Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Avatar: The Next Generation and the Rescue Marathon. Not sure about that, Jim, lacks punch. How about Avatar Meets Moby Dick? Hmm. You got a MacGuffin? Yep, the Earth is dying and the bad guys need to wipe out everyone on Pandora before they ship out the emigrants. And more Impossibilium? You’ll like this, this time we’re extracting anti-ageing serum from whales, worth $80 million a pop. And there’s also Avatar Meets The Titanic, seemed a shame to waste a ship going down.

So we don’t see as much of Sam Worthington this time round, is that right? Well, we’ve got to introduce his four kids, all approaching the rebellious stage, plus Spider, who’s maybe the son of the Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who was cloned before he died, plus the kids of the water king and of course all the kids squabble and make up and squabble again – you get the picture.

So how many rescues, exactly? To be honest I’ve lost count, but basically when A gets captured he needs rescued by B who then also gets captured and needs rescued by C who also gets captured and then…Yes, we get the picture.

Sigourney Weaver? Kate Winslet? Blink and you’ll miss them. But great for the marquee, right?

So, you see, with all these complications, you’re darned lucky I can manage to cram everything into a three-hour-plus running time.

Yep, it’s a bit of a mess, but the good news is while I might have been irritated by the narrative repetition I didn’t walk out. It certainly looks amazing. And you can’t top James Cameron for extended battle scenes. And there’s an emotional twist, starts out Jake protecting his family and ends up with his kids and wife saving him. Plus if you want woke, there’s a ton of Gaia-style philosophy.   

Maverick: Top Gun (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

And just like that Old Hollywood thumped a nose at super-heroes and jumped back to the top of the tree. Of course, that’s if you discount Tom Cruise as being a super-hero of box office dimensions and one with his own franchise Mission Impossible which at times has single-handedly kept his marquee value alive.

Unusually, for a sequel, this has taken account of the passing of time. No shoe-horning Maverick (Tom Cruise) into the role of current hot-shot pilot and there is a past he has to deal with, two relationships in fact, with Rooster (Miles Teller) the son of Goose, whose death Maverick is accused of causing, and with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), an on-again off-again affair too often too easily fractured. But, of course, the main thrust of the picture is Maverick taking on everybody, the top brass in the shape of Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), his pupils and the unnamed bad guys.

It’s pretty nifty in using character flaw to justify the plot. That Maverick is anywhere near being recruited as teacher and not gainfully employed as a high-flying Admiral somewhere – as is former-rival-cum-buddy Iceman (Val Kilmer) – is down to the fact that he has resisted well-justified promotion in order to keep flying and because, well, he tends to piss off his superiors. But he still has the juice, in the opening sequence taking an experimental plane way beyond its capabilities (another plot point, by the way).

Somewhat older, not necessarily that much wiser, Maverick’s introduction to the Top Gun base is a tad humiliating, drummed out of Penny’s bar for not being able to pay his tab, watching wistfully as younger guns batter out his favorite tune on the piano, and aware that he has personal bridges to mend, that maybe, just this time, he might have the maturity to manage.

There’s the usual cocky bunch led by Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro)  and Payback (Jay Ellis) plus Bob (Lewis Pullman), his call sign apparently a contraction of first name Robert but in reality standing for baby-on-board. In true reality television style there are heats, only four pilots making the cut to fly the desperate mission against the enemy.

And here’s where the picture takes off (pardon the pun). The aeronautics are just breathtaking and if you happen to catch it in Imax or an equivalent you’re going to be rocked by the sound  as well. It’s unbelievable stuff.  If there’s any CGI in there it’s not in the shapes of aliens, and looks distinctly old Hollywood. The kind of epic airplane stunts for which you run out of superlatives. And in best James Bond fashion the clock is ticking.

A resoundingly human story, relationships that looked cut-and-dried proving more fluid, until a band of brothers are properly worked up. Even as you wonder just how they are going to involve Maverick in a finale in which he should be a back-seat driver, a deft screenplay provides the answer. Maverick stands up for older guys everywhere, like an ageing pro brought back to save a football game.

Nostalgia has never been more vividly utilized. In terms of satisfactory denouement this is along the lines of the resolutions in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) rather than the desultory reappearance of Decker (Harrison Ford again) in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Some great scenes from the original have been touchingly reinvented, snippets of the original themes inserted at vital points plus a Lady Gaga offering.

It could easily have sunk not so much from the weight of expectations (and the long Covid-induced delay) but from a clunky re-boot, as producers determined, story be damned, to get all their ducks in line. Instead, there’s enough recycling to catch satisfy the previous generation of fans and sufficient whip-smacking wizardry to pull in the new generation,  which determinedly steers clear of anything non-CGI.  

Cruise is just superb, potentially an Oscar-nominated performance, as the guy who refuses to be jaded, who requires not one wingman but a whole team of them, with still the individuality and self-confidence that manuals cannot deliver. Given a job that set him up not to be a scene-stealer (teachers just ain’t action heroes) Cruise effortlessly steals the show, and its maturity more than double-balls-out cojones that does the trick.

Full marks to Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, 2103) for fulfilling those weighty expectations, for keeping the movie focused when the temptation must have been to insert more romance, buff up issues facing the rest of the gang, add too much more when what this always needed was so much less, let the action show the way and Cruise carry the story. Much as I like Miles Teller in this I was hoping he would go on to better top-billed parts after Whiplash (2014).  Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some, 2016) is another one Hollywood should be trying to make more of. I could say the same for the gutsy Monica Barbero (The Cathedral, 2021). This is the kind of movie to make the next generation of stars, especially as it solidified the reputation of the last of the older generation in Tom Cruise.

