Monday, April 23, 2012


Movie Review: Titanic

Director: James Cameron

Reviewed: 22 April 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

"Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" an earring-wearing, pirate-evoking, James Cameron stand-in Bill Paxton as undersea explorer Brock Lovett asks Gloria Stuart's centenarian Rose Dawson about thirty minutes into this carefully constructed, emotional eponymous masterpiece from 1997.

In retrospect, I saw Titanic three times that winter in the theater, went from one screening immediately to a local Circuit City to buy the soundtrack, and it became part of our pop lexicon with its box office and Oscars.  What got lost, for me, in the story of the success of the film (its propulsion of Leonardo DiCaprio into superstardom for playing another doomed teen hero post-Romeo; its coming-out-party for a young Kate Winslet who had already wowed us in Heavenly Creatures and been nominated for Sense and Sensibility; Cameron's maniacal intensity on the Mexico set) was the undeniable power of a great story told well.  James Cameron tapped into the well of our collective curiosity surrounding the tragic events of that April, and he did in a way that is a coming of age story for a young woman, a populist class war on a sinking ship, a critique of hubris at a turning point in our collective history (World War One looms with its ships and gas and destruction), and an investigation of memory.

As it turns out, I was ready to go back.

Wow.  The film has undeniable power.  Emotionally, Cameron's use of slow-motion, drowning out of sound, James Horner's intense but not overpowering soundtrack, and carefully constructed lighting and angles always put the audience in a sublime position.  We are perched over the deck of the ship, half the frame the terrifying churning water below, half on the ship; we are with the undersea ships scouring the bottom of the ocean for a look at the hulk of the ship.  There are so many terrific shots in this film, and the effects give way to a more human, elemental use of water, lighting, real people who are really wet and really acting with each other the entire time.  Winslet at times has to submerge herself completely into near green pools of icy water filling up floors of the ship, hanging off of the ceiling like a post-Victorian Ellen Ripley with her axe running to save her man who is curiously locked up around a pipe in the sinking galley.  Let's be clear, although DiCaprio became the superstar based on his deservedly winning (and unjustly un-nominated performance as Jack Dawson), the movie rests solely on Kate Winslet's shoulders.  She captures Rose's brittle brilliance, her rebelliousness and her pluck, as well as her whirlwind romance with a boy who saved her.  It is a dynamite performance, a taste of things to come from one of the finest actresses of our current generation.  Cameron holds on Winslet's face time after time in tight close ups, and her expressive eyes, her weakened voice, her steely determination set the foundation for this film.

Cameron's hand at casting is a masterful one here.  Winslet is perfect; DiCaprio is divine as Jack.  He's charming, charismatic, and magnetic.  The rest of the ship seems ably cast, though I wish Frances Fisher was less a caricature of a mother desperate to save the family through an arranged marriage as Ruth Dewitt Bukater, Fabrizio was more fleshed out (the stereotypical Italian friend of Jack's who just spouts cliche and nonsense played by Danny Nucci as ridiculously as Jar-Jar Binks but dies well); I wish Billy Zane's Cal Hockley existed in reality more than on paper (but Zane has at least one great scene as Rose is lowered into a lifeboat and he stares at her, flares overhead, resigned a bit, shoulder-to-shoulder with DiCaprio), and I finally wish that David Warner's psychopathic man-servant Spicer Lovejoy (!) who rolls bullets on a table antagonizing Jack while the ship sinks would do something other than lurk around the ship, showing no sense of self-preservation, and in general, seem out-of-place, except for a great death scene.

If his ouevre has taught me anything, James Cameron knows how to kill off characters in movies.

Yet, Gaelic Storm (my parents' favorite Irish band!) brings grace and pathos to small scenes where they play violins as the ship sinks (including a song from Orpheus this time, which I caught and heard strains of Moulin Rouge's song Spectacular!  Spectacular!) as well as Captain Edward James Smith (Bernard Hill) consumed by the power of the destruction drawn to the wheel to go down with the ship, a haunted Mr. Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) who stares at the clock realizing his time has run out, to countless passengers who make impressions and return for their death scenes.  Mr. Guggenheim seems to have embraced the nihilism of the moment: "We will go down with the ship as scheduled!  But, we would like some brandy!" as he sits in a chair, lip curling, eyes a fright at the approaching water and his impending doom.

