AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER movie review

AKA The Way of Woker. James Cameron’s highly anticipated followup to Avatar (2009) is an ambitious world-building visual effects extravaganza that is a predictable, poorly paced and plotted movie, which is plagued by many problematic elements in both substance and form. Moreover, it’s a 3-hour movie that feels like a 3-hour movie, for which no amount of impressive visual displays can compensate. Often times, a filmmaker’s ideology can be interpreted through a critical analysis (or close reading), but the blatantly anti-west (or pro applied postmodernism) sentiment is right there on the surface of this troublesome movie. Suffice it to say, all the themes can be summarized as the destruction of modernity, which is manifested in various motifs. From beginning to end, Cameron’s Avatar: the Way of Water is anti-military (literally uses Marines “semper fi”), anti-western medicine, and propagates postcolonial theory (which I write about in my review of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). It’s one thing to critique or question a societal observation; it’s another to actively work to completely deconstruct and shame entire groups of people and cultures. Cinema is a powerful tool because film is a reflection of life and can help us better understand the human experience; however, Cameron’s latest movie is a reflection of his disdain for the west (by extension, modernity), and wielded more like an offensive weapon than clever storytelling tool. The themes, reeking of applied postmodernism, aren’t the only problematic issues plaguing this 3-hour epic, but the story structure itself suffers from poor pacing and a proliferation of subplots that fail to work together to craft a compelling narrative.

Jake Sully and Ney’tiri have formed a family and are doing everything to stay together. However, they must leave their home and explore the regions of Pandora. When an ancient threat resurfaces, Jake must fight a difficult war against the humans.

Overstuffed with one-dimensional characters devoid of character arcs, Cameron appears to be more concerned with his ideology than creating thoughtful characters. Heroes that are projected as nearly flawless and invincible seldom connect with audiences because it is often our flaws, failings, and lessons-learned that connect us to one another. When villains fail to display any likable qualities, the villain fails to connect with audiences, thus erasing any possible entertainment value. More specifically, central and opposition characters should share similar goals; however, what makes villains and heroes different is HOW they express their methodologies to reach the goal(s). The most interesting characters of opposition are those with human dimension and characteristics that can be appreciated; likewise, the most interesting central characters are those with flaws and weaknesses that make them relatable. Our heroes are flawless and our villians utterly detestable. That is NOT a good character mix or balance.

Moreover, the film’s characters demonstrate a gross representation problem. Nearly all the human characters are white men–not one person of color and only one prominent female character. In a day and age in which reasonable, fair representation in media is important (again, as film is a reflection of life, it should look like real life), Cameron ignores fairness in representation. While some may find this to be a coincidence, it is not. Every diegetic element of the mise-en-scene montaged into a film is intentional. Because of the clear manifestation of postcolonial theory, this can be read as Cameron’s method for perpetuating the sentiment that white people (particularly men) are toxic by nature. Before you say I am extreme in this interpretation, in a recent interview, Cameron stated, “testosterone is a toxin that must be worked out of the system.” Not only is this a shameful statement, it’s grossly inaccurate. Neither testosterone nor estrogen are problems that need solved. Both are biology, plain and simple. Each respectively amoral.

Cameron’s anti-military sentiment is the most provocative of all his themes concerning the complete destruction of modernity (the goal of applied postmodernism). Where he crosses the line, is referencing the para-military presence as Marines, and evoking the rallying cry of semper fi. Undoubtedly, this is not going to sit well with the U.S. military and general public (nor should it). Ostensibly painting one’s country/military in a negative, inaccurate light is inexcusable. Again, it’s one thing to critique, it’s another to actively shame and attack. If he wanted to use a para-military force, he would have been better off crafting this one to be FORMER military that have been privatized for exploratory and extraction purposes. Sell swords as Game of Thrones would put it. Even that may have painted the military in a negative light, but it wouldn’t have been so blatant and aimed at a particular branch of the U.S. armed forces.

