind the camera. The unsaturated color pallet lends itself well to the somber mood of the film, and the camera techniques that Poharnok is able to utilize is nothing short of brilliant. When someone manages to make camera rotations around a bathtub interesting for well over a minute, you know they’re onto something. His tendency to allow scenes to go uninterrupted for a fair chunk of time is one of the biggest reasons for why the film is so unsettling. Most filmmakers have a sense for when its audience has had enough of a particular scene, but Palfi seems content with allowing his grotesque scenes to linger.

Final Verdict: While Taxidermia initially appears to be serious in tone, there are enough moments of dark comedy and bizarre surrealism to keep audiences from feeling too uncomfortable. It is a unique blend of horror, surrealism and comedy, and while it’s appeal will unfortunately be limited, those that enjoy films in the vein of David Cronenberg or David Lynch’s simlarly strange films, are sure to find much enjoyment within Palfi’s masterpiece.

Rating: 9.0 out of 10

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