VOD: Legend of Korra

Review:

What do you really need to know here?  The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender hits it right out of the park in almost every way that matters.  Characters are complex, charming, and surprising.  The visuals are amazing.  The animation is unparalleled.  The story is compelling and well told.  Lead character Korra is worth your attention.  Generally speaking, if someone is asking you anything at all about Korra, your response should be: WATCH IT.   I watched it courtesy of Amazon: Video on Demand, but you can also get it on iTunes, on XBOX Video, or watch a few episodes on Nick.com.  Buy it on all of them if you can.  It’s worth it.

Are we clear on the fact that I loved his show?  Yes?  Good.

Three things bugged me at the end.

First, there is a love triangle between the Avatar Korra, Firebender Mako, and an Industrial Manufacturing Heiress Asami.  This triangle is not handled well at all.  Korra falls for Mako based on watching him in a sports event and only marginally expands on this crush as the series progresses.  There are only rare moments of true chemistry between these two.  Meanwhile, Mako is run over by a car driven by Asami and they quickly start dating afterwards.  Their relationship also does not grow by leaps and bounds, mostly because they don’t go through a courtship process that we get to see.  They are already a couple by Asami’s second appearance.  A few very early scenes establish some chemistry between them and they ride that through to the conclusion.  Finally, Mako himself seems to utterly incapable of dealing with his mutual attraction to Asami and Korra, and screws things up multiple times without any real recognition that he doing so.  He’s clueless.  The triangle is resolved by the season finale and all I’ll say is this: Mako is worthy of neither of them.

Secondly, much like seasons two and three of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show seems to suddenly realize that they forgot to give a sympathetic backstory to the villain and does a huge, highly coincidental, story dump in the second to last episode of the season.  This is sloppy, but not as aggravating as the love triangle.  If you can forgive the contrivance of the last two episodes (a lot of coincidences occur) this is just annoying and not necessarily terrible.

Finally, every plotline is resolved in the last episode of the season.  Not just the major ones. EVERY. ONE.  It is horribly tidy and defies belief.  The contrivance that provided the delivery mechanism for the villain’s backstory was just annoying.  But that combined with a series of bone-headed moves by the otherwise brilliant villain that undermines his own planning, the sudden appearance of a new power at a dramatically convenient time, the suddenly appearance of a SECOND new power with the same character at a dramatically convenient time in the same damn episode, and the aforementioned aggravating resolution of the love triangle at the same time… well, it’s just awful.   I know you want to make your season finales extra dramatic so people will talk about them until the next season, but this artificial hurry to resolve plotlines was ill advised.  I hope things are better next season when they have twice as many episodes to resolve their story.

But again, those three annoyances, which mainly present in the final 2 episodes of the series, are by far not enough to tarnish my joy and love over this series.  There are so many well handled moments that you can easily forgive a little clumsy pacing near the end.  Legend of Korra is an astounding series that does the impossible: it improves upon the goodwill that The Last Airbender engendered.  I cannot wait until season 2.

Highly Recommended.

Film: Brave

Review:

The further Pixar gets from animated toys, the less they seem to understand how to tell a compelling character drama.  This is not altogether a unique issue for storytellers.  Telling character stories about toys or animate cars or intelligent fish involves a certain degree of translation.  The characters in these stories are analogues to humans but not actually human, so any confusing actions or situations are brushed off by the unfamiliar situation.

Generally speaking, this is the trend with the recent Pixar films.  Specifically, though, Brave is a mess.

Oh, it’s charmingly bright, brilliantly rendered, and animated with aplomb, but beyond the technical and artistic achievements, the story is just too sloppy to appease me.

As usual for movies that disappoint me, there are some spoilers ahead.

Merida – who is the tip of the absurdly named iceberg – is a ‘princess’ of a Scottish Highlands kingdom in the sense that she is being offered as a prize to the heirs of the three clans to determine who will succeed the current ‘king’, Fergus.

