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All reviews - Movies (48) - TV Shows (3)

21 Jump Street review

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 30 March 2012 02:05 (A review of 21 Jump Street)

From the beginning, a "21 Jump Street" movie was a collective groan of a concept.

Beloved by a generation of teens who didn't know any better, the 1980s show was probably one Johnny Depp casting call away from being quickly canceled and forgotten. As far as unnecessary remakes go, you could make a stronger argument for "B.J. and the Bear."

The filmmakers seemed to feel the same way, and their open disdain for conventions liberates the movie. This is a consistently funny film, which is good. But the true achievement is that it occasionally feels original.

"21 Jump Street," for anyone whose parents would only let them watch PBS from 1987 to 1991, was a Fox Network TV show about a group of young-looking cops who infiltrated high school crime rings. With a talented and memorably pretty cast including Depp and Holly Robinson, it was easy to look past the repetitive story lines and overload of sincerity.

The "21 Jump Street" movie takes the name and the part about the high schools, and then mocks pretty much everything else - with plenty of success. If writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill watched the show, they never took it seriously. You can almost see them on a couch in college, smoking dope and laughing about the fact that co-star Dustin Nguyen was registering for high school when he looked 35 years old.

The cops here are strapping Jenko (Channing Tatum) and dorky smart guy Schmidt (Hill). Rivals in high school, they develop a nice chemistry in the police academy and get forced into duty at the Jump Street program. From there, comedy takes precedence over story cohesion, in the tradition of other recommendable narrative messes, including "Pineapple Express" and "Anchorman."

Phil Lord and Chris Miller approach the film more like camp counselors than filmmakers, directing "21 Jump Street" as if they were paid by the tangent and non sequitur. For 10 minutes or so, the movie is a pretty good satire of sanctimonious teens in 2012. (Jenko is ostracized for his muscle car's bad mileage; the cool kids have cars that run on french fry oil.) Other scenes take aim at the slow-motion flying doves in John Woo movies, and the kinds of vehicles that explode in car chases. Why is there a biker gang in this film? Why not?

Tatum will get plenty of credit for holding his own with the comedy; every one of his scenes with a deputized trio of chemistry nerds is excellent. But screenwriter Bacall is the secret weapon here. He also had a hand in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and you get the impression that with a little bit of free rein, he could make anything funny. A "T.J. Hooker" remake? "Hello, Larry: The Movie." If Bacall were attached, I'd give it a shot.

This film is even better if you come in with no spoilers and low expectations, so we will build it up no more. Know that it earns its R rating, mostly because of language and violence. And staying as cryptic as possible, we offer the following advice for fans of the original "21 Jump Street": Make sure you take your bathroom break before the prom starts.


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The Ides of March review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 22 March 2012 06:53 (A review of The Ides of March)

The Ides of March is the fourth feature directed by George Clooney (after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Leatherheads), and it's his best one yet. Actors who become directors tend to focus on performance at the expense of everything else. Clooney certainly brings out the best in his actors, but his driving trait as a filmmaker is that he knows what plays — he has an uncanny sense of how to uncork a scene and let it bubble and flow.

The movie is a grippingly dark and cynical drama of insider politics, set during the days leading up to an Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling, proving that he can flirt with sleaze and still make you like him, stars as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic but also shrewdly opportunistic press secretary to Gov. Mike Morris (played by Clooney), a soulful and articulate Obama-in-2008-esque candidate who is promising a new kind of politics. Morris and his team are out to win the endorsement of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose rival delegates could clinch Morris the nomination. The movie, adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North (the screenplay was co-written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Willimon), offers a densely shuffled version of actual headline campaign news: not just Obama but the Clinton scandals, Howard Dean, and a nod to Mike Dukakis, all knitted together with cameos by Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews that (for once) don't feel like stunt reality gimmicks but are woven into the movie's texture.

Early on, there's a moment that really makes you take notice: Marisa Tomei, as a New York Times reporter, tells Stephen and the governor's campaign manager (a brilliantly addled Philip Seymour Hoffman) that there's no way candidate Morris, with his hope-and-change rhetoric, could turn out to be anything but a disappointment. Hmmmm, we wonder...is this going to be the liberal Clooney's comment on the disenchantment so many Obama supporters feel about the president they once thought of as a savior? Well, sort of. Except that since The Ides of March is about a single primary fight, the movie, while stuffed with political talk-show gabble, isn't really about policy. It's about backstabbing, media manipulation, and what campaign managers do when they're not hatching plans in the war room.

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It's also about an office intern, played with luscious dazzle by Evan Rachel Wood, who gets into the middle of everything. Yes, the movie turns on a potential sex scandal, which makes it sound like another one of Hollywood's overheated prestige tabloid melodramas. But it's not. Clooney, as a filmmaker, packs the events in so tightly, and smartly, that the little ''aha'' parallels between the characters and actual politicians aren't the film's true hook. They're just the audience bait. What Clooney is really out to capture, and does, is the acrid, murderously toxic atmosphere of contemporary politics — the double-dealing, magnified by the media, that turns policy into a corrupt game even when it's being played by ''idealists.'' The Ides of March has true storytelling verve, but it also plays like a rite of exorcism. It pulses along like an update of The Candidate fused with a political Sweet Smell of Success — it's got that kind of noirish fizz.

Gosling gives a solid and sympathetic performance, even though I couldn't shake the feeling that he's a bit miscast. He doesn't have the brainiac Ivy League glibness of a young political hustler. Hoffman, on the other hand, seems to have been ripped right out of the Beltway, and Paul Giamatti, as a rival campaign manager, acts with a snakish low cunning. As for Clooney, he's perfect playing an all-too-compelling fiction: an Obama with a sinister side.

The Ides of March serves up everything we've come to know about the dirty business of how campaigns are really run in this country. That may sound like boilerplate cynicism, but what's new is that Clooney exposes how in our era the thorny process of politics has become the content, blotting out the meaning of policy the way an eclipse blots out the sun. The movie suggests that that's what occurred in the Obama administration. But it also says a spirit of venomous aggression has entered our politics, one that (the film implies) Obama would do well to embrace more than he has. The Ides of March isn't profound, but it sure is provocative. It's a fable of moral urgency, a savvy lament, and a thriller of ideas that goes like a shot.


