Review of “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Good things come to those who wait, or so we’re told. Patience is a virtue, goes another saying. Haste makes waste. A watched pot never boils. All things are difficult before they are easy. Hold your horses. Rome wasn’t built in a day. All axioms about the value of not being in a rush and I suck at putting them into practice. I want things when I want them. I don’t want to wait any longer than necessary. From deliveries of online purchases to food ordered in a restaurant, I want what’s mine and I want it NOW! There’s another saying about waiting: Beware the fury of a patient man. In 2009, “Avatar,” by director James Cameron, was released to a world told 3D movies were the next big thing. It went on to rake in almost three billion dollars at the box office worldwide, between original and rereleases. I was enamored by the breathtaking and groundbreaking visuals. It had a simple (perhaps thin) story of an alien race in tune with their environment on the planet-sized moon Pandora and how humans were coming to exploit its natural resources at the expense of the native population called Nav’i. It was never believed the film could never recoup its $237 million budget and when it became the biggest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), a sequel was a given. It took 13 years, innovations in 3D and motion capture filming technology, the writing of scripts for four sequels and a pandemic, but “Avatar: The Way of Water” is finally in theaters. Was it worth the wait?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Nav’i avatar, is the leader of the Omaticaya clan. He and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have four children: Oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) whose conception is a mystery, and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Life is good for the family and the Omaticaya until the return of the “sky people,” humans that seek to eliminate the Nav’i and use Pandora as “Planet B” as Earth is dying. A new group of soldier avatars contain the memories of dead soldiers including Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed by two arrows from Neytiri. Led by General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), Quaritch is given the mission of stopping a Nav’i insurgency, commanded by Sully, attacking mines and transportation of the invaders. Quaritch and his avatar soldiers capture Jake and Neytiri’s children, and a human child left behind in the evacuation, Spider (Jack Champion), who spends most of his time with the Nav’i. Spider is the Quaritch’s son, but they never met. Jake and Neytiri rescue their children, except Spider, but Quaritch knows who the children’s parents are and swears revenge on them. Spider becomes a prisoner and Quaritch plans on using him to find the Nav’i base. To protect his clan, Jake convinces Neytiri and his children to leave their village behind and travel across the ocean to join a village of Metkayina, a group of Nav’i that live in harmony with the ocean and their bodies have evolved to make them better swimmers. Quaritch is still on the hunt and his thirst for vengeance will not be satisfied until he kills the entire Sully clan.

Cameron has again succeeded in making a visually beautiful film. The landscapes, the action, the creatures, all of it looks completely real despite being mostly the creation of computers. Pandora is a planet of varied environments. We’d only seen the rainforest in the first film, but now we head to the ocean and its abundant life. The flora and fauna of the Pandoran oceans is just as colorful and impressive as the rainforest. And the interpretation of this alien life is almost fairytale-like in its grandeur. From towering kelp-like forests to giant predatory fish with mouths like a poisonous snake to massive intelligent whale-like mammals, Cameron and his team of creative and technical wizards have given us what could be called an educated guess of a look at what advanced like might be like on an alien world. If Disney (now the owner of the “Avatar” franchise) could create an immersive experience allowing you to explore Pandora, I might be willing to pony up the money for a VR headset. As it will be two more years before we get “Avatar 3,” we’ll all have to exercise our patience muscles before we can go back.

But, as visually stunning as it is in 3D, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is surprisingly flat, from a story perspective. Cameron and his crew of writers tell essentially the same story in this film as the first. Humans, greedy and bad. Nav’i, in tune with nature and good. The prize the humans are looking for in this film (no spoilers) is different than the first but is no less petty. While Jake’s human body was discarded at the end of the first film, he still is a human in Nav’i form that leads the natives against the invaders. He uses their tactics and their captured weapons against them while the other Nav’i use spears and bows. It’s the “Dances with Wolves” storyline all over again.

