Home > Reviews > Movies from the library that were better than expected

Movies from the library that were better than expected

This past week, I’ve borrowed a number of fairly recent movies from the library, movies that I haven’t seen before, and though they were hardly in the same league as one another, they all turned out at least somewhat more enjoyable than I had been led to expect.

I’ll save the best for last even though I saw it first.  So I guess I’ll lead off with The Last Airbender.  I’ve heard so much vitriol about M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the acclaimed animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender that I was hesitant even to watch the movie at all.  I decided to check it out of the library because at least then I wouldn’t need to pay anything for it.  I figured I wanted to see just how bad it really was.  And I have to say, although it’s hardly a good film, it’s not as painfully awful as the Internet led me to believe.  Maybe it’s because my expectations were as low as you could get, but I found it at least watchable.

Certainly it had many weaknesses.  The dialogue was simply poor.  The story structure was flawed.  What particularly bothered me was how useless the spirit world visions were.  The only thing the Dragon Spirit did was to tell Aang he had to do the exact thing he was already doing. Which is not only pointless, but meant that Aang never learned about Sozin’s Comet, never knew the full extent of what was at stake and why the world needed him.

The cast was not very good overall.  Noah Ringer was okay but fairly bland as Aang.  Nicola Peltz was very unimpressive as Katara, perhaps fittingly, because just about everything impressive about Katara was written out.   Jackson Rathbone overacted too much as Sokka.  But Aasif Mandvi was better than I would’ve expected as Zhao, and Shaun Toub was okay as Iroh.  I guess “better than expected” and “okay” are the greatest praise I can give anything in this film.

The direction was largely okay too, but it had its shortfalls.  The film has been criticized for its lack of the humor that characterized the series.  There was one point that could’ve been very funny, when Zuko was searching for Aang and Aang was hiding right behind his back, dodging his gaze, but the humorous mood was stepped on by the earnest tension-action music that overlaid the whole scene, part of a pretty much wall-to-wall musical score.  That was a point where the absence of music would’ve been far better.

Still, there were things the critics have railed about that didn’t bother me much.  I didn’t mind the changed pronunciations of the names and terminology, because the movie’s pronunciations are actually more authentic.  I don’t mind that the firebenders need a pre-existing source of fire, because the same goes for all the other benders and their elements, so there’s a logic to it.  And as for the infamous scene where the Earthbenders are imprisoned in a camp with earth and rock all around them, I can kind of see what Shyamalan was going for.  The idea, I guess, was that the earthbenders’ spirits had been broken by the invasion and the loss of the Avatar, that they had the means to escape but not the will.  It seemed to fit in with what he was going for about the Avatar’s spiritual importance, that without him, people don’t aspire to being more than they are.  Or something.  Still, it wasn’t conveyed very clearly.

Anyway, the best thing I can say about the film is that I didn’t mind watching it.  It was nice getting to see things like Appa in live action (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  But it was a mediocre film, passable at best, and far short of its source material.

Next is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, another film that’s been savaged by the fanbase but that I actually kind of enjoyed.  I guess maybe I’m not as judgmental of departures from the source as a lot of fans.  It’s the nature of an adaptation to change things, and all that should matter is how well they work in the context of the film itself.  It also helps that I have no interest or investment in the Deadpool character so I don’t really care how they changed him.

Anyway, again, it’s a rather mediocre film.  It’s sketchy, feeling like an abbreviated version of a fuller story.  The relationship between Logan and his brother Victor is ill-defined–what makes Logan more moral and Victor more heartless?  What shaped them differently if they lived and fought side by side for so long?  So from an emotional standpoint, it’s somewhat lacking.  But as a narrative revealing the backstory of the X-Men film trilogy, I think it held together pretty well.  It didn’t feel fundamentally wrong to me, just kind of superficial.  But it did a good job staying true to what the prior films established and explaining Logan’s past.  Danny Huston was convincing as a younger version of Stryker, and they recreated the Weapon X lab pretty well.   In particular, I appreciated getting an explanation for the “Wolverine” nickname.  In the comics, that name makes sense because Logan is small and relentless, but for someone of Hugh Jackman’s size, you’d think he would’ve been nicknamed for a larger animal.  This movie gives the name an explanation that’s actually rather touching.

I’m not sure if X-Men: First Class will contradict this film.  I assume its makers aren’t treating XMO:W as canonical.  But for now, at least, I have no trouble accepting this film as the “true” story of the movie Wolverine’s origins, at least in broad strokes.  (There is the Emma Frost issue, with this film portraying her as a teenager in the ’70s and FC as an adult in the ’60s, but the teenage girl here is never identified by name in the film, so she could easily be an entirely different person.)

Just in passing, I want to mention another film I checked out, one I had seen before, which is Iron Man 2.   Overall, I liked it fairly well, though I felt it grew very silly with the stuff about the “new element” and how Tony discovered and synthesized it.  Aside from that, I felt the character stuff and the action were handled pretty well, and Scarlett Johanssen was amazing to look at, although her acting wasn’t on a par with the rest of the cast, most of whom were superb.

