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Archive for October, 2012

Chapter Sixty: “Sozin’s Comet, Part Three: Into the Inferno”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

Remember when I said much of the finale doesn’t have good re-watch value? That’s part of the cause for my procrastination with the rest of this review (the other part involves school and depression, but I digress). I didn’t want to continue writing without having seen all four episodes again, and having finally done so, it only reaffirms my stance on the matter: the finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender is a mostly boring (relatively speaking) enterprise that nonetheless manages to sometimes exhibit the hard-hitting emotional power that the best episodes always had. In that respect, I’m glad I re-watched it for those moments, even if everything else did little for me.

Having discussed the action sequences, it’s only natural for me to now discuss the surrounding dramatic and humorous moments that are allegedly creators DiMartino and Konietzko’s favorite things in the series. Let’s do this.

I’ve also mentioned before that a great deal of the finale feels much like Book One in terms of tone: for being on the verge of a world-ending massacre, it’s kind of weird how much silliness sneaks its way into a lot of scenes. And I’m not talking about the beach party that precedes Zuko’s revealing of his father’s master plan (by the way, I found the beach party rather amusing, even Sokka’s stupid sand sculpture). No, I’m specifically thinking about moments much later on, like how Sokka tricks the crew of the airship into getting themselves dropped out of the ship.

This scene practically epitomizes exactly what I’m talking about. After incapaciting the cockpit crew, Sokka commandeers the PA system and commands every single person onboard to do to the bomb bay area to celebrate someone’s birthday. Everyone does so. So far this seems pretty dumb, doesn’t it? Well, the joke is almost saved by this casual exchange between two of the crew members:

Elite Firebender #1: Hey. I’m Quin Lee, I work up in communications.
Engineer: Oh hi, I work down in the engine room. It’s probably why we’ve never met before. Big airship, you know?
Elite Firebender #1: Huh.
Engineer: Yep.
Elite Firebender #1: So, do you know whose birthday it is?

The fact that these two grown men are rightfully baffled by this command from the cockpit and yet are trying to make the best of it is actually pretty funny. Their maturity just about completely compensates for how essentially idiotic their reason for being there is. But then the writers ruin it by having another crew member chime in with this:

Elite Firebender #2: I can’t believe the Captain remembered my birthday! He really does care.

BAM! Suddenly, the joke that seemed to be poking fun at its own childishness becomes simply another childish joke. Granted, it’s still pretty funny, especially the final punchline after they all get dumped into the ocean (to drown), but that one line sends it over-the-top and into “undoubtably a kids’ show” territory. It’s not that this brand of humor is inheritently bad—I have personally admitted to really liking “Avatar Day,” one of the most prominent offenders—but do we really need it during the final epic battle of good and evil? Dramatic tension and the gravity of the situation just seem to fly out the window at that point.

Contrast that with, say, Dr. Strangelove, a straight up satire about the end of the world. Originally, it was supposed to end in a giant pie fight that further symbolized the destruction of all life and civilization on the planet. The problem was that the actors seemed to be having a grand old time, which was detrimental to director Stanley Kubrick’s point of the entire film: that even when the world ends, humans will remain paranoid, petty, and power-hungry creatures. The new ending wonderfully kept that message intact.

Speaking of people dropping out of bomb bays…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that DiMartino and Konietzko should have taken their own advice and been more “decisive” about what made the cut in these closing chapters. That’s how I feel about the majority of the humor in the show anyway: it doesn’t relieve us from tension, it destroys it.

Here’s another example: after Aang has defeated Firelord Ozai and reunited with Sokka, Suki, and Toph, the three kids attempt to insult Ozai* with the lamest namecalling since “The Great Divide.” However, it’s when Suki tries to be one with the cool kids that she’s told not to bother even trying. Are the writers trying to upset me?

Not all of the humor is like that, thankfully; occasionally a smart joke will surface. For example, when the kids split up to find Aang after he disappears, Toph immediately partners up with Zuko. She wants to have a life-changing adventure with Zuko like the others did, but her enthusiasm is not shared by Zuko. It’s great to see her opening her heart up so forcefully only to be shut down for it. Consider how few times Toph is willing to make herself vulnerable, and it’s even funnier.

