Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Sunk My Passenger Liner!

I generally like to think that I have a decent knowledge of films in general. I've seen many titles that are considered must-sees or classics by prestigious organizations like the American Film Institute. Typically I'll give anything a shot if it comes recommended by someone I trust. And of course, in recent years I've seen most of the major wide releases that were available, as well as a small number of lesser-known indies. However, I'm still a little behind on major films released in the past couple of decades. Here is a sample of some relatively recent films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that I have YET to see: Toy Story 3, An EducationMilk, Frost/Nixon, Michael Clayton, Atonement, Babel, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, The Hours, Gangs of New York, Erin Brockovich, American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, Life is Beautiful, Good Will Hunting, the list goes on. There's barely a year you could find in which I actually saw all the nominees, and even a few in which I've never seen the Best Picture winner. One of those I've missed (or at ;east not seen all the way through) is James Cameron's Titanic. Released in 1997, Titanic was odd for Cameron in that the film was a serious drama, in stark contrast to his earlier excellent genre works Terminator, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Tackling one of the world's most famous tragedies, Cameron's efforts were rewarded with not just a Best Picture win, but also a Best Director statuette for Cameron himself. And I never saw it.

Until now.

"I'm the king of the... no, you know what? It's been done."
Just about everybody by now knows the story of the RMS Titanic, the "unsinkable" passenger liner which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and disappeared beneath the waters of the Atlantic within two and a half hours, taking all but 710 of its passengers with her. Cameron's story focuses on two young people; Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young, poor artist who won his ticket in a card game; and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a young woman from a rich family engaged to the stuffy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Against all odds and social standings the two meet and fall in love, and begin a relationship that would probably go on forever were it not for the events of that fateful day, 100 years ago...

Yeah, water perhaps adds a bit too MUCH atmosphere to the place...
I was excited to finally see this film for a few reasons. First, while I had certainly heard some grumblings about how Titanic did not perhaps deserve to win the Best Picture award, the fact is that it did; SOMEBODY not only liked this title but loved it. Secondly, watching the Titanic sink on the big screen has been described as one of the most amazing things recaptured in cinema. I've seen parts of the sinking on TV, but I'm sure we can all agree that the small scale likely wouldn't have done the sequence justice; I NEEDED to see this on the big screen. Finally, the 100'th anniversary of the ship's demise was the perfect opportunity for Cameron to re-release his Oscar winner; on top of that, Cameron's film was the perfect opportunity for those who wanted to honor the ship on the centennial of its death to do so in a fitting manner. Never mind that the film has been reformatted into 3D, even though Cameron was the man who made the technology so fashionable; post-production 3D has finally gotten to the point where it doesn't automatically suck, and I had been told by friends that Titanic's fate is all the more exciting when it's popping out of the screen. With these reasons in mind, I simply HAD to see for myself whether it would be worth the time..

Naked women... in 3D!
And in fact, it is that slow, deliberate sequence of the ship sinking that really makes Titanic worth watching. The exterior shots of the ship itself are striking enough; watching the whole thing sink into the inky darkness of the ocean on the big screen is a treat for the senses. Adding to the talents of the film's SFX crew, the 3D is also well done, though perhaps not to the degree it would have had 3D cameras been around at the time of filming. Still, even in post-production the 3D improves the visual feel of the movie to a high degree, and the sinking especially feels more immersive, drawing you into what was already your favorite part of the film.

"Listen to your friend Billy Zane. He's a cool dude." Name that movie!
The acting however, yikes. In all fairness, we have proven since this film's release that Leonardo DiCaprio can indeed act, as can many of the people who don't look like talented performers when up on this particular screen. You wouldn't know any of this from Cameron's screenplay however, and while Titanic set Cameron's places as a true mainstream director, it also seems to be the beginning of Cameron's ham-fisted screenwriting techniques, which we all saw later with Avatar. It's shocking when you consider how well-written Aliens and Terminator 2 were, but in Titanic the actors had to use every ounce of talent they have to overcome poorly-written and overly-hyperbolic dialogue and foreshadowing. DiCaprio, who was only 22 at the time, still hadn't developed as an performer, and it shows in his complete lack of commitment to the words he's given to speak. Winslet isn't much better but she at least throws herself fully into her role, and while her lines aren't any better written than anybody else's, she at least avoids becoming the train wreck in a shipwreck. Other failures are the overly smarmy Billy Zane, whose character is so obviously evil that one wonders why he wasn't given an eye patch or an ugly scar to complete the point, and Gloria Stuart as Winslet's modern-day counterpart, who painfully narrates the whole thing as if she's reading it off a teleprompter in front of her. How she was nominated for an Academy Award for this work confounds me.

May I have this last dance? You know, before we all die...
My father once described the movie Titanic in this way: the boat has so many unique and fascinating characters aboard, but the film itself focuses on the TWO LEAST INTERESTING. That this happens is obviously a mistake, as Titanic from the start carries the feel of an ensemble film, but relegates all the secondary characters to the side once the star-crossed lovers meet. What about historical character "The Unsinkable Molly Brown", played wonderfully by Kathy Bates, but a role that is so swiftly neutered that it's scary? Another good but little-visited role is Victor Garber as the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews. And Frances Fisher, who has one great line about what it means to be a woman in 1912, before being thrown out? Those are just the parts among the nobles though. How about Danny Nucci, Jason Barry and Jenette Goldstein as immigrants who are seen in the beginning but do next to nothing until the ship starts sinking? While Cameron does do a good job of examining the British class system, it matters little on the whole, and he leaves a lot of potentially interesting characters on the cutting room floor while he focuses so obscenely on his gag-inducing love story.

Seriously, I couldn't find any good images not featuring one of these two? Fail.
Still, in what was a major leap forward for his career, Cameron manages to do a great job of drawing you into the tale of this doomed voyage, despite his missteps. While some moments were far more awe-worthy than others, I couldn't help but be swept up in the story of one of history's greatest tragedies, even if this wasn't the way I would have made it. More than just a ship sinking (though not by much), Cameron's Titanic stands out in today's crowded market, even after fifteen years past. Maybe it's not the best film about the RMS Titanic, maybe it could have done more to illustrate all that went wrong on that bleak night in 1912. Still, you could do a lot worse to honor the memories of those who lived through that wretched night, and those who did not. If you were a fan of this film when it first came out, do yourselves a favor and check it out again. There are just some movies whose best attributes can only be appreciated on the big screen.

1 comment:

julesrules3114 said...

I had to sit through this twice, in 1997.
And it's the equivelent of two movies, so it's almost like i sat through it four times!
In my defense, the second time was with a girl i really, really liked, so...

I loved Kate Winslet in "Heavenly Creatures," but she was distracting in this film.
A lot of it was the poor dialogue, as you had written, but the other part was her poor attempt to speak in an American accent.
Dicaprio seemed like he was auditioning for a school play.
I also agree that the voiceover, from the 900 year old lady, was nearly coma-inducing.
They could have hired an elderly robot to achieve the same level of emotion.

The second (action) portion of this film was stunning, though!
The ship (not so slowly) sinking, the shots of chaos & calm, the frigid, blackness of night, behind the doomed ship...
Very well done.