And the water.  The water is the Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Visual Effect, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction of this film.  The water moves through scenes in a variety of ways, and Cameron imbues the sound of the water to the soundtrack add to the terror. I found it more effective in quieter, lethal moments like when Jack Dawson sees the water pour into the room where he is handcuffed, even though the water rushing down the hallways has the imminent power matched only by Kubrick's slow-motion elevator of blood in The Shining.  Doors fly off of their hinges, children and parents are swept away in the chaos.  Water rises, logically, quickly, and efficiently, and perhaps that's what I think struck me the most in 1997.

That year, I loved this film, undeniably, shamelessly, and I loved the destruction and the depiction of entropy.  The ship went down and the reality of all shatters.  In the late nineties, I loved the physics of the ship sinking and Cameron's brilliance in showing the great ship sink on a computer screen with some clumsy and flippant narration with the older Rose revisiting the site and offering, "To be on the ship was quite different."  However, by showing the audience the science and animation of the ship's sinking, Cameron foregrounds the action so that it is inevitable and that we know what is coming from a more logical, cool perspective two hours later in the film.  We are both surprised and not surprised when the propellers stick out of the water, when the ship tears in half, when the lights go out.  His brilliance in showing that to us first pays off in the climactic ninety minute sequence of pure, uninterrupted exhilaration from Jack and Rose observing the iceberg's chunks smash onto the deck before their very eyes until the camera zooms in on Rose whistling for the rescuers to grab her from the wreckage, bringing the frame story front and center for the conclusion.

Now, in 2012, I love the first thirty minutes of the film.  I loved it in a way that it reminded me of The Usual Suspects where once you know what happens, you can appreciate the ten seconds Bryan Singer includes of Verbal Kint studying the room and desk before the interview begins.  In Titanic, his first shot of a live human (besides a grainy, sepia-toned recreation of the launching of the ship) is of Paxton's eye, child-like and curious, searching through a porthole in the submersible to see the Titanic up close.  Paxton is Cameron's surrogate but ours as well; we want to see the ship itself without delay.  We have that morbid curiosity or just the curiosity to see the ocean floor, to see our collective human history, to see a symbol of an age past and gone.  It is the same impulse and idea that ensnares many children who learn about the ships sunk off the Bermuda Triangle or the number of Spanish doubloons that might be hidden off the Florida Keys or the Viking ships that may be preserved off the coast of Norway or the discovery of a Neolithic man frozen in a crevasse somewhere.  Cameron offers a window to the past through technology, and among the reasons that I go to see films are the desires to see new images, to see the past and the future, to travel into a director's mind.  Cameron accomplishes these with aplomb.

Werner Herzog says, "We must see new images or die," and not to psychoanalyze James Cameron, but his commitment to innovation, stretching the limits of what film can do, and his desire to plant his flag in uncharted territory as a film maker is unprecedented.  Cameron is the director who brought us (and specifically, me) a ferocious and feral human cyborg in The Terminator films, a ruthless and relentless western set in outer space with the scariest aliens ever put on film in Aliens, the underwater ethereal wonder of The Abyss, the over-the-top action entertainment of True Lies with its Harrier Jet, the sublime and the beauty of Titanic, as well as the highest grossing film ever, his post-Titanic triumph Avatar, a Star Wars-level universe and use of technology in service of a politically relevant story.  James Cameron has consistently, above all living directors including the great George Lucas, provided me with new images that captivate, haunt, terrify, and awe me.  No director has reached as far, stretched his grasp beyond what technology is capable of doing at that moment, shown such intense hubris (Peter Jackson comes to mind, but he has more to prove).