The film also luxuriates in long sequences as Sully and family learn the ways of the water Nav’i. This does nothing to progress the story, but does give Cameron an excuse to show off his new underwater motion capture technology. If a character is underwater, the actor, wearing a motion capture suit, was filmed in a giant swimming pool to get natural water-influenced motion. The underwater sequences are gorgeous and you may find yourself holding your breath as the character go through the scenes. Actress Kate Winslet, who plays a pregnant water Nav’i, is reported to have held her breath for over seven minutes to shoot one scene. That’s an impressive feat and an interesting bit of movie trivia, but the actors in “Aquaman” shot all of their swimming scene in a dry studio. The motion of their bodies and their CGI hair looked just as natural as “Avatar.” While I commend Cameron and his actors for taking the risk of free diving for their art, I’m not sure the payoff, while visually extraordinary, was worth it.

The acting in “Avatar: The Way of Water” is difficult to judge since most of it was animated, even if believably so. But special kudos should go to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri for her commitment to delivering a powerful performance. The character goes through a wide range of emotions and does so convincingly. Stephen Lang is also well cast once again as the evil Quaritch. Lang’s character seems to revel in spreading as much pain and destruction as he can. I almost expected him to deliver the “Apocalypse Now” line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. Lang makes a believable and despicable villain that always seem to be a step ahead of our heroes.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language. There are numerous battles throughout the film. We see several characters shot by arrows, there are shootings, skin is cut with a knife, whale-like animals are hunted and killed, a large predatory fish chases a character and there are also fist fights. The partial nudity is of the Nav’i characters in their native dress. It is not sexual. Foul language is scattered, and the movie uses its one rating-allowed “F-bomb.”

So, 13 years and the added cost of watching it in 3D…is “Avatar: The Way of Water” worth it? That depends on how forgiving you are of a barely there story, some brain-rattling dumb character choices, and a three hour 12 minute run time (plan your fluids). It is a visual masterpiece that will win many of the technical awards at the Oscars, but despite a few emotional moments near the end of the film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is mediocre.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” gets three stars out of five.

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Review of “Don’t Breathe”

A gang of three young home burglars, Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) break into houses around Detroit protected by the security company for which Alex’s father works. Alex has access to the door keys and codes for the security systems so he can deactivate the alarms and the burglars can work at their leisure. Money takes all the stolen items to his fence Raul (Franciska Torocsik) but never gets much money for them. Money and Rocky have plans to move to California once they make enough cash. Alex intends to stay in Detroit with his dad. Raul tells Money about a house occupied by a single man whose daughter was killed when struck by a car. The family of the young woman driving the car paid a settlement of $300,000.00 to the man and it is somewhere inside his house. The trio surveils the house and sees the man (Stephen Lang), an Iraq War veteran blinded in battle, walking his big guard dog. Alex doesn’t like the idea of stealing from a blind man but eventually decides to help with the robbery. They drug the dog, putting it to sleep and break into the blind man’s home through a bathroom window as every other way in is either barred or has multiple locks. Once inside they begin searching for the blind man’s stash. Money sneaks into the blind man’s bedroom and sets off a gas that is supposed to knock him out. They can’t find the money but see a door that is bolted and padlocked. Thinking the cash is there, Money shots the lock and is about to open the door when the blind man shows up. Money threatens to shoot him, even firing a round into the ceiling, but the blind man is able to grab his gun and turn it towards Money. He asks if Money is alone and he says yes as Alex and Rocky stand motionless. The blind man then shoots Money, killing him. Rocky and Alex both wait for the blind man to leave and then scatter in different directions. The blind man is far more dangerous than anyone knew and he has secrets bigger than the cash he is willing to kill to protect.

“Don’t Breathe” is a variation on the haunted house horror movie. The home the trio of burglars invades is filled with dark secrets and a dangerous entity. The difference is this entity is alive, not supernatural in any way and has a seemingly clear purpose for its violence. It’s the kind of film “Stand Your Ground” law supporters will love…until about half way through when the real reason for the blind man’s killer instincts is revealed. Yes, there is a twist, it’s a big one and it really comes out of left field. What’s more, there’s a twist to the twist. “Don’t Breathe” is a disturbing film and it is also very good.