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Blue Valentine review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 22 March 2012 06:49 (A review of Blue Valentine)

The beguiling beginning and dismaying deterioration of a relationship are charted simultaneously in "Blue Valentine," an intensely acted, minutely observed attempt to convey the arc of a romantic involvement. Onscreen continuously for two hours in various states of emotional extremity, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams dive into the deep end of commitment to their roles as young working-class parents and bring them fully alive. Director Derek Cianfrance, whose "Brother Tied" played at Sundance in 1998, employs a close-up, impressionistic style that has its pros and cons, but on balance, this is a meaty, strongly realized dramatic work of considerable accomplishment. Name actors provide the film a serious profile, but it will take a dedicated distributor to muscle this very far into the theatrical market.
Shooting in intense closeups with long lenses and the Red digital camera system in the contemporary breakup scenes, Cianfrance immediately conveys the impression of eavesdropping on real life. Dean (Gosling), a good-looking regular Joe rarely without a cigarette and a beer, horses around at home with young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) in a modest wooded Eastern neighborhood. Wife Cindy (Williams), who's naturally attractive but letting herself go, seems sulky; life seems limited, there is a cloud concerning their missing dog and Grandpa (John Doman) is on oxygen.

On a quick grocery stop, Cindy bumps into Bobby (Mike Vogel), an ex she hasn't seen in a long time, who impudently asks if she's been faithful to her husband. Disgusted, she later mentions the encounter to Dean, who goes into a petulant snit. No matter what they discuss, Dean and Cindy end up arguing; their dynamic is uniformly negative and destructive.

Flashing back a few years earlier, in material shot for greater depth of field and visual detail with a shorter lens and on Super 16mm, a younger Dean (defined mostly by a fuller head of hair) happily takes a job with a moving company in Brooklyn, while Cindy is a student with an eye on the medical profession, with wrestler Bobby as her b.f. Dean and Cindy meet while helping people at an old folks' home, and Dean is genuinely funny and charming in courting a girl he quickly comes to love and desire as his lifelong mate.

The film swings back and forth between the rising feelings of a developing relationship, one complicated by an unplanned pregnancy, and the downward spiral of its fracture. In the contemporary timeframe, the couple go to a "romantic" hotel, and while there is some upside to their night together, Cindy is ultimately called upon to cut it short for work, which leads to a giant blow-up.

Cianfrance, working with co-screenwriters Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne and undoubted input from the actors, has succeeded in creating a precise mosaic of a relationship from innumerable small details; moment to moment, the film lives and breathes with emotional truth. The looming question, however, is whether or not it gets to the bottom of what went wrong between Dean and Cindy. It's clear that Cindy comes to feel that Dean will always love and be there for her, and he is; he's also a good father. However, he never matures, displays no ambition and seems oblivious to the issue of how they might improve their lot in life, which is terribly mundane.

While all this is no doubt disappointing to Cindy, she hasn't helped matters by retreating into a cocoon, and despite a decent job, she hardly seems more capable than her husband of helping to raise the family out of the doldrums. The film is so focused on charting the couple's emotional fluctuations that even a slightly bigger perspective is never suggested; it's difficult to pinpoint what went wrong or if there were roads not taken that could have prevented the sorry outcome.

Scruffy-looking but handsome, Dean reaches his full potential when he marries Cindy; he apparently assumes life can just go on from there without any particular planning or strategy. Cindy is similar in this respect but, unlike her husband, is dissatisfied with the stasis. Gosling and Williams interact beautifully and without a false note, their deep immersion in their roles resulting in nothing but behavioral truths.

It's also a muscular, highly controlled piece of filmmaking, with its photographic style carefully judged and the editing balancing both dual narrative tracks and quicksilver mood changes. Craft contributions are uniformly strong. Lensing was done in Pennsylvania, with some location work in New York.


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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:25 (A review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, the three books that make up "The Lord of the Rings," is about two profound things -- the horror of power without spiritual understanding, and the nature of courage. In the figure of Frodo, the humble, small-town hobbit who never expected to be called upon for acts of bravery or sacrifice, several generations of readers have found their everyman, their hairy-footed inspiration, their call to day-by-day fortitude.
The books are marvelous, and they have, like all great epics, the power to awaken powerful responses in their readers. To even begin to conceive of a cinematic version of the series is daunting -- not only because the books' power lies in the intimacy of their imagination but also because they are so specific in Tolkien's construction, created with such loving specificity. Get one thing wrong, and the whole thing is wrong . . . or at least not quite right.

Well, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" gets it right. It's a wonderful movie. Watching it, one can't help but get the impression that everyone involved was steeped in Tolkien's work, loved the book, treasured it and took care not to break a cherished thing in it. Director Peter Jackson has created a film refreshingly free of ego, giving this technically advanced picture an old-fashioned rhythm and gravity. Scenes play out without constant jump-cutting or obtrusive editing. The movie as a movie becomes, in a strange way, unnoticeable, because it's so correct.

The trilogy was about character, and so is the movie. In spite of its stunning special effects and beautiful art direction, the film

draws its power mainly from the essence, humanity and skill of its lead actors. Ian McKellen as Gandalf the wizard, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Elijah Wood as Frodo -- and the rest of the actors who make up the fellowship -- hit their roles head on, with conviction and purity of heart. This is no place for post-modern detachment. The result is an acting company that interacts like the best of ensembles. The audience gets to be swept away because the actors are going there, too. .

A WIZARD'S AURA

McKellen is particularly splendid. In him, the aura of a great wizard and a great stage actor combine effortlessly. He inhabits Gandalf without camp or bravado, but with a sly sense of enjoyment that makes it a characterization for adults as well as children. One gets the sense that McKellen understands the profundity of the role, and yet some part of him is also thinking, "Can you believe I get to wear this hat?" It's thoroughly winning.


Hobbits are small, good-natured folk who love to have fun and who eat constantly. Dwarfs are somewhat broader and have rougher dispositions. Humans are humans, and elves are tall, beautiful, immortal beings, who, at least in this movie, are slightly prickly and aloof, like Swedish hairstylists. Cate Blanchett is Queen Elizabeth-like as Galadriel, the elf queen, and Liv Tyler is lovely and earnest as Arwen, an elf princess.

The movie gets off to an assured start with a visit by Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit friend. Through camera magic, Gandalf appears to be twice the size of Bilbo (even without the pointy hat), and the sight of the tall wizard trying to navigate the rooms in Bilbo's tiny house takes us immediately into this charming other world.
The film's story centers on a gold ring that gives invincible power to anyone who wears it. Bilbo has been in possession of it for years, and when he leaves town, he passes it on to Frodo. The ring is a force of evil, and the creator of that force, Sauron, is hot in pursuit of it. It becomes Frodo's mission -- dreaded, unasked for -- to save civilization by destroying the ring in the only place it can be destroyed, the hellish furnace where Sauron forged it.
"Fellowship of the Ring" gets its title from the team of warriors who go off with Frodo and several hobbit companions on what seems like an impossible mission. The fellowship is the Middle-earth equivalent of a U.N. contingent -- hobbits, a dwarf, a wizard, an elf and two men, who must overcome their antagonisms and weaknesses in order to fight an evil that threatens to engulf the world. .