But in particular, I wanted to mention one thing about the climactic action.  I’d read before seeing the film that animation producer Genndy Tartakovsky (of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, the 2D Star Wars Clone Wars, and Sym-Bionic Titan) did some storyboarding for the climactic battles (actually in conjunction with his collaborator Bryan Andrews).  So when I saw the film, I was watching out for hints of Tartakovsky’s highly distinctive style, and there were moments when I just nodded and thought, “Yeah, that’s gotta be Genndy.”  Like the bit where Iron Man zooms by right-to-left in the parking structure, and there’s a pause, and then all the other flying suits zoom by and set off all the car alarms.  The composition, pacing, and humor of that shot just screamed Tartakovsky to me.  And there were a couple of other bits that I just felt had to be him, like the shot in the Japanese garden with the cherry blossoms falling around the armored heroes, and the bit with the lasers that sliced everything in two.  So anyway, when I listened to director Jon Favreau’s commentary on the DVD, at every one of those moments, Favreau said “That was a Genndy bit.”  I was right!  I only missed one of the moments he pointed out.  Which I don’t consider a testament to my powers of observation so much as a testament to what an utterly individual and exceptional style Genndy Tartakovsky has.

But the single most satisfying film in this bunch is undoubtedly The A-Team.  I wasn’t a fan of the original show when it first aired, but I’ve since come to appreciate it as a live-action cartoon and a parody of the over-the-top violent action genre of the ’80s.  The whole thing was basically just an excuse for four eccentric characters to do their schticks every week, and it was harmless fun.

So I was a bit wary of the film, which I gathered would be more serious and a lot more violent.  But although that’s basically true, it was also a hilarious, wildly clever, superbly made action movie.  And I’ve rarely seen a film revival of an old show that did a better job of adaptation — capturing the essence of the original while also making it new, bigger, and better.  The characters were recognizably themselves, only more so.  They were more fully developed and nuanced.  The action was much bigger, the humor edgier, the zaniness and absurdity elevated to an art.

Now, I would’ve been happier if the film had been less violent.  I prefer it when heroes don’t kill.  And in the A-Team’s case, it actually makes sense that they wouldn’t.  They’re outlaws, dismissed from the military.  They have no state authority backing up their actions.  So if they took a life except in a completely unavoidable self-defense scenario, that would be murder, and would pretty much scuttle their chances of ever clearing their names.

But at least the film touched on the idea that the A-Team try to be relatively less violent than their foes.  Certainly when going up against fellow US military personnel, they avoided bloodshed.  I loved the way Hannibal just asked the guys in the cargo plane to vacate the premises and they left simply on the basis of his reputation, and the way Murdock then neutralized the parked jets so that they were only pursued by unmanned drones.  And at least they touched on the question of the ethics of violence by having BA turn pacifist for a time — although I’m unsure how I feel about how it was ultimately handled.  I guess a film where a character at least considers the morality of killing and does some soul-searching before deciding it’s justified is better than one where the so-called heroes just casually blow people away and are never bothered by it in the least.

And I suppose what made the violence tolerable was that this was basically a larger-than-life fantasy film.  Much like its predecessor, it wasn’t set in a realistic world.  The original was set in a world where thousands of bullets could fly and explosions go off without anyone sustaining injury, and the movie is set in a world where helicopters can do barrel rolls and kevlar can be melted down.  And neither was really meant to be taken too seriously.  It’s just a movie and nobody’s really getting hurt.  And it’s a really well-made movie with very clever action and effective characterization.  I’m hoping for a sequel.

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  1. Adam Holmberg
    April 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I have to say, A-Team surprised the hell out of me – it was just a fun ride, and I actually found myself enjoying it more than the original series (I was always more into Magnum PI and Knight Rider) and hoping for a sequel (though the climactic blast aboard the freighter was an example of some truly bad CGI).

    On Wolverine, I was very disappointed by the film, probably because I read an early draft of the script (by David Benioff and David Ayers) that was much stronger and tighter (of course, what do we expect when the writer of Hitman wrote the final draft?). It wasn’t so much “X-Men lite” and instead almost took the tone of a 70s revenge film, and I much preferred both the ending (which tied in much better with the other X-Men films) and the leaner focus of that draft.

    Of course, I can say too…as much as I’m looking forward to First Class, it breaks my heart that Sheldon Turner’s absolutely excellent Magneto script probably will never be filmed now either.

  2. Tim Webb
    April 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Christopher, I agree with you on Wolverine. I don’t have time to see films in the theatre, so I wait for them on DVD. I also took out Wolverine from the library, and was pleasantly surprised. In fact, it tried to be more complex than I thought it would be, with Wolverine’s lover involved in a deception against him and faking her death. It also strained to try to set up a retroactive continuity with the previous films. So, not a great film, but much better than I had anticipated.

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