Stephen Lang is truly frightening as the blind man. He knows his house so well it doesn’t matter he can’t see. He knows every turn and stair step in his home, especially the basement and that comes into play during a particularly unnerving scene when the blind man turns off the power and the robbers are now locked in complete darkness. Lang’s character rarely speaks but when he does his voice is weary and broken. The blind man has lived through war, the loss of his sight and the death of his daughter (we never hear about the girl’s mother) and it has clearly taken a toll on his emotional health. He can kill without remorse and has ways to cover up his deed. Much like Jason from the “Friday the 13th” series, the blind man seems to be unstoppable.

While the rest of the main cast is good, their characters are drawn rather thinly. Daniel Zovatto’s Money is a gangsta wannabe with cornrowed hair and a bullying personality that covers up his cowardly nature. Dylan Minnette’s Alex is far too smart to be breaking into homes and could have a good future but his not-so-secret love for Rocky makes him ignore his better judgement.

Jane Levy’s Rocky is about the only character that is given much backstory and a personality that exceeds a desire for material wealth. Living with her abusive and neglectful mother, her mother’s latest live-in boyfriend and her little sister Diddy (Emma Bercovici), Rocky wants a better life away from a troubled past. Her father left when she was very young and her mother abused her for expressing any sadness over his absence, claiming it was Rocky’s fault he left. Now a young woman, Rocky has plans for her and Diddy, along with Money and Alex, to go to California for a new start. The chance for one last robbery and a massive payday to get away from Detroit and her past leads Rocky to take chances far beyond what she would normally leading inevitably to her encounter with the blind man. Their clash is like the unstoppable force encountering an immovable object.

“Don’t Breathe” is set primarily inside the blind man’s house and one particular sequence stuck with me. At one point, Alex, Rocky and the blind man are in the basement when the blind man throws the breaker and kills all the lights. Filmed with what looks like low-light cameras (but is probably some kind of digital filter), the audience sees only a smoky grey image of the sighted characters groping in the dark, their eyes wide trying to allow in any stray light while the blind man walks confidently around using various memorized landmarks, touching ceiling beams and feeling for the corners of shelves. As the camera moves away from a character, they blend into the grey background and quickly disappear. Rocky and Alex walk unaware towards the blind man and their possible death even as the audience sees the approaching danger. It’s a brief scene but one that caused the most tension within me.

The movie ignores some basic truths of walking around in an old house; namely, the floor creaks and door hinges squeak. Characters walk around the home in utter silence even through the floor creaks in other scenes when it is needed for the building of tension or starting an action scene. Nothing is louder at night than a loose floorboard in an old house. I live in an old house and I feel like I hear every pop, squeak and creak as the house cools from a hot day or my dog is walking around. I realize “Don’t Breathe” would only be about 30 minutes long if the footsteps of the intruders made as much noise as they should have but this still stuck out to me.

“Don’t Breathe” is rated R for language, disturbing content, sexual references, terror and violence. There are several bloody shootings, beatings and attempts to strangle in the course of the film. The sexual references are crude but brief. A scene late in the film that I can’t describe without ruining a major plot point is particularly disturbing and ends in a very gross way. Foul language is frequent in the first 30 minutes of the movie but there isn’t much dialog after that.

“Don’t Breathe” is appropriately named as there are times when the audience will be holding its collective breath waiting on what will happen next. Without the need for ghosts or demons, filmmaker Fede Alvarez has turned a typical home on a typical street into a house of horrors. The movie is minimalist scary fun with no obvious digital effects (although there are 3D artists in the credits) and an average man as just about the scariest monster in recent memory. Take some friends and enjoy their collective gasps as the story plays out. Just don’t talk to the screen through the whole movie like a woman in the showing I went to because that can get annoying very quickly.

“Don’t Breathe” gets five stars.

There’s only one new wide release movie out this week so I’ll be broadening out my options to include some recently released art house films. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Don’t Think Twice—

Hell or High Water—

The Light Between Oceans—

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