A HUMBLE HOBBIT

Wood is perfect as Frodo, the one being with enough humility not to be seduced by the ring's glamour. The role requires a quality of being as much as acting, and Wood's performance will come as a relief after many nauseating seasons of vile young screen actors embodying vile and narcissistic characters.

It's a beautiful thing -- an unsnotty, available, affectionate and utterly open performance.

Ian Holm is memorable in his handful of scenes as the hobbit who, having kept the ring of power for so many years, finds himself eroding in spirit, even as he is preserved in body. Viggo Mortensen brings the magnetism of an anti-hero to Aragorn, the wandering outcast king. Like Sean Bean, who is equally impressive as Boromir, Mortensen gives the sense of a great man in reduced times. .

SPLENDID SETTINGS

The interior of the mines of Moria is dreamlike, and the goblins running up and down its columns are as eerie -- and may someday be considered as unforgettable -- as the winged monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz." The splendor of the various settings are too many to detail, but the harrowing escape from the mines is especially magnificent. In every way, this is moviemaking on a grand scale.

"Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" would be an exceptional film in any year or season. Yet there's no escaping that part of what makes this film especially powerful is what happened to us as a nation Sept. 11.

The themes feel sad and close. We see visions of a fallen planet, of men unable to control their lust for power, of wizards of unimaginable knowledge who have sold their souls for profit. Most of all, we see a world in fear, and a shadow from another land that threatens the end of everything.


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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:22 (A review of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers)

The director Peter Jackson's scrupulous devotion to the spirit of J. R. R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy manifests itself in a gripping, intense fashion for the second of the film adaptations, ''The Two Towers.'' It may be the first sequel that does not bother to reprise the major plot elements of its predecessor immediately; the plan is to simply drop us right into the action.

Even for those deeply immersed in the material, this stratagem creates a few moments of apprehension -- the same disconcerted quality that the hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are experiencing on their journey; this mission began in ''The Fellowship of the Ring'' when Frodo was entrusted with the ring that gives its bearer enormous powers and, incidentally, begins the end of life in Middle Earth, as was indicated in the first ''Ring'' movie, ''The Fellowship of the Ring.''

Never has a film so strongly been a product of a director's respect for its source. Mr. Jackson uses all his talents in the service of that reverence, creating a rare perfect mating of filmmaker and material. Mr. Jackson's ploy in this beautifully considered epic is to give viewers the same feeling of confusion that his characters are experiencing. By doing this he simultaneously answers those who complained that too much of the previous ''Rings'' was about setup.
A brief recap of a climactic battle between the friendly wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a fire demon -- one of many climactic battles from ''Fellowship'' -- is shown near the start. But this scene is used to set ''The Two Towers'' in motion. It is a daring gambit to have viewers enter a movie bearing such complex preceding action with so little information. Even though the first film took in enough cash to jump-start the flagging United States economy single-handedly, Mr. Jackson does not seem to understand that there are people who haven't absorbed the ''Rings'' chronology into the entirety of their beings. And there may even be folks out there who haven't seen ''Fellowship,'' but will be lured into theaters for ''Towers'' by all the attention that ''Fellowship'' attracted. Such moviegoers may feel left out, puzzled and unable to keep up.
With the narrative of ''Rings,'' Tolkien was investigating determination, loyalty and, finally, faith, finding innumerable ways to offer up the concept of purity of heart, as found in Matthew 5:8 and in Kierkegaard, whose contention was that purity of heart was the ability to will one thing into being. The pursuit of purity is at the center of ''Towers.''

For our hero, Frodo, whose quest is to purge the forces of menacing evil from Middle Earth, purity is demonstrated by combating the temptation to wear the ring and be consumed by its corrupting power. He gets a taste of what the future might be like when he and Sam meet Gollum, a hobbit who was once seduced by the ring. He is now an emotional and physical shambles; emaciated and slunk into a perpetual crouch, Gollum's translucent, waxy skin is a membrane that just barely contains his insides.

Gollum is divided within himself; he is an infantilized wreck who wants to please and befriend the hobbits. But he is also a hissing, bitter child-man whose paranoia keeps him breathing, and plotting. Gollum is a computer-generated creation and as fully realized a character as can be found in ''Towers'' -- perhaps the most fully realized. (He has been dropped into the movie more effectively than George Lucas crammed Jar Jar Binks into his recent ''Star Wars'' addenda.) With the voice of Andy Serkis, whose movements were also copied by the animators, Gollum is torn by his nature, and Mr. Jackson allows him to be conflicted in a way none of the other characters in the film are.
This is partially because ''Towers'' is more or less a bridge to the finale of the ''Rings'' trilogy due a year from now, though this picture is one of the most accomplished holding actions ever.

So, much of the flow of ''Towers'' is dictated by the amount of information that has to be saved for the next installment. Mr. Jackson compensates for that by inflating the warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) into an even more assured, reflexive action hero. He helps a bewitched king (Bernard Hill) defend his castle against the endless, possessed armies of the villainous magician Saruman (Christopher Lee), the foe responsible for the fate of Gandalf. In his flowing white gowns and beard, Mr. Lee's warlock is a force to be reckoned with because he alone has a voice as commanding as Mr. McKellen's.
In sheer action mechanics, Mr. Jackson's achievements in ''Towers'' are even more compelling than what he managed the first time around; he has given the martial scenes of this sequel a completely different thrust. His engrossing action style is exciting and dramatic; when the swells of Saruman's army crash into the walls of the king's castle, we could be watching Orson Welles's ''Chimes at Midnight'' as directed by George A. Romero -- Shakespearean-scale bloodshed and loss as an exploitation movie. The exultant creepiness of horror films is Mr. Jackson's instinctive filmmaking style. He exaggerates it here in epic terms, and the grandeur is astonishing -- one scene of Saruman's creatures flinging themselves at the castle is framed as an overhead shot, with their shields moving like the wings of a peculiarly lyric and fatal insect.

