Monday, July 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 15-21

The Last Airbender (2010) **
Director/Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel

About a year ago, four other people above the age of ten enjoyed M.Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the American anime series “The Last Airbender”. Most people hated it. I could see where they were coming from, but having seen it with my 8 year-old, I was surprised to find I enjoyed it. Since then, I’ve wondered just how badly my perception of the movie was skewed during that first screening.

I’ve finally gotten around to viewing the movie again, and I have to admit, I was wrong. This is not a good movie, not by any stretch of the word ‘good.’ I still say that the backlash against it was more a reaction to the poor 3D transfer and the ongoing back turning the critics and public seem to be engaging in against Shyamalan. But, “The Last Airbender” is certainly a major misstep for the filmmaker.

The movie is an editing mess. I don’t know if Shyamalan didn’t have much say in the final cut or what, but big glaring chunks of this film seem to be missing. The acting is subpar; and the dialogue seems to be aimed at sixth graders, maybe a little younger. It does get a little better as it goes along, but this movie is beneath Shyamalan and his considerable talents. It’s out of his particular niche, but that hardly accounts for the disparity in quality between this movie and his others.

Perhaps, I was just determined to see something in this movie that everyone else was missing the first time around. I apologize to my readers for my initial mistake in recommending this movie. Here is my original misguided review.

Jaws (1975) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley (novel)
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

Why wouldn’t you watch “Jaws” while on a beach vacation? I spent the last week on Emerald Isle in North Carolina in a beach house with my extended family. We planned this trip because when my brother and I were little, we had spent three summers in the same area. That was not long after “Jaws” had created a huge stir in theaters and minor paranoia at the beaches. I remember several shark scares during our time on Emerald Isle as children. This time Steven Spielberg and his famously accidental masterpiece delivered the only shark scares.

During the screening I couldn’t help myself from elucidating the production details on my family as we watched. I believe I got more out of this than they did, since at about the halfway point my sister-in-law had had enough and asked my wife, “does he always talk this much during movies?”

I don’t usually talk too much during movies, but “Jaws” represents a small selection of movies that I’ve seen so many times that the details of how they was made are as amazing to me as the movie itself. This only happens with movies that are so masterfully made that I’ve seen them so many times I can’t help but wondering, how did they do that? The funny thing about “Jaws” is it wasn’t the way they had planned to do it at all.

I would’ve hated to see the movie Spielberg tried to make but couldn’t because his mechanical shark wouldn’t work. It never would’ve been as good as the compromised vision he ended up with. If the audience had seen the shark as early in the film as Spielberg planned, all the magic would’ve been spent too early. “Jaws” as it was completed proves Hitchcock’s theory that having a bomb explode under a table in a restaurant is action, but letting the audience know there’s a bomb under the table that might explode is suspense. Knowing the shark was out there was much more frightening than seeing it would’ve been. And, of course, it had everyone on a beach wondering if there was a shark out there.

Interesting note: we planned a non-beach day following our screening.

Minority Report (2002) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Scott Frank, Jon Cohen, Philip K. Dick (short story)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Max Von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Kathryn Morris, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Lois Smith, Daniel London, Tim Blake Nelson, Mike Binder, Peter Stromare

It’s always nice to follow up a Spielberg masterpiece with a Spielberg masterpiece. “Minority Report” has got to be one of the greatest film noirs ever made. Just like all the classic noirs, the story’s focus on its hero is unwavering, relentless, and unflinching. Tom Cruise is an unlikely yet wonderful choice for a flawed noir hero. Combine it all with Spielberg’s witty action style and you get one damn entertaining movie.

Now, let’s talk about Max Von Sydow, that Scandinavian master class actor who can be so warm and so cold. It seems he can switch from one to the other with a push button. Have you ever noticed how large he is? There’s a scene in this movie with him and Cruise sitting having a conversation together that it just a mess of perspective because Sydow’s head is so much larger than Cruise’s. The scene has always stuck out to me, and I always felt that it was just coincidence that it was difficult to tell which actor was in the foreground. I thought it was something they just couldn’t get around. But, isn’t Spielberg better than that? Perhaps the looming Sydow is just foreshadowing the film’s conclusion. Perhaps it is meant to show how Cruise is caught in his web. I don’t know, but that scene always grabs my attention.

Skyline (2010) **
Directors: The Brothers Strause
Writers: Joshua Cordes, Liam O’Donnell
Starring: Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed, Neil Hopkins, David Zayas, Donald Faison

“Skyline” takes the unique alien invasion perspective of that of some of the nameless victims. Oh, well, it gives them names, but these aren’t people that are going to save the world. They aren’t likely to affect the invasion one way or the other. And surprisingly, they eventually just end up as a few of the countless victims. I’m sorry if that gives away the ending, but it’s one of the film’s appealing parts.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t squelch on it’s unique take on the alien invasion. The film doesn’t quite work. Unfortunately, I think that’s because these people don’t win. In order for them to be one of the countless rabble that perishes, they aren’t allowed to have the character flourishes we crave in our sci-fi action heroes. They don’t have qualities we can aspire to. And they don’t require that we root for them. That’s basically the failing point right there. I just couldn’t help wondering, why should I care about these people?

There are other messy storytelling elements here, but I think the uniqueness of the idea could overcome those. It just couldn’t overcome itself. Still, “Skyline” is a masterpiece compared to the Brothers Strause last alien invasion movie “Aliens vs. Predators-Requiem”. I’m not even sure why it might be called “Skyline”? Yeah, the title makes no sense. They could just as reasonably called it “Bright Light”. In fact, that would make more sense. Anyway, unique does not always equal good.

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