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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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