Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Many years after the first film (which this really could do a better job of reminding you what happened in it btw), Jake Sully continues to live on Pandora, but is forced to move for his families safety as humans continue to try to colonize the planet.

I know this is going to start weird, but don’t worry, I am going somewhere with it.

January 26, 2014, a day that will live in wrestling infamy. It was the 2014 edition of the Royal Rumble event and the fans were hyped for Daniel Bryan to win the main event and go to Wrestlemania. But that didn’t happen, and if you watch that event live it’s fascinating to hear the audience’s reaction. Once they realise that Bryan is not even going to be in the match, let alone win, they openly revolt. You can feel the air get sucked out of the arena, and all goodwill has left. No matter how good things were before that, it was that moment that stuck with everyone there. That moment reminded me of this film. The audience were into this throughout. They were entranced by the visuals, sold on the story, and completely sold on the world and characters that had been created. But it felt like at that moment the audience kind of tapped out and gave up on it. It’s the first time I’ve seen a cinema audience seem to get restless at the same point. People started checking the time on their phone, or talking to the person next to them. Ordinarily, this would get them a good hard stare from everybody, and if they continued making a scene, they’d receive a tut of disapproval, possibly even a headshake. On this occasion, the general reaction seemed to be more “yeah, fair enough mate. Makes sense”. It’s just too long. It’s over 3 hours long, and it feels it. I know not every film can be short, some films have too much story to fit into 90 minutes. But this feels unnaturally long. It’s not helped by the fact that it has an extended sequence which film language tells us is the third-act showdown, involving all the characters, and some glorious action set-pieces. But then there’s another scene. They have another scene which is similar, just in a darker location and with fewer characters. It’s that scene which lost the audience btw.

It’s a shame that happens, as before that, it is an enjoyable film. Considering how much of it is CGI, it looks INCREDIBLE. There are zero moments where the visuals don’t look real. Animating water is always difficult, especially in 3D animation, not just due to the physics of it (each part of water affects the rest of it, but also moves independently so you have to try and take that into account with the way it moves), but also the colour, it’s transparent (kind of), but also reflective, and it refracts when things enter it. So a film set almost entirely in water could end up looking terrible. The only time the visuals don’t really work for me is when there’s a fight between characters who are light blue, in an ocean, in front of a blue sky. That’s far too much blue, and is one of the few moments where the film isn’t visually compelling.

The story? It’s kind of basic. There are long periods where you can zone out and not miss anything important. But you don’t go into this for the plot, and it’s not as though the plot is bad enough that it harms the film. Yes, it could be better, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The biggest issues plot-wise all relate to one character; Spider. His entire arc makes no sense. He goes from hating his dad, to trying to impress him, to be annoyed with him for attempting genocide, to saving his life (for sequel reasons). It does not work at all, and is one of the biggest missteps it makes.

For a lot of people, that won’t matter though. The film is beautiful enough that you won’t care. The performances are all great, especially Sigourney Weaver as a teenage girl. It is a simply stunning piece of cinema to watch. Just, you know, be fully aware that you can take a pee break at almost any point and it won’t matter.

Violent Night (2022)

Quick synopsis: An elite group of mercenaries (all with Christmas-themed codenames) plan to steal a family’s millions, not counting on their heist being interrupted by a drunken Santa Claus.

I won’t say this often, but this is better than the trailer made it seem. The trailer makes it seem like Santa was magically wished into the house because he answered the call of a child in danger, which makes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more? Of all the children in the world to help, he only answers the call of a girl in a large house who is being held hostage in an armed robbery? Not children being abused, or abandoned? That kind of motivation sort of makes him a dick. Luckily that’s not the case in the actual film. In the film itself, he just happens to be in the house when it happens, and his deciding to fight against the robbers isn’t just a case of “It’s the right thing to do”, but because the reindeer fly off. The film leaves it open as to whether he would have just left if he could, he’s certainly conflicted about staying or not, but the character losing that agency makes him a more interesting character, there’s a moral ambiguity to him at the start of the film, his character is more a shade of grey than morally black or white (well since it’s Santa, more red and white). That’s as it should be, this isn’t a happy jolly Santa, it’s one who’s bitter and jaded. So him having heroic actions thrust upon him means that the moments later on in the film when he CHOOSES to be a hero have more weight.

It makes sense he would hesitate to fight, this Santa comes with a violent history he’s trying to atone for. Again, that makes him a much more interesting person than he would otherwise. The violent history also means that you know that when he lets loose, it’s going to be spectacular, and it is. The violence in this film is damn fun, not just from Santa, but also from Trudy, the small girl who he wants to help. She sets up some Home Alone-style traps, doing a great job of demonstrating just how much damage they’d do in real life.

