Words By Harry Moore
“Avatar: The Way of Water”
After a 13-year sabbatical, James Cameron takes us back to the alien world of Pandora with his ambitious science-fiction epic, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The self-proclaimed “king of the world” flexes his technologically advanced muscles and shows audiences once again why he is among the greatest conjurers of cinematic spectacles that there has ever been.
Picking up over a decade after the events of the record-setting original, “The Way of Water” sees human-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), and his family being forced to flee their home when the threat of war from an old enemy arrives at their doorstep. While Sully was the sole lead in the original film, the sequel expands its cast, becoming a broader ensemble of generally strong performances. Worthington is far more convincing here than in the previous film, giving Sully a personality that had previously eluded him. Zoë Saldana stole the show in “Avatar” and is excellent again as Neytiri, giving a committed performance that must have made the animators’ jobs much easier. Kate Winslet is unrecognizable, even without taking the digital makeup into account, and Sigourney Weaver gives one of the most interesting performances of her storied career.
But there is only one star of this movie, and it’s the visionary mind of James Cameron. Where the first “Avatar” set the table and introduced us to Cameron’s dreamscape, the sequel is unafraid of diving deeper into his world. Cameron revels in exploring his long gestating mythology that does just as much to bring this world to life as the 3D technology, showing new corners of Pandora that reveal more about the Na’vi way of life with a new tribe of whale-worshiping natives and their ocean-based home taking center stage for most of the film. Cameron has created a Tolkien-esque level of lore and pulls off potentially dense world building, but where the maestro really shines is in the action set pieces which manage to be thrillingly expansive and easy to follow. The precisely calibrated vision and execution of these battle scenes puts the majority of other blockbuster filmmakers to shame with the spectacle being imaginative and easy to follow—two areas that are often lacking in contemporary blockbusters.
Cameron is one of the architects for the language of modern event cinema, and his triumphant return shows that he can still pull off grand scale visual storytelling better than almost anyone else out there. While his work here is often deeply immersive and always on a technical plane of its own, it is hard to not wonder what his career, and cinema in general, would have looked like had he not been consumed by Pandora for the better part of two decades.
Damien Chazelle, Hollywood’s current wunderkind auteur, cashes his blank check to tell a sprawling, depraved tale of cinema’s transition from silent to sound using an eclectic ensemble to show the rise and fall of several figures of the era. “Babylon” operates as the deranged love child of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” with this take on Hollywood’s golden era focusing more on the debauched parties and ruined lives that hid behind the glamour than the wonder of cinema. (A more appropriate title for “Babylon” may have been “Fuckin’ on Cocaine,” given the content of much of its bloated runtime.) At the center of the film is Manny Torres, played ably by Diego Calva, who we see rise from an usher at a Hollywood party spot to being an executive for a major studio. Early in the film, Manny meets and becomes entranced by wild child starlet Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie, who gives an enthralling performance that shows off many of her best qualities as an actor, while Brad Pitt stretches to play Jack Conrad, an aging movie star with a drinking problem and a penchant for messy divorces.
Much like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Babylon” charts the lost careers and technical challenges caused by the transition from silent films to talking pictures. One sequence, in particular, depicts the filming of a supposedly simple scene for Nelly’s newly begun career in the talkies, standing out as one of the most enthralling of the over three-hour runtime. As tensions flare on set among the crewmembers with each botched take, the pacing and cinematography feels more appropriate toward depicting an epic battle scene than the filming of a cheap B-picture. It is a mesmerizing scene that is shot and cut to anxiety fuelling perfection, encapsulating the pure difficulties the challenge the new medium has posed.
When “Babylon” reaches its highs, it is as deliriously entertaining as cinema can be. But it is nearly impossible for almost any director, even one as instinctually gifted as Chazelle, to sustain those highs for too long—and the inevitable, confusing lows will come crashing in, potentially in the shape of elephant anuses, over-the-top Tobey Maguire performances or scenes of Farrelly brothers-inspired projectile bodily fluid. A bold and often beguiling picture.
“The Banshees of Inisherin”
An abruptly ended lifelong friendship and a brutal ultimatum send ripples through a small village against the backdrop of the Irish civil war. Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh creates a moving portrait of loneliness, or at least the fear of enduring loneliness, laced with his trademarked acerbic sense of humor. “The Banshees of Inisherin” reunites McDonagh with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the two leads of his brilliant black comedy “In Bruges.” And it is clear there is a deep understanding and fruitful creative partnership between the writer and his actors.
Since his initial meteoric rise and fall as a leading man early in his career, Farrell has quietly built one of the most richly diverse resumes of any thespian currently working in film, earning the reputation of a character actor who is able to make unique choices and elevate whatever material he may be working with. In “Banshees,” Farrell is at once hilarious and heartbreaking as Pádraic, perfecting the deliberate comic timing that McDonagh’s dialogue demands and effortlessly turning his pronounced facial features into a hangdog look that reveals a deep hurt: The thought of losing his only friend on an island with more sheep than men is clearly tormenting him, but Farrell never strays into a melodramatic performance. As Colm, Gleeson is an engaging foil for Pádraic, countering his simple decency with gruff arrogance and condescension with Colm believing himself to be above Pádraic’s dull musings, even willing to spite himself in order to be rid of the eejit. Elsewhere, Barry Keoghan steals scenes as the troubled young Dominic, who Pádraic is forced to spend time with after Colm dismisses him; while Kerry Condon shines as Pádraic’s long suffering sister Siobhan.
The two leading performances in Banshees are the accumulation of the careers of a pair of fine actors who are justifiably receiving the plaudits that their work has deserved for decades now. McDonagh has promised to not leave such a long wait for the trio to reunite once more, and he would be wise to keep that promise as it is clear that the collaboration brings the best work out of one another. McDonagh has crafted his most surprising and satisfying story since “In Bruges,” creating a dark, funny and poignant film about the importance of having someone to share a pint with.