Monday, July 05, 2010

The Last Linkbender

Angry Asian Man has been covering the racist casting of and boycotts of The Last Airbender movie and rounding up links. I think this one from Racalicious about "race bending" is a good overview of the controversy though I have two nitpicky responses that have nothing to do with race.
  1. It's not accurate to claim that Hollywood clings to a "mindset from the 30s" when it comes to pleasing the male demographic. Hollywood was just as interested in women in the 30s. The 'please the boys at all costs / ignore everyone else' mandate isn't really unmistakable in cinema until the modern blockbuster era.
  2. Though it's true that race is a trickier subject than gender, the statement that it's "easy" to combat media driven gender stereotypes is not accurate at all. Those media messages are still pervasive and confusing in 2010 and still shape people's ideas about what's of value (men and their p.o.v.) and what's not (women and anything deemed "feminine"). American culture is still f***ed up about gender and Hollywood reflects that back to us and reinforces it all the time.
I guess anyone protesting this movie has to be happy that the reviews have been so very terrible. Too bad about the box office, though. M Night Shyamalan isn't exactly respected these days but his movies still open well. To make matters more complicated, M Night who is of Asian descent himself claims that the casting decisions were entirely his. I'm not sure I'd want to claim credit for that myself if I were him but he's not exactly known for having perspective about his own projects... or for not taking credit for everything.

Dev Patel, the only non-Caucasian of the four lead roles.
Naturally, he's the antagonist. Business as usual for Hollywood.

Andrew Wheeler has a good piece on the controversy, too, at his dependably interesting blog
The Post-Game Show. I love this bit on M. Night Shyamalan's 'I'm Asian so it can't be racist' style defense.
This is the minority author as the sole arbiter of minority identity. Last time we heard that response, it was from Torchwood writer Russell T Davies on the subject of Ianto’s death on that show, and that time it was even less elegantly expressed; “We’re talking about issues in my entire life here, not just one small television program. … [Critics] should simply grow up, do some research, and stop riding on a bandwagon that they actually don’t know anything about.”

Never mind that critics of Davies were often gay, and critics of Shyamalan have often been Asian; because Davies is gay and Shyamalan is of Asian-American, it is the audience’s ‘misunderstanding’ that’s to blame, and no reflection on the author or director’s insensitivity.

The whole piece is a really good overview of the problem and the massive gaps in the logic that attempts to justify the preproduction casting decisions.

I was actually interesting in seeing this movie. I have a largely undiscussed weakness for sci-fi/fantasy (and four elements stuff) and I find Shyamalan fascinating in a dichotomous talented/idiotic kind of way. But the reviews suggest there isn't much of worth in the film. Did any of you see it over the weekend? If so, do you agree with the excoriation it received?


AirBenderOnline said...

The movie certainly had it's share of problems (Poor Dialogue, Choppy Transitions, Cheesy Acting), it did however have some hidden gems of potential, maybe if M Night Listens to some Constructive Criticism and has a shot at the second movie, the 2nd one could be good.

Daniel Armour said...

Saw it yesterday. It isn't the disaster that it's being made out to be but a lot of the points critics made about the film were spot on. There's no sense of character development, its mostly a tell-don't-show-narrative and the acting leaves a lot to be desired.

However, despite those flaws, it has flashes of genuinely good/emotionally effective moments. Also, there were quite a few high quality visual elements to it as well. Overall, it's a watchable but irrelevant film. You neither lose nor gain anything from seeing it.

Anonymous said...

I saw a free early screening and I wish I hadn't gone. The story could not be more disjointed, the acting was beyond cringe-worthy, and I would be shocked if the this was anything other than the original draft of the screenplay. However, some of the visuals were pretty fantastic and well-thought out, and the fight scenes had interesting (if relatively unexciting) choreography.

The Happening had its goofy charms, but The Last Airbender was dead on arrival.

Anonymous said...

But if you are going to be technical about it, Indians are actually Caucasians. So there.

Anonymous said...

just because India is technically in Asia does not mean that M Night Shaymalan can justify his decisions by claiming to be Asian American. He's stupid. He's not even the same race. He's not Japanese, Cambodian, Chinese, Vietnamese, or any ethnicity of that sort. And for such a variety of ethnicities within Asia, it's pretentious and ignorant for him to even try and speak for everyone.
It would be like me a person from North America casting all the characters in a Zorro movie with white people, and justifying it by saying it's ok I live in North America so I know the culture... It just sounds retarded.

Enmanuel said...

As a fan of the cartoon series from the first night it premiered to the last night it aired, I had a lot of hope for this film, and was content to see with all the trailers and promos for it. But then when I actually saw the movie, it was an internal battle with myself on whether the critics were right after all. However, I will not be that way. Like the many others, I do not feel that the entire movie was a disaster, and near the end, was actually content with it (but i did not love it.) I feel though, M Night went a little too far with his version of the story line, and tried to force it down the throats of the audience with the horrible dialogue of the characters. There is hope in this movie, and I feel that any sequel (which by the looks of the box office, there will probably be one) is possible with cleaning up and better writing.

The pluses of the movie were the following: I loved the true "humanism" M Night put into the bending. He did not over "CGI" it, and looked completely natural with the martial arts and the body movements implementing. Dev Patel, I felt was perfectly cast as Prince Zuko, and I disagree completely with what critics said. Many said, he was too nice to be a villain, yet if you actually look at the series, Zuko was never the villain, even in book one, but was only confused and scarred from a troubled past and present, and an uncertain future. I felt Patel portrayed it perfectly. I also loved the casting of Toub as Uncle Iroh (Yroh, however they want to pronounce it). He is naturally fit for the part (other than the overweight part).