Fergus is a beast of man who dwarfs his wife, Queen Elinor, by at least a factor of five.  For some reason it is tradition to offer his daughter to the most worthy suitor as defined by a test of ability chosen by Merida.  He seems generally okay with this at least as so far as it is expected of him, but he doesn’t appare to have any real devotion to the tradition as he will joke and complain about it later in the film.

Queen Elinor absolutely adheres to the tradition with a strictly defined position on how things should proceed, how her daughter should act, and the level of (to be honest, BRITISH-inspired) manners her family should exhibit.  There is NO REAL PROOF that any Queen prior to her behaved in this manner.  We are led to believe by the film that this is a unique aspect of Elinor’s personality and she is forcing it down on everyone else.  Never in the film are any other female characters shown with Elinor’s decorum.  She is an anomaly in a universe of rude, frequently moronic, warriors.

Well, except for Merida.  She hates what her mother pushes on her, but has found ways to let loose and ease the tension.  At least until the Queen tells her it’s time to marry… per tradition.  From this point forward, everything between them is a fight.  One which the Queen relents nothing while Merida persistently tries new way to explain her beliefs and desires to no avail.  As a result, Merida does the classic family-movie regret move and tells her mother she hates her and runs away.

The movie then shows the Queen sad and in despair that she has lost her daughter.  Except… well, the movie has made ALMOST no effort to generate affection for the Queen.  There is a early scene in the movie where we see they used to be close when they were young, but all the adult scenes show the Queen being very strict with Merida, and almost (but not quite) as pedantic with Fergus, the King.  The Queen’s relentless line is about tradition but there is little explanation as to how it got that way.  There are threats that the other clans might start war if Merida isn’t married, but it’s not clear on how the King factors into that.  Presumably Fergus was once a member of one of the clans, but he clearly lives separately from them now.

After the fight, Merida runs away and finds a few over the top characters that serve no clear purpose other than to provide the catalyst for continuing the plot.  The characters appear in the scene they are needed in and then do not reappear again (except for a post-credits joke). And two of these three characters are purely joke characters with no role at all.  The third character is the one who initiates the next plot complication but soaks up way too much screen time just for a few silly jokes.

Eventually, after much silliness, the complication is resolved and we all learn a valuable lesson: Merida was right and the Queen was wrong.

Oh, sure, there is some heavy handedness about the bonds between mother and daughter, but in the end, the Queen becomes more like Merida, and Merida… uh, loves her mother.  Which she already did at the start of the movie.  I suppose Merida learns a bit more about how important her role is to the rest of the clans, but she still uses that knowledge to dispense with the traditions that she disliked.

Meanwhile, there some ancient story reaching back to the founding of the kingdom is touched upon, but it was by far unnecessary.  We are not ever given enough information about this kingdom to care about its fate beyond the main characters, so it is absurd that we would care about the fate of a long-ago prince.

Also, Merida has three brothers, who are triplets.  They are used for jokes.  They do not contribute meaningfully to the central message of love and family between mother and daughter.  I do not know why they are there if they are only to be McGuffins during an escape scene.

Oh, right, the names.  So, Merida is a city in South America.  But, fine, we’ll accept dramatic license for naming in a Disney/PIXAR movie.  But the three clans are named: Macintosh (an apple), MacGuffin (another word for a plot contrivance), and Dingwall.  And guess which clan leader shows off his junk to the other leaders?  Yeah.  Dingwall.

I’m not sure where to place blame for my disappointment about this film.  Is it because I expect more from Pixar?  Is the because everyone has been making a huge deal out of the first female PIXAR protagonist?  Maybe both of these things?  But it’s clear that this movie did not live up to my expectations.  It looks beautiful, sounds great, and is the standard bearer for computer animation.  But all these things combined can’t fix a badly told story, and that’s what happened here.

Not Recommended.

VOD: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Review:

This movie is so suffused with Steven Spielberg’s style that it was almost unnecessary to list him as a director.  That’s not even a criticism.  This movie could very well have been shot live action as an Indiana Jones film and been held up favorably against Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I can imagine it now, Tintin replaced by Jones, Haddock by Marcus.  The movie has the same energy and momentum of Raiders, with an almost perfectly complimentary amount of slapstick to the serious drama. Of course, that’s perhaps not surprising, given that Spielberg is on record as having been a fan of the Tintin comics even back when he was doing Indiana Jones.

