Saturday, April 21, 2012

Film Review - TITANIC 3D

James Cameron’s Titanic is a glorious feat of epic-scale blockbuster engineering. Revisiting the sweeping, tragic tale of the unsinkable ocean liner nearly 15 years after it dominated theatres for a record 15 weeks, tallied up 11 Oscars and sparked an adoring inferno of Leo-Mania, it’s impossible not be impressed by the brilliance of its construction. Blending together grand technical ambition and intimate, starry-eyed romance, the innovative writer/director managed a nearly impossible feat; he produced a box-office behemoth that truly spoke to every possible demographic. It was the perfect picture arriving at the perfect time, boldly furthering the CG revolution while simultaneously celebrating Old Hollywood storytelling. Indeed, like the doomed ship itself, it was an exorbitantly costly vision that stood with one foot planted firmly in the past and the other reaching fearlessly into the bright, optimistic future.

It’s unfortunate, though understandable, that the film’s luster has been tarnished by aggressive backlash. Intense hype can only last so long, and it’s easy to become disillusioned and embarrassed by past obsessions. Nonetheless, to dismiss Titanic as being “uncool” is to miss the point entirely; Titanic was never meant to be cool in the first place! Arriving in theatres during the hip, ironic indie boom sparked by Pulp Fiction, Cameron’s wonderfully square portrait of idealized young love is, in the tradition of the very best Tinseltown epics, defiantly earnest and melodramatic. Nothing is funny about all-consuming first love – at least not to the participants – and the movie makes no efforts to downplay the swooning exhilaration shared by scruffy artist Jack and troubled upper-class Rose (perfectly cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, generating chemistry that radiates from the screen). There’s an unmistakeable purity in their hoary amorous declarations and unabashed naivety. And, because most of us have occupied a similarly foggy headspace at some point in our lives, we not only feel nostalgia viewing their archetypal affair, but also become profoundly invested in preserving their happiness.

Cameron is not a particularly emotional director. Although his 1985 break-through, The Terminator, featured a sweet romance between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, he’s usually credited more for crafting smart, boundary-pushing spectacle than relatable human narratives. Titanic is easily his most tender and sensual picture. Sure, his dialogue may occasionally veer into cornball territory (“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets…”), however real care has been taken in portraying the heightened emotions and evolution of the central relationship. Few moments in modern cinema are as innocently erotic as the famous nude sketching session, or as deliriously joyful as the whirling Irish dance in the steerage section. And the sight of the two leads, together against the world, embracing on the bow of the majestic ship, is one of those powerfully unforgettable images that only cinema is capable of creating.

As an action director, Cameron is in a league all his own, and his staging of the climactic destruction of the doomed vessel is a breath-taking orchestra of chaos that begins in disquieting serenity (those flares sure look beautiful in the pitiless night sky) and ends in nightmarish pandemonium. The effects, of course, remain brilliant, but what’s even more impressive is the helmer’s flawless ability to convey the geography of the unfolding events. Due to the fact we’ve been subtly touring the ship for the preceding two hours, rarely is there a moment where we don’t innately comprehend where our heroes are or where they have to go. It was also an ingenious idea to include a computer-rendered recreation of the ship’s demise in the movie’s often clunky opening modern day bookend. By filling us in on the overall picture, we’re free to remain focused firmly on the characters, not on the expository details of every stage of the destruction.

Like the best blockbusters, Titanic remains just as relevant today as it was in 1997 – maybe even more so. There’s a sense of timelessness to the picture’s themes and artistry that allows it continue to speak to the time it’s viewed in. The class war, between Jack and his fellow steerage passengers and the upper-crust likes of Rose’s mother (Frances Fisher) and steel heir fiancé (awesome ham Billy Zane), is especially pertinent nowadays, with the high profile Occupy movement and struggling 99 percent. It isn’t as easy to flippantly dismiss their outmoded early 20th century mindset now as it was during the original release. Similarly, watching the bodies plummeting from the capsizing liner, one can’t help but be reminded of our own great modern tragedy, the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack.

The film’s much-ballyhooed $18-million-dollar 3D transfer, in the works for several years, is pleasant though unnecessary. Sure, there are a handful of bits that wow – such as a haunting shot of a female corpse floating angelically in the flooded ballroom, or a tiny moment in which one of Rose’s paintings sinks beneath the chilly ocean water – yet the picture itself is already such an immersive experience that the added tech doesn’t really add to the equation. Unlike Avatar, which was only really satisfying on a visual level, and thus benefitted hugely from the extra dimension, Titanic’s 3D is a harmless icing on a cake that’s delicious enough on its own.

Still, regardless of the upgrade, Cameron’s opus is a picture that demands to be watched – and, yes, rewatched – on the best possible theatre screen available; where its countless iconic shots can be projected to appropriately larger-than-life, mythic proportions. Titanic is a work of visionary filmmaking, a rousing and poignant master class in how to use blockbuster techniques to reach into the hearts and imagination of the collective movie-going population. It’s poetic that the Ship of Dreams should inspire a work of cinema destined to continue sailing on throughout our own for a long time to come.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


If ever there was a franchise built on a heaping, Olympus-high mountain of wasted potential, it’s Warner Bros.’s Titans series. 2009’s Clash of the Titans, a remake of Desmond Davis’s 1981 cult hit, stuffed a monumental cast of thunderous mythological heavy-hitters into a stolid, directionless hack ‘n slash bore-a-thon that struck with all the sound and fury of a wiffle ball bat. Cluelessly bungling a sure-fire recipe for cheesy popcorn nirvana, the film was little more than a showcase for wonderfully-designed, choppily-executed CG monsters and the perpetually apathetic smirk of buff, charisma-challenged lead Sam Worthington.

