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Movie Reviews: The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, The Nature of Existence

THE LAST AIRBENDER While the message boards continue to fume with charges of racism aimed at writer-director M. Night Shyamalan for changing cartoon characters from Asian to Caucasian (except the villains), let's pursue a less arguable crime — that of lousy filmmaking. Adapted from a Nickelodeon cartoon about a young boy who's part Luke Skywalker, part Neo and all heroic hodgepodge, this is one muddled attempt at franchise making: confusing, drab, sluggish. (Ugly, too, if you're forced to see it in 3-D.) Aang (Noah Ringer) is the boy savior who disappeared 100 years ago and took with him the power to, ya know, bend air — which is to say, manufacture poorly computer-generated gusts of wind after performing what appears to be capoeira. Aang was frozen, somehow, in a ball of ice beneath a pond, and, in his absence, the Fire Benders (led by Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi as the main — and hilarious — baddie) have seized control of the planet and banished to ghettos the Earth Benders and Water Benders. Aang, naturally, will liberate them if only he can learn how to use The Force ... or the Matrix ... or something? Perhaps followers of the series will be more forgiving; this installment — with a sequel-teasing final scene that feels awfully desperate — is written entirely in fanboy shorthand. But to those of us who lose patience quickly with blurry, poorly acted, clunky kung-fu movies, The Last Airbender appears to have been shot using stereo instructions. Worse still: This could have been directed by anyone. Or no one. (Robert Wilonsky) (Citywide)

LOVE RANCH Helen Mirren married director Taylor Hackford in 1997; the two fell in love on the set of White Nights (1985), their first film together. Love Ranch, their second collaboration in 25 years, should be grounds for divorce. Written and executive-produced by journalist (and Hackford pal) Mark Jacobson, Love Ranch is based on the real-life Joe and Sally Conforte, owners of Nevada's Mustang Ranch, the first legalized brothel in the United States. Renamed Charlie and Grace Bontempo (and played by Joe Pesci and Mirren), the proprietors are first seen welcoming in 1976 at their whorehouse outside Reno, as Foghat blares, a sociopathic john is eighty-sixed, and Mirren's voice-over, an uneven Americanized squawk, announces: "Selling love will make you rich." Rather than being a film about a specific time, milieu, place or ethical quandary, Love Ranch focuses instead on the least provocative topic: the Bontempos' marital meltdown. Grace stoically endures both her infertile, former yardbird husband's cavorting with the employees and her cancer diagnosis, finding diversion in Charlie's latest purchase, boxer Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). The more riveting movie is the one that plays in your head, as you imagine how Hackford talked Mirren into doing this. She may look and sound miserable in her husband's film, but stumping for Love Ranch on talk shows and in magazine profiles/bathtub exposés, Mirren gives one of her best performances yet. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE We'd all like to get to the bottom of the titular conundrum posed by Roger Nygard's The Nature of Existence, but traveling around the world asking religious leaders, skeptics, scientists and a few ringer celebrities "life's big questions" is probably not the best way to pursue such a personal journey — at least, it doesn't seem terribly productive in the case of Nygard's travelogue. There's something a tad disingenuous about the director's quest for meaning, as if the whole arc of the project had been contrived to adhere to a scripted template rather than to document a genuine search. Otherwise, we would expect him to actually interrogate his subjects' responses instead of giving us little more than sound bites of the religious espousing basic doctrine, the nonbelievers waxing skeptical, and the scientists spouting string theory. When Nygard does devote more than a minute of screen time to a colorful subject, it's often useless to his mission, as when the aggressively puritanical evangelist Jed Smock shows up to harangue college students about their promiscuity. Yes, Smock is a flamboyant asshole, but listening to his rigid Christianity hardly gets us any closer to a fundamental understanding of life's elusive purpose. (Andrew Schenker) (Sunset 5)

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