The violence is improved by how well we know the characters. They’re all so well-written and defined that it helps us feel their pain. Well written, but not likeable though. Most of the characters in this are selfish, boorish, and kind of stupid. They’re so believable though. They suit the cynical tone of this. This is one of the most cynical Christmas movies I’ve seen, but it’s cynical with a hopeful message. It’s saying “yes, people are shit, but they can do better”. It’s the hope, and the heart, that ultimately drives this film. It’s what elevates what could be a standard action movie into a real delight. As do the performances. Alex Hassell has leading-man quality by the bucketload, not “Major Hollywood Leading Man”, but he’d be perfect for a Hallmark Rom-Com. Alexander Elliot is amazingly detestable. David Harbour is absolutely perfect as the lead, like he was born to play a violent Santa. Leah Brady has a great future. Plus it’s nice to see Beverly D’Angelo in another Christmas movie so she still gets Christmas residuals without having to be reminded of working with Chevy damn Chase.

So go see this, it’s funny, weirdly heartwarming, and violent as hell.

Midnight (2021)

Quick synopsis: A young deaf woman and her mother battle with a serial killer after they accidentally interrupt one of his kills.

This probably has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes than any other film I’ve reviewed, a full 100%. Sadly that’s more a representation of how few reviewers recognised by the site have reviewed this film (only 13), and not a representation of the quality. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, it’s very good, but it’s not the “best film ever”. It’s a really well-made thriller, well-directed with a superb cast. I think I’m a little bit in love with Jin Ki-Joo after this, she’s incredibly likeable and easy to root for. That’s a massive plus because it means no matter how charismatic the killer is, you’re still rooting for her. A lot of films make the mistake of making the killer too charismatic, too sexy, and too “cool”, so when they approach people and prepare to kill them, you’re kind of cheering them on, you want to see the kills. Because the characters in this (all of them, but especially Ki-Joo’s character of Kim Kyung-Mi) are so well written and performed, you want them to survive, you’re devastated when harm (or even just the threat of harm) comes to them.

Normally in a thriller, the thing that makes it work is the directing; the visuals and the music combining to create an air of tension and claustrophobia. This is the writer/director’s debut film, but you wouldn’t have guessed considering how slick everything looks. Saying that the visuals are probably the weakest part, there are moments when you can’t really get a good sense of what’s happening and it would have helped if certain things were clarified visually in terms of who is doing what to who. This is very evident in the opening, which is fine the second time you watch it, but on initial viewing it does make you feel like you’ve just woken up from a nap halfway through a film, wondering “okay who’s that?”, “am I supposed to know that person?”, “is that the same person as before?” etc. If you’re the sort of person who decides whether to judge a film by the opening scene (like that one reviewer for Toy Story 3 who maintained that Hamm was the villain, showing that not actually watching the film you’re paid to review doesn’t mean you can’t review it and win awards for your writing somehow), you’ll avoid this. If you watch past that scene you’ll end up with one of the early highlights; Kyeong-mi in her job (customer service). She’s dealing with a very angry woman, but maintains a joyful smile on her face, even when she decides to respond to the woman by slowly raising her middle finger to her. It says so much about who she is as a character and highlights how the director knows people (apparently some of his ancestors were people). That’s something we all want to do, and it’s hilarious to see her do it. Even more hilarious is when she uses her deafness to her advantage when dealing with a group of clients, using sign language to insult all of them directly to their faces without them noticing. It’s great at showcasing not only how personable she is, but also how smart she is, you realise that in a film like this, she is smart enough to survive if she needed to.

In a decent world, this film would not work. Not just because of the whole “murder” thing, but also because there are moments that only happen because the majority of people have no idea how to communicate non-verbally with someone. It’s not just they don’t know how, but that they don’t care to attempt. They make no effort to communicate with her, they just say “we can’t understand you”, slowly, and loudly (a bit like when English people go on holiday and speak to the natives).

I suppose I should mention the villain; Do-Shik, played by Wi Ha-Joon. How can I put this delicately? He’s a gosh darn psychopath, a big meany, and a stupidhead. A total cunt. He seems dangerous, but also like he’s watched a lot of television. He’s clearly basing himself off murderers he’s seen on television. That’s very believable, the prevalence of murder in media means that real-life serial killers are starting to base themselves on fictional ones, so it’s only natural that fictional murderers would do the same. He’s played brilliantly, I’m not familiar with Wi Ha-Joon, but he seems like he’s playing the character as the lead from a romantic comedy, which is the absolute PERFECT way to play someone like this. The moment where he loses control of the situation near the end is great, he seems like a completely different person, a complete personality switch that is incredible to see. That moment also allows something that could only happen in a film like this; it does the traditional “yes you stabbed me, but I still win, haha” moment, but because of the deafness of the character, she delivers it via bloodstained fingers. Adds a different layer to it and I love it.