I also loved King Bumi’s recollection of how he took back Omashu during the eclipse. After hearing about this splendid dose of typical Bumi lunacy, neither Zuko nor Sokka feel compelled to talk about what they did during the eclipse. Sure, Zuko faced his father and redirected lightning, but did he knock down a giant statue and take back a city? Nope. Bumi’s antics could be contained in one win/fail compilation of seven minutes, while Zuko’s story would take the length of Crime and Punishment to fully appreciate.

But I’m not just going to sit here and list all my favorite and not-favorite jokes and moments. The truth of the matter is, I don’t remember a great deal of the finale at all. No, not even after having just watched it for perhaps the sixth time in my life. Excluding the really, really good stuff—which I’m holding off discussing until Part Four—nothing is particularly memorable. Or, at the very least, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, for better or worse. As such, there’s really nothing I can say that I haven’t written before.

So, before moving on to those really, really good scenes, I must comment on two points of interest: Energybending and romance.

As far as the resolution to Aang’s main conflict (how to defeat the Firelord without killing him) and Energybending goes, I’ve completely come to terms with it. I was never really angered by and torn up about it like I was with the resolution of Korra. Far from it: Energybending as a concept actually made sense, and while we were understandably not prepared for it as well as we could have been—for example, we’re told literally seconds before it matters and before we can properly understand the gravity of it, that many Avatars actually failed and died trying to Energybend because they were not pure at heart—it still worked on an intellectual level.

Whether it worked on an emotional level was a different story, and for the longest time, it just felt like a cop-out. How convenient is it that, right after the kid decided that killing Ozai was the only option, suddenly a mythical creature appears with another way? Doesn’t this stunt Aang’s maturation? Shouldn’t having him disregard everything he thought was right for the greater good be the most challenging ending?

But after watching the finale again, it all makes sense. The way I see it now, the conflict was always whether he should change himself for the greater good or whether he should stick to his principles. Which choice is the right choice? Generally speaking, they’re both right depending on the circumstances.

That sounds like even more of a cop-out, I know, but consider this: how emotionally redundant would it have been to have one character learn the virtues of change and then be followed by another character who learns the exact same lesson? Through the turbulent arc of Zuko, we already know how important change is, not just for achieving balance within ourselves, but for the world as well. Now comes Aang to show us why standing our ground and holding true to what we believe is just as important. In this way, Aang and Zuko’s stories truly complement each other. Now that’s what I call great storytelling.

Now, about Aang, Katara, and the final shots. One of the commentators on this blog named Eugene posted a very lengthy but very clear reply and analysis on the issues with the Aang and Katara romance—particularly how it relates to “The Ember Island Players”—and frankly, I feel little need to elaborate on it. All I’ll say is that, as far as potential life partners go, Katara could do a Hell of a lot worse than the fucking Avatar. So good for her.

Also, because the final shots are so blatantly typical and fairy tale-esque (not to mention shipper service), the only way I can stand to ever watch them nowadays is if I put this tune on over them**:

Finally, I get to move onto Part Four, where I get to talk about the greatest moments of the finale! Oh, joy!

*I almost typed “loser-lord.” I almost fucking typed “loser-lord.”

**On a completely unrelated note, apparently director Joaquim Dos Santos is a Yes fan. Maybe his name is just more common than I can possible know, but if that’s his comment on John McFerrin’s music review site, than that’s a neat little factoid, wouldn’t you say? (Ctrl + F his name, but know that that e-mail address doesn’t work. I tried it.)

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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Announcement: Parts Three and Four of the Finale Review Will Be Posted Tomorrow and Thursday

With Youmacon fast approaching, I’d prefer to have a nice vacation from work and school unburdened with thoughts of unfinished business. That includes the final parts of the Avatar: the Last Airbender finale review, which are currently in the editing stage. I apologize greatly that it took so long, but complications in so many areas arose in my life that have, hopefully, been conquered now, allowing me more time to dedicate to this blog. I mean, I’ve seen got to re-watch The Legend of Korra, don’t I?

Part Three will be up Wednesday, October 31, 2012.