Mr. Jackson's mastery of craft in some areas is so powerful that the flaws are more noticeable than in the first film. The little-boy allure of the storytelling in ''Towers'' is sure to evoke the same reaction that it did in ''Fellowship.'' ''Towers'' is like a family-oriented E-rated video game, with no emotional complications other than saving the day. Women have so little to do here that they serve almost as plot-device flight attendants, offering a trough of Diet Coke to refresh the geek-magnet story. (It is a lapse in Tolkien's work that Mr. Jackson has not figured out a way to correct, even with the token reappearances of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett from the first film.)
Mr. McKellen is a marginal presence this time around, which is unfortunate because he is needed for ballast; ''Rings'' is such a kids' fantasy that a daddy figure is required. He is the father who soothes his charges under the spell of Tolkien's bad-dream threats. But he does get one -- only one -- whooping chance to do so in ''Towers.''

The most incredible accomplishment of ''Towers'' is that at its heart it is a transition film that lasts nearly three hours and holds the viewer's attention. Because ''The Two Towers,'' which opens worldwide today, has to keep so much story in reserve for the last installment, the movie falls short on emotional involvement. Still, Mr. Jackson rises so completely to the challenges here that I can't wait to see his next movie -- by that, I mean the one after the ''Ring'' cycle ends.


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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:20 (A review of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)

After the galloping intelligence displayed in the first two parts of ''The Lord of the Rings'' trilogy, your fear may be that the director, Peter Jackson, would become cautious and unimaginative with the last episode, ''The Return of the King.'' Look at what ''The Matrix'' did to the Wachowski brothers; the last two were like action movies made for CNBC.

But Mr. Jackson crushes any such fear. His ''King'' is a meticulous and prodigious vision made by a director who was not hamstrung by heavy use of computer special-effects imagery. A sequence in which a number of signal fires are lighted on a stretch of mountain ranges simultaneously is a towering moment; it has the majesty that every studio's opening logo shot sprains itself striving to achieve.

Mr. Jackson does take his time, but he's not sloughing off here. Rather he is building toward a more than solid conclusion. The grandiloquence that sustained the second installment, ''The Two Towers,'' with its pounding and operatic martial fury -- a movie that actually created a state of siege and left audiences hanging -- can be found here.

Yet by its end ''King'' glides to the gentle bonhomie that opened the ''Rings'' movies, with an epilogue that is tinged with regret. It's been a long time since a commercially oriented film with the scale of ''King'' ended with such an enduring and heartbreaking coda: ''You can't go back. Some wounds don't heal.'' It's an epic about the price of triumph, a subversive victory itself in a large-scale pop action film.

The closest thing to a recap of the previous films, ''The Fellowship of the Rings'' and ''Towers,'' this picture supplies is showing Gollum (Andy Serkis) as a regular hobbit -- Smeagol -- before he was subsumed by his appetite for the glittering One Ring and transformed into a larval creature that looks like the worm Smeagol is shown putting on a hook. It's the One Ring that the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) has to transport to Mordor and destroy it there.

The collaboration of actor and director -- Mr. Serkis and Mr. Jackson -- for Gollum is a frighteningly believable realization of computer imagery as performer. Gollum, whose phyllo-dough skin still masks his abrupt and fully felt changes of heart, is as emotionally rich a creation as any actor's work this year. A dialogue he has with his reflection in a pond courses with invective and self-disgust. All of Mr. Jackson's glib, funny pranks in ''Heavenly Creatures'' and ''The Frighteners'' -- in which we were never supposed to be sure what was going on -- prepared him for a dramatic application of those techniques here. (He also employs his haunted-house dexterity in a formidable sequence with a giant spider.)

Gollum's push-pull, divided between his hunger for the ring and his fears, makes him the most tragic figure in the movie. He preys on Frodo's weakened spirit, looking for the moment he can get the ring away and kill them both. The cursed ring pecks away at Frodo's humanity, as Gollum hammers away at the hobbit's remaining panes of will. The only thing keeping the wizened yet infantile goblin at bay is Frodo's loyal ally and sworn protector, Sam (Sean Astin). By making Gollum as integral a part of this tableau as Frodo and Sam, not only is there an important plot point at stake, but the movie is also frosted with misery.

That mournful note echoes as Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his forces ready for their assault on Sauron's forces, the orcs. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in a voice sodden with mellow sadness, realizes that Frodo and Sam are on a suicide mission: ''There never was much hope. Just a false hope.'' Sir Ian's eyes move slowly, filled with mystery and pain.

There is a sacrificial cast to the entire endeavor. The dwarf warrior Gimli thrives on this fatalistic bent, and is given a wry heedlessness by John Rhys-Davies; his charm-offense basso rumble is also the voice of the lord of the forest, Treebeard. The pitilessly sure elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom, whose physical élan fills out the role) observes ''a sleepless malice'' watching over them. The hobbit Pippin has a much bigger role in this battle, and Billy Boyd is up to it, allowing Pippin to mature.

Aragorn has the slinky swagger and dreamy stubble that make him look like a legend created by Tolkien, Sam Shepard and Ralph Lauren. Fortunately Mr. Mortensen also has a touch of modesty as an actor, which allows him to take up space as if he belongs in the center of the frame rather than battling the other performers for it.

Pippin's pal, Merry (Dominic Monaghan), joins the fight, too, pulled along by Eowyn (Miranda Otto, touchingly ferocious). Ms. Otto stakes a worthy claim for every moment of screen time, while poor Liv Tyler, as the elf princess Arwen, is limited to dialogue that sounds like a spoken portion of a Spinal Tap album. Cate Blanchett's Galadriel hardly appears at all, and Hugo Weaving, as the elf lord Elrond, arrives just in time to answer a trivia question. (Who is the best-known Australian actor to appear in the ''Matrix'' and ''Rings'' movies?)

The actors all look older than they did in ''Fellowship,'' and it fits the strategy of employing the same cast over an extended period for the films. This decision adds fresh dimension to the lingering sadness, as we can see some of the bloom worn out of their flesh and sadder, reddened eyes on all of them.

Their battle weariness is appropriate given whom they are up against. The orcs and their terrifying behemoths of burden have a surreal confidence in victory; they even turn the phrase ''Release the prisoners'' into a threat. Sauron's misshapen foot soldiers and their collection of mutated animal freaks look as if they've crawled out of the sewers of Love Canal looking for summer work.