Incidentally, while I was at the cinema for this I saw a cracking trailer for the next Mission Impossible picture so cruise is going to continue his box office roll for a while.

Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

This Geeks’R’Us (Junior Dept) reboot of a dying franchise is a blast. After the last leaden reinvention, this social-media infused spin brings redemption few brands can dream of. Most kid-centric films rely on a really cute kid. No need here. A brilliant screenplay does the job of bringing the kids to life, and you better believe kids can be that smart.

Drained impoverished Callie (Carrie Coon) dodges eviction by sneaking off to the prairie heartlands with her two offspring to a bleaker version of Bates Motel, owned by her unloved distant grandfather, now deceased. Pretty soon strange things happen, chess pieces move of their own volition, an overhead light points the littlest dork Phoebe (Mackenna Grace) in the right direction. Meanwhile the older nerd Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) uncovers the original Ghostbusters vehicle mouldering away in a collapsed barn. Teacher Grooperson, the kind of guy who lets his charges watch horror videos all day, fills her in on the seismic activity in the region.

It’s not long before all hell lets loose with new types of monsters, something to do with an ancient civilization and a mine filled with diabolical secrets. The action scenes are great fun but what holds it all together, as in the original, are the characters, and in particular the cynical social-media-savvy Podcast (Logan Kim) with a wry comment on every event, the kind of kid who enters what looks like a haunted house with relish.

If Ghostbusters (2016) was a gender reversal, this is a generational reversal, with the adults in general flopping around, Callie on an alcoholic spectrum (she’d be drunker if she could afford it), Grooperson capable of boring a date into insensibility. The kids take charge and not only save the day but save the brand. Podcast looks good for a few sequels to come. The scene where this oddball realises he has made a friend in Phoebe in pure acting gold.

Phoebe is saddled with the exposition, Podcast given the snappy one-liners. We’ve seen a Phoebe before but never a Podcast. Sappy Trevor, in love with waitress Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), brings more zing as the driver of the recharged Ghost-mobile. But this is the kind of film where all the parts fit, where something that seemed like a distraction turns out to be anything but.

Setting it in the middle of nowhere is a masterstroke, with fields and mountains aplenty for ghosts and ghosthunters alike to roam, and a town small enough that even the smallest ghost is going to make a big impact.

Four-time Oscar nominee Jason Reitman (The Front Runner, 2018) brings home a sequel so fresh it feels like a stand-alone. He co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Kenan (Poltergeist, 2015). Amazingly, this is Logan Kim’s movie debut. Much as he steals the show, Mackenna Grace (Malignant, 2021) delivers an excellent portrait of an outsider who grows into herself. Celeste O’Connor (Freaky, 2020) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, 2106-2022) create a believable juvenile not-yet romance. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018) is better for dropping the cuteness and Carrie Coon (The Nest, 2020), drained by life of all life, in a different movie universe would have had a movie all of her own.  

Not so much afterlife as reborn.

The Vengeance of She (1968) ***

Sequels boomed in the 1960s mainly thanks to multiple spy spin-offs in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein but for every From Russia with Love (1963) and In Like Flint (1967) there was a more tepid entry like Return of the Seven (1966). One of the prerequisites of the series business was that the original star reappeared. But Ursula Andress who played the title character in Hammer’s She (1966) declined to reprise the role.

John Richardson did return from the first picture but in a different role, as the immortal Killikrates within the lost city of Zuma. So Hammer brought in Andress lookalike statuesque Czech blonde Olinka Berova (The 25th Hour, 1967), even emulating the Swiss star’s famous entrance in Dr No (1962), although instead of coming out of the sea Berova is going in and substituting the bikini with bra and panties, but the effect is much the same.

Story, set in the 1960s, has supposed Scandinavian Carol (Berova) mysteriously drawn south against her will driven by voices in her head conjuring up the name Ayesha. We first encounter her walking down a mountain road in high heels only to be chased through the woods by a truck driver. It transpires she has unusual powers, or someone protecting her has, for the lorry brake slips and the truck crushes the driver. Next means of transport is a yacht owned by dodgy drunken businessman George (Colin Blakely) and before you know it she is in Algeria, assisted by Kassim (Andre Morrell) who attempts to forestall those trying to control her mind, but to no avail.

Philip (Edward Judd), whose character is effectively “handsome guy from the yacht,” follows as she continues south and eventually the pair reach Kuma, where she is acclaimed as Ayesha aka She. Kallikrates’ immortality depends upon her with some urgency crossing through the cold flames of the sacred fire. There’s a sub-plot involving high priest Men-hari (Derek Godfrey) promised immortality for returning Ayesha to Kuma and further intrigue that comes a little too late to help proceedings. You can probably guess the rest.

There’s no “vengeance” that I can see and certainly no whip-cracking as suggested in the poster. Berova, while attractive enough, lacks the screen magnetism of Andress and the mystery of who Carol is and where she’s headed is no substitute for either pace or tension and Berova isn’t a good enough actress to convey the fear she must be experiencing. The  script could have done without weighting down the Kuma high priests with lengthy exposition explaining the whys and wherefores. Neither a patch on the original nor the expected star-making turn for Berova, this is strictly Saturday afternoon matinee fare and the slinky actress, despite her best sex-kitten efforts, cannot compensate.

Director Cliff Owen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) assembles a strong supporting cast, headed by Edward Judd (First Men in the Moon,1964) and Colin Blakely (a future Dr Watson in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970). You can also spot Andre Morrell (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  George Sewell (who later enjoyed a long-running role in British television series Special Branch, 1969-1974) and television regular Jill Melford.  

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