Part Four will be up Thursday, November 1, 2012.

– Marshall Turner


The Shyamalan Interview That We All Like to Pretend Never Happened

(Thanks to school and personal problems, I have not been in a reviewing mood lately, and it would be unfair to continue my thoughts on the finale without: 1) giving it another viewing; and 2) being in the right frame-of-mind to give my thoughts on it. In the meantime, to get back in the groove, here are my thoughts on this video interview, The Last Airbender, and the aftermath.)

Re-watching this interview between creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and film director M. Night Shyamalan, you’d think this was the most awkward photographed instance of an artist being in such close and friendly proximity with someone who can rightfully be classified as a “murderous monster.”

It’s not.

It’s hard nowadays to recall a time when everyone was actually excited by the prospect of a live-action Avatar: the Last Airbender adaptation, even one directed by a post-Happening Shyamalan. Hell, even I was excited. Back around that time, I was finally starting to like the show, but felt that it being a television production limited its cinematic scope. A live-action version would provide just what was needed to truly bring the amazing Avatar universe to life.

Of course, we all know how that turned out. Shyamalan, in his ever-increasing detachment from reality, transformed one of the best American animated children’s television programs into one of the worst films of all-time. That much is certain. What’s not so certain is whether this universally acknowledged travesty actually prevented the original show from gaining a bigger audience. In these days of Internet reviews and our morbid fascination with cinematic failures, I’d say the original show couldn’t have gotten better advertising. If The Last Airbender had just been OK/mediocre, easily forgettable, that would have been a shame. But all-time worst film? What inspired that piece of shit? Ideally, this curiosity would lead these people to the original show, probably hoping for an equally horrific viewing experience, only so they can be disappointed with just how good it actually is. Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko owe half their outstanding viewership of Avatar and even The Legend of Korra to Shyamalan!

That’s just a playful thought. Who knows what they’d think of that idea. In fact, we don’t know what they thought of the film at all. I’ve yet to see them address the film in any direct way. It’s entirely possible that, because they still function under the control at Viacom and Paramount and Nickelodeon, they simply can’t say anything bad about a project that not only was produced by the higher-ups, but had their names attached to it as well. If that’s true, I don’t know who it reflects poorly on. Viacom for having such tight control over what its artists express in the media (which isn’t very uncommon, mind you), or that DiMartino and Konietzko are such wimps that they won’t come clean about their feelings on the film. I mean, like it or like not, The Last Airbender was a gross misrepresentation of what the show was all about. If DiMartino and Konietzko weren’t going to rectify the situation, then who was?

Then again, maybe that was one of the drives behind The Legend of Korra: to reclaim their artistic credibility—remember, they wrote all the episodes themselves—and even broaden their audience with a show much more daring and more in-your-face about their morals and politics. This would be their ultimate statement to the world, the real magnum opus. Their In Utero to the previous show and The Last Airbender‘s Nevermind.

And there in lies the problem: no matter what “true” Nirvana fans will tell you, In Utero is not as good—let alone better than—than Nevermind, nor is Korra as good as Avatar. In both cases, it seems the creators were trying way too hard to make their new works darker and edgier than what came before, but instead end up exposing their weaknesses by toning down their strengths. In Kurt Cobain’s case, it was his gift for melody made Nevermind a masterpiece of grunge; naturally, the worst tracks on In Utero are those without a clear, disternable melody. Kurt was a brilliant songwriter, but atmosphere and song arrangement were not his strong points.

In DiMartino and Konietzko’s case, their wonderful ideas and concepts are not always taken to a satisfying conclusion. They work much better in creative collaboration with other writers like Avatar‘s head writer Aaron Ehasz. On their own, too many things can get out of hand.

Keep in mind that this is all simply speculation and opinion. Who knows what the actual thought process and motivation behind these actions were. Maybe one day DiMartino and Konietzko will come clean with us and tell us what they really thought about The Last Airbender, the success of their shows, and things of that nature (because I’m never under the impression that they are completely sincere in their interviews). Maybe. In the meantime, facts are facts. The Last Airbender happened. This interview happened. What the fuck happened?

