October 27, 2010
Epic/Historical, Film, Romance
Avatar, Back to Titanic, Bernard Hill, Billy Zane, Celine Dion, Coronation Street, David Warner, Enya, Ewan Stewart, Film, film music, Fox Studios Baja, Frances Fisher, I Salonisti, Ioann Gruffud, James Cameron, James Horner, Jonathan Hyde, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Leonardo DiCaprio, movies, My Heart Will Go On, Oscars, picture, review, score, Sissel, soundtrack, Titanic, Victor Garber
The ultimate disaster movie, or movie disaster, that’s how things were looking for James Cameron and his “Titanic” team in 1997 with both studio executives and critics waiting to strangle him with delight on the film’s release. Why? Well, firstly the project was stuck in production muck for a very long time, the film delayed again and again, as Cameron tinkered with his three-hour running time (20 minutes longer than it took the actual ship to sink mind) and action pieces that were quite literally sinking millions of dollars by the hundred. Just like the ocean liner 85 years earlier, “Titanic”, it seemed was going to hit the iceberg when let out into cold waters. It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic of course, but Cameron (a man infamous in Hollywood for his short temper and over-sized ego) stubbornly stuck to his guns. The rest of course is history: The highest box-office gross of all time, a position it amazingly managed to hold for over a decade, until it was dethroned by Cameron’s own “Avatar”, and one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards. Accepting his Oscar for Best Director Cameron famously declared “I’m the King of the World!” before heading into the wilderness for a decade. For the public, as for the Academy, however what began as a love affair, has eroded a bit with the years.
The cause of this disillusionment stems largely from embarrassment at the central and very old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater alias Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet respectively, board the Titanic in Southampton, she in first class with her uptight family and cold fiancé Cal (a wonderfully slimy Billy Zane), he a last minute passenger in third class who won his ticket in a lucky hand at Poker. They meet fatefully and, captivated by the free-spirited Jack, Rose finds herself falling in love with him. It’s all to go Cinderella were it not for a large block of ice floating somewhere in the mid-atlantic. The stories and lore of the famous ship’s sinking and the terrible loss of life are well known and retold in remarkable detail and with great passion by Cameron from his own screenplay. Some viewers and critics attacked the screenplay in particular for a failure in creating credible or period-correct exposition or for the cheesy dialogue. Indeed they have fair grounds for argument, Jack and Rose would probably not look out of place in your average episode of Coronation Street but really, this was never Cameron’s intent. “Titanic” is meant to be, first and foremost an old-style epic romance and disaster film. And Cameron directs with such gusto and style that it is extremely hard not to be swept along with the pure cinematics and just enjoy it for what it is. Think back to the famous disaster films of the 70s, the same criticism could be made of those, yet nobody does.
Once the iceberg does hit (that can’t really count as a spoiler), about one hour in, it’s highly unlikely anyone will care because at that point it becomes the best disaster film ever made. And for the (largely teenage) hearts the film has captured from the start, it becomes one giant survival struggle. Both DiCaprio and Winslet do extremely well here, keeping the focus as human as possible amidst all the carnage. They are helped by a huge supporting cast, of which each one has their own storyline to follow, and all acted to perfection: Aside from Zane’s Machiavellian Cal there’s Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates as “the unsinkable” Molly Brown, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde’s cowardly Bruce Ismay, Ewan Stewart, Ioann Gruffud, the ship’s captain played by Bernard Hill, David Warner and of course the musicians that played to the very end (real life Swiss chamber music quartet I Salonisti) as well as many more.
Cameron’s obsessive nature transpires into the action as well. The costumes and sets are all authentic down to the very last detail. It’s clear to see just where most of the money was spent especially when you consider the amount of takes required when sending all this lavish excess under water. The sheer size of the Titanic model constructed to almost life-size at the specially built Fox Studios Baja complex becomes apparent when first we see the ship moored in Southampton. From there Cameron’s shots become increasingly expansive: From wonderful aerial views of the ship, utilising the latest in computer technology to the scenes in the engine rooms where dozens of men slaved away shovelling coal while the passengers relaxed on the upper decks. And water is portrayed with particular power, the seemingly harmless liquid seeping slowly up corridors before eventually becoming this huge destructive force of nature. In this authenticity alone this “Titanic” outdoes all the foregone adaptions of the story. And the director finds a horrible beauty in the disaster as well, the “Nearer My God to Thee” sequence is likely to send shivers down your spine or bring tears to your eyes. My only criticism of the film must be of its conclusion. Once the ship has gone under, all bar one of the loose ends has been tied but Cameron presents us with an extended coda that really sprinkles on the cheese. Either the director is himself unsure of how it should end or he’s just indulging which with Cameron is a real possibility.