With all the themes, symbols, and motifs Cameron includes in the movie, the plotting is insufficient to support such a mess of ideas and stories. Perhaps he should revisit the screenwriting tenants of writing lean or starting a scene as close to the end as possible, and ending it as soon as possible. These tenants of screenwriting help to prevent a bloated, fatty screenplay. As it stands, the storytelling in Avatar: the Way of Water is clunky and forced. Often times the reason for something happening is simply because the plot needed it. This makes for a predictable story, one that is devoid of anything remotely constructive, fun, or inspirational.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the many references to Flight of Passage in the World of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Many of the creatures from the flagship attraction and surrounding area are found within this movie. I rather enjoyed identifying elements that were lifted from the hugely popular and impressive attraction. If you do see this movie and have been to Pandora, then look to see if you can find some of the land and sea creatures from the attraction.

At the end of the day, this movie is a reminder that spectacular visual effects does not a great movie make.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO motion picture review

Positively avant-garde! Easily among the best pictures of the year, period. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a brilliant stop-motion picture that will stir the hearts and minds of any audience! In many ways it’s reminiscent of 80s dark fantasies such as The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal. Which should come as no surprise that del Toro worked in collaboration with the Jim Henson Company. Audience will be completely transported to the post-World War I Italian world that del Toto meticulously recreates, complete with the fascist movement, which underscores much of the film. Not since Kubo and the Two Strings have we had such a gorgeous, imaginative animated feature film–a film that was robbed of its deserved and earned Beast Animated Film Oscar (no, Zootopia is in no universe a superior film). Let’s hope that the Mouse doesn’t rob Pinocchio of it’s well-deserved Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The story may seem familiar: A father’s wish magically brings a wooden boy to life in Italy, giving him a chance to care for the child. But you’ve never seen Pinocchio like this before!

Before you dismiss Del Toro’s Pinocchio as another soulless, cash-grab remake, this much more macabre version of the titular puppet’s story delivers immense depth and dimension. Not only of technical achievement, but of theme, plot, and character development. This animated film proves that animation isn’t only for kids, because this film is far more thoughtfully crafted than most live action films this ear. And yes, I agree with recent comments from Quintin Tarrantino that we are experiencing one of the worst eras of cinema in history. No doubt this is true. However, this year has seen some real winners such as Top Gun: Maverick and now Pinocchio. Suffice it to say, this is not your kid’s Pinocchio. And, although there are important life lessons in the film, it goes to places, both figuratively and literally, that may not be appropriate for kinds under 12 years of age. While Pinocchio is in its limited theatrical run, see it on the BIG screen!

While there are certainly plot beats which are shared by the original 19th century story, the 1940 Disney adaptation, the wretched Robert Zemeckis’ remake earlier this year, and countless stage adaptations (funnily enough, I saw the operetta Pinocchio this week as well), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio takes on a life of its own. It isn’t often that the filmmaker added a possessive to the film title. Whereas it’s commonplace for Disney to add Disney’s… to literally everything, it’s uncommon for director’s or producers to add a possessive to the film’s title. Notable exceptions include Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola), and now Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. This possessive form of title is often employed to signify (1) the filmmaker’s confidence in his or her work of motion picture art and (2) to separate it from all other versions of the same story (and/or title). Moreover, this often indicates to audiences that they are about to witness the work of a true auteur (not the case when we see Disney’s…–that’s just plain branding).

Is it del Toro’s arrogance or an ego trip that prompts such chutzpah in this film’s title? Not at all. Del Toro has been working on this passion project for over 15 years. Before you feel that’s an exaggeration, let the finished motion picture be the demonstrable evidence of meticulous work frame-by-frame in this nearly two-hour film. Images are most often captured at 25-frames-per-second, so to achieve the fluid motion del Toro has, you just do that math. Del Toro crafted intricate animation captured by a camera that is repeatedly started and stopped over the course of day, weeks, years. Each mouth, arm ear, eye, literally any object that has movement, is moves a little at a time, frame-by-frame. Not only does del Toro’s craftsmanship translate to beautiful, seamless movement by the characters and environment in the film, he successfully captures the visual and emotional miracles that can only be accomplished through stop motion animation. There’s a reason why we go back to the Rankin & Bass Christmas classics every year; there is immense simplicity and beauty in stop-motion animation. Why? Same reason why practical effects will always be superior to (overt) CGI effects–depth, dimension, the way real light bounces off objects and into the camera lens.