Minute Observations On the Interview Itself

00:00 – First of all, whose dumb idea was it to have the three men switch seats between every frame as a transition between interview questions? It’s annoying and pointless. This is a very minor quibble, but come on! They don’t even do anything creative with it, not to mention poetic; it’s just random.

01:24 – Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time Shyamalan made a film based on his interactions with one of his daughters. Lady in the Water was allegedly based on a bedtime story he used to tell them, the details of which constantly changed and evolved to a point that would seem nonsensical if it weren’t a bedtime story. Hopefully, they’ve learned by now what not to share with their father.

02:00 – Why did they laugh? Was there a funny somewhere in there? I didn’t catch one. Did you? (That said, it reminded me of that bizarre exchange between filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg regarding the quality of Episode I.)

02:16 – In every interview I’ve seen him in, Bryan Konietzko just strikes me as a very unhappy person. He’s smiling, but it seems forced. Maybe he’s just introverted.

03:08 – “…it’s gonna be great seeing the characters taken to their fullest visual potential.” Uh huh. As I said earlier, I always felt that Avatar would benefit greatly from a more cinematic and technically intricate treatment. Then again, as Shyamalan and DiMartino and Konietzko have proven (the latter two with Korra), such a treatment a great work does not make.

03:27 – At this point, citing Hayao Miyazaki as your favorite anime creator is like citing the Beatles as your favorite band: it says almost nothing about you. This is not to say that Miyazaki and the Beatles aren’t great, but that their influence and exposure is so overreaching nowadays that it’s almost always more interesting to find someone who doesn’t like them. I love Miyazaki, too, but he’s not the only person who makes good anime (and I say this as a person who’s generally not an anime fan). Baccano!, Alien Nine, Cat Soup, Akira, and the works of Satoshi Kon, to name a few, are all worthy masterpieces of the art form in my book.

04:30 – As easy as it is to just blame Shyamalan for The Last Airbender, this simply proves that DiMartino and Konietzko were very much involved in the writing process, which is the most important stage of filmmaking. Either Shyamalan made some drastic last minute changes after DiMartino and Konietzko left to work on Korra, or those two are just as responsible for scenes like this as Shyamalan is.

05:27 – Shyamalan’s certainly right about Zuko being the most interesting character, I’ll give him that.

On that note, I might as well come out and say this: as far as form is our strict concern, Shyamalan is a cinematic genius. Yes, a genius. I honestly believe it takes a special sort of talent to make something as bad as The Happening and have it still be more entertaining and more resonant than many recent and decent films in the past few years. Just last night, a few friends and I just happened to catch part of The Happening on television. I’d only seen the film twice, but I still get a kick out of hearing Mark “Markie Mark” Wahlberg sing the Doobie Brothers, of all things. (I fully attribute Wahlberg’s current success in comedy to his goofy miscasting in Shyamalan’s film.)

Of course, therein lies the problem: Shyamalan has too many bad ideas. No matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd. Unless the guy is on some weird ego-fueled trollfest, it’s amazing he hasn’t even considered hiring a screenwriter. Even Alfred Hitchcock worked with many screenwriters. (And wasn’t Shyamalan called “The New Hitchcock” after The Sixth Sense was released?)

06:06 – With the exception of the kid who played Aang, that was totally not the case.

06:20 – Well…we certainly know where much of the “wit” in Avatar came from.

07:18 – Good Lord, Konietzko never looks happy and DiMartino always looks too happy. It’s like watching a staring contest between Lou Reed and Keith Richards.

07:30 – “…on this movie, I’ve got you guys [DiMartino and Konietzko] to be depressed with me.” That’s about the most genuine statement I’ve heard in this entire video.

08:43 – Did Konietzko droop his head because of his lame joke, or because Shyamalan said he could only say “cut” once? Either one works for me.

08:48 – WHY?!

09:13 – Why?

09:24 – “Anything you want to say to [the fans]?” There’s only one thing the fans want to hear, and Shyamalan is never going to say it.

09:59 “…[this film] may be the biggest thing that I’ll ever do.” He’s actually right. The Happening may have been the “better” film, but The Last Airbender permanently cemented his place in history as one of the worst directors of all-time. That’s definitely an accomplish of sorts.