The Last Airbender

While on vacation in the Smoky Mountains, Derek and I decided to go see “The Last Airbender.” Now, when I first began seeing trailers for this movie I was uninterested for 2 reasons.

First, the title just made me giggle. Think about it for a minute… if you can’t figure it out, well, then, you just weren’t blessed with the Walker sense of humor.

Second, it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie. After sitting through the debacle that was “The Happening” – a movie not worth the film it was shot on – I had pretty much made up my mind that I was never going to watch another Shy-o-melly-o-man (as Evan pronounces it) movie again.

However… Derek was curious, and so he started doing some research on this movie. As it turns out, the movie is based on a 3 season children’s cartoon that aired from 2005-2008. I still wasn’t sold, seeing as how I haven’t been a fan of any cartoon that aired after the 90s, but Derek discovered that the cartoon was available on Netflix’s “watch it now” feature (if you are unfamiliar with netflix, “watch it now” means that you can stream some of their selection straight to your computer without waiting for a DVD (or to your television, if you’re like us and have a Wii)).

So, we started watching the cartoon. It didn’t take long to get us all hooked. The cartoon is called: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and Leiana refers to it as “Alatar!” :) The cartoon is very well done. The script is fun, the characters are lovable and compelling, and the story is a well-written arc that moves the plot along from start to finish without many “throw away” episodes in between, which is pretty different for a kid’s show. After watching the last episode, I was ready to see the movie, although I did tell Derek that I was pretty sure it would be hard for the actors to live up to the characters I had fallen in love with during the cartoon.

The basic story goes like this: there are 4 nations – The Fire Nation, The Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, and the Earth Kingdoms. In each of the nations there are people who are able to “bend” or manipulate their people’s basic element. There is one soul in the world who is capable of bending all four elements. This soul (the Avatar) is reincarnated throughout the ages. However, 100 years ago, he went missing and the Fire Nation took the opportunity to attack the rest of the world in an attempt to conquer the rest of the nations and become all-powerful. Two water tribe teen-agers: Kitara and her older brother Sokka discover the new Avatar at the South Pole frozen in a block of ice. They release him and discover that he is the Avatar and that he ran away from the air temple before he could learn the other three elements. He is shocked to discover he’s been in the ice for 100 years, to him it has seemed only like a few days. The world has changed and they must get Aang (rhymes with “rang”) teachers in the other three elements (water, earth, and fire) so that he can stand up to Fire Lord Ozai and free the world from the oppression of the Fire Nation.

Enter the movie. The first installment in a planned trilogy (to mirror the 3 seasons of the show).

I’ll start with the things I liked about the movie. The visuals were absolutely stellar. The sets (most likely a lot of CGI) were perfect real-life replicas of the scenery from the cartoon. The CGI was almost impossible to spot. Most of the story-line followed the story of the cartoon, often making it feel as if the cartoon had simply been transferred over to real-life acting. I really can’t say enough about the visuals. The actors they picked looked the part and most of the non-verbal acting was quite excellent.

Moving on…

The things I didn’t like… I think most of what I didn’t like can be summed up by saying that “The Last Airbender” simply suffered from bad directing… but I’ll go into specifics for you:
1. This is a tiny little thing, but it really annoys me when they can’t get pronunciation of names right in movies. ESPECIALLY when said movie is based off of a cartoon or another movie… it’s not like in a book where there might be some leeway for how a name was supposed to be pronounced. They mispronounced “Aang,” “Hiro,” and “Sokka” three of the MAIN characters’ names, they mispronounced “Avatar” at least half the time. (It’s kind of like whenever anyone in a movie or a TV show mispronounces the word “nuclear” – it just grates on my nerves).

2. The delivery of lines was very wooden. There wasn’t much in the way of well-delivered lines, except perhaps during one of the final scenes in the movie between Ue and Sokka (I don’t want to give away a major point for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story), but I felt that in that scene, Sokka really delivered his lines well. I chalk this up to a bad director. (sorry, M. Night) Because except for line delivery, I thought that the actual acting was pretty good… at least until anyone opened his or her mouth.

3. The bending. In the cartoon, the bending of any element is like someone holding a weapon. The martial art-esque movements manipulate each element as though it is an extension of the bender. In the movie, however, the bending requires an interpretive dance that is at least 5-10 moves long before they can get their elements to do ANYTHING. This was frustrating, and again, I chalk it up to a director’s choice (correct me if I’m wrong about that, John). It felt as though they knew they had 2 more movies to make, and they didn’t want to pull out all the stops in the first movie, and so they held back. I felt that this holding back hurt the movie more than anything else.

4. Kitara’s narration. While she does narrate the opening sequence to every episode in the show, every time she interrupted the story to narrate what was going on or to show that time had passed during the movie, it jarred me out of the moment. It was like M. Night kept slapping me across the face and yelling, “HEY! You’re watching a movie!!!!” It really broke up the flow of the story for me and made it hard to just watch.

5. The final part of the battle between Aang and the Fire Nation when they are attacking the Northern Water Kingdom. So that I don’t spoil it for you, what he does in the movie is NOT what he does in the cartoon, and the pacifistic agenda annoyed me.

