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Winter 2024 – Week 11 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. This has been an altogether productive week on my end, as my screening crew accompanied a fresh pile of films with a run through Netflix’s recent Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation, which I’m frankly embarrassed to admit I actually quite enjoyed. Aside from that, my regular DnD group are now gearing up for our third shared campaign, wherein I’ll be stepping back from dungeon mastering to once again participate as a player character. That’s frankly more than fine by me; DMing was an absurd amount of work, and I’m looking forward to taking a break from writing several novels’ worth of narrative-sculpting and quest design to instead portray exactly one character: a goblin cleric with anxiety. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all that after our first session on Monday, but for now, let’s break down a fresh week in film and television!

First up this week was The Strangers, a semi-recent horror hit that was pitched to us as being “not like those other home invasion films,” ie not primarily concerned with gruesome violence and sexual assault. Well, I can confirm that The Strangers largely avoids the ugly, mean-spirited dalliances that frequently make this genre space such uncomfortable viewing… unfortunately, it really doesn’t offer much else to fill its running time.

The film starts off strong, opening in the wake of a clear relational upheaval between Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. As swiftly becomes clear, Speedman’s marriage proposal was apparently met with an awkward “I need more time,” prompting a heavy emotional tension that cleverly masks the encroaching horror threat. But while the film gleans some decent impact from scenes of our leads fretting in the foreground while masked strangers loom in the distance, it eventually becomes clear that this is all the film will offer; all distant silhouettes and bumps in the night, no energetic setpieces or coherent hurdles for our leads to overcome. I suppose back in 2008, “general spookums” could play as a more elegant alternative to Saw and Hostel, but from a vantage point here in the prestige horror era, I can only feel sorry that “elevated horror” enthusiasts once had to console themselves with such weak tea as this.

We then watched another bawdy ‘80s adventure film, charging through The Sword and the Sorcerer with all possible haste. There’s really not too much to say about this one; you’ve got your nefarious tyrant, you’ve got your ageless sorcerer, and you’ve got a young hero named Talon, renowned for his preposterous three-bladed sword (two of the blades actually shoot out like torpedoes). Come for the ostensibly heroic adventure, stay for the luxurious costuming and set design, a reminder that even C-tier features like this once took place in actual locations with real props and everything. Someone should make me a version of that “look what they need to mimic a fraction of our power” meme with CG Thanos in the background and some goofy Labyrinth puppets in the foreground – that’s basically how I feel about our current era of fantasy aesthetic degradation.

Next up was Roujin Z, a bubble-era anime film scripted and storyboarded by Katsuhiro Otomo, and directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo. The film centers on the Z-001, a revolutionary hospital bed that will allegedly handle all the day-to-day concerns of Japan’s increasingly bedridden population. Elderly widower Kijuro Takazawa is unwillingly conscripted as the test case for Z-001, which of course swiftly begins to evolve and depart significantly from its caretaker mandate. As Z-001 rampages across Japan, it falls to Kijuro’s nurse Haruko to settle things, and once again restore the human touch to elderly care.

Roujin Z’s thematic concerns are obvious: the irresolvable issue of Japan’s aging population, the not-so-secret desire for remilitarization embodied by its right wing, and the lurking influence of the United States on all related civil projects. But though the film touches on a variety of weighty ideas, the actual viewing experience is light and breezy. Roujin Z is most fundamentally a comedy of errors, with Haruko’s well-meaning efforts to support Kijuro frequently exacerbating Z-001’s chaotic actions, and the vast majority of the “destruction” wrought by its rampage amounting to little more than trashed arcades and traffic holdups.

Nefarious government agents, a geriatric gang of hackers, and a robot with the personality of Kijuro’s doting wife – what’s not to like? Roujin Z is an irreverent artifact of anime’s most optimistic era, wherein the endless spoils of the soaring economy allowed passionate auteurs to make all manner of gloriously animated features. The era of these luscious, creator-driven passion projects may be dead and buried, but we’ll always have its treasures.

Alongside all of the feature films, we also found time for Netflix’s recent live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I am ashamed to announce that I… pretty much enjoyed wholeheartedly? I know, I know, adaptation from animation without purpose is clearly The Enemy, an enduring reflection of the market’s insistence that animation is somehow lesser than live-action media. But though I lament this production’s complicity in a trend that inherently denigrates the worthiness of animation, I have to admit that this season was a pretty good time.

Though there was much bellyaching about changes to the source material for this adaptation, I can’t say that I felt anything was really missing or realized in a substantially inferior way compared to the original cartoon. The changes made seemed like natural shifts based on the needs of two different mediums; repeated episodic conflicts are here combined into neat forty-minute dramas, particularly compelling one-offs are condensed into larger ongoing narratives, and the true core of Avatar, the compelling bonds between its heroes and its antagonists, is carefully preserved.

None of this would work if the show’s cast weren’t up to the challenge, but Netflix have fortunately outdone themselves in terms of casting. Aang is simply Aang, Sokka is abundantly Sokka, and most crucially, both Zuko and Iroh impress at every turn, each of them selling the tortured complexity of their positions. Changes like adding Azula to this first season simply make sense for a three-season arc, with Aang’s earlier realization of his failures and responsibilities also naturally fitting the scope of the narrative. And outside of shifts like that, the series simply luxuriates in the sturdy narrative skeleton of its source material, reveling in the friendships of its cast while offering impressive realizations of Avatar’s many distinctive locales.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend this version as the definitive take or anything, and there’s a touch of friction present in the discordance between Avatar’s fundamentally children’s adventure-style narrative and its prestige drama-style presentation, but I enjoyed every episode of Netflix Avatar, and concluded it hungry to see this production’s take on Toph Beifong. Turns out Netflix seems to actually be figuring out this live action adaptation thing; I guess we’re gonna have to find something else to be mad about.

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