Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1997)

7. Titanic

James Cameron is a director of incredible ambition and those ambitions come with a price tag. His movies are notorious for going over-schedule and over-budget. Both “The Abyss” and “True Lies” broke records for being the most expensive movies ever made at the time. Both beat the odds by becoming successful. Cameron would continue to top himself. “Titanic,” a movie inspired by the most notorious nautical disaster in maritime history, went hideously off the rails. Shooting crawled on and the budget ballooned. Somehow, lightening struck a third time. “Titanic” became a genuine pop culture phenomenon, breaking all the box office records, and sweeping the Academy Awards. As it goes any time a movie becomes so huge, a backlash set in over time. “Titanic” was beloved upon release but, looking at it in the rear view mirror, its reputation is much more contentious.

In the present day, an expedition is made to the rusted wreckage of the Titanic at the ocean’s floor. Though the team is looking for a giant jewel called the Heart of the Ocean, they instead find a drawing of a young woman. Amazingly, that woman is still alive, at 101 years old. The treasure hunters meet with Rose, who proceeds to tell them her story. She talks about coming to the Titanic as a girl of privilege, meeting a young working class boy, falling in love, and surviving the ship’s terrifying crash.

Before discussing “Titanic: The Movie,” one really has to discuss “Titanic: The Phenomenon.” I was there, so I know. I remember the lines forming around the blocks. I remember the unlikelihood of a three hour-plus historical drama somehow becoming a monster blockbuster. I remember the race to the top of the box office all-time top ten. I remember it winning a shit-ton of Oscars and Cameron’s “I’m the king of the world!” acceptance speech. For that matter, I remember that line becoming an infectious catch-phrase and the movie being referenced and parodied all over the pop-culture-o-sphere. I watched Leo DiCaprio becomes the hottest teen heart throb in the world. I even remember props from the movie touring Paramount King’s Dominion and waiting way too long in line to see them. The point is “Titanic” was as massive a success as the boat was big.

The question has been asked many times before: Why did “Titanic,” of all things, become such a massive success? The movie should have bombed. Many predicted it would. The movie was over three hours long, limiting the number of screenings in a day. The film lacked any big name stars, as Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were up-and-comers at the time. The movie was so massively expensive, it should have been impossible for it to become profitable. The film wasn’t a crowd-pleasing action flick, like Cameron’s previous hits. It was a romantic period drama, hardly the most consistently profitable of genres. There’s no easy answer. Maybe “Titanic” was just the right movie at the right time. Maybe the nineties was calling out for its own “Gone with the Wind,” a long, glitzy, period piece romantic drama.

The reason I think “Titantic” succeeded in such an unprecedented manner is because it, arguably, had something for everybody. The romance appealed to woman. The casting of Leo especially appealed to teenage girls, who returned over and over again to the theater to see the film. Guys, meanwhile, had a massive ship wreck in the last act. “Titanic” is, in a way, one of the biggest disaster movies ever made. Finally, the drama, immaculate production design, and sense of historical irony pleased the critics and the grown-ups. I don’t think “Titantic” would be as big a hit if made today. I’m not even sure it would even get made today. The movie does owe its success to a certain degree of luck. But let’s not underestimate James Cameron’s ability to understand what a broad, wide audience wants to see.

At the center of the film are two performances. Leonardo DiCaprio was primed to be a break-out star, after buzz-worthy performances in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes?” and “The Basketball Diaries.” Even then, DiCaprio was widely dismissed as nothing but a pretty boy for a while after “Titanic.” History has proved that wrong, since Leo has become one of the most critically acclaimed modern day actors. “Titanic” does not feature DiCaprio’s best performance. Even back then though, he had a certain boyish charisma that was undeniably charming. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, had been praised as a brilliant actress right from her amazing debut role in “Heavenly Creatures.” Winslet is more self-assured then DiCaprio, bringing an already considerable amount of actorly chops to the part. She certainly has no problem navigating the script or the period trappings.

This is important since the romance central to the movie’s story is somewhat awkward. DiCaprio is somewhat insecure in the part. His boyishness is part of his appeal but it also makes him seem slightly out of place in a setting like this. The initial bonding between Jack and Rose is not cutting edge stuff. Their meet-cute, as she’s about to toss herself off the ship, is more tense then charming. Rose’s at-first rejection of her obvious romantic interest in Jack is hackneyed. The two bonding over spitting is weird and not in a natural way. As the movie goes on, their time together starts to feel more smooth. However, it can’t hide that these two really don’t have much in common. Jack and Rose’s affair is more like a teenage fling then a life-time defining love story for the ages. Maybe this is intentional. After all, awkward teenage romances tend to be elevated by nostalgia and memories. Or maybe James Cameron’s skills as a writer aren’t in the romance department.

Or maybe the details of the romance is what made the movie resonate so much? Like DiCaprio’s former role as Romeo, Jack and Rose are pushing against constraints. Not from dueling families but from class boundaries. Rose is a rich girl. Jack is a poor boy. The upper crust of the ship turn their noses up at the working class people in the floors below. Rose’s mom is especially antagonistic towards Jack. Infamously, during the crash, the lower decks are locked, preventing the poor passengers from getting to safety. Sometimes this works, such as the expected but funny scene where Jack sneaks into a fancy dinner, rubbing shoulders with the clueless rich people. More often, the class aspect of the plot comes off as melodramatic and contrived. If “Titanic” was trying to recall classic dramas of the thirties and forties, it does so in the worst way possible.