In a film that I know extremely well, I still cried twice in the last hour.  I still resent the manipulation at the ending of the film and think that he could have done something even more powerful.  I still cringe at more lines that needed work but Cameron stubbornly refused to take them out.  I still consider it a 4 star film of great emotional power.

Thank you for taking me back to Titanic.  (And, I'm not sure the 3D added much at all, but who cares?)

A few random thoughts: 
-What happens to the dogs?  Apparently, Cameron shot scenes of the pups in the water but did not use them because they were more emotionally devastating than the people drowning.
-The outstanding actress from Aliens Jenette Goldstein who plays the gung-ho female marine Vasquez returns to recite to her sleepy Irish children the legend of The land of Tir-na-nOg before the water floods their compartment killing them all.
-The older couple on the bed, spooning and gripping each other as water runs through their cabin.  Chilling and raw.
-The sublime power and darkness of the way Cameron shoots the iceberg.  The iceberg is like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.  It simply doesn't care.
-Columnist Leonard Pitts points out, excellently, one shot of a flare overhead during the evacuation.  To those on the ship, the flare displays everything and seems intensely bright.  To Cameron's camera, which wisely pulls back into an extreme long shot, the light seems puny and insignificant in the context of the dark water, the star-filled sky.  The message being humanity's insignificance to nature and the cosmos, especially when seen in contrast to the reverential, almost pornographic look at the bowels of the ship, the driving pistons, the mechanics of the technology.  For all of our abilities and technological brilliance as Paxton's pirate points out in the first five minutes, the tons of pressure of the water could cave in his submersible in two microseconds.  Insert something brilliant here about our insignificance on this planet, the passage of time, the idea of the earth having a memory, and us not even being a significant part of it!
-The singing of the song of Josephine by Rose, near-death.
-The pictures Rose has with her at the end lying a biplane like Amelia Earhart, portraying her riding the horse, like a man, set against the backdrop of the roller coaster on a beach next to the water.  (*Thank you to the reader who pointed out that it is on the Santa Monica Pier, a place that Jack tells Rose about, and the photographs are clearly evoking Rose's commitment to living the kind of life that she wanted, to embodying Jack's spirit and gumption for a kid from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.)
-James Horner: On my iTunes, he's credited with the following soundtracks: Aliens, Avatar, Braveheart, and Glory.  Just those alone, plus this film, make him an immortal.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Movie Review: Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Reviewed: 15 April 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Devastating. A film that haunts me far past the edges of the frame, Polanski's Chinatown exists in my mind as the premier film noir, Nicholson's nosey Jake Gittes as the classic flawed hero in the vein of Philip Marlowe, and the totality of the ending overwhelmed me again even though I knew it was coming. A Top Ten film of all-time for me.

A film that grapples with corruption, incorruptibility, capitalism, and the destruction of California, to view it now in 2012 is to see it with fresh eyes and fresh relevance. It exists of its time period (ostensibly the 1930's based on the FDR posters), but I think the depths of the depravity, the interrelationships of public and private interests, and the menace of the villainy are prescient. P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood seems on par with Chinatown as a parable of the demonic nature of capitalism as well as the destruction of the Eden of California, as well as on par with Michael Mann's The Insider in its depiction of corruption and corporate negligence for nefarious purposes. A searing film bolstered by Nicholson who in my mind has never been better. John Huston's slithering, snake-like performance as Noah Cross has no cinematic equal. Jerry Goldsmith's score lingers in the mind far past the final shot of an empty Jake being walked off set, walked off the street, into the darkness of Chinatown, defeated and disillusioned while Polanski cranes upward to heighten his impotence.