''King,'' which opens round the country tomorrow, features more prognostication and exposition than its predecessors. Yet despite all of the setups required, Mr. Jackson maintains tension. In ''Towers,'' the director and his fellow screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, secured a spiritual fidelity to the novel. In ''King'' they manage that and far more; the last third is especially condensed, and Aragon's role in the last battle is fleshed out. But the Tolkien search for purity is central to their ''King,'' too. And the movie isn't as exclusionary as the books' implicit Christian forcefulness, which made Middle Earth a re-creation of the Crusades.

''King'' is the product of impressive craft and energy. The ''sleepless malice'' is aligned with controlled chaos; the sizable exertion of concentration from Mr. Jackson is multiplied by his ''Rings'' team, including his cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie; composer, Howard Shore; production designer, Grant Major; and the battalion of other artisans responsible for the costumes, makeup and special effects.

It is evident that the grip of ''The Return of the King'' on Mr. Jackson is not unlike the grasp the One Ring exerts over Frodo: it's tough for him to let go, which is why the picture feels as if it has an excess of endings. But he can be forgiven. Why not allow him one last extra bow?


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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:16 (A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)

Childhood ends, this time forever, with tears and howls, swirls of smoke, the shock of mortality and bittersweet smiles in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the grave, deeply satisfying final movie in the series. A pop cultural happening extraordinaire, the Potter movies took uncertain flight in 2001 with Harry, then an orphan of 11, home alone with his grotesquely unloving relatives. Times were grim, at least off screen — the first opened in November of that year — but Chris Columbus’s directorial touch was insistently light as Harry was initiated into a world alive with odd doings, strange creatures and the evil that would almost consume it.
A decade later Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), have become powerful adult wizards, while the actors are now stars. Look closely and you can see the beard inching along Harry’s, or rather Mr. Radcliffe’s pale chin. Meanwhile Ms. Watson, smoldering in bruising dark lipstick on the cover of the July Vogue, has her own hair and makeup artist, and the director, David Yates, even trains the camera on her generous peekaboo cleavage. Just as startling is the transformation of Mr. Grint who, in one early, anxious scene wears a goatee and a panicked look that together suggest a junior Paul Giamatti. My, how the children have grown — and the movies too.

It’s taken two of them to translate J. K. Rowling’s last, exhausting tome. A long windup to the new one’s big-bang finale, “Part 1” was memorable for the death of the house elf Dobby and less so for the draggy scenes of Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding and quarreling in the wild. There’s no time for adolescent angst in war. Now, when a student (he who shall not be named so as not to ruin the fun) declares his affection for another — the air electric with fire, frenzy and young love (if never lust) — it’s because, as he says, both may soon be dead. Fans of the books know how it turns out, and moviegoers can guess. Meanwhile this declaration, especially given the casualties to come, may fill you with feeling and also make you cry.

I did, partly because it’s been unexpectedly moving growing older with these characters and actors perhaps simply because it’s invariably poignant watching children become adults. However uneven they were at the start, the three young leads were irresistible simply because they were so young, unformed and vulnerable (like their characters). Ms. Watson was the most assured, while Mr. Grint was the natural (and still is). Mr. Radcliffe, button cute, capable, opaque, was tougher to warm up to. But it’s pointless to think of anyone else. He became Harry, Harry is him, and Mr. Radcliffe’s depthless quality now seems right for a character who, in the books and movies, was never as interesting as the magical world he revealed to us.

Mr. Radcliffe has evolved enough as a performer that he makes a steady hub for the busily spinning parts, even as Ms. Watson and Mr. Grint, whose characters are drifting toward their fate, have less to do. All three have nice moments in this movie, but it’s the older adults who take center stage. Much has rightly been made over the years about how the franchise became a platform for some of the best British actors working, a truism that brought it force and gravity as one after another great — Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs — stepped up, often wonderfully. Here it’s Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman who give the master class in acting.

As Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who could not be named for ages but has been for a while, Mr. Fiennes has been part of the mix since the fourth film (“The Goblet of Fire”). Over the course of the series, as Voldemort gathered in power and corporeality, his wrenched, Medusa-like face eventually growing a body (though oddly losing its nose), the actor started to fill out the character with sharp, indelible gestures, a flick of the wrist, a twist of the mouth. In “Part 2” his whispering hiss of a voice slithers into ears like a snake, seducing and terrorizing. But watch Mr. Fiennes’s hands, look as they flutter, their white, spidery fingers idling with exquisite delicacy as the long nails, sharpened into perfect arrows, threaten the worst.

This is such great screen villainy it makes you regret there wasn’t more of Voldemort all along and more too of his incarnations as another gifted boy wizard, Tom Riddle. The books, fat with detail and detours into the past, gave Ms. Rowling loads of room to play. With only two or so hours of story time, the movies have been forced to sacrifice swaths of her material, and while the scripts have been largely models of adaptation — most, this one included, are by Steve Kloves — the emphasis on action (and interminable games of quidditch) was also a concession to the action-imperative of the modern blockbuster. (A deadly dull game that served as a rehearsal for war, quidditch is one Hogwarts tradition I was happy to see burn.)
Mr. Yates, who brought the series into its mature stage with the fifth feature, “The Order of the Phoenix,” gets it mostly right in “Part 2.” The movie, the eighth, is tightly focused and as somber and unsettling as it should be, considering its apocalyptic events. It’s also often beautiful, washed in gray and so drained of other color that at first it looks as if it’s in black and white. It’s no wonder: Mr. Yates has kicked into Manichaean mode — and it’s the fight of good against evil, wizards against Voldemort and his hordes — so the director can be forgiven for almost overplaying the fascist overtones (the students rhythmically marching in the opener are nearly goose-stepping) if not for the juvenile St. Crispin’s Day speech at the end.
Although a few scenes feel calculated to work as synergistic complements to the Harry Potter Empire beyond — like the overlong swooping rail ride that turns a spooky cavern into a theme park — these pass quickly. One of the great and surprising satisfactions of the series is how, through the very fine and less so movies, it maintained its storytelling and filmmaking integrity, despite the corporate imperative. The love of the fans helped keep the series on track, as did the filmmakers (technicians included) and performers. The movies have affirmed that the relationship between mass art and its consumers is at times incredibly rich, evident in the mind-blowing fan culture of Potter world. Also: blockbusters can be awfully good.

This bigness is no small thing. There are times, particularly during the enervating summer season, when it can seem as if Hollywood has forgotten how to put on a really big — and great — show. (Perhaps the studios should just hand over more blockbusters to the British: Christopher Nolan, after all, is London born.) It isn’t often in the summer that you enjoy the intense pleasure of a certain kind of old-fashioned cinema experience, the sort that sweeps you up in sheer spectacle with bigger-than-life images and yet holds you close with intimately observed characters and the details that keep your eyes and mind busy. Too often it can be hard to see the human touch amid the industrial machinery, which hasn’t been true here.