6. How long it took for them to decide what they were doing. In the first half of the movie, the three main characters seem to be wandering around aimlessly. This, again, I believe we can chalk up to the writer/director, good ol’ M. Night again. Unfortunately, this one may not be his fault. See, if you think about the movies that M has directed, they almost all have an “aha!” moment at the end of them. They’re psychological thrillers and deep, poignant, mysteries (with the exception of “The Happening”… what was he thinking?), but they are definitely not fantasy adventure quests. The story of “Avatar: the Last Airbender” is a classic quest/adventure story. Now remember, the cartoon did fairly well, and it’s fairly new. A large percentage of the audience in the movie theaters, I have got to believe have either seen the cartoon or are familiar with the story (at least, that was the case for our theater, I could tell by the conversations I overheard afterwards). Throughout the movie, it felt like the story was trying to “surprise” me. There was the big moment when Aang reveals he is the Avatar! (Oh wait… even if you didn’t see the movie, that much, at least, you could infer from the trailers). There is the moment when they decide they have to find Aang a water bending teacher! (Oh wait… duh!) Then there is the moment when Zhuko reveals why he cannot go home and why he has to capture the Avatar! (Oh wait… this moment occurs three quarters of the way through the movie, and if you hadn’t figured out most of his story by then, you really weren’t paying attention… even if you hadn’t seen the cartoon and already knew his story). There was the big moment when Aang goes into the spirit world (Oh wait… he does that several times throughout the movie and really doesn’t accomplish much by doing so).

All in all, I actually did enjoy the movie… but I walked away from it equating it with movies like: “The Seeker,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the new “Prince Caspian,” and “Percy Jackson” – it was good, I enjoyed it, I might even be willing to watch it again, but it simply did not live up to my highest expectations. Here’s hoping they get a different director… or M. Night learns his lesson and does a better job on the sequel.

~ jenelle

Regarding the state of the union…

Because… why not?
I was having an email conversation with my dad about his home-building business. As we chatted, I felt that his thoughts on the subject were something that others should hear, so I took it upon myself to (with permission) use his words to write the following blog post on the state of small-business owners (because it’s not just the builders who are struggling) and the state of our world in general. So, without further ado:

Almost All Builders are struggling.

Very Few Homeowners are buying.

When the Banks qualify the few Homeowners who are willing to proceed, to help the Builders stop struggling, the Banks then scrutinize the struggling Builders and tell them that their Homeowners can help them stop struggling when the builders stop struggling on their own.  Once the Builders have stopped struggling due to the lack of customers, then the banks will allow those people who want to build homes to become customers.

However, the Builders must first build financial strength without building for customers.  Once the Builders can demonstrate that they no longer need customers, then the banks will allow them to work with the customers they no longer need.

As Jack Sparrow would say, “You’re not making any sense at all, man.”
However, that is the Building Market in a “nutshell.”

And, actually, the economy as a whole. And possibly, our President’s agenda.

I think I could become a spokesman for the Obama Administration, convincing the American People that all of the absurd and purposefully damaging policies to the United States that are in the process of being implemented are indeed meant to be damaging as this is the only way to help the American People become damaged. If the American People are damaged thoroughly enough then they will no longer be vulnerable to damaging policies.  Once the American People have become fully damaged and in fact not the American People any longer, then the President can come in and “rescue” the people that he has destroyed by creating an Un-American Country and then claim all credit for rescuing the World from the American People that he despises.

 At least something to think about… no?

~ jenelle

School Reading

I was just perusing facebook and a status update caught my eye. It concerned “Summer Reading” for high schoolers and the change from 10-15 years ago. Summer reading when I was in high school consisted of such books as:

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

And so on and so forth.

Today, apparently, we have authors such as Nicholas Sparks (gag me), Tom Clancy, Jodi Picoult, and John Grisham on the summer reading list.

Now, I’m not saying that one is better than the other (although I am a tad bit biased against Nick… sorry. Romance just isn’t my preferred reading genre… and I really hated The Notebook (movie version)).

The question that all this raises, however, is not the one you may think it is. The question is: who makes the decision that certain books are “better” than others for academic reading? Why do we place such importance on a book like The Scarlet Letter or The Hobbit or even Romeo and Juliet?

Having been an English teacher, where I had the ability to write my own curriculum a few times, I know what the criteria was for the books I picked for my students to read. They had to be well-written. They had to be age-level appropriate. They had to have good themes to discuss. They had to be good examples of literature. They had to be books I enjoyed reading (because I wasn’t about to ask my students to read and discuss a book I found boring or obscene). But what is the criteria that makes something a school “Standard”? Why are some books just taken for granted to be on the reading list and others not? Especially in public high schools? I can understand a Christian school choosing books that have themes of morality and ethics, but in a society where we want to kick God out of the schools, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say, “No pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools” and then choose a book like “The Scarlet Letter” because it addresses the sin of adultery (well, without God, what makes adultery a sin?) that’s a double standard. That’s saying that we want God gone, but we want to keep some of His rules.

