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 12, 2010
Casino, Dropkick Murphys, Film, film music, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Howard Shore, Infernal Affairs, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Scorsese, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, movies, Oscars, picture, review, score, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, The Departed, Vera Farmiga, William Monahan
It’s been a while since Martin Scorsese has made a gangster movie. After 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Casino” the legendary director’s output has been largely dramatic: Films like “The Age of Innocence”, “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” have allowed him to broaden his palette somewhat and to work with new talent like Leonardo DiCaprio who is by now almost as big a Scorsese trademark as Robert deNiro. It’s not to say that these films aren’t good, no in fact they’re very good but it somehow seemed inevitable that one day Scorsese would return to his film-making roots of the gangster or mobster genre. His 2006 film “The Departed” is such a throwback in many ways, combining the best of vintage and “new” Scorsese and while it may not quite reach the heights of some of those other classics, “The Departed” nevertheless has a pretty good shot at it. It certainly justified the long-awaited Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for the director, deserved recognition from an association that has passed over his pictures many times in the past.
Adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, the screenplay by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is a masterpiece of storytelling and intrigue, focusing on the ongoing war between the Boston PD and the Irish-American Mafia led by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in the city. Both sides employ moles to infiltrate the other, on one side undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other state detective Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who secretly works for Costello. Their double lives are led on a knife’s edge, a dangerous game of cat and mouse that threatens to explode at every turn – and does. Each man’s journey up the ranks is fascinating to follow, Damon’s charming and charismatic but ultimately deceiving and brutal Sullivan an excellent counterpoint to Costigan who needs to prove himself loyal to the mobsters who suspect a rat, but is running on empty inside. And both always living in the shadow of Frank Costello. This is of course true of the actors as well: both Damon and DiCaprio give performances that rank among the best of their careers. Jack Nicholson however, plays these kind of roles with such relish and a deranged, sleazy charm that he can hold the breath of any audience with ease, his Costello is unpredictable, chilling and quite frankly very, very scary.
The movie belongs to three leads, mainly Nicholson, no question but Scorsese has still managed to assemble an awesome supporting cast as well: Martin Sheen is always excellent, here as Police Captain Queenan as is Ray Winstone in the role of Costello’s closest ally Mr. French. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg throw enough insults at each other to fill a book. Wahlberg is particularly bad-ass and the very final scene is worth waiting for just for him. Graphic violence of this magnitude has always been one of Scorsese’s calling cards as well and things do frequently boil over: Action set-pieces are expertly staged and often gruesomely displayed. With the exception of a dirty computer processor deal and some drug running however, criminal activities are placed somewhat in the background. It could therefore be argued that it’s not a classic Mafia movie per se as we never really get under the skin to see how exactly this crime world ticks. But that was hardly the intent because Scorsese has shown us that before and he makes it clear that the focus should (rightly) be on the infiltration stories. To facilitate this, Vera Farmiga’s character Madolyn is significant, acting as the only link between the two moles – unknowingly of course. In many ways she and DiCaprio provide most of the film’s emotional anchor for the viewers.
Martin Scorsese has always been very specific when choosing music to accompany his pictures, often personally putting together a mix-tape of songs, including one that then becomes the film’s signature. Here it’s “Shipping Out to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphy’s and its Irish and rock roots fit perfectly with the mood of the film. Not as immediately audible is the original score courtesy of Scorsese’s current composer of choice Howard Shore. The score consists of an excellent selection of tango and guitar (both electric and acoustic) pieces, despite there being no Latin influences in the story. It’s a complete departure (no pun intended…) from all of Shore’s previous work, those expecting to hear some horror-like dissonance or something LotR-esque could be disappointed but really it’s the mark of a master musical chameleon. Call it a curiosity if you will but for some reason it just works in the film and makes for an excellent album listen. Two are available, one with songs and two score tracks, the other a score only CD. You can read my full review of “The Departed” soundtrack here.
A stellar cast and an outstanding screenplay put this film right at the top of a year of excellent films, many of which could have been Oscar winners in other years. However awards hype aside, “The Departed” confirms that Scorsese still rules the roost with gangster pictures and while the film may not cover much new ground in its exploration of the crime underworld, it remains one of his most entertaining films ever. And really, that’s saying something!
I’m writing a lot of 5 star reviews lately. Then again I’d like to recommend the films I do like. Would you like a more even balance of stars? Let me know by leaving a comment any time. Please also follow me on twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Until next time, all the best and thanks for reading!
August 4, 2010
Action, Adventure, Film, Sci-Fi
Batman, Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Film, film music, Gotham, Hans Zimmer, Inception, Johnny Marr, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, movies, picture, review, The Dark Knight, The Matrix, The Smiths, Tom Hardy, Wally Pfister, Warner Bros.