One reason the movies work is that their scale never overwhelmed the extraordinary characters, especially the wizards whose very ordinary habits, prejudices, quirks and fears made this fantastical world recognizable. Over time the special effects have grown more special, but at their finest these are so seamlessly integrated that they no longer pop off the screen (even in 3-D) and instead serve the story’s emotional realism. When you see the albino dragon in “Part 2,” you may marvel at the technical virtuosity of its creation and how the muscles on its flanks clench with palpable effort as it looks down at a cityscape much as King Kong once did. Yet what lingers is how quickly this computer-made creature becomes a character.

That dragon and Mr. Fiennes make this final Harry Potter movie soar, as do Mr. Gambon’s brief turn and Ms. Smith’s furious and then visibly delighted marshaling of an army of stone soldiers. Finally too there is Mr. Rickman, who as Snape, Harry’s longtime nemesis, lifts the movie to its expressive high point. First seen standing in a window shaped like a coffin, Snape enters gravely, a picture of death. Pale and unsmiling, his black hair framing his white face like mourning crepe, he has always suggested Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, an ominous thought with children in the vicinity. That Snape has proven worthy of that comparison is partly a tribute to Ms. Rowling, but that he has become such a brilliant screen character is due to Mr. Rickman, who helped elevate a child’s tale of good and evil into a story of human struggle.

NYT


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Inception review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:13 (A review of Inception)

Christopher Nolan's mind-bending, intelligent, exciting and disturbing sci-fi extravaganza, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, blends the best of traditional and modern filmmaking.
Dreaming is life's great solitary adventure. Whatever pleasures or terrors the dream state provides, we experience them alone or not at all.

But what if other people could literally invade our dreams, what if a technology existed that enabled interlopers to create and manipulate sleeping life with the goal of stealing our secret thoughts, or more unsettling still, implanting ideas in the deepest of subconscious states and making us believe they're our own?
Welcome to the world of "Inception," written and directed by the masterful Christopher Nolan, a tremendously exciting science-fiction thriller that's as disturbing as it sounds. This is a popular entertainment with a knockout punch so intense and unnerving it'll have you worrying if it's safe to close your eyes at night.

Having come up with the idea when he was 16, Nolan wrote the first draft of "Inception" eight years ago and in the interim his great success with "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," not to mention the earlier "Memento," put him in a position to cast Leonardo DiCaprio and six other Oscar-nominated actors and spend a reported $160 million in a most daring way.

For "Inception" is not only about the dream state, it often plays on screen in a dreamlike way, which means that it has the gift of being easier to follow than to explain. Specifics of the plot can be difficult to pin down, especially at first, and guessing moment to moment what will be happening next, or even if the characters are in a dream or in reality, is not always possible. But even while literal understanding can remain tantilizingly out of reach, you always intuitively understand what is going on and why.

Helping in that understanding, and one of the film's most satisfying aspects, are its roots in old-fashioned genre entertainment, albeit genre amped up to warp speed. Besides its science-fiction theme, "Inception" also has strong film noir ties, easily recognizable elements like the femme fatale, doomed love and the protagonist's fateful decision to take on "one last job."

That would be DiCaprio's Dom Cobb, a thief who specializes in what's called extraction, in taking secrets from the subconscious. Aided by Arthur (a fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the trusted associate who is a whiz at the mechanics involved, Cobb is introduced in the middle of a dream involving Saito ( Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese businessman.

That one last job is soon proposed by Saito, who asks Cobb if he is also able to do inception, the planting of ideas, a maneuver many people believe can't be done. Saito promises Cobb, who has a past which prevents him from returning to his children in America, the one thing he can't resist. If he takes on this one last job, if he agrees to practice inception on Robert Fischer ( Cillian Murphy), the heir to a multibillion-dollar energy empire, he will be able to return home.

In true movie fashion, Cobb has to round up a team to do the job. Aside from Arthur, he needs Eames, the forger (Tom Hardy), gifted at impersonating people inside dreams, and Yusuf, the chemist ( Dileep Rao), who makes the compounds that put people under. And with the aid of his father-in-law Miles ( Michael Caine), he meets Ariadne.
Named after the mythological character who helped Theseus find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth, Ariadne is a young architect who is needed to create the subconscious landscapes in which the dreams will take place. As played by Ellen Page, adroitly cast for her youth, intelligence and earnestness, Ariadne is the team's last essential element.

In addition to not knowing what they'll find inside Fischer's dream (believe me, there's plenty going on), Cobb and his team have to contend with a wild card: Mal, the untrustworthy femme fatale, a woman with deep and complicated ties to Cobb's past and someone who specializes in finding her way into dreams where she is not wanted.

The selection of Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard as Mal typifies the care Nolan has taken to cast these thriller roles for emotional connection, a move which pays off in the scenes she shares with DiCaprio. In addition to the impeccably professional Batman veterans Caine and Murphy, the film is also on the money with the smaller roles, including Pete Postlethwaite as Fischer's ailing tycoon father and Tom Berenger as one of his key associates.

The reason all these diverse elements successfully come together is Nolan's meticulous grasp of the details necessary to achieve his bravura ambitions. A filmmaker so committed he does his own second unit direction, Nolan is one of the few people, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald on film mogul Monroe Stahr in "The Last Tycoon," "able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads."
Because he's been so successful, Nolan, like Clint Eastwood, has been able to return again and again to the same creative team, which includes exceptional director of photography Wally Pfister, sharp-eyed editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer, whose propulsive score helps compel the action forward.

Incapable of making even standard exposition look ordinary, Nolan is especially strong in creating the stunts, effects and out-of-the-ordinary elements whose believability characterizes this film as they did his previous Batman efforts.
Shooting "Inception" in six countries, preferring to do elaborate stunts in camera whenever possible but expert at utilizing computer-generated effects when necessary, Nolan and his team (including production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and stunt coordinator Tom Struthers) have come up with some unforgettable set pieces. As detailed in a thorough cover story in American Cinematographer magazine, the standout imagery includes: a 60-foot-long freight train that barrels down the middle of a city street, shot in the vicinity of 7th and Spring in downtown L.A. with a replica of the train engine placed on the chassis of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer; a 100-foot hotel corridor built so it could rotate through 360 degrees to mimic a zero-gravity experience; and a mind-altering CGI scene that has a Paris street roll up and over itself like it was some kind of a tapestry instead of a steel and concrete boulevard.