Yet, the picture’s gloriously silly “Release the Kraken!” marketing push worked wonders – generating a gigantic $500-million in worldwide ticket sales – and has inspired a return trip to creature-infested ancient Greece in Wrath of the Titans, an oh-so-slightly superior follow-up that’s equal parts sequel and remake of its uninspired forebear. Following the same template as Clash, this second attempt is still a story-telling dead end, though it at least pares down the convoluted nonsense to a manageable length and delivers an appropriate amount of stylish, empty-headed effects overkill. The result is often like watching a friend play an impressive-looking video-game; you can admire the spectacle even if the experience is forgettable.

Taking place roughly a decade after the events of Clash, Wrath finds Worthington’s stoic demigod Perseus living the serenely sleepy life of a fisherman and single father to his adolescent son Helius (John Bell), indifferent to his divine heritage and the wants of his almighty father Zeus (Liam Neeson – sporting his silly beard with unwavering authority). Things take a turn for the earth-rumbling, however, when the lightning bolt-wielding deity is taken prisoner by his embittered brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and son Ares (Edgar Ramirez), and used as a means of releasing Kronos, the destructive, volcano-sized father of the Gods, from his crumbling subterranean prison. With the evil being’s grotesque titan army already loose and wreaking havoc, Perseus is forced to team up with Poseidon’s no-good son Agenor (Toby Kebbell – serving no genuine purpose beyond terrible jokes) and the warrior queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and embark on a quest to once more restore peace to the fractured land.

How mankind’s oldest, richest stories could inspire a script this vacant is a mystery best left to the ages. While there’s nothing wrong with using classical literature to craft light-hearted swashbuckling fun (1963’s stellar Jason and the Argonauts pulled off this feat in spades),Wrath is so uninterested in its flimsy narrative it’s off-putting. The script, by a crew of four credited writers, sends its characters on an epic journey that feels like it spans all of a weekend. Although the film’s title screams larger than life thrills, there’s no grandeur to the picture, with its blank, paper-thin heroes and villains and abominable dialogue, or any sense that we’re being swept up in a breathless tale.

It’s hard to ignore the nagging aura of déjà vu that lingers over the film. Just as in its predecessor, Perseus must transition from a fisherman to fighter and learn to accept his demigod status. And, again, his arc occurs over the course of a location-hopping search, fraught with fearsome beasts, death-defying traps and feeble romantic interludes, that ends with him swooping around on his trusty steed Pegasus in confusing combat against a final behemoth boss. For a dependable and predictable B-movie formula of this type to really work there has to be a twinkle of joy and go-for-broke imagination at play, like in the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies. Wrath of the Titans, unfortunately, operates under the crushing weight of dutifulness; to keeping the fledgling brand name alive and earning. It isn’t an entertainment, so much as a canny business decision.

Taking over the directorial reigns from Louis Leterrier, series newcomer Jonathan Liebesman doesn’t have a resume worth writing home about – his unremarkable past efforts include Battle: Los Angeles and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – nevertheless he’s a competent journeyman with enough visual flare to skate by more or less unscathed. Unconcerned with his dopey plot, the helmer instead sweats over the money shots; enlivening a few nicely assembled sequences including a suspenseful forest-set tussle with a trio of babbling Cyclops (whose alarming appearance is counterbalanced by a noticeable glint of quirky Ray Harryhausen-esque oddness) and a village-wrecking encounter with a ravenous, and seemingly female genitalia-tailed(!) Chimera. Liebesman also does his darndest to give Kronos’s explosive entrance scope and weight, in spite of the fact there’s something patently phony about watching human actors stand in the foreground shooting energy projectiles at an enormous stationary creation in the background (Shades of the climax of the goofy 1983 fantasy fave Krull). Unfortunately, he doesn’t bring the same level of attention to the picture’s bewildering labyrinth set-piece, where coherent cinematic geography vanishes into thin air, and a truly underwhelming close-quarters WWE-style Minotaur wrestling match.

No one expects to see great performances in these types of movies. That’s pretty much a given. Still, they can afford gifted actors a platform to revel in the glory of pure camp. In the original Clash, for example, Laurence Olivier consumed scenery by the heaping spoonful as Zeus and Burgess Meredith was a tongue-in-cheek hoot as a mischievous mentor/exposition machine. Wrath of the Titans, by contrast, offers up the invaluable Bill Nighy, as a loony navigator with a make-believe friend, as its sole weirdo stand out. Worthington – now fully reverted back to his native Australian dialect – is a physically skilled non-entity, while Neeson and Fiennes, who squabble with admirable gravitas, keep their moments of broad theatrical invention to a regrettable minimum.

This picture is the epitome of the one-week blockbuster; produced solely to dominate a single box-office chart before vanishing entirely from the audience’s collective memory. It’s a shame, as this is a franchise that should provide visionary filmmakers with a veritable playground of magical story possibilities, sweeping otherworldly locales and broad, iconic characters capable of leaving an indelible stamp on an audience. Those behind Wrath of the Titans may have read up on their Greek mythology, but it’s glaringly evident there weren’t any Muses visiting the set.

2 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.