Thursday, April 19, 2012

Titanic 3D / ***½ (PG-13)

Jack Dawson: Leonardo DiCaprio
Rose Dewitt Bukater: Kate Winslet
Caledon Hockley: Billy Zane
Molly Brown: Kathy Bates
Ruth Dewitt Bukater: Frances Fisher
Old Rose: Gloria Stuart
Brock Lovett: Bill Paxton
Captain Edward James Smith: Bernard Hill
Spicer Lovejoy: David Warner
Thomas Andrews: Victor Garber
Bruce Ismay: Jonathan Hyde

Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox present a film written and directed by James Cameron. Running time: 194 min. Rated PG-13 (for disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language).

I had originally planned to see the 3D re-release of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster “Titanic” on its first weekend back in theaters. Circumstances arose that made taking off from the family to watch a three and a half hour movie in the middle of the evening an inconvenience. So weekend two of the re-release rolls around and without thinking about it I found myself in the theater on April 14, exactly 100 years after that fateful night that became one of the most infamous dates in history.

When it was originally released, almost 15 years ago, I was a bit disappointed with Cameron’s love story set amidst the backdrop of the RMS Titanic disaster. I actually went to see it twice just to make sure I didn’t love it. I wasn’t writing reviews back then, so I saw the re-release as an opportunity to figure out how I truly felt about it. I had suspicions that I might like it even less after so many years, but it seems to have grown on me. I think I originally wanted an exposé on what happened on that sad night to remember. The story Cameron gave us, though, was something simpler and more typical than I had expected.

The story of a girl trapped in an arranged marriage when she meets a free spirit on board a giant cruise ship wasn’t really what anyone expected fifteen years ago, yet it was a crowd pleasing story. It didn’t tell the story of Titanic so much as it used the Titanic as a backdrop to tell a tragic love story. However, in eschewing what one might’ve thought was the headline story, Cameron really did tell Titanic’s story very well. It’s hard for an audience to remember that all those people at the time of the ship’s sailing didn’t know it was going to sink.

Instead of focusing on the history we all know about the Titanic, Cameron attempts to place the audience on the ship with the passengers who don’t know their fate. The story, while not Earth shatteringly original, is remarkably well told by this filmmaker whose entire career, aside from this film, lies within science fiction. He distracts the audience from what we all know is coming by wrapping us up in the story of Jack and Rose. The facts about the Titanic are there, and Cameron is incredibly accurate with his details, but they’re presented in a fictional format. He tries to forecast without flashing neon lights on the tragedy we already know about.

Even though his story may not be unique, his approach is. The Titanic is a very personal subject to Cameron, which is why he bookends his story with a research crew exploring the relatively recently discovered shipwreck, looking for one of its legends. This is what originally drew Cameron to the story himself. The myth chasing is derailed by the introduction of the older Rose character, played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Gloria Stuart. I’m still not convinced this is an Oscar-worthy performance, but she steers the film away from the technical aspects of the RMS Titanic. Cameron demonstrates that using the hard facts to tell Titanic’s story makes for a dry assessment by having a member of the research crew give a brief schooling on the subject.

What struck me most about the film during this screening was how much time Cameron spent focused on the faces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Jack and Rose. Certainly, theirs aren’t faces upon which you mind lingering, but for all the technological wizardry he conjures up to recreate the Titanic in all its glory and its demise in all its horror, it’s these two people who are Cameron’s subject. Their tragedy is the Titanic’s. He uses their story to exaggerate and punctuate the Titanic’s in a way that focusing on the ship and a huge cast of characters never could. It’s an unusual approach to a disaster picture, and it creates an incredibly pleasurable experience, if you let it.

Upon my first screening, I felt DiCaprio’s performance was one of his weaker ones. Now, I’m satisfied with it. It was such a normal character for him to play at that time in his career, when he’d gained great attention for his mentally challenged role in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and made a specialty of portraying charming but troubled characters. His free spirited Jack Dawson is not troubled in the slightest, so we don’t get the chance to see him stretch as an actor. Sometimes acting naturally is the most difficult thing.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the past fifteen years is my opinion of Kate Winslet, who doesn’t take a wrong step as the rich girl yearning for a real life experience. Is this the way a lady groomed in the manner Rose Dewitt Bukater must’ve been would behave? Highly unlikely, but Winslet doesn’t allow the audience to doubt her for a second. And, for those engaged in the discourse of whether or not there was room for Jack on the piece of debris that saved Rose, there actually is an explanation for that.

I don’t think that “Titanic” is as great as it was being hailed at the time of its original release. It isn’t Cameron’s strongest movie. It isn’t even close. Cameron is best in the science fiction realm. It also isn’t as bad as some of the backlash that has come against it in the years since it’s initial release might suggest. It’s a solid romantic tragedy that embraces some of Cameron’s sci-fi storytelling technique. He uses romantic fantasy to tell another story about a reality of the world in which we live. And, once he does get down to the dirty business of sinking the ship again, it’s a gripping horror show created with great special effects that still hold up more than a decade later. That’s a feat in itself in this technologically driven world.

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