His goal in doing all of this, Nolan told American Cinematographer, is a desire to always "be putting the audience into the experience," to create "what I like to call a 'tumbling forward' quality, where you're being pulled along into the action."

Speaking of Paris, it's one measure of how wide-ranging Nolan's influences are that he used the classic Edith Piaf song "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" as a key plot element. The pleasure of "Inception" is not that Nolan, as the song says, regrets nothing, it's that he has forgotten nothing, expertly blending the best of traditional and modern filmmaking. If you're searching for smart and nervy popular entertainment, this is what it looks like.


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The Departed review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:10 (A review of The Departed)

Most of Martin Scorsese's films have been about men trying to realize their inner image of themselves. That's as true of Travis Bickle as of Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, Howard Hughes, the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan or, for that matter, Jesus Christ. "The Departed" is about two men trying to live public lives that are the radical opposites of their inner realities. Their attempts threaten to destroy them, either by implosion or fatal betrayal. The telling of their stories involves a moral labyrinth, in which good and evil wear each other's masks.

The story is inspired by "Infernal Affairs" (2002) by Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, the most successful Hong Kong film of recent years. Indeed, having just re-read my 2004 review of that film, I find I could change the names, cut and paste it, and be discussing this film. But that would only involve the surface, the plot and a few philosophical quasi-profundities. What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director's use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it. That's always true of a Scorsese film.

This one, a cops-and-gangster picture set in Boston rather than, say, New York or Vegas, begins with a soda fountain scene that would be at home in "Goodfellas." What is deliberately missing, however, is the initial joy of that film. Instead of a kid who dreamed of growing up to be a mobster, we have two kids who grow up as imposters: One becomes a cop who goes undercover as a gangster, and the other becomes a gangster who goes undercover as a cop.

Matt Damon is Colin Sullivan, the kid spotted in that soda fountain by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). He enlists in the state police after Costello handpicks him so many years before as a promising spy. Leonardo DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, an ace police cadet who is sent undercover by Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) to infiltrate Costello's gang. Both men succeed with their fraudulent identities; Colin rises in the force, and Billy rises in the mob.

The story's tension, which is considerable, depends on human nature. After several years, both men come to identify with, and desire the approval of, the men they are deceiving. This may be a variant of the Stockholm syndrome; for that matter, we see it all the time in politicians who consider themselves public servants even though they are thieves. If you are going to be a convincing gangster, you have to be prepared to commit crimes. If a convincing cop, you have to be prepared to bust bad guys, even some you know. Protect your real employers and you look fishy. "The Departed" turns the screw one more time because each man is known to only one or a few of the men on the side he's working for. If Billy's employer, Capt. Queenan, gets killed, who can testify that Billy is really a cop?

Ingenious additional layers of this double-blind are added by the modern devices of cell phones and computers. When the paths of the two undercover men cross, as they must, will they eventually end up on either end of the same phone call? When the cops suspect they have an informer in their midst, what if they assign the informer to find himself? The traps and betrayals of the undercover life are dramatized in one of my favorite moments, when one of the characters is told, "I gave you the wrong address. But you went to the right one."

Although many of the plot devices are similar in Scorsese's film and the Hong Kong "original," this is Scorsese's film all the way because of his understanding of the central subject of so much of his work: guilt. It is reasonable to assume that Boston working-class men named Costigan, Sullivan, Costello, Dignam and Queenan were brought up as Irish-American Catholics, and that if they have moved outside the church's laws, they have nevertheless not freed themselves of a sense of guilt.

The much-married Scorsese once told me that he thought he would go to hell for violating the church's rules on marriage and divorce, and I believed him. Now think of the guilt when you are simultaneously (1) committing crimes and (2) deceiving the men who depend on you. Both Billy and Colin are doing that, although perhaps only a theologian could name their specific sin. A theologian, or Shakespeare, whose advice from Polonius they do not heed: "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Another amateur theologian, Hemingway, said it's good if you feel good afterward, and bad if you feel bad afterward. Colin and Billy feel bad all of the time, and so their lives involve a performance that is a lie. And that is the key to the performances of DiCaprio and Damon: It is in the nature of the movies that we believe most characters are acting or speaking for themselves. But in virtually every moment in this movie, except for a few key scenes, they are not. Both actors convey this agonizing inner conflict so that we can sense and feel it, but not see it; they're not waving flags to call attention to their deceptions. In that sense, the most honest and sincere characters in the movie are Queenan (Sheen), Costello (Nicholson), and Costello's right-hand man, French (Ray Winstone, that superb British actor who invests every line with the authority of God dictating to Moses).

It's strange that Jack Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together, since they seem like a natural fit; he makes Frank Costello not a godfather, not a rat, not a blowhard, but a smart man who finally encounters a situation no one could fight free of, because he simply lacks all the necessary information. He has a moment and a line in this movie that stands beside Joe Pesci's work at a similar moment in "Goodfellas."

There is another character who is caught in a moral vise, and may sense it although she cannot for a long time know it. That is Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), a psychologist who works for the police, and who coincidentally comes to know both Colin and Billy. Her loyalty is not to her employer but to her client -- and oh, what a tangled web that becomes.

It is intriguing to wonder what Scorsese saw in the Hong Kong movie that inspired him to make the second remake of his career (after "Cape Fear"). I think he instantly recognized that this story, at a buried level, brought two sides of his art and psyche into equal focus. We know that he, too, was fascinated by gangsters. In making so many films about them, about what he saw and knew growing up in Little Italy, about his insights into their natures, he became, in a way, an informant.

I have often thought that many of Scorsese's critics and admirers do not realize how deeply the Catholic Church of pre-Vatican II could burrow into the subconscious, or in how many ways Scorsese is a Catholic director. This movie is like an examination of conscience, when you stay up all night trying to figure out a way to tell the priest: I know I done wrong, but, oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?


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Titanic review

Posted : 5 years, 6 months ago on 21 March 2012 08:08 (A review of Titanic)

After all these years, it's still the same old story:
Iceberg 1. Titanic 0.

But at least James Cameron's retelling of the haunting catastrophe of April 14 and 15, 1912, has the grace and decency to sound a few new notes even as it derives much of its power from that old mainstay: bad things happening to other people. It's rich with the secret pleasure of watching a small, posh floating city turn into a gigantic iron coffin and slide headfirst into the deep, taking with it 1,500 of the innocent and not nearly enough of the guilty.

You sit there horrified and yet an ugly worm deep in your brain whispers: Better them than me.