Another melodramatic aspect, which sometimes reaches hysterical levels, are the movie’s bad guys. Billy Zane’s crack at leading man stardom never really broke through. Maybe that’s because his smarmy sense of superiority makes him a better match for villains. Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley is a dick. As Rose’s fiance, he belittles Jack. He manipulates Rose. Not because he loves her but because he wants to own her and a rich man like him will not be denied something he wants. He frames Jack, basically cheating to get rid of his romantic rival. Zane even pulls a gun on DiCaprio and Winslet. (Cal’s valet, played by a thankless David Warner, also threatens to kill Jack, chaining him in the bowels of the ship as it starts to go down.) This is not sufficiently villainous for the movie though. Cal grabs a random kid so he can get on a life boat. He survives the boat’s crash but, we are informed in voice-over, killed himself after the on-set of the Great Depression. Jesus Christ, has a more ridiculously hatable, cartoonish movie bad guy ever existed? Probably. Cal seems worst though because his insertion into historical drama is especially pandering. Mr. William Zane is fine in the part, fun even. But being third billed in one of the highest grossing movies of all time still didn’t slow Zane’s descent towards direct-to-video schlock.

Cameron’s ability to get great actors for supporting roles continues here. Kathy Bates is nicely cast as the legendary Molly Brown. Bates’ dual talents for being relatable and earthy but always dignified and strong is well utilized. (Though one wonders what the seemingly perfectly cast Reba McEntire could have done in the part.) The funders and owners of the ship are portrayed by snotty British actors, many of them as one-dimensional as Zane. Yet Victor Garber stands out as the humble, thoughtful Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder. Of Cameron’s regular cast of actors, Bill Paxton and Jeanette Goldstein are present. Paxton is perfectly cast as the leader of the modern day explorers, bringing all the humor and charm you’ve come to expect from him. Goldstein, meanwhile, has a tiny role as an Irish mother, tucking her children into bed as the ship starts to go down.

I may not be all that impressed with “Titanic’s” romance. I’m not putting it down. “Titanic” is an extremely well orchestrated film. Despite its 194 minute run time, three hours and fourteen minutes in other words, the movie is incredibly well paced. It keeps moving and never drags. There are a few lyrical moments sprinkled throughout. Jack and Rose bumping around the upper-crust is funny and sweet. Afterwards, he takes her to a party down below, complete with Irish jigs and folk music. This is easily the movie’s breeziest, most laid-back moment. As widely mock as it’s been, the moment when Jack sketches a nude Rose is beautifully put together. (Though I have no idea how the movie earned a PG-13 rating, with Kate Winlets’ spectacular breasts being in full view.) It’s certainly a more touching, romantic moment then the couple’s overwrought love-making in the steamed-up car.

Maybe “Titanic” is so well paced because we know the ship is going to sink. We know there’s going to be a spectacular pay-off to everything that’s come before. The movie’s entire last ninety minutes is devoted to the ship’s failure. To the strike with the iceberg, the flooding, the fall-out, and the Titanic’s breaking apart. The build-up to the ship’s destruction are some of the best scenes in the movie. There’s something incredibly visceral about the huge waves of freezing water flooding into the ship. Characters racing through the bowels of the ship as it fills with water is also hugely exciting. However, it’s the small human moments during these sequences that truly elevates “Titanic.” An old couple hold each other on their bed as water seeps into the room. Captain Edward Smith makes the decision to go down with the ship, standing by the steering wheel as green water reflects from outside, calmly circling the room. As the ship goes down, the band plays on, an especially touching bit.

Of course, “Titanic” is compelling as a special effects flick. Cameron was an expert by this point of integrating CGI with practical effects. The massive sets made for the movie are genuine. They’re really filling with water. The movie makes the ship sinking beneath the water seem totally plausible. The money shot is when the Titanic rises into the air, people diving to their deaths, bouncing off the massive propeller. When the ship snaps in two, it’s a terrifying special effect. The scale is massive and the production is seamless. It’s hard to consider “Titanic” a historical movie, considering its massive liberties with history, but it certainly gives you an impression of how horrifying the legendary ship’s failure was.

Something else that gives “Titanic,” a movie equally impressive and silly, is its framing device. The story is told from the perspective of an old woman looking back at her life. Gloria Stewert plays Rose as an old woman. Stewert, a veteran actress from Hollywood’s golden age that I recognize from “The Invisible Man” and “The Old Dark House,” brings huge quantities of gravitas to the part. Rose is an old woman at the end of her life, nearing death. Stuart would actually live a decade after “Titanic” but she proves that actors are still the best special effect. Stuart’s age, her face, her delivery, imbues a thankless part with far more strength then it otherwise would have had.

“Titanic” plays a lot better separated from the hype then I expected. It’s not a great movie but it’s a decently good movie. You know what’s not good? That fucking Celine Dion song. “My Heart Will Go On” was as inescapable in 1997 as the movie it belonged to was. Every time you turned on the TV or the radio, you’d be bombarded by it. James Horner’s lovely score draws from the song’s melody, which is quite nice. However, Celine Dion’s voice is warbling, nasally, overdone to say the least, and grating to the ears. The lyrics are absolute treacle and Dion empowers them with as much unearned pretensions as possible. I may like the movie more now then I did when I first saw it. But that song still fucking sucks.

So what’s the verdict on “Titanic?” The romance still doesn’t entirely work, despite the efforts of an experienced cast. The movie’s script is often goofy and overblown. It’s as tightly edited and created as anything Cameron’s done. As pure spectacle, “Titanic” is hard to beat. The result is a movie that obviously didn’t deserve to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year. “Titanic” is a crowning achievement from a technical perspective but less so from a story perspective. Taken on its own merits, it’s an extremely well made movie, full of fantastic moments. Is it as entertaining as “Aliens” or “True Lies?” Nah. But I don’t hate it. I even kind of like it. [Grade: B]

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