The movie is by no means perfect, and fails to really make any point in the end.  Haddock, with his family legacy of shame, grows only by minutia by the end, and largely only to fulfill the movies many jokes.  Tintin himself, in the Indiana Jones style, has character but not much history.  We learn little of Tintin beyond the events that got him into his immediate situation and are left to derive his relationships to other through context. Thompson and Thomson would have been a complete mystery had I not seen other Tintin stories before, as little is done to establish their identity.

The villain doesn’t even get a whole lot of meaningful development either as he spends the film trying to get revenge for something that happened not to him, but to his distant ancestor.  In fact, this is a place where using someone like Hitler, or a member of the Third Reich easily simplifies things because you don’t NEED to establish their motivation, we all already know it.  Meanwhile, the villainous Sakharine (played by Daniel Craig) has only his character design and faceless henchmen to point to his evil intentions.

It’s sometimes hard to say this as a fan of older films, but the simple fact remains that even if this movie was every bit as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, I’ve seen those movies before and I’m going to be less impressed by them now.  Tintin doesn’t add anything to the Spielberg legacy beyond its use of CGI, and that was purely a technical achievement.  There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done with practical effects, probably more cheaply as well.

I think it’s a symptom of the entrenched director that overcoming technical hurdles are an accomplishment in and of themselves.  I certainly sympathize with the difficulty in getting CGI to look natural, especially given the busy locations used in this film, but I’m not going to enjoy a movie simply because of its use of CGI.  That’s a means to an end, not the point. It’s not more important in the grand scheme of things than getting squibs set up right to make bullet holes in walls during firefights.

Ultimately, this is the most damning part of the film.  Spielberg managed to re-create one of his masterpieces using CGI but didn’t manage to improve it enough to make it stand out against a nearly thirty year old film.  Good story, excellent action, some quirky but enjoyable humor, and a tease for a future film that may no longer get made.  Overall an admirable attempt, but not enough to break new ground.

Recommended.

Film: Men in Black 3

Review:

After a stunningly poor second outing, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return for third go around and this time they actually capture most of the magic of the original, and even accomplish what their eponymous suits try to eliminate: give them real character.

For all the hints and vague gesturing toward prior and potential romances, MiB 1 and 2 never really dived deep into what made Agents K (Jones) and J (Smith) the sort of people they are today.  MiB 3, with the  benefit of a time travel plot, successfully gives the two black suited agents depth with motivations that aren’t strictly romantically inclined.

In short, a criminal from K’s past escapes prison and goes back in time to kill K before he was arrested.  K, as a result, vanishes from the timeline and only J remembers the change.  Thus J goes back in time to stop the murder and return the timeline to its original form.  However, once he goes back in time (to 1969, naturally) he runs into the younger version of K (played with absolutely amazing success by Josh Brolin – who had previously earned my scorn in the soulless Jonah Hex film) and J gets to see a little bit about how his partner thinks.

I’ve talked before about how much I love time travel plots.  They’re my favorite sci-fi tool for showing dramatic change and probably the most complex yet commonplace concept we ask audiences to internalize.   There are a million ways to screw up a time travel story, but MiB 3 manages to find the right middle ground between rule mongering and respect for the audience’s emotions.  We see the tech being used in tricky ways to get out of jams, but we also see a few cheats to allow proper dramatic scenes to take place.

The movie’s central tone is a rehash of MiB2’s theme, but this time executed more skillfully: the power of regret.  K is shown suffering from regret for his whole life and then we are zapped back to a time before the event that causes the emotion.  The movie inexorably inches towards that moment as both the audience and J holds their breath wondering what could be so bad that it would cause K so much suffering.