Titanophiles should have plenty to celebrate and plenty to complain about. On the positive side, Cameron expensively re-creates the sinking of the ship in accordance with the latest and best theory, informed by high-tech exploration of the wreck. Thus in this film, unlike "Titanic" of 1954 or "A Night to Remember" of 1958, the ship is not shudderingly gashed by the berg but merely penetrated by a stiletto of ice, spreading 12 square feet of damage over 300 feet of hull. Thus, too, the big baby, as she goes down prow first and elevates her stern to the stars – almost as if displaying a cosmic middle finger to the God who doomed her – does in fact break in two as her brittle, frozen steel shatters, perishing not with a whimper but a bang.

Still, in his urge to simplify, fictionalize and mythologize, Cameron ignores many of the fascinations of the doomed voyage and its gallant crew and passengers. The heroic, indefatigable Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who emerged as the tragedy's hero, is nowhere to be seen, though he was everywhere that night and the last man plucked from the sea the next morning. No credit is given to the stalwart Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron of the Carpathia, who, by dashing through the ice to the site of the disaster, probably saved more lives than any other human agent. Nor is the dastardly rascal Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who may have bribed his way into the boats, on hand. And where is the deeply annoying Henry Sleeper Harper, who escaped with his wife, his manservant and his Pekingese while 52 children in steerage drowned? It's partially this tapestry of character weak and strong, of angels and devils in attendance, that has locked the disaster into our imaginations.

Though Cameron glimpses the actual – heroine Molly Brown, villain J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line – mostly he replaces it with a thin, nearly inane melodrama that at least feels appropriate to the era. It's as if the film were written by a scriptwriter in 1912 fresh from reading stories in Woman's Home Companion – but completely unversed in the psychological complexities of Mr. James and Mr. Dreiser. The dialogue is so primitive it would play as well on title cards. This overlay of fiction pursues an unlikely Romeo-and-Juliet coupling in which poor starving artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio, forever blowing a hank of hair out of his eyes) falls in love with society slave Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet, alabaster yet radiant), much to her delight and the disgust and ultimate fury of her fiance, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). The Zane character – a Pittsburgh steel heir – inherits some of Duff Gordon's least attractive characteristics, but he's so broadly imagined a portrait of aristocratic knavery that he comes to seem almost a cartoon figure, like a William F. Buckley with hemorrhoids.

The whole framing story is a cartoon, so much so that it seems another element of doomed hubris: Cameron is a guy who thinks he can improve the story of the Titanic! He's like the producer in a famous L.A. writer's joke who knows how to make everything better. But this stroke does yield a meager benefit or two: One is a chase sequence set in the unstable bowels of the very wet ship as the witching hour of 2:20 a.m. approaches. As a device for taking a tour not only of the death of a ship but also the end of an era, it's quite efficient; as drama it's ludicrous. Moreover, Dawson is the mildest, the least threatening of rebels. He's no Wobbly or Red, not even an arty radical like Edward Steichen, just a kid who might someday sell covers to Boys' Life. Winslet's Rose is Cameron's one anachronism, a Thwarted Woman of our age thrust backward in time to represent Heroic Feminism in wild ways, such as smoking in public. Their love story is strictly for the puppies and the guppies.

It does yield a couple of amusing scenes, however: One is a kiss at the westernmost point of the ship – its very proboscis – as it steams toward New York. The clever camera captures their love and the hugeness of the structure behind them in one breathtaking shot. The other is an intellectual trope: Progressivized by her time in Europe, Rose has become a champion of the avant-garde; her newfound respect for the works of a fellow named Picasso and a chap named Freud signify her willingness to acknowledge the irrational in the universe. The manly men across the table from her – not merely Zane but also Titanic designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) and Capt. E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), head man of the ship itself, a true rogue's gallery of macho hubris – stand for that late-19th-century belief that nature is tameable, that man is master, that a ship could be unsinkable. They scoff, unaware that they are about to get a tutorial from God in the form of 10,000 tons of ice.

It need not be added that the movie is very long, since everything is long this year, including the line at the restrooms. It is, in fact, about 40 minutes longer than the actual sinking (which lasted 2 hours 40 minutes vs. 3 hours 20 minutes) and quite possibly more expensive. It should be added that, despite a slow start, the thing still goes from first point to last faster than any movie in the marketplace. Once that big ol' thang begins her last swoon – about an hour into it – you ain't looking no place else and you ain't going no place else.

This is Cameron at his best. Always thin in the imagination when it comes to conceiving the tissue of character and motive (typical Cameron motive, from his first hit, "Terminator": "He kills – that's all he does"), he's the apogee of techno-nerd filmmaker. Thus the movie's central wonder is that it puts you aboard the sinking ship, palpably and as never before.

In the early going Cameron foreshadows his narrative strategy when, in a not-so-interesting setup involving greedy high-tech grave robbers visiting the Titanic's resting place 12,500 feet beneath the waves, we see a computer-animated scenario of the sinking. The rhythms of that event will be the rhythms of the movie that follows, almost exactly: a long, seemingly dead time in the water as the first three compartments of the lower hull invisibly fill; the slow tip forward as, almost imperceptibly, the bow begins to settle, then disappear; the contrapuntal stately climb of the stern amid an increasing shrapnel of falling furniture, flying glass and tumbling bodies; and the final, cataclysmic death spasm as the triple-screwed stern juts straight up, like a white whale hellbent on showing the floundering, drowning Ahabs the futility of their puny humanity, and then roars downward toward 73 long years of undisturbed silence, leaving a sea full of frozen dead and a fleet of half-empty lifeboats.

Yet in all this spectacle, the scariest element isn't the crushing power of the water and its ability to bend, drown and twist, but its creepy insistence. Watching it trickle upward (actually the boat is trickling downward), almost a teacup at a time, a thin, clear gruel of death, almost no more than you'd leave on the bathroom floor if you forgot to tuck in the shower curtain, is somehow more unsettling than watching a bulkhead go and a dozen anonymous steerage victims being swept away.

Cameron captures the majesty, the tragedy, the fury and the futility of the event in a way that supersedes his trivial attempts to melodramatize it. I didn't give a damn about cutie-pies Leonardo and Kate, much less their vapid characters or the predictable Hollywood Ten social "issues" they represent, but I left with an ache for those lost 1,500, rich and poor alike, for the big ship in ruins, and for the inescapable meaning in it all.

It is the same old story: Pride goeth before the fall, even when the fall is through 12,500 feet of black, icy water.

WP


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