Even though the film is quite dark from the moment the atrocities of war are witnessed, it is not without its levity and uplifting scenes. To get into a central theme of the film involving stages of grief (which makes it unique compared to other iterations), would mean venturing too far into spoilers, which I would like to avoid, and with that theme, there are many scenes that force the audience to confront what many fear most. Because of this theme, one might think the film is somber most of of the time, and fortunately, this is not true. There are plenty of moments that break up the sadness to inject a healthy dose of laughter. And more often than not, we have Sebastian J. Cricket to thank for that! (I’m sure the “J” is a playful jab at Disney). DelToro’s sardonic, raconteur cricket always has the perfect witty remark or anecdote to provide insight into a given plot point or emotional beat. Because of Sebastian J. Cricket’s running commentary and moral/ethical guidance, the audience is willing to go on this emotional roller coaster. The moment of levity allow for an emotional and psychological reset to face the darker moments.

Outside of the imagery of the stages of grief, there are other fascinating areas of social commentary in the film as well. I love how del Toro moves the real boy imagery, how it’s traditionally interpreted: wood vs. flesh, to one that posits ideas of what it means to be a real man. These arguments are mostly seen in the Mussolini’s youth armies scenes. In the world of fascist Italy, to be a real man meant taking up the arms and creeds of Mussolini’s Italy to fight the allied forces. Pinocchio must decide what it means to be a real man. Another area that is interesting is the relationship between Geppetto and the village (Catholic) Church. While there may be various ways of interpreting this imagery and these scenes, which are bookends for the film, I feel it is best interpreted as Geppetto never compromising on his faith in God even though the Catholic Church, at that time in Italy, was being infiltrated by Mussolini’s fascist ideals (cleverly disguised to sway some in the faith community).

Lastly, we cannot talk about this film without highlighting the moving score and outstanding original songs. While Pinocchio is not a musical, it has several original songs that will move audiences! Not only does this film boast exquisite animation, but it delivers outstanding original music and lyrics as well. Audiences will find both diegetic and non-diegetic musical numbers in the film. This combination works incredibly well to wrap audiences in the mesmerizing story!

Even though Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is coming to Netflix in December, look to see if it’s playing at theatre near you for the full experience!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER movie review

Wakanda Forever a.k.a. Postcolonial Theory: the Movie. The overly long, poorly paced latest installment in the MCU feels disjointed. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever goes on forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, because the movie is overstuffed with subplots to nowhere and one-dimensional (or plot device) characters that serve little substantive purpose except to augment the runtime. About 45-minutes can easily be carved out of the movie, and the action plot would be largely unaffected. Other times, it feels as if entire sequences or scenes are missing, because the editing (montage or assembly) is choppy. The absence of the late Chadwick Boseman is felt from beginning to end, and the movie constantly struggles to find its footing as it moves forward in the MCU. The tributes to Boseman at the beginning and of the movie are tastefully, and reverently crafted. While the writing of the movie is insufferable, the performative element of the mise-en-scene is chiefly supported by the incomparable Angela Bassett. Wouldn’t be surprised to see her receive a Golden Globe nomination for actress in a supporting role next year. There is a good followup to Black Panther somewhere in this nearly 2.75hr movie, but it must’ve been caught up in the snap.

Queen Ramonda (Bassett), Shuri (Letitia Wright), M’Baku, Okoye and the Dora Milaje fight to protect their nation from intervening world powers in the wake of King T’Challa’s death. As the Wakandans strive to embrace their next chapter, the heroes must band together with Nakia and Everett Ross to forge a new path for their beloved kingdom.

The command performance by Bassett is the highlight of the movie! Every scene that features her instantly increases in quality and gravitas. With just one look, she steels the scene and convinces you that what she is saying or feeling is incredibly important. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are largely one-dimensional and lack meaningful arcs or characters development. One of the biggest problems is the writers’ refusal to bloody your central character, which holds the other lead and supporting characters back from forming empathetic connections with the audience. Princess Shuri is nearly a deus ex machnina in and of herself. In other words, we have (Star Wars) Rey: Vol.2 featured in Wakanda Forever.

When characters are too perfect, too capable (to an uncanny level), and the writer(s) refuses to bloody the central character, then the characters lacks–well–character (or a believable human dimension). Meaning, there is little doubt the character will succeed, and typically success is paired with a false sense of dread or suspense that the character will undoubtedly achieve that which will make them a de facto superhuman. Simply stated, superhuman (or superhuman-like) characters are neither fun to watch nor do they service the plot in a meaningful way. More like characters as a plot device.

