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Shyamalan’s Latest Twist Strangles “The Last Airbender”

Shyamalan’s Latest Twist Strangles “The Last Airbender”  (photo)

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M. Night Shyamalan’s new film “The Last Airbender” arrives in theaters groaning under the weight of several potentially handicapping burdens. First and foremost, the first season of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (shorn to avoid confusion with James Cameron’s otherwise unrelated film), the 2005 Nickelodeon animated series upon which the live action film is based, is simply terrific.

Smart, tough, compassionate, dynamic, visionary, and funny, the show ranks among those precious and few surprise TV discoveries like HBO’s “Sopranos” and SyFy Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” reboot that can reaffirm your faith in mainstream genre storytelling.

DiMartino and Konietzko devised a mythical small-screen world in which four human kingdoms — named after the elements Water, Air, Earth and Fire — have been put out of balance by the warring ways of the Fire Nation. A hundred years of Fire Nation strife has marginalized the Water Tribes into two camps, one at either pole, all but exterminated the Air Nomads, and forced the Earth Kingdom into slavery.

Members of each race have the ability to manipulate or “bend” the elements their nations are named for, and scrolls, omens and legends foretell of the return of a benevolent, all-powerful mystic “Avatar,” who can bend each substance with equal skill and unite the four nations in peaceful co-existence.

06302010_LastAirbender2.jpgThe key figures in this exotic but well-organized and well-rendered story canvas include a young waterbender named Katara (Nicola Peltz in the film), her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), and Aang (Noah Ringer) the reluctant boy-who-would-be-messiah.

As the story begins, Aang arrives a hundred years late for his date with destiny when he is broken out of an iceberg prison by Katara and Sokka. Both season one of the series and Shyamalan’s feature-length reduction bring the trio into conflict with the Fire Nation’s ruthless leader Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), his estranged son Prince Zuko (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel) Zuko’s benevolent and grief-stricken Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), the ambitious Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show”) and a deep bench of allies, turncoats and the spiritually and corporally repressed.

Entertainment as habit-forming as the TV “Airbender” (a bona fide marketing phenomenon with both children and adult fans) is a tough act to follow, let alone repurpose. Nothing short of a miracle would be required to successfully transform 480 minutes of hang time with the gracefully evolving characters, cleverly parsed out rules of the imaginary world they inhabit and scrupulously maintained mosaic of dramatic stakes into under two hours of equally coherent and engaging.

06302010_LastAirbender3.jpgThen there’s the 3D. Though shot with conventional 2D camera technology, “The Last Airbender” received a post-production 3D conversion to cash in on its current popularity. While Shyamalan’s film can be seen with or without glasses, it was screened for critics in 3D, and the smudgy, dark characteristics of an after-market retrofit added precious little to the experience of the film itself.

However, 3D’s selective focus and loss of brightness are the least of “The Last Airbender’s” many shortcomings. The two fatal casualties of Shyamalan’s distillation of the series’ 20-minute servings of fizzy, exuberant pop-mythology are the humor and clarity that helped make the show go down so sweetly. Instead of the engaging sibling wisecrack exchanges between Katara and Sokka, we get ceaselessly clunky oaths and somber exposition recaps.

Though they’re portrayed by flesh and blood actors (and saddled with additional physical gravity courtesy of 3D), Katara and Sokka have lost much of their depth and nuance in translation, like the rest of the characters in the feature-length outing. This extends to Aang, whose ingratiating man-child nervous energy in the first season of the show has been replaced with a kind of action movie furrowed-brow paralysis and a performance by Ringer that offers the same scowl for every dramatic occasion.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.