Er. Ahem. Tangent.

So, back to my question: what makes some books acceptable and not others? Because if Nick Sparks is allowable, then that means Stephanie Meyers is not far behind… and while I liked the Twilight books,  I don’t think they’re academically viable options. The big problem that I face with this whole question is… I’d LOVE to teach a course on Fantasy fiction. I think there are books out there that are academically sound.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien
The Death Gate Cycle – Weis and Hickman
Perelandra – C.S. Lewis
The Icarus Hunt – Timothy Zahn
The Giver – Lois Lowry
Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling
The King Raven Trilogy – Stephen R. Lawhead
Inkheart – Cornelia Funke
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton (more sci-fi than fantasy, I’ll grant you)

and of course, those are just a few. But even when we add “popular fiction” to the list of school reading material, these books are not considered. These books are what my jr. English teacher would have referred to as “high class trash.” Why? Because they’re “genre fiction.” Genre fiction is getting a bad rap and has gotten a bad rap for years. Why? Because it’s actually something people enjoy reading? Because it deals with fictional settings and creatures? If that were the case then we wouldn’t teach mythology in English classes either. Only a few authors (Lewis and Tolkien) have managed to break through the hoity-toity English teachers’ association and onto the school reading lists. While I knee jerk away from anything on the NY Times best seller list, I also don’t think popularity is a good reason not to read a book.

So, if the standard for high school reading is that they only read the classics, and “classics” are defined as being popular only after the author is long dead then Shakespeare and Dickens definitely shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom. If having literary merit is the definition, then I don’t believe Jodi Picoult should be on the list (her being the only author on the previous list that I’ve read, I can’t speak to the other three). And if telling a good story in a new and different way is the only standard then why do we revolve around the 10 books or so that seem to be the only books that are ever on the list (Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Twain)? Are they really the only authors who have managed to tell a compelling story in a new and different way while intertwining literary genius into their stories? Dickens (and for that matter, Shakespeare) weren’t even really novelists – how does that affect the standard? Especially when we start teaching their writings as “books” in the classroom? What is the criteria? What should the criteria be? Should we even consider *gasp* whether or not a student may want to read the book? Should promoting a love of reading be on the list of criteria? I think it should. I don’t think it should be the only criteria though. And I don’t think that, plus being on the NY Times bestseller list should bump a book to the reading list either. But what should the criteria be? English, being a subjective subject already, is hard to pin down, hard to define. What makes something a good book and therefore worth reading, especially for academic reading, may be even harder to define…

Questions? Comments? Smart Remarks?

Anybody have an opinion?

~ jenelle

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Having read reviews from places like pluggedinonline and screenit (two very valuable resources if you have no interest in being surprised by anything offensive in your movies) I knew that there would be zero foul language and no offensive scenes. They told me that the movie was based off of a video game (which never bodes well), and they told me that there would be a lot of violence. What both sites failed to tell me, however, was that this was going to be a movie that I would absolutely love.

The movie opens with an Aladdin-esque chase through the streets of Persia (they may have given a town name, but I don’t remember it). As the child who becomes the hero of the movie races through the streets eluding the king’s guards, you may feel a strange compulsion to press ‘A’ ‘circle’ ‘square’ ‘square’ ‘X’ on your game controller… only to realize that you don’t have one. However, this does not mean that the movie is not well done, it simply means that some of the action and stunts are the sort of things you would see in a video game. The further into the movie you get, the more you begin to forget that this was based on a video game, because the story draws you in and sets you on the edge of your seat hoping that everything will work out in the end.

As the story unfolds, you grow to love the main characters. Dastan: an orphan who was adopted by a king, is utterly heroic and full of life, humor, and nobility. Tamina: a princess with a sacred duty, is completely dedicated to her responsibility, capable, and still perfectly feminine without having any need to prove herself (as so many modern female characters are unfortunately written). In a fight, she’s not really much help, which makes her believable, but neither is she brainless, helpless, hopeless, or unemployed in Greenland… (to paraphrase slightly and take a bit of a tangent).

The movie is obviously the work of the same people who created Pirates of the Caribbean, and there were several places where I felt that one of the lines said about Jack Sparrow would have been appropriate for Dastan as well, “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” Although there is no rigging to swing from nor masts to run across while being sucked into a whirlpool – the streets and walls of  Persia are every bit as precarious and the main characters traverse them with thrillingly light-footed ease. And while Dastan is not as charismatic as Capt. Sparrow, he is every bit as likeable, every bit as compelling, and every bit as fun.

What I’m trying to say, is that if you want to see a movie that contains characters who are compelling and heroic, is good swashbuckling fun that hearkens back to past movies like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean, and contains a well-written, fun, witty script – then I would highly recommend you go see Prince of Persia. You will not be disappointed. Also, although I believed that Jake Gyllenhall (no idea how to spell his last name) had played his “perfect” role already (October Sky), I realized watching this movie that he has been missing his calling these past 10-15 years. He was born to play this part :)

However… if you’re deathly afraid of snakes… well, there are some parts that you might want to close your eyes for. ;)

~ jenelle