Functioning as an overt attempt at subtext, there is a constant reminder of the narrative’s embrace of the cynical postcolonial theory, which is the overarching idea of the systematic deconstruction of The West in order to save the other, thus erasing universal truths and metanarratives from the world.

The goal of postcolonial theory is to decolonize our world: the systemic undoing of colonialism in all its manifestations and impacts. Powerful, albeit difficult to support with logic, postcolonial theory is concerned with the critique of the affects when a dominant culture interjects its values, beliefs, and cultural norms upon another culture. Twice in the film, Martin Freeman’s character is referred to as a colonizer in a rather pejorative attempt at humor. Not limited to the relationship between Wakanda and the rest of the world (mainly The West), but the same overt parallel is dramatized between another important world in the movie and The West.

This theoretical approach to sociology and scholarly activism advocates that colonized people react violently in order to maintain their increasingly fragile mental health and self-respect. Postcolonialism has formed the radical foundation upon which many marxist politics are built. Objective knowledge (and by extension science, facts, universal truth)—that which is true for everyone, regardless of cultural values—is seen as unobtainable because knowledge is a construct of the dominant group’s worldview, and must be forcibly removed from the world. Which is a large part of the movie–the elimination of The West. This factors into two competing story threads.

But why is this a dangerous theory upon which to build an entire movie? The framework of postcolonial theory urges those that see themselves as oppressed (even if that oppression was decades or centuries ago), to abandon evidence-based, rigorous testing, research, and critical thinking in exchange for assumptions, subjective observations, and hypotheses. Ironically, postcolonial scholar-activists attack systems of power by erecting systems of power. The radical, proactive denial of the existence of universality actually pushes a different universality (hmm…sounds like a metanarrative…but aren’t those supposed to be bad?).

Another cynical theory that is manifested in this movie is feminist theory. Whereas I do not feel the need to spend too much time on this more commonly known theory, it’s important to note that all the lead and chiefly supporting characters are women–powerful–women, and all the villains are men–inept or evil–men. When writers craft a mix of characters, there should be room for both, as that would be more representative of real life. Both the X-Men and The Avengers showcase a great mix of both powerful, cunning, intelligent men and women. Therefore, general audiences can connect with a character(s).

Augmenting the runtime of the movie is both a subplot that ostensibly goes nowhere and a supporting character that is little more than a plot device. Without getting into spoilers, there is a subplot featuring Freeman’s Everett K. Ross that fails to add anything substantive to the movie. Just when you think it’s going to provide a reveal about a rather mysterious characters from other MCU movies and Wanda Vision, nothing happens. If you remove this subplot from the movie, little to nothing changes. Connected with this subplot is a supporting character that is (supposed to be) the MacGuffin. But the writers attempt to give this character gravitas. Unfortunately, but there isn’t enough substance to this character, thus rendered one-dimensional. Furthermore, this character could be removed without changing much. And what little would change, could easily be given to another character of plotting element.

No doubt that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will be a huge financial success at the box office, but without the late Chadwick Boseman, the movie feels like a bunch of ideas from a woke writers room that were thrown against the wall, and forcibly connected as coherently as possible. But, the movie does create a way, albeit of little to no surprise, for the Black Panther to continue protecting Wakanda.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

AMSTERDAM movie mini-review

There is a fascinating true story and great movie…in there…somewhere. David O. Russell’s star-studded Amsterdam is a bloated, poorly paced movie that places far more emphasis on repetitive, pedantic social commentary than it does on lean storytelling and strategic plotting. If not for the powerhouse cast, the movie would be nearly unwatchable. A litmus test I give a movie is (1) if I look at my watch and (2) if so, how often. If I am looking at the time, then I am not engrossed in the story. And I looked at my watch many times during this lengthy quasi-historical drama. Amsterdam demonstrably has little idea or security in what it wants to be. Is it a dark comedy? Is it a drama? Is it satire? All valid questions for which there is no clear answer, because it struggles to find the proper tone that best expresses its story. Although the social commentary on race relations quickly becomes redundant, it does highlight some areas of wartime history of which many, including myself, are likely unaware. Such as soldiers of color being forced to wear French uniforms–had no idea! So I am glad that this disrespectful chapter in history was highlighted for modern audiences. Clearly this movie should have been an Oscar vehicle for Russell, his cast, and crew, From beginning to end, it’s easy to read this film as a desperate attempt to win over general audiences and critics by convincing them that there is something to see here; unfortunately, what should have been an incredibly interesting mystery and untold true story suffocates under the poorly written and structured screenplay.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS movie review