In a deliberate ploy, Warner Bros. and director Christopher Nolan kept his followup to the 2008 phenomenon “The Dark Knight” shrouded in mystery for a very long time. Cast and crew were tight-lipped also, only small fragments of information were let slip: Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime the tagline taunted, sci-fi then, an intense thriller set within the realm of virtual reality, dreams to be more precise, visual effects galore and a stellar cast to take us there. One thing was sure – it was going to be big. That is on both setting and financial scales, the project apparently devouring several hundred million dollars. One could certainly call it a gamble. Could whatever Nolan had dreamt up (pun intended) be another cash cow for the studio as Batman Begins #2 was, could fans be satisfied when not knowing what to expect and, perhaps most importantly could it ever live up to all the hype? To those of you waiting with bated breath let me put it simply: It’s a huge and resounding Yes!
The film’s plot revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, a con-man who’s day job consists of stealing ideas from the minds of his victims, but takes up a different task: Inception. That is to plant rather than extract an idea. The stakes are high – should he be successful he may see his two children again, if not he will be trapped forever in “limbo”, a dream-wasteland of the mind. A team is quickly assembled, consisting of his regular co-worker Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) and others including Tom Hardy and the actual contractor, Ken Watanabe’s Saito. The target of the whole operation (which of course goes horribly wrong at the first corner) is Cillian Murphy, who as a rich business man’s son should (for Saito’s business interests) break up his dead father’s empire. Complicated? Believe me, this synopsis barely scratches the surface.
Yet Nolan manages to keep both film and audience on track with professional ease. Because it’s not like “Inception” is exclusively intellectual. The movie is equally concerned with explosions, gun-fights, fist-fights (in zero-gravity no less, “The Matrix” should watch its back!) and all round action entertainment. It’s a delicate balance but Nolan keeps all the mayhem in check, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on all the time. Central to this is clearly the mentally unstable Cobb. Tortured by his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) as well as his children, loosing grasp on what is real and what is not, DiCaprio’s performance is his most mature yet (and that, by now is quite mature) and weighty, most of the movie’s heavier emotional moments resting on his shoulders. That is not to say the rest of the cast are merely sidekicks or serve comic-relief functions: Gordon-Levitt is quietly dangerous, Murphy excellent in crumbling slowly from the inside and, well, there’s something about Ellen Page. Quiet, too, unconventionally attractive and the the film, thankfully, never asks her to portray a love interest.
Best of all are the visuals. Firstly, the constructs of the worlds in dreams, the set pieces as you might say. “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange” Cobb says. Whether rain-soaked metropolis or mountain peak snow-fortress, these worlds feel real to the viewer. Only like this can it take a van 30 minutes to hit the water after driving off a bridge without our interest waning. The second is Wally Pfister’s sweeping cinematography. Like in Gotham, Pfister’s camera keeps a fantasy world rooted firmly in reality. Combine these with the photo-real CGI and the results are breathtakingly spectacular.
Hans Zimmer who wrote the original score for the film is now officially Nolan’s composer of choice. Let’s not forget that it was Nolan also who convinced Zimmer that a film’s music should meld flawlessly with its sound effects. But, there comes a point in everyone’s life when one is fed up with simplistic writing, endlessly looped string ostinatos and low brass roars. For me, “Inception” is that point. I’m a huge Zimmer fan, don’t get me wrong, I even tolerated the Batmans, but this just goes too far. Any creativity left in Zimmer’s previous work has gone right out the window. Frustratingly, in his own opinion the composer seems to regard these sound-effect landscapes as intelligent constructs and hired Johnny Marr (guitarist of “The Smiths” fame) to prove it. Bottom line: it’s not intelligent, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s overly simplistic, an adequate but nowhere near good effort by Zimmer, in short it’s lazy writing. Doubtlessly I will be criticised for this rant but in my opinion he’s just gone down the wrong road.
Whatever about the music, “Inception” is the blockbuster movie to see this summer. An intelligent sci-fi epic with enough to please most camps of the movie-going species, this is quite simply a compelling 148 minutes. I will say that repeat viewing is advised, your appreciation of the complex plot and powerful performances can only grow. So beyond our wildest expectations Christopher Nolan has done it again! Bring on Superman and Batman 3…
I promise that from now on my reviews will start to come a little faster again – I just need to force myself to write regularly! If you have any comments at all I’d love to hear from you so please leave your thoughts. Also please follow me on Twitter or sign up for the RSS feed above. Until next time I wish you all the best!