Like I said, this movie WAS NOT a complete disaster, and has hope. Casting and writing MUST be better in order for any type of sequel, and possibly less freedom for M Night, and more studio intervention to insure a better quality "film."

dbm said...

Technically it's not bad. Has an Oscar winner for a cinematographer ( Andrew Lesnie ) and the score was good ( by 8 time nominee James Newton Howard )
but I had always thought that it could have been casted better, even before I saw it.
Like the one poster above said, it's not horrible like some critics say, you lose/gain nothing seeing it. Trus me, you have seen worse.
Anyway, it's the cool and in thing to do these days to rip on M. I don't know if he'll ever find their good graces again.

Andrew R. said...

Haven't seen it, but I am a fan of the cartoon. I also have this thing for 4 elements stuff, which is why I liked the cartoon. (That, and it was epic.)

M Night has really lost his talent, though. I say that as someone who watched Lady in the Water on a plane semi-recently. When I watch Sixth Sense, I do it with a sense of loss...loss of his talent.

PJ said...

I'm a fan of the cartoon series, and I had mixed feelings about the film, especially over the director and the casting decisions. One of the glaring things I thought was how the extras in the film were actually cast appropriate to the cartoon; so the water tribe which is modeled on Inuit culture had Inuit extras, but the main characters from the water tribe were white, which of course makes colour-blind casting claims hard to swallow, even from directors like Mr. Shymalan who surely cannot be racist. I was getting somewhat excited for it based on its technical aspects, but am reluctant to see it now. I'm sure it won't be as horrible as some of the critics are saying it is, but it'll be hard to watch something you really like being violated.

I'd say that you'd be better off just watching the series, Nathaniel. It'll more than satisfy appease your weakness for sci-fi/fantasy stuff. There's tons of four elements visual effects and the story and character development is extremely mature (and unexpected from a children's cartoon), which is certainly not what I'm hearing about the film.


PJ -- i'll take your recommendation seriously. i'll add it to my endless queue. But on this point...

"even from directors like Mr. Shymalan who surely cannot be racist."

i must disagree. I don't know M Night well enough to know but anyone can be racist, regardless of their ethnicity. Just like anyone of any sexual orientation can be homophobic.

dbm -- i feel pretty confident that critics would rally if M Night made something as good as The Sixth Sense again. People do like to dogpile yes, but they also like to put people back up on pedestals after they've knocked them off ;)

troyhopper said...

Nothing about the way "they" went about casting this film adds up to me.

1. Color-blind/non-race specific/non-traditional casting only makes sense in instances where a character's race or ethnic background isn't a significant factor in the story at hand. Though I'm not terribly familiar with the animated series, this doesn't seem to be the case with "Airbender." I mean, one wouldn't cast Elle Fanning as Dora the Explorer and then say she was the best person for the job. Rubbish.
2. It seems completely disingenuous to say race wasn't a consideration in casting the four principle actors when the audition notice specifically called for "CAUCASIAN or other" blah, blah, blah. Why not specify "Asian" by name if that was the case?
3. That "they" took such care to cast the supporting, featured, and extra players multi-culturally only to white-wash the leading actors (save one) makes this whole situation that much more ridiculous to me. It's a placative move that reeks of condescension.

Having said all that, I do credit this film -- however good or bad -- with opening up what seems to be meaningful discourse regarding race in the media.

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Robert said...

The movie is an abhorrence. To even call it a movie is an insult to anyone with any semblance of intelligence. First, reviewing it as a non-fan:

The bending was TERRIBLE, horribly slow, no sense of excitement and wonder. Why did Aang have to pull off an entire twenty seconds worth of martial arts to create a pathetic gust of wind? The special effects were nothing to write home about, mainly because they were used so ineffectively, what could have been visually stunning left me yawning.

I will reserve judgment on the acting abilities of the cast because I saw The Happening. Whatever talent M. Night had in directing children (or anything alive, really) have been lost over the years. Characters kind of stumble around and say things all the while looking as if they forgot what they ate for breakfast that morning.

As a fan:

Even ghastlier. Firebenders can't create fire on their own? Even minor details like changing the 500 day siege to 100 day siege, is insignificant, so insignificant in fact that THERE WAS NO POINT IN CHANGING IT. Who would know that piece of information other than the fans? The fans who would wonder why it was changed. It was as if he intentionally put it there to annoy us.

Name pronunciation, I'm sorry M. Night, this falls as flat as your claims to diversity. After 60+ episodes, changing the pronunciation of the names is just going to get grating and is unnecessarily distracting. Especially the pronunciation of Avatar.

The heavy-handedness was a blow to the very soul of the serious that was loaded with humor. And yes, people can still be funny during wartime M. Night, if you were a better director your attempts at humor wouldn't detract from the mature subject matter, not to mention giving your characters some sort of personality so we could care what happens to them.

A thoroughly awful experience, overall. The last few minutes leading up to the climax (or anticlimax, whichever you prefer) features some stunning cinematography and instant bending, along with some interspersed shots that successfully pull of emotional gravitas and humor. It is no coincidence that the moments where M. Night is most true to the source material (and not simply superficially) where you get a glimpse of the amazing film this could have been. Alas, three minutes does not a movie make.