Jake Gittes, a local private investigator with a determined staff, investigates an alleged adultery case which propels him into a world of duplicity, water politics, and murder. Nicholson slowly and steadily navigates through the world of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, brilliant), her husband Hawlis, her father Noah Cross (Huston) as well as shadowy hoods and figures around the corners of the film played by recognizable faces (most notably, Polanski himself!). The deeper that Gittes goes, the more he unravels and the more he crafts his own doom. Portentous signs haunt this entire film, and Polanski signals the menace in its quiet, slow moments as well as its action set pieces. Gittes smokes a cigarette in bed, musing to himself, "I tried to protect a woman, and I ended up hurting her" mid-film, and the allusions to his time in the Chinatown District are never fully fleshed out, but their lack of clarity fits with the film's overall aesthetic of murkiness. What is Mulwray looking for in the tide pools? Why is the broken set of spectacles in the backyard? What is the nature of Evelyn's deception? What are the police angling for in this case? Who works for who? Question piles on top of question, and every sequence in this film explores issues of power, water, truth, deception. There are no easy answers here. There is no relief.

I am convinced that a film's emotional power comes from an amalgamation of its script, its shots and sequences, its directorial stamp or signature as well as its performances and music. Chinatown represents a master director telling a classic and devastating story, told in a way that is jarring and fresh and innovative in its depiction of violence and use of suspense, as well as anchored by Jack Nicholson at his very best, and a top form Faye Dunaway and John Huston as possibly the greatest villain of all-time.

Essential viewing. In my Top Ten of all-time.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

In The Loop

Movie Review: In The Loop

Director: Armando Iannucci

Reviewed: 6 April 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

"Shut it, Love Actually!" Do you want me to hole-punch your face?"

In The Loop, perched around my top ten list of films of the 2000's, could be the darkest, funniest, most painfully satirical film of the past decade, surpassing even Borat. A film of our times, reflecting and refracting the maddening, collusive lead-up to a war in the Middle East that mirrors our own country's involvement in Iraq in the spring of 2003, Armando Iannucci's film has a pervasive and deeply inspired cursing, as well as across the Atlantic witticisms and barbs that sting (several of the Brit pols are referred to as Ron Weasley, Frodo; the Americans, the kid from The Shining, the kid from The Omen). Influenced by the camera work of The Office, Iannucci immerses us in the world of 10 Downing Street and D.C., but not with the Prime Minister or the President. Instead, we get the down-and-dirty perspective of the workaholic under-secretaries, ministers, Cabinet members, and various office staff swirling about, leaking reports to the media, sleeping with each other, holding and switching allegiances. Everyone talks fast, everyone is smart, the characters talk on their phones (at one point, one character talks on two phones simultaneously), and the tapestry of obscenity is flat-out brilliant. In terms of cursing, this film is the funniest of the past ten years at least.

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker walks away with the film. As the maestro of spin in charge of ramping up, protecting, hiding the U.K.'s intentions leading up to war in the Middle East, he uses a very graphic and articulate vocabulary to keep Cabinet members in line, to delay and speed up the United Nations, to falsify and sell intel, as well as to verbally humiliate underlings ("I prefer psychological maiming," he admits at one point). Implicit in the sharp performance is that what a person in government says is not necessarily what was said. The truth is malleable, shapeable, deniable, and erasable as another bureaucrat helpfully points out.

This film is an essential political comedy on par with Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

I cannot emphasize how funny and painful this film is. Marvelously well-cast, Tony Soprano himself (James Gandolfini) is a standout as a U.S. Lt. General George Miller, Anna Chlumsky from My Girl emerges as a harried assistant who writes a paper that is suddenly thrust into the national conversation. Tom Hollander, the excellent Mr. Collins from the recent Pride and Prejudice, is a delight as a Cabinet member incapable of keeping his mouth closed, not walking into trouble, but taciturnly considering his resignation as well as the mating habits of hammerhead sharks. Steve Coogan pops in as a disgruntled villager, concerned about his wall. Minor characters are indelible, dialogue pops, and the story-telling never loses sight of its commitment to depicting all the characters in the film-all of them-as smart and articulate. A refreshing change of pace and ultimately a searing indictment of the way a war is sold to an unaware public by much chicanery.

How can you not like a film with a line of dialogue like this delivered with aplomb by Malcolm Tucker to a fresh-faced 22 year-old Washington bureaucrat in the White House? Malcolm announces, "We burned this tight-arsed city to the ground in 1814. And I'm all for doing it again, starting with you!"