Plot sacrificed for visual FX. While Raimi’s horror adjacent direction gives Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness a unique aesthetic when compared to the typical superhero movie (with the exception of Batman Returns, which has long sense been praised for its otherworldly horror-adjacency), it isn’t enough to carry the story. Better brush up on End Game and Wanda Vision because you may be slightly lost the whole time. So full disclosure, I’ve only seen End Game once and do not subscribe to Disney+. Unfortunately, this movie does not sufficiently provide exposition for those of us that do not eat, sleep, breathe the MCU because Wanda/Scarlet Witch’s motivation for her antihero behavior cannot be fully realized and understood without the events of Wanda Vision (from what I’ve been told about the show). That’s the problem with the ever-expanding MCU–but–it’s also a brilliant marketing and merchandising move. Simply because, if you want to be able to understand the motivations of the characters in the movies, you have to watch the TV shows and every single movie (main line and side line). Specific to this movie itself, there is clearly a thoughtful story, but it’s ultimately held back by the wandering plot. Ironically, you may be asking yourself a variation of the cliche question actor’s ask directors: what’s my motivation? Instead, you’ll find yourself asking: what’s Wanda’s motivation???

Dr Stephen Strange casts a forbidden spell that opens a portal to the multiverse. However, a threat emerges that may be too big for his team to handle.

Story and plot are NOT the same thing. Without getting into a lot of what I teach in film studies and screenwriting, story is the overarching narrative whereas the plot is the map (how you get) from beginning to end. Raimi’s playing up on the whole witchy aspect to this movie, was great for someone like me that loves horror, but it seems that the horror-adjacency of the movie merely compensated for the slapdash plotting. While many that watch this movie have undoubtedly seen End Game multiple times, subscribe to Disney+ to watch all the shows, and have read the comics, many have NOT. Granted, a subgenre movie such as this should not play to the lowest common denominator because then the fanboys and girls in the audience will feel slighted or unappreciated, At the same time, the writers and director should have considered integrating sufficient exposition for those that do not watch all the ancillary material. Wouldn’t have taken much to provide enough exposition so that rewatching End Game or subscribing to Disney+ for Wanda Vision, What If?, and Loki wouldn’t be a prerequisite for this movie.

For those that love visual effects, you will likely be impressed, if not blown away by the mesmerizing landscape of digital imagery; however, there are many times in the movies that the characters do not feel that they are existing within the same world in which the dazzling display of graphics exist. You cannot replace the way real light bounces off real objects into the camera lens. Not opinion–fact. Perhaps one day, we will get an MCU (and this applies to the “whatever it’s called these days” DCEU) movie that spends as much time crafting tangible sets as it does investing into digital imagery. In no multiverse will characters look to truly be within a world that primarily exists in the expression of 0s and 1s on a computer. The only saving grace for the aesthetic of this movie, and the moments we see the cinema stylo (hand of the artist), is when Raimi leans into the horror-adjacency of this MCU entry. Whenever the movie took a turn towards horror, I enjoyed it the most, and felt it was trying to be different–not your typical superhero movie.

It’s really no spoiler that Captain Picard is back as Professor Charles Xavier! Okay, so I know he is really Sir Patrick Stewart, but he will always be the definitive Starfleet captain to me. X-Men fans, like me (see, I do like superhero movies that aren’t Batman Returns), we’ve been waiting for that moment in which we witness the integration of the X-Men into the MCU. And I’ll give the writers and Raimi this: how Professor X was integrated into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was both meaningful and strategic. It wasn’t too much, didn’t feel forced, and the applause this cameo garnered from the audience (including myself) was outstanding! At my screening, the moment Sir Patrick Stewart reprised his role as the definitive (live-action) Professor X elicited more applause and cheers than any other moment in the movie. I am eager to witness how the X-Men are woven into the fabric of the MCU.

If you can watch this movie in a premium format like Dolby Cinema, IMAX, or Cinemark’s X-treme, then that is the best way to experience it. It is a BIG SCREEN movie for sure! While I am often highly negatively critical of superhero movies, I am thankful that they are getting people back to the cinema in masses.

Ryan teaches Film Studies, Screenwriting, and Digital Citizenship at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1