So in summary, I’d suggest this. It’s not a nice watch, but it’s incredibly compelling, and you won’t find a better friendship chemistry than the one between the two leads here.

Spirited (2022)

Quick synopsis: A musical version of Charles Dickens’ story of a miserly misanthrope who’s taken on a magical journey.

It can’t have escaped your attention that there are quite a few streaming services available, and they all need a hook to justify their own existence. Netflix has Stranger Things (and good branding), Amazon Prime has more recent movies (and the ability to add digital purchases to it), Shudder has horror (and also a shocking customer service team, but that’s a story for another time), Mubi has an extensive range of foreign-language cinema and independent films (as well as a sending you a notification when a film on your list is leaving), whereas AppleTV+ has…………yeah I’m not sure. I’m currently on a free trial of it, and it has a select few things, but nothing that makes me think it’s going to be worth paying for while the trial ends. It is aiming big though, and this film is an example of this. You don’t hire Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell if you’re not aiming for mass-market appeal.

I’m not really sure this is going to be the film to break Apple into the next level. I mean, it’s funny, and it is good at what it does. But it’s not essential. It also hasn’t really been advertised much, a film like this needs to be unavoidable to the point of being annoying. If this has any hope of becoming a Christmas cult classic, it needs to be everywhere, it needs an audience. It also needs to be fun.

It at least achieves that. It’s almost two hours long, but doesn’t feel it. That’s helped by the music being very good. Music is a big part of Christmas films, think of how much the music improves Home Alone or The Muppets Christmas Carol. This is a musical, so obviously the songs are even more important. I can only remember one song from it. I try to remember more and all I get is the one from Community. Outside of a few songs I can’t see listening to the soundtrack in full, you can probably cut all of the songs from here and it wouldn’t affect the story that much. It makes it feel like the script was written, and then the songs were handled separately and inserted randomly, and nobody likes random insertions (citation needed). I get why this film is a musical, Christmas films have a higher allowance for joy and music than others. But it doesn’t really work for me, I think part of that might be because, let’s be honest, Will Ferrell isn’t a great singer. At least they have a logical reason for it to be a musical. Apparently the afterlife is a musical, so whilst heaven isn’t clarified as existing, hell does.The script could be improved too. There’s nothing inherently bad are embarassing about it, but moments could be better. Ryan Reynolds establishing character moment should be better. The movie talks about him being irredeemable, but doesn’t show it. He has moments of heartlessness, but not enough. Yes, he lies, manipulates, and stokes fear/division, but that doesn’t make him the worst person in the world, it just makes him someone involved in sales.

On the plus side, this film does have the suicide of a child in it. I didn’t think it would include that, but it does. So that shows that it’s not afraid to get dark and disturbing when it needs to, so if they did that at the start it would make his character arc more effective. I appreciate it taking a new angle on the cliche Christmas Carol plot. It approaches it in a way that works, and makes sense in-universe if you don’t think about it too much. I like a fresh take on something I’ve seen before as it makes it easy to compare and notice the strengths. The strengths are that it’s funny, has some great scenes (the opening is the best way for this film to open), and is unique.

But that also highlights the weaknesses. The biggest weakness being, of course, that it’s a comedic musical film based on Christmas Carol, and the best one possible was already made in 1992. You can’t be better than that, and it’s just not different enough to work.

Clerks 3 (2022)

Quick synopsis: Randal Graves, after surviving a massive heart attack, enlists his friends and fellow clerks Dante Hicks, Elias Grover, and Jay and Silent Bob to make a movie about their lives at the Quick Stop Convenience store that started it all.

Could this work? I don’t really think it’s a secret that the Kevin Smith who made Clerks is very different from the Kevin Smith of today, and it could be argued that he’s a different Kevin Smith than he was when he made Clerks 2. The original is almost 30 years old and will it still be entertaining to see these characters? There is a point where the characters reach an age where their humour and pop culture obsessions would just seem kind of depressing. Thankfully these characters do use this film to move on in their characterisation.

I’m going to get the negatives out the way first; the most obvious one is that this will be impenetrable to those who haven’t seen the first two, but if you’re going into the third film in a series without watching the other two then that’s on you. People who see this will know what they’re getting. It didn’t get a wide cinema release over here so it’s not as though there’d be many people wandering into the cinema to kill time and see this.