Composer James Horner was riding the high wave of success in the mid to late 1990s and “Titanic” presented yet another fantastic opportunity to show off his skills. Inspired by the Irish elements of the story Cameron wanted singer Enya on the soundtrack. Instead Horner employed Norwegian vocalist Sissel, creating a sort of new-age sound that is today iconic of the picture. His intentions were to create a timeless sound through his use of synthesisers and the voice coupled with a traditional orchestra. The music is broken into three stylistic parts: The first is a distinctly Irish melody written as a love theme, the second a heroic choir-based theme which would serve for the triumphs of the Titanic and thirdly the action music for the sinking. All three work exceptionally well and the first forms the basis of the end-credits song “My Heart Will Go On” as performed by Celine Dion. Famously, Cameron didn’t want a song at the film’s end but Horner went away and wrote and recorded one anyway. On album, “Titanic” became the most successful soundtrack of all time, one of the rare occasions when a soundtrack really gains mainstream popularity. Subsequently a second album was released, entitled “Back to Titanic” and featuring extra score as well as some source songs including the beautiful “Nearer My God to Thee” hymn. It won Oscars for both score and song.
Love it or hate it (some people do), “Titanic” defied all expectations and stands today as one of the biggest and best films of all time. It wouldn’t be fair to call Cameron’s achievement anything less than that. As someone quipped, “They just don’t make movies like this anymore” and in a lot of ways this is true. “Titanic” is a throwback to the great epics of star-crossed lovers only, as with everything James Cameron tackles, twice as big as anything else.
What’s your own opinion of “Titanic”. Is it one of the best films of all time or should it better be left at the bottom of the Atlantic. Let me know – leave a comment. Your thoughts are always appreciated. Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thanks! Until next time, all the best to you!
October 9, 2010
Adventure, Fantasy, Film
Andre Lesnie, Bad Taste, Billy Boyd, Braindead, David Cronenberg, Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Enya, Favourite Film, Film, film music, Fran walsh, Harry Potter, Howard Shore, Ian McKellen, John Williams, London Philharmonic, Lord of the Rings, Miramax, movies, New Line Cinema, New Zealand, Orlando Bloom, Oscars, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, picture, review, score, Se7en, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Silence of the Lambs, Star Wars, The Complete Recordings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Frighteners, The Philosopher's Stone, The Return of the King, The Two Towers, Tolkien, Viggo Mortensen, Warner Bros.
The trivia and lore surrounding the making of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are almost as expansive as Tolkien’s mythology itself. The sheer love and passion with which the filmmakers approached the epic trilogy are reason alone to name it the most meticulously made motion picture series of the decade and to safely book its place among the top films of all time. Considering then that “The Fellowship of the Ring” is merely an (albeit three hour long) opening act, the bar is set very high indeed. Because from the moment that Galadriel’s voice comes drifting out of the dark, whispering in elvish, we are drawn into a fantasy world unlike anything seen before: Forget Star Wars, forget Harry Potter, forget that cutesy 1978 animated version. This is serious, hardcore fantasy, a world rooted as firmly in the reality of a European dark age long forgotten as in its very faithful adaption of the source material. This is the one Middle Earth to rule them all.
In the mid-nineties Peter Jackson was a director best known for extremely gory and disturbing splatter horror pictures, from his home-grown “Bad Taste” to “Braindead” and “The Frighteners”. Definitely not a household name, and most definitely not the guy Hollywood would choose to direct a blockbuster franchise like “Lord of the Rings”. But then, Hollywood can’t really take credit for this franchise because it was born and bred in New Zealand by Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. After a financial fiasco at Miramax which would have seen the trilogy made as a single movie, Jackson was able to find another suitor for his mammoth undertaking in New Line Cinema, a division of Warner Bros. who thankfully agreed to provide the budget for three full films. Beginning principal photography in late 1999, it was perhaps the greatest shoot ever, three films being shot back-to-back over 274 days with often as many as six or seven units all filming in different places across the two islands which had been cast as the principal character, namely Middle Earth. Had this been attempted in Hollywood, the project would surely have been doomed from the start.
