The Aisle Seat Yuletide Edition
by Andy Dursin
A handful of new films opened on Christmas Day (AS GOOD AS IT GETS, THE POSTMAN, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS), yet it seems to me that the two “best films” of 1997 have already opened–L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and a certain new movie by James Cameron (gee, what could that possibly be?). Someone asked me about the Oscars the other day, and while it’s still too early to speculate, I have the feeling that it’s going to be either of those two films vying for awards come Spring-time, and making critical top ten lists in the interim. Who knows what will happen, but certainly one multi-million project has at least illustrated that gigantic budgets are indeed justified if the quality of the material warrants that expense.
TITANIC (****): It is not often you see a film whose convictions, dramatically and visually, match its ambitious intentions all the way through. James Cameron’s eloquent, unforgettable TITANIC is one of those special films, an “epic” with an intimate, character-driven center, and a visual panache that truly does make you feel that you’re right at home on the doomed ship itself. When the vessel meets its inevitable fate at the end, you feel the pain and horror along with the characters since Cameron has done such an amazing job balancing story with spectacle, paying proper respect and historically recounting the incident as accurately as he can, while still producing an entertainment–and a piece of art–that has not been rivaled by a traditional studio product in years.
Part of the film’s alluring appeal is due to the chemistry between Leonardo Dicaprio (outstanding) and Kate Winslet (excellent), who embody the film’s admittedly old-fashioned, somewhat hokey but still compelling love story between the lower-class passenger and the upper-class rich girl slated to marry snobby tycoon Billy Zane. DiCaprio illustrates why he’s one of the most promising young actors to appear on the silver screen in years; he has an unpredictable yet earnest quality about him that will undoubtedly serve him well in a variety of roles in the years to come, yet it won’t be surprising to see him take home an Oscar next March. The buxom Winslet is often captivating as the female lead, a role that often comes across as cliched and maybe a bit forced, yet she does such a fine job with it that it is hard to complain. Excellent supporting work abounds in this film, from Kathy Bates’s Molly Brown to fine character turns by David Warner and Frances Fisher. The first half of the film is so good, in fact, that you forget the ship is on-course for the deadliest maritime disaster of the twentieth century.
When the big event does arrive, Cameron treats us to a simply breathtaking dramatic display, the closest thing to a veritable rollercoaster (geometrically and otherwise) we’ve yet seen in the movies. The incident is awesomely conveyed in size and scope, with the most incredible, detailed special effects ever produced. They masterfully assist Cameron in producing a meticulous recreation of the actual tragedy, with virtually every incident coming straight out of real-life accounts from survivors. (Indeed, Cameron frames shots that were supposed to have actually happened throughout the film. There is one moment early on where a young boy is spinning a top on the ship’s deck, a picture that originates from an Irish priest’s photo of the Titanic in port at Belfast–one of the final photos ever taken of the ship. Clearly, Titanic scholars will find an incredible array of moments like those interpolated throughout the film, in addition to dialogue between some of the White Star line and crew members that also reportedly occurred in real life).
Like every great film, the cumulative whole of TITANIC is that of a true, bona-fide experience–the kind we hope to see every time we go to the movies, yet rarely ever do. TITANIC stays with you long after the film has ended–its relatively simple messages of living your life to its fullest, freed from the restrictions imposed by other individuals and society itself, may seem straightforward enough, yet Cameron’s movie has a haunting resonance that is almost impossible to describe (part of this is due to James Horner’s outstanding score, which becomes all the more impressive after one has actually seen the film).
After it’s over, you’re left contemplating the immense significance of an almost incomprehensible event that has been broken down into pure human terms that apply to all of us. It’s hard to think back on other movies that have left that much of an impression on viewers, which is why TITANIC is a movie whose cinematic legacy may live on as long as the historical impact of the tragic sinking itself. (PG-13, 194 mins.)
*”TOMORROW” DOESN’T COMPLETELY DIE
TOMORROW NEVER DIES (**1/2): One of those movies that you’re tempted to give a higher rating than it actually deserves, this latest James Bond adventure is a solid improvement on GOLDENEYE, though it’s also a movie with its own share of problems.
Here, Bond takes on a Murdoch/Trump-like tycoon (Jonathan Pryce) who single-handedly instigates world mayhem for the sake of getting the latest exclusive scoop for his international media services. Assisting 007 are Michelle Yeoh, a Chinese secret agent defying her government, and Teri Hatcher, filling out the old series stand-by of the “obligatory sacrificial lamb” as Pryce’s wife.
One of the chief flaws in the movie’s otherwise sound scenario cooked up by GOLDENEYE scribe Bruce Fierstein is its puzzling lack of supporting players–TOMORROW NEVER DIES basically centers on the main protagonists with no developed people on the side, and leaps from one action sequence to the next with a bare minimum of character exposition. The plot never explains Bond’s relationship with the Hatcher character (how did they meet? where?), and gets particularly confusing at the finish where Pryce threatens to launch a missile that will start WWIII. In a movie filled with gaping plot holes, it’s not surprising that it is never made clear if the British have completely eliminated the WWIII threat by communicating with the intended target (the Chinese) before Bond even takes on the threat of world elimination!
The choice to concentrate on action would not have necessarily been a bad idea (particularly considering the sluggish narrative of GOLDENEYE), if not for the fact that director Roger Spottiswoode (UNDER FIRE) is clearly a bit rusty in handling the more elaborate set-pieces. Yes, there is an engaging though claustrophobic “remote control car chase” in a parking garage, but also several underwhelming bits of Joel Silver-inspired antics, most significantly an overlong, poorly edited motorcycle escape through the streets of Bangkok. In fact, the pre-credits sequence is so badly edited that, when 007 makes his entrance, it feels like someone lost a reel in the projection booth! Like many Bond films, the climactic confrontation in the villain’s hideout leaves much to be desired, characterized by a mind-numbing succession of gunfights that never once generates a bit of suspense. Donaldson does a spectacularly inept job establishing where the characters are in relation to the surroundings around them, so much so that you not only don’t know where the action is taking place, but also don’t care.
As a lifelong 007 buff and as someone who despised GOLDENEYE, I was rooting for TOMORROW NEVER DIES to get its act together, and while it never quite does, all is not completely lost. Jonathan Pryce is marvelous here–with his obnoxious swagger and clearly established motivations, he’s one of the most effective villains this series has seen in years. David Arnold’s score is likewise outstanding, the best non-Barry score of the Eon series, and his end credit song (“Surrender”) is also one of the series’ top contemporary ballads without a doubt. Finally, Pierce Brosnan actually perks up in this movie, growing into the Bond role with a flair for rugged physicality and dry wit that embodies both the toughness of Connery and the charm of Moore. If the actor looked stiff and uncomfortable in his first picture, Brosnan looks like he’s having fun here, and when he breaks out briefly into a devilish, boyish grin while piloting his BMW from the back seat, you actually get the feeling that Bond truly IS back.
Hopefully, with a capable director and a more substantial script, the series will do the same the next time around. (PG-13, 120 mins.)