“The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death.”
I eventually came to describe Avatar as the best fictional nature documentary I have ever seen. The Way of Water contains an exquisite hour in the middle which builds on this, introducing us to new areas of Pandora — with new tribes, bioluminescent flora and intelligent fauna — and showing off the underwater filming techniques Cameron has been developing with long, flowing takes and smooth transitions between water and surface. This exhilerating playful exploration is unfortunately sandwiched between two hours of ponderous exposition, po-faced spiritualism and largely uninspired miliatary action. Cameron still produces the best (and arguably only) cinematic experience worth seeing in 3D yet, without a compelling story, visual fidelity alone now faces stiffer competition from near photorealistic videogames and increasingly accessible 3D virtual reality. The family dynamic to the story is an improvement on the original, though it all still feels derivative and the most emotionally resonant moment — between father and son near the end — was ripped straight from How to Train Your Dragon. Cameron remains a master at spectacle, showing off lightweight exo-skeletons and crablike submersibles fighting giant whales, whilst firing a large bow and arrow through cockpit glass remains as rousing as it is unrealistic. The Way of Water is likely to be as divisive as its predecessor but, fifteen years on, the technology does not feel like a seismic shift in cinema and it is far harder to be as forgiving of the same flaws.
A technical note on frame rates: Depending on your screening, Cameron deploys a failed experiment with variable frame rates or VFR, seeking to have the benefits of 48fps HFR during fully digital sequences without the backlash received by The Hobbit through using the cinematic standard 24fps for sequences with human characters. Although there is considerable improvement in motion and the ability to follow action at 48fps, the transition is immediately noticeable and jarring every time. The step up feels like you are suddenly watching videogame footage and the step down (which is artificially achieved by doubling each frame) introduces perceptible jitter. It would have been far better to stick to 48fps throughout and let the audience adapt once.
“I start, and when the vision’s flown, I weep and I am all alone.”
Although renowned in the early 19th Century, fossil hunter Mary Anning does not receive the celebration she deserves. Ammonite addresses this, but focuses on her later life through the lens of an entirely speculative relationship. Whilst this feels strange for a real figure, the film uses her character to present an excellent portrayal of repression, isolation and desire. Kate Winslet has shown her preference for naturalistic roles over the glamorous, and that is immediately evident as Anning claws through mud on the grey beaches of Lyme Regis. This contrasts with the high society convalescing young wife played delicately by Saoirse Ronan, impulsive and naïve. When the women’s interest in one another becomes physical, there is a palpable sense of desperation to escape the isolation of their respective lives. Indeed, the most heartbreaking moments of Ammonite come not when Anning is denied happiness, but when we see her own repression pushes her to choose isolation — focusing on her work and spending her time by the sea, the white noise of the waves drowning out the part of her life she knows she is denying.
“Iris, in the movies, we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason, you’re behaving like the best friend.”
The Holiday lulled me into a false sense of security with its subjectively shot opening that perfectly captures the self-inflicted pain of unrequited love (albeit leaning on an explanatory voiceover rather than trusting the audience). From there, it falls into the predictable rhythms of Anglo-American romantic drama, with a weak script elevated by a good cast. Amanda and Graham’s relationship is the most compelling as it is given sufficient time to blossom, though it is difficult to empathise with Cameron Diaz’s Amanda after she physically assaults her ex during their breakup and never seems at all heartbroken. Kate Winslet’s disarmingly vulnerable performance as Iris is the film’s strongest, but with her time divided between the colleague she is escaping and an elderly retired screenwriter she befriends in LA, we never spend long enough to become invested in her relationship with Miles, despite the film running long at well over two hours. In truth, The Holiday is no more (or less) a Christmas movie than Die Hard, simply being set at that time of year. As a breakup movie, I can certainly see its appeal, showing its leads ultimately move on with minimal effort, simply by virtue of physical distance and encounters with pleasant strangers.