What is extremely significant is that in between all the statistics and the action, Jackson manages to keep a firm grip on both characters and plot, never loosing sight of the human elements within the story, something that can only come from knowing the text inside-out, being truly passionate about the subject and the hallmark of a very talented director. Because at heart, “Lord of the Rings” is a story of very simple values: friendship, courage in the face of overwhelming odds and the destruction of nature. The plot, just in case you’ve been living on Mars or in Mordor, concerns a Hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who inherits a magical ring from his old uncle Bilbo. However when the wizard Gandalf (played by the venerable Sir Ian McKellen) discovers that this is in fact the One Ring which was created millennia ago by the dark lord Sauron to rule all of Middle Earth, Frodo along with some Hobbit friends sets out on an epic quest to destroy the ring and thus evil once and for all. He is accompanied by a fellowship of actors extremely respected in their fields but (at the time) largely unknown in Hollywood – Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean – and also some new talent – Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd – all of which combine for some absolutely fantastic character acting.
And for those that might have feared that their vision of the beloved novel might be torn to pieces, those fears soon evaporated with almost every corner of fantasy fandom praising the adaption. Tom Bombadil gripes aside (seriously, he would have been totally out of place in the film), any changes that have been made are entirely justified: The romance between Aragorn and Arwen is given actual screen-time, the threat of Saruman is made real and present early on, and in general the narrative flows much more freely than in the novel. Some newcomers might well wonder at some of the plot turns but thankfully things like combining Rivendell and Lothlorien were avoided. While it might have made sense from a classic plot point of view, never does the story suffer from it. And very importantly we feel like we’re in these places, thanks largely to Andrew Lesnie’s soaring (and Oscar winning) cinematography. Enjoying the best of both worlds between location and visual effects wizardry, the camera swoops effortlessly through Isengard and Moria. Just as it should be, no one visual effect jumps out of the screen shouting look at me! They’re incredibly impressive but never obtrusive, the Moria sequence perhaps the best example of live-action, miniature photography and CG mixed flawlessly into one thrilling sequence. We do feel that this is the highlight of the action and the actual ending of the film is a bit on the small side in comparison. But it should also be noted that “The Lord of the Rings” is one long story, not three individual books, and is meant to be viewed as such. So the conclusion at Amon-Hen is the perfect set-up to lead us into “The Two Towers”.
Canadian composer Howard Shore may too have been an odd choice to many in the industry as he was known largely for his horror scores (“Silence of the Lambs”, “Se7en”) and David Cronenberg collaborations. However Shore spent several years thoroughly researching the text for his music, visiting the sets in New Zealand and eventually recording with the London Philharmonic, a huge choir and several speciality instruments. The results is perhaps on of the greatest achievements in film music ever (so much so that a book has been written about it!): An approach that is thematically interesting and consistent over the three films. Like the films it’s an approach to fantasy scoring rooted in real music and avoiding many of the clichés so often to be found in regular writing in the genre. It can certainly compare with John Williams’ “Star Wars” for scale and depth. “The Fellowship of the Ring” serves very much as the firm ground on which Shore can build his themes, the development of the main Fellowship theme (nine notes, one for each character) clearly traceable throughout the film. Even themes that would only come to full statements in “The Return of the King” such as the Gondor theme can already be heard, completely formed, at the council of Elrond when Boromir speaks. What is also fabulous is that the score has found some mainstream following. Two versions of the score exist, the regular album release which seems to focus more on Enya’s contribution to the film (which in reality is minimal) and an expanded, four disc set titled “The Complete Recordings” which presents all the music in the film in full. It’s an expensive treat but a treat it most certainly is and is well worth shelling out for.
Graced with 13 Oscar noms and four wins (including one for the score), “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the opening chapter of the most remarkable film story of the 2000s and one of the greatest trilogies in history. Never before has something as grand as this been attempted and probably it will never be attempted again. It gained instant following from millions of fans, critical praise and made quite a taking at the 2001 box office – almost as much as the film that was supposed to be the film of the year, namely “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece in every department from story-telling to acting to costume and visual effects. And it remains my favourite film of all time!
How does this film rank in your Top 10? Please tell me about it and comment! Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Until next time then I wish you all the best!