Now onto the other negative, and this is a lot bigger for me. The first two films primarily took place over two separate days, years apart. These seem to be the only days that mattered to these characters, as they only ever reference people and situations we’ve already seen. There are no other running jokes from the over 30 years these two have worked together, nothing funny has happened in that entire time. I know it wouldn’t be fun to have this filled with orphaned references, but we could see them via flashbacks or them describing the events. As it is, the only times these characters refer to are the two days we’ve seen, so it makes it feel like the characters aren’t real people. They haven’t lived outside of these films.

There is one notable exception to this, where we find out a character died between films. I’m normally opposed to that thing happening as it feels lazy, but here it works. If we saw it it would have wasted time.

It is a comedy, but it is at its best when it’s not trying to be funny. This has more emotion than Smith has allowed in any of his films before. But there are moments where he feels scared of showing that. When it’s getting emotional and heavy, so he decides to pull back to comedy and pop culture references. It’s a shame as when he lets the emotions continue it’s genuinely heartbreaking.

So if you loved the first two, you’ll love this. If you’re the kind of person who listened to the audio commentaries and watched the DVD special features on the original, you’ll enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes moments work their way into the script. I’ve missed these characters, and I’m glad to have them back, but the ending means if I ever do see them again I’d be kind of disappointed. The ending to this is so perfect that any attempt to add to it will just ruin it.

This has been a somewhat more dry review than usual, in my defence this film made me feel so many things that it’s hard to get back into normal review mode. That says more about this film than me raving about how much I loved it will.

My Neighbour Adolf (2022)

Quick synopsis: Mr Polsky (David Hayman), a reclusive, grumpy Holocaust survivor convinces himself that his new neighbour is none other than Adolf Hitler (Udo Kier).

Yup, this is about Hitler. It is possible for films about Hitler to be good, and it is possible for them to be funny. JoJo Rabbit did it wonderfully. It’s all about tone though, you need to adequately put forward the horrors of who he was, and yet make it palatable for the audience. You make it too comedic and it will seem disrespectful, you make it too serious, and it won’t be funny. You also need a good concept. If the concept isn’t there then it will seem like you’re just doing a Hitler film for the sake of it and it just seems exploitative. The concept for this is at the very least interesting. The idea that a holocaust survivor is certain his neighbour is Hitler, but can’t prove it, is ripe for drama. But it never quite lives up to the idea the film presents. It has an identity crisis. Does it want to be a film about trauma, about forgiveness, or about isolation? Even in terms of genre it feels confused, does it want to be a tense personal drama, or a cosy comfortable comedy aimed at the grey market? It wants to be all of these things and more, which means it ends up being nothing.

There are moments where it is heartbreakingly tense and dramatic. The fact that the plot is kicked off by “Hitler” wanting to take some of Polsky’s land claiming it belonged to him all along, is incredibly clever and something the film needs more of. There are so many moments like this, where it’s obvious the creators have done their research into the historical Hitler. It makes some strange choices with it though. It has Polsky attempting to catch a glimpse of Hitler naked (to check how many testicles he has) and it’s played as incredibly dramatic. I mean, yes, it is incredibly absurd, and the film knows that, but it’s also genuinely moving and much more dramatic than you’d expect a “show me your balls” scene to mean.

It’s a shame the rest of the film can’t be as tense. It’s weirdly cosy. If you went into this not knowing the historical context, and just zoned in and out of the dialogue, then it wouldn’t seem like a film about a monster moving next door to a member of a community which he committed untold horrors to. It would seem like a film about elderly men playing chess together after getting into a small argument about black roses. The whole thing brings to mind the standard British comedies starring Maggie Smith or Timothy Spall, just, you know, with an added Hitler. I never thought I’d say this, but it kind of feels like they’ve taken the holocaust and then Exotic Marigold Hotel’d it. And I’m just as surprised that I’ve uttered that sentence as you are.

The performances are as good as you expect them to be. Udo Kier continues to have the most piercing eyes in Hollywood, and injects his performance with the menace required. David Hayman is really good too, but I feel his presence in it adds to the “Cosy British Comedy Aimed At Old People” feeling to it. The opening is stunning, it has some callbacks later on, but is utterly rather nothing. It’s a shame as this could have been used to demonstrate the horror. Prudovky seems to shy aware from that, if you watched this on silent you would get almost every aspect of this film; the love, the conflict, the emotion, but you wouldn’t get the terror. That’s ultimately what lets this film down, it’s far too, I dunno, treacly? As it goes on, it does get better, the revelation at the end is pulled off masterfully and is really the best way a film like this could end. There’s also a story Polsky tells where it does briefly expose the fear of living in Nazi Germany, but it’s only done in a “and I did the same to you” style plot development to equate the two people (which is a bit weird).