Surprisingly, when the moment does happen, it’s honest, and touching as opposed to exploitative.  Brolin as K does an amazing job showing anguish slowly overtake K while he tries to keep a kind face to those around him.  And its impact to J is just a meaningful, such that in the end, when J does return to the present, his very restrained acknowledgement of his new knowledge is embraced and gives satisfying closure.

It’s actually pretty interesting the trip we’ve taken to get here.  MiB1, with its breezy script, made simple gestures regarding the nature of the universe and how significant (o r insignificant) we are in it.  They were not horribly profound, but seemingly true.  MiB3, however, turns that look inwards, and examines the small and subtle.  The tiniest thing can change the course of a life, says this movie, and honestly, I believe it had the better point to make.

Very Recommended.

DVD: Green Lantern (2011 Live Action Film)

Review:

I’ve tried to reserve my judgment, but I’m finding it harder and harder to make excuses.  Ryan Reynolds just isn’t very convincing.  Sure, I understand that he’s attractive and all, but as an actor, he just doesn’t inhabit the roles he’s given very well.  I always know I’m watching Ryan Reynolds, and that impish grin of his isn’t helping.  I’m sorry, future Deadpool movie enthusiasts, but you really don’t want this guy as the Merc with a Mouth.

Let’s get to the film, which is not much better.  First off, it starts with a lengthy voice-over.  Bad move. Three minutes into the film and even I could recognize that they were hemorrhaging viewers with atrociously overwrought explanation of how Green Energy works and the history of the Yellow Energy of Parallax and fear versus will and… ugh!

Listen up comic book movie makers!  A film – even an adaptation – does not start with a built-in audience that wants to love it.  You have to win over your viewers, and you do that by placing the most compelling conflict upfront and establish meaningful stakes right away. You do NOT do this by talking about intricacies of how “Green” energy is the opposite of “Yellow” energy and how Will is the opposite of Hate.  This esoterica is completely unconnected to the lives of normal people and is absolutely meaningless until the story is underway.  You might as well have been talking about how Oatmeal is the opposite of Transmission Fluid when it comes to breakfast choices.

So, right of the bat, the movie starts badly.  Then we get into a long CGI sequence showing Parallax escaping and injuring Abin Sur causing him to flee to Earth.  Then, finally, we see humans.  Well, we see Ryan Reynolds in any case, and he is waking up from a one night stand (we assume) and abandoning her to go his job which he’s apparently late for.  So, immediately, we know he’s a bit of a jerk.  When he gets to his job, we see him being a hot shot test pilot who doesn’t understand the purpose of a ‘test’, which is to simulate a specific scenario and get measurable results.  Instead he nearly kills himself and destroys a multi-million dollar jet fighter because he had a moment of Top Gun/Maverick-style internal crisis.  You know, one of those PTSD-like episodes that only happen to movie characters?

Once again, Reynolds – who we’ve now established as Hal Jordan – has done almost nothing to make the audience identify with him.  He appears devoid of redeeming qualities at this point in the film, and the film is already 20 minutes over.

To make a long story short, not a whole lot improves from this point onwards.  Poorly grounded events occur in two other storylines that run parallel to Hal’s, involving a human scientist researching a grounded alien ship and a the distant battle the Green Lanterns are fighting against Parallax… who now is as large as a moon… inexplicably.

Eventually these storylines converge but the results are so poorly explained or properly foreshadowed that it seems random (unless you’re familiar with the cheating that comic books do on a monthly basis), until at last we end up with Hal performing his first non-scumbag move: fighting Parallax instead of running away.  And even that move is motivated by his desire to get into Carol Ferris’ underwear, so it’s not entirely selfless.

The effects in this film are fairly well done but there are a number of really suspicious scenes on alien planets that don’t really look ‘real’ in any sense of the word.  The CGI costumes on the Green Lanterns are not as terrible as I thought they’d be, but they still defy reason.  Though they defy reason in the comics took, so that’s not entirely the movie’s fault.

In the end, the story in this movie is a disaster and the effects fail to hold it together even at their best.  I have no doubt that a good Hal Jordan/Green Lantern film is possible, but this is a